It's hard to gauge Woody Allen's impact on American comedy and culture, because it's vast and still ongoing. Even setting aside his comedy albums, his writings for The New Yorker and other publications, his jazz band, and his appearances as an actor in other people's work, there's still his filmography as a writer, director, and often star, stretching to more than 40 features. Beginning with Take The Money And Run in 1969—or the overdubbed 1966 lark What's Up, Tiger Lily?, if that counts—Allen has been the standard-bearer for New York Jewish wit, and a persistently insightful chronicler of human relationships. He's received an astonishing 21 Oscar nominations, and won three, for writing and directing Annie Hall (which also won Best Picture) and writing Hannah And Her Sisters. Other highlights from his long career include Bananas, Sleeper, Manhattan, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Crimes And Misdemeanors, Husbands And Wives, Sweet And Lowdown, and Match Point—all produced at a movie-a-year pace that continues four decades into his career.
After decades of being closely identified with New York, Allen has recently made a series of features in Europe. The latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is one of his strongest efforts in many years. Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall star as American friends with very different ideas about romance. While vacationing in Barcelona, they're mesmerized by painter Javier Bardem, who whisks them off on a romantic sojourn, but remains haunted by his tempestuous former lover, Penélope Cruz. Allen recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the elusiveness of romantic chemistry, salvaging mistakes in casting and writing, and how his beloved New York Knicks are better off losing pretty than winning ugly.
The A.V. Club: How does Barcelona affect the story in a way that another city, like Rome or Madrid, couldn't have?
Woody Allen: It doesn't. This picture could've been made in Madrid, it could've been made in Rome, it could've been made in Venice or Paris. There's a lot of cities that it couldn't have been made in—what you need is a colorful, kind of exotic, cosmopolitan city that's got great cultural depth and enormous visual potential. There are a number of cities in Europe that have that. It wouldn't have been easy to make it in London, because that has a less exotic, slightly drier feeling, although it's a great city. But Barcelona is one among a number of cities that it could've been made in, and they were the ones that called me and said, "Would you make a film in Barcelona if we finance it?" And I said, "Sure." But if someone from Rome had called and said, "Would you make a film in Rome?" I very easily could've made the same film in Rome. Now, when I say the same film, I would not have had Penélope and Javier, and of course I may be underestimating—I'm sure I am—the enormous impact simply of their personalities, and how much they make the film. There may not be two comparable Italians and two comparable French actors that could've delivered what they delivered. So that is a factor.
AVC: Did the Whit Stillman film Barcelona have an impact on you? Both films, in addition to having the same backdrop, contrast American and European notions of love.
WA: No. I had no interest in it in relation to this film. I watched it and enjoyed it years ago when it came out, but it had no… I was just fumbling around for an idea that I could do in Barcelona amongst various notes I have at home, ideas on scraps of paper. And I came up with two girls going on a vacation. And then Penélope Cruz called and said she heard I was doing a film on Barcelona, and she'd like to be in it. After we met, I then started to think, "How could I accommodate Penélope? What does she suggest as a character?" And that led me to her character. And so the thing formed in a completely different origin.
AVC: Does that happen often, where you know who you want in the movie, and then you start to write it around them?
WA: It doesn't happen too often anymore. Years ago, when I was in all my movies, I always knew that it was going to be me and Diane Keaton, or me and Mia Farrow, or me and somebody else, and I could do that. But in recent years, there's been no one that I worked with too consistently. Scarlett Johansson and I have now done several pictures now, and it does help to know in advance that Scarlett's going to be the girl, or whoever else it may be. It does help to know what actor or actress is playing the part, because you can avoid what flaws they have in their performance range, and exploit their strengths.
AVC: There's a really critical scene in the film where Javier Bardem propositions Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson and convinces them to travel with him. Could anyone but Bardem have pulled that off?
WA: That's what I was thinking before. There probably are not a lot that could. There are some that could, but you really do have to have that kind of brooding, complicated, charismatic personality to not come off like a boob, and for women to be provoked by his proposal and to think actually that it might be interesting. If I didn't have Javier to play that part, and I was making the film in Spain, I don't know if I could've found someone. I don't really know, because I'm not familiar with the Spanish cinema, so I don't know if there's another who knows enough English, and also has that kind of complexity to him.
AVC: It's a romantic film, but would it be fair to characterize it as being ultimately pessimistic about love? One woman desires stability and the other desires passion, but both seem to be heading for different kinds of trouble.
