The last time I interviewed Woody Allen, at his editing suite on Manhattan's Upper East Side, he was preparing the release of Match Point (2005), a dark morality play about an ambitious — and ultimately homicidal — tennis instructor working his way up the rungs of London society's rigidly defined social ladder. He had also just turned 70 and was, in his own words, “fighting off morbid resignation.” When I visited Allen again earlier this month, I found him in a considerably more jovial mood befitting his latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a breezy — if also homicidal — comedy about two American tourists (played by Allen's 21st-century muse, Scarlett Johansson, and newcomer Rebecca Hall) who, while on vacation in Spain, find themselves caught up in a romantic quadrangle involving a passionate Spanish painter (Javier Bardem) and his unstable ex-girlfriend (Penelope Cruz). In addition, Allen has already completed another film — the first he has made in New York since 2004 — titled Whatever Works, starring Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm creator Larry David, and scheduled for release next year. Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation, I talked to the now-72-year-old filmmaker about his recent work, his extended European sojourn, and his upcoming night at the opera.
L.A. WEEKLY: When we spoke three years ago, I was surprised by the candor with which you were willing to discuss your own work. You told me, for example, that you thought Hollywood Ending (2002) was a funny film that the critics didn't quite get, while The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) was one that didn't turn out as well as you'd hoped. So, I'm curious how you assess your three most recent films: Scoop (2006), Cassandra's Dream (2007), and now Vicky Cristina Barcelona ?
WOODY ALLEN: Well, Scoop I found to be a trivial little Kleenex of a film — amusing, provided you like me and you like Scarlett. But it's not worth much in the scheme of things. If you're not doing anything on a hot afternoon and you want to get into the air conditioning, you can watch it. It's got some pleasant jokes in it; it's got some invention, but it doesn't undertake to say anything of significance. I mean, I don't hate it, but for me it's a lightweight little interlude kind of film — which I, from a personal point of view, enjoy making from time to time.
Cassandra's Dream I thought was a good picture that people have not flocked to in any quantity at all. But I thought it was a completely engrossing movie, brilliantly acted by everybody, and I was very satisfied with it — much more satisfied than with other films of mine that have been much bigger successes. And Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a pleasant surprise to me. I wanted to do a film in Barcelona. I created it for Barcelona. I knew Penelope was going to be in it and I was pretty sure Javier was going to be in it, so when I was writing it, I had the two of them in mind. Scarlett I think of for everything because she's great, so I was just lucky she was available and I could get those two women in the film and juxtapose them. Rebecca Hall I didn't know. Juliet Taylor, my casting director, said, “You've got to meet this girl.” So I did, and she was perfect. She's not Scarlett and she's not Penelope — she's completely some other thing. Of course, when you speak to her in real life, she's British; she's doing the whole picture in an American accent. Then, when I cut the film together and put in the music, I was shocked that it seemed to float. I thought, “Maybe it's just me.” But when we started showing it to people, they really were enthusiastic about it — enormously enthusiastic.
That's interesting, because you've said in the past that the experience of cutting a movie together and screening it for the first time can be pretty unpleasant.
When you come in here, as I just did that with this movie I shot with Larry David — the first time you put all the stuff together and you show it on the screen, you're hoping that you're going to get a feeling of, “God, this is much better than I thought!” And invariably, it's not that feeling. Invariably, it's, “Oh, God, what did I do? I've disappointed everybody. I've made a fool of myself. It's awful.” Sometimes you're right — it never gets any better. But sometimes you're wrong — we take the junky moments out, and the good moments happen much faster. We take a little scene from here and put it over there, and suddenly it shifts the whole feeling of the film. Very often, we come back in here the second time and it looks much better, and then by the third or fourth time, it starts to really take shape. With this Spanish movie, it looked fairly good the first time I saw it. That was true of Match Point as well.
There's a definite difference between the person who makes the film and the people who see it, in terms of perception. What appears to me sometimes to be tedious, slow, and not worth anything, for some inexplicable reason will delight an audience. Conversely, sometimes I sit in here and think, “This is brilliant, this is so funny, these scenes are so great,” and then I show it to audiences and they don't get anything out of it. They disagree with me completely. And over the passage of time, one of us turns out to be right. I will say that, usually, the audience is right. Once in a while, you get a film that the audience is wrong about, but that's a rarity.
A company in Barcelona called me and said, “If we put up the money, would you make a film here?” And since I'm always looking for backing — the hardest part of making a film is getting the backing — I thought to myself, “Gee, this is a city I could happily live in for several months.” It's not like asking me to go to the Sudan to make a movie! It's Barcelona. There's culture, restaurants, museums; it's beautiful. As soon as I mentioned it to my wife, she said she'd love nothing more than to live in Barcelona for a few months. So I started thinking about it, and I wanted to make Barcelona part of the film. I didn't want to just write a film that I could make anyplace and merely set it there.
