Woody Allen’s European Vacation
While it seems safe to say that Woody Allen will someday make another movie in Manhattan, at least for now the Brooklyn-born big-screen ambassador of New York City has become, like his favorites, Fellini, Truffaut, and Bergman, a European filmmaker. Allen’s latest, Match Point—filmed in England and released by DreamWorks in December—stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chris Wilton, an ex-tennis pro who befriends Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a Londoner from a wealthy family; he quickly moves up the social ladder by marrying Tom’s sister (Emily Mortimer). Complicating matters, however, is the fact that Chris is having an affair with Tom’s American ex-fiancée, played by Scarlett Johansson. (She also stars in Allen’s next picture, the comedy Scoop, which shares Match Point’s London setting but has little else in common with the dark thriller.)
Nearly devoid of any of Allen’s signature comic dialogue and sight gags, Match Point is his most solemn work since 1988’s Another Woman. “I’ve always wanted to make serious films,” says the writer-director, “but it’s been difficult because of all the comic ones I’ve done. There’s a kind of tacit contract you have with the audience where they expect you’re going to make them laugh. Hopefully, if Match Point has an audience, it will be less alien to people when I do it.” If the early buzz is any indication, fans had better get used to Allen’s other side, not to mention seeing Big Ben instead of the Chrysler Building.
Premiere: Did you always plan on making Match Point in Europe?
When I first wrote it, I was thinking of making it in the United States. But then [due to financial reasons] I rewrote it for London, which was easy to do because New York and London are so similar. The changes were only cosmetic.
Are you going to film your follow-up to Scoop in Manhattan?
My guess is I’ll shoot abroad because it’s easy for me to raise the money under the circumstances I need. I could raise the money in the United States, but that entails letting studios read my script and telling them who I want to cast, and I don’t want to get into that with them. I don’t want to hear that they think the script begins great but tapers off at the end or begins slow and picks up at the end, or “Oh, God, please don’t cast that person.” I just don’t want anybody tampering. When I raise my money in Europe, I raise it under circumstances that are extremely good for me artistically. And because of that I’m able to do a film like Match Point. If I had to go in and sit down with studio executives and say, “Look, I want to do this serious film about this family,” they would look at me and say, “Where are the laughs?” Or they would see their money vanishing down a well someplace.
Haven’t comedies always been easier to get made?
Serious films are less commercial and comic films are more acceptable to audiences. But to the degree that the business is so box office–driven, I’ve been able to really tap-dance around that over decades, but if you get a little help there, it greases the skids. I think I’ve proved if nothing else that you can survive outside the system without films making much or any money. But it makes life easier, and it makes artistic life easier, if you could get a little help.
Much like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point deals with infidelity and violence. Do you feel the films are very similar?
Crimes and Misdemeanors was first of all fifty percent comedy—the half with Mia [Farrow], Alan Alda, and myself. In the other part, the important thing for me was that people commit crimes every day and get away with them, and if it doesn’t bother the perpetrator, there’s no justice or retribution of any kind that’s going to catch up with them. And that was an intellectual point that I wanted to make. In Match Point I was more interested in the emotions and passions of the characters. It’s less doctrinaire, less intellectual.
How do you think fans will react to Match Point’s lack of comedy?
I have no fans. [laughs]
Now you’re just being humble.
I feel that I never have had, at any point in my life, a really big fan base that supports me and makes my films profitable or break even, actually. And I understand that because I’ve never thought of them, and they in turn don’t think of me. I’m going to do the films I want to do—whether they are in black and white, dramas or comedies with sad endings—and just hope and root for a big audience to come. And of course a big audience just about never does. I have a healthy worldwide audience, but in the United States, I think I have a small audience, so there’s never any big burst of profit.
Do you worry that this attitude may put off people who do consider themselves fans and see all of your movies?
I hope there are loyal fans out there who like my films, but I suspect that the number is so small that it becomes a negligible factor.
You’re notoriously hard on your own films. What do you think of Match Point?
I think it turned out to be the best film I’ve ever made. Everything just fell in for me: I needed Scarlett Johansson, I got her. I needed Jonathan Rhys Meyers, he was available. I needed a young guy to play the [Tom Hewett] part, Matthew Goode walked into my life. Brian Cox was available. Emily Mortimer was available. I needed it to rain, it rained. I needed a sunny day, it was a sunny day. It was just incredible. It was like I couldn’t screw myself up no matter how hard I tried.
Which other films do you consider your best?
Probably Husbands and Wives and The Purple Rose of Cairo; then it becomes a question of personal favorites. I like Zelig but someone else who’s a fan might say they liked Annie Hall better.
I’m surprised you didn’t mention Annie Hall, which of course won the Best Picture Oscar and is probably your most adored film.
I enjoyed making it, but I have no special feeling toward any of [my films]. The fact that the public embraces one film over another doesn’t mean anything to me, because for me the test is, did I fulfill my idea. Very often I see the film I’ve made and I’m very disappointedand I think I’ve screwed up the idea or gotten fifty or ninety percent of what I wanted to do but not one hundred.
