Hyperbole runs rampant in the entertainment industry, but
it’s hardly effusive to call Woody Allen a living legend.
At 72, the Brooklyn-born director of Annie Hall and
Manhattan has received 21 Oscar nominations during his four-plus decades behind
the camera, taking home the statuette three times. He has expanded his canon at
the astonishing rate of a movie each year since 1992. In short, he has earned
his place in the fraternity of the finest filmmakers of any era: among them,
Fellini, Scorsese and the man Allen once described as “the great cinematic poet
of morality,” Ingmar Bergman.
Just don’t expect him to act the part.
In person, Allen is intimidating only if you pause to
consider his credentials. He rises to greet you with an impressively firm handshake.
Ask him a question and he leans forward in his chair, listening intently before
offering a thoughtful, candid response. Asked by a fan to autograph the poster
for his remarkable new romantic comedy, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he signs in the margin,
explaining that he’d prefer
to leave the prime real estate for his stars.
Allen once expressed surprise at his first encounter with
Bergman. He expected a dark, brooding genius, but the reality was far less
daunting. “He was a regular guy,” Allen said later. “He commiserated with me
about low box-offices grosses and having to put up with studios.”
Allen is no different, especially when pressed to describe
the current state of American cinema.
“For years now I’ve had a very dim view of it,” he says. “There
was a time in the early ’60s when the American film industry had a little
flare-up that was great, but before that the studios were grinding out 500
pictures a year. People point to a golden age of cinema, those few films by
John Huston and Orson Welles, but they don’t realize there were thousands of
movies back then that were pure junk.
“Now, the studios have realized that if they spend $100
million on a movie they can make $300 million, and that’s all that interests
them. I understand that because it’s an industry to them. But I like to watch a
movie every Saturday in my screening room, just for fun, and it’s very hard to
find an American film worth watching.”
Recent exceptions include Gonzo, Alex Gibney’s documentary
about Hunter S. Thompson,
and Trumbo, another documentary
about one of Hollywood’s famously blacklisted screenwriters. (Allen has no
plans to see The Dark Knight,
observing only that he prefers movies made for adults.) Yet Allen is no indie
snob. He simply feels alienated by a studio system that devours its young and
pressures veteran filmmakers to compromise their work.
Lately, Allen has preferred to film abroad – in England for Match
Point and Scoop, in Spain for Vicky
Cristina. He could secure funding from an American studio if he
were so inclined, but at what cost? European financiers are willing to bankroll
his movies sight unseen, satisfied that their money is in capable hands. (“I’m
a pretty good bet,” Allen reasons.) At home, studio heads attempt to impose
their will on everything from rewrites to casting decisions. Allen, who
dismisses them as “businessmen with zero qualifications,” wants no part of it.
Besides, where casting is concerned, he is hardly wanting
for premiere talent. For his latest, he recruited Penélope Cruz, who impressed
Allen with her spirited turn in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver, Javier Bardem, and
Johansson. Allen admits he can’t afford A-list salaries – his budget allows
each top-of-the-marquee star a relatively modest $5,000 per week, no exceptions
– so he seeks out actors who are between jobs for his no-frills productions.
It’s an approach that has served him well, with a few
“Years ago, when I was doing Hannah and Her Sisters, I asked
Dustin Hoffman to play the lead,” Allen
says. “He wanted to do it, but he came to me and said, ‘Look, I just scored
with Tootsie, and after years I’m
finally getting some big-money offers. I can’t afford to do it.’ That’s why I
wound up with Michael Caine, an Englishman, and I didn’t want an Englishman.
“Some actors won’t work for that money. I wanted Robert
DeNiro for Deconstructing Harry. He was
willing to work for the minimum but he wanted some kind of back end on the
picture, and I can’t do that. So he felt that was unfair to him, and I
completely understand that. But usually, if the person likes the script and
they’re available, they do it.”
His next film, Whatever Works – another romantic comedy featuring a fellow Brooklyn native, Larry
David – was filmed mostly in Manhattan. Allen admits the location was chosen to
facilitate a quick, close-to-home shoot to avoid a possible actors’ strike. But
that doesn’t mean he’s back in a New York state of mind.
“My films have always done very well abroad, and people
thought there was some kind of foreign appeal to them,” he says. “Now, through
a strange set of circumstances, I find myself a foreign filmmaker.
“If it weren’t for the actors’ strike, I would have waited
until the summer to make my next film in Europe. I like working there, I prefer
working there. I like the sensibilities, and I love the freedom I’m afforded. I
want to make movies in Rome and Paris. I don’t have to go back to New York.”