Yes, we’ve already heard Woody Allen’s whine incessantly about how shooting in New York is too expensive, despite the new incentives offering $420 million per year in tax breaks for films shot here and the fact that he shot the underwhelming black comedy “Whatever Works” in the Big Apple a little over a year ago. Woody’s big “return to New York City” following his trio of London films – “Match Point” (solid), “Scoop” (awful) and “Cassandra’s Dream” (awful) – and pleasant return to form “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” was a dud, grossing just north of $5 million domestically.
So, the tireless Oscar-winning writer-director has opted to cross the Atlantic one more time in search of that “Match Point” magic. Shot in London, Allen’s latest is the heinously-titled YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER. The film continues along the nihilistic path laid forth in “Whatever Works” and premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Initially, Nicole Kidman was cast in one of the lead roles, but she dropped out in favor of the film “Rabbit Hole,” and was replaced by relative newcomer Lucy Punch. “Stranger” also landed in the headlines earlier in the year, when it was reported that a brief cameo by France’s first lady Carla Bruni took 35 takes to film.
STRANGER follows two married couples – Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helena (Gemma Jones), and their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and husband Roy (Josh Brolin) – whose various anxieties lead them astray. Alfie leaves Helena to romance a younger prostitute named Charmaine (Lucy Punch), Helena starts seeing the recent widower, Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Grifiths), Sally starts crushing on her terribly handsome art gallery owner boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas), and Roy becomes smitten with a mysterious woman named Dia (Freida Pinto). Naturally, all these affairs spell trouble. Entertainment Weekly said of the film: “The film is notable, if that’s the word, for being the first movie Allen has made in London that is every bit as bad as his most awful New York comedies, like ‘Anything Else’ and ‘Melinda and Melinda.’” Yikes.
MMM attended the New York press conference for Woody Allen’s latest, where the celebrated filmmaker chatted about nihilism, filming in Europe, and his desire to make a classic film.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: Somebody once asked what “Interiors” was about and you said: “The spiritual turmoil, the floating unrest that can only be traceable to their choices in life, and how a lover can posses the loved one as an object to control. There’s something of me in all the characters.” Does that apply to this film?
WOODY ALLEN: This film was an attempt to deal with the same subject but to deal with it in a more comic way than “Interiors” was. The subject matter is still the same thing, it’s still the inability of people to relate to one another, of people needing some kind of certainty in life, people deluding themselves into some sense that there is purpose to life or that there is some extra meaning to life when in fact it’s a meaningless experience, and yet in the end even 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. It’s still serious but it’s played with more humor. I was reminded, I was talking to someone just before, years ago I was on television with Billy Graham and I was taking this bleak outlook position and Billy Graham was saying to me that even if I was right and he was wrong and there was no meaning to life and it was a bleak experience and there is no god or no afterlife or no hope or anything, that he would still have a better life than me because he believed differently. And that even if he was 100% wrong our lives would both be completed and I would have had a miserable life wallowing in bleak outlook, and he would have had a wonderful life, confident that there was more. So that was one of the main themes of this picture, that someone like Gemma could be deluded as I felt Billy Graham was deluded, and that she would have a better life than someone like Josh, who’s more scientific minded and had a more realistic view of life but was going to have a more miserable life.
MMM: What do you think are the basic elements that turn a romantic comedy into a classic?
ALLEN: A classic is a de facto experience. You find that over the years that certain comedies, romantic comedies or comedies last, they endure, they remain fun to see 10 years later, 20, 50 years later. And other romantic comedies which were delightful for people at the time are not. When I was a boy I went to see many films that were delightful romantic comedies with June Allyson, Esther Williams, and Gloria DeHaven and all these people, and they were delightful and I loved them and they were fine, but they’re just kind of gone, vanished. And there were others that I saw, “Shop Around the Corner,” something like that, which year after year remains just a wonderful film to see. And you look up after many years and you find that the thing has become a classic because it’s meaningful to people and alive decade after decade.
MMM: When you’re filming in Europe, when you’re filming in Spain, when you’re filming in England, I wonder how much your choice of location changes your writing process or the way you view your characters.
