The new Woody Allen film, Whatever Works — his 40th for those keeping count — signals a return for the filmmaker in more ways than one. For starters, it is his first film to shoot on location in New York since Melinda and Melinda in 2004, interrupting a half-decade European vacation during which the 73-year-old Allen has directed three films in London and one in Spain. It also marks the realization of a project he first conceived in the 1970s as a vehicle for Zero Mostel, then set aside following the actor’s untimely death. The result is a light comic burlesque — a minor key but eminently pleasurable Allen confection — starring Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm mastermind Larry David as Boris Yellnikoff, an atheistic, egotistical, misanthropic physics professor whose contempt for the entire human race is lessened by his chance meeting with the ditzy Southern belle (Evan Rachel Wood) he finds squatting underneath his backstairs.
Allen is running late on the sunny May afternoon, when I show up at his Upper East Side editing room, tucked away inconspicuously behind a door labeled “Manhattan Film Center” on the ground floor of an otherwise residential building. It’s here that Allen cuts all his films, screens them (and others) in a soundproof, green velour screening room, auditions actors for his upcoming projects (and there is always an upcoming project), and otherwise holds court. On the two previous occasions I have come here to interview him, the results have never been less than surprising, Allen holding forth with unexpected candor and ease about his films and about the cosmic matters that weigh heavy on his soul. And today is no exception, as Allen enters in his signature attire of pastel button-down, khaki trousers and well-worn brown lace-ups, apologizes for his lateness, and proceeds to talk at length about the meaning of life (or lack thereof), the trouble with actors, and the allure of younger women.
The title Whatever Works suggests a philosophy of life but also a work ethic. In other words, if you make a film a year, as you do, you can’t afford to sit around waiting for the muses to descend.
I’ve never been someone who’s waited for the muses, because my background is in television. When I came up, we used to write shows, and if you were writing for Gary Moore or Sid Caesar — whoever it was — you had to have a show. It was live. When you came in on a Monday morning, you had to think of something. You couldn’t wait for inspiration; you just had to do it. So I got used to that, and I can do it to this day. I can go into a room and — it doesn’t always come out good — but I can produce something. I do think it’s an ethic. It keeps you out of mischief. If you work, it keeps you distracted. It keeps you from thinking about yourself too much, about how terrible you are, about how great you are. It’s certainly humbling.
I’ve often used this comparison: With mental patients in an institution, they give them basket weaving, finger painting and things like that to do, because the very act of working with your hands is healthful and therapeutic. It’s the same thing with making a film, which is a handmade product. You have to write it, you have to go out and shoot it, then we come here and we put the film together and put the music in. For a period of time, you get two rewards: You get the reward of distraction — you don’t think about the outside world, and you’re faced with solvable problems, and if they’re not solvable, you don’t die because of it. And then, if it’s the right film, you get to live in a fake reality for a number of months. So if I’m making a picture like The Purple Rose of Cairo or Bullets Over Broadway or Everyone Says I Love You, for several months, I get to live with very beautiful women and very witty men and they have costumes, and the sets are beautiful. It’s a very pleasant way to waste your life.
It’s funny that you mention those three films in particular because, like them, Whatever Works seems like a fantasy. The characters and the story all have a heightened, exaggerated feel.
Right, it’s a cartoon tale. The mother, the father — everyone in the movie is cartoonlike.
I was also reminded of two of your more recent films, Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, both of which also concern luck, chance and the randomness of life, even though Whatever Works is actually a script you wrote more than 30 years ago. When we spoke at the time of the release of Match Point, you said, “You’re always searching for control, and in the end, you’re at the mercy of the hoisted piano not falling on your head.” And here there is a scene in which a person falls from a window onto another person’s head!
The same obsessions I had when I first started, I have now. I’ve been in psychoanalysis, I’ve been successful, I’ve had ups, I’ve had downs. I’ve had some hit movies, movies that failed. But with everything that’s happened to me, all of my experiences, I’ve never been able to solve the real problems of life that have plagued every playwright since Euripides and Aristophanes. No progress has been made on the existential themes and the subject of interpersonal relations, which are still brutal and painful and fragile and very hard to make work, and which cause everybody an enormous amount of suffering and grief. Why are we here? What is the point of it all?
