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CANNES Q&A: Woody Allen: I Rewrote 'Midnight' in Paris for Owen Wilson

Woody Allen is one of the few directors in the world who knows what it’s like to walk the celebrated red carpet at the opening night of the Cannes Film Festival: He received that honor in 2002 when his Hollywood Ending served as the fest’s curtain raiser. Calling Allen’s newest film Midnight in Paris, starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard, “a wonderful love letter to Paris,” festival director Thierry Fremaux has once again extended that invitation to the writer/director. Speaking with THR film editor Gregg Kilday, Allen talks about searching for a storyline that would do Paris justice, why he cast France’s first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in the movie and his expectations — and trepidations — about opening night.

The Hollywood Reporter: Did you come up with a screenplay set in Paris, or did you decide to film in Paris and then come up with a screenplay? Which came first?

Woody Allen: It was suggested I do a film in Paris. This goes back about five years now. Of course, it was something I wanted very much to do because I love Paris, but I didn’t have any ideas for Paris off the top of my head. So I thought about Paris, I thought about what’s outstanding about it. When you think of Paris, you think of romance, so I came up with the title Midnight in Paris, which seemed to me very romantic, but I couldn’t think of what happens at midnight. I went for a couple of months without being able to come up with anything. Then one day it occurred to me — if I had my protagonist walking around Paris at midnight and a car pulled up and they said get in and they took him on an interesting adventure. So that’s how it formed.

THR: The trailer hints that while visiting Paris, Owen Wilson’s character somehow finds himself back in the Paris of the ‘20s?

Allen: I can’t talk about the plot of the movie, but I can tell you I tried to develop the most romantic story I could for Paris, because that’s all that came to mind to me. If someone had said to me make a film about Berlin, I would have thought of a spy story. But Paris is just a romantic place, so I was trying to come up with as good a love story as I could come up with.

THR: The movie has a very eclectic cast — how did it fall into place?

Allen: I was certain I wanted Rachel McAdams. I knew that. She had always been what I conceived of for her part. The lead was a more East Coast character in the original script (casting director) Juliet Taylor suggested Owen Wilson. I had always been a fan of his, but always felt that has a very West Coast persona. He belongs very much at home on a beach or with a surfboard. So I rewrote the script, making the character a West Coast character. I sent it to Owen and I was very lucky he wanted to do it. Once I had them, I thought about Marion Cotillard. I guess she is the first person you think of when you think of France and getting an actress who is great in the same sense that when I was making Barcelona, I thought of Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem because they are the internationally known giants of that country. The same thing here. Marion is not just a local French actress, she’s a great, internationally known movie actress. And she was available and willing to do it.

THR: Is that unusual for you, to rewrite a character to suit an actor?

Allen: That does happen, and I’m happy to do it if I can get an actor like Owen, who is a strong person to play something. Then I am perfectly willing to rewrite a character if I can rewrite it. Of course, there are some characters that you could never change. That would ruin the story. But very often you can adjust a character. If you have a strong personality, sometimes it requires an adjustment.

THR: What led to your casting Carla Bruni?

Allen: With Carla, my wife and I were having brunch with the Sarkozkys about a year and a half ago. I had never met them before. He was very charming, very nice, and then she walked into the room. She was so beautiful, so charming and charismatic, I said, ‘Would ever think of being in a movie? Just a small thing, for fun, for your own amusement. I knew she wouldn’t be available for three months of shooting, but I knew she had been before audiences before, playing the guitar, singing, making recordings. She said, ‘Yes, just once in my life I’d like to do it, so I could tell my grandchildren I was in a movie.’ So I said, ‘I’ll make it very simple, just a couple of days work. Something I know you can do, not something we have to work six weeks on. If you can relax and enjoy yourself, you will be fine.’ And she said, sure, she’d love that. And so she came in. She was no problem, she was very natural. The tabloids kept printing that I was doing a million takes with her, but I wasn’t at all. I was doing the normal amount of takes. I certainly don’t do a million takes with anybody, and I was only doing a normal amount with her. Her husband came to watch her work one night and thought she was just great, beautiful and a natural actress. All of the scenes that I wrote for her are in the picture and she did them well. It was a very pleasant experience doing the picture and very pleasant working with her.

THR: Did you realize when you cast her, she’d be a magnet for the paparazzi?

Allen: We have that all the time, whenever we are working in the street. When I was working in England with Scarlett Johansson, the tabloids were all over the place. When I was working in Barcelona with Javier and Penelope, the tabloids were out en masse. And when I work in New York, and there is someone in the movie of interest, they just come flocking. Here, interestingly, her first scene was in the Rodin Museum, so we had that privately to ourselves. So the paparazzi couldn’t get in there. Of course, then when we were working on the street, they were there, but that does happen. It happened with Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson just as much.

THR: You did shoot a bit in Paris before when you filmed Everyone Says I Love You. How did you decide on locations for this movie. Did you avoid settings you used before?

Allen: I tried to let the art director go and find as much of Paris as she could for me, because I had only filmed there in a very limited way in the past. I used a couple of the places that I had filmed at before, because they are irresistible — it would be very hard to film Paris and not do some material down by the river, because the river runs right through the center of town and is so beautiful. But there are so many locations in the movie that aren’t so well known.

THR: Having already been through opening night at Cannes once before, what are you anticipating?

Allen: It’s always an unreal experience. If  you’ve ever seen it up close, there are a million flashbulbs going off in your face. People clap when you walk in to take your seat. You have to sit through the movie, that’s the worst part. And after the movie, you have to stand up and people clap. There’s no connection to real life, to the real world. It’s a heightened, euphoric experience. I’m always embarrassed. I live a more quiet life. I don’t go to a lot of openings or events. But I’m required to go to some for the opening of the picture, so I do. I land in Cannes Wednesday morning, and then will be hustled off to photo shoots and interviews and then that night the opening and the opening party, which I would normally not go to but it’s obligatory. And then the next day I do interviews with France, with Germany, with Italy, with Spain. And then you go home. It’s a frantic kind of promotion of the movie. You have to keep telling people how wonderful the movie is, how great everybody is. I never think anybody goes to the movies based on that. I think they get a smell of the movie in some way — they get it from reviews or they get it from other people. Me sitting on a TV show or talking to a journalist saying I had a great time making the movie, doesn’t mean a thing, really.

THR: Do you know if the Sarkozys will be attending?

I don’t know. I really have no idea. I think if their schedule permits, either he or she or both of them will come. But you never know with them, because they have more important things to do.

THR: Given its setting, I would expect the French audience will be enthusiastic about the movie.

Allen: I hope they receive it with the spirit that I did it in. I certainly have an enormous amount of affection for Paris. And the French have always supported me from my first film Take the Money and Run on. Now that I finally got a chance to do a film in Paris, I hope that I can repay the overwhelming support and loyalty that they have shown me over the years.

CONTINUED AFTER THE BREAK

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Vital Stats
Film: Midnight in Paris, opening night
Nationality: American
Born: December 1, 1935
Selected filmography: Take the Money and Run (1969); Annie Hall (1977); Manhattan (1979); Hannah and Her Sisters (1986); Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989); Hollywood Ending (2002); Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008); You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010).

Notable awards: Academy Award, best original screenplay, best director, Annie Hall (1978), best original screenplay, Hannah and Her Sisters (1987); Directors Guild of America Award, motion picture director, Annie Hall (1978), Lifetime Achievement Award (1996); FIPRESCI Prize, Festival de Cannes, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985); Film Independent Spirit Award, best screenplay, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2009); Career Golden Lion, Venice Film Festival (1995).