That's something that's always been an important part of your films — the city as character — whether the city in question is New York, Venice, London, or Barcelona.
Cities move me. That's why I don't think I could make a film in a place that would appear boring to me, or unromantic. If I'm making a film in Venice, or Paris, I can really do a good job and make the atmosphere part of the story — that's very important to me. Originally, when I was doing this film, I was going to title it Midnight in Barcelona. And then I changed it, because I just felt the film was about Vicky, Cristina, and Barcelona — that it required equal billing. And it is a great town — a sophisticated, fast-moving, charming town that's a combination of old places and contemporary places. It's just great.
You've been thought of for so long as a “New York director” that it came as something of a surprise when you first went to London to make Match Point. And when you made two subsequent films there, and now one in Spain, it surprised some people all the more. Were you yourself surprised at how long you stayed away?
I wasn't. And let me tell you, I would have continued to stay away for several reasons — not that I didn't have a great time working in New York again; I must say I did. But it was so exciting to work in London for several summers. The summers were cool; the light was gray; the crews were great. My family loved being there. It was a great experience for me. Then I made this film in Barcelona, and I found myself living out a young man's dream. When I was young and not even starting out yet in film — before that — we used to worship European films in New York. And I wanted nothing more than to be a foreign filmmaker. I didn't want to be one of those guys who made commercial, studio American films that always had at least one foot, if not both, in entertainment; it just wasn't fashionable at the time. Sure, occasional films would come through — a John Huston or a William Wyler would make something. But the studios were making 500 films at that time, and there would be five or six that were really significant, and the rest would be like television.
When I was really working in Europe itself — that is, in Spain, because London's not technically Europe — I thought, “My God, I'm living out this dream.” This film has got a real European flavor to it; it feels like one of those films in the early '60s, when I was watching Godard and Truffaut and the Italian filmmakers. And I thought, “Now maybe I'll make a film in Paris, or make another film in London, or go back to Spain, or Venice, or Rome.” Then there loomed the actors' strike, and suddenly it became incumbent upon me to be finished with [my next film] by the end of June or we couldn't get our bonding from the insurance company. So I had to make the Larry David film not in the summertime but in the spring, and because I made it in the spring, my children were in school and I couldn't go to Europe. So I made the film in New York. Probably, for my next film, I will go back to Europe for a while and cash in on this intoxicating feeling of filming there. It's a little present that I'm giving myself.
It's not just the scenery that's different in your European films. The characters are different, too — distinctly more WASP-y than the urbane secular Jews who tend to populate your New York films.
True, because you go with what's believable. Who's in Spain? Who's in London? You go with what the real atmosphere would be to some degree. Also, the new locations are fun. I've done about 32 pictures in New York, and I can still find good locations, but it's not like going to Barcelona and suddenly there's a hundred places that I've never heard of, much less filmed at.
But when one hears “Larry David” and “New York City,” that sounds like a much more prototypical Woody Allen movie.
I wonder what they'll think. I'm sure, with my film with Larry David, there will be the predictable comments made about it. It'll either be, “Gee, Larry is doing Woody.” Of course, he's not — he's got a highly distinctive personality. Or it will be, “Gee, I see Larry David on television all the time and he's so hilarious. I can't believe that anyone could make him unfunny.” There will be a portion of people who will say, “I love Larry David on television and I loved him even more in the film.” You know, I'm not a good judge of these things, so I could be wrong when I tell you this, but it doesn't seem to be my usual kind of film. But I don't know. In addition to Larry, who is full of insecurity and who's nothing but great, there are two wonderful performances in it by Patricia Clarkson and Evan Rachel Wood.
You're also about to direct your first-ever opera, Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, for the Los Angeles Opera.
That's a riot.
How exactly did that come about?
Someone who married into my family, Mark Stern, is very involved with the Los Angeles Opera, and he's prevailed on me any number of times to please come and direct an opera, despite the fact that I tell him I don't know the first thing about it. I've never directed on the stage except for my own one-act plays. In addition, [Los Angeles Opera artistic director] Plácido Domingo and I have talked on and off over the last 20 years — he spoke to me years ago about doing La Bohème as a movie, and that never really materialized. Here, we talked about a few other operas, and I was very reluctant, because I don't want to disappoint everybody, which I'm sure I will. He said, “What if we do the Puccini trilogy — it's three one-acts that are always done together? The first two, Billy Friedkin will direct. You'll only be responsible for a one-act, a one-hour opera, and it's funny.” You know, funny to opera people is not funny to the Marx Brothers. But I agreed to do it, because Mark Stern is a friend of mine and Plácido Domingo is someone who I have enormous respect for, and they both assured me I would be able to do it. And I said I would years ago, because these things are planned years in advance. I figured, “Eh, I'll be dead before it happens. I'm 72. I'm never going to make it to the opera.” But it came around, and next Monday, I start rehearsal. I'll just do the best I can and then get out of town and let them tar and feather Friedkin.