NEW YORK — Woody Allen recalls walking down Lexington Avenue in Manhattan when he suddenly got an idea for a screenplay.
"I always write things down," Mr. Allen explains. "The only thing handy was a discarded matchbook cover." So he scribbled down a few words before joining some friends for an early dinner. He then headed over to Madison Square Garden for a New York Knick's game - an event he seldom misses.
"When I came home," he continues, "I went right to my idea drawer and dropped it on top. It's full of scraps of paper, backs of menus, corners of theater programs. All have a capsule idea for a movie."
Every time Allen plans a new film that he writes, directs, and usually stars in, he goes to the "well" - the idea drawer. "The only problem was I found two pieces of paper, plus the matchbook cover - with three ideas I really liked." The solution? He made all of them.
Last year, it was "Small Time Crooks" with Tracey Ullman. This year, it's "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" with Helen Hunt (opens in theaters Aug. 24), and next year we'll see "Hollywood Ending," starring Allen, Debra Messing ("Will & Grace"), and Téa Leoni.
Lately, Allen has been getting some flack from critics who question his frequent role as leading man. His answer? "Often I can't get the actor I want because of scheduling. I'm available, so I adjust the script to my limitations, and start filming.
Also, there's the matter of star salaries. Some actors would rather miss a meal than cut their salaries."But," Allen pointed out, "there are some great ones [like Sean Penn, Kenneth Branagh, and Judy Davis] where money isn't a factor. Those are the ones I ask."
Allen shrugged his small frame and confessed. "I never asked anyone about starring as the male lead in 'Hollywood Ending,' which I just finished. I was perfect for the part - a neurotic New York filmmaker," says Allen, who recently signed a three-movie deal with DreamWorks.
The second under that deal is "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," a 1940s crime caper. It concerns two office workers, Helen Hunt and Allen. She is a hard-as-nails efficiency expert, he an experienced insurance investigator. Both are hypnotized at an office party. The plot heats up when the evil hypnotist calls them days later and puts each into a trance, instructing them to steal some jewelry.
"When I was growing up, there were hypnotists in vaudeville," says Allen. "They always seemed entertaining - half comic, half sinister. I've never been hypnotized and don't think I could be, for I'd giggle."
Once Allen had completed the script for "Scorpion," he and his staff started suggesting actors. "The second I heard Helen Hunt's name, that was it. She is the character. She projects intelligence and authority, and has a cutting sense of humor."
Allen says his favorite movies were made in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. "That was such a romantic era, those wonderful pictures made by Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch. The music, the visuals, the women in white satin, the gangsters carrying violin cases that housed machine guns, the soldiers and sailors kissing their girlfriends goodbye - teams like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, or [Spencer] Tracy and [Audrey] Hepburn. Their characters always seemed to hate each other, always insulted each other, but you knew somehow they'd get together."
As a kid, Allen managed to go to the movies even though money was tight. "My father drove a New York cab and brought home $50 a week. My mom worked at a florist and had a paycheck of $40.
"I never thought I was poor, for my sister, Letty, and I never missed a meal or didn't have clothing."
When Allen turned 16, he started writing jokes for comics for $50 a week, and then bigger jobs came along that paid $175 a week. By the time he was in his late teens, he made $1,000 weekly. "Show-business salaries are so undeservedly exaggerated that you just have to succeed a little and you are making more money than a much more deserving school teacher."
With all his hats - writing, directing, casting, and starring - he's left producing to his sister, Letty Aronson.
"I know when actors first come to the set, they think we look disorganized," says Allen. "I go home early, only work until 5:30 or 6 p.m., never work nights. The film is never my first priority. It's either family or going home on time, or going to the Knicks game, or getting to my clarinet practice.
"They soon realize that the movie is just part of my life. I'm not a perfectionist. I don't like to rehearse because it bores me. If I shoot a scene, and there's a mistake in it, I don't do another take unless it's major. I don't have the patience.
"After [actors have] learned to relax with my system, they tell me of directors who yell and pound their fists to get a performance out of a star. I never got a performance from anyone that wasn't there before I met them. I hire top people as actors, and then I get out of their way. I tell them if you want to change the script, change it; if you want to say these lines, say them; if you don't, make up your own - as long as they are in character."
Suddenly, Allen looked up over his horn-rimmed glasses and smiled, "I didn't mean to get on a soap box."