Source: New York Times
“Do you have sex often?”
Harry Miller, who is 94 and a regular at the senior center at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, gave the question some thought. “Hardly ever,” he said. “Maybe three times a week.”
Shula Chernick, 73, had a different view. “Constantly,” she said, sounding aggrieved. “I’d say three times a week.”
Ms. Chernick and Mr. Miller, who are friends and occasional dinner companions, are the stars of an unusual movie that you may never get to see. Mr. Miller plays a character named Alvy Singer. Ms. Chernick, who grew up in the Bronx, is Annie Hall, from Chippewa Falls. The movie, which includes the dialogue above, is “My Annie Hall.”
Ms. Sachs had directed plays in prisons and jails; Mr. Starr had directed a hip-hop video and staged some quirky conceptual art stunts. Neither had experience working with old people or directing a feature film. They planned to spend a couple of weeks shooting some scenes on their mobile phones.
What they got turned into something much, much more, with a crew of 20, three months of shooting, some modest Hollywood backing, nine pounds of live lobster and, at the movie’s premiere, Mr. Miller tap-dancing and singing Fred Astaire’s “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man.”
“I was completely moved by what they were doing and sent money to them,” said Jeff Garlin, a star of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and ABC’s “The Goldbergs,” who saw Mr. Miller in a friend’s talent contest and was captivated. “It has a humanity to it and a sweetness to it that I don’t see in any other work.”
On a January morning in his apartment, Mr. Miller, who had never been in a film before, reflected.
“Unfortunately, the lobsters weren’t very good actors,” he said. “They hardly moved.”
Then he said that making the movie was the best experience of his life.
“You two are part of my life,” he said, addressing Mr. Starr and Ms. Sachs, who play a couple in the movie, and are one in real life. “You’re the only people who ever call me. I don’t get calls from anyone else, because they’re all dead. Now I have two grandchildren.”
A year ago, two young artists, Matt Starr, 29, and Ellie Sachs, 25, approached the senior center with a proposal to remake a classic movie with members of the center. They had been turned down by other centers, who said that their members would not stick with such a project. But at Lenox Hill, Jessica Balboni, the director of the senior center, jumped at the idea.
“We said, ‘You betcha,’” Ms. Balboni said. “The arts have been such a powerful tool to build resiliency and vitality in older adults. It was an immediate yes.”
Mr. Miller’s favorite Woody Allen movie is “Interiors.” Ms. Chernick’s is “Bananas,” from 1971. After that, she said, “His movies don’t do very much for me.” Even “Annie Hall” she found “somewhat blah.”
“I think our version is better,” she said. “Don’t you agree?”
Mr. Miller did.
“Somebody on the blog Garage wrote that our movie is funnier and better,” he said.
“That was me,” Ms. Chernick said.
Did anyone want cherry pie with Cheddar cheese, Mr. Miller asked.
The story of “My Annie Hall” began with Mr. Starr’s grandmother, whose advanced dementia made conversations with her frustrating. One day Mr. Starr played the movie “Casablanca” for her, and she seemed a different person. They acted out scenes from the movie, and she remembered the dialogue verbatim.
“We would do a scene here and a scene there, and in between those scenes if I asked her questions or she asked me things, it wasn’t just a circular conversation,” Mr. Starr said. “Whereas literally hours before that, she would ask, ‘Where are you living?’ She’d turn, take a bite of her bagel, and say, ‘So, where you living?’ And that wasn’t happening when we were watching the film. So the film was doing something to her.”
Without knowing it, Mr. Starr was practicing what doctors who treat Alzheimer’s disease call “reminiscence therapy,” which can reduce stress and stimulate memories in people with cognitive loss, said Molly Fogel, the director of educational and social services at the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. “If I can bring you back to a point of pleasure, and to places where you have context or connections, then it provides a better opportunity to engage and communicate.
At Lennox Hill, Mr. Starr and Ms. Sachs offered to lead a weekly class they were calling Interpretive Cinema. The first week, about 15 people showed up, including Ms. Chernick. The next week, she prodded Mr. Miller to attend.
“We go there for the company,” Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Sachs and Mr. Starr showed about 10 trailers, and asked the group to vote on one. “It was a tie between ‘Singing in the Rain’ and ‘Annie Hall,’” Ms. Sachs said. “We encouraged the class to do ‘Annie Hall’ just because Lenox Hill Neighborhood House is so close by to a lot of the original locations. And it’s a memory movie. It’s about looking back and thinking about what you choose to remember, why you choose to remember certain things, what are the most salient and important memories. And also, it’s a love story. It’s accessible and seemed very ageless.”
