Woody Allen has been writing, directing and acting in movies since 1965 when he wrote and starred in What’s New Pussycat? The rest is cinematic history.
His latest movie You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, once again examines the troubled relationships of a group of individuals. Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) leaves his wife of 40 years, Helena (Gemma Jones), for a free-spirited call girl named Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Alfie and Helena’s daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts) and her husband Roy (Josh Brolin) are having their own difficulties, she has a crush on her art gallery owner boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas), while Roy becomes infatuated with Dia (Frieda Pinto), a mystery woman he sees through a nearby window.
Allen spoke with the press, in New York, about his new movie, and his endlessly negative perceptions of life.
This movie reminded me of your film Interiors – do you see similarities?
This film was an attempt to deal with the same subject but to do it in a more comic way than in Interiors. It’s still the inability of people to relate to one another, people needing some kind of certainty in life, people deluding themselves into some sense that there’s some purpose to life, or that there’s some extra meaning to life, when in fact it’s a meaningless experience.
Yet in the end, faith in anything at all is better than no faith at all. These are all the same subjects as Interiors but here the characters play them with more humor.
How much does your choice of location change your writing process or the way you view your characters?
I’m constantly rewriting the script for the locations. A good example of that is, Annie Hall I wrote the character lives in Flatbush in Brooklyn, and his father’s a cab driver. Then I was with my art director and we were scouting in Brooklyn and we saw this apartment under the rollercoaster and I thought it was great.
I quickly rewrote that he was born in an apartment underneath the rollercoaster and his father was not a cab driver, his father worked in Coney Island and had a concession (stand), and the whole thing was changed completely. I’ve done that a hundred times over the years, because you can’t anticipate when you’re writing in the room the riches that you come across when you’re location hunting for a movie.
I read that Naomi Watts never met you until she walked onto the set, and you exchanged a brief hello and she began acting. Do you feel that’s the best way to bring the best performances out of the actor, or do you ever do rehearsals beforehand?
I myself don’t like to speak to the actors at all. I like to hire great people and let them do their thing. I don’t want to have lunch with them, I don’t want to socialize with them, I don’t like to hear their ideas. Josh wanted to play his part in a wheelchair. Of course he can’t play the part in a wheelchair, but when you talk to actors they are thinking about acting. They decide to play it as a hunchback and they’re going to grow a beard, so the less I speak to the actors the better.
I always hire great people and I don’t want to impose my preconceived notions on them. They know how to play it. Lucy knew how to play it, that was a character she created. I wrote the character, but what you’re seeing on the screen is her creation.
She moved like her, spoke like her, I didn’t know the nuances of that when I wrote it, I just wrote the cold lines in the room. The same for Gemma, these people infused it with what has made them wonderful actors and actresses.
I didn’t know Naomi Watts at all. She’s been a wonderful actress for years, and I saw no reason to meet her. She had nothing to say to me and what am I going to tell her? She knows how to act. She read the part; she said she was going to do it, so she must know what it is.
She came in that morning and we said hello, the usual exchange of insincerities, ‘I’m a great fan of your movies,’ and ‘Yes, and I love all your films,’ and all that nonsense. Then she had her hardest scene in the picture.
She just started off cold and did the scene where she confronts Gemma and wants the money for her business, and Gemma is not going to give her the money, because the medium has advised her not to. And that was a very strongly acted scene between the two women. For me, that’s the best way to work
If there’s nothing to believe in, why make films?
I work all the time because it’s a great distraction and it keeps me from sitting home and obsessing morbidly. If I just got up in the morning and had no place to go, and was retired, I’d start thinking, ‘What’s the purpose of life? Why do we get old and die? Is there nothing out there?’ Who wants to think about that stuff? So I’m thinking about, ‘Gee, if I call Josh Brolin, will he be available for this? Is Gemma the perfect person for this role?’
These are all problems that you can solve, and it makes you feel like you have some control of your life. And if you don’t solve them, if it turns out one of them is wrong, what’s the worse that can happen, you have a bad movie but you don’t die!
After all you’ve achieved is there anything that you have a burning desire to accomplish in the future?
I’d like to make a great movie. I’ve made many movies, I think I’ve made some good movies, but I’ve never felt I’ve made a great movie. If you think about the truly great movies, like The Bicycle Thief, 8 ½ and Grand Illusion, I don’t think I’ve ever made a film that could be on a program with those films.
Those are really enormous achievements, and I’d like to make something like that. That would be fun, but you can’t set out to do that. You get lucky and if you work enough maybe one of them turns out to be terrific. So far that hasn’t happened.