WA: I would say the film is quite a sad film. The basic cosmetics of the film, as you watch it, are not sad, and so as you watch it, you're seeing a beautiful city and hearing wonderful music, and seeing these beautiful women and this charming guy. So hopefully you would enjoy yourself, and there are some laughs and some moments you're interested in. [Mild spoilers follow and continue through the end of this exchange. —ed.] But when it's all over, and you tally up, you find that Javier and Penélope can't live with each other and they can't live without each other, so they're kind of tortured in their relationship. And Scarlett Johansson knows what she doesn't want, but doesn't know what she wants, and probably will never know what she wants. And she kind of goes through life and has a relationship no matter what it is, and thinks, "This is the one that's going to give me a sense of fulfillment." And then over time it palls, because there's a discomfort in her, there's an anxiety inside her that she attaches to every relationship sooner or later, and thinks that it's the relationship, when in fact the shortcoming is in her. And she'll never really find exactly what she's looking for. And Rebecca Hall would've loved to have some kind of exotic relationship with this person [Bardem], but in the end, she's just too scared and not the type, and she handles it awkwardly. And she is probably going to be some version of the marriage of Patricia Clarkson and her husband. Maybe not identical, but her husband will probably, as years pass, be the guy that plays golf and maybe gets the boat, and they will have a stable, functioning marriage that's not the worst in the world, but will never reach any great heights at all. So on the whole, I do feel that it's a very pessimistic picture, and sad.
AVC: So this romantic arrangement between Bardem, Johansson, and Cruz is the least conventional in the film, and also by far the most successful. Could a relationship like that ever last, or is it just a temporary chemical balance that's going to eventually dissolve?
WA: I don't think those relationships do last. The thing that's exciting about them is the volatility. It's like what Penélope says to Javier in the movie, "You like my mood swings, my inconsistencies." What's attractive to him is that she's unpredictable and capable of enormous artistic vision and enormous sexuality, but also capable of other passions that are really impossible to live with, and the chemistry between them is never going to work out. And he'll always feel that she's the greatest woman he's ever known when she was healthy, but she's so rarely healthy. And she'll always be enormously attracted to him because he's such a charismatic personality, but she's too volatile, too nuts to have it work out, and so it's sad.
AVC: As you mentioned before, you'll occasionally have actresses like Scarlett Johansson or Diane Keaton who repeatedly appear in your films, but your casts are otherwise always rotating, and you're always working with new people. Does it become tough to predict what that chemistry will be?
WA: I'm sometimes surprised by it. I usually get people that I know are good. When I was hiring Javier, I had not seen him in the Coen brothers film [No Country For Old Men], because that was yet to come out when I made this film. But I had seen him in Spanish films, and I knew he was wonderful. And I'd seen Penélope in [Pedro] Almodóvar's films, and I knew she was wonderful. And Scarlett, I was a fan of. So I'm not surprised in retrospect that these people were able to play off each other very well, but sometimes you get a surprise, and usually it's not a pleasant surprise. Usually, you hire people that you think are wonderful, and they are, but you've mixed the wrong ingredients, and you say, "Gee, this guy was so great in all his other pictures. What happened here?" Or some woman that's wonderful, and she just doesn't come through for you.
AVC: What do you do when it doesn't work out like you had hoped?
WA: Well if it's brutal, I fire the person, because there's an investment of millions of dollars of people's money, and I don't want the thing to be a disaster. But you try everything until you get to that point. That's your last resort, and you finally resign yourself to the fact that you're not going to get 100 percent from the scripts you've written: "This person will give me 60 percent, and this person will give me 60 percent, and it will still be a decent, watchable movie, but I'm not going to get an electrifying chemistry." But if it's not that, if it's "Oh God, this is brutal. I'm not getting anything, this is embarrassing," then I pull the plug.
AVC: Does it become upsetting to have 60 percent, to know that the movie isn't everything it should be?
WA: Yes, but more often, I blame that on myself. Once in a while, that will happen with acting, but 95 percent of the time, when something's going wrong, it's because the script wasn't really as good as I thought it was. If I had written a good script, it would have been hard to ruin it. If I had written a bad script, then you find out that there's trouble, and almost always, the trouble on these movies is the script. It's the acting once in a while, but 90 percent of the time, it's the script. And it's the directing also, once in a while. But it's rare that I'll say "Oh God, I directed that poorly." Because it's easier to direct. If you direct something poorly and re-shoot it the next day, stage it better, make it work better, you have a lot of possibilities. You can edit it in certain ways so that it works, but there's no getting around weaknesses of the script.
AVC: Do you not really perceive those weaknesses until you're actually there filming it and looking at the footage?
WA: Yeah, usually, you start noticing it in the filming of the movie. It can be later. It can be after you put it together and you say, "Oh, uh-oh. Nobody's sympathizing with this guy's problem—actually, they hate him. I didn't count on that. I thought they would be in his corner." And then you have a lot of work to do. You've got to start editing and then reshooting. And you start struggling to make something that's survivable.
AVC: It's often said that directors make three different movies: one in the writing, one in the shooting, and one in the editing. Do you feel that's true, or do you have enough of a grasp on a production that it generally winds up looking like the one you envisioned?
