Shooting: Oct. 25 - Feb. 24
Theatrical Release: Nov. 19, 04
Theatrical Release: Dec. 29, 04
Theatrical Release: Dec. 29, 04
Theatrical Release (UK): May 13, 2005
Shooting: March 05
Shooting: Summer 05Additional projects: proceed
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Holly // WOODY ALLEN SUMMER PROJECT (2005)
Why I love London
from The Observer, August 8, 2004, by Simon Garfield
He's famous for being an angst-ridden workaholic who never steps outside his beloved New York. But in this exclusive interview, Woody Allen talks about spending this summer filming in London - and how he's never been so happy
'You have such beautiful skies,' Woody Allen said last week at the completion of another scene in another film, 'when they're overcast.' Allen and his crew had been looking up at the skies above West Kensington all morning, hoping for cloud. They were at Queen's Club, surrounded by the lush tennis courts and white-cottoned members trying not to appear too interested as a small 68-year-old man in a frayed green baseball cap moved among them. 'I never shoot in the sun if I can help it because everything looks much better without it,' the director continued. 'The sun has been the bane of my existence.'
Allen's crew wear laminated passes bearing the letters WASP 04 - the Woody Allen Summer Project, the 36th such project in his career. They have filmed in Belgravia and the Fulham Road, in St James's Park and Tate Modern, and everywhere they've been people are thrilled to see them. Passers-by ring up friends on their mobiles: Woody Allen filming in our street! Scarlett Johansson looking beautiful! Woody much smaller in real life! 'Occasionally people ask me for autographs and I give them,' the recipient of this adulation says. 'People are so nice to me. If only everyone who is so keen to see me would go to see my movies!'
WASP 04 is still a mystery, even to those on set. Allen will only say who's in it (Johansson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode) and what it's vaguely about, which turns out to be the same as almost all his other movies - human relationships and their consequences. In his famous style, the actors only get to see their own scenes, and the producers even less. As the only person who knows quite what film he is trying to make, Allen says he is happy with progress, 'but I hope it's not just that the English voices are so beautiful to my ear that they cover a multitude of my sins.'
He fears that the same speeches read by an American cast would be pedestrian. 'To hear Jonathan Rhys-Meyers do them or Brian Cox or Penelope Wilton - they sound like what we've grown up in America to consider as acting and theatre at its highest. And Scarlett is of course just a natural great actress. She can do no wrong, incapable of a bad moment. Very sexy, very pretty. She was just touched by God.'
We talk while the sun is out - 10 minutes here, 15 there - on a sequence of benches, director's chairs and catering buses. Allen walks slowly between each spot, and speaks gently and with great conviction. When he is filming, he occasionally crouches down to peer through a lens, but otherwise watches over the cameraman's shoulder with the day's script tightly rolled in his hand, as if he is about to swat flies. He does not bellow 'And... action !' at any point; the working day progresses organically, merging from set-up to camera-roll in smooth order, with hushed conversations among his technicians between scenes. On this day in West London, precisely halfway through a seven-week schedule, it is as if nothing is riding on the film at all.
If only this were so. The paying public and large parts of the film business have fallen out of love with Woody Allen's art, if not his person. With each new film they see a diminishing of talents. Allen peps up his work with the leading young actors of the day, and he injects the usual one-liners and angsty philosophies, but he is regularly regarded as a lost cause, a man who has spent the last decade grimly failing to reproduce the great achievements of his career - Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Husbands and Wives - some of which defined an era, some of which just defined the best imaginable way to spend a Saturday night.
It's not that Small Time Crooks or Sweet and Lowdown or Mighty Aphrodite are bad films - how much more entertaining they are than most teen and disaster movies - it's just that they don't fill us with the joy that they used to, and we don't tend to quote from them. Every year a hopeful critic jumps out from the page to proclaim The Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Hollywood Ending 'a magnificent return to form', but theirs is a minority voice. It may be his age, it may be exhaustion, it may be the lack of someone around him to say, 'Whoa, one movie every two years is enough for anyone!' Or it may be that he no longer has the power to grasp and ridicule the concerns of our times. But what if most people are wrong? What if his best work is still to come?
I have met Allen twice before, but have never seen him with such an assured outlook on life. He says he loves being in London, his wife and two children are either out at the sights or in the pool of his rented house, and he is serious when he says that he finds the on-set catering to be better than in New York. His own opinion of his current standing in the film world is instructive.
'In the United States things have changed a lot, and it's hard to make good small films now,' he says. 'There was a time in the 1950s when I wanted to be a playwright, because until that time movies, which mostly came out of Hollywood, were stupid and not interesting. Then we started to get wonderful European films, and American films started to grow up a little bit, and the industry became more fun to work in than the theatre. I loved it. But now it's taken a turn in the other direction and studios are back in command and are not that interested in pictures that make only a little bit of money. When I was younger, every week we'd get a Fellini or a Bergman or a Godard or Truffaut, but now you almost never get any of that. Filmmakers like myself have a hard time. The avaricious studios couldn't care less about good films - if they get a good film they're twice as happy, but money-making films are their goal. They only want these $100 million pictures that make $500m.
