Woody Allen has been branching out from his usual filming location of New York City, with Match Point being shot in London, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona being shot in Spain. Now he brings us Midnight in Paris, filmed in the city famous for romance, and surprises us with a fantastical twist. Woody sat down with Buzzine to talk about his writing process, how he got started, and the tremendous luck he's had in life...
Emmanuel Itier: What do you say to people who think that, in Midnight in Paris, there seems to be reverence for European culture and disdain for American culture? Do you feel that way?
Woody Allen: No, not at all. Actually, a number of significant artists in the picture are Americans. America is a huge country, and there’s an enormous amount of positive culture that has always come out of it -- great writers, certainly some fabulous painters in recent decades, and great jazz musicians. So no, I don’t feel that way at all. There’s plenty of cultural deserts in the United States as well. But I’m sure if you went in any country, you’d find sections of them and periods of time that were very fertile and exciting, and others that weren’t. But I don’t feel that Americans are all uncultured. I feel there’s quite a bit of remarkable culture that’s come out of America.
EI: How do you feel about modern pop culture? And if you could spend a day with any movie or TV star, would you?
WA: I don’t get a chance to watch too much television, but not out of any sense of disdain or superiority. When I come home in the evening, we go out to have dinner. I might go to a basketball game or something, and I’m out for the evening. And when I come back, the brunt of the evening is over, and I generally catch up on the news or something and go to sleep early. So I’m not an expert on television. I have seen things on it that seem wonderful to me. They’re usually in the documentary area, in the news area — things like that. Of course, Turner Classic Movies is fabulous. And as far as films go, yeah, I’m sure if I lived in California, I would have a number of friends who are movie stars, but I don’t. I live in New York, so I really don’t. I’m not that social anyhow. But if I was, I’m sure I would have [movie stars as friends]. They seem fine. It’s a different generation of movie stars. When I was a little boy, the movie stars were so much larger than life. I mean, people like Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart -- it’s almost as if they didn’t exist in real life. Now the movie stars have gotten more down-to-earth and much less larger than life than they were. But that’s probably, in one sense, a good thing because it’s a more realistic appraisal of who they are.
EI: How and when do ideas come to you?
WA: It’s unpredictable and constant. There are times when I have to force myself. When I first started, I was a television writer, and shows were on at the end of the week, and you had to come in Monday morning and write because it was live. You couldn’t just come in and wait for your muse to inspire you. You had to get in there and turn out something because something had to be on the air. I can still do that. I can get into a room and force myself. It’s no fun, let me tell you, but I can force myself. But usually the ideas come in the course of the year. And I write them down and go and look at them later. And some of them seem terrible, and I don’t know why I bothered to write them down. But others are OK. Now, in the case of Midnight in Paris, interestingly enough, I was going to make a film in Paris because it was being financed, and I had no idea for a film in Paris. I was just thinking and thinking and thinking, and I thought it would be a romantic film, because we all grew up on Paris in the movies as romantic. And I thought of the title "Midnight in Paris," gee. That’s a very romantic title. That’s a great title for a movie. And for a long time, six weeks or so, I didn’t know what happened at midnight in Paris. I figured, what goes on at midnight in Paris? Do two people meet? Are they having an affair? And then one day, it occurred to me that one day the protagonist would be walking down the street and a car would pull up, and there would be some exciting people, and they say, "Get in," and take him on adventure. And that’s the way it happened. It was very unpredictable and capricious.
EI: Gil is politically liberal, and he keeps getting called a communist by his fiancé’s father, who sympathizes with the conservative Tea Party. Why were you inspired to put that political standoff in the movie? And have you ever been called a communist, not necessarily by a Tea Party person?
WA: I've never been called a communist. I could never even share a bathroom! I’m not a communist in any way, and I was never accused of it. I'm a Democrat, and I just wanted to make the girl's parents in the movie antithetical to Gil. I wanted him to try to be a good-natured guy who tried to get along with everybody, and the mother was annoyed that [Inez] was marrying him, figuring her daughter could do better, and that the father didn't like him politically. They belong to that strain of people -- Americans who are always critical of France and always have a problem, who wanted to change it to Freedom Fries from French-fried potatoes. I just thought that would be funny, but I had no other motivation other than that. It expresses my own political feelings. I would never do anything that ran antithetical. I wouldn't make my hero a fascist, for example. But I was really just trying to be amusing.
EI: Owen Wilson is also a screenwriter in real life. Is the collaborative process different with actors when they’re also writers?
