Woody Allen meets with Buzzine to chat about the trials, tribulations, and constant battles involved in film-making. He nods at the importance of casting smart and sympathetic actors who bring life to the creative process. In a discussion touching on aspects of this Writer/Director’s life that have been lost forever, we hear which concepts remain constant in personal beliefs and public fictions.
Izumi Hasegawa: How open are you to actors giving you suggestions?
Woody Allen: When you write the script, you're home in the room by yourself and you're writing, and there's no connection with the real performing world, so you get a lot of things wrong and make a lot of mistakes and make a lot of bad choices, and when the actors get the material and they actually gotta get out and say the lines and act it out and do it, their instincts come into play, and they're all gifted people, and they say, "I don't wanna be called this," and "I don't wanna say this," and "I would rather say this," and 99% of the time they're right, because they feel it more than I felt it when I was home alone writing it. So I'm very dependent on actors contributing.
A lot of the women I've written about over the years have been sufferers, and the women in this picture are sufferers. Frieda [Pinto] doesn't know it, but she's a sufferer later. If the picture were a half-hour later, she would get her suffering, and Gemma [Jones] suffers, and Lucy [Punch] suffers, and Naomi Watts suffers, so there's that link. And of course there's the link with Frieda being kind of an obscure object of desire -- someone that Josh sees through the window and has romantic thoughts about. And Lucy, who is another recurring theme of mine -- of the woman, the recaptured youth that guys think they're going to experience, sometimes with women, sometimes with projects, that are now...the boat has sailed on those things. Gemma's character is more in keeping with all the general philosophy of so many of my films, of wanting something to believe in and not having anything, so settling.
IH: Did you write any of these characters with any of these great talents in mind? WA: I didn't. Halfway through the writing, I did speak to my casting director, Juliet Taylor, and I said, "I'm writing something, and I think that Josh Brolin would be absolutely perfect for this." And it turned out he was available and happened to be lucky. Then, when it was over, the people that I wanted were available. I didn't dare to dream that I would get Anthony Hopkins, but he was available. And Frieda was available. Lucy I didn't know, and I looked at many women.
Lucy had a hard road to hoe down because I didn't know her at all, and we went through a lot of women, and she beat out a lot of people for the part on sheer talent. It was not on reputation or any other factor. I didn't know her from a hole in the wall, and she just was great. We were captivated. We saw a tape of her, and we were just completely captivated. You know, "Who is she?" She's just fabulous. And Gemma was a logical choice when we put everybody together. Her name came up in several quarters as the ideal person for this role.
IH: Your last two movies have had throwaway lines about Viagra. Have the difficulties of aging entered your thought process and affected your writing?
WA: I'll be 75 in another couple of months, and I do see myself as becoming waning and decrepit. Anything I can do to obviate that is fine with me, so sure, my thoughts always go to what might have been if I was 30 or 40 years younger. But for me, that boat has also sailed. Sunk -- not only sailed, but sunk.
IH: What themes link the men of your filmography?
WA: I've written a lot of movies about writers, and usually writers that are having problems. Josh is right in there with that. That's a typical character that I would write -- someone who fancies himself an artist and struggles with it, and doesn't live up to his promise. I feel like that's the autobiographical strain in the movie. I also feel it's autobiographical with Anthony Hopkins. I feel I'm older, probably close to his age, and these problems of life, more in the past than in the future, torment me all the time, and that is a problem that recurs in all of my movies, or many of them, since I got older.
Antonio [Banderas] played a different role in this movie. He was the one winner in the movie, because Antonio, in real life, is gorgeous and charming and successful, and he played that kind of character in the movie. That's why I cast him. I tried to think of somebody who was dashing and charming, and you'd fall in love with him, who comes across as a decent guy and a sweet human being and a success, and that was Antonio. That's a rarity in my movies; the men are usually worms and scoundrels.
IH: How has your writing style changed from when you first started? Also, what was the hardest movie you ever wrote, and the easiest, and where does this movie fall on that scale in terms of writing?
WA: I always write the same way; I always write with a yellow pad and a ballpoint pen on my bed, and then I go and type it up afterward. I've always done that. Those things become habitual.
IH: Is there a certain time of day that you feel less comfortable writing?
WA: No, I write all the time. When I started out, I was a television writer, and we wrote a television show that was on live every week, and you didn't have the luxury of coming in and waiting to be inspired. You came in and you had to write, and you wrote because it was going to be live on the air. So I can do that -- I can come in and write. It doesn't always come out good, but I can actually produce something pretty frequently. I go into my room and I think by myself. I take a walk, I take a shower, and I write, and some things come out and some things don't come out, but I always have something. The movies...they're all hard to do. They're all racked with anxiety.