'That's why I'm happy to work in London, because I'm right back in the same kind of liberal creative attitude that I'm used to.'
I wonder if there was a time recently when he found the situation he describes too painful to endure? 'Yes. In the last couple of years I've thought about if I do really want to function in the film business the way I did when I started. When I started, there was a great joy in wanting to make a film and knowing there was a huge audience out there - not huge, but a special audience, and I would try to appeal to that audience if I could.
'You felt part of something. Now, you know, I don't really care that much. There's no real prestigious film industry, there's no real cultivated film industry. All new young directors are smitten by what they see, and they are smitten by special effects and blockbusters and they all want to make those kind of pictures. OK, not all - 98 per cent. Maybe if I can get a situation in the United States where someone will work the way I want to work I'll do it. If not, I'll make another film in Europe... or I'll work in the theatre.'
In October he will direct his own play, Second-Hand Memory in New York. 'It doesn't have to be films,' he says of his future career. 'There's no film community I really care to be a part of.'
For the time being he perseveres, often to the consternation of his greatest fans. Why does he work so hard? 'Why not?' he replies with some bewilderment. 'What does one do in the world? I read books, listen to music, I watch sports, and there's plenty of time to work. What else would I do? When my grandmother was old she used to just sit by the window all day and look out at people. That seems to me boring. Life is a meaningless grind, so... you know... One film a year really isn't a big deal. There's plenty of time to do all this stuff, and plenty of time for my family and to go to the basketball game and take walks and go to dinner every night. Tonight I'll go see the dailies, yesterday's work, and hopefully it will be good. I'll go home, play with the kids, my wife and I will go out to a nice restaurant for dinner, go to sleep...'
Allen says he has all but given up on his ambitions to make a masterpiece, something that may be ranked against Kurosawa and his dead European idols. 'I've resigned myself,' he says. 'I'm functioning within the parameters of my mediocrity.' He maintains that he never sees any of his films after they leave the editing room, and that he remains vaguely unhappy with all of them; they never turn out the way he had hoped when he first sketched out his ideas in his bedroom. Surely not Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters ?
'You know, I tried to buy Manhattan back, because I was disappointed with it and I wished I could get them not to release it and I'd do a free film for them, which is what I offered them. But other people loved it, so I can't really tell myself.'
We walk towards some lunch. I tell him there is lamb today, and swordfish steaks. He says he may go for something more spartan. As he constructs a tiny mixed salad in a polystyrene bowl I wonder if he is glad that Manhattan appeared after all. 'Yes, because it was such a big success. I always think with films like that that I got away with something. I think, "It's interesting, they really don't see what the problem is..."'
Allen says he feels the same when people pay to hear him play New Orleans jazz on his clarinet. Last weekend he travelled with his band to perform three concerts in Germany, and this weekend he's in Spain and Monaco for a Red Cross gala in the presence of Prince Albert. 'I have improved, but I've improved within the parameters of no talent. I don't say this with false modesty. I'm a strict amateur, with no ear, but people come to see me because I'm a celebrity from the movies. I would starve to death in a week if I had to do it without being a celebrity. I go into these 2,000- or 3,000-seat venues and I sell them out. Jazz musicians who are truly miraculous go in and don't have anything near that kind of thing, so obviously it's got nothing to do with the quality of my playing.'
He fears that his fame may also work against him. 'I tried to write a novel,' he says. 'And I finished it. But I didn't want to have a novel out there that would be regarded as the work of a celebrity. I didn't want it looked down upon or embraced because it had a celebrity name. I wanted to write a novel that could hold its own with professional novels, and I didn't think that this could, so I have it in my drawer. I just didn't think it was good enough.'
His assistant joins us at the back of the catering bus, asking whether it's OK if a driver can bring someone to the set. 'That is OK,' Allen says, 'but I need something more to eat.' He holds up his bowl. 'These turned out to be cucumbers but I thought they were something else. Can I get a piece of bread, a nice dry piece of brown bread, a few more tomatoes?'
'A candy bar?' his assistant asks.
'No, I don't want a candy bar. If there's anything else in the vegetable family...'
I wondered about the title for his London film. He said that when he writes in his bedroom he too refers to his new movie as the Woody Allen Spring / Summer / Fall Project. 'It's never that I'm hiding the titles. When I have them, I always give them out. But when a film is over then I want to see what title feels best, and what title best leads the audience to that material. I've had all the people working for me trying to think of titles. Sometimes it comes right to the wire and we panic.' On one film he came up with the title Anhedonia. 'They thought it was too obscure a word; it means the inability to experience pleasure. People said, it's a lovely movie, but if they see the title Anhedonia they won't be interested at all. So finally, not even two weeks before we were ready to make the ads we thought, OK: Annie Hall.'