WA: No. I had no idea he was a writer at all. I don’t do anything different at all. The screenplay is not written in stone remotely. As soon as they're hired for the movie, I tell them that they're free. If there are any speeches that they don't want to do, if there’s anything they want to add or subtract or change, go right ahead and do it. I watch them closely, and if there's some egregious mistake they make, I tell them. But most of the time, they don't. If there's a joke or a speech I wrote that embarrasses them to say, they don't want to say it and they don't say it, I couldn't care less. Or they can say it in their own words, if they see the scene and they feel more comfortable doing it their way. They don’t want to walk where I tell them to walk. They walk someplace else. That's fine with me. I don’t really care, as long as the thing gets done believably on the screen. If a guy is going to come home and tell his wife that he wants a divorce, I don’t care if they use my words or if the actor comes home and tells his wife in his own way, and she responds in her own way. As long as they make it real or exciting or amusing, I'm very, very happy to take credit for it later.
EI: Do you have any cultural icons whom you greatly admire?
WA: Groucho Marx. He was a big influence on me. My cultural icons were S.J. Perelman, and when I got a little older, Ingmar Bergman was a big hero of mine. I would say those were the main ones. And it’s an odd combination because I started out as a television writer and became a cabaret comedian, and then a television comedian. My influences were Groucho Marx and Ingmar Bergman. You couldn’t get two more disparate kinds of personalities. And that’s what I was doing at the time. It made for an either interesting or disconcerting presentation for me. People either found it disconcerting and didn’t love it, or they did and found it interesting, the combination.
EI: You used to consistently make your films on location in New York City, but for the past several years, you’ve made your movies on location in Europe. Can you talk about what that transition has been like for you?
WA: First off, I can’t leave business matters completely unconcerned, because I originally went to London because they offered to back Match Point. I had a very nice experience in London, and I found that that the foreign crews are just like the American crews. It was easy to work and no problem. I found the same thing in Barcelona and Paris. Their film crews and electricians and carpenters know what to do. The language barrier is not minimal. Most of them speak a little English, or I can struggle through a minimum amount of French. And you learn to communicate quickly. In the United States, I worked with a Chinese cameraman for three pictures, for three years, who never spoke a word of English — ever. But it doesn’t matter. You’re talking about the same things. Once you learn the same hand signals, everything is the same. It’s no problem working in foreign countries. It’s the exact same thing. I am working in big cities: London, Barcelona, Paris. This coming summer, it will be Rome. And it’s just like working in New York. Everybody is very professional and very nice. One nice perquisite is that these foreign countries welcome you so generously. They want so badly for you to make a film in Barcelona or Paris or Rome that everybody cooperates in such generous ways. They close off streets and you get police help. It’s just wonderful working abroad because they’re so enthused over it.
EI: What filmmakers inspired you to reinvent yourself by shifting your films from New York to Europe?
WA: The only person who comes to mind, and I’m sure there are many others, was a wonderful film director, Jules Dassin, who was terrific in New York and did some very good films, and then left for Paris because of the blacklisting. He did do good work in New York -- [such as] The Naked City, which revolutionized a whole way of looking at a certain kind of films in the city. But when he went abroad, he did Rififi and the Greek films that he did with his wife. He did some of his very, very best work as an expatriate. And why not? You get a new location, fresh sites. As I said, the people [outside the U.S.] are every bit as good and competent: the crews, the actors and actresses are great... So it’s not a tough thing. It’s not like you leave home and you’re stranded in the desert and nobody knows what to do with the lights. It isn’t like that. You go to a new city and it’s great, and you have new restaurants and new places to go. It’s very exciting, actually.
EI: Would you like to make another movie in New York?
WA: I would love to. New York is a fabulous city to work in because there are a million things to do here. There are a million stories to tell and a million great locations in the city. I made many, many movies here, and I don’t think it even scratched the surface of New York City. It’s great also that there’s a certain advantage of being in your own home. For instance, I’m going to Rome this summer, so I’m not going to be able to see any baseball. That’s a big loss for me. I will have three months of a hotel shower. I’ve got a great shower [at home]. It comes down hard and hot. So it’s nice to work at home. I like having my own bed, my own house, more of my surrounding pharmaceuticals. But there are exciting things abroad as well.
EI: You used to be a regular at the famous restaurant Elaine’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Elaine’s is closing on May 26th after being in business since 1963. Considering the role that Elaine’s has played in your films and your social life, do you have any comment?