You always start off thinking that you're going to make Citizen Kane, or The Bicycle Thief and that this is going to be the greatest movie anyone has ever seen, and then, when you are cutting the movie and putting it together, you're just praying that people will sit through it and no one will be embarrassed, and suddenly all your lofty ideas about Citizen Kane and The Grand Illusion and the film you were going to make...you compromise and you take the end scene and put it in the front, and this scene, and cut out this character, and put in a narration, and do all kinds of things. You're fighting a battle for survival. Every film is a very, very tough film. The only film I didn't have a problem with in my life was Match Point, and that was freakishly lucky, very atypical. Everything fell into place magically, but that never really happens. That's a freakish thing. They're all extremely difficult.
IH: What was it like working with Frieda, and what is she like when the film's not rolling?
WA: Frieda was a pleasure. She's very sweet, she's very gifted, and I just saw her in that one movie [Slumdog Millionaire] and I thought she would be a perfect obscure object of desire to look at through another window. I withheld any view of Frieda for a long time in the movie because she's so beautiful that I wanted you to just see her from a distance and never really get a good picture of her at all at any point, until Josh is sitting opposite her in the restaurant, and then you see her face for the first time. It's so great because it has such impact because it's such a fabulous face, and you're seeing it really for the first time well into the movie. You've seen her, she's spoken, I've been on her back, you see her across the way, tiny... It was great to work with her. She did everything, she got everything, didn't have to give her any direction – I didn't have to give anybody any direction really. Once in a great while, I would have to say to Josh, "You can't play this in a wheelchair." But apart from that, they come in and they're all gifted people. You hire gifted people, and you get out of their way and try not to ruin them.
WA: I didn't discover anything that I didn't always know – or, when I say "always," certainly since I was in my early twenties. We think we can control it and we think we know what we're doing, but it's not of our control and it's largely dependent on luck. If you're lucky, you stand a real chance of having a really happy relationship with someone, and if you're unlucky, all the logical reasons in the world why you should don't mean anything.
If you meet somebody or are attracted to someone, and the exquisite neurons in your brain and her brain intermesh properly, then things can be wonderful, and it's not like homework. You don't have to work at the relationship. It's not like the treadmill. It's pleasurable. But if you're unlucky, then it's hard to hit that jackpot and get lucky. You think you can control it and you think there are a lot of things you can do to make your own luck, but it's not really so. That's a vain conceit.
IH: There's been an argument going that, since Match Point, you're not choosing to shoot all your films exclusively in New York. How do you respond to that?
WA: I went originally because of the money! I couldn't afford to make the picture there, and I could afford to make it in London, so I made it in London and I found that I had extremely good working conditions. I work on a very small budget, and the dollar went much further for me in London. It was a very nice place, the crews were great, the weather was great, so I've gone back there a number of times. I just finished a film in Paris, where I also had a wonderful time, and I was able to make the film. I love filming in New York. I love it, and I'm sure I will make more films in New York. But right now, it's easier for me, financially, to work in London or Paris or Barcelona. It's just an easier thing. But I'm crazy about New York and would love to work there.
IH: You've always been afraid of your mortality, and your films have actually made audiences more aware of our mortality than before. As time goes on, are you distracted from the work by the inevitable horror of death? I have a feeling you're not a big believer in the great beyond.
WA: No, you're right.
IH: Does death preoccupy you, and what keeps you going?
WA: For me, it gets worse and worse. I see no advantages in aging whatsoever. You shrivel, you become decrepit, you lose your faculties, your peer group passes away, you sit in a room gumming your porridge... I don't see any advantage in this whatsoever, and eventually total annihilation with no hope of resurrection, so it's a bad situation. As Anthony said, it's a joke but without a punchline. It's an unpleasant thing. It's kind of a nightmare, in a way, actually, and the best thing you can do, I think – I didn't mean to over-remind you of it – is to distract yourself. So you go to the movies, you get involved in a meaningless love affair -- the outcome of which doesn't mean anything in the scheme of the universe -- you watch Roger Federer, you do all these things that distract you and keep you from thinking about the tall, dark stranger that eventually comes and gets you, despite all your efforts to eat health foods and do exercises. I didn't mean to be a downer.
IH: Some people are still scratching their heads about whether the story does end. Is that part of your choices, to just leave it hanging?
WA: It doesn't. I feel that life, unlike Hollywood movies, does not tie up all the loose ends. Life is unresolved, confusing, bewildering, puzzling, ambiguous, and you don't really know what's going to happen. The future is uncertain for everybody, and people manage to get out of one scrape and find themselves in another one -- out of the frying pan and into the fire all the time. That's how I had seen the end of the picture. I didn't want everybody to neatly wrap up his or her story in a nice MGM ending or something. I wanted the people to wander around in agonizing limbo, like in real life! Naturally, nobody is going to pay to see this, but that was where the story went.
'You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger' is in theaters now