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"A comic gem!" -Peter
Travers, Rolling Stone
"Charming and Witty!"
-Jeffery Lyons WNBC Radio
Woody Allen writes, directs and stars in his latest comedy, also starring (in alphabetical order) Dan Aykroyd, Elizabeth Berkley, Academy Award® winner Helen Hunt ("As Good As It Gets"), Brian Markinson, Wallace Shawn, David Ogden Stiers and Charlize Theron.
Allen stars as CW Briggs, the top insurance investigator in New York in 1940-or so he keeps telling the firm's new efficiency expert, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt). Briggs prides himself on being able to crack any insurance caper by getting into the mind of the thief, but now, thanks to the hypnotic powers of the Jade Scorpion, the mind of a thief is getting into Briggs.
"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is produced by Letty Aronson, with Helen Robin serving as co-producer. Stephen Tenenbaum is the executive producer, and Datty Ruth, Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe are the co-executive producers.
The film reunites the behind-the-scenes creative team who recently collaborated with Allen on "Small Time Crooks," including cinematographer Zhao Fei, production designer Santo Loquasto, editor Alisa Lepselter, costume designer Suzanne McCabe, and casting directors Juliet Taylor and Laura Rosenthal.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Woody Allen's latest crime caper, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," stars Allen as crackerjack insurance investigator CW Briggs. Briggs might be forced to relinquish bragging rights to being the best in the business when he falls under the spell of a crook-and a beautiful colleague-in his most baffling case to date, and finds that he is the one left clueless.
In "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," Woody Allen returns to the period of the 1940s to entrance audiences with an idea he had been musing about for a while-the hypnosis craze that seemed to mesmerize many of the Jazz Era, and is still captivating people today.
"Woody always says he has more ideas than he has time to make them," says producer Letty Aronson. "Like several of his films, 'The Curse of the Jade Scorpion' is a period movie, but like a lot of his movies set in the '30s and '40s, its themes are very current, which is why they play to contemporary audiences."
"This was an idea I had wanted to do for quite a while," the writer/director offers. "I've never been hypnotized, and there was no specific reason to do it; it was just a funny premise, and the rest is whatever spun out from that."
What spun out was an amusing take on denied desires both romantic and illegal. Is it really true that no power of suggestion can make us do anything we don't really want to do…especially when it comes to love?
That clearly surfaces in how the woman's role plays out in the man's world of the '40s setting. While his characters play to the archetype on the surface, Allen flips it as the key players let their outer masks slip, exposing their true selves.
"Certainly Elizabeth Berkley's character, Jill, is a classic type of the 1940s," says Allen. "She plays the sexy secretary, a real staple of films of that era. By all appearances, Helen Hunt's Betty Ann Fitzgerald is the stronger woman."
But only at first blush, as Helen Hunt notes. "As a woman in the workplace, she couldn't be more powerful for her time, which is something you didn't see a lot of back then."
Despite her outwardly steely office demeanor, "Fitz," as she is often called, is involved in a clandestine affair with her boss, Mr. Magruder, a risky romance then, as well as now. This duality was one of the things Hunt liked best about her character. "Her love for him is her biggest weakness," Hunt remarks. "Fitz just has this big blind spot when it comes to men and love, like a lot of women do. Where she is able to stand up to men in the office, she isn't able to stand up to them in her personal life. That's what's so great about playing this character-for all of her strength and sexuality, she's the girl who's really a mess, the girl who literally winds up on a ledge. She is not as controlled as she tries to appear."
On the flip side: Jill.
"She's the office girl that all the men want, but she's the one who always goes home at night alone," says Elizabeth Berkley, who plays the role of the proverbial "pinch and tickle girl." "She loves all the flirtation and the forbidden passion going on in the office."
Nevertheless, it is Jill who knows how to hold her cards close, realizing the power of her attractiveness and how to wield it with a sense of control, whereas Fitz cannot. Berkley notes, "You see it in the scene where Jill has dinner with Briggs and some of the other executives. While she flirts with CW, teasing him coyly, she never caves to the office romance. Again, Jill goes home alone; she knows where to draw the line."
There comes a third woman in CW Briggs' life, Charlize Theron's Laura Kensington, the stunningly beautiful, spoiled little rich girl, who is used to getting any man she wants. She takes Briggs as an easy mark for her seductive wiles, but his mysterious rebuff proves the ultimate attraction for the blonde temptress.
