Happy Birthday Mom and Woody

Today, December 1st, is a significant day for me.  It’s the birthday of my idol, the comedic genius, brilliant writer and director, Woody Allen.  It’s also the birthday of Audrey Rothbart, who gave birth to a comedic genius, brilliant writer and on his way to becoming a brilliant director.  Yes, I’m talking about my mother.  Let’s face it, you have to admire my trademark humility.

My brother, my son and I celebrated with my mother.  We got her a cake, cards, some nice presents and bought her dinner.  She’s a terrific person and is just happy to have her family around her.  She is a great mother who pretty much raised her three children alone.  She always made sacrifices for us and encourages me constantly.  I admire her strength.  My father passed away a little over a year ago and she has handled it much better than we could have anticipated.

As far as Woody goes, I celebrated with a mini-marathon.  I watched ANNIE HALL, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, the three films for which he won Best Original Screenplay (ANNIE HALL also earned him Best Director) at the Academy Awards.  Later, I’m going to watch MANHATTAN because it’s my favorite film of all time and I don’t need an excuse to view it.

There is so much to be learned from watching great movies and reading well-written scripts.  (You can learn as much, if not more, from watching terrible movies and reading awful scripts, but today is about celebration.)  I have other influences, the main ones being Neil Simon and the late Nora Ephron, but Woody is first.  Always.

So happy birthday, Mom.  Your oldest appreciates everything you do for your family.  It’s good to know that even if everyone else hates ISN’T IT ROMANTIC? you will love it!

Happy birthday to you too, Woody.  Love your work, all of it.  Not just the films.  Thanks for inspiring me and showing me that a short, homely, neurotic guy from Brooklyn can succeed with his intellect, talent and wit.

I Get It Now

I’ve been writing since early childhood.  We all have multiple labels we put on ourselves.  We’re parents, siblings, friends, employees, employers, you get it.  Some labels are just there but we take great pride in others.  I have always been happy to call myself a writer.  In fact, I have always said I am first and foremost a writer.

As such, I tend to stick up for my fellow writers, understanding the unique skill we possess and our desire and necessity to get our thoughts, ideas and feelings on paper.  When I was young, it bothered me that a film was said to be the director’s.  I felt it should belong to the writer.  As I grew more experienced and learned more about filmmaking, I understood more about the director’s role.  But I still felt writers were being short changed.  For example, one of my favorite movies, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY … (excellent use of punctuation by the way, an ellipsis!) begins with the words, “A Rob Reiner Film”.  Yes, Rob Reiner directed it and he did a terrific job, but it was written by the late, great Nora Ephron, a genius of a writer.  It still bothered me.  Until now.

Now, I get it.  I am less than four weeks from production on ISN’T IT ROMANTIC? but I’ve been through enough that I clearly see, it’s the director’s film regardless of who wrote the script.  Not to degrade what we do, screenwriters work hard.  A screenplay is one of the most challenging pieces of writing there is.  But directing is 1000 times more challenging.  Because it takes place in reality.

When writing, I can put literally anything on the page.  Words can create and describe whatever my imagination dreams up.  Granted, while writing IIR, I did try to keep it simple so I could shoot it on a low budget.  But I didn’t let it restrict me.  I used whatever elements were necessary.  I do envision what the film will look like while writing, but I don’t have to think about how to stage it or cover it with a camera.  That burden now falls on the director in me.

Working on my shot list is proving difficult.  I’ve got all of the shots planned except for a couple of scenes that involve my protagonist shooting a film.  They’re complex with three speaking roles, several extras and furniture and film equipment.  I’ve got floor plans of the set and lots of photographs, but it’s still tough.  Blocking the actors and figuring out where to put the camera to compose the frames I need is tricky.  I’m through with my stick figure storyboards.  They just aggravate me and are so poorly drawn they’re confusing in more complex shots.  Next movie I direct, I either hire a storyboard artist or I get photos of people on the set where the actors will be.

I know what I need to communicate to the audience and how I want to display it visually.  Setting that up in three dimensional space with real people so that it photographs in a two dimensional image is quite a challenge.  I have a whole new respect for directors.

It’s your movie, Rob Reiner.  Nice work!

Woody and me: We’re not the same guy

Let’s change it up a little today and talk about something not directly related to ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?  We’re visiting the location house today and holding auditions in New York tomorrow, so there will be plenty to report on after the weekend.  Instead, how about if I discuss my filmmaking idol, Woody Allen?  Particularly how we are different.

As I related in the articles on my background, I grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the same neighborhood that produced Woody.  In, fact, a great number of film legends came from Flatbush, but that’s another story for another article.  Woody of course, is a big hero throughout New York, and especially in his home neighborhood.