Auditions lasted three weeks. Mr. Miller, who wanted a secondary part, got the lead instead. “I was the only short one at the center,” he said. To this day he has not seen “Annie Hall,” and refuses to do so.
“I didn’t want to try to imitate,” he said. “I just wanted to follow the script.”
Mr. Miller was a find. He had won two Emmy Awards as a scenic designer for soap operas, and when he retired at age 75, he began taking acting classes at Hunter College. “Whenever there was an old man part, I got cast in it,” he said.
Mr. Garlin cited another item on Mr. Miller’s résumé. “He worked on ‘Captain Kangaroo,’” the comedian gushed.
Ms. Chernick had been singing since fifth grade in Hebrew school, but she had only acted once, in a production of “South Pacific” when she was in college.
“You have natural acting chops,” Mr. Starr said.
It helped that they were good friends. “Shula and I have been going out together for eight or nine years, but not romantic,” Mr. Miller said. “At my age there’s no romance. But she’s another generation younger than me.”
The initial budget was leftover “bar and bat mitzvah money,” and the crew was the two filmmakers, Mr. Starr said. “Then we put a call out on Facebook, and we had an overflow of people wanting to help. People who made a living doing this, and asked for nothing in return.”
They raised $11,000, including a contribution from Mr. Garlin, and Mr. Starr went on unemployment to work on the movie. They cut the script to about 30 minutes, including Alvy Singer’s opening and closing monologues. They chose scenes in which the cast’s age would not “turn into a joke,” Mr. Starr said.
Marshall McLuhan, who appears as himself in the original, did not make the cut.
There were some unique challenges.
“Harry has a cellphone, but it’s only on 30 minutes a day,” Mr. Starr said. “And Shula has one that she hasn’t turned on in five years. Getting in touch with them, it’s difficult. We take for granted that we can send out one email and a follow-up text to every single crew member. But we really had to stay on top of making sure the stars of our film were there. There had to be that much more trust with our seniors, which is something we take for granted a lot with our friends.”
They premiered the film at the center in Lenox Hill last December. Then in January, Mr. Allen’s adopted daughter Dylan Farrow renewed charges that he molested her when she was 7 years old, inspiring many actors from past projects to dissociate themselves from him. Mr. Allen has consistently denied the charges.
Neither the stars nor the filmmakers felt the charges colored their movie. “I don’t know how much you can tie an artist with his work,” Ms. Chernick said. “They kind of stand separately, and ours stands even further away. His thing is like a takeoff point for us. Ours is so different. Nobody tried to imitate him. Like Harry hadn’t seen the film. I’m a Jewish shiksa.”
Nor did they seek Mr. Allen’s permission to use his copyrighted material — a type of filmmaking known as “sweding,” from Michel Gondry’s 2008 movie “Be Kind Rewind,” in which two video store clerks remake the shop’s stock, calling the new versions “Sweded” to explain their oddness (in that movie, Sigourney Weaver seizes the tapes for copyright infringement and crushes them with a steamroller). At one point, Mr. Starr said, he wanted to put a note on Mr. Allen’s door telling him about the work, but other duties intervened. “Legally, I guess we’ll find out,” Mr. Starr said.
Through his publicist, Mr. Allen said last week that he had heard about the project and endorsed it. “Thought it was funny,” the email message read. “Saw no reason to interfere with those seniors’ enjoyment of life. Never saw it, had no objections, good luck to them.”
Mr. Starr and Ms. Sachs have shown the movie twice at Lenox Hill but nowhere else, and it is not available online. Their hope, Mr. Starr said, is that other young artists will do similar projects with their local elder communities. “It doesn’t have to be a big production,” he said. “It can be just a couple scenes shot on an iPhone. Maybe this can become an award category, Sweded Senior Films, and all of these legal hurdles won’t be obstacles.”
In the meantime, the movie’s principals, young and old, have new friendships.
“I never had children,” Ms. Chernick said.
The directors begged to differ. “What about us?” Ms. Sachs said.
“I call you Mom or Grandmom,” Mr. Starr said.
“Except that they were our bosses during the movie,” Ms. Chernick said. “We had to take orders from them.”
On a recent morning, Mr. Starr and Ms. Sachs took bagels and coffee to Mr. Miller’s apartment on the Upper East Side. Before long, a Woody Allen movie broke out.
