The Woodman Cometh
Woody Allen finds himself deep in the heart of Texas
In a clever stroke of counter-programming this weekend, Woody Allen's new film Hollywood Ending will go head-to-head against the release of the summer's first expected fantasy blockbuster, Spider-Man. It's no folly, either. Instead, it's representative of what Allen's career has stood for all these decades: thoughtful alternatives to the Hollywood mainstream. Occasionally, the payoff can be big -- like when Annie Hall beat out Star Wars for the Best Picture Oscar in 1978.
On Monday, Allen came to Austin to promote his Hollywood Ending, which opens this week nationwide. Austin is one of only four cities -- "university towns," I'm told by the publicists -- that have been selected for this tour.
In person, Woody Allen's gracious and avuncular attitude puts one instantly at ease. Instead of a Manhattan fish out of water, I was received at the Four Seasons by a curious tourist who pronounced his barbecue lunch at the Iron Works to be "sensational" despite the fact that he could already feel his heart "congealing," and a man who quickly overcame his initial Annie Hall-like reaction to spiders and lobsters when I told him of the Austin bat colony in residence near his hotel. Woody Allen -- the man, the myth, the film icon -- were all present in front of me.
Austin Chronicle: I went to the video store over the weekend to brush up on some of your work, and was struck by how much of the comedy section is taken up with your movies.
Woody Allen: They're not in the foreign film section, are they? That once happened to me.
AC: No, but everything you've made seems to be considered a comedy.
WA: Oh, good. They're meant to be -- with the exception of three of them. People always think that I make comedies and non-comedies, but I've made about 35 films and there've been three that were not comic and the other 30-plus have been comic films. It's what I do.
AC: What's the objective of this whole college tour thing?
WA: It's not all colleges. I've done all colleges ... two years ago. DreamWorks tries to find these ideas to promote the films. Two years ago they sent me to Harvard, the University of Chicago, and UCLA to talk to film classes, which I did. And last year they sent me out with my jazz band on a jazz tour, which was fun. And I went to a number of cities and played jazz and talked about the film. This year they were sending me not so much to colleges but to some cities that I had never been to ever in my life. I've never been to Texas, I was never to Canada, I was never to Atlanta -- so, it's interesting to me. And the trips are so pampered by the film companies that they're not grueling.
AC: Isn't it interesting that it took to this point in your career to ...
WA: ... get to Texas? To get to Canada? I live in New York, an hour from Canada. But, I'm not usually a traveler. But I like to do something for my films. This is one week of traveling. But it's so pampered that it's hard to say no because there's no arguing point when you say, "Well, I have to do this," and they say, "No, don't worry. That will all be taken care of. You don't have to do anything." So, you do it.
AC: But it seems that if, say, 10 years ago, you had wanted to go out and promote any movie of yours, the promoters then would have also made things cushy for you.
WA: Right, although I will say that it's gotten more critical as the expenses have gone up in putting out films. Ten years ago, and even earlier than that, you could put out a film for a reasonable amount of money. Now, it costs so much to put a film out that it actually makes financial sense for them to do one of these tours with a private plane, and hotels, and all these expenses, just for the publicity. If they tried to buy it, it would cost them so much money that this is a bargain for them. It's amazing.
AC: This movie ought to go over great at Cannes. [Hollywood Ending has been selected as the festival's opening night movie, and Allen will be in attendance to present his film, which has a special nod toward his French fans.]
WA: One of the reasons I'm doing Cannes -- or the main reason -- is that the French have been so supportive of me and so affectionate to me, and they've invited me there 25 times and they've shown my films out of competition for so many years and I've always said no [to appearing in person], that I decided that I would like to reciprocate once -- to not be so standoffish and once go. And I felt I had the film for it. This is the time. If I were ever going to do it, this is the film for Cannes. So I thought I would go this year.
Then, coincidentally, they asked me to do this thing because of September 11 for the Academy Awards. So I found myself going to Cannes and the Oscars in the same three-month span. So it really looks like a radical change in my life. But it's not. It's just a coincidence that they fell in the same year.
AC: So it's not the "new" Woody?
WA: I wish it was. I wish I could tell you it was, because nothing would please me more. But it's not.
AC: You stole the Oscar show with your appearance.