WA: The movie is usually, for me, something organic that grows all the time. I sit home and write it, and I'm in an isolated, four-walled environment, and I don't know what's going on. I just write it, and it's appearing in my head in some idealized way where every single moment works, and every little thing is perfect, because it's in my head. Then you go out and start doing preproduction, and you find out you're not going to get Javier Bardem or Brad Pitt or whoever you want. So you're going to have to get somebody else, and you're not going to be able to afford that scene, because they've budgeted it at a million dollars, and you're not going to be able to get that location, because they won't let anybody shoot there, and you find by the time you're actually ready to roll the camera, you've made 50 compromises on your original script. And then you shoot the script and you hear them say the dialogue, and you start changing it because it doesn't sound so good, and you think of new jokes that are quite good, and things are changing all the time as you're doing it. And then when you edit it, you're constantly taking out dead material and throwing it away, and looking for clever ways to join the best of the material with the next-best of the material so that they don't notice you've dropped out two speeches or six speeches or something. This goes on and on and the thing just grows, and by the time it's over, it's either matured in a good way and you've come up with something that's worth watching, or you've buried yourself.
AVC: You've said in the past that when that entire process is over, you're done with the movie. You don't look back. Is that correct?
WA: Once the movie's over, there's not much point. When the thing is edited, mixed, and color-corrected, and you've finished it… In my case, I never read anything about it, I never think about it. Vicky Cristina Barcelona has not yet come out, and I'm already finished shooting and editing a film with Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, and Patricia Clarkson, and I'm now working on another film. So I just keep going and don't look back. I work very hard on the film when I'm working on it, but once it's over, it becomes over for me. So the film Take The Money And Run, which was my first film, I finished it, I did the best I could, and I haven't looked at a frame of it for nearly 35 years. I made it in 1965, and I haven't looked at a frame of that film since the day I put it out, and that was the end of it. That's the way it is with me. There's no point in looking back, because there's nothing you can really do to improve the film. You can only aggravate and wish you had done stuff better. And so I just put it out and move on, and as I say, I'm a couple of films ahead of the one that's about to emerge now.
AVC: So it wouldn't be a pleasure to look at them, like an old photo album or something, just to see where you were at a particular time?
WA: That's a pleasure I deny myself, because then you get into nostalgic self-involvement, and I don't think that would be good for me. I don't like to reminisce much, and my walls don't have photographs of me and the actors I was with, or any of that stuff. If you were in my house in New York, you wouldn't know I was in the movie business. It just looks like a regular house, like the home of a lawyer or something, and I try and keep that disciplined, and just work. There are so many traps you can get into, and looking back on your own work is certainly one of them.
AVC: In the late '80s and early '90s, you made a series of films—Crimes And Misdemeanors, Husbands And Wives, Deconstructing Harry particularly—that were dark and interpreted as personal. Have you backed away from that? Or were those films misinterpreted?
WA: No, my films are misinterpreted all the time. I don't mind that. Everybody's films are misinterpreted. But there's no malice or stupidity in the people that misinterpret them. You know what you do, but someone else sees it, and they want to talk about it or write about it, and so they misinterpret them. But those are not any darker than Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and certainly no darker than Cassandra's Dream or Match Point. These are all quite dark films, and the films that I'm making at the time, contrary to what people might think, are not a reflection of what's going on in my life. People think that the way I feel in my private life at the moment reflects how I make films, but everyone who makes films, or does any kind of creative art, will tell you that that's not so, that sometimes when I'm feeling my happiest and everything's going well in my life, and my love life is wonderful and my health is wonderful, I'll make my darkest, most depressing kind of thing. And other times, when things are not going well for me and I'm having a hard personal time, I could be making my silliest comedies. I was not in a particularly happy state of mind or place in my life at all when I made Take The Money And Run and Bananas. This is not a good time in my life. There's no reflection in one's personal life, and I've heard this from other artists as well that people tend to think the product is a reflection of their personal feeling at the time, when in fact it isn't, really. It's just a matter of what idea they can come up with, or whatever strikes them inspirationally, having no relation to their personal mood.
AVC: Are you looking forward to the Knicks in a post-Isiah Thomas era?
WA: Well, I was looking forward to the Isiah Thomas era. [Laughs.] I don't think anything's going to happen. I think they're definitely going to be better. There's no question at this point, because there's been so much pressure on them to be better. I think Isiah came in and tried to make them better, but he was faced with a very, very difficult situation. It's not easy to just come in and take a team and simply make it better, and then the fans get impatient. You know it'll be wild enthusiasm at first, and then as soon as the results don't happen, the fans start to get impatient, and they want to tar and feather you. So he definitely tried. He came in and bought the players that logically would be exciting. As much as the fans got on [point guard Stephon] Marbury, they were thrilled to the nines when he joined the team. Everyone was excited, and I thought Isiah tried, but it was too tough to do, and I think [new coach] Mike D'Antoni is going to try, and I think with time and some sense, they'll gradually get better. But there's a difference between being better and being fun to watch. A workmanlike team that wins games is not necessarily a team that is fun to watch. What I'd like the Knicks to develop into is a team that's fun and that's colorful and that you really like to watch every night, which is the way they were many years ago. It was fun to watch them, because they didn't just pile up wins in unappealing ways.
AVC: Like the [San Antonio] Spurs.
WA: Yeah. I'd really rather be entertained and have them come in second than be bored stiff and see them grind to a first-place finish.