NEW YORK — Woody Allen, who is surprisingly shy in person, usually offers comments with the same ease as prying open an oyster shell. Not this time. When asked about his current film, "Everyone Says I Love You," and his bold decision to ask actors in the musical (his first) to sing their own songs, he responds confidently.
"I didn't want slickly trained voices that hit the notes but not emotions," he says. "When I was a kid, I loved Jimmy Durante. It didn't matter to me if he croaked out the lyrics; he gave me feelings, not just words."
He continues: "I want people, particularly young people, to know there's a wonderful American heritage of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songs."
Allen didn't tell co-stars Julia Roberts, Alan Alda, Goldie Hawn, Drew Barrymore, Tim Roth, or Edward Norton it was a musical until two weeks after they'd signed on. The surprise element is part of working for Allen. His actors never get the script in advance, they seldom know the name of the movie until it's ready for release, and he doesn't believe in rehearsals. "I prefer spontaneity," he says.
In "Everyone Says I Love You," actors were given only the pages that included their dialogue. The one exception was Natasha Lyonne, the young Broadway actress who plays Allen's teenage daughter. She narrates the movie, so she had to see the completed script.
To reluctant actors, Allen said, "I'm singing, and if I can do it, anyone can." He adds, "I did have mercy on the audience, and only sang half a song."
Working for Allen has its compensations. Actors don't have to stick to a script; they can make up their own dialogue and even offer suggestions. And every Allen movie is conveniently shot in New York. (Most scenes for "Everyone Says I Love You" were filmed in the Big Apple, but it also includes scenes from his other favorite cities, Venice and Paris.)
Barrymore, who has seen each one of Allen's films "at least four times," is the only cast member who didn't sing - even after she'd heard Woody warble. As for working with him, Barrymore says, "If he doesn't say anything to you, it means you're doing OK. If he doesn't like what you're doing, without raising his voice, he offers suggestions."
Ed Norton plays Barrymore's love interest. "Ed had never sung or danced professionally," Allen says. "He just got with it and didn't mind at all." The filmmaker gave Norton this pep talk: "I remember as a kid watching my mom and dad in the living room dancing to the phonograph. They weren't Rogers and Astaire, but they just loved being together. That was the feeling I want for the movie."
Allen had a different problem with Goldie Hawn. "I knew her as a very funny actress," he began, "but I'd never met her. So when she started to sing and dance, she was a professional. Finally, I had to tell her, 'Can you sing a little less?' "
Allen selected all the songs from his own record collection. "I'd listen over and over, obsess over each decision, and finally decide I'd picked the right song for the right situation."
How does he test a film? "When it's completed, I get my sister [Letty Aronson] and a friend or two to come over. Letty is usually an executive producer on my movies. She's so honest, she'll say, 'I was bored stiff, I loved this, hated that.' I take it back to the editing room and obsess some more."
Allen is a walking encyclopedia of music and comedy. He'd rather play the clarinet on Monday nights than attend the Oscars. Ask which comedians influenced him, and without catching a breath, he says, "Groucho Marx. I got to meet Groucho the last 10 years of his life. He reminded me of every wise-cracking Jewish uncle I'd ever known.
"The Marx Brothers' films were unsentimental, original, surreal, hilarious. Who can touch them? They are as good as you can get.
"Also Bob Hope was a big influence on me. I'm not bad at jokes, but I can't approximate Bob Hope in his prime."
Allen is well into his next comedy, "Deconstructing Harry," with Demi Moore, Robin Williams, Amy Irving, and others. He'd hoped to cast Elliott Gould as the lead, but Gould was tied up with a stage contract. So he turned to his sister for advice. She told her little brother, Allen Stewart Konigsberg, "Woody, you play the role." He listens well.