By Aaron Hillis
The word “nebbish” has been permanently forged into Woody Allen’s iconic identity (or at least, his weak-willed onscreen persona), but it’s probably a flippant misnomer for an auteur who, after working tirelessly now into his septuagenarian years, appears to be in no danger of abandoning his movie-a-year prolificacy. Originally premiering at festivals like Avilés, Venice and Toronto in 2007, the Woodster’s latest is “Cassandra’s Dream,” a familial cautionary tale and his third consecutive film set in London. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell star as two desperate brothers who may have found a solution to all their financial woes, that is, if both the law and their consciences will allow them to get away with murder. Before speaking with New York’s hometown hero by phone, I prepared myself for either cranky or jokey responses, but instead found Allen to be both surprisingly upbeat yet wholly serious.
“Cassandra’s Dream” focuses on nearly the same questioning of morality and fate that you explored in your last drama, “Match Point,” and even 1989’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” What keeps bringing you back to these themes?
Well, it turns out, my first attempt is to make a movie that will be entertaining to people. Over the years, I’ve made many comedies, but every now and then, I’ll get an idea like “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Match Point” or “Cassandra’s Dream” something that’s more tense and suspenseful. Out of crime ideas, invariably, one is led to moral decisions. And those give the films more substance than just murder mysteries and whodunits. As you explore those issues, the films become richer and more detailed, and if they remain exciting, the moral dilemmas are fleshed out and give it another dimension that makes it interesting.
Your next feature, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” is set in Spain, but are the rumors true that you’re done with Europe and plan to return to New York?
Yes, I’m going to do a film in New York in about two months, [but] I’m not done with overseas. I did several pictures in London, and I did [“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”] last summer with Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson, but I had a good New York idea and I’m going to do it. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. I could do 10 movies in New York, or go right to Paris and do one, because foreign investors come forward and keep asking me if I’ll make a movie in Rome, or Paris, and they’ll back them. These are often offers that I can’t refuse because they finance the films with no questions asked.
What if you were offered funding from someplace out of your comfort zone, like a distant island?
I don’t think I could go away and live for the four or five months it takes in some place that’s non-metropolitan. I don’t mind making a film in Barcelona, London, Paris or Madrid, but I think I’d have a tough time in Bora Bora.
In a recent interview, you said you’ve been framing scenes mainly in “master shots” out of laziness. How lazy could you possibly be if you’re still making a picture a year?
It’s laziness in the sense that I don’t have the incentive, and this left me many, many years ago. You know, to shoot a scene… her close-up, his close-up, her over-shoulder, his over-shoulder, and another angle; I don’t have the patience to do that. I like to shoot it and be done with it. Another filmmaker making a perfectly wonderful film can shoot a page and it’ll take him all day or two days to shoot with all these angles and changes. I’ll do five pages in a day because I’m shooting a master, and I can shoot quicker, get through it faster, and it holds my interest more. As far as making a film a year being a sign of not being lazy, it’s not as much work as you’d think. It really isn’t. You know, I make small films in a controlled situation, and they’re low budget. They don’t take more than a certain amount of months to do, and I have plenty of time to make one a year without really rushing myself.
Then, not to be morbid, but do you think you’ll ever slow down or retire, or will you continue to film a feature a year right up until the very end?
I think I’ll work like this until either something happens to me and I can’t, or someone says, “We won’t back your films.” If tomorrow, I couldn’t raise money for movies, I would certainly stop making them and maybe write a book or something. Or, if I felt exhausted, but I feel the same way as I did 50 years ago. I don’t feel any diminution at this point. That could set in all at once. You know, I’m 72. I could suddenly, at 73 or 78, say “God, I don’t want to do this anymore.” But right now, I feel just as energetic doing it as when I first started.
My hat’s off to you, sir. Has it become more difficult these days to get your projects financed?
It had gotten harder a while ago. I found it difficult when the film business changed and these mega-hit blockbusters became the thing to go for. They don’t care about investing $15 million so they can make five or six million dollars. Modest profits are of no interest to them. They’re interested in investing $70 million and making $200 million on a film. It’s a big-stakes game. In a situation like mine, I’ve always been puzzled. It’s almost a no-lose situation for them because my film is going to be made for, say, $15 million, so it’s [recouped] between foreign sales, domestic sales and auxiliary markets. You almost can’t lose money, and if you did, if the film was catastrophic, you might only lose a million or two. But their reasoning is: it’s a high risk business, they want a big reward, and in their way of thinking, they found a better business.
I was thinking about your heartfelt eulogy to Ingmar Bergman in the New York Times last year. As someone who has seen firsthand how much the industry has changed over the decades, how do you feel about film culture today? Does anything or anybody give you hope for its future?
Oh, sure. I think the filmmaker who made “There Will Be Blood” has made some wonderful stuff. I enjoyed “Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights.” I’ve certainly liked some films by Alexander Payne. The problem with the business is not that there aren’t talented people. It’s just that it’s so hard for them to get stuff done. It’s such a fight all the time. There are a lot of young, talented filmmakers out there who could be doing wonderful work, but it takes forever for them to get a film done, if they ever get it done. The companies are so reluctant to take chances, put up money, and not be hands-on. It’s such a sweat.
Do you ever read reviews of your films, or rather, do critics mean anything to you today?
They don’t, but not out of any contempt. They don’t because they never have. I’ve never had any interest in what they had to say because there’s nothing I can do about it. By the time critics get a hold of your film, it’s finished, it’s out, and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t change your style. There’s no help in reading them. They either tell you you’re brilliant and a genius, and you know that’s not true, or they think you’ve screwed up somehow. Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t, maybe it’s their personal taste, maybe not everybody will feel that way, or maybe everybody will. The best thing to do is make your films, keep your eyes closed, put your nose to the grindstone and just work. Over the years, that which you do which is good will last and people enjoy it, and stuff that’s junk drifts away.
Of course, you might just be your own worst critic. I’ve heard you don’t even like “Manhattan.”
I was disappointed in it when I finished, and I was surprised… You know, there’s no correlation between what I like and what gets accepted of mine. Sometimes I’ll finish a film, think it’s terrific, and then people don’t like it. Or I’ll finish the film and think, “I really made a fool of myself here,” and it gets embraced tremendously. That’s happened frequently over the years, where I’m at a loss as to why people embrace or reject something. I haven’t seen [“Manhattan”] in 30 years, but I remember having a very negative feeling: “My God, if this is the best I can do, at this point I should stop making films.”
“Cassandra’s Dream” is now in theaters.
[Photos: Left, Woody Allen on set; below, Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor in “Cassandra’s Dream,” Weinstein Company, 2008]
Related: Check out Chazz Palminteri discussing Woody Allen’s directorial technique at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival on AMC’s Shootout blog.