After four years, Woody Allen has returned to New York City with his new movie Whatever Works, this time teaming the veteran filmmaker with Larry David, the co-creator of “Seinfeld” and star of his own HBO show “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a cynical intellectual misanthrope whose very existence is challenged when he finds the naïve Southern simpleton Melody St. Ann Celestine, played by Evan Rachel Wood, on the street outside his apartment building. Even though the two of them have nothing in common, they’re married months later, something that doesn’t go over well when Melody’s mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) shows up and is shocked to learn that her daughter is married to cranky man who is over 30 years her senior. This set-up is a great foundation for the type of witty dialogue-driven comedy Woody Allen used to do so famously in the ’70s, so it might not surprise some that the script was originally written over thirty years ago before being revived for Allen’s return to filming in New York.
ComingSoon.net attended a press conference for the film where David and Allen were both very funny and surprisingly honest about their apprehensions about making the film, while David’s better-looking co-stars Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson chimed in from time to time.
Q: Larry, could you talk about your first time working with Woody Allen?
Larry David: Well, no it’s not my first time. I had two very small parts in, one was “Radio Days” and the other was “New York Stories” very, very small.
Q: When they called you to play this part, what was your reaction?
David: Oh when I was offered the part? “This is not a good thing. This is not going to be a very good idea.” (laughter) I get intimidated and I don’t really like challenges. I don’t like to be out of my comfort zone which is about a half an inch wide and I called Woody and I said “I don’t know about this. I don’t know if I could do this.” (laughter)
Q: Was it a similar reaction to when you asked to be in “The Producers” on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?
David: No that was pretend. (laughter)
Q: What did Woody say when you told them, “I can’t do this”?
David: He said that it would be a little bit of a stretch for me but none that I couldn’t handle, nothing that I couldn’t handle.
Q: At any point, did you feel as if you were acting as Woody’s stand-in and did you have to resist the urge to deliver the lines using Woody’s rhythms?
David: It’s funny, we were just talking about that. But I never considered for a second that I would be playing him. I know it’s the part that would normally see him play, but I never considered that I would play him, nor would he want me to play him, and it just wasn’t an issue at all. There was only one moment in the movie, I remember, I was having trouble with a line and I said “How do you want me to do it? Just do it, and I’ll do it like you.” So he went “the Western WORLD.” (everyone laughs at this exaggerated reading.) So I did that the next take, but he didn’t use that line.
Woody Allen: I have to interject that this is not a part that I could have played even I was younger, I could not have played this part. I had originally conceived this thing many years ago for Zero Mostel, and Larry is able to do this kind of sardonic, sarcastic, vitriolic humor and get away with it, because there’s something obviously built into him, that audiences like. You know Groucho Marx had this, they were never offended by Groucho; they were offended if he didn’t insult them, he told me once. Larry has this thing where he can get away with that. If I was to do that I wouldn’t be as graceful at it and you would think that I was nasty, if I was insulting people and proclaiming my own genius and saying that people were cretins, you would not like me, but certain people can get away with it and he’s one that can. Not something that I would do, because when Zero died, I never thought for one minute of doing the part myself, “Oh, well I’ve got a good script here, and why can’t I do it? I can handle this.” I never thought that. I put it in the drawer and were it not for an imminent possible actors strike I never would have taken out of the drawer even to look at. And I was trying to think who could do this, and it never would have occurred to me that I could do it. Then Juliet Taylor, my casting director, thought that Larry could do it and I agreed completely that it would be like mother’s milk to him.
Q: When you cast Larry, did you rewrite anything to take advantage of Larry’s comedic style?
Allen: I didn’t rewrite anything for Larry. When I took the script out of the drawer, I did have to rewrite the script, because it had been laying there for a long time dormant and I had to freshen it up and jazzin’ it up and make it more contemporary, but I never changed it for Larry. Larry just seemed to fit it like a glove. As soon as Juliet Taylor said “Larry David” you know like a light lit up and it seemed, “Yes of course, Larry David.”
