With over 40 feature films under his belt as writer/director, Woody Allen is back once again with his new project, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. The film takes its title from a cliché that fortune tellers are known to say to their female clients, which is what happens when Helena (Gemma Jones), a recently divorced woman in her twilight years, goes to see one. Her ex-husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) marries a shallow call girl named Charmaine (Lucy Punch), which causes further distress to Helena and her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts), who is having relationship problems of her own. Sally’s husband Roy (Josh Brolin) is a novelist struggling with rejection, who begins a flirtatious relationship with an engaged young woman named Dia (Freida Pinto), who plays guitar in the window across the street. All these lives will clash and cause major repercussions for everyone involved, and at the end everyone is transformed, for better or worse.
The London-set “Stranger” does not fall easily into line with Allen’s previous comedies or dramas, but rather the netherworld in-between where tragedy underlines comedy and vice versa. It is an open-ended meditation on both morality and mortality, and makes it clear right off the bat that it not only has no answers to these questions, but that there aren’t any to begin with.
The legendary director spoke about the film and his career in his hometown of New York City where he proved as dry and witty as his reputation.
ComingSoon.net: Your film “Interiors” was exploring the themes of spiritual turmoil and bad choices in life, could the same thing be said of this film?
Woody Allen: This film was an attempt to deal with the same subject but to deal with it in a more comic way than “Interiors” was. The subject matter is still the same thing, the inability for people to relate to one another, people needing a certainty in life, people deluding themselves into some sense that there’s some purpose to life or extra meaning, when in fact it is a meaningless experience. In the end faith in anything is better than no faith at all. These are all the same subjects as “Interiors,” but here the characters play them with more humor. I was reminded of something, years ago I was on television with Billy Graham, and I was taking this bleak outlook position, and Billy Graham was saying to me that even if I was right and he was wrong and there was no meaning to life and it was a bleak experience and there was no God, no afterlife, no hope for anything, that he would still have a better life than me, because he believed differently and that even if he was 100% wrong both our lives would be completed and I would have had a miserable life wallowing in a bleak outlook, and he would have had a wonderful life confident that there was more. That was one of the main themes of this picture, that someone like Gemma could be deluded tas I felt Billy Graham was deluded, but she would have a better life than someone like Josh who is more scientific-minded, had a more realistic view. Who was gonna have a more miserable life?
CS: How much does your choice of locations change your writing process or the way you view your characters?
Allen: It does, it’s meaningful, ’cause it’s a movie, you’re watching it. When you’re sitting in the room writing the script, you’re alone in your bedroom and it’s nothing. Then you get out there, and I’m constantly rewriting the script for the locations. A good example of that is “Annie Hall.” I wrote the character lives in Flatbush in Brooklyn, his father’s a cab driver. Then I was with my art director scouting in Brooklyn, and we saw this apartment under the Cyclone, under the rollercoaster. I thought it was great, and quickly rewrote that he was born in an apartment underneath the rollercoaster, and his father was not a cabdriver, his father worked in Coney Island and had a concession. The whole thing was changed completely. I’ve done that a hundred times over the years, because you can’t anticipate the riches you’ll come across when you’re location-hunting for a movie.
CS: Naomi Watts had never met you before she walked on set to begin acting. Do you feel that’s the best way to get a good performance out of an actor or are rehearsals preferable?
