Woody Allen talks about his latest film, Melinda and Melinda
Woody Allen is back in top form with "Melinda and Melinda". It's his best film in years and certainly a high concept departure from what we've come to expect. The film is both a comedy and a drama, telling two different stories about the misbegotten heroine. I've been lucky enough to interview some famous directors, but was really excited to sit down with Woody Allen. You never know what to expect in an interview and more often than not, you're disappointed. This was not the case here. Woody Allen was surprisingly warm and funny. He was very easygoing and had this fantastic nonchalant air about him. I thought his answers were very honest and got the feeling that he doesn't take his work nearly as seriously as everyone else does.
What is it about Radha Mitchell that made you cast her and how did you know she could do this dual role?
Woody Allen: That was sheer accident. I'd never heard of her. I was looking at film clips that were sent to me and I saw a clip of "Phone Booth," the Joel Schumacher movie. She had a little moment there and she was wonderful. I asked who she was and they said she was Australian. Then they sent me some footage, some independent film footage.
Was it "Ten Little Love Stories?"
Woody Allen: I can't remember what it was. It was black and white footage and she was great. She was absolutely great, and I thought, ‘Why not? Nobody knows her. She's beautiful. She's talented.' It was hard to find someone who had a light touch that could play light romantically and also could suddenly get very, very heavy. This was not an easy role to cast. Again, I was very lucky that she was available and wanted to do it.
Did you always see Ellis as a black character and if so, did you always plan for Chewy [Chewital Ejiofor] to play that character?
Woody Allen: I always saw him as a black character, yes. I thought that they want to fix this woman up, and they fix her up with this stiff. She goes to this party and the guy at the piano is a fan of the opera and kind of gorgeous and full of feeling, and I'd always seen him as a black character. So in the comedy story, I thought, ‘I could also use a black actor to match with that.' And I'd always felt it would be Chewy. As soon as I saw "Dirty Pretty Things" I thought, ‘This guy's great. He's gorgeous and he can act great.' And he was available. I was very lucky because I caught him during two months when he wasn't doing anything.
What story did you want to tell in this film?
Woody Allen: In the past, I had ideas that I felt would work as a comic idea and then five minutes later I would think, ‘Gee, this would be a very good drama. It's a story that would work just as well as a serious story.' And I always made a choice. Here, I thought,
‘She comes to the dinner party. It could make a good romance. She lives downstairs. He gets involved with her. She lives in the same building.' And then I thought, ‘This would be very good dramatically as well.' I thought I could combine the two and it could be an interesting experiment. I would learn something and perhaps make some insight about the nature of comedy and drama. And I did the film. I learned nothing whatsoever. I did the movie and it was fun to do it. I had fun doing the dramatic story, fun doing the comedic story…but that was the idea of it… to see the same material treated two different ways.
What do you see them as?
Woody Allen: I see them funny. This is my curse. When I was younger, I wanted to be a dramatic writer, a writer of tragedy. Nothing would've pleased me more than if I could have written like Eugene O'Neil or Tennessee Williams. That, to me, is just great. My gift was in comedy. I found out I could make jokes. I could tell jokes. I could write them. So over the years, that's what I've done. But to get an opportunity to write something dramatic is great fun for me. It's just a pleasure for me.
All your films have a signature; everyone knows it's a Woody Allen film.
Woody Allen: This is either good or bad. People are forever criticizing me, saying, ‘Well, they're all the same.' Now, I don't see them as the same. But I'm not right. I don't see any similarities between "Everyone Says I Love You" and "Zelig" and this picture and "Hannah and her Sisters" and "Annie Hall." I don't see great similarities. But I've come to the conclusion over the years that it's like Chinese food. There's a hundred different dishes, but in the end it's all Chinese food. So there's something about my films; they're informed by my sensibility. I have the same preoccupations, the same interests… there's just something in the nuance, and so you always know it's a film of mine whether I sign my name to it or not. You're just used to seeing that point of view come through, whether it's in a musical like "Everyone Says I Love You" or a murder mystery like "Manhattan Murder Mystery" To me, some of these films are so diverse, but people don't see them that way and I can understand why they don't.
Can you talk about the role that jazz plays in the movie and in your life?
Woody Allen: Jazz is a big thing with me. My favorite kinds of music are jazz and classical. It's a very big passion of mine, to play it. I'm an amateur musician and I love everything about it. I was obsessed with jazz when I was 15 years old and I know a lot about it because I've loved it so much. I've listened to so much of it and read so much about it and played it a lot. And I find in my movies, I like my old personal feelings to inform the movie, and so it's jazz and classical music.
At what point do you decide what music to use?
Woody Allen: At the end, when I'm cutting a film. I've shot it and I'm cutting it. When you're look at a scene, it's the most fun of the making the film, to put the music in. We turn on the record and we listen. It could be Bach or Errol Garner and we say, ‘No, that's not good. We have another one.' We have thousands of great songs at our disposal as opposed to the person who scores a picture. When you score a picture, you spend all your money on a score and that's the score, and you're stuck with it unless you want to spend more money. And you don't like to throw music away because it hurts the feelings of the composer when you say ‘That's terrible, it doesn't work…' But for me, I
just sit there and I have Duke Ellington and Errol Garner and Louis Armstrong.
How strange is it to you that there are college courses devoted to you and your films?
