Art

With “My Annie Hall,” New York Seniors Remake Woody Allen

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A tight shot of a bespectacled man in a tan suit appears on the screen. “The other important joke for me is one that’s, uh, usually attributed to Groucho Marx, but I think it appears originally in Freud’s wit and its relation to the unconscious,” he says. “And it goes like this — well, I’m paraphrasing: ‘I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.’ ”

Most viewers will recognize the bit from the 1977 classic Annie Hall, but the speaker is not Woody Allen, that film’s writer-director and star. Rather, the face on the screen belongs to Harry Miller, a 94-year-old Manhattanite, and the film is My Annie Hall, a thirty-minute remake of the Seventies original that has a very unique twist — it stars a cast of New York City seniors in their seventies through nineties, and this Wednesday, August 15, it is having its very first public screening at the Strand.

My Annie Hall is the brainchild of Matt Starr and Ellie Sachs. A native of New Jersey, Starr is a multidisciplinary artist whose work spans from the comical to the political — among his other performance projects is Amazon Boy, an experimental delivery program for Amazon. Sachs, a born-and-raised New Yorker, has a background in theater, producing, and directing. She has facilitated improv workshops at maximum security prisons and just last year starred in Sing Sing’s production of On the Waterfront. In addition to My Annie Hall, Sachs and Starr also recently partnered on the Museum of Banned Objects in collaboration with Planned Parenthood, which opened at the Ace Hotel earlier this year. The exhibit imagined a dystopian world where contraceptive and reproductive health products are banned.

The Annie Hall project was inspired by Starr’s grandmother and her struggles with early-onset Alzheimer’s. “I was out to lunch with my grandma [a few years ago] and she kept asking me the same questions over and over — the conversation became cyclical,” he explains. “It was really sad. I wanted to come up with a more creative way for us to communicate that broke that cycle. When we got back to the house, I put on Casablanca, thinking it would be nice to watch something from her younger years. While we were watching, she began reciting the lines of one of the characters and then I began reciting the lines of the role opposite her.”

This became their new form of communication, and when Starr returned to New York City from visiting his grandmother in Ohio, he knew he wanted to replicate this concept on a larger scale. Enter Sachs: “I met Ellie, who has a background in directing theater with diverse communities, and told her the nucleus of the idea, but no idea of what to do with it.”

“I’m really interested in representation, and who gets to tell what stories,” says Sachs. “I’ve directed theater in low-income housing, schools, prisons, and juvenile detention centers — this is another population that is either frequently silenced and, in particular, is often trivialized. When we see older adults in movies or on TV, they’re usually just a joke or a small part.”

The two got to work right away, visiting the city’s senior centers to pitch the idea. After a series of rejections, they finally got a bite from Lenox Hill Neighborhood House. “We were lucky,” says Sachs. “Jessica Balboni and Rebecca Sullivan, who run the center and the arts programs, are fantastic, smart, and love embracing wacky, outside-of-the-box ideas.”

Sachs and Starr billed the project as a weekly “Interpretive Film Class,” explaining to their students that, ultimately, they would all be shooting a film — one that would be its own entity. Classroom time was spent auditioning the actors, building relationships, and workshopping the script. The film crew would be composed of volunteers, with postproduction costs covered by funds raised through an Indiegogo campaign. All the pieces were in place but one: the classic movie they’d be re-creating. Starr and Sachs gave the class a list of ten films to vote on. The final tally came down to Singin’ in the Rain and Annie Hall. Somewhat sensibly, the seniors decided the latter would be more feasible, all things considered.

For several months the volunteer film crew and a cast of twenty or so seniors shot all around the city, capturing some of Annie Hall’s most iconic moments. There are Alvy and Annie on the tennis courts; that iconic opening monologue staged against a beige backdrop; the jazz club where Annie softly sings “Seems Like Old Times”; and the split-screen his-and-hers therapy sessions. The crew even managed to replicate the famous lobster fiasco. The directors tried their best to film at the same locations Allen and company did. “At one point while we were shooting a couple came up and said they remember when the original Annie Hall was filming in that exact spot,” says Sachs.

 

Of course, the whole thing could have collapsed without the suitable talent in front of the camera. The casting process was an intense, multiround affair, featuring different configurations of actors in the hunt for that Woody Allen–Diane Keaton alchemy. Stepping into Allen’s tennis shoes as Alvy Singer was the aforementioned Harry Miller, a tap dancer and two-time Emmy-winning set designer for Captain Kangaroo and Guiding Light. The role of Annie was taken by Shula Chernick, a 73-year-old dynamo who can speak and sing in nine languages and actually used to work at a senior recreation center herself.

In December 2017, after months of shooting, the film debuted with two private screenings at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House. A packed house of elderly people and young creatives alike filled the auditorium — some who may have seen Annie Hall on the big screen during its original release, some who may have watched Annie Hall for the first time on Netflix.

“It’s the quintessential love story,” says Sachs of the film’s appeal. “It’s messy, warm, affectionate, funny, and very bittersweet.  And love doesn’t have an age — it doesn’t discriminate. It can happen to any person on this planet at any point in their lives. I also love the film’s inventiveness in terms of structure — Annie Hall is a memory movie, told out of order. I think the structure is especially salient in regards to our actors; a lot of them are looking back on their lives and thinking of the most prominent and important memories.”

In a world where so much emphasis is put on youth, My Annie Hall is more than just a remake; it sends a message that, yes, there is life beyond your forties and fifties and sixties. Heck, there’s plenty of life to live even in your nineties, if you play your cards right.

“I think we live in one of the most ageist societies — people are so fixated on youth and beauty,” says Sachs. “And youth and beauty become conflated with relevance in our culture, which is a real shame. Society, and people, benefit greatly from having friends at different ages. We are given the gift of perspective when we hang out with people outside of our age bracket. Even before doing this project, some of my closest friends and the people I enjoy hanging out with most are my parents and their friends. I think it’s weird that’s not more of a thing, but hopefully that can change. Loneliness, aging, and separation between age groups is a common thing, but other countries are actually addressing it.”

“I want people to be inspired to get more creatively involved with their senior communities,” says Starr. “They need us as much as we need them.”

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