ALLEN: It does, it’s meaningful because it’s a movie and you’re watching it, and when you’re sitting in the room writing the script you’re alone in your bedroom and it’s nothing. But then you get out there and 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, and then I was with my art director and we were scouting in Brooklyn and we saw this apartment under the Cyclone, under the rollercoaster, and I thought it was great. And so 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, and the whole thing was changed completely. I’ve done that a hundred times over the years because you can’t anticipate in the room the riches that you come across when you’re location hunting for a movie.
MMM: First of all, could you talk a little bit about Antonio Banderas? It’s rare that you include a Hispanic actor in some of your movies, and it looks like you’re very excited about having him in the movie. And then number two, I was reading in the production notes that Naomi Watts had never met you until she walked in and I think you just exchanged a brief hello and then she began acting. Do you feel that’s the best way to bring the best performances out of the actor, or at one point would you want to do some rehearsal beforehand?
ALLEN: First Antonio Banderas. I needed someone for this part that was European, charming, very good looking, of a certain age, and inherently sort of a nice guy, a lovely person who projected that, and he came to mind. We talked about it and he came to mind as someone that would be perfect for that part because he’s exactly that; he’s charming, he’s a lovely person, he projects that niceness, that decency, and he’s a lovely actor. It was a very fortuitous choice for me.
MMM: And the other question?
ALLEN: The other question. 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 like to speak to them, I don’t want to have lunch with them, I don’t want to have to socialize with them, I don’t like to hear their ideas. Josh wanted to play this part in a wheelchair. He called up and asked – this is what you get when you’re the director. So of course he can’t play the part in a wheelchair, but when you talk to actors they’re thinking about acting. They decide to play it as a hunchback and they’re going to grow a beard and they’re going to do all kinds of things to affect a limp, so the less I speak to the actors the better. And 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 that, spoke like that. 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 infuse it with what’s made them wonderful actors and actresses, and so the less I have to speak with them the better. I didn’t know Naomi Watts at all. She was a wonderful actor for years in movies, beautiful, 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 and she read the part, she said she was going to do it so she must know what it is, and she came in that morning and said “Hello,” the usual exchange of insincerities, “I’m a great fan of your movies and I love all your films,” “Yes, and I love all your films,” and all that nonsense, and she had her hardest scene in the picture. She just started off cold and did the scene when she confronts Gemma and wants the money for her business and Gemma’s not going to give her the money because the medium has advised her not to. And that was a very, very strongly acted scene between the two women. Gemma I had worked with for the prior week or two but Naomi I hadn’t even met her. And she came right in and did it, she was completely professional and great, and for me that’s the best way to work. I don’t like to meet the actor and have a lot of conferences and talk about their sub-life and their off-screen life and their back stories and all that nonsense, because it never means anything and they never know why they’re good. They think they’re great because they’re doing all this extra work when in fact when they wake up in the morning they’re Jack Nicholson or they’re Robert De Niro or they’re Josh Brolin and it’s built in. But they think it’s all this other stuff but it’s not; they’d be great if they didn’t think about their part or if they did think about it. I hope you’re digesting this.
MMM: With regard to location, were there any changes in the script here because of locations you found? With regard to the input of the actors, were there any changes because of what the actors provided you with? And then with regard to your initial statement on nihilism and Billy Graham, if in fact there’s nothing to believe in why make films? And in your own particular career, after all you’ve achieved, is there anything that you have a burning desire to achieve in the future?
