“The view is beautiful from the Wonder Wheel, but you’re going no place. It has an element of romance to it, an element of beauty to it, but ultimately, an element of futility.”
Like so many of Woody Allen’s films, Wonder Wheel is a story that involves love and betrayal, telling the story of four characters whose lives intertwine amid the hustle and bustle of the picturesque Coney Island amusement park in the 1950s.
Allen has always had a special fondness for Coney Island, and memorably set the childhood home of Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer under the clattering Cyclone roller coaster. Allen has many happy memories of going there often as a child. “Its heyday was long before I was born, but when I went it was still pretty exciting,” he says. “It always impressed me. There were so many colorful people there, and so many conflicting and complex activities going on, and it was such a vital atmosphere. I thought it would be a very provocative atmosphere to set a dramatic story in.”
Ginny (Kate Winslet), is a melancholy, emotionally volatile former actress now working as a waitress in a clam house; Humpty (Jim Belushi) is Ginny’s rough-hewn carousel operator husband; Mickey (Justin Timberlake) is a handsome young lifeguard who dreams of becoming a playwright; and Carolina (Juno Temple) is Humpty’s long-estranged daughter, who is now hiding out from gangsters at her father’s apartment.
“Whether you’re reading Greek drama, Stendhal, Tolstoy, or Dickens, the love relationships are ever-present, because they cause so many people so much anguish, so much conflict. They lead to so many complex, deep, intense, confusing and dramatic feelings and situations. In particular, I have always been attracted to problems that women have. Over the centuries, the guys tend to be less readily demonstrative about their suffering. The male code is to not show suffering. Like when a batter gets hit by a pitcher, the idea is not to show any pain. Whereas women have always been more open about their emotions. I’ve done mostly comedies, but whenever I’ve turned to a dramatic story, it almost always—not always, but almost—has been about women in critical situations.”
Allen consciously writes his larger-than-life female roles, like Ginny in Wonder Wheel, with the idea of providing challenges that only the most gifted actresses can rise to.
“I try and cast actresses who have enormous range and enormous depth and intensity and I want to try and provide them with opportunities to exercise their great gifts,” he says. “When I’m writing a story, I have a tendency not to write very subtle scenes where emotion is conveyed with the raising of an eyebrow, but to give them much more flamboyant drama that gives an actress a chance to really be emotional.”
Without question, Ginny in Wonder Wheel is the latest in a long line of complex, richly observed and troubled Woody Allen heroines. “I knew I needed a tremendous actress to play her,” says Allen. “There are only a limited number of actresses in the English language that are that deep and that great. Kate Winslet is one of them, and when we started casting, her name came up quickly.”
While Winslet recognized immediately that the role was an extraordinary opportunity, she worried she might not be up to it. “I was terrified because I didn’t know where I would begin,” she says, “and if I failed I would never forgive myself. It was the responsibility of playing someone who was that complex, not wanting her to fall into a cliché in any capacity, always wanting to stay the right side of the line, keep her real, not have her become a caricature in any way at all, and absolutely to keep her grounded in her awful reality.
Woody wanted to hire me and I had to step up to the plate and be the goods that he’d hired, and be the best possible version of those goods that I could find within myself.”
When we first meet Ginny, she is working in a Coney Island clam house, trapped in a loveless marriage, and carrying the remnants of a painful past.
“Ginny had a tough early life,” says Allen. “She scuffled her way up, had illusions about being an actress, and ended up marrying a gentlemen she really loved who loved her, and they had a child. But Ginny couldn’t resist the temptation to have an affair with an actor who was in a show with her, and it caused a complete breakup of her marriage. She realized only when it was too late, the consequences of her infidelity and her actions. Then, she started falling apart, was drinking, and her work suffered.”
Says Winslet: “I think that Ginny believed that she was a good actress and could have had a career were it not for the fact that she ruined her marriage, but I think deep down the reality was that she was never any good. That moment of discovering that actually she was a dreadful actress luckily never came around. In some ways that makes it more tragic.” At this low point in her life, Ginny met Humpty (Jim Belushi), who was suffering himself, because his wife had died and his daughter Carolina had run off and married a local hoodlum. Even though Ginny and Humpty are able to help each other get back on their feet, eventually Ginny realizes that, by marrying Humpty, she has settled into a life that will never satisfy her.