WA: I don’t think there will ever be anything like it in New York. It’s one of those situations where you really have to say "you had to be there." I could wax euphoric about it, and you’d listen and say, "Great." But you had to have been there over the years. It was unique and amazing. I ate my dinner there every single night for maybe ten years. It was like a home away from home. I saw everybody there. One great thing is that you were completely undisturbed. Nobody asked you for autographs or made a fuss over you. You were just part of the wallpaper. Over the years, I just saw everybody -- every writer, every politician... I met Antonioni there and Simone de Beauvoir. It just went on endlessly. I couldn’t begin. Fellini... One after the other. Everybody was at Elaine’s.
It was great. You didn’t have to dress. You could come at any time. They were open until the wee hours of the morning. Elaine Kaufman was a fabulous woman and a great hostess. On the worst New York nights, when it was freezing and it was blizzarding and snowing, you’d go into Elaine’s and they’d be six deep at the bar. You couldn’t get another human in the place. And 90% of the people would be, by most people’s standards, illustrious. It would be this film director and that actor and this singer and that opera singer and the mayor. It was just astonishing. So it was a fabulous, fabulous place. I started out there playing poker. That’s how I heard about it. There used to be an after-hours poker game up there where you’d play. You’d write your bets down because you couldn’t pass money around because it was illegal. There were a number of other writers that played. I went up there to play poker, and we’d start at 1:00 in the morning or so and play until 5:00 in the morning. These games went on, and these writers eventually brought friends, and it grew and grew. Elaine subsidized many of the writers when they were having hard times. It was just a fabulous, fabulous place. The food was unremittingly terrible from start to finish. My theory was that that was one of the appeals of the place -- that if the food was great, everyone would be going up there for the food. But they didn’t. They went up there to be with other people and socialize and have a quick snack, but mostly drink and talk, and a lot of conversation. I don’t think there will ever be anything like it. I hope there is, but I can’t imagine it. And all my talk about it still doesn’t portray it. You really had to go there and live through it to get the feel of it.
EI: Is there any truth to the rumor that you wanted to make a movie about Zelda Fitzgerald?
WA: No, there's no truth to that. I would have liked to have made, years ago, The Great Gatsby, because it's a great film for me to make. Everybody thinks it’s grandiose, but I think I could have done a good job with it because I like that era, and it's a New York, Long Island film. I just feel that I could have made that film work. I've always had a crush on women like Zelda Fitzgerald. Now, this is very self-destructive, and I've always selected, in my lifetime, women who had that streak of insanity that she had. It didn't do me any good, I can tell you, but I was fascinated by it always. I've used that kind of character in my movies many, many times. So I just think I would have been good to make that picture, but it was never in the cards. I was not eligible to make it when it first started, and it's been made a few times. Now I think they're making it again into a musical. There’s some talk about it. Baz Luhrmann is possibly doing a version of it, I think I read in the paper. He’ll probably do a great job on it. But it was a nice thought.
EI: Talk about working with director of photography Darius Khondji on the cinematography...
WA: It’s very important in a movie, I always felt, right from the beginning, to have a good cameraman. I worked for 10 years with Gordon Willis. And I worked for 13 years with Carlo De Palma and Sven Nykvist and Zhao Fei -- a wonderful Chinese cameraman.
And I did another picture a few years ago with Darius Khondji. This is my second picture with Khondji. And we’ll be doing my third picture with him this summer, because he’s one of the great cameramen. I want someone who can transfer what I see in my head to the screen. There are probably any number of guys who can do it, but they have to be guys who I can work with, that have the right personality for me to work with, that I’m not going to get in any conflict with. That’s a really collaborative process. I want to give a lot of input, but I want to get a lot of input as well. So I had very good relations with Gordon and Sven and Carlo -- great personal friends as well -- and now with Darius. We talk about the lighting beforehand and the approach we’re going to take. The one uniform thing that all the cameramen do that I want that’s basic is warm pictures. I don’t like pictures where the actors are wearing blue. I don’t like sunny days. I like the weather to be flat, gray, and the colors to be autumnal: yellow, beige, brown, tan, gold. And it’s very important that the color correction is very, very warm. You can see it in Midnight in Paris. When I first started working with Sven Nykvist, he used to say to me, "The actors all look like tomatoes." But then he got to like it. I like it intensely red, intensely warm, because if you go to a restaurant and you’re there with your wife or your girlfriend, and it’s got red-flecked wallpaper and turn-of-the-century lights, you both look beautiful. Whereas if you’re in a seafood restaurant and the lights are up, everybody looks terrible. So it looks nice. It’s very flattering and very lovely. And that’s the fundamental aesthetic for the camera work. The rest is that we try to move the camera whenever possible, without it being too self-conscious to the viewers, so you don’t want to rush at the screen with an axe saying, "Stop moving the camera!" That’s the fundamental thing -- that there’s a warm ambiance to it all. When I achieve that with a cameraman, I like to use him again. And then if he’s not busy, I always hire him if I can.