Take Camus’ question [in The Myth of Sisyphus] of whether or not to commit suicide. Now, even the most grim people come to rationalizations where, in Camus’ case, he feels that pushing the rock up the hill, the doing of it, is worth it and you don’t have to succeed. But I feel — in answer to the question of why should we not kill ourselves given a meaningless, godless existence — that it’s a pre-intellectual question, and that your body answers it for you. Your mind will never be able to give you a convincing justification for living your life, because from a logical point of view, if your life is indeed meaningless — which it is — and there’s nothing out there, what is the point of it? Well, the point of it is only that you’re too scared to terminate it because you’re hard-wired, it’s in your blood, to live and to want to live and to want to protect yourself. So, while I’m home babbling about how meaningless life is and how cruel and brutal and without any purpose, if there’s a fire in my house, I’ll go to extreme measures to save my life. And then when I’ve saved my life, I’ll say to myself, “Why did you bother to do that?”
Even by the standards of some of the antisocial, unlikable characters you’ve written in the past, including the ones you yourself played in Anything Else and Deconstructing Harry, Boris seems a step beyond.
You know, at one point I was going to call this film, when I first wrote it for Zero, The Worst Man in the World. I thought it would be a funny character — a guy who is the quintessence of misanthropy and who can’t fit in, doesn’t want to fit in, rejects everything, just isn’t someone who can deal with life or wants to deal with it. He doesn’t accept it: He finds the fact that he’s mortal to be unacceptable. He cannot agree to the rules of life. The characters I’ve played in those other movies were certainly in that direction but not as extreme as I wanted to make the character of Boris.
Did you, at any point in the past three decades, consider playing the role yourself?
No, because when I thought of it for Zero, I thought of it as a part for a fat man. I thought of him as a big, aggressive physicist, a Russian chess genius who had no time for “microbes” and “earthworms.” And I can’t do that. My source of comedy is more victim — I find myself frightened when I hear the noise in the other room, that sort of thing. This guy was grandiose. It was hard to think of people who could play him now, and then [casting director] Juliet Taylor mentioned Larry, whom I had worked with very briefly before and whom I knew from Curb Your Enthusiasm. But it seemed to me that he could do it, because on his television show he’s very authentic. He’s not an overacter or a fake posturer. Of course, he told me up and down the line how he couldn’t do it, how he’s not an actor and this and that, and then I knew he’d be great. Because it’s the ones like Diane Keaton, who tell you how bad they are, who always come through. It’s the ones who tell you how great they are who never come through.
People who can act are naturals. Over the years, I’ve met and worked with people who studied all over the place, and if they had natural talent, it was great. If they didn’t, the fact that they had studied didn’t mean anything. I’ve gotten guys off the street — literally off the street — who come in here and, when they speak, they’re un-self-conscious and authentic. Whereas, with a lot of professional actors, they come in to meet for a part and we’ll be chatting like we’re chatting now, and they’re just fine. Then, they read the part and they go into their acting mode, and everything about them suddenly becomes inauthentic. They feel they have to do something to the material or they’re not justifying their paycheck. So they start acting it, and you don’t want them to act it; you want them to just say it. If they’re supposed to be a salesman, you want them to be a salesman like you’d experience a salesman. But they don’t. They start playing a salesman.
The real revelation in the film, I think, is Evan Rachel Wood, who has been very strong in a number of movies but who hasn’t had an opportunity to play this sort of 1930s screwball ingenue.
I had never heard of her, and my wife said you should look at this girl Evan Rachel Wood, because I saw her in one or two movies and she’s just great. Then a few days after that, [production designer] Santo Loquasto was talking to me and he said the exact same thing. So I checked her out and saw that she was a remarkable actress — complicated and dark, really exceptional. I didn’t know if she could do comedy or not. I thought she could, and she agreed to do it, so I assumed she wouldn’t agree to do it if she didn’t think she could. And so she did it and she was incredibly good. I said to her, “It’s a Southern girl, you’re going to have to do a Southern accent,” and she wouldn’t do it for me, wouldn’t show me her Southern accent until we shot. Now, I can empathize with that. It’s risky, because if she couldn’t do it, I would have been in very serious trouble. But she did it, and she just did it great.