I also told you about the short story I wrote in fifth grade about the suicidal cafeteria clock that won me a creative writing award and which numerous teachers compared to Woody Allen’s work.  It made me even more aware of him and I have followed his career religiously since then.  The stand up albums, the films, the plays, the prose.  I’m intimately familiar with all of them.  I couldn’t help but be influenced by his work.

There are other great writers who have affected me.  I’m a huge Neil Simon fan.  I love the late Nora Ephron.  Both have had a major impact on me.  Mel Brooks, and more recently, Larry David are other writers who I’ve emulated to a certain extent.  But no one has affected me as much as Woody Allen.

His work continues to inspire me and I’m jealous of the incredible situation he’s in.  He gets funding and distribution without having to show anyone a script or even have a title!  He makes the movies he wants to, with little outside interference.  I’ll never have that, but, hey a guy can hope.  Despite my great respect and admiration for the incredible Mr. Allen, if it were possible, I would not want to be him.  No matter what, I desire to always be me, a unique individual.  It’s something I strived for as a comedian and now, as a writer and budding filmmaker.

The truth is that the similarities I have to Woody are not things I’ve tried to affect.  We do have some things in common other than Flatbush.  I tend to be drawn to heroes with whom I can identify.  For example, I am honestly a very neurotic person.  I always have been.  That element of my work is like Woody’s, but it is genuine.  All writers invest themselves into their work, but some do it to a much higher degree.  It’s always been instinctive for me to do that, right from my stand up days.  Woody does it too, which I’ve always admired.  But I deal with personal issues because I need to, not because he does.

The differences.  You may find this one interesting.  Woody is Jewish.  Despite my last name, I’m not.  Most people, because of my name and the type of comedy I write, assume that I am Jewish.  My grandfather was, but he married an Irish Catholic woman and my father was raised Catholic.  My mother comes from a Dutch/Swedish Lutheran background.  What does that make me?  Confused and racked with guilt!  I was raised Lutheran, but long ago rejected my faith.  I’m agnostic.  Who knows if there’s a God or not?  But if there is, I’m convinced every religion is wrong.  Anyway, my characters to a certain extent have some typical Jewish traits, but not like Woody’s, since my protagonists are based on me.

Another very big difference.  Woody Allen was a professional gag writer at the age of fifteen.  By seventeen, he was in NBC’s young writer’s program.  He has spent his entire adult life at, or near the top of the show business world.  That’s the world his characters inhabit, the upper strata of literati.  I’ve only known the lower rungs of the ladder.  I never made it to “The Tonight Show” or Letterman.  My characters have a blue color sensibility, even the successful ones such as ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?‘s protagonist, acclaimed writer/director Danny Kresky.

Although we grew up in the same neighborhood, Woody Allen and I are a generation apart.  He’s a year young than my mother.  (Exactly a year, they share their birthday, December 1)  To paraphrase a line from his MANHATTAN, I grew up with television and the pill, he was World War II.  It makes a big difference.  My references and my outlook on many issues differ because of it.

The Flatbush I grew up in was very different from Woody’s nice, lower-middle class, blue color neighborhood.  In the 60’s and 70’s Flatbush was dangerous and crime ridden, once of the worst neighborhoods in Brooklyn.  My father was mugged at gunpoint one night. I had a younger brother and sister to protect, so I fought constantly.  In that neighborhood, you either fought or you ran, and I don’t back down to anyone.  Thus, my protagonists don’t have that nebbishy quality that Woody’s do.  They can take care of themselves because I can take care of myself.  Which leads us to the final difference.  I’m a fighter, not a lover.

A big part of Woody Allen’s persona, right from his days as a comic, is his problems with women.  He deals with it in a very funny way to which I could always relate.  It’s just as big a part of my persona.  However, with Woody, it’s an act.  Come on.  The guy dated both Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow.  Mia was once married to Frank Sinatra for God’s sake! And Diane Keaton was with Warren Beatty.  Woody’s on his third marriage.  This guy has no trouble getting women.

I’m the real deal.  Only one good relationship ever in my life, and I blew that one.  I haven’t been on a date since Clinton was in the White House.  First term.  Women don’t like me.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I make a great “friend”.  Nice guys.  We’re always the friend.  But no woman wants anything to do with me as anything more.  When I write those characters there is great authenticity.  I’m going to die alone.  I’ve accepted that.  Sorry, Woody.  You’ll always be my idol, I’ll probably never be the artist you are.  But in the failure with women department, you’re not in my league.