How successful would you say you were with Annie Hall?
I got a good percentage but not one hundred. I must say I was surprised at the enormous affection that the public had for it. I’m not surprised they enjoyed it; I mean, I think it’s an enjoyable film, but they took it to their bosom very emotionally and affectionately. But the person who makes a film is probably the worst judge of how other people see it.
Over the years, you’ve been approached several times to do an Annie Hall sequel; have you ever considered it? Bergman recently revisited his Scenes From a Marriage characters in Saraband.
You could do a story about those characters later in life but you would have to make up a whole biography of them, and it’s something I would never do because I have no interest in that kind of thing.
I know you don’t read your reviews . . .
I haven’t seen a review of a film of mine, I would say, in thirty years.
But how do you respond to British critics who have attacked the authenticity of your dialogue in Match Point?
Anything British critics say about Match Point has probably got more insight than I’ll ever have about it, because they’re British and they know. . . . But I won’t read them.
In America, the film has been called “a return to form.”
It doesn’t mean anything to me. Some of my best films have been in the last eight or nine years. I think I’ve rarely done anything as good as Bullets Over Broadway, and though it was not a terribly popular picture, Sweet and Lowdown was as good as anything I’ve ever made.
But it was well received by the critics despite its poor box office.
People generally judge these things, critics as well, by popularity. And that’s deceptive because many films out there, not mine, but many films out there that have enormous public popularity are very, very terrible films that you’d be ashamed to have your name on. The first film I ever worked on was What’s New Pussycat? [in which Allen appeared and wrote the screenplay], and I think it was the biggest comedy financial hit ever at that time. And I was ashamed and embarrassed of it and got no kick out of it at all.
Much is made of how actors like Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda and Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity were essentially playing “the Woody Allen role.” Do you disagree with this?
Of course I disagree. But my weak voice disagreeing doesn’t mean much. There’s some truth to the fact that if I was younger, I would have played the roles that Will Ferrell or Kenneth Branagh did. But what does that mean? I would have played it completely different than Will played it, and he played it totally different than I would have. There are many parts I could play in many other movies that other comedians have played. I could play many roles that I’ve seen Steve Martin and Billy Crystal play, and they could play many roles that I’ve played.
Any plans to cast yourself as a romantic lead again?
If I wrote a script where it felt right despite any kind of chronology, I would do it. But it’s practically impossible for me to play the romantic lead in a movie because I am about to turn seventy. So it’s just not good casting. I mean, people don’t want to pay to see me play the romantic lead when they can see Hugh Jackman or Brad Pitt.
Most actors describe working with you as an amazing experience, but they say you don’t offer much in the way of communication on the set.
I don’t like to overburden them with a lot of talk and analysis and direction. If they have a question, they can always ask me. But they know what the character is and they go on the set and play it. And ninety-nine percent of the time, what they bring in terms of body language and inflection and performance is better than what I had ever dreamed of when I was in my bedroom writing it. I’ll correctthem if something is egregiously wrong.
How often does that happen?
It’s rare. I hired them because they’re terrific, and I don’t socialize with them or spend a lot of time talking or lavishing them with hugs and insincere kisses. To me it’s a work situation. We come in and work. They’re free to say, “Your direction over here or your dialogue in the script is incredibly embarrassing and terrible.” It wouldn’t bother me at all; I welcome it. And I’m free to tell them what I once said to Sean Penn [on Sweet and Lowdown], who is as great an actor as you can have in this country, and he’s repeated the story many times. I said, “There’s one thing wrong with the way you did that scene.” And he said, “What?” And I said, “Everything.” And I felt I could speak frankly to him; he’s not threatened, because he knows that I think he’s fabulous. Just as he can come in and say to me, “God, you don’t want me to say this, do you? It’s embarrassing. Nobody speaks like this.” And he’s probably right.
You’ve managed to make a musical (1996’s Everyone Says I Love You) and a German expressionist film (1992’s Shadows and Fog). Any new genre you’d like to tackle?
Over the years I have forced my miraculous scenic designer, Santo Loquasto, to [re-create] places in foreign countries and all over the United States within a twenty-block radius of my home. So we did once discuss if we could do a legitimate-looking western without ever leaving midtown Manhattan.
You tend to make about one film per year. Have you ever considered slowing down?
I never really give it any thought. When I finished Scoop, I stood around my apartment, walked the streets, and then started writing. I mean, what do you do? I start noodling with a pencil and paper, and before you know it, I have another script.
In Match Point, luck is a key concept. Do you consider yourself lucky?
I’m very lucky, for many reasons. I was lucky to have a talent, because I was not really very good in school and I don’t know what I would have done. I had a good family growing up, and my parents lived to very ripe old ages. When I first started in show business, and films especially, all the things written about tended to overlook my faults and emphasized my strengths. I played baseball with Willie Mays at Dodger Stadium during a celebrity game, I’ve played jazz in New Orleans clubs, I’ve dined at the White House and traveled all over the world. I’ve done all those things that I could ever have imagined doing in my life.