With a career that extends back over 50 years, filmmaker Woody Allen has been wowing critics and audiences alike with his latest movie Midnight in Paris, only his second foray into France. It opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival and it’s already proving to be one of his most successful movies in years.
It stars Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams as an engaged couple visiting the City of Lights before their wedding but eventually going on their own separate journeys, her with an academic friend played by Michael Sheen, him by getting in a car that takes him back to Paris of the ’20s where he encounters all sorts of famous literary characters such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali and others.
It’s Allen’s first film in a long time to really capture the imagination of those who have seen it, and with it opening nationwide tomorrow, we wanted to go back to a press conference ComingSoon.net attended in New York last month to share some of Allen’s thoughts on the filmmaking process.
First, Allen talked about how his muse works in terms of coming up with ideas and how it worked in relationship to his latest film:
“It’s unpredictable and constant. There are times when I have to force myself. When I first started I was a television writer and shows were on at the end of the week and you had to come in Monday morning and write because it was live, and you couldn’t just come in and wait for your muse to inspire you. You had to get in there and turn out something because something had to be on the air. I can still do that. I can get into a room and force myself. It’s no fun, let me tell you, but usually the ideas come in the course of the year and I write them down and go and look at them later. Some of them seem terrible and I don’t know why I bothered to write them down but others are okay.”
“In the case of ‘Midnight in Paris,’ interestingly enough, I was going to make a film in Paris because it was being financed, and I had no idea for a film in Paris. I was just thinking and thinking. I thought it would be a romantic film because we all grew up on Paris in the movies as being romantic, and I thought of the title, ‘Midnight in Paris,’ and I thought, ‘Gee, that’s a very romantic title, it’s a great title for a movie.’ For a long time, six weeks or so, I didn’t know what happened at midnight in Paris. ‘So what goes on at midnight in Paris? Do two people meet? Are they having an affair?’ And then it occurred to me that the protagonist would be walking along the street and a car would pull up and there would be some exciting people and they’d say, ‘Get in’ and take him on an adventure. That’s the way that it happened. It was very unpredictable and capricious.”
Despite the film’s setting, Allen has little interest to travel back in time to Paris of the ’20s.
“Time travel is a tricky thing, because you extrapolate only the best. Women were dying of childbirth, people were dying of tuberculosis, you’d go to the dentist and they’d drill and they’d kill you. But you think of “Gigi” and horse-drawn carriages and champagne and Maxime’s. I’d like to time travel for the day. Go back to the Belle Epoque, have lunch, go home, Paris before all the stores on the Champs d’Elysses, the terrible T-shirt and postcard joints, the way it was conceived had to be astonishingly beautiful. You can’t fathom how beautiful it must have been.”
There’s been so much talk about Woody Allen leaving his beloved hometown of New York behind while he films all across Europe, he was asked whether business aside, he might consider returning to film in the city where he’s lived for most of his life:
“I can’t leave business matters completely aside. I went originally to London because they offered to back ‘Match Point.’ I had a very nice experience in London, found the London crews were just like the American crews. I found the same thing in Barcelona and Paris. They know what to do, the language barrier is minimal, most of them speak a little English or I can struggle through a minimal amount of French. In the United States I worked with a Chinese cameraman on three pictures for three years who never spoke a word of English, ever. One nice perk is that these foreign countries welcome you so generously. Everybody cooperates in such generous ways. They close off streets and you get police help, they’re so enthused about it. It’s not a tough thing. It’s not like you leave home and you’re stranded in the desert and nobody knows what to do with the lights. You go to a new city and it’s great, you have new restaurants, new places to go to, it’s very exciting.”
Even so, he hasn’t completely turned his back on New York City and still finds a lot to excite him there and realizes the benefits of filming there.
“There’s a million things to do here, a million stories to tell, a million great locations in the city. I’ve made many many movies here, and I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface of New York City, and there are advantages to being at home. For example, I’m going to Rome this summer. I’m not going to be able to see any baseball, and that’s a big loss for me. I will have three months of a hotel shower. I have a great shower at home, it comes down hard and hot. It’s nice to work at home, I like that– my own bed, my own house, all my surrounding pharmaceuticals, but there are exciting things to being abroad as well.”
The filmmaker talked about his collaborative process with actors, saying that whether they’re writers themselves (as was the case with Wilson and Larry David and Will Ferrell before him), that doesn’t mean he’s not open to their suggestions and ideas:
“I had no idea Owen was a writer at all, but I don’t do it any differently. The screenplay is not written in stone remotely. As soon as they’re hired for the movie, I tell them that they’re free. If there are any speeches they don’t want to do, if there’s anything they want to add or subtract or change, go right ahead and do it. I watch them closely, and if there’s some egregious mistake that they make, I tell them, but most of the time, they don’t. If there’s a joke I wrote or a speech I wrote that embarrasses them to say, they don’t want to say it and they don’t say it and I could care less. They can say it in their own words. If they see a scene and they feel more comfortable doing it their way, they don’t want to walk where I tell them to walk, that’s fine with me. I don’t care as long as the thing gets done believably on the screen. If a guy is going to come home and tell his wife he wants a divorce, I don’t care if they use my words or if the actors comes home and tells his wife in his own way and she responds in her own way, as long as they make it real or exciting or amusing, I’m very very happy to take credit for it later.” (The perfect timing of that last bit got a big laugh from the press in attendance.)
Surprisingly, Allen at one time wanted to direct an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” which he revealed when asked about the character of Scott’s wife Fitzgerald as played by Allison Pill in the film:
“I would have liked to have made, years ago, ‘The Great Gatsby.’ It’s a great film for me to make. I think I could have done a good job with it, because I like that era, and it’s a New York/Long Island film. I just feel I could have made that film work. I’ve always had a crush on women like Zelda Fitzgerald. Now, this is very self-destructive, and I’ve always selected, in my lifetime, women who had that streak of insanity that she had. It didn’t do me any good, but I was fascinated by it always. I’ve used that kind of character in my movies many, many times. I think I would have been good to make that picture, but it was never in the cards. I was not eligible to make it when it first started, it’s been made a few times, I think they’re making it again. But it was a nice thought.”
Before wrapping up, he told us a little bit about the movie he’s shooting in Rome this summer with Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz, Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg, Judy Davis and Robert Benigni and the part he’ll be playing in it:
“It’s a broad comedy, not a romantic comedy, but a broad comedy of various tales interwoven. I’m in one of them. All the parts are quite significant, there are no cameos, these are all significant parts, and there just happened to be a part that I could play. I can’t play the love interest anymore, and of course, this is tremendously frustrating because that’s really what I want to play. There is a part for me in this. My wife and myself go to Rome because our daughter is going to marry an Italian boy that she met there and we’re going over there to meet him and meet his family and what ensues. But the film is very broadly funny.”
Midnight in Paris is now playing in select cities