Even for a filmmaker like Woody Allen, who has dabbled in his share of period pieces, from the Roaring Twenties atmosphere of “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Midnight in Paris” to the Depression-era trappings of “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” his latest, “Wonder Wheel,” marks a bold stylistic detour.
“Period offers a lot of provocative possibilities,” Allen says of his 1950s-set ode to the Coney Island of his youth. “I wanted to do a poetic rendition. That immediately liberates you from having to be realistic all the time.”
Indeed, “Wonder Wheel” — to be released by Amazon on Dec. 1 and starring Kate Winslet as a former actress now working as a clam house waitress longing for what might have been — is a vibrant, lushly lit exercise in expressionism. And it was Vittorio Storaro, the three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer who first collaborated with Allen on “Café Society,” who really pushed the director outside his comfort zone.
“In any movie I try to find a kind of dialogue,” Storaro says. “Coney Island reminded me of illustrations from Norman Rockwell and the great painters after the Second World War. They make you think something is nice and positive, but that’s the surface. When you go into the story you see a different reality.”
Storaro was particularly interested in the central conflict between Winslet’s character, Ginny, and her stepdaughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), who comes along and whisks away the adulterous Ginny’s younger lover, Mickey (Justin Timberlake). Storaro doused Winslet in reds and oranges and Temple in blues. “We don’t see light or color only through our eyes,” he says. “It’s practically a physical energy. That theory, the physiology of color, is what really interested me.”
It was quite an unusual palette for Allen, says Suzy Benzinger, the director’s longtime costume designer. “He likes soft tones and doesn’t like things too dark, so when Vittorio spoke to me about color, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is really different for Woody.’ But he loved it.”
Benzinger was tasked with outfitting a large number of extras for the Coney Island beach setting. Given that she rarely enjoys big budgets on Allen’s films, she tends to call in her favors when they roll around. That’s something Allen appreciates considerably, both from Benzinger and from his production designer, Santo Loquasto.
“Santo finds a little nook someplace and knows that if he hangs one thing, it’ll look like a period ballroom,” Allen says. “And Suzy’s able to get 300 extras in gowns somehow — and Cate Blanchett with Birkin bags and minks that we can’t afford. She makes it happen.”
The skeleton key for Benzinger on “Wonder Wheel” was a former Coney Island lifeguard’s photo album. “It was like opening a little treasure,” she says. “I thought, ‘There’s this character, and there’s that character.”
One of the recurring costumes is the aqua waitress outfit worn by Winslet and, eventually, Temple. “That was a really popular color for waitress uniforms,” Benzinger says. “But we wanted to find something that was also like the beginning of the ’50s — the beginning of optimism after the war. That really brought Woody back.”
Storaro’s work ethic, meanwhile, allowed Loquasto to add density to the world of the film.
“You want to give more sweep to his shots because he likes to take in a lot of visual information,” Loquasto says. “That allows you to pack in as much information within a specific physical limit as possible.”
A key location in “Wonder Wheel” is the apartment of Winslet and her oafish husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi). Conceived as quarters for transients who worked at the amusement park, it has been converted into improvised housing. There’s a notable lack of privacy to the setting. The eponymous Ferris wheel is often seen through the windows, the hustle and bustle of the environment virtually right on top of the viewer.
“It was a voyeuristic space in a way,” Loquasto says. “You were always aware of what was happening outside. That speaks to Ginny’s vulnerability. She was always catching herself in the mirrors and the reflective world of the apartment, and seeing herself aging.”
It all played on what you might think of as the poetic realism of the piece, Loquasto says, echoing Allen’s sentiments. The splashy, vivid setting, notes the director, “may be rides and music and hot dogs and everything looks great, but there’s a world there that’s very, very dramatic. These people are caught up in a terrible world of psychological problems, so I wanted that contrast between their problems and such a charming place.”