Woody Allen: I know. I do find it strange because the naiveté with which we do it is so far removed from the complexity of the papers that I read. We're sitting there and we're thinking, ‘God, how are we going to make this scene work? It's dying. Let's grab something from the end of the picture and stick it over here, otherwise it's not going to work. And, quick, let's change this piece of music.' Its so patchwork and fighting for survival when you put the film together. And then someone will send me a thesis and it's as though I was trying, with a forehand knowledge, to do this, as if it was all done by design. But it isn't. And I'm only shocked that I see a huge amount of papers and books and masters degrees written by social psychologists and analysts. It's the strangest thing to me. And sometimes when I leaf through them, some of the insights are good and some of them are, to me, preposterous.
Do you ever just want to say, ‘It's a little comedy? I'm looking for a laugh?'
Woody Allen: They don't see it that way. You'd be amazed at the amount of erudition that goes into that stuff that, for us, we just want to be funny. And we weren't funny, so we did something silly to be funny, and they make it into (something more). But sometimes the insights are good. Sometimes I'm doing something without knowing that I'm doing it, and I do it and I realize afterwards, when someone points it out to me, ‘Yes, you could interpret it that way,' and even though I didn't intend it that way you could read that into it.
How do you know when to put yourself in a film?
Woody Allen: Only if when I'm writing there's a part for me I'll do it. When I was writing Melinda – and this December I'll be 70 – I know that I'm not going to be able to play this part. You needed someone decades younger than me. So I never thought I'd be in it at any point. But when I'm writing something, if there's a part that's good for me, then I'll play it. Otherwise, I don't. And I notice that there are less and less parts for me in my own writing. When I naturally write a story and I feel that the guy (is) sitting across the table from the girl and flirting with her… I think, ‘God, that can't be me' because I'm just too old for that part. You need a 30-year-old or a 35-year-old for that part. And so I've given myself less and less roles. I'm hoping that I'd come up with an idea that'd be great for someone like myself. I know when you get older… a guy like Walter Matthau did some very funny things. But you have to get a part.
Would the Will Ferrell role have been yours in a different time?
Woody Allen: Oh yes, I would have loved to have played that role, but I couldn't. That would've been the role that I played years ago. Now, as I say, there are things that I couldn't have gotten in there that he did execute. I think I wouldn't have been as sweet and vulnerable as him. He's just like a big teddy bear that breaks your heart. I would have been with the glasses, looking more intellectual, and you'd be waiting for the snappy line. You don't with Will. It's a different thing. But years ago I would have definitely played that. I would have loved to.
How differently do you go about writing a comedy versus a drama? And how different is the set on a comedy versus a drama?
Woody Allen: On the set, there's no difference. You'd think they're both boring if you were watching both cases. The comedies are not a million laughs on the set. Its business and the dramas are business as well, really. When I'm writing it I struggle more with drama because I started out in comedy. I'd always wanted to be a dramatic. Comedy comes more naturally to me. I can do it with more facility. So I feel more comfortable with it. Drama, it would be as if you wrote some poetry. You'd run the risk of being embarrassed if people read it, because you're pouring your heart out and you're not mitigating it with any humor or anything. It's just out there. That's what happens when you're writing drama.
How has filming in New York changed over the years?
Woody Allen: It has not changed much. Its fine, filming in New York. The unions are difficult in New York, because it's expensive. Various mayors have tried to make it more livable for us, and the film board and the film commission in New York have tried to be helpful. And it is a fairly film-friendly city. It's just very expensive. But it's fine. I'm always shocked that any movie I come up with, whether it's a contemporary movie or a movie in the 20s or the 30s, Santo Loquasto can always find new locations, new 1920s places, new 1940s places. It's just astonishing to me. I don't think I've scratched the surface of the city, and I've worked a LOT in the city. I don't think we've scratched the surface. If we wanted to make a film tomorrow about New York in 1915 he'd go out and show me 10 places that have scarcely changed inside and would find streets that, if you look at them right and remove the parking meters for that hour that you shoot, they look just like they looked. So it's a great place to shoot. It really is.
Is this film a return to relationships, as opposed to your other recent films, which were comedies or mysteries?
Woody Allen: Well, I'm always interested in relationship. "Anything Else" was a movie about relationships, very much about relationships. Before that I had had a series of comedy ideas that I wanted to do. I had, laying around in my drawer, was the idea for "Smalltime Crooks" and "Jade Scorpion" and "Hollywood Ending". I always thought it would be very funny if I was a blind film director. I wanted to do these things. So I did them. But relationships are really what interest me the most. And I think, in the end, they interest most people the most. Even when you read Tolstoy or something, basically they're about man and woman relationships.
You said you're about to turn 70 in December. How scary is that for you?
Woody Allen: This is VERY scary. I can't minimize the terror factor. As you get older you get more and more frightened because the terrible indignities of old age become closer to you. And even if you don't experience them yet, which I haven't – I've been in good health, thank God – you know they're not 60 years down the line.
What's scarier, that or knowing you only have 10 or 20 films left in you?
Woody Allen: It's not the films so much. It's the actual breathing that's bothersome!
What's your next film?
Woody Allen: I shot a film called "Match Point" with Scarlett Johansson. It's going to be at the Cannes Film Festival this year. It's a drama. And I'm very bullish about it. I'm usually not. I usually want to crawl into the ground after I make a film, almost invariably, but I'm very bullish about it because she's such a strong actress.
Dont't forget to also check out: Melinda and Melinda