"Annie Hall," Woody Allen's new film, is a sentimental comedy that loosely chronicles the romance between Alvy Singer, a comedian played by Allen, and Annie Hall, an aspiring actress-singer played by Diane Keaton. Evidently hundreds of titles were discarded, including "Woody Allen's Anxiety" and the unthinkably esoteric "Anodynia" -- the psychological state characterized by an absence of pain -- before Allen settled on plain, unprepossessing "Annie Hall."
"You're in such a vulnerable position when you make a film," Allen remarked last week after completing an unusually long stint in the publicity spotlight. "You do what you have to do, then hope people will be responsive and that the movie will bottom out somewhere profitable enough not to embarrass United Artists at the next Transamerica board of directors meeting. All my films have gotten into profits, but they're modest successes. They don't seem to get beyond a certain plateau -- they cost around $3 million and make around $10 million.
"The $3 million is an informal ceiling, and I feel perfectly comfortable with it. In fact, it began as a $2 million ceiling when I made 'Bananas' and has gone up because of the cost of living more than anything else. I'd just be creating problems for myself if I tried to exceed that level. The box-office receipts would have to increase by some staggering amount to justify a budget in the $4-5 million range. My own personal feeling is that my films have a limited appeal, and I don't mind that at all. I'm always surprised that they seem to appeal to as many people as they do.
The nature of "Annie Hall," which departs from the headlong farcial style of "Sleeper" and "Love and Death," probably influenced Allen's decision to do a bit more promotion this time around. The new film, which opens April 27 at the Jenifer 1 and Roth's Tysons Corner 4 & 5, reflects a desire to be romantically affecting rather than persistently, outrageously funny. It's also a tentative step in a direction Allen feels compelled to explore, even though he's aware it may lead up a blind alley taken by many funnymen before him.
"I was consciously trying for a more sentimental kind of film," Allen said. "The earlier ones were just for laughs, and I realize I might be safer sticking with that approach. There's always a danger when comedians feel the need to express pathos, because they can push into masochism too easily. To avoid that I think I should maybe not do a comedy occasionally. I would never want to get pathetic, because I don't like that in other comedians' work.
"I think 'Annie' may be a mild turning point. I began the script after 'Sleeper,' but the fact that it didn't have as many laughs as I'm used to scared me off. I put it aside and wrote 'Love and Death,' which was full of laughs. Even if I continue making nothing but comedies, I'd like them to be more dimensional. I couldn't do many of the sort of jokes I'd done in 'Bananas' or 'Sleeper' or 'Love and Death' without risking involvement with the characters.I'm used to looking for laughs in the dailies. Here there weren't nearly as many laughs to go by. I had to trust to the relationships to carry the film. People kept telling me not to worry, and I hope they were right.
"Very few people can write really amusing comedy, but I don't value it more because it's rare and hard to do. What I hope to do next is a straight dramatic film. If the script works out, it would be a very serious no-laughs psychological drama without a part for me. I would really like to move in a more serious direction. I realize it may be a total mistake, and if I fail, I'll come back to comedy and resign myself to the fact that I may be limited to it. But. . . but if I were to succeed at a dramatic film, I think I'd find it far more satisfying."
Asked to compare modern film comedies with the silent classics, Allen replied with characteristic thoughtfulness. "The contemporary playing area for comedy has shifted," he said. "Chaplin and Keaton operated in a very physical world where people worked and struggled to cope with tangible obstacles and frustrations. I think the conflicts are interior now. They're psychological conflicts, and it's difficult to find a vocabulary to express those inner states, to make them visual.
"Bergman has discovered ways of doing it in a serious way. I'm trying to do it by talking directly to the audience or showing things like Diane's mind stepping out of her body, but it's all very tentative. I've never gotten anything close to a feeling of satisfaction from any film I've been associated with. For me they're all failures, but an audience, not knowing the grandiose plans I've had for them, may be spared the same disillusion."
Allen wanted to put a few technical finishing touches on "Annie Hall." He was headed for the lab "to remove two points of yellow" that had bothered him in one sequence. Allen has made a conscious effort to stylize the look and color schemes of his films. It's important to him even though he doubts if many people in the audience care or notice.
"I think it's true that only a small percentage of viewers are really concerned with the look of a film," he said, "and perhaps it's just as well.It's always a shock to filmmakers if they pick up their old movies in some out-of-the-way place months later and see how the prints have deteriorated. A friend and I made the mistake of trying to catch '2001' in revival not so long ago. It was at an older revival house, but still a supposedly reputable place. Kubrick would have had a seizure; he's such an obsessive about the visual side anyway. The movie had been pretty much reduced to streaks and flickers.
"We're probably living at the end of an era. I think it's only a matter of time until home viewing is made as easy and economical as is desirable. That's one of the things I noticed when we were doing the L.A. locations for 'Annie Hall.' So many people there were hooked on Home Box Office. It won't be that long before their 30-inch screens will be 6-foot screens. At that stage why expose yourself to the inconveniences of going out to a theater, especially if the projection is habitually bad and the image isn't much larger than what you could have at home?
"I retain a certain feeling that you should go out and expose yourself to a little inconvenience, but it's nostalgia. It comes from the fact that I grew up going to the movies every weekend and associate it with so many pleasurable experiences. Now a lot of people have lost the habit of going, and movies are more of an art thing than a general, democratic form of entertainment. You couldn't blame people for getting even more selective about what they see and where they see it.
"Now that I've learned a little something about making movies, I'd hate to see too many changes on the technical side. I don't see any reason why movie comedies can't also look pretty. David Walsh and I worked very hard to get a streamlined look on 'Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex' and 'Sleeper.' I was hoping to work with him continuously, but Walsh didn't want to leave the West Coast. The idea on 'Love and Death,' which was shot by Ghislain Cloquet, was soft, autumnal colors. 'Annie Hall' is the first film I've done with Gordon Willis, and we plan to work together as often as possible. I didn't mind at all that some scenes were supposedly 'too dark' for a comedy, and I found that Gordy's style doesn't retard laughs.
"All the rumors about Gordy were highly exaggerated: that he was difficult and uncooperative and all the rest. Better yet, he's faster than anyone I've ever worked with and skilled in all sorts of ways that speeded up production. Shots like Diane's mind leaving her body are not opticals. Gordy knows how to get special effects like that in the camera."
Allen seems to inspire a special measure of affection among executives and publicists at United Artists. When "Love and Death" was released two years ago, it was apparent that UA personnel valued it more than "The Return of the Pink Panther," which opened at about the same time and went on to enjoy more commercial success.
"They may appreciate 'Return of the Pink Panther' more by now," Allen remarked dryly. "But it's true that UA is a more agreeable outfit to deal with. It's an unusually stable operation for this business. The guys are older, a little more cosmopolitan, and they stick around for a while. At the other companies there's a constant turnover of sharpies, so you can never be sure who'll be running the joint the next time around. UA doesn't interfere with you. They have something called 'concept approval,' but they'll usually trust me even if a concept doesn't particularly excite them. I usually show them the scripts voluntarily. The status quo wouldn't last too long if my pictures didn't pay for themselves. Since Transamerica owns UA, I might have a little difficulty if I ever tried to make a wild comedy about corruption in the insurance business. I think it's part of the general understanding that that situation will never arise."