Mr. Miller related the post-filming fate of two lobsters whose role in the movie is to get loose on the kitchen floor, bedeviling the two main characters. One, he said, was so large that ordinary tools were no match for its shell.
“We were filming and I said, ‘I have this six-pound lobster,’” he said. “Do you want to all come over and eat it? So about six of us came over, and Matt volunteered to take on the lobster. He took off his shirt, he was naked to the waist.”
“And I’m a vegan, so this is a first for me,” Mr. Starr said. “I took the hammer, undressed and started whacking it, and it’s spraying everywhere. It was really intense.”
Mr. Miller said he recently met a woman who said she liked everything in the movie except the lobster scene. “I said, Why didn’t you like that? It’s a funny scene. She said, Because I’m a vegan and I don’t like to see animals treated like that.”
“I don’t blame her,” Mr. Starr said. “Has your life at the center changed at all since?”
“Well,” Mr. Miller said, “for a week or two they kept calling me the star, but it calmed down after a while.”
“We’ll have to write another film soon,” Mr. Starr said.
Ms. Balboni, the senior center’s director, said the project had changed the attitudes of some members. “What we got out of it was something far beyond our imagination,” she said. “It is putting a spotlight on what often older adults experience, which is invisibility — ‘I don’t see you anymore, you’re not important, you can’t do.’ This film blows that up and says, Let me show you an iconic story through the lens of older adults in all their audacity. So it gave them empowerment, and more chutzpah.”
The elders, in turn, helped the filmmakers see their own lives differently. Most of Mr. Starr’s and Ms. Sachs’s friends were struggling artists trying to get by, doubling up in tiny apartments with exorbitant rents. The seniors, by contrast, were dating, had leisure time and often had big apartments with low rents.
“When we get together we talk about friend things,” Mr. Starr said, referring to Mr. Miller and Ms. Chernick. “We talk about sex.”
“They consistently give better advice than most of my friends,” Ms. Sachs said.
She added: “A lot of our friends have tunnel vision. They want one thing really badly, and they’re so focused on it that it’s hard to zoom out and get perspective. Spending time with Harry and Shula and the other people, the greatest gift was perspective, seeing the world a little differently.”
Mr. Starr, who as a child was in special education classes because of attention deficit hyperactive disorder, said that the movie had helped him understand his goals as an artist. His past projects included a clothing line called Babycore — essentially adult-sized versions of baby clothes — and a character named Amazon Boy, for which he wore a beige delivery uniform and walked around town carrying 20 Amazon cartons strapped to his back. “In all those projects, I was trying to connect, I was trying to build community and create meaningful experiences,” he said. “It all coalesced with the ‘My Annie Hall’ project. Not just the finished film, but us building these relationships with the seniors is just as much a part of the art. It was everything I was trying to do with my other projects.”
Mr. Miller said that since his birthday in January, his age was finally catching up with him. Ms. Chernick disagreed. Since the movie, she said, the opposite is true. “He seems younger to me. We’ve been friends for 10 years. I didn’t realize he can talk so much. You were always quiet before.”
As for herself, she said, “I feel like I have glow inside.”
Mr. Miller considered this.
“Shula is more vivacious now,” he said. She smiled.
“But I have to tell you, the day I turned 94, I felt old and I could hardly move,” he said. “I used to love walking, and I can’t stand walking anymore.”
He had just spent the morning walking around the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Wait a second, you walked all the way down to meet me,” Ms. Chernick said.
“Yeah, but I wasn’t carrying my shoulder bag.”
“Well, who tells you to carry the shoulder bag?” she said. “I always tell you not to.”
So it went.
Mr. Starr and Ms. Sachs are now writing a screenplay for Mr. Miller, based on his life, from his boyhood in Jersey City to his television career and beyond. His is a world apart from theirs, featuring grand movie palaces where he used to tap dance before films, and an apartment in the luxurious Parc Vendôme near Columbus Circle, for which he paid $58 a month.
Mr. Miller allowed that he can no longer do the Russian leg-kick dance, which used to be his big applause number. But he was not without ambition. Mr. Garlin, who was first won over by seeing Mr. Miller tap dance, said he might cast him in an Off Broadway play.
Mr. Miller’s acting teachers saw a screening, he said, and they were impressed. “One said she was going to get me an agent,” Mr. Miller said, “so I could get work as the male Betty White.”
Beyond that, he said, little things have changed since the movie. “More people say hello to me, because normally I’m not that outgoing,” he said. “I don’t go around talking to people I’ve never met. And even when I do, I don’t remember their names.”
And so a star is born.