“Now that she’s over the crisis, she starts to understand that she doesn’t really love this man,” says Allen. “He was a rock when she needed it and she helped him get off alcohol, but that’s not what love is—love is what she had with her first husband. And she yearns for something more exciting than the practical aid that she and Humpty have supplied each other. She feels she’s going under and her life is ebbing away.”
Says Winslet: “I think she’s a bit of a lost soul. It’s as though she spent a large part of her life walking on a tightrope, and she’s just fallen one too many times. Now she’s slithering along the tightrope, neither standing nor really falling anymore.”
Jim Belushi portrays Ginny’s aptly named husband Humpty, as like Ginny, he has had difficulty pulling himself together after a fall. “Humpty is very weak to women, and he can’t be alone,” says Belushi. “He lost both of the women in his life at the same time. He was devastated, and it sent him into a drunken spiral. When Ginny turned up, she reached in and pulled him out of that abyss. And now even though he yells and carries on, it’s Ginny who has the control, because he knows he can’t lose her. If he loses Ginny, he’ll die.”
Winslet believes that Ginny also cannot live without Humpty. “She can’t be on her own because she is too vulnerable,” says Winslet. “But what I love about Ginny is that her moments of fragility are extremely raw and very alive. She doesn’t just become this weak, limp little character in a chair. She’s fragile but she’ll always bump through all the bumps in the road—whether she has to skip over them, leap over them, or roll over them, she’ll always keep going.” Ginny is not able to help Richie (Jack Gore), her son from her first marriage, who has begun to act out by setting fires all around Coney Island.
“It’s very sad because on some level Ginny does feel like she’s ruined Richie’s life, and she does feel like it’s all her fault that he’s a moody miserable kid who sets fires. I feel she wants to do more for him, but doesn’t quite know how. She’s so consumed with the guilt that she’s screwed up his life by cheating on his father, that it seems to disable her from being able to parent him.”
The couple’s routine is broken by the unexpected arrival of Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple), who Humpty hasn’t seen or spoken to in five years.
“Carolina was a girl who was, by the local standards, very beautiful,” says Allen. “At some point, a local hoodlum made a play for her and took her to places where the local boys couldn’t take her, and bought her furs and jewels. She was seduced by the glamour and they end up getting married. For a while they have a nice time together, but eventually things started to get more contentious in the marriage, and they broke up. Soon after, the FBI got to her and threatened her, so she told them some things about her ex-husband’s business. At this point, she becomes a target for her ex-husband and his hit men, as she knows too much and they want to get rid of her.”
Says Temple: “I think Carolina was a young, hungry creature who got swept up in a universe that felt fast, wonderful and exciting and made her feel glamorous—almost like a magpie to something that twinkles. There’s a fragility to her that I find magical, but also a naivety, which was dangerous, as she wasn’t wise enough to see the darkness her husband brought into her life along with the glamour.”
Fearing for her life, and with no other place to go, Carolina reaches out to Humpty, reasoning that, as her ex-husband knows how bitter her relationship is with her father, his home is the last place he would search for her. “I’m not sure it’s the safest plan, but I don’t think she had any other option,” says Temple. “But maybe it was also the subconscious, or even conscious, feeling that her father would protect her, as she was the apple of his eye when she was young. I think she goes into it with a childlike feeling that he will hopefully take her back, but she has no idea what she’s going to walk in on, and doesn’t necessarily think about the consequences that her arrival might bring to him. I think, in her innocence, her eyes tend to look on the bright side of life, and look forward and not backward.”
While Humpty is initially unwilling to forgive Carolina, he quickly softens. “With Carolina, Humpty has a much richer, deeper love than he’s experiencing with Ginny,” says Belushi. “As soon as she arrives, it is like—boom!—he is filled with hope, love and purpose again. He has a second chance in life. From then on, it becomes all about saving extra money so that Carolina can go to night school and have a better life.”
Ginny does not appreciate Humpty’s reactivated passion. “I think she gets annoyed with Humpty because she’s seeing a side of him that she’s never seen before,” says Winslet. “If Humpty can be that adoring of his daughter, why has he never been that adoring of Ginny? He’s never doted on her and adored her the way that he does with Carolina. Humpty doesn’t need much to keep him happy. When Carolina comes along, suddenly his very small world is complete, but Ginny wants so much more.”
Ginny’s deliverance comes in the form of Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a handsome young former sailor working the summer as a lifeguard on Coney Island Beach, preparing to get his Masters in drama in the fall at New York University.
