The new Woody Allen film, Whatever Works — his 40th, for those keeping count — signals a return for the filmmaker in more ways than one. For starters, it is his first film to shoot on location in New York since Melinda and Melinda in 2004, interrupting a half-decade European vacation during which the 73-year-old Allen has directed three films in London and one in Spain. It also marks the realization of a project he first conceived in the 1970s as a vehicle for Zero Mostel, then set aside following the actor's untimely death. The result is a light comic burlesque — a minor key but eminently pleasurable Allen confection — starring Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm mastermind Larry David as Boris Yellnikoff, an atheistic, egotistical, misanthropic physics professor whose contempt for the entire human race is lessened by his chance meeting with (and eventual marriage to) the ditzy Southern belle (Evan Rachel Wood) he finds squatting underneath his back stairs.
Allen is running late on the sunny May afternoon when I show up at his Upper East Side editing room, tucked away inconspicuously behind a door labeled "Manhattan Film Center" on the ground floor of an otherwise residential building. It's here that Allen cuts all his films; screens them (and others) in a soundproof, green velour screening room; auditions actors for his upcoming projects (and there is always an upcoming project); and otherwise holds court. On the two previous occasions I have come here to interview him, the results have never been less than surprising, Allen holding forth with unexpected candor and ease about his films and about the cosmic matters that weigh heavy on his soul. And today is no exception, as Allen enters in his signature attire of pastel button-down, khaki trousers, and well-worn brown lace-ups, apologizes for his lateness, and proceeds to talk at length about the meaning of life (or lack thereof), the trouble with actors, and the allure of younger women.
SCOTT FOUNDAS: The title Whatever Works suggests a philosophy of life but also a work ethic. In other words, if you make a film a year, as you do, you can't afford to sit around waiting for the muses to descend.
WOODY ALLEN: I've never been someone who's waited for the muses, because my background is in television. When I came up, we used to write shows, and if you were writing for Gary Moore or Sid Caesar — whoever it was — you had to have a show. It was live. When you came in on a Monday morning, you had to think of something. You couldn't wait for inspiration; you just had to do it. So I got used to that, and I can do it to this day. I can go into a room and — it doesn't always come out good — but I can produce something. I do think it's an ethic. It keeps you out of mischief. If you work, it keeps you distracted. It keeps you from thinking about yourself too much, about how terrible you are, about how great you are. It's certainly humbling.
I've often used this comparison: With mental patients in an institution, they give them basket weaving, finger painting, and things like that to do, because the very act of working with your hands is healthful and therapeutic. It's the same thing with making a film, which is a handmade product. You have to write it, you have to go out and shoot it, then we come here and we put the film together and put the music in. For a period of time, you get two rewards: You get the reward of distraction — you don't think about the outside world, and you're faced with solvable problems, and if they're not solvable, you don't die because of it. And then, if it's the right film, you get to live in a fake reality for a number of months. So if I'm making a picture like The Purple Rose of Cairo or Bullets Over Broadway or Everyone Says I Love You, for several months I get to live with very beautiful women and very witty men and they have costumes, and the sets are beautiful. It's a very pleasant way to waste your life.
It's funny that you mention those three films in particular because, like them, Whatever Works seems like a fantasy. The characters and the story all have a heightened, exaggerated feel.
Right, it's a cartoon tale. The mother, the father — everyone in the movie is cartoonlike.
I was also reminded of two of your more recent films, Match Point and Cassandra's Dream, both of which also concern luck, chance and the randomness of life, even though Whatever Works is actually a script you wrote more than 30 years ago. When we spoke at the time of the release of Match Point, you said, "You're always searching for control, and in the end, you're at the mercy of the hoisted piano not falling on your head." And here there is a scene in which a person falls from a window onto another person's head!
The same obsessions I had when I first started, I have now. I've been in psychoanalysis, I've been successful, I've had ups, I've had downs. I've had some hit movies, movies that failed. But with everything that's happened to me, all of my experiences, I've never been able to solve the real problems of life that have plagued every playwright since Euripides and Aristophanes. No progress has been made on the existential themes and the subject of interpersonal relations, which are still brutal and painful and fragile and very hard to make work, and which cause everybody an enormous amount of suffering and grief. Why are we here? What is the point of it all?
Take Camus' question [in The Myth of Sisyphus] of whether or not to commit suicide. Now, even the most grim people come to rationalizations where, in Camus' case, he feels that pushing the rock up the hill, the doing of it, is worth it and you don't have to succeed. But I feel — in answer to the question of why should we not kill ourselves given a meaningless, godless existence — that it's a pre-intellectual question, and that your body answers it for you. Your mind will never be able to give you a convincing justification for living your life, because from a logical point of view, if your life is indeed meaningless — which it is — and there's nothing out there, what is the point of it? Well, the point of it is only that you're too scared to terminate it because you're hard-wired, it's in your blood, to live and to want to live and to want to protect yourself. So, while I'm home babbling about how meaningless life is and how cruel and brutal and without any purpose, if there's a fire in my house, I'll go to extreme measures to save my life. And then when I've saved my life, I'll say to myself, "Why did you bother to do that?"