Two Brooklyn Mugs Hang Out on a 40 Year Old Movie Classic

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“Okay.”

The conventional way to end a “take” while directing a movie is to say loudly “cut”!

The director of this movie says, “Okay.” He’s unconventional. He looks like an intellectual, but flashing back four decades I guess it’s just his signature black-rimmed glasses that create that impression for me. He’s wearing a Ralph Lauren tweed sport coat with leather elbow patches over a worn-at-the-collar button-down plaid shirt, and brown wide-whale baggy corduroy pants that hang over a pair of clunky worn-out shoes. No flash, just a simple lived-in look. More like a dude who has escaped from a PBS fundraiser. To a street-smart cat from Brooklyn, the skinny little guy looks un-cool except for his distinct walk. The man has a cool, confident, urban boppin’ walk. I will come to learn that this dude is really smart, but far from a nerdy intellectual. His public persona of a neurotic intellectual is a movie character creation. The guy I will come to know better has legitimate Brooklyn-bred street-smart self-confidence. Before the movie finishes shooting months later, I will have formed a very gradual, unexpected, life-long friendship with this iconic New York character.

By the time I was hired as the unit still photographer on this untitled film, the director/writer/actor had already made a cluster of movies none of which I had seen.

Eventually, I would see them all. My old school, (pre-yuppie and pre-hipster) Brooklyn upbringing had made me a cautious street-guy, wary about the people with whom I became friends. It’s a matter of trust; a skeptical survival instinct. Plus, I have a deep aversion to ass-kissers, and the movie business breeds insecurity and greed. Sometimes “solid” people turn into embarrassing ass-kissing sycophants. I will learn, the director of this movie will never brownnose anyone about anything.

The dude with the signature black-rimmed glasses is Woody Allen.

The movie he’s directing will eventually be called: Annie Hall. It is the spring of 1976 as we start shooting in the Hamptons. I observe that Woody is a quiet, private man. He rarely speaks to actors or crew members. But he’s not a snob either. If someone asks him a question he will give a slightly shy and succinct answer. He’s a refreshing antidote to some conventional directors who feel obligated to become unqualified junior-psychologists, over-explaining everything to cast and crew about motivation and meaning.

Then there is the unique guy with the signature glasses.

The first day of shooting is eaten up mostly with boring running shots of cars. Later in the day when the light is soft with overcast – Woody’s favorite light – Gordon Willis, the great cinematographer who looks like Rembrandt, finishes lighting the exterior (with a hint of tungsten coming through the windows from inside) of a Hamptons house where the famous “lobster scene” is being shot. “Gordy,” another man of few words, uses irony with a splash of cynicism as his best defense verbally and brilliant lighting visually.

He turns to us in the camera crew, “Is my lighting funny?”

All good, Gordy...

Gordon Willis and Woody Allen would become a brilliant team.

As Woody later says in many interviews, and as I will witness first-hand on several of their classic collaborations, Gordon’s gift to Woody is a formal filmmaking foundation. He gets a daily on-the-job teacher-student master class in filmic skills, which Woody admits he simply did not possess on his previous movies. Gordon’s unique eye becomes a visual partner to Woody’s winning words. Together they create lightning in a bottle.

After several days in the Hampton’s, we are shooting in a tiny apartment on the Upper West Side. In between lighting set-ups, I am sitting on the building’s stoop. For those of us who grew up in this fantastic city of New York, especially those of us from the outer boroughs, a stoop is a social hang-out place of significant importance. It provokes talk. And laughs. And dreams. The stoop is where at a young age we juked and jived, talked sports and girls, complained about our shortness of dough, and occasionally ranked on each other or gossiped about stool-pigeons in the neighborhood. If you are a stool-pigeon from old-school Brooklyn you are marked bad for life. Woody can dig all this too.

He grew up in Brooklyn. So when he bops out of the apartment building between shots he sits opposite me on the stoop railing.

Just the two of us.

I say nothing until he does. He tells me how much he admires my older brother Pete’s writing. They know each other casually from Elaine’s restaurant. I thank him. I will soon learn that Woody is very sparse with compliments (later, over years, I will observe that he hates to get compliments).But this breaks the ice and we chat for the next 45 minutes. He’s feeling me out. Trying to see where I’m at. It’s cool.

It was a ditto thing. And I start to feel that Woody is “good people” too. After this conversation we start to develop a very early-stage mental shorthand.

Back upstairs on the set we are both quiet. My job as a unit still photographer takes concentration and I am here to work. I am on high alert to capture defining moments that my training as a photojournalist has taught me. The essence of my job requires me to be ever-ready for that decisive release of the shutter to photograph a precise piece of action.

On movies, I am always looking to capture the most dramatic or comedic point of a scene. Between takes I shoot portraits of actors, candid animated moments between director and actors, director and cameraman, and shots of the splendid work done by all the very talented people involved. Basically, the same deal as journalism. A photo essay. In between set-ups I can also take a breather, shoot the breeze or break balls, all of which I am very good at.

As the day goes on, I notice that Woody is obsessive about magic tricks with a coin, always practicing to make it disappear. The room is small and I am standing next to him surrounded by a cluster of busy crew people setting up the next shot. He is not showing off, but rather perfecting his skills with the quarter for his own amusement.

Suddenly the quarter falls from Woody’s hand, and I follow it falling into the cuff of my pants. I am sure he has spotted it. But it’s clear he hasn’t as he looks for its landing at the couch next to him. I decide to fuck with him and not tell him right away that his quarter is in my cuff. Woody picks up the end-pillow—the quarter is not there. He searches the floor around his feet. No coin.

