(Left to right) Recreating the tennis scene from “Annie Hall” are Earl Thompson (Rob), Shula Chernick (Annie Hall), Sheila Flaxman ( Janet), Harry Miller (Alvy Singer). Photo by Jeremy Cohen.
When Millennial Matt Starr decided to remake Woody Allen’s classic ‘Annie Hall’ using seniors, the last thing he expected to gain was a surrogate grandfather…but Starr’s relationship with 94-year-old Harry Miller has developed into just that.
That wasn’t the only bonus for Starr, 29, and his partner Ellie Sachs – Oscar-winner Allen gave his seal of approval, ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’s’ Jeff Garlin provided financial backing and they now have retirees lining up to take part in future film recreations.
The idea for ‘My Annie Hall’ began when Starr discovered his Alzheimer-stricken grandmother Maxine could recite large chunks of dialogue from her favorite movie ‘Casablanca.’ It enabled them to enjoy conversation, splitting the lines between them.
“We pitched the idea to 10 senior centers and they all came back with a resounding no,” says Sachs, 26. “It was shocking because they thought the seniors wouldn’t be up to it, that they’d get bored and would stop showing up.”
“Luckily, Lenox Hill Neighborhood House agreed with us and the seniors there were so enthusiastic. We’d bring in pages of script, read through them a few times, then let them go wild, do it their way.”
Most of the seniors including Miller, who portrays Alvy Singer, and 73-year-old Shula Chernick, in the title role of ditzy Annie Hall, had never acted before.
But, says Starr, they learned surprisingly quickly and were happy to put in long hours, often in searing heat as they recreated classic scenes around the Upper Eastside.
“We took it seriously and they respected that and rose to the occasion,” the New Yorker says. “We asked a lot of them and in return they gave a lot back.”
“Harry has become like a surrogate grandfather. He doesn’t have grandchildren and I only have my grandmother. Now I talk to Harry every other day and we say ‘I love you’ to each other. It’s nice to have someone like him to call.”
Sachs agrees – and reckons she has gleaned more valuable guidance about love and life from her new senior friends than from her peers.
“They have a very different outlook,” she says. “When you’re older, when you don’t have the pressures of living and working in New York, you have time and can give advice.”
“Harry has a saying, ‘never stop moving,’ and I love that. They live in an ageing society yet they throw that to the wind. It’s awesome to have friends in their 90s.”
“Their work also proved if you set the bar high, people show up and do a good job. Our seniors were on set at 8am, in hot weather, working hard making this movie and a lot of the time they were not thinking about their age,” Sachs says.
The duo decided against asking 82-year-old Allan for permission to recreate his 1977 story of neurotic love fearing he would refuse. So when word came, via the New York Times, that he “thought it was funny” and “saw no reason to interfere with these seniors’ enjoyment of life,” everyone was delighted.
Allen’s good wishes helped get the word out and now Starr and Sachs have been swamped with calls from other seniors asking to get involved in future productions.
With the 30-minute ‘My Annie Hall’ heading to film festivals this fall, the couple is now planning a follow up later this year, recreating another movie classic using seniors.
Chernick, for one, intends to throw her full support behind it. The 73-year-old novice actress, who once ran a senior center in East Harlem, was instrumental in encouraging her old friend Miller and others at Lenox Hill to join the cast of ‘My Annie Hall.’ She also went out scouting locations.
“I’d never done drama before, I don’t know why because I have been singing on stage since I was a child. And Harry, he’s been tap dancing since he was four – that’s 90 years. I love being around young people, from the intergenerational aspects of young children playing in the park to Matt and Ellie and the film crew,” Chernick says.
Asked what aging with attitude means to her, Chernick doesn’t hesitate, saying: “I like to smell the roses – I wave to the shopkeepers in my neighborhood and I try to make friends with people at the bus stop and the subway. I start to talk and people open up. Age is immaterial to me. My father was 50 when I was born and I am very comfortable with people of all ages. As to being a surrogate grandmother to Matt and Ellie, I think I’d rather be a girlfriend, a sister or a mother!”