Cannes Q&A: Woody Allen

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Woody Allen may be more revered in France than in any other country, but this year is only his third visit to Cannes in 42 years, after 39 features as a director. Yet his appearance with "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is just the latest in a recent string of unexpected overseas trips from a man who dreaded crossing the Hudson River for decades. The film's title encompasses the repressed Vicky (Rebecca Hall), the uninhibited Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and the city where they both become romantically entagled with an intense painter (Javier Bardem) and his unstable ex-wife (Penelope Cruz). Allen spoke with THR's Gregg Goldstein about his extensive body of work, keeping afloat in the film business and whether or not to quit in the face of his famously dreaded mortality.

The Hollywood Reporter: You wrote "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" with Penelope Cruz in mind. What's the tone audiences can expect?
Woody Allen: I was going to write something based in Barcelona, and I knew that Penelope wanted to do the movie -- this was a great incentive for me. It's not a comedy in the sense "Sleeper" was. It's about relationships, and to the degree that anything amusing happens, that's fine, but it's a romantic film more than anything else.

THR: Both Johansson and Hall's characters exhibit some of the traits of characters you've played. Do you agree?
Allen: It's hard for me to understand that. It wouldn't mean anything to me. I just had a story that I wrote for Barcelona about two American girls who go spend the summer there. And I did it, and I wasn't thinking about much more than that.

THR: Has the foreign financing you've received in recent years affected your choices to shoot overseas?
Allen: Only in that you have to use a certain amount of local people on your crew for whatever tax incentives they give, but that's all.

THR: So it wasn't that getting Spanish financing made you think about writing about Barcelona, or that this would be a good opportunity to shoot there?
Allen: Well, I knew a Spanish company and they wanted me to make a film there, so I made it there. This was not a government-financed project, but it's very easy in places like London or Barcelona because they're sophisticated cities with film communities.

THR: Do you show the scripts in advance to your financiers?
Allen: No. Nobody sees anything ever. I have to raise money with the proviso that everything is under my control and that not everybody needs the script. And there are people who are willing to put up the money under those circumstances and people who are not.

THR: How has that affected getting your films made?
Allen: It hasn't affected them getting made or created any stumbling blocks. My movies are very inexpensive. I don't know that I could raise $30 or $40 million to make a movie without them wanting to read something, but my budgets are more in the $15 million area. And I have a reputation for being reasonably sane over many, many years. So they take a chance.

THR: After you finish a film, are you involved at all in the selling or release of it?
Allen: I have control over the ads and the trailer, and 99% of them are perfectly good. How they distribute it in movie theaters is strictly up to them. They could open it in one theater, 50 theaters, good or not so good theaters. They paid their money and I assume they want to give it the best distribution they can. Harvey (Weinstein) is wonderful with all he does. DreamWorks was great, so was Focus.

THR: Do you ever concern yourself with boxoffice?
Allen: No, I've never played that game because it's a very, very doubled-edged sword -- the "hit-flop" syndrome, where you have a tremendous hit and then suddenly you get one or two that aren't and you're out. I work quietly, by myself, with small budgets. I'm not a big risk. If my film is a disaster, they lose a couple of bucks, so it doesn't mean that much to them. If you take all my pictures over the years, I've been a profitable investment, particularly as they've gotten into ancillary markets like DVD and television and foreign distribution. Even my most controversial dramatic films that haven't done well here made a little in France, a little in Germany, a little in DVD sales.

THR: You've gotten acclaim for your dramatic work in the latter part of your career. Still, there are people pushing you to do more comedy. How do you feel about that?
Allen: Maybe I'm wrong, but my feeling is probably if I did a film tomorrow like "Take the Money and Run," people would be surprised, but in not a positive way. They would have some kind of disappointment. I've gone on to make deeper films and feel they prefer them. Some people tell me their favorite is "Bananas" or "Interiors" or "Annie Hall." It's very personal. That's why many years ago I stopped reading reviews. There were so many disparate opinions, all valid and correct. You can't concern yourself with it. You learn nothing. You go nuts.

THR: How would you say that you're different as a filmmaker now than five or 10 years ago?
Allen: You do develop a certain amount of technique working with different cameramen, but basically films change only to the degree that you've grown as a person or shrank. That's reflected in my films, for better or worse -- what I've lived through, what I've read, how the world has changed. I've been a happier person. I've been more family oriented. I have two daughters, so I've had a more domestic life. I've spent a lot of time being a father and it's been a positive experience. But from 62 to 72, I don't know that much has changed except in my arteries.

THR: You talked years ago about how you may not ever make that one masterpiece. Is that something you're still aiming for?
Allen: That's become an obsessive thing -- when you finish a film you set out to make it with the grandest intent, then you see how miserably you failed and can't wait to get to the next film to correct that. It's like somebody in Vegas who's losing and keeps frantically doubling the bet to try and get out of the hole and get back even. I try to work harder to make a better film and I get myself in a deeper hole and this goes on and on and on. I've always tried to make a terrific film, but it's eluded me over the years.

THR: What are your favorites now, and have they changed as time goes by?
Allen: They haven't changed too much. I've always liked "Husbands and Wives," always liked "Purple Rose" and "Bullets," like "Danny Rose" and "Zelig." I liked "Match Point" a lot. Recently I liked "Cassandra's Dream." A lot of the films the public has embraced haven't been among my personal favorites. I always feel best about films of mine where I get an idea that comes straight to me and I bring the idea off. When that happens I feel great, and if audiences didn't come, it didn't matter to me because I thought, "Wow I did a great job!" Other times I made films I that didn't really work for me, and audiences have loved them. I get none of the pleasure from "Hannah and Her Sisters" that the audiences did.

THR: You haven't acted in your last few films, or the one you're shooting now in Manhattan with Larry David. Is that something you're phasing out?
Allen: No, it's really a question of the part. If I write the film, if there's a large or small part in it for me, I'd be happy to play it. If there's no part for me, it doesn't matter.

THR: Does that factor into your writing in any way?
Allen: No, it's all about the story. It's hard enough to get a story that works.

THR: The final joke in "Hollywood Ending" is that the French will praise a film directed by a blind man, as long as it has an auteur stamp on it. How do you feel about that in relationship to your great acclaim here, and do you think that the French are too deferential to filmmakers?
Allen: I love the French and love the fact that they are very open and sympathetic and nurturing to artists of all kinds. Consequently, some of our major writers, filmmakers and even some painters have benefited by early encouragement from the French. In "Hollywood Ending," it was fun to kid them about that trait and I must say they took the joke well.

THR: Since death has been such a theme in your work, how do you feel about death now? How have your feelings about it changed?
Allen: They haven't changed. We're hard wired to reject it. Problem is, it doesn't reject us.
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