Q: Larry, was it hard getting away from your “Curb Your Enthusiasm” character to play Boris?
David: No, when I was doing those lines, it felt like Boris. I tried to convince him at some point before we started shooting that he should change the character occupation to a former grandmaster. Yeah, I didn’t want to be a physicist because I thought I wouldn’t be able to improvise because the character’s so much smart than I am. I thought I could improvise a chess champion, yeah.
Q: Woody, given that the script was written in the seventies, how much work did it take to bring this script up to date?
Allen: It took work. The original story, what intrigued me about it originally is that Zero is this big fat blustery self-aggrandizing… (but) Zero in real life was so cultivated. He knew everything about art and literature and science and music and he was always sharing this knowledge with you from a justifiably superior position and I thought it was very funny to be around him. I was around him when we made “The Front” and he was always carrying on and lecturing. I thought it would be very funny that he would be living with this dumb little runaway from the South, and then suddenly her mother shows up and she hates everything about him and can’t stand him and then her father shows up. It seems that original material all remained the same, but references and the existential concerns remained the same, those will never change ever. The character was mortally afraid of dying and hypochondria about washing his hands, but the social and political things, many of them had to be changed and freshened up to contemporary and social patois.
Q: Evan, what surprised you most when working with Woody?
Evan Rachel Wood: I can’t really say that I was surprised by anything because I don’t really like to have any preconceived notions. I just like to experience on my own, no matter what. But I was just amazed. I got a whole new respect for comedians in general. I mean, I knew it was going to be difficult and a challenge, but it was like running a marathon everyday. It was just whole new territory for me and I’m just glad that he had the faith in me to offer me the part without even seeing an audition. But yeah, just as a challenge of it.
Q: Did you feel you had to play the character very broad? And maybe Patricia could answer this about playing your mother?
Wood: I don’t know. I think that’s where Woody was great about you know giving me the freedom to go as far as I wanted and me trusting him to tell me when to reel it in. But funny enough, “broad” was actually the word that he told me all the time.
Patricia Clarkson: I think the beautiful thing about Woody is that, for reasons I’ll never figure out, he has created trust in us and it’s a beautiful freedom he gives you as an actors which, I think, makes you a better actor and he gives you confidence to go large and wide and trust that you will actually be employed again after you’ve seen the film. I think he actually trusted that we could really stretch it big and still remain truthful.
Q: Woody, do you have anything to say about that praise you just received?
Allen: Well, you know, people have always asked me over the years about performances in my movies. They think I’m being facetious when I say this, but I’m not: I hire great people and then I get out of their way. They were great before they met me, they’re great in my movie, and they’re great in the movies after me. You know, I just don’t want to mess them up and then tell them that they’re free to go. If they’re doing something that I notice is egregiously wrong for some reason, which rarely happens–it does happen, but very rarely–then I’ll say something to them. I’ll say “This needs to be more grim” or “This needs to be a little louder or quieter” or something, but that’s it. If you read the script, they understand it, they get it, that’s why they take the job, and they do it. Afterwards you look great as a director, but the truth is, if you hire the right people that’s 99%. Evan, I had seen very briefly in some things and she was obviously (to Evan) I’m not saying this because you’re here–she was great. I thought “God, this girl is wonderful,” but I didn’t know she could do a Southern accent. She said to me “Yes, I can do one,” but she did not want to do it and show me. I’d seen her in other movies and she’s not going to take the job and make a fool of herself and the first time I heard the accent she was doing was when we shot her. I never heard her in rehearsal–there was no rehearsal–I never heard it in conversation or the wardrobe test, and she just came and did it. Ed Begley Jr. didn’t even know that he was supposed to be doing the Southern accent. (laughter) We were on the set and he was surprised and I got panicky for a second, and he made some kind of mental adjustment and he was just great.
