A word with Woody
“It’s a terrible, terrible business.” Holed up in his personal editing suite in Manhattan, Woody Allen tells Michael Dwyerabout his 40-plus years in film, the movies he’s most proud of, why Oscars don’t interest him, the attractions of film-making in Ireland, and how children have changed both his life and his work
ON AN unseasonably warm February afternoon in New York, Woody Allen is ensconced in his office suite on the ground floor of a towering apartment building in Manhattan, the borough to which he has sent many heartfelt cinematic valentines. Nearby is the home he shares with his wife Soon-Yi and their two children, whose importance is his life becomes evident throughout our conversation.
The office includes his editing suite and private screening room, a facility most film-makers would not need for their exclusive use unless, like Allen, they are so productive that their output amounts to a new movie every year.
For somebody once regarded as publicity-shy, Woody Allen is warm and welcoming, thoroughly relaxed and on expansive form. I recall when we first met during the summer of 1991 at the Park Hotel in Kenmare, Co Kerry, and talk turns to the Irish actors who have starred in his movies since then: Liam Neeson ( Husbands and Wives) and more recently, Jonathan Rhys Meyers ( Match Point) and Colin Farrell ( Cassandra’s Dream).
“Liam is a great performer,” Allen says. “He’s an actor who’s incapable of an unreal moment. Everything he does, whether he’s in Schindler’s Listor my New York romantic movie, he just nails it all the time.
“Jonathan and Colin gave fine performances in my films – very sensitive. I didn’t know Jonathan was Irish when I cast him, so we made his character an Irishman. He’s a wonderful actor and I’d love to think of something for him to do again, maybe in a film with Colin. There would be a lot of emotion there with the two of them.”
“IF SOMEONE OFFERED TO PUT UP THE MONEY FOR ME TO SHOOT IN IRELAND, I’M SURE I COULD THINK OF A STORY”
Having made four consecutive European productions after decades of working almost entirely in the US, Allen says he would happily make a movie in Ireland.
“I’m willing to shoot in any place that finances my films. That’s why I went to Barcelona and London for my most recent films. And Ireland happens to be a very good place to shoot because the weather is cool and grey and the country is very photogenic. When I was shooting in Barcelona, we had to fight the sunshine all the time. That wouldn’t happen in Ireland.
“If someone offered to put up the money for me to shoot in Ireland, I’m sure I could think of a story.
“I’ve been asked a few times if I could do a movie in Argentina, but I’ve never been there, so I’ve no idea where I could begin to think about making a movie there. Whereas I’ve been to Ireland a few times and I think it’s a very viable location. And there have been some wonderful films shot in Ireland.
“I couldn’t have been able to afford to make a film like Vicky Cristina Barcelonain New York City. I work on a very limited budget, but I can’t afford to work here too easily, so I have to go places where I can afford to film. I could raise more money here, but that would bring in people who would ask questions and it’s best to keep them out of it. I’d rather work for less money.
“If you let in the money people, they feel entitled to give you input – and they have no credentials whatsoever to give you input. I’ve never had to work that way. People have approached me with many ridiculous ideas, and I’ve had many of my own, but I’ve never had to ask anyone can I cast this person or that.”
“SCARLETT IS ONE OF MY DREAM WOMEN. YOU CAN GIVE HER ANYTHING TO DO”
Allen has gravitated towards the same actresses at different phases in his career – his former off-screen partners, Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, and now Scarlett Johansson, whose role as Cristina in Vicky Cristina Barcelonais her third out of Allen’s last four films.
“Scarlett is one of my dream women. She’s a great actress and very beautiful. You can give her anything to do and she’ll do it. I was very lucky to get her for Match Point. I thought she was a little young for that part. She was only 19 at the time. I had cast Kate Winslet, but Kate dropped out because she wanted to spend more time with her babies, and I completely understood that. Scarlett was available at very short notice, so I made the character a little younger. I was lucky to get her, and that was the start of a nice relationship.