“Mickey’s great wish is to be a playwright,” says Timberlake. “He looks up to all the classic pieces of art that have come through that world in the theatre. Because of his aspirations, he really likes to observe, and clock the humanity of what’s going on around him. I think that somewhere in his mind, he believes the people he’s observing are going to become the characters of the great play he’ll write one day.”
Mickey is also the narrator of Wonder Wheel. “I think as the movie progresses, I think you start to question how reliable a narrator Mickey is,” says Timberlake. “Because he clearly sees all these people that he is intertwined with in a very specific way. That is the just the way he sees them. Like the old saying that there’s three sides to every story: the two sides, and then there’s the truth, which is probably somewhere in between.”
One person Mickey pays special attention to is Ginny, as he spies her walking forlornly on the beach. He tunes into her dramatic melancholy immediately and finds it oddly appealing.
“Mickey is a hopeless romantic, and as an aspiring playwright, he finds flaws beautiful,” says Timberlake. “That night he tells Ginny that there’s something tragic about her, and I think he means that as a sort of compliment, like, ‘yeah, and that makes you incredibly sexy to me.’ But I think he falls more in love with the tragedy of Ginny than with Ginny herself. He likes that she’s in emotional peril.”
Says Allen: “Mickey’s in love with the mystique of writing, of living in the village, of having an affair with or maybe even marrying an older woman. All these romantic notions of a struggling writer are appealing to him, as he tends to romanticize everything. I wouldn’t call that a tragic flaw; it may even be an endearing flaw. The saddest part of his life is that he’s probably not going to be the author that he wants to be. My guess is that Mickey will make a couple of attempts at writing and maybe there’ll be some mediocre things he turns out, but he’s not destined to be Euripides or Eugene O’Neill.”
Up until she meets Mickey, Ginny had managed a life without hope, with a little help from headache pills and an occasional nip from a whiskey bottle hidden under the sink, but encountering him upends everything. “Once she has Mickey in her life, the great dormant volcano that is Ginny is cracked open again,” says Winslet.
“Mickey represents a world that she had dreamed of in her wildest dreams. He’s a real thing, she didn’t invent him: they are making love; he is whispering sweet nothings to her; they are meeting under the boardwalk in the rain; and he is reciting great prose to her. She actually begins to believe that maybe she can have another life, one that Mickey seems to promise her. I think she does have moments of very real hope.”
Everything changes after Ginny unwittingly introduces Mickey to Carolina and he instantly taken by her.
“Mickey believes in love at first sight, and he falls really hard for Carolina,” says Timberlake. “In the short time they spend together, as she peels layers back for him, the more he hears about her life, the more he becomes fascinated with the chances that she took at such a young age because she felt like she was in love with somebody. I think that’s where he goes, ‘Oh wait. We’re more alike than I knew.’”
“There’s a passion inside Mickey and I think Carolina has got that too,” says Temple. “He’s an artist and he represents a new kind of glamour for her, which is coming from books and plays and conversations about far-off places. Her receiving a book from him tickles something in her that is a new excitement, and she likes being wooed by him. I think he’s a very good wooer—he did it with Ginny and now he’s doing it with Carolina.”
Ginny’s awareness of Mickey’s growing infatuation with Carolina provokes an intense reaction within her. “She hasn’t experienced great jealousy before and I think it takes her by surprise,” says Winslet. “I think she’s really consumed by both the feeling of jealousy itself as well as the awareness that it’s setting her off kilter. Then the jealousy does set in big time, and it makes her crazy. There are no other words for it—it makes her crazy.”
Winslet found portraying the swings of Ginny’s mercurial personality to be all-consuming. “She demanded so much of me that in a very strange way I played second fiddle and Ginny really took over,” says Winslet.
“There are things that are so violently shaky inside of her that the way she thought and functioned was exhausting. It was almost like I was trapped in fight or flight mode. It was like 24 hour theatre. I really did feel like I had a battery in me somewhere and I had to keep permanently on charge. But still, there’s nothing about the experience of making this film— including the fear and the stress of it all—that I didn’t like. I loved that feeling of being utterly wrung out, challenged, and bled dry. It was the single most exhilarating filming experience I’ve ever had.”