Q: You said you give your actors the material and then you stand back, so when one of your actors gets an Oscar, do you feel aloof, as if you didn’t contribute to that?
Allen: I don’t feel aloof from it. Aloof would mean feeling above it and superior to it. No I don’t feel that, but I don’t feel like they’re getting this Oscar because I brought out something in them that nobody else could or that wasn’t in them. They basically get the Oscar because they’re good. I mean when Penelope Cruz wins an Oscar or Dianne Wiest or Diane Keaton, it’s because they’re great. I do feel a modicum of contribution in that I supplied them with the role that they can spread their wings and show themselves off. They’re not getting that Oscar because I sat them in the room and drilled their character into them or tricked them in different ways. You read Kazan’s biography and take James Dean on the motorcycle and they somehow get these performances. I mean I can’t do that; I don’t even talk to them. I try not to talk to them as much as possible. They do what they do and they’re usually very good at it. I don’t feel aloof, I do feel that I made a contribution in giving them a part that they could show themselves off in, but believe me, I don’t over-direct them. They’re getting those Oscars because they’re who they are; Penelope Cruz was sensational in the Almadóvar film before my film, and Michael Caine was sensational. Actually, Michael Caine deserved the Academy Award for “Educating Rita” the film he did before my film, not necessarily for my film, and I think they were paying off for not giving him one in that. (laughter)
Q: It’s great seeing Woody return to New York, so can each of you talk about what New York means to you and share some locations that were magic to film in?
Wood: I kind of did what Melonie did and I moved to New York when I was 18 and I was filming “Across the Universe.” I was filming on the streets of New York for the first time and singing Beatles songs and it changed my entire life. I don’t know what I would have done if hadn’t made that movie. I spent a year here and I just felt like I knew who I was finally. The city really does something to you. I have a different experience every time I go there. I’m always finding new places. I don’t know where we filmed–I want to say Battery Park–but that was a nightmare, it was terrible, but it was still pretty cool. The wax museum was pretty fun. The magical way I didn’t know who was real or who was fake.
David: Well, I grew up in Brooklyn and then I lived in Hell’s Kitchen from the time I got out of college till I moved to LA in my early ’40s, so I remember very distinctly the smell of urine as I left my front door. I remember having to take my shoe off before I came in my apartment to kill the thousands of roaches that were in my bathtub. I have very fond memories of it. Shall I go on?
Clarkson: I don’t know. I came here. The first placed I lived was YMCA, because at Fordham University they didn’t have dorms then so I was in the YMCA. I was in the YMCA on 63rd, and I remember on Friday nights there were these nice, young boys around and I thought they just returned from a YMCA camping trip. No…
Wood: I thought it was fun to stay at the YMCA.
Clarkson: No, but, I’m a New Yorker now I guess, and I love the West Village. I love downtown; I’ve lived there for a long time. It’s my favorite, favorite part of New York. I’m never tired of it, walking with my dog, ever.
Allen: I remember fighting with people every day because I couldn’t get change for a dollar to get on the bus. Nobody wants to give you their change. My memories of New York are unrealistic. The New York that I grew up loving, was ironically enough, the New York of Hollywood movies where people would live in penthouses with white telephones and come home in five in the morning with Herman draped over their shoulders and this was the New York that I knew. I grew up in Brooklyn, not that far from Larry, and I never knew New York as it really existed. For that you have to speak to Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese. I only knew New York the way it appeared with popping champagne corks and people dressed in tuxedos and making very witty banter and elevators rising into the apartments directly, so that’s the New York that I have depicted in my life and have tried to live in my life and it’s cost me a lot of grief. (laughter)
Q: Woody, the tone of humor seems misanthropic and pretty judgmental towards people in the hinterlands, which seems strange considering the recent ugly murders done by the religious Right…
Allen: I personally was against the murders. (laughter) I never think of it as misanthropic even though I know that sounds funny, because that is the source of the humor, but it seemed to me that it’s a realistic appraisal of life. Life is quite terrible out there, as you can see, by what goes on. This is fiction, and can be read as misanthropic and can be interpreted that way; as I say, I don’t think it is. I think it’s simply realistic, but the real world is as horrible or actually much more horrible than the world that Boris envisions. He has compassion and feels bad about this, but the world out there is full of… you know, you can’t pick up the paper in the morning without a carload of atrocities: two young women are thrown in prison in Korea, and some guy enters a Holocaust museum and kills the guard. I mean this is the average stuff we live on, every morning. So in a sense, the movie is almost mild compared to the ugly brutality that you just a part of your morning you know cornflakes and breakfast.