"This is my second film with Woody after 'Celebrity,' and I would work with him again and again," Theron says. "What he does with the writing, the dialogue, is different from anybody else…at least for me. It may be period, but the characters have a modern feel. Also he writes me these great, fabulous, flamboyant parts, like Laura Kensington. I loved this character…and I especially loved her clothes, but," she adds with a teasing pout, "I didn't get to keep them."
Theron recalls that when Woody first spoke to her about playing Laura, he made the role sound almost irresistible for any actress. "The first time I talked to him about doing the part, he said, 'If I were making this film in the '40s I would cast Lauren Bacall. Would you be interested?' Okay, so Woody Allen and Lauren Bacall-how difficult a decision is that? Who wouldn't jump at the chance to be Lauren Bacall?"
Aronson reveals that one of Allen's great strengths is knowing which actors are perfect for the roles. "He just has this instinct for knowing who is right," she says. "He's not a director who works by committee, but is guided solely by his own vision; he knows exactly what he is looking for."
Working with Woody Allen for the first time, that approach suited Helen Hunt perfectly. "You know, all that any actor really wants is to work with a director who really knows what they want and is truly passionate about it," she says, adding that she got an equal charge acting opposite the comedy legend. "I've done a lot of comedy, but it was almost impossible to keep from laughing watching Woody as Briggs play off of my character."
In preparing for their roles, Helen Hunt and Elizabeth Berkley watched such '40s classics as "Double Indemnity" and "His Girl Friday," which served as valuable resources for the tone and style of the era. Berkley relates that she tried to bring some of that style into her audition, but nature had other plans. "I had my hair done like Veronica Lake for the audition, but as I was walking over, the skies just opened up. By the time I got there, I looked more like I had fallen in Lake Veronica than I did Veronica Lake."
Despite that nearly disastrous audition, Allen knew he wanted Berkley for the role of Jill, saying "I have always loved Elizabeth and wanted to work with her, because she has a really great sense of timing, and I knew she could be very funny."
The director offered equal praise for his other female stars. "Helen is such an amazing actress; she really made the character so much more than it was written. And what can I say about Charlize? She's funny, sexy, smart and was just born to play a '40s femme fatale," he says.
The men in the main cast are mostly alumni from previous Woody Allen movies, with one notable exception: Dan Aykroyd, who stars as Betty Ann Fitzgerald's boss and illicit paramour. Though their paths had crossed on a number of occasions over the years, Allen and Aykroyd had never had an opportunity to collaborate, though, they are both quick to note, it was not for lack of interest.
"I have been a huge fan of his since his 'Saturday Night Live' days, but I just never had the right part until now," Allen says.
Aykroyd indicates that the part was worth the wait, remarking, "I love that I got to play a heel in the classic '40s sense. I think Magruder loves Betty Ann, but he is just too weak. When she starts wanting more, it's easier to dump her than to deal with the scandal." As for working with Allen for the first time, the actor simply asks, "What artist in this industry has not wanted to work with Woody?"
The question is rhetorical to the three actors who had worked with Allen in the past and were only too happy to again: Brian Markinson, Wallace Shawn and David Ogden Stiers. "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" marks Stiers' fifth collaboration with Allen, though, the actor quips, "I have no idea why he keeps calling me."
In this case, the reason is a no-brainer. Stiers, with his familiar deep and commanding voice, was the perfect choice to play the role of Voltan, the hypnotist at the center of the crime caper. While he is also a veteran of a number of animated hits, it was one of the rare times that Stiers' voice played such a pivotal role in a live action film, though the actor recalls that Allen didn't give him much to go on when they first talked about the part.
"When I got the call from Woody, all he tells me about the character is this: 'He's a guy named Voltan. He wears a turban. He doesn't have an accent.'
"I say: 'You gotta guy with a Middle European name and no accent?'
"He says: 'Oh, this Voltan is from Brooklyn.'
"How do you turn that down?"
Rather, Stiers turned to the Amazing Randy in Florida and Mark Sweet at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles for a little hypnotic inspiration. He jokes that he also found motivation, appropriately enough, in the stars. "I'm a double Scorpio and you've got that Jade Scorpion thing going on…"
Behind the camera, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" brings together a number of veterans from earlier Woody Allen movies, including cinematographer Zhao Fei, production designer Santo Loquasto, editor Alisa Lepselter and costume designer Suzanne McCabe. Loquasto, especially, was no stranger to the story's period backdrop, having revisited the first half of the 20th century with Allen on such films as "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Radio Days."
