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By Tony Medley

When Woody Allen makes a movie, it’s such an auteur experience that nobody sees the entire script. He sends pages to the actors, but only the pages in which the actor is involved. Apparently nobody sees dailies. Basically, the producers give him some money and he makes a movie. On top of that, he is reluctant to promote films he makes. He only rarely submits to an interview.

Despite this incomparable independence, his movies are not commercial. His top grossing movie, “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) isn’t anywhere close to the top 300 grossing movies of all time. Recently, people have stayed away from his films in droves. To give you a feel for his commerciality, the 337th picture on the list is “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” (1995) and it has grossed $100,012,449. “Hannah” grossed $41,100,000. And that’s his top grosser! His most recent, “Melinda and Melinda” (2004) has done only a little over $3.8 million to date. Other recent grosses are: “Curse of the Jade Scorpion” (2001) $7.5 million; “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999) $4.1 million; “Hollywood Ending” (2002) $4.5 million; “Anything Else” (2003) $3.2 million. Even the venerable “Annie Hall” (1977), which got Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writer, and Best Actress, did only $38 million.

 “Match Point” is a complete departure from what we have come to expect from Woody. Instead of the boring, uninvolving stuff that only a New Yorker critic could like, “Match Point” is a captivating tale of a low born Irish tennis pro who takes advantage of his luck. It’s a film of romance and tension, with danger constantly lurking in the background, highlighted by wonderful performances by a talented cast.

Since people do not flock to his movies, and since, with a couple of exceptions, his films do not garner buckets full of awards or even lots of nominations, why do actors line up to act in his films? Woody’s modus operandi is extremely laissez faire, which appeals to lots of actors. Not only does he disdain rehearsal (“when you rehearse you lose spontaneity”), he doesn’t insist on strict conformance with the script. He tells actors, “I wrote it, but feel free to say it in your way…This is the scene, this is the way it’s written, but if you feel like the wording isn’t right, make it your own in a way.” The reason he doesn’t give actors the entire script, only their part, is so that each actor is focused on his character and not the story line.

Here’s what Scarlett Johansson, who plays sexy Nola Rice in “Match Point,” says, “He is communicative, but he does not need to spend a lot of time with you before a take.  You could do a five page scene in one shot—two, three takes of it and if he likes it, then you’re done for the day. He’s much more approachable than I ever thought he would be which made him better than I ever imagined he could be. He‘s always on set. He might be riddled with his own personal anxiety but in actuality, on set, he couldn’t be more comfortable. It’s not like he retreats into a cubby hole or anything. He’s always on set making script changes and lighting the scene, so it’s really nice to have a director that’s there all the time.”

Says Johansson’s paramour in the film, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who plays lucky tennis pro Chris Wilton, “He’s very comfortable in his own skin to the point where if we’re lighting a shot, Woody would think nothing of having a nap.”

Agrees Emily Mortimer, who plays Chris’s sweet wife, Chloe, who is to the manor born, “The one thing he told us was to feel free to change the dialogue to fit how the English would say things. He told us just to make it natural.”

Matthew Goode, who plays Tom Hewitt, Chloe’s patrician brother, took Allen at his word. According to Allen, “Matthew was a find for me. I saw his tape and it was, ‘Who is this guy?’ I read with him in England and he was terrific. I knew we had to use him. He’s a wonderful actor and he’s dynamite looking; he was born to play this part. I told the cast to feel free to improvise, and Matthew improvised throughout the movie. He created this aristocratic young man in a way I never could.”

            Casting young, non A-List actors is crucial to Allen’s movies. He became aware of Rhys Meyers through his performance in Bend It Like Beckham. ”The minute I started thinking about him for this role, I couldn’t get him out of my mind,” says Allen. “Other actors were recommended to me, but I kept coming back to Jonathan. He is a truly great actor—smoldering and intense and full of conflict and passion. He’s got enormous power that he is able to project from the screen, which is a wonderful thing.”

Rhys Meyers says, “He’s probably the easiest director I’ve ever worked for because he doesn’t put too much pressure on you, and you respect him to such an extent that you bring your best game to a Woody Allen film. You really do up your concentration and focus an awful lot on his set.”

As to Johansson, Allen says, “Scarlett Johansson is a home run with the bases loaded. She’s got everything: she’s a fabulous actress, she’s beautiful, she’s young, she’s sexy…she just projects sensuality and intelligence. She’s got tremendous range…she can be funny, she can be dramatic; it would not surprise me if she sang and danced and did card tricks.”

For her part, Johansson says, “I’ve always been a huge fan of Woody’s and have always wanted to work with him. When the opportunity came to me, I said I didn’t even need to read the script; I just want to go. But luckily the script was as good as I had expected, so I flew to London and we started working. It was very quick.

“I love working with Woody. He’s very easy to communicate with and is very open to ideas. He can help you if you need it, but he’s the kind of director who says, ‘You’re an actor; you know how to do your job. I hired you because I believe you can do this part and have a good take on it.’ He’s just great.”

Allen says of Mortimer, “I had seen Emily in other films, and I always thought she was great. I felt lucky to have an actress of her caliber in the part. I knew the role would sing in her hands, and it did.”

Helping to keep it natural, there was a lot of kidding around on the set. Johansson said, “I have a lot of Polaroid pictures of (Allen) sleeping on the couch with a giant grip in the background and some huge piece of equipment.”

Laughs Rhys Meyers, “I remember one day Scarlett decided to put a sticker on Woody’s lapel saying ‘Hello, my name is Dennis.’ Woody didn’t realize this for many, many hours. But then he realized it was indeed Scarlett, because who else would have the gumption to go up and stick ‘Hello my Name is Dennis’ on his lapel?”

In a stark departure for Allen, he disdained his beloved location of New York City for London, England. As he did with New York, the city of London is as much a character in the film as any of the actors. Some of the locations used include St. James Park, Millennium Bridge, the Royal Court Theatre, The Palace Theatre, the Covent Garden Hotel, St. George’s Gardens, the award-winning Sir Norman Foster-designed “Gherkin building,” and Blackfriar’s Bridge. The view from the condo given to Chloe and Chris by Chloe’s father, Alec Hewitt (Brian Cox) is so breathtaking it drew a laugh at my screening at the Screen Actors Guild theater.

Not only is the location something new for Allen, so is the music. The sound track is unique. Instead of jazz or popular music, Allen has opted for an operatic score, almost all of it sung by the legendary Enrico Caruso. In addition to being a plot device, since Chris and Tom are both fans of opera and it gives them something around which to bond when they first meet, Allen says there’s a thematic reason for this, “The story is operatic; it deals with the kinds of things opera is so often about: love and lust, passion and jealousy, betrayal and tragedy…and, of course, the confluence of fate and luck.”

If “Match Point” marks a sea change in Woody Allen’s career at this late stage, he could join the list of filmmakers whose films draw crowds of viewers and actually make money.