EI: If you could time travel, would 1920s Paris be your first choice, or would it be another time and place?
WA: Time travel is a tricky thing because you extrapolate only the best. If you go back in time, women were dying in childbirth, and people had tuberculosis, and you'd go to the dentist and they’d drill and it killed you. It was not so pleasant, really. But you go back and think of Gigi and horse and carriages and champagne and Maxime's, it’s all so [romantic]. I'd like to time travel back for the day! Go back to the Belle Époque, have lunch, and come home. That would be the great trip for me. If we could do that, that would be a wonderful thing. I would go to the Belle Époque Paris -- the same things Marion Cotillard said. 1920s Paris would be someplace I’d like to go to also, but Belle Époque Paris, before all the stores on the Champs-Élysées and those terrible T-shirt and postcard joints along the river, when the way it was conceived had to be astonishingly beautiful. You can't fathom how beautiful it must have been, because it’s drop-dead beautiful now. It’s full of these commercial stores that have opened up there. So it would’ve been great. I would not like to have been trapped there and not be able to get back. That would not be a good thing.
EI: What can you say about Tony-nominated actress Nina Arianda, who plays Paul’s wife?
WA: I had her in and she read, and she was fabulous when she read it. I kept thinking, "I could do a movie with this person." I have a script where I don’t have anything for her substantial in the movie, but if somebody comes along and gives her a substantial part, she will be tremendous because she’s a tremendously gifted actor. So the only thing I had open was Michael Sheen’s wife. I wanted her very badly, so I put her in. And of course, she mumbles and does her own thing, and turned a truly nothing appearance into a little bit of a something. All of her contribution to the picture is nothing written or nothing I directed her in. I just wish I could use her in some meaningful way, because whoever the first person is who does is going to get a great, great reward out of using her. She’s going to be fabulous. If she were older or if I were younger, she would be great to play my wife. She’s really got it! But I don’t have anything for her at the moment that would really set her up and make her great. But if I did, or if I could think of something, she’s fabulous.
EI: At one point in your life, did you know that comedy was meant for you?
WA: I was in high school. I was about 15 years old, or just turning 16. At that age, all of my peers were deciding what they were going to do about college, what they were going to take. And in my neighborhood, they were all going to become doctors or lawyers or professional men. This was a big thing. And I had no interest in any of that at all. I had infantile interest. You’d be remarkably surprised. I wanted to be a cowboy. I wanted to be a private detective. These were the things that were on my mind at the time. I had no substantial interests whatsoever. But I was always amusing to my friends. And someone said to me, "Why don’t you write down some of the jokes you’re always making, and send them in and see if there’s anything to them?" So after school, I was going to Midwood High School in Brooklyn, I came home at 1:00, I wrote some jokes on a page, and I mailed them in to The New York Post. Earl Wilson was a columnist, and I found that he printed them. And suddenly my name was appearing weekly in Walter Winchell’s column or Wilson’s column. It gave me great confidence that I could write things, and people other than my friends in school thought they were funny on a professional level. Then I got a phone call from an advertising agency that had called Earl Wilson and said, "Who is this guy?" And he said, "He’s some school kid in Brooklyn." And they called and offered me $25 a week to come in and write jokes for them. So I came in and I wrote jokes, and from there, I got to write a radio show and a television show. I was working steadily from when I was 16 years old on. I’ve never stopped. I’ve never been unemployed. I’ve always worked. That’s why I’ve always been such a big proponent of luck. I’ve had nothing but breaks. Everything I wanted that was not controllable by me fell in. Whatever I needed, fell in. Whatever I wanted, I got -- not by sheer accomplishment but by pure luck, very often. So it’s been great. Otherwise, I would be a cowboy or a detective.
EI: What lessons have you learned as a comedy writer?
WA: I learned that, just writing jokes, you could make a very good living, but there was no future in that. You had to learn basic structure. First, little sketches -- the little sketches you would see on The Sid Caesar Show or on television. Then you had to learn play structure. You wanted to incorporate you comic gift in something substantial like a play, which today is much more substantial in writing than a film script. A film script, you can go in with 20 pages of no dialogue, if you wanted, and still make a film. There are guys like Mike Leigh or Ingmar Bergman who will do that and make fabulous films. But I wanted to learn how to write. I was studying playwriting, not at school, and trying to learn to structure. So it wouldn’t be just my whole life. I wouldn’t be a guy who would write 10 jokes for Bob Hope about something. I wanted to write more important things. And eventually, what happens is you learn it without thinking you’re learning it. I guess it’s like driving a car or something. You keep doing it...and without learning how to do it, because there’s no exact science to it. But just by doing it, something happens in you, you feel it. You start to do it by feel. And then you’re home, and that’s all you need to know. Once you do it by feel, you can do it for the rest of your life.
