Dressed casually and looking as bright and sunny as the weather outside, Woody Allen marches into a room in the Lowe Regency Hotel in New York City, ready and eager to shower us with the fountain of his wisdom and preach against reality, the reality he has been exploring in his movies for over 43 years, without seemingly finding a positive or optimistic resolution.
I’ve always been an outspoken opponent of reality,” Allen exclaims. “I think we live in a very, very cruel existence. I am greatly in favour of escaping reality in any way. The problem is: It’s very difficult to escape reality. You can’t really escape reality without going crazy. So as long as you’re stuck in reality, I think the best thing you can do is maybe distract yourself from it, but I don’t think in the end you can finally escape from it. I wish I could. I would be the first one out of here, ” he laughs.
In Allen’s new movie, Midnight in Paris, the lead character, Gil,escapes the reality of the present by embarking on a nostalgic journey into the past. Allen, however, insists that time travel is not the subject of this movie, but is merely a narrative tool to transport the audience into a different world, giving them the “fun” of exploring what it would be like to be back in that kind of situation.
“I myself am not interested in time travelling. It’s not possible and it’s silly to daydream about it. But what does interest me in fiction is bringing together colourful characters and getting them in situations that could not really be possible in the everyday world. There are certain limitations in a realistic movie; you don’t get anything out of it that you can’t get from living day to day. But when you can get into something like time travel, for example, you can create for the audience an experience that’s quite different than what they’re used to.”
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful Hollywood screenwriter, who is not satisfied with his well-paid, monotonous job and aspires to be a novelist. One night, while on holiday in his beloved Paris with his fiance’e Inez (Rachel McAdams), a car from the 1920’s, carrying a group of charmingly cheerful people pulls up and takes him on a journey into the early twentieth century, where he gets to meet, socialise and party with his idols, such as Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald Patrick, Picasso, Bunuel and others.
It took Allen months to come up with this romantic idea, after he was asked to make a movie in Paris, his favourite city in the world after his hometown of New York. “It’s strictly made up. I myself would not get into a car if people pulled up,” the notoriously neurotic director quips. “I just wouldn’t do it. I’d be afraid I’d wind up in a basement in Darfur,” he laughs.
“I am not that adventurous or romantic. But I have the characters I write about do anything ’cause it’s fiction,” he adds.
And he is not even fond of the idea of going back in time. “When you think back nostalgically, you tend to extrapolate all the nice things. So when you think of the 20’s, you think of horses, carriages and beautiful women, but you don’t think that when you go to the dentist, there’s no Novocain, drill and air-conditioning,” he jokes.
“Once you’ve lived with a certain amount of contemporary conveniences and advances, it would be very painful to really go back. So I don’t think I would want to go back. Maybe for a day, every now and then, to dip in to visit and enjoy it.”
And he wouldn’t want to meet Gil’s idols either, describing Hemingway as difficult and obnoxious, Picasso as mad and Scott Fitzgerald and his wife as crazy. His choice of characters, he says, was dictated by the period of the 20’s. “These were the ones that are most ubiquitous in the writing about that era.”
Allen also confesses that in the course of his life he has invariably eschewed meeting his own idols, because he prefers beholding them through the eyes of his imagination: inflated and supernatural.
“I don’t want to know that they exist in real life, and that they are hungry and bored and annoyed and they have a headache,” he exclaims, throwing his hand in the air.
Yet, Allen admits that he wrote the movie for a character like him, “A kind of eastern, more scholarly, kind of guy.” But, there was a catch.
“When I write a film and I look at it and I figure ‘Ah, there’s nothing in it for me’ I move on and cast it. I couldn’t have played Gil ’cause I’m not young enough and I couldn’t think of anybody like me,” the 75-year-old quips.
Failing to find an actor in reality who would inhabit the character of his fancy, Allen succumbed to the persuation of his casting director and rewrote the role for the comedic Hollywood star Owen Wilson. “Owen is not like me. He is very laid back and very California. He’s like a beach boy with a surfboard who could be combing the beach. He’s like a guy who would live in California and make a fortune writing movies, but also play a character who wants to do better than that.”
Known for casting the best actors in the world in his movies, the Oscar-winning director raised some eyebrows when he cast France’s first lady, Carla Bruni, who plays a tourist guide in this movie.
“When I first met Carla, she was so beautiful, and I said, ‘Would you be interested at all in doing a small part in a movie? Just for fun and it would not take much of your time. Maybe two or three days maximum.’ And she thought about it and said ‘Yes, it would be fun. Maybe someday to show my grandchildren that I was in a movie.’ and she came and did it effortlessly.”
Like many of Allen’s films, which invariably dwell on metaphysical and philosophical issues, Midnight in Paris is imbued with literature and art references, which could potentially alienate a large section of the audience, but the legendary director is indifferent, insisting that he makes films for the educated and literate who want something sophisticated that does not cater for the lowest common denominator, like car crashes and bathroom jokes.
“I always have a limited audience, no matter what movie I do,” Allen enthuses. “I am not an intellectual. I never went to college and I always take it for granted that the audience knows as much as me.”
Having two young adopted kids at home, whose icons are not the masters of literature and art, but rock stars such as Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, the aging director knows that his audience is shrinking. “They have nothing but contempt for me, for trying to educate them. They feel that I am an ancient, out of it, a know-nothing and an embarrassment as a father,” he laments, laughing.
Indeed, the days when moviegoers, young and old, eagerly awaited and religiously attended Allen’s movies are long gone. Ten years ago, pecuniary constraints squeezed the native New Yorker out of his beloved hometown, where he had shot all his movies, turning him into a nomadic director, shooting films in different cities around the world, including London, Paris, Barcelona and soon in Rome, where he has found a comfortable financial cushion and supportive authorities.
“New York is a very expensive place to shoot. I’d love to be able to shoot here all the time, but what happens is my money doesn’t go as far,” Allen explains.
Suddenly, Allen’s eyes glint behind his thick glasses as he nostalgically recalls the good days of the 70’s, when his backers, United Artists, granted him free rein in making his movie, without vetting his scripts or interfering with casting or demanding a final cut. The prolific filmmaker, who has made 47 movies during his career, believes that many filmmakers who emerged in the 70s would not be able to emerge today because of the current financial, economic structure.
“The 70s, when I came along, were very good creative times,” he effervesces. “Now there is a different dynamic, because the film companies discovered that it’s to their advantage to spend $100 million on a film and make $300 million. They want to gamble for bigger stakes. They couldn’t care less about making good films. They’re interested in making huge profits and they found a way to do it. Even if they make five films for $100 million and they’re all failures and they have one success, they make so much money that it covers it all. They are businessmen and we are not. So we have different goals.”
Later Allen tells me that even if no one would hire him for anything and he had to wash dishes for a living at some place, he would come home at night and he would write. Writing for him is not merely a vocation, but also a pleasure.
“It’s something I could always do. I could always write, even before I could read, I could write. When I was a little boy, I could always make up stories and I could write. I can just do it and when you have the ability to do something, it demands expression. It’s just natural, a born-interest,” he smiles.
In spite of his gloomy, tragic outlook at life, Woody Allen is truly inspiring and thoroughly entertaining. His charm stems from his ability to eloquently articulate his dark thoughts with a blithesome honesty, transforming sorrow into joy and melancholy into passion. He has evidently succeeded in negotiating a safe path with his inner demons to a placid existence via leading an active life.
Before we parted, I told him that he should form a cult to give direction to so many lost souls, but he responded with a dismissive laughter followed by a typical Allen stammer. This kind of self-deprecation is what really makes Woody Allen great.