On the other hand, Ed Begley Jr. [who plays Wood’s father] had no idea he was going to be required to do a Southern accent. He came to New York, got into costume, came to the set. The first shot we shot in the movie was with him, and he had no idea. I said, “You know you’re going to have to play this with a Southern accent. You do do a Southern accent, right?” He said, “Well, I think I can.” I said, “Okay, because I assumed you knew that when you read it.” But he didn’t, and he just simply did it. So much for all this meticulous preparing.
So much for The Method.
I was with a Japanese lady yesterday, who was in town doing interviews because Vicky Cristina Barcelona is opening in Japan. She asked me what pictures I’ve liked [recently] and I mentioned Rachel Getting Married, which was a picture I liked very much. She said she had interviewed Jonathan Demme and he had said it was the first time he shot a picture without rehearsals, and of course everyone in it was great and it was a wonderful picture. I, on the other hand, have never done rehearsals. I just don’t think they’re necessary. And yet, there are directors — great directors, like Ingmar Bergman — who would rehearse and rehearse. I wouldn’t know what to do at a rehearsal. When I was in Paul Mazursky’s Scenes From a Mall, he did extensive rehearsing, and he’s a wonderful guy and a wonderful director, but I thought it was nuts at the time. I thought, “How do you have the patience for this?” But that’s how he works. I just never put a minute’s thought into it beforehand, to the point where an actor will come to the set not even knowing he’s got to do a Southern accent. And yes, I could have been very traumatized if he had said, “Oh, I can’t do a Southern accent. I just can’t do one. If you need British, fine, but I can’t do Southern.” So I’ve been lucky that way, that I haven’t run into a catastrophe. It’s the same thing if there’s a scene with a lot of physical action. I work it out with the cameraman and bring in the actor with no rehearsal and say, “Start over here and go over there and pick up a cigarette and then come over here,” and 99 percent of the time that’s exactly what they do and it looks fine. Once in a great while, someone will say, “I don’t know what I’m doing over there. I’d feel better walking over to the window.” And I always say, “So, walk to the window.”
The film suggests that Boris is redeemed, humanized in a way by his encounter with this much younger woman, and you yourself have said that you’ve found a happiness with your wife, Soon-Yi, that you never imagined you would find with a younger Korean woman who has no connection to the film industry.
In fiction, that was even a theme as far back as Manhattan, that in this presumably more innocent, younger person — before they get spoiled by the world — that one can find a certain happiness. Mine was very good luck, personally, that way, but that has always been an idea of mine going back quite far. Even Annie Hall, when you think of it, was kind of a naive girl from Chippewa Falls, who was young and came to New York and knew nothing and was a real hick, a rube, with all her colloquial expressions but with the thought that she would become a mature woman. At that time, she represented for me the same kind of freshness.
When we spoke last year, you were just about to come to Los Angeles to direct your first opera, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, and you joked that you were going to skip town quickly before anyone had the chance to tar and feather you for it.
It turned out in the end to be quite a pleasant experience, because I was surrounded by gifted people. The cast was wonderful; I didn’t cast them, they gave me the cast. The conductor was wonderful. It was just a pleasure. And, of course, I was working with a piece of material that’s great. It was the first time I directed anything that wasn’t mine, and so I could devote myself strictly to directing. I didn’t have to write and constantly patch up bad writing. This is what I’m doing all the time in my own films. They’re always an original script, and they’re all full of mistakes. It’s not like it’s a Broadway show, where I take it out of town and iron the kinks out. With a movie, this is it, so I’m rewriting all the time and fixing and helping and adjusting. Here, Puccini has a little masterpiece both musically and in terms of the story, so all I had to do was mount it. Now, it’s a short opera, and I don’t think I could do Aida with the elephants.
Is there anything you can say about the film you are preparing to shoot this summer, other than that it takes place in London again and stars Naomi Watts?
You know the full cast, right? Anthony Hopkins, Freida Pinto, Josh Brolin, Antonio Banderas. The cast is great. It’s a comedy-drama, I can tell you that. It’s a comic film but comic in the way that either Vicky Cristina or Hannah and Her Sisters was. It’s not comic like Bananas. This is real, with a serious side to it but hopefully a reasonable amount of laughs. Hopefully.