Allen offers, "I tend to like certain periods. The `20s, `30s and `40s were a very exciting time in New York. They were the decades of gangsters and gamblers-the music was great, the clothes were great… It's just a period that appeals to me."
One element from the past that resonates through all of Allen's films-period or not-is music. It typically is from the Jazz Era. "He just loves the music," says Allen's longtime collaborator Santo Loquasto. "It is his inspiration. When we're discussing the look of any of his productions, our meetings are on top of his album collection. The breadth of his knowledge of music from that era is truly amazing."
Another one of Allen's proclivities that stayed true to form for "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" shoot was its location: New York, New York. The insurance office where CW Briggs, Fitz and Magruder all work was located in a government building at 80 Center Street. Loquasto notes, "Woody likes that Depression-era look, which was perfect for 1940, so we kept the palette for the office in warm, earth tones. He wanted the office to have that 'Front Page' look."
In designing Briggs' and Fitzgerald's apartments, Loquasto drew inspiration from the 1957 film "Designing Woman." Briggs' somewhat dumpy apartment, located on 85th Street, takes after that of Gregory Peck's character in that film, while Fitz's stylish pad, at Park Avenue and 35th, echoes Lauren Bacall's glamorous apartment.
Built in the 1920s, the latter building presented a challenge to the production designer, as well as director of photography Zhao Fei. "The main problem we had was that her apartment was really too small and shaped like a pie, which made it really hard to light," Loquasto notes. "But we managed to pull off a few tricks with the lighting to make it work."
A New York warehouse was reconfigured to serve as Voltan's elaborate Oriental private den. Loquasto also reveals that Laura Kensington's posh bedroom was located in the same mansion that was used as Helen Sinclair's home in "Bullets Over Broadway."
Costume designer Suzanne McCabe, who also worked on "Bullets Over Broadway," comments that the costumes for this film called for a far more understated style. "They weren't as outlandish as the mobster look in 'Bullets Over Broadway.'"
McCabe gave Helen Hunt's wardrobe a tailored professional look, though, she says, "Woody definitely wanted her also to appear soft and feminine, not all brass tacks." Contrastingly, the designer put Elizabeth Berkley in dresses that, while appropriate for the office, could be a distraction for the men for whom she worked. The men wore suits and hats custom-made in the fashion of the day.
"The clothes, like the music, are there to help support the story," Allen says. "Everything has to contribute to making the tale work-it's true of any film I do, and I'm sure most directors feel the same."
ABOUT THE CAST
DAN AYKROYD (Chris Magruder) was honored with an Academy Award® nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Boolie Werthan in the Best Picture winner "Driving Miss Daisy." He is well known to film audiences for his work in more than 40 features, including Ivan Reitman's "Ghostbusters" and "Ghostbusters II," both of which he also co-wrote; "Trading Places," with Eddie Murphy; "Dragnet," which he also co-wrote; "My Girl"; and "Chaplin." This summer, he was seen in the blockbuster "Pearl Harbor" and made a cameo appearance in Ivan Reitman's sci-fi comedy "Evolution." Aykroyd first came to fame as one of the original "Not Ready For Primetime Players" on "Saturday Night Live." While on the show, he created many of its most popular and enduring characters, including the Coneheads patriarch, Beldar, and Elwood Blues, who, together with John Belushi's Jake Blues, formed "The Blues Brothers."
He and Belushi later brought "The Blues Brothers" to the big screen in the hit film of the same name, co-written by Aykroyd. His many other film credits include "Twilight Zone: The Movie"; Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"; "Spies Like Us," which he also co-wrote; "My Stepmother Is an Alien"; "Nothing But Trouble," which he also co-wrote; "Sneakers"; "Coneheads," which he also co-wrote; "My Girl 2"; "Exit to Eden"; "Tommy Boy"; "Grosse Pointe Blank"; "Blues Brothers 2000," which he co-wrote and produced; the computer animated comedy "Antz"; "Diamonds," with Kirk Douglas; "Stardom"; and "The House of Mirth."
His upcoming films include "The Devil and Daniel Webster," also starring Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Alec Baldwin, who also directed the film; and "Who Shot Victor Fox," with Kathy Bates and Rupert Everett.
ELIZABETH BERKLEY (Jill) was most recently seen on the big screen in Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday," starring Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid and Jamie Foxx. On television, she recently starred in the longform projects "Becoming Dick," directed by Bob Saget, and "The Elevator."