The appearance of one Woody Allen title each year has remained the only constant in a decade of flux. The last 10 years have been one of dramatic personal and professional upheaval for Allen: he split from his partner Mia Farrow and married her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. They adopted two children. Both his parents died. He endured a painful legal battle with his long-time producer Jean Doumanian. He even changed his jazz musicians.
He talks of these events with protective nonchalance, but once there was a period when his career, or at least his reputation, seemed over, those months when Mia Farrow accused him of child neglect and people assumed he was sleeping with his daughter. One thing was clear even before the courts ruled on custody: Woody could never really play Woody again.
'I never give it any thought,' he claims. 'It never meant anything to me. I just function, and the tabloids do their work, and it never had any direct bearing on my life. It didn't make my pictures do better or worse. It didn't make me happy or unhappy. As a newspaper reader you could read about it every day, but there was nothing really happening. If you were in it, it was kind of boring.
'I consider myself incredibly lucky,' he continues. 'I have an ideal marriage and great kids. My parents both died peacefully. I was disappointed that I had a falling-out with my former producer because she was a friend, but it's not a brain tumour - that's the worst thing that could happen to either one of us.'
Several times during our meeting Allen mentioned how grateful he was to have his health, and he did look for wood to touch. His father lived beyond 100, his mother to her mid-nineties, so the great screen hypochondriac has genes on his side. 'My hearing is a little worse,' he says, 'and my eyesight is a little worse, but I'm in reasonably decent physical shape. But growing older you never like, because it's sadder, because you're getting closer to dying, and who wants that?'
Last week Anything Else opened to the usual mixed reviews. It's an intriguing film, in which Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci take the roles Allen would once have written for himself. Allen plays a paranoid crank who may also be a visionary, a gag-writer who advises everyone to carry a rifle and water-purifying tablets and a torch that floats in water. It is a part that for once no one can mistake for autobiography: he drives a red Porsche and wants to move to LA. But it may be autobiographical in other ways. Anything Else is rather an optimistic picture, despite the apocalyptic jokes: the Jason Biggs character cleanses his life of pretence and disastrous relationships and moves on to some sort of contentment. I went to see it on the first Sunday evening following its release - and there were only about 30 others in the cinema.
The real buzz is for his next film, completed not long before he arrived in London and already being lined up for the autumn film festivals. He describes Melinda and Melinda as both a dramatic and comic film, telling the same story from two perspectives. It features Will Ferrell, ChloŰ Sevigny, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Radha Mitchell, the latter replacing Winona Ryder at the eleventh hour and tipped by Allen for great things. In WASP 04, Scarlett Johansson replaced Kate Winslet shortly before shooting began, a switch that required the character to change nationality. 'It was not a problem,' Allen says. 'It took about an hour.'
As we relocate for the fourth time I ask Allen what he enjoys most about filmmaking, and he says 'not the filming. I like the writing and the editing. When I get bored with writing, I can stop and finish the next day, and when I'm editing I have my own private room in New York, I have all my music, and it could be 95 degrees outside or zero, and I'm functioning.'
What he likes most about filming is the improvement actors bring to his scripts. 'There is a lot of improvisation. I make up things all the time, and I encourage the actors to do the same. The first thing I tell the actors is "Disregard the script - if you want to drop lines, change lines, improvise, lengthen or shorten something just do it and if you're getting anything wrong I'll tell you."' Brian Cox said recently that he found Allen a very fast director but the freedom Allen gave him was rather intimidating. 'Woody will say, "You know, it would be nice if I could recognise some of my own words, but that's OK..."'
Ten years ago, when I first met him, I reminded Allen of something he'd once written: he'd said that if he could live his whole life again he'd do it just the same but he wouldn't read Beowulf. I wondered what he'd change in reality. He said he would have liked to have entered a more physical profession, perhaps ballet dancing.
Ten years on, he says: 'It would be like having a re-shoot. Whenever I do a re-shoot for a scene the new scene is always better, and this would be the same with my life. I only wish I could do a re-shoot. I would rather that my talent had been a musical one. I would rather have been a great instrumentalist. Or when I did What's New Pussycat? in 1965, my first movie, in retrospect I regret not staying and living in Paris. Living in Paris was a very happy experience. I thought, "What if I never go home? What if I stay in Paris, I love this city." I wonder in retrospect if I would have enjoyed that more... making films in France.'
The sun was disappearing for him again; there was another career move to make. I asked him what he'd still like to achieve in his life. 'Besides death in sleep? I'd like to keep happy and play with the kids and be with my wife. I've never known great family life since I was an adult, but now I do and it's meaningful to me. I would like to keep healthy and make a great movie. I would love to be able to do that, but I don't think that's going to happen any more. If I keep working, I think it's possible that I could do a great movie some day by accident.'