Q: Woody, you mentioned that the existential concerns of the film then and now are the same, but basically the social and political concerns have changed, could you talk about that a little?
Allen: When I wrote the film years ago, the political climate was not vastly different, but the references were different. As I said, the existential underlying anxiety of the film remains the same, but the political situation has shifted. Since then we’ve been through a number of presidents. Certainly a catastrophic 8 years and now entering into at least a period of some hope of some human possibilities of the country and all of this had to be factored in writing. And of course, the references are different. The religious right made an enormous march forward since that time, they existed at that point; there were those terrible television ministries that were conning people out of their money, but the right became politically powerful and we have made progressed and we have elected our first African-American president. There was a number of things that had to be referenced in this movie that were not the seeds of them were there, some of them, but they were not vivid at that time.
Q: That said, how do you feel your approach to directing has changed since you first wrote this script?
Allen: Well, marginally I’ve gotten better, but it’s true, you can only get better marginally because it’s not an exact science. I’ve now made about forty movies, and every time you make a movie, it’s a new and different experience and you learn very little from the past, very, very little. So I’m a little bit better than I was. When I first started I was very protective, I made a lot of coverage and protected myself a lot and as I got more confident, I was able to let actors improvise and do long takes. But you know, it’s 10%, 5% you learn the rest you just have or you don’t have and I was lucky enough to be able to have enough to tell my story. I’m not much better than I was. I’m better than I was when I made “Take the Money and Run,” but not much better than I made “Annie Hall” or around that era. I learned very little after that, and the only thing that does change, I guess, to some degree, is that you have some life experiences and you suffer some amount and you incorporate that into your work, not into the content of your work, but in the sensibility of your work. It’s nothing that you try and do; it just happens, and if you’re lucky people buy tickets to see it, and if you’re not lucky, they don’t like it. But that’s all; there’s been a marginal increase in my technique and very little else good.
Q: There was a recent article about the humor you and Larry share, being a reflection of a certain era of Jewish humor. Can you talk about whether you feel that’s true?
David: I don’t know. I don’t quite agree with that. Obviously, comedic styles do change. I mean, comedy isn’t the same now as it was in the ’50s or the ’70s, I suppose. It still has to be funny, but I guess that’s the bottom line. I guess it’s a little grosser now to some degree. Really, you could watch movies now and kind of, I’m a little shocked at what I’m hearing but I suppose that’s the biggest change.
Allen: First of all, I’m not a big believer in this sense of Jews having a monopoly on comedy. I believe they’ve made a contribution for sure, but Bob Hope was not Jewish, Buster Keaton was not Jewish, W. C. Fields was not Jewish, Jonathan Winters was not Jewish, I mean you could go on, Robert Williams, these people are not Jewish and they’re hilariously funny. So much has been made of this and I never think of it is a ethnic focus, and I agree with Larry that… he put it very simply but right on the nose that it’s a question of just being funny. Some people are funny and some people are not funny. Many people who are not funny can make a living at it, because you don’t have to be great to make a living at it. Just like a doctor, doesn’t have to be great to make a living out of it, and a lawyer doesn’t have to be so same with comedians. In the end, to really be wonderful at it you’ve got to be funny and every generation there are a few people that are authentically funny. The cosmetics change. You know W. C. Fields is totally different than Mort Saul, but Mort Saul was great and he was totally different than Jonathan Winters who’s great and Nichols and May were completely different from Larry and they’re all great, because they’re all authentically funny. The ones that are not authentically funny, your body knows. You may not be able to articulate it and you may laugh at them and get a certain amount of enjoyment but when you’re asleep at night and you wake up at three in the morning and you’re alone in your bed, you know who is really funny. That’s what it is; some people are some people aren’t. It has nothing to do with ethnicity
Q: A big deal has been made about the fact you’ve made your last four movies in Europe and you’re going back to Europe for your next one. Can you talk about that decision to make these movies in Europe?