Berkley trained as a dancer and performed with the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet before segueing to acting. When she was still in her teens, she landed a regular role on the popular Saturday morning series "Saved By the Bell."
She made her feature film debut starring in Paul Verhoeven's "Showgirls." Her subsequent film credits include "The First Wives Club," starring Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler, "The Real Blonde," and "The Last Call." She also had a recurring role on ABC's acclaimed series "NYPD Blue," in addition to guest starring on numerous other television series.
HELEN HUNT (Betty Ann Fitzgerald) is one of today's most honored actresses, as well as one of the busiest. In 1998, she won an Academy Award®, a Golden Globe Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her work in Jim Brooks' "As Good As It Gets," opposite Jack Nicholson.
Last year, Hunt starred in four high profile feature films, beginning with Robert Altman's "Dr. T & the Women," opposite Richard Gere. Following in quick succession, she starred with Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment in "Pay It Forward," with Tom Hanks in "Cast Away," and opposite Mel Gibson in "What Women Want," winning Blockbuster Awards for the two latter films. Hunt had previously won a Blockbuster Award for her work in the mega-hit "Twister."
Hunt is also well known to television audiences for her role as Jamie Buchman on the long-running series "Mad About You." Nominated for seven Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in as many seasons, she won the award four consecutive times. Her work on the show also earned her three Golden Globe Awards, a Screen Actors Guild Award and three American Comedy Awards. In addition, Hunt made her directorial debut on one of the series' final episodes.
Hunt had earlier received widespread praise for her performance in the award-winning independent feature "The Waterdance," in which she starred with Eric Stoltz and Wesley Snipes. Her additional film credits include "Kiss of Death," "Bob Roberts," "Mr. Saturday Night," "Next of Kin," "Miles From Home," "Project X," "Peggy Sue Got Married" and "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."
Prior to "Mad About You," Hunt had regular roles on several series, including the acclaimed "St. Elsewhere." She has also starred in more than 15 telefilms, including "In the Company of Darkness," "Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Smart Story," "Into the Badlands," "Bill: On His Own," "Choices of the Heart" and "The Miracle of Kathy Miller," in which she played the title role.
Hunt has also performed on the stage, making her Broadway debut in 1989 in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." Her other stage work includes the role of Bianca in the Shakespeare in the Park production of "The Taming of the Shrew," and she more recently starred as Viola in "Twelfth Night," presented at Lincoln Center.
BRIAN MARKINSON (Al) counts "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" as his third outing with Woody Allen, following roles in "Small Time Crooks" and "Sweet and Lowdown." He has also worked repeatedly with director Mike Nichols in the films "What Planet Are You From?," "Primary Colors" and "Wolf." His additional film credits include "City of Angels," "Volcano," "Up Close & Personal," "Apollo 13," "The Hard Truth," "Mixed Nuts" and "The Doctor."
On television, Markinson has appeared in numerous longform projects, including "The Sports Pages," "Take Me Home: The John Denver Story," "Forgotten Sins," "In the Blink of an Eye," "Fall Into Darkness," "White Mile," "Witness to the Execution," "In the Line of Duty: The Price of Vengeance," "Columbo: Butterfly in Shades of Gray," "Sinatra" and "A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story."
In addition, Markinson has had recurring roles on several series, including "Dark Angel," "Party of Five," "NYPD Blue," "Millennium" and "Star Trek: Voyager." His other television credits include guest roles on such series as "The X-Files," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Law & Order," "Murphy Brown" and "China Beach."
WALLACE SHAWN (George Bond), one of today's most recognizable character actors, previously worked with Woody Allen in the films "Shadows and Fog," "Radio Days" and "Manhattan." Film audiences also remember him for his roles in Amy Heckerling's hit comedy "Clueless," and in Louis Malle's acclaimed "My Dinner With Andre," which he also co-wrote. Malle also directed Shawn in "Vanya on 42nd Street," "Atlantic City" and "Crackers."
Shawn's work with other directors includes Sidney Lumet's "Critical Care," Alan Rudolph's "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" and "The Moderns," Blake Edwards' "Micki & Maude," Rob Reiner's "The Princess Bride," Stephen Frears' "Prick Up Your Ears," James Ivory's "The Bostonians" and Robert Altman's "Atlantic City." His voice has also been heard in the animated hits "Toy Story," "Toy Story 2" and "The Goofy Movie." Among his other film credits are "My Favorite Martian," "Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills" and "Hotel New Hampshire."
