Without Woody Allen, Sophie Lellouche’s life would have been very different. She might never have discovered literature, music or philosophy, and she would definitely not be attending the London gala premiere of her movie Paris-Manhattan, which opens this year’s UK Jewish Film Festival — a debut rom-com which features a cameo appearance by Allen himself.
Lellouche can pinpoint the moment she fell under Allen’s spell. It was as a 15- year-old when she went to the cinema to see Hannah and Her Sisters.
“Before that moment I wasn’t interested in literature or music. There were so many things I discovered in this movie. I’m not from an intellectual family. There were no books at home and we did not go to the theatre. I didn’t read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Shakespeare. I came out of the cinema thinking that I didn’t know people could live like the characters in this film. So it opened up a lot of new things to me.”
Her interest in Allen became, she admits, a mild obsession. More than merely admiring the iconic director, she actually wanted to get to know him.
“It was my dream when I was young to be friends with him. If I had Woody Allen as a friend, he could give me advice, he could explain Russian literature to me, and other things too.”
As Lellouche grew up she also developed an ambition to emulate her hero. However, in this regard, Allen was an obstacle as well as an inspiration. She was worried that her work would not measure up to his.
“They were such beautiful movies that I thought I’d be wasting my time. But eventually I said to myself, maybe even if I’m not Woody Allen I can still make a movie, even if it is not as good as his.”
Not only did Lellouche start to write a movie six years ago, but Allen featured very strongly in the script. The main character, Alice (named after the 1990 Allen movie), is, like Lellouche, obsessed with Allen and his films. She works as a pharmacist in Paris and has developed the eccentric trait of offering DVDs of Manhattan Murder Mystery and Crimes and Misdemeanours instead of medication to her customers.
She imagines the poster of Woody Allen in her flat “speaks” to her — offering advice in the way Lellouche yearned for when she was younger.
She took the device from one of Allen’s own films, Play It Again Sam, in which Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca character, Rick, offers Allen tips on improving his love life.
Lellouche explains that in Paris-Manhattan: “I thought it could be Woody instead of Humphrey Bogart. It is not exactly the same because Bogart advises him about seduction, whereas for Alice, Woody is more of a mentor.”
The film is not autobiographical, says Lellouche. However, she does describe it as “very personal”. Alice’s family is, like her own, Jewish and Parisian, and Alice’s father is based on her own dad.
She says: “I wrote about something I know very well. In some ways it is like my family, in other ways it is not. A friend of mine said she never realised that my mother was an alcoholic. In the film the mother is an alcoholic but in real life this isn’t true.”
Lellouche admits that the project was, certainly in her mind, dependent on the participation of Allen himself. If he had turned down the part she doubts she would have persevered with the project.
“This was a very big step for me. I was not in the film business [Lellouche’s career has been in textiles] and I was not confident. If Allen has told me that he didn’t want to act in it, this would have told me that the script was bad. That would have been enough for me to give up.”
So Lellouche was left with the problem of how to make contact with her hero. She giggles when I ask her how hard it was get an answer from him.
“Everyone asks me this question. I’m a little bit embarrassed because it was so easy. I went to the Carlyle Hotel in New York where he plays clarinet every Monday. After the show I waited to talk to him with quite a few other people. When I got the chance I told him that I had written a script about him. He said: ‘Ah, OK, I have to read it. Can you send it to me?’ So I sent it and after a while his assistant answered me by email saying that he agreed to do it. And that was it.”
But surely it must have been nerve-wracking for Lellouche to direct her hero? “No, I wasn’t nervous because he was so nice. He knew it was a big thing for myself, my team and the actors. He had such humility — he was so nice and so generous. I dreamed he would be like that but I didn’t know. He was exactly how I dreamed he would be.”
Lellouche is not the only Allen fanatic in France. In fact, his films have been substantially more successful there than in the US.
“Sometimes in America his films have not worked at all, whereas in France they are a great success. Maybe the French like him because the movies are more intellectual and philosophical, whereas the Americans look more for entertainment. Allen thinks the French have helped his career.”
The French not only like his highbrow leanings, they also get his humour. “Jewish humour is pretty much the same in France. It tends to be the same in the US, England France and Russia — wherever there are Ashkenazi Jews.”
After so many years watching Woody Allen’s films and now directing Allen in her own film, Lellouche feels that her relationship with his work has changed. She is certainly not getting tired of his films. In fact, she says, she appreciates them much more now than she did when she was younger.
“I see his films as much deeper than I thought when I was 15. Back then I didn’t know anything of philosophy to Talmud or Russian literature. Now my pleasure is much greater because I understand more.”