ALLEN: The first thing is in this picture there were instances where we would see locations and rewrite for those locations. We didn’t change the script as radically as that “Annie Hall” example I gave you, but we would change things depending on the neighborhoods that we found in London where the characters lived. We’d find a pretty place for them to walk and we’d switch the scene for that, and this happened fairly frequently in the picture. The characters evolve in the picture and I wanted and encouraged them to improvise. Lucy very frequently would want to say what she wanted to say and she’d make up her own joke or make up her own line and it was always better than mine because it was organic, it came from the actor who feels the character. And Josh would want to talk like Josh a lot, like he felt the character was at the time, and I encouraged all the performers to do that and they did in the movie. And sometimes some of the best moments are contributed by the actors being creative on their own with their own improvisations. 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 or something I would be sitting there and I would be thinking of the same thing that Anthony Hopkins thought of when he woke up in the middle of the night. You start thinking gee, what is the purpose of life, and why are we all finite, and why do we get old and die, and is there nothing out there, and why is it so tragic, and why do our loved ones perish, and why do we degenerate? So who wants to think about that stuff? So I’m thinking about gee, if I call Josh Brolin will he be available for this? I don’t know Lucy; will she be able to do this as great as I think she will? And is Gemma the perfect person for this? These are all problems that you can solve and it makes you feel that you have some control of your life, and if you don’t solve them, if it turns out that one of them is wrong and Josh is wrong for the part, or Lucy’s wrong, or Gemma’s wrong or something, that’s the worse that happens. You have a bad movie but you don’t die. So that’s why I keep making movies.
MMM: And if there’s a desire to achieve something you have not yet achieved?
ALLEN: Yeah, I’d like to make a great movie. I’ve made many movies, I think I’ve made some good movies, I never felt I’ve made a great movie. If you think about the truly great movies, if you think about “Rashoman” and “The Bicycle Thief,” and “8 ½” and “Grand Illusion,” I don’t think I’ve ever made a film that could be on a program with those films. I’m not saying this out of false modesty or self-deprecation or anything; realistically, 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. But so far that hasn’t happened.
MMM: You mentioned uncertainty as a theme and one family has a lot of financial problems, the other, the Hopkins-Punch relationship has some extreme class contrast, and I was wondering if the current economic crisis was on your mind at all?
ALLEN: It hasn’t been on my mind because I haven’t been in the cross hairs of it. I’ve been in show business. I’m not a poor factory worker who’s been laid off. My mortgage hasn’t been foreclosed. So I haven’t really been affected by it as profoundly as many people have tragically been. But I felt that the movie was about uncertainty. Josh’s character wrote a book in the movie called “The Uncertainty Principle,” based on the Heisenberg Principle, and I felt everybody was searching for certainty. Gemma wanted a certain certainty; she wanted to know what the future held. Anthony Hopkins wanted certainty; he wanted to know that he was not going to get old, that his life was not over. And Josh was uncertain as to whether that guy would ever get up out of his coma or not. Was he going to be unmasked as a plagiarist or was he not? All the characters in the movie were constantly searching for certainty, and I thought originally of calling the film “The Uncertainty Principle,” but I felt that would sound too much like homework to the audience and they would not show up. So I called it “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” which I felt was a juicier title. Oddly enough, in foreign countries they don’t have that phrase and it’s been a problem to translate the title in European countries because they don’t have the cliché, it’s not a fortuneteller’s cliché. And in Russia, I’m told, the death figure, the tall dark stranger, is a woman. In Russia, the grim reaper figure is a woman, and so “you will meet a tall dark stranger” certainly has no meaning there, and we’ve been changing the title in various European countries, coming as close as we can.
MMM: Woody, you have it down to a science that you write half the year, you shoot half the year, and you come out with a new movie each year. I was wondering what are the advantages and disadvantages of that routine and also if you’ve ever fanaticized about pulling a Stanley Kubrick and spending years obsessing over one project.
ALLEN: I don’t know. I’m a completely different kind of person. Kubrick was a great artist and a perfectionist, and he always wanted the exact right thing, he did a million takes, and everything had to be perfect. I’m an imperfectionist. I don’t really care that much about the work. I write quickly, I’m careless, I shoot carelessly. If the characters are working and I have a dinner engagement I don’t do 20 takes, I do five takes and go home, I want to go to dinner. I don’t have the same dedication to my art that he has, so I would never do that. But there is an advantage in having a routine, in working with the same people with you can, and writing as a regular thing, and filming as a regular thing. That routine pays off for you; you get a lot of productivity that way, rather than just sitting around just waiting for inspiration and waiting for the perfect thing to happen. I would be much less productive that way.
YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER is currently in theaters in limited release.