“Rebecca Hall, who plays Vicky, amazed me. I never knew she existed until Juliet Taylor, my casting director, told me I just had to meet her. Juliet showed me some film of her and then Rebecca came in and she was exactly what I wanted.
“The film was fun to make because I had such talented actors doing my script. When your script comes to life that way, it’s a treat for the author.”
Completing the principal cast of Vicky Cristina Barcelonaare Spanish actors Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, who has said that “working with Woody Allen is like having jewels in your mouth”.
“Javier probably means that I let him say his own lines all the time. I encouraged the actors to improvise as much as they wanted, especially Javier and Penélope in the scenes where they speak in Spanish. I don’t know any Spanish, but I could tell from what they were doing with their bodies that the emotions looked right, even though I didn’t know exactly what they were saying. I had great trust in them as actors to do the right thing.”
“I CAN’T VOTE BECAUSE I’M NOT A MEMBER OF THE ACADEMY. I’M NOT A JOINER”
Cruz is the 15th actor to get an Oscar nomination for one of Allen’s movies. “I hire very good people,” he says. Will Allen vote for Cruz, or will he vote at all, given that he stayed in New York to play jazz with his band on the night he won three Oscars for Annie Hall? “I can’t vote because I’m not a member of the academy”. By choice? “Yes. I’m not a joiner.”
Allen is editing his new movie Whatever Works, his first American movie in five years, which is set for US release in June. It’s a comedy featuring Larry David (from Curb Your Enthusiasm), Evan Rachel Wood ( The Wrestler) and Patricia Clarkson ( Vicky Cristina Barcelona).
“I can tell you that Larry David is hilarious in it. He kept saying: ‘I can’t act. I can only do that thing I do on television’. But when it came time to act, and particularly to do the complicated, heavy and unfunny scenes, he did them just beautifully. And of course, the jokes he did effortlessly.
“I guess we are on the same wavelength when it comes to humour. We both come from the same neighbourhood in Brooklyn and this is the third movie of mine he’s been in (after Radio Daysand New York Storiesin the late 1980s). I think he likes my stuff and I certainly like his.”
Evan Rachel Wood has said that Whatever Worksis closer to Mighty Aphroditethan any other Allen picture.
“She said that? My God! I can’t see any similarity whatsoever between the two movies – not a remote similarity. It’s interesting how a person can see a movie so differently. I remember when my sister saw Hannah and Her Sistersand she thought it was closer to Sleeperthan my other movies. I told her she must be crazy, that there was no comparison between the two. Yet she saw some similarity there, although nobody else in the world did. And I don’t think there’s another human on the face of the earth who will find the most remote similarity between Whatever Worksand Mighty Aphrodite.”
“PEOPLE THINK I’M A WORKAHOLIC, BUT NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH ... I’M A LOAFER”
At 74, Allen shows no signs of slowing down, and Whatever Worksis his 39th feature as screenwriter and director in 40 years.
“If you’re lucky and your health holds out, there’s no reason to stop working. It doesn’t matter if you’re 25 or 30, or 75 or 80. Of course, someone who works all the time has a certain fluctuation. Not every film is as good as every other film. Some are better. Some are worse. Some try for something and miss. Some try for something and make it. I have a few that I like more than others. I like The Purple Rose of Cairoa lot. I like Husbands and Wivesand Zelig,and I like Match Point a lot.
“It’s not hard to do a movie every year. A year is a long time to do a movie. It takes a few months to write it, a few months to shoot it and another few months to finish it, and you still haven’t used up a year. It’s not that big a deal. When I’m writing, I’m very disciplined, but it doesn’t feel like discipline because I enjoy it.
“So I get up in the morning, take the kids to school, come back, do some exercises and then I write for some hours – maybe three, maybe 10 hours. If you keep working, you can get a lot accomplished, but I’ve a lot of leisure time. People think I’m a workaholic, but nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t work hard at all. If anything, I’m lazy. I’m a loafer. I spend a ton of time playing with my kids, going to games or watching sports on television, going to movies and playing my clarinet.”
