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Oscar Watch: Indie King Woody Allen PBS Doc Streams Online; Sister-Producer Letty Aronson Talks Overseas Shoots

Oscar Watch: Indie King Woody Allen PBS Doc Streams Online; Sister-Producer Letty Aronson Talks Overseas Shoots

Sony Pictures Classics has kept Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” not only his highest-grossing film ever, but also the year’s most successful indie release, in theaters for almost nine months. And SPC is still campaigning to win a few Oscars (the likeliest is Best Original Screenplay) to add to Allen’s three wins to date (he’s been nominated 17 times as writer, director or actor). One weapon in their arsenal is PBS, which is screening its American Masters documentary of the iconic director online for a limited time.  The film, which premiered on PBS in November, will also be screened on PBS SoCal this Saturday, February 18, at 9 p.m.

And with Allen doing limited appearances, his sister and long-time producer Letty Aronson (who took over from Jean Doumanian with 1995’s “Mighty Aphrodite”) is on the interview circuit. (TOH interviewed Allen, here.)  Aronson and her famous sibling have a cool set-up as independents who remain in complete control of their films. Allen’s films usually perform twice as well overseas as in North America–“Midnight in Paris” earned $56 million domestic and $98 million foreign. Hence they raise foreign coin for each project, with support from the foreign countries where they shoot, and have actors lining up to star in them for basement rates.

Having filmed four movies in London and one each in Paris, Barcelona and Rome (the upcoming “Nero Fiddled”),  Aronson and Allen are constantly solicited by cities from Rio de Janeiro and Stockholm to Munich and Berlin to shoot there. (Shooting in China would be problematic because of censorship issues.) But there’s no script yet. “Writing does not take that long, four to six weeks,” Aronson says. “It’s getting the idea. He’s always rewriting when filming.” Allen dreamed up a story to shoot in Paris and would have to do the same wherever he decides to shoot next.

“Getting money in this country is impossible,” says Aronson. “It would be nice to do a film in the U.S. again. But in Europe there is greater regard for the filmmaker. Woody’s creative rights are non-negotiable. We don’t show anyone a script. No one participates in selecting the cast, sees dailies, or the rough cut.” Except Aronson.

The success of “Midnight in Paris” was a complete surprise. When she read the script, Aronson said, “‘who’s going to come to see this? No one knows Gertrude Stein and Man Ray, they don’t want to go back to the past.’ We felt it was for a niche audience. It was surprising so many people came to see it and brought their children.”  The film shot for seven weeks with no rehearsal time and no down days. Only Owen Wilson stayed throughout the shoot.

Also picked up by Sony Pictures Classics after they saw the final film, “Nero Fiddled” (formerly “Bop Decameron”–“no one had heard of it, even in Rome,” says Aronson) weaves together four interlaced stories set in Rome and four separate casts; two speak English (including Allen, Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg) and two speak Italian (including Roberto Begnini and Spanish actress Penelope Cruz).

As for the PBS doc, Filmmaker Robert Weide, who won a DGA award this year for his work on the TV series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” followed the infamously private Allen for a year and a half to create the PBS biography, interviewing the director’s many collaborators, from Sean Penn to Diane Keaton, writing partners Marshall Brickman and Mickey Rose to partner Aronson.

Weide’s biography traces Allen’s early career from his teenage joke-writing gigs to his stint as a writer for Sid Caesar to his current position as one of Hollywood’s most prolific writer/directors.   Even more intriguingly, it features an inside look into the filmmaker’s production process: Weide followed Allen from the London set of “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” to the Cannes premiere of “Midnight in Paris” to the director’s editing room.

“Woody Allen: A Documentary” is also available on DVD from the PBS online store.

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