Whatever Winslet put herself through to play the role, Allen found her to be a picture of control on the set. “If there was a beat in a scene or an emotion in a scene that I needed, or if I would give her a correction, she instantly gave back exactly what I was looking for in a very deep way,” says Allen. “It was amazing. I said to her it was like having a nuclear weapon at your disposal. 12 She could do anything and she did it quickly and superbly. All you had to do is be clear to her what you wanted and you got it. Most of the time, I never even had to be clear to her—she read the script and she got it. If she had a question or two, she’d ask me. I was not going to interfere with what makes Kate Winslet great, unless I had to.”
Says Winslet: “If a scene was not going well Woody would go, ‘Stop, we’ve got to fix this’ and then he would say, ‘Now how do I direct you out of this hole I’ve written you into?’ We would laugh and then we would figure it out.”
Allen sees Justin Timberlake as being in the mode of the old fashioned Hollywood movie star, in the best sense. “If these were the 1930s or 40s or 50s, he would have been right there with the Gables and the Bogarts,” says Allen. “That would have been his milieu. He lights up the screen whenever you put the camera on him. Justin has it all. He’s a first-rate actor and he’s completely believable as a lifeguard and a heartthrob to the women on the beach.”
Timberlake also expresses pleasure with working with Allen. “Woody has his own process,” says Timberlake. “It’s fast and there’s not a lot of coverage. He does very long takes and you get about two to five shots at every scene. At first it was really intimidating, but, after awhile, I found it really freeing and fun, because I didn’t have to worry about matching what I did before. And this caused me to keep discovering things. I felt like I was acting in a play with a group of really gifted and talented actors beside me.”
Allen first noticed Jim Belushi in Ed Zwick’s 1986 film About Last Night… “At the time I said, ‘Who is that guy?’” says Allen. “‘He’s an extremely good actor, as strong as can be on the screen and he’s touching. I said, ‘Maybe someday I’ll give him a call.’ Now we cut to thirty years later and I’m thinking, ‘Who would be perfect for Humpty?’ and asked him to come in. I could tell after five minutes with him, that he would make a wonderful Humpty. I think he will surprise a lot of people with this. I think they’re going to be surprised at what a tremendous actor he is, so full of emotion, full of reality and full of feeling.”
Says Belushi: “Woody gives you a lot of room. I worked for three months before shooting, memorizing every comma in the script, but when I got to set he said, ‘These are writer’s words. You do what you want to make the words your own. In the end, I only changed a few things here and there, but he was lovely to work with, and very funny to be around.”
Allen looked at numerous actresses for the role of Carolina but couldn’t find somebody who had what he was looking for until casting director Patricia DiCerto brought in a tape of British actress Juno Temple. “Juno came through brilliantly for me,” says Allen. “She is a very touching and real actress, and she had all the elements to play the character. First, she was pretty and sexy enough to be the apple of the eye in a real life situation, yet she wasn’t this Hollywood glamorous beauty like Marilyn Monroe who you’d never believe would have any problems in Coney Island or any place else. And second, she didn’t come off as too refined. I’m sure Juno can play “Masterpiece Theater” type roles, but here she was able to play a kind of lower class, Coney Island denizen.”
Like her colleagues, Temple recognized Allen’s unique directorial approach. “Woody does not give a huge amount of feedback, but when he does it’s very profound and on-point,” she says. “The long, fluid scenes we did were choreographed like dances with dialogue, and he was very specific about where he wants people to land because of how it fills the frame. Sometimes he would just want you to move a foot to the left for a certain piece of lighting.” Temple says there was great comradery on set among the actors. “Everybody was in the same boat of wanting to do the best with this incredible material and also to really support everyone else. We ran lines together in between takes and sometimes in the evenings, and guided each other through it. When you trust your co-stars, you are able to give it all you’ve got, and I really felt that all of us did that.”
While the film is called Wonder Wheel because of the Coney Island amusement park ride always visible from the family home, the title also has a metaphoric resonance.
“The same behaviors keep going around and around for these characters,” says Belushi. “As much as Humpty wants to change, as much as Ginny wants to change, they keep going through their same patterns. It’s a vicious cycle of their lives and their co-dependencies, and they can’t break out.”
Says Allen: “It’s probably true that you can extrapolate some kind of symbol for life from any amusement park ride. Either you’re on the Wonder Wheel going inexorably round and round as life turns meaninglessly, or you’re riding a carousel trying to catch that brass ring that you’ll never really get, or you’re on the rollercoaster. You get the idea. The view is beautiful from the Wonder Wheel, but you’re going no place. It has an element of romance to it, an element of beauty to it, but ultimately, an element of futility.”