Allen: I myself don’t like to speak to the actors at all. I like to hire great people and let them do their thing. I don’t like to speak to them, I don’t want to have lunch with them or socialize with them or hear their ideas. Josh wanted to play this part in a wheelchair. This is what you get when you’re the director. Of course he can’t play the part in a wheelchair, but when you talk to actors they’re thinking about acting. They decided they’re going to play it as a hunchback and they’re going to grow a beard, affect a limp. The less I speak to the actors the better. I always hire great people and I don’t want to impose my preconceived notions on them. They know how to play it. Lucy knew how to play it. That was a character she created. I wrote the character, but what you’re seeing on the screen is her creation. She moved like that, spoke like that. I didn’t know the nuances of that when I wrote it, I just wrote the cold lines in the room. Same for Gemma. These people infuse it with what’s made them wonderful actors and actresses. The less I have to speak to them the better. I didn’t know Naomi Watts at all. She was a wonderful actress for years in movies, beautiful. I saw no reason to meet her, she had nothing to say to me. What am I gonna tell her? She knows how to act. She read the part, she said she was gonna do it so she must know what it is. She came in that morning, we said hello, the usual exchange of insincerities, you know, “I’m a great fan of your movies, I love all your films!” “Yes, and I love all your films!” All that nonsense. Then she had her hardest scene in the picture. She just started off cold and did the scene where she confronts Gemma and wants the money for her business and Gemma’s not gonna give her the money because the medium has advised her not to. That was a very, very strongly-acted scene between the two women. Gemma I had worked with for the prior week or two, but Naomi I hadn’t even met her. She came right in and did it and was completely professional and great. For me that’s the best way to work. I don’t like to meet the actor and have a lot of conferences and talk about their sublife and their offscreen life and backstories ’cause it never means anything. They never know why they’re good. They think they’re great because they’re doing all this extra work, when in fact when they wake up in the morning they’re Jack Nicholson or they’re Robert De Niro or they’re Josh Brolin, it’s built in. They think it’s all this other stuff, but it’s not. They’d be great if they didn’t think about their part or if they didn’t. I hope you’re digesting all this. (laughs)
CS: Regarding your statement about Billy Graham and nihilism, if in fact there’s nothing to believe in why make films?
Allen: I work all the time because it’s a great distraction and it keeps me from sitting at home and obsessing morbidly. If I got up in the morning and had no place to go and was retired or something, I would sit there and I’d be thinking of the same thing that Anthony Hopkins thought when he woke up in the middle of the night: “Gee, what is the purpose of life? Why are we all finite? Why do we get old and die? Is there nothing out there? Why is it so tragic? Why do our loved ones perish? Why do we degenerate?” Who wants to think about that stuff? I’m thinking about, “Gee, if I call Josh Brolin will he be available for this? I don’t know Lucy, will she be able to do this as great as I think she will? Is Gemma the perfect person for this?” These are all problems you can solve and makes you feel that you have some control over your life. If you don’t solve them, if it turns out that one of them is wrong, that Josh is wrong for the part, or Lucy is wrong, or Gemma is wrong, what’s the worst that happens? You have a bad movie, but you don’t die. That’s why I keep making movies.
CS: Is there a desire to achieve something you have yet to achieve?
Allen: Yeah, I’d like to make a great movie. I’ve made many movies. I think I’ve made some good movies, I never felt I made a great movie. If you think about the truly great movies, about “Rashomon” and “The Bicycle Thief” and “8½” and “Grand Illusion,” I don’t think I’ve ever made a film that could be on a program with those films. I’m not saying this out of false modesty or self-deprecation. Realistically those are enormous achievements. I’d like to make something like that, that would be fun, but you can’t set out to do that. You get lucky and if you work enough maybe one of them turns out to be terrific, but so far that hasn’t happened.
CS: You have it down to a science in that you write half the year, you shoot half the year, you come out with a new film every year. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that routine, and do you ever fantasize about pulling a Stanley Kubrick and spending years obsessing over one project?
Allen: I don’t know. I’m a completely different kind of person. Kubrick was a great artist and a perfectionist and he always wanted the exact right thing. He did a million takes and everything had to be perfect. I’m an imperfectionist, I don’t really care that much about the work. I write quickly, I’m careless, I shoot carelessly. If the characters are working and I have a dinner engagement I don’t do twenty takes, I do five takes and go home. I want to go to dinner. I don’t have the same dedication to my art that he has, so I would never do that. But there is an advantage in having a routine, in working with the same people when you can, writing is a regular thing, filming is a regular thing. That routine pays off for you, you get a lot of productivity that way, rather than waiting around for inspiration, waiting for the perfect thing to happen. I would be much less productive that way.
CS: This film seems to go back to both O’Neil and Ibsen who also thought about the need for some kind of dream to happen, and whether the dream comes true or not is not important, but what is important is to have that dream.
Allen: I feel that it is important to have some kind off faith in something, but impossible for some of us. I personally don’t have any faith in anything, but it’s great if you can. The only trouble is Gemma’s position in the movie… she’s happy, deluded with that character she threw her lot in with at the end. They’re both crazy, and happy, but happy for-the-moment, because they’re gonna have a rude awakening eventually because she was not Joan of Arc and the reincarnation thing doesn’t really happen, and sooner or later reality sets in, in a crushing way, as it does with and will with everybody, including Billy Graham. But it’s nice if you can delude yourself for as long as possible.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger opens on Wednesday, September 22nd.