WA: Thank you. I had kind of an advantage in the Oscars only in that they had no idea what I was going to say, and I could speak freely. All the other people -- all these wonderful actors and actresses -- have got to read these cards and it's so hard to do. Of course, they're going to come out there and do this [squinting and scrunching up his face] and it becomes awkward. If they would just come out and speak as themselves they'd be wonderful.
AC: It was also great seeing you do what was essentially stand-up again.
WA: It was stand-up. I'd love to do stand-up again, but it's too time-consuming to get an act together. I would have to not make movies or not do anything for a year or something just to be able to put together that one hour. Stand-up material is so distilled. It's one laugh after another for an hour. In a film script, there's exposition, there's character development, and a laugh here and there. But in a nightclub act, boy, if there's a lull it's just a hellhole. It's so much harder to do a stand-up act than it is to appear in movies or in a play or something. The equation, the structure, dealing directly with the audience is so much harder than just talking to another actor. But when you have to talk to the audience and make them laugh, it's very personal, and very difficult, for me. And I know the same goes for others I've talked to.
AC: How does that compare with the writing phase?
WA: The writing phase is a dream because you never meet the test of reality. I lay on my bed, I'm home, I'm writing, I go "Ach, this is going to be great. This is so funny." Sure, that's fine when you're in your closed bedroom writing it. I think that when you go out and make the film -- and you've got to cast and find locations and costumes and shoot it every morning -- then you look at it when it's put together, and it's always such a disappointment from what you wrote. Because it's idealized when you write it. But when you see it actually done, you hear the words spoken in your own voice -- things don't glide like this [snaps fingers], but a guy has to walk across the room [dragging out the words] and it's not quite as amusing as you thought it would be. And it's much slower than you thought. Then reality sets in and it's very disappointing.
AC: Is reality ever an improvement?
WA: You do improve from the first cut to the second cut. You goose it up, and you fix those things. Though I've rarely been able to improve it to the point I had it in the script. But I can lessen the disappointment.
AC: I'm thinking more in terms of what some of the other collaborators might bring to it. The actors, or different ways they deliver a line, or what the European cinematographer brings to it.
WA: Yes, that's also going to happen. But in the end, you're hung with the script. You can have wonderful actors, and wonderful photography, and that part of it is fine. Someone watching would say, "Well, the performers did a very good job. They were delightful. And they were very well photographed." But finally, if the piece of material is wanting and 90% of the errors come in the script, if the material is wanting ... You know, if you give the greatest directors in the world a bad script it'll look good and it'll have its own panache to it, but it will never be good. But if you give a mediocre director a wonderful script, you'll have a fairly good movie. So I'm always crushed between the potential in the script and the thing that I see -- that I wrought -- after six months of doing it.
AC: What is it, you think, that the European cinematographers bring to your movies [Employing European cinematographers is a Woody Allen tendency that is satirized in Hollywood Ending]?
WA: First of all, psychologically it helps me because the films I grew up loving the most were European films. So I get some kind of psychological comfort from it. The Europeans are very fluid, they're not slick. They're very into motion and they're not as technical as the American cinematographers. American cinematographers are technically much better, they're technically great. But the Europeans take more chances, and do more things. It's much harder to make a shot that moves all around because you can't get the lighting for everything. What's good for this spot is not good for that spot. The American photographers will want to light for this spot, and do the scene, and then cut. And it will look beautiful in the cut. The French cinematography, the Italians, Swedes, Chinese, or whoever, will move -- and they don't care about the niceties of it so much. And it looks great. It's got a great, alive, spirited look to it.
AC: And what's so great about movement? What makes that so important to you?
WA: It just gives you an energy that works for you. If you look at some of those films that Marty Scorsese does, they're just so full of movement. Even when he's doing a scene that for any reason lacks enough content, or one of his lesser scenes for any reason, he's a magician with the camera and keeps you on the edge of your seat with sheer movement sometimes.
AC: It's also probably a characteristic of New York -- all that constant energy.
WA: Well, you know, New York was a huge foreign film mecca when I was a young man, or late adolescent. There were half a dozen foreign films a week. If you were my age, when I was 18 and 20 and 22, all we'd be interested in was the new Monicelli film. There were Fellinis, there were Bergmans, Kurosawas, and we would talk about them all the time, and there would be a big event when a Costa-Gavras film would open, or a Jean-Luc Godard. Now, forget it. Those films can't get played in New York. They can't get played at all.
Hollywood Ending opens in theatres nationwide on Friday, May 3. See Film Listings for review.