THE DUALITY OF WOODY ALLEN.25 years ago, Paul Fischer, a then university student in Australia,travelled by bus from Los Angeles to New York to interview Woody Allen. Atthe time, Carter was ousted as President, American hostages were on theverge of being rescued in Iran, and Woody Allen hadn't even met Mia Farrow.Instead, his Annie Hall had won Oscars, Manhattan had just been released,and Woody Allen was already a legend. Fiercely shy, he rarely didinterviews, but agreed to what became his first ever Australian interview upto that point. Paul even forgot to take the lens cap off his camera whenphotographing him. For the first time in a quarter of a century, PaulFischer meets the elusive filmmaker and discovers little has changed.
Woody Allen/Melinda and Melinda Interview by Paul Fischer in New York.
vWoody Allen wears the same, trademark, tanned corduroy trousers that he worewhen we first met over 20 years ago. Still the most prolific and acclaimedwriter/director of his generation, the former Allen Konigsberg, at age 70,is still able to attract major stars for his films, even at the meagresalary they are paid. But the bespectacled former stand up comic admits thathe waits till the likes of Will Ferrell, star of his latest film Melinda andMelinda, have nothing to do between more high profile gigs, before acquiringtheir services. "They only work with me if they're between desirable jobs,"Allen says laughingly. "If I call an actor or actress and a StephenSpielberg or Martin Scorsese is calling them and are offering themsubstantial money, they have no interest in me at all. However, if they justfinished a picture, they have earned their 10 million dollar salary, theyhave nothing to do till August, I call them in June and they like the part,they say why not?"
Allen's films continue to be made at a fraction of the cost of thetraditional studio film. No wonder, studios are happy to work with him, buteven so, he does ponder what it would be like to have that $100m budget."I'm making films where everything, my salary, the whole film will be like amaximum of 14 or 15 million dollars and it's tough, because there's a lot ofthings I want to do that I can't do. You know they say when I did this nextfilm that hasn't come out yet, Match Point, you're not going to be able toafford music. And I figured out a way, by using all opera, and that I wasable to connive with an opera company that was putting out an Enrico Carusoalbum to get the music. But there's a lot of things you can't do, any kindof special effects or reshooting things and taking the proper times, youcan't do it." But a Woody Allen film has never been about special effects,but about recurring themes that deal with love, relationships, sex andAllen's various neuroses. In his latest film, Melinda and Melinda, thedirector explores both the comic and tragic flip sides of the same coin,using his fictional Melinda [played by Australia's Radha Mitchell] in both acomic and dramatic love story. An idea that had been brewing in Allen'scomplex head for years, he decided the time was ripe for Melinda to bearcinematic fruit. "There have been many times when I've had ideas that I feltwould have worked either way, either amusingly or as a serious story, and inthe past I'd always chosen one and gone in that direction. here I had anidea and again I thought that this could make quite a serious story, but itcould also make a quite funny romantic story and then it occurred to me whydon't I alternate the two and see if I could picture and maybe learnsomething from trying to juxtapose the two. Of course, I learned nothing intrying to do this. It was fun to do, but not enlightening," says Allen,laughingly.
Asked about his preference, Allen says that "It's always fun to write theheavy stuff for me because over the years I've done a lot of movies andalmost all of them have been comic, so it's fun to do something occasionallythat's very, very heavy just for the change. Then when I realized I wasgoing to be working with Will Ferrell, I went back over the script and triedto customize it more for him and that became fun."
As Melinda juxtaposes an often bleak tragedy with a typically Allen tone ofcomedy, an interesting question surfaces: that perhaps the comedy is forJews and the drama is for Wasps. The director chuckles at the suggestion andagrees to an extent. "I don't think of it that way, but I guess people thinkof comedy for Jews all the time. I'm forever being asked why are all thecomedians Jewish, but I always feel that they're not. This is amisconception based on the fact that there were many Jewish comedians thatcame out of the Catskills, but if you look at Bob Hope, Buster Keaton or WCFields, they were not Jewish. They were great comedians. Charlie Chaplinwas half Jewish, so which half is the comic half? Peter Sellers washalf-Jewish, and there were many fabulous Jewish comedians, but there weremany great comedians that were not. I don't think it's a particularlyJewish thing." Yet Allen's own comic tone, going back to his genesis as awriter and director, has remained very Jewish, a fact Allen reflects upon."Well, I was raised in a Jewish neighbourhood in a Jewish household sonaturally my idiom is where I grew up. I've had this conversation withSpike Lee a number of times: I could never write convincingly about a blackfamily and I don't know, but I doubt, if he could write convincingly, andcertainly not as convincingly as I could, about a Jewish family because youlived every moment, so it gets into the nuances."
Allen began life as a stand up comedian, and after four decades, one wondersif he misses that world or would ever re-enter it, as have the recent likesof Robin Williams. "I miss doing stand-up, but I'm too lazy to do it again,"he says, smilingly. "To write an act, to be the funny stand-up for 45minutes to an hour onstage is a huge amount of work, more work than a movie.Because in the course of an hour, a one line takes no time at all andanother and another and another and in order to get an hour's worth ofreally funny, potent material, is a huge amount of work and I just don'thave the energy or the patience to do. But I do miss it, it's a wonderfulmedium to work in and I love watching them. I love the fact that you canturn on your television set and because of the economics, it's good for themto show stand-up comedy, it's very cheap of them to do it. So anytime, dayor night you can turn on the television set and see two or three comicsworking almost in perpetuity around the clock."
For Allen, his world is the movies, and even while we were chatting, he hadalready completed Match Point, set to premiere at Cannes, and one of hisrare films shot outside of New York, in London. "It stars ScarlettJohansson, who's a wonderful actress, and we were able to shot in Londonquite inexpensively, so we did it." Of course, no other details wereforthcoming.
In a career spanning four decades, as Allen approaches 70, thewriter/director has explored all manner of the human condition as only WoodyAllen knows how. While the world may often remember him for a muchpublicised private life, his work speaks volumes when it comes to thehistory of American cinema. A true auteur in the classic tradition, Allensays that even at this point in his career, he still has much to do andtell. "I would like to make some films that are bolder than I've made. I'vemade romantic films and common films, but I would like to see if I couldcome up with something that was bolder and more aggressive. I've alwaysbeen a passive comedian, in the mould of Bob Hope or something that'svictimized. A coward, a failure with women, a loser and I'd love tosometime try a picture where I was a winner and I would like that just forthe fun of it. When you see a Groucho Marx or a WC Fields, they have anaggressive sense of humour, and I'd love to try that. Now, it might not sitwell, they might say who is this guy with the confidence, but I would liketo try that?" Woody Allen, aggressive womaniser? An interesting prospectindeed.
MELINDA AND MELINDA OPENS IN MAY