The First Assistant Director calls him in to watch the scene in the adjoining room. I leave the quarter in my cuff and enter the room to photograph the scene. After ten minutes and a couple of takes he says, “Okay.” Then he’s back in the living room tossing the couch again for his quarter. He picks up the big pillow closest to where he was standing. He searches thoroughly, frustration reddening his face. I am both amused that this talented guy is so flustered, but worried that if I give it up now he will have an unpleasant reaction to my ball-breaking.

He walks away for a moment, pivots back to the couch and picks up a second big pillow. No quarter. Now he’s down on one knee looking under the couch to no avail.

I’m thinking:

Should I give myself up?

Nope. I let it lay, for 30 years.

The next day we are shooting in the same apartment. I go into the empty kitchen and put my cameras on the table. As I change the film roll in one camera, Woody and Keaton enter the kitchen. Keaton is one of the nicest people I have ever worked with. Keaton and Woody can finish each other’s sentences. They are very close friends and have great chemistry on screen. Annie Hall will become their bases-loaded homerun.

They are goofing about something. And then start talking about a play they had both seen separately and did not like. I am not really interested in a convo about theater so I tune out. Suddenly, Woody turns to me and says, “What was the last play you saw that you liked?” I thought for a few split seconds and said impulsively, “I hate plays and don’t go that often.” There was an awkward, pregnant silence in the kitchen as Woody and Keaton snuck a peek at each other.

Woody finally says, “Seriously, you don’t like plays?”

“No, not really, I mostly go to plays out of politeness to friends who are actors in them. But most plays make me move my ass back and forth in the seat. I’m a movie guy. I love watching movies. My mother was a cashier at the RKO Prospect in my Brooklyn neighborhood so I got to see movies for free when I was a kid, and I went frequently.”

I could tell that both Woody and Keaton were surprised at my candor, and probably thought I was a cultural zero. Growing up our big Irish-American family was very well-read. Books were our refuge, our escape. But I was talking square business. Plays were harder to walk out of if you did not enjoy them. Movies were easier to cut short and they cost far less dough. And plays are an acquired taste for a street-mug from Brooklyn who grew up poor. As I got older and matured, I enjoyed plays much more as I now do.

Later, as the shoot was almost finished, I asked Woody if he had a title for the film. He said he was considering a title called: Anhedonia. I knew that it meant a psychological condition that prevents certain people from experiencing pleasure from pleasurable acts.

I laughed and said, “That title will sell six tickets”.

Woody laughed, which he did rarely in my limited observation on this movie. We would eventually share many more laughs over the years in the city we both love.

Although he worked as a stand-up comic in smoke-filled clubs in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco often on the same bill with potheads and the occasional junkie, Woody told me that he had never actually smoked a joint. He also said with a straight face that he didn’t think any good music was made after 1947. I was a Rock & Roll lover and weed head, so, of course, I told him I could not agree. I also, in forty years, never heard him use the word cool. Like I said earlier, the dude is unconventional.

I gave up weed in 1983. I am still a fervent Rock and Roll fan. I use cool every day.

I’ve done photographs on seventy-seven movies in thirty-eight busy years, and have done twenty-six movies with this cat, and I still think he is the most honorable, loyal person I’ve ever met in the movie business. In addition, his strong, well-read literary sensibility, his extensive knowledge of classic and art movies (American and Foreign), his enthusiasm for sports, and his verve and passion for music (plays clarinet) rubs off on you just by hanging out with him. It’s a good hang.

Words. Images. Music.

Movies.

NYC.

Loyalty.

It is hard not to stay interested in his skillful work, and his extraordinary wit. His unpretentious wisdom never made me feel like Woody displayed a superior vibe to others. Deep in his heart, he is a street guy.

I can proudly say the Woody Allen I know is a mensch and my friend.

Annie Hall is a wonderful movie with great dialog, smart jokes, realistic comedy, and for me a sentimental journey back in time through a nostalgic lens on both the pain and happiness of comedian Alvy Singer growing up in Brooklyn and searching for love in Manhattan. The wonderfully-written scenes were often touching, and some had side-splitting wit. It is, after all, a relationship movie that even a Brooklyn kid who grew in financial struggle could love. The ending is bittersweet, like real life.

The movie got released forty years ago this month, it was nominated for five Oscars, and won four including Best Picture. It is considered a classic. Most famous comedians love it. Woody didn’t attend the Oscars in 1978. He told my younger brother Denis in an interview for the LA Herald Examiner the day before the Oscars back then that he couldn’t take the Academy Awards seriously if they didn’t nominate Gordon Willis for Best Cinematography. He’s that kind of loyal.

In 2006, thirty years after we worked on Annie Hall together, we were sitting at The Garden watching the Knicks play. Woody has taken me lots of times to his paid for top-dollar season courtside Knicks seats. He is not a celebrity freeloader. He tips the waiters well. In fact, if he gives you his seats to go without him, he asks only that you tip the courtside waiters well. It’s not an act. He is hands down the most generous actor I ever hung out with. We have eaten many restaurant meals together, and I have tried, but Woody Allen will simply not let me pick-up a tab.

At half time, the Knicks were ahead when he turned to me to ask my thoughts on a personal matter, and, as usual, I gave him straight talk with my honest opinion.

He said, “I always knew I could trust you Hamill when you told me during the first week of Annie Hall that you hated plays. I did not agree with you, but I respected your honesty.”

“Hey Wood, thanks,” I said, “And I owe you a quarter.” He looked at me puzzled. I told him the story about him looking for his magic-trick quarter that landed in my cuff. He seemed further baffled, saying he had no recollection of the incident.

I said, “You see, you should have tried at least one joint.”

Brian Hamill

Brianhamill.com