Woody Allen may still be a reclusive curmudgeon, but not apparently when Scarlett Johansson, his latest leading lady, is in the room.
"He's painfully shy when you first meet him, so you have to harass him to get him to talk. I just kept harassing him and now we have a playful relationship," says the 21-year-old star of "Match Point," the first Woody Allen film in nearly a decade to generate serious Oscar buzz.
"Others might not say so, but I'd even describe Woody as something of a chatterbox."
Johansson and the 70-year-old director have forged an unlikely mutual admiration society. Though she's one of Hollywood's hottest actresses and he's been struggling through the longest dry spell of his career, they've already completed their second film together, and both are downright effusive about their professional relationship.
"I could work for him forever and feel completely satisfied," says Johansson, talking with reporters at a New York hotel, alongside co-star Jonathan Rhys Meyers. "I just adore him. It's only his legacy as a director that makes him so intimidating."
And Allen, who isn't known for granting interviews, massaging egos or even keeping a high profile on the film-festival circuit, came to Cannes in May gushing over his star.
"I usually want to crawl into the ground after I make a film, almost invariably, but I'm very bullish about this film because Scarlett Johansson is such a strong actress," the Oscar-winning director told reporters.
'Annie Hall' Meets Buckingham Palace
"Match Point" -- which has already earned four Golden Globe nominations, including one for Johansson -- is the story of a social-climbing country-club tennis pro who befriends a student, marries his sister and takes a high-flying job in the family business. But he teeters on the edge of ruin when he falls in love with his friend's fianceé -- an American actress played by Johansson.
If Allen's subject matter -- marital infidelity -- is familiar turf, the project is clearly a step in a new direction. Famous for rarely leaving his beloved Manhattan, Allen filmed "Match Point" in London last summer, after American producers insisted on having more input.
Allen's latest films -- "Melinda and Melinda," "Anything Else" and "Hollywood Ending" -- hardly improved his bargaining position with Hollywood. Each opened to lukewarm-to-negative reviews -- and while he's never been a sure thing at the box office -- they grossed less than $5 million apiece, an abysmal streak even for an artist who says he doesn't pay attention to the bottom line.
Nevertheless, after striking a deal with the BBC, the former standup comic got to work with the same independence he has enjoyed since the mid-1970s.
"I don't feel that [the studios] are qualified to give the input," Allen told Vanity Fair over the summer. "They wouldn't know a good script from a problem script or how to cast a picture."
The move was completely contrary to character. It was once thought that Allen's love of New York was only exceeded by his hatred of Los Angeles. The three-time Academy Award winner had never bothered to show up on Oscar Night, despite 20 nominations. And he only lifted his boycott in 2002 to make a plea to directors to keep filming in his hometown after Sept. 11.
Allen hasn't been nominated since his screenwriting nod in 1997 for "Deconstructing Harry." But that may change with "Match Point." Johansson -- who should've earned an Oscar nod two years ago for her breakout performance in "Lost in Translation" -- has already emerged as a strong candidate.
Ironically, Johansson, the only American in the cast, wasn't originally slated for the film. She was a last-minute replacement for Kate Winslet and signed on in July 2004, only weeks before shooting began.
"I was in L.A., planning to take the month off. Then, I got the script with a note from Woody that said, 'If you respond to the material, I'd love to have you on,'" says Johansson. "A week later, we were shooting. It was pretty quick."
Perhaps plain old luck brought the director and actress together. But if that's the case, it's certainly OK with Allen, who sees "Match Point" as a story about the powerful but unacknowledged role luck plays in our lives.
Allen's tennis pro gambles with his life, and as a sportsman, he knows the outcome can go either way. Destiny is as capricious as a ball that nicks the top of the net and bounces in or out of bounds, and sometimes that is all that separates a winner from a loser.
"You always hear people say, you know, 'Luck is nonsense, I make my own luck by hard work,'" Allen says. "But life is often so chaotic and terrifying, and out of control."
'I Don't Have to Work With Friends'
Allen's career has yet to fully recover since he began his controversial relationship with his wife of eight years, Soon-Yi Previn, the 35-year-old daughter of his longtime ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow.
But like a lot of top actors, Johansson jumped at the chance to work with the legendary director and screenwriter of such classics as "Annie Hall," "Manhattan" and "Hannah and Her Sisters."
Most other actors, however, don't describe Allen as the warmest of men, even if they relish the experience of being in his films.
In his younger days, Allen was among those directors notorious for being romantically involved with his leading ladies. Before Farrow, there was Diane Keaton, and before Keaton, his first wife, Louise Lasser. But in recent years, Allen is all business on the set.
Allen is so famously standoffish, he frequently doesn't let his cast read an entire script. Instead, actors only get lines from the scenes in which they appear.
Johansson's co-star, Rhys Meyers, recalls barely talking with Allen on some days.
"I like that," he says, "I don't have to be friends to work with someone. Actually, it could put extra pressure on a working relationship when you have to placate someone.
"Woody Allen isn't someone who gives compliments, but that's not necessary. Just being on the set with him is compliment enough. I remember one morning, after four incredibly tough scenes, all I said to Woody or Woody said to me was 'Good morning.'
"Then you see," Rhys Meyers says, "that in his silence, he's showing faith in how you're handling your role. I mean, he's already proven his genius as a director. He's done dozens of movies. If he doesn't like something, he isn't shy. There's just no backslapping."
No Mandatory Workouts for Scarlett
If Allen was a little more outgoing in London, it was partially out of necessity. Having spent nearly all his life in Manhattan, he had trouble writing British dialogue and pressed the cast for help. Rhys Meyers, who is Irish, was urged to make his character an Irish tennis player who was living in London and rubbing elbows with the country-club elite.
"I had a good laugh about that, because there's never been an Irish tennis star, but Woody rolled with it and was open to suggestions," Rhys Meyers says.
"Actually, the differences in dialogue aren't as great as you think anymore. We in Ireland grew up watching American TV shows, so it's not unusual no to hear someone say, 'Hey guys,' like it might have been years ago."
Johansson and Allen have already completed filming for their second project, "Scoop," in which the actress plays an American student who begins an affair with an aristocrat.
During the production, Johansson hit theaters with a big-budget action extravaganza, "The Island," co-starring Ewan McGregor and directed by shoot-'em-up specialist Michael Bay. The movie quickly tanked, and Johansson's decision to work with Allen now seems like a brilliant career move.
"He just really rarely requires that his actors go to the gym, which was a plus for me. And I didn't have to hang from a 50-foot building," she says.
"I think Woody's dialogue helped me to bring out one of the better sides of my acting. The dialogue is so fantastic, that you think if I screw this up, I'll really be a putz."
To put it another way, Johansson hit the ball, it landed on Allen's side of the net, and as luck would have it, they both won.