EI: How was Alison Pill cast in the movie? And have you seen Alison in the Broadway revival of The House of Blue Leaves?
WA: No. I never knew Alison at all -- met strictly through Juliet Taylor. I was looking for someone who resembled Zelda Fitzgerald who’s also a wonderful actress, and Juliet suggested Alison Pill. She came in and I looked at her, and she read, and it was automatic. We gave it to her right away. She was wonderful. But I never knew her at all before that.
EI: Gil finds a diary which refers back to his time in the 1920s. But for the most part, what he does in that era doesn’t affect the lives of people he knows in the present. Can you talk about why you decided on that story structure?
WA: I was interested only in this romantic tale, and anything that contributed to it that was fairy tale was right for me. I didn’t want to get into it. I only wanted to get into what bore down on his relationship with Marion. I passed those book stalls and browsed through them so many times in my life, and you can easily find a diary, and I thought that would be a nice touch. That’s all I wanted out of it. All I was interested in was the romantic tale.
EI: What was the writing process like for Midnight in Paris?
WA: I was going to do this film in Paris about four years ago, but I didn’t have the money. I started to do the film quite seriously, and they were backing it in France, and I had worked it out. But the budget just kept getting bigger and bigger, so I had to stop. We worked it out that we were able to do it. There were tax benefits, and we were able to put the thing together. But the writing process was that I had the title, and I agonized for a while about what happened at midnight in Paris. Then I thought to myself, the protagonist is walking along and a car pulls up, and he gets in. Originally, I thought to myself, okay, he gets in. Maybe it’s contemporary. I wasn’t even thinking period. And he goes to a party, and he meets a French woman. He has an affair with her, but he’s going to marry. Then I thought to myself, what if they take him to a party, and he gets out and walks into a party, and there’s F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter? And once that happened, everything came easily because the idea is so pregnant with possibilities. Then, automatically, they go out for the evening, and they meet Ernest Hemingway, and he becomes personally involved. He wants his script read. That’s why it had to be a writer. He wants his script critiqued. And he runs out and runs back. It’s a laundromat. He can’t find the place anymore. And then he keeps going back. Of course, the second time, there had to be some development; he couldn’t just go back with nothing. So then he meets a wonderful woman. And now the story gets richer because, once it becomes a romantic conflict, the thing really starts to give you potential. And it was very simple. That he was in competition with Picasso and Ernest Hemingway was a funny idea to me. On the one hand, there was this woman who clearly had more sympathy for his aspirations and was attractive and sexual and could manipulate him, and wanted to lead a life in California where she’d be reasonably secure and wealthy to do those things they do: going to parties and having children and living that kind of life. And he was dissatisfied. Everything just kept tumbling in the right direction. Then I got the final piece of inspiration, which is always the key in writing. I used this example before, but when I did The Purple Rose of Cairo, the guy steps off the screen. Fine, you get a lot of play out of that. But then what do you have? Half a movie. But when it occurred to me months later, because I had put the screenplay away, that the actor playing Jeff Daniels comes to the town and then there’s two of them -- the guy who stepped off the screen and the live actor who’s playing -- that’s what gave me the movie. And the same thing here. When it occurred to me that she also was dissatisfied with the present and also wanted to live in the past, that gave me the whole climax and the meaning of the movie. But once I got the inspiration that he's taken to a party that was in the ‘20s, the idea was so pregnant with possibilities after that, it was relatively simple.
EI: What can you say about your acting role in your next movie, which you are filming in Rome?
WA: I’m doing this movie in Rome this summer, starring Alec Baldwin, Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Roberto Benigni and myself, and some Italian people that we’re casting at the moment. It's a broad comedy, not a romantic comedy, of various tales interwoven. I'm in one of them. All the parts are quite significant; there are no cameos. They’re all significant parts. There just happened to be a part that I could play. I can't play the love interest anymore and, of course, this is tremendously frustrating because that’s really what I want to play. I wanted to play Owen’s part. I wanted to play all the parts that I’ve always played, but they’re not as believable anymore. So I have to play Pops, the backstage doorman at the theater or something like that. So there is a part for me. My wife and myself go to Rome because our daughter is going to marry an Italian boy that she met there, and we’re going over to meet him and meet his family, and what ensues. The film is very broadly funny.
Sony Pictures Classics' 'Midnight in Paris' is released on May 26, 2011.