Every Monday night when he’s not shooting a new movie, Allen continues to play jazz in a seven-piece band at the Carlyle hotel on East 76th Street in Manhattan.
“We play New Orleans jazz and we mix it up every time. When we go on a European tour and we’re playing a different city every night for two weeks, we play two hours a night and we don’t usually repeat what we did the night before. We have a vast repertoire of blues and hymns and ragtime. We usually do the tour around Christmas time because that’s when my kids get off from school and I can’t go without them.”
Why not put Dublin on the itinerary next time? “That’s true. We’ve never played Dublin. I would love to do that.”
Allen is already planning his 40th feature film, to be shot in London this summer and featuring Josh Brolin and Anthony Hopkins.
“I’ve no idea what the title will be. I never title my movies until I see them. I don’t like to give a film an aggressive title if I then feel the film doesn’t come out too well, because then I feel like a double fool. If a film doesn’t look good to me, I try to give it a soft title rather than something that’s arrogant or confident.”
He never watches his movies after he has completed them. Does he share what his Stardust Memoriescharacter called “Ozymandias melancholy”, the sadness of looking at a body of work and believing it won’t last?
“That’s a prevalent malady for thinking artists. It’s not so much a policy of mine as it is do with self-preservation. I don’t like to see a film after there is nothing more I can do about it. It’s then that you really start to see the flaws. When it’s too late to fix anything, all you can think about are the flaws. It’s not like a play.”
“KIDS TAKE PRIORITY OVER EVERYTHING”
When we met in 1991, I referred to the penultimate scene in Manhattan when Allen’s character, Ike Davis, lists the reasons why he finds life worth living, among them Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of the Jupiter symphony, Swedish movies, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education.
When I asked him then what he would add to that list, he replied: “Without a doubt, what I would add to the list is children.” Would you add anything else now? “No. Kids have been the major feature of my life since then. When I wrote ManhattanI didn’t have any children. Even though my character had a child in that movie, I had no sense of how a parent really feels towards a child.
“Someone wrote me a letter after seeing the movie and said I didn’t mention my character’s kid. I realised she was right. Because I didn’t have any kids, it would never have occurred to me that the kid would be one of reasons that made life worthwhile. To me, that kid was a fiction in the movie. Now that I have kids, they take priority over everything.”
Do his children watch his films? “They haven’t seen any of them. One is nine and a half years old and one is eight and a half. For one thing, I don’t have any DVDs of my movies at home and I don’t encourage them to get involved in my public persona. I like to bring them up as normal kids and I hope they don’t go into show business. I want them to become professional people – you know, doctors, lawyers, diplomats.”
ON HIS CAREER:
“THERE WAS NOTHING ELSE I COULD DO. IF I DIDN’T DO WHAT I DID, I WOULD HAVE BEEN A CAB DRIVER LIKE MY FATHER”
Allen himself was only in his mid-teens when he began sending unsolicited one-liner gags to newspapers and magazines.
“I’ve no regrets because I had nothing else to offer. I was very lucky that I had some talent and succeeded at it. Most people who want to do it don’t succeed. It’s a terrible, terrible business if you fail at it. If you’re mid-level, it’s not a great business because you’re always going for auditions and hoping to get jobs and being disappointed.
“It’s a constant battle. If you make it, if you’re Meryl Streep or Barbra Streisand, then it’s great. Then you can work and it’s a pleasure. If you don’t really make it, it’s a lousy business, and I don’t want my kids to try it because the odds are really huge.
“It was different for me because there was nothing else I could do. I was thrown out of school, so I couldn’t have been an economist or a doctor. If I didn’t do what I did, I would have been a cab driver like my father, or a messenger. I had no skills or no inclination towards anything else.”