Allen: That’s strictly a function of finance. It’s very expensive to make movies in New York. I work on a very low budget and I can’t afford to do it. I’d like to do it. I’d like to make movies in New York because I live here and I love it, but surprisingly New York and California, which is the film center of United States theoretically, is too expensive. It just costs a fortune of money. Whereas I was going to make my next film in New York and I couldn’t afford to. It was millions of dollars short if I made it in New York and then I thought, “Well maybe I’ll make it in San Francisco” because that’s also a very good city, but I couldn’t afford to make it in San Francisco either because that was too expensive. So we shifted it too London, made the cast British, just as I had done with “Match Point.” I had written that for New York, the Hamptons, and Palm Beach and I had written it as an American story and I anglicized it because to make it in New York was a fortune of money. The same thing with the film I’m doing next; to make it in New York is a lot of money, I can’t afford it. I would love to make more films in New York, because I love the city and I love being here and it’s just a question of being able to afford it. If I happen to write a film that budgets within my limited budget I would certainly make it here.
Q: Do you have to change your writing sensibilities when you know you know you have to make the film in London rather than New York City?
Allen: The sensibilities are the same certainly in a city like London. I mean, that’s another version of New York. Barcelona was a little bit different. I wasn’t as familiar with Barcelona, so I had to write some of the characters speaking in Spanish and that did have an influence on the content of the script. I mean in this case fortuitously a good influence but it could have had a bad influence just as easily. So my first instinct is to go to London, because they speak English and it’s a city with restaurants and bookstores and traffic. I can feel it there… but I’d just as soon make it New York if I could do it.
Q: A musical based on “Billy Elliot” just won the Tonys a few weeks back. Have you ever thought of turning one of your movies into a Broadway musical?
Allen: Well, I myself would have no interest in that. None. Producers call all the time and they want to make “Bullets Over Broadway” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo” into a musical and they do propose these things. I don’t care, if they want to and they make some deal they can, but I have no interest in it. No interest in writing it, seeing it, knowing about it. It’s just something that would not interest me at all. But some of them would make good musicals in the right hands. The books of some of those things, would potentially be good musicals. The odds are of bringing it off are hugely against it. The odds of doing a good musical even if you have a book that’s viable to begin with, the odds are not in your favor. So what would probably happen is they get the rights to one of my movies and make it into a musical and it’d be a terrible musical and everyone would be angry at me.
Q: Can you talk about what each of you do when you have panic attacks, if indeed you do have them?
David: I can’t really say in a G-rated press conference. (laughter)
Allen: Did you ask a dirty question? (After it’s repeated) Oh, it’s perfectly a benign question. Yes, I can speak for myself in this. I do exactly that kind of thing. You turn something on television, and with me, it would probably be a ball game or something, something that’s calming, where there’s no sense of conflict. (snickers) If I was to turn on a movie, I’d be full of self-loathing and think “Oh God! I make these movies and there’s so many great ones” and I couldn’t do that. (laughter) But I could turn on a ball game and be very placid.
David: I generally stay with the panic. I embrace the panic. (laughter) I know there’s no getting out of it even if I turned on a ball game, it wouldn’t make a difference to me. I would still hear that sick psychotic voice going on in my head and there’s nothing I could do. (laughter)
Whatever Works opens in select cities on Friday.