Here is an interview I did a couple of years ago (I think) with Gloria Norris, who was assistant to Woody Allen on three movies. I thought her insights were fascinating. They come from my book, WOODY ALLEN ON SCREEN, which can be bought from Amazon and other online stores. The Q and A is below...
Gloria was Woody's personal assistant on Stardust Memories, Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy and Zelig. Here she discusses with me the making of these films, and of being close to Woody on three seminal movies.
What were you doing before working for Woody?
I was working on Raging Bull immediately before working for Woody. (And, yes, that film is one of my favourites too.)
How did you get the job as his assistant?
Woody’s previous assistant left and I heard through the grapevine that he was interviewing a few people to replace her.
Do you recall your first meeting with him?
The interview was, in typical Woody fashion, quite brief. I met with him and the producer, Bobby Greenhut. We talked about what it was like working for Scorsese, when he’d be hiring someone, very basic stuff. Woody is able to make decisions pretty quickly about who he wants to hire.
What kind of work were you doing on Stardust Memories?
I was on the set every day during shooting and in the cutting room and mix, etc. during post. I was often the intermediary between Woody and the crew and cast, funnelling information and issues back and forth. Woody solicited my opinions and feedback on a myriad of things.
Do you have any stand out memories from that film?
We shot for a few months without seeing any dailies because Gordon Willis was trying to find a lab that could process the black and white footage to his satisfaction. That was very challenging. Labs weren’t doing black and white much any more (Manhattan being one exception) and it took a lot of Gordon’s finessing to get the process to where he was happy with it. When we finally got to see the dailies, it was a marathon viewing. Woody, as is widely known, likes to reshoot quite a bit, and Stardust was no exception. However, in this case, it was magnified. Having not been able to look at footage and adjust as he went along, there were a considerable number of scenes, including the hot air balloons, which he wanted to reshoot. The shoot, consequently, went on much longer than originally planned.
One of the standout memories was in preproduction, we had these red cards printed up that we could pass out to any stranger we saw with an interesting look, inviting them to an open casting call. Woody was looking for people with unusual faces, and we weren’t going to find them just by calling in SAG extras. So, we really cast a wide net. It got you to really look at people on the streets of NY, on the subway, in restaurants, in a new way. Surprisingly, people were pretty receptive, even though the red cards didn’t mention Woody’s name. It was a different time and people weren’t quite as guarded. They actually showed up!
This was one of Woody's most criticised films but also one of his favourites. Was he especially impassioned at all during its creation?
It was a difficult shoot, because of the processing issues I mentioned. But Woody is pretty unflappable on the set, no matter what is going on. Some of the specific criticism the film received was a surprise to him. I don’t think he expected the level of vitriol, the way people took it as a personal affront. Yes, I know for a long time he said it was one of his films that he liked the most. I don’t know how he feels about it now. For me, it was and remains one of my favourites. I think the film really has a lot of complexity to it and gets richer and richer with repeated viewings. And, I think the film in general has become more liked over time.
You then worked on Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy with Woody. The mood must have been a lot lighter...
The mood didn’t seem that different on Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. I wouldn’t say it was lighter. The tone of a film doesn’t necessarily dictate the tone while making it. I do think the crew enjoyed being at that bucolic location, and being at the same location day after day makes things a lot easier, you’re not loading in and out, which is hard work. There was a lot of down time, as Gordon Willis was waiting for the light. A few days, it never was right, and we’d just turn around and go back to the city. Woody famously hates the country so he was always glad to get out of there.
What was a bit difficult was the fact that some of us were working 7 days a week, shooting Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy during the week, and then prepping Zelig on the weekends, scouting, etc. There was only a one-week separation between finishing shooting Sex Comedy and starting shooting Zelig. Essentially, they were shot back to back.
Zelig is one of his most complex pieces. What kind of work did you have to do for Woody on this film?
On Zelig we watched a lot of documentaries as research. I love docs, and Woody likes them too, so that was quite a lot of fun. Another thing, there were a lot of make-up tests. It was difficult to transform Woody’s appearance believably—it would be so easy now with CGI, but it was a big challenge back then!
This was another intense and demanding film. What was Woody like during its creation?
Again, Woody was pretty much the same on this shoot. He doesn’t shout or act out in the way some directors do. In addition, so many of the crew were the same from film to film, so there was a continuity, a fluidity to the process each time that made it sometimes seem like one continuous shoot, with breaks in between to edit. There was such familiarity, such a shorthand between Woody and Gordy (Willis), and that was something to behold. In my opinion, it was one of the most amazing director/cinematographer collaborations in the history of film. As far as Zelig goes, one of the biggest difficulties, other than the supreme challenge of believably recreating old footage and sound, was shooting on the streets of NY during a really cold winter. None of us—including Woody—enjoyed that aspect of the shoot!
How do you think of those three films now, looking back?
Whenever I come upon one of those three films on TV, if I start watching them, I can’t turn them off. I think they’re all great. But, of those three, Stardust is still my favourite.
What are some of your favourite memories of working on set with Woody?
Watching how scenes were choreographed was amazing, and really influenced my own work as a filmmaker to this day. Many times a scene would be entirely done in one moving shot—an incredible challenge for the cast and crew, but a powerful way to cover a scene. It is so totally antithetical to how most material is filmed, with tons of coverage. It’s a brave and beautiful way to shoot. Of course, great editing is a wonder to behold too, but I don’t think any other director so frequently chose to cover scenes all in one shot the way Woody has. Watching Charlotte Rampling, take after take, just silently look into the camera for a few minutes while Louis Armstrong’s Stardust played, was breathtaking.
How did he compare with the likes of De Palma and Scorsese as a man in control of the set? They are two of my other favourite directors I might add...
De Palma spends a lot of time in preproduction doing storyboards, similar to Hitchcock. Thus, a lot of the creative work is already done once shooting begins. With Marty, who came from an editing background, a lot of footage was shot and the film really comes to life in the editing. With Woody, the on set process, with scenes done in one shot, was where a lot of the creative magic happened.
You can get the book WOODY ALLEN ON SCREEN from Amazon...