On television, Shawn recently starred in the Marilyn Monroe biopic "Blonde" and the telefilm "Noah." He was also a regular on the series "Clueless," reprising the role of the teacher Mr. Hall, and had recurring roles on the shows "Murphy Brown," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," "The Cosby Show" and "Taxi."
In addition to his acting, Shawn is also a noted playwright. His most celebrated work, "The Designated Mourner," debuted at the National Theatre in London, starring Mike Nichols and Miranda Richardson. Shawn later adapted the play into a widely praised feature film, again starring Nichols and Richardson, for director David Hare. In 2000, the play "The Designated Mourner" made its American debut in an off-Broadway run, starring Shawn, which received rave reviews. He also wrote and starred in the plays "Marie and Bruce," "Aunt Dan and Lemon" and "The Fever."
DAVID OGDEN STIERS (Voltan) is a familiar face, as well as voice, to both film and television audiences. Woody Allen previously directed him in the films "Everyone Says I Love You," "Mighty Aphrodite," "Another Woman" and "Shadows and Fog. He has also lent his distinctive voice to the animated hits "Beauty and the Beast," "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and he can be heard this summer in "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." He will next be seen with Jim Carrey in "The Majestic," and includes among his other film credits "Jungle 2 Jungle," "Steal Big, Steal Little," "Bad Company," "Doc Hollywood," "The Accidental Tourist," "The Man With One Red Shoe," "Magic" and "Oh, God!."
Stiers was honored with two Emmy Award nominations for his unforgettable portrayal of Major Charles Emerson Winchester on the hit series "M*A*S*H." He was also Emmy-nominated for his work in the telefilm "The First Modern Olympics." His extensive television credits also include the longform projects "Justice League of America," "The Last of His Tribe," "Wife, Mother, Murderer," "The Final Days," "Hoover vs. The Kennedys," "Day One," "North & South" and "North & South II," "Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry," "Anatomy of an Illness," "The Innocents Abroad" and eight "Perry Mason" telefilms.
Starting out in the theatre, Stiers studied under John Houseman at the Julliard School. Upon graduating, he became a charter member of Houseman's acting company, appearing in such plays as "The Beggar's Opera," "Measure For Measure" and "The Lower Depths." He made his Broadway debut in "Ulysses in Night Town," with Zero Mostel, and later created the role of Feldman the Magnificent in "The Magic Show." He has also starred in and directed regional productions of "Love Letters" and "Autumn Canticle," and directed an award-winning production of "Scapino" at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre.
In addition to his acting, Stiers has conducted some 40 symphony orchestras in cities across the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago and Honolulu. He is also the principal guest conductor/associate conductor of the Yaquina Orchestra and the Ernest Bloch Music Festival.
CHARLIZE THERON (Laura Kensington) has emerged as one of the film industry's most sought-after leading ladies. She previously worked with Woody Allen as part of an all-star ensemble cast in "Celebrity." More recently, she starred in the romantic drama "Sweet November," opposite Keanu Reeves; the fable "The Legend of Bagger Vance," with Matt Damon and Will Smith; the true-life drama "Men of Honor," with Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding, Jr.; and "The Yards," with Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix. Theron also co-starred with Michael Caine and Tobey Maguire in Lasse Hallström's acclaimed drama "The Cider House Rules," based on John Irving's best-selling novel. She next stars in Luis Mandoki's action thriller "24 Hours," with Courtney Love.
A native of South Africa, Theron began her career as a model, working extensively in such fashion capitals as Milan and Paris before moving to the United States. In 1996, she made her feature film debut in the crime drama "2 Days in the Valley," joining an ensemble cast that also included James Spader, Eric Stoltz and Jeff Daniels. Theron received critical raves for her standout performance as Helga, Spader's murderously seductive partner.
That same year, Tom Hanks cast her as Tina, Tom Everett Scott's hometown girlfriend, in his directorial debut feature "That Thing You Do!." Theron went on to star in Jonathan Lynn's "Trial and Error," with Michael Richards and Jeff Daniels, and then co-starred with Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves in the thriller "The Devil's Advocate."
Her other film credits include starring roles in the comedy "Wakin' Up in Reno," with Billy Bob Thornton and Patrick Swayze; the thriller "The Astronaut's Wife," opposite Johnny Depp; John Frankenheimer's action thriller "Reindeer Games," with Ben Affleck; and the family film "Mighty Joe Young," with Bill Paxton.