By Bob Verini
© Variety, August 22, 2012 permalinkIn profiling Woody Allen, helmer Bob Weide -- a nominee in two separate Emmy directing categories this year -- found a kindred spirit.
"I really connected with the way he runs his sets, in terms of the calm and low-key nature," Weide says. "There's really no tension, and Woody is very anxiety-free. I've always strived for the same ambiance."
Weide believes "actors have to be comfortable enough to metaphorically fall into your arms." His people skills passed the test on the projects for which he's up for directing Emmys: the two-part PBS "American Masters" portrait "Woody Allen: A Documentary" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode "Palestinian Chicken," which makes uproarious hay of Arab/Israeli animosity.
"Where I differ from Woody is that he speaks to actors as little as he has to," Weide says.
Weide casually chats up his subjects, especially such camera-shy speakers as Diane Keaton and Dianne Wiest, during crew setup for interviews held, whenever possible, in their homes or offices.
Sometimes too much ice gets broken.
"They'll start to tell you anecdotes," Weide says, "and I'll say 'No, save it for the camera!' "
The central figure's trust was paramount "because his life or legacy, in some small way, is in your hands." Allen's admiration for Weide's previous work on the Marx Bros. and Mort Sahl opened the door, and before long the camera was invited to prowl around Allen's private workspace.
In a memorable sequence, Woody spontaneously improvises a scenario from a slip randomly drawn from the never-before-seen "idea drawer." His associates, Weide reports with pride, "say they've never seen him so comfortable in front of a camera, as himself."
Talking out nervousness has been consistently important to "Curb," for which Weide helmed many early episodes. Dayplayers kill to get cast in the unscripted laffer, then show up terrified to realize they're utterly ignorant of what they'll be doing.
"I tell them to relax, because this is going to be the best time they'll ever have as a professional actor," Weide says.
After he explains the scene, encouraging improv and multiple takes, he reassures them: "We'll go into the editing room and make you look especially brilliant. Have you ever seen anyone look bad on this show?"
Weide pulled away from "Curb" full time in 2007 to turn to other projects, which over the years have included his feature "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People"; a still-in-development major profile of the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; and a freelance gig on "Parks and Recreation." He returned this year for the episode some cite as the series' best ever, and for which he has already nabbed top DGA honors.
In its climax inspired by the 9/11 mosque controversy, star Larry David is caught in the crossfire between the titular restaurant's jeering staff and Jews enraged that "the world's greatest chicken" is being sold across from a kosher deli.
"Not only was there no tension on the set," Weide says, but "after almost every take, when I yelled 'Cut,' everybody would just burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of it all."
When they wrapped, extras of all ethnicities thanked him for a great time.
Reflects Weide: "I have to say, I had moments where I thought: 'If only both sides could get along in real life as well as they are on this set.'"