This is the second time we've
sat down with Woody Allen (last year's Small Time Crooks was the first). As we've
reported elsewhere, we usually sit with half a dozen or so other writers to do
these "roundtable" interviews. This time out, for some reason, we found
ourselves sitting with a group of non-American writers for non-American outlets,
which also meant that Allen and I were the only Jews (both of us nonobservant)
sitting in the room. This interview veered way off the movie mark towards its
end -- we've deleted some stuff that reeks of ignorance but kept some of the personal
remarks about religion and Jewish culture that got us back on the subject of comedy
and movies in general. CrankyCritic: Over the last 30 years of movie
making how has your comedy style changed and where does The Curse of the Jade
Scorpion fit in in the overall oeuvre of Woody Allen movies
I think I've gotten technically better over the years but you'd have to be a fool
not to. I've made so many movies that by sheer quantity you get better at the
technique. I still function the way I functioned when I first started. The idea
that I want to make at the time, I've been very blessed to have backing. The idea
that I want to make I make. If an idea like Interiors occurs to me I make it.
Small Time Crooks or a musical, I make them. Next year I could make some kind
of heavy tragic film I've been doing it the same way for years. I make the film
that strikes my fancy at the time. I don't think my film style has changed. I'm
doing the same kind of jokes I did when I was younger. CrankyCritic:
Is it out of consideration to work with a collaborator?
Every five years or something believe it or not out of sheer loneliness I work
with a collaborator. I'll work by myself for years and then I'll think it'll be
fun to et one of my friends like Marshall Brickman or Doug McGrath into a room
and not be alone for the writing of the thing; to have the pleasure of taking
walks and get lunch together; its sort of a fun process and then I do it and then
I get back on my own for a while until I feel the need to do it again. CrankyCritic:
And one of the things you seem to like is the 1940s time period. Tell.
Allen: One of the staples of the films then was a hostile relationship between
a man and a woman whether it was Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell or Spencer Tracey
and Katherine Hepburn or The Thin Man. You always knew they would get together.
You never knew exactly how, but you know they would. They hated one another deeply
and kept digging at one another and this was a pleasurable kind of film for me
to see when I was younger and you used to see them all over the place. They were
very popular films at the time and they made them for years. In the early Forties,
in my neighborhood, you could see two, three of these a week. CrankyCritic:
Helen Hunt's character is ambitious aggressive and unhappy. Charlize Theron's
character is beautiful heiress and ready to sleep with any guy. Why these two
Woody Allen: Well, these are staples. You make films whether
they're dramas or comedies about neurotic people. Flawed people. Interesting personality
traits. To make them about calm, stable untroubled people isn't interesting. Helen
is an aggressive, fast talking office person who's really a wreck underneath in
her private life. Charlize is an heiress and I will say this. These are staples
of those 1940s types of comedies. These are not original inventions. When you
saw those films with Hepburn or Russell or Harlow, they were spoiled heiresses
and suit wearing acerbic office women. This is more of that.
Did you start with the idea and then go for specifics or start with specifics?
Woody Allen: No. I had this idea. Sometimes idea come to me based
on something and sometimes they come spontaneously. Nothing seems to trigger it.
I wrote it out and threw it in the drawer. It was in the drawer with a lot of
other ideas of mine. A couple of years ago I went through some of these notes
and I noticed there were a number of comic ideas I'd accumulated and hadn't done.
Small Time Crooks was one. This was one. A film that I just finished entitled
Hollywood Ending is another one and I wanted to get these comic ideas up and out
because I didn't want them to just lay in the drawer. They were all funny ideas.
I've done all three of them now. What I'll do next, I don't know. I wanted to
get some of these up and running. The idea just came to me that it would be funny
if I was hypnotized and I were both criminal and the person pursuing the criminal.
Since I'd always wanted to do a fast bantering film the two came together easily.
And somehow we'd guess that hypnosis as a gimmick fit a film based in the 1940s
better than it would something in the 70s or 80s or 90s
If you did it today it would have a million other connotations to it whereas in
the 40s it was still a very mysterious thing to people. It was full of promise
of post hypnotic suggestions and powers over other people. When I grew up hypnosis
was half comic and half sinister. Everything just conspired to set it in the 1940s.
Plus visually I've always liked the 20s 30s for film. I do these because I like
the music. I like the clothes. I like the way the women and the guys look. There
are soldiers and sailors and gangsters with the machine guns in their violin cases.
It's a very colorful era of New York, full of great theater and great nightclubs
and great jazz. CrankyCritic: It's also an opportunity to revisit the
NY of your childhood . . .
Woody Allen: Yes. I was born the last month
of 1935 so, in 1940, I was just turning 5 years old and being taken to the movies.
For those of us who were not old enough to understand the horror of war it was
a very romantic era because these guys were kissing their wives and girlfriends
goodbye and going off to fight and become heroes. The country was very much together.
Not fragmented at all but against a common enemy and, you know, I could turn on
my radio in the morning when I was getting dressed for school and hear Frank Sinatra
and Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and think this is the music. Now that music
is art. Ellington is art. At that time it was just what you heard on the radio.
Cole Porter was just a guy who wrote pretty songs and Billie Holliday would sing
them.CrankyCritic: What kind of child were you?
A perfectly nice child [laughter] I didn't have a miserable childhood. My parents
loved me and I was a very bad student at school but I was not unpopular. I was
a good athlete. I was the first one picked, not the last one. I was not a good
student. I didn't like school at all. I lived in a nice neighborhood, Flatbush
in Brooklyn. At the time it was a nice neighborhood and safe. You could play ball
on the streets all day long. The only thing I regret -- but I regret it only in
fantasy because I don't know what it would have been like -- I wish my parents
had raised me in Manhattan because I think it's the greatest thing you can do
for a kid is to raise them in New York City. I can see this with my own children.
Within a radius of 20 blocks of the house there is theater and museums and opera
and, you know, everything, stores. It's a great, exciting place. Brooklyn was
not that. It was much more suburban but still very nice.CrankyCritic:
Was there much religion in your home and are you raising your children with religion?
Allen: I was raised in a religious home. It was unreasonable enforced religion
that turned me off it. It was a joyless, unpleasant, stupid, barbaric thing when
I was a child and I've never gotten over that feeling. If you're talking about
religion it's one thing; I don't hold Jewish religion with any more seriousness
than I would any other. Culturally speaking, I was raised in a Jewish household.
In addition to the religious side of it, I was taught respect for books and learning
and the higher professions like medicine and law and teaching. The Jewish culture
-- people that are Jewish have a certain cultural habit that they've formed and
one of those habits is an appreciation of theater and music -- these are cultural
things one does associate with values that are promulgated by Jewish families.
I think that's a good thing.
CrankyCritic: The self-deprecating brand
of humor is particularly Jewish in its roots, isn't it?
Uh, it may be. I don't know. You hear that all the time and it may be true. I
don't know. Self deprecating humor is all around. It's a staple of comedians.
Buster Keaton wasn't Jewish. He was deadpan and made fun of himself and was self
deprecating. Bob Hope is a coward's coward and a cheap womanizer and makes fun
of himself. It seems to me to be a staple of comedians in general, and not just
a Jewish trait. It may be that you get taught by your parents and grandparents
certain things and they come out in your work. You're put on your guard all the
time and taught that you're a persecuted minority and that you've got to watch
out all the time and keep your eyes open and this translates into anything you
do whether you're a doctor or a lawyer. If you're a comedian it translates into
the content of your work as a comedian. This is possible. I don't know. It could
be one of those things that if somebody did a big study on it, we'd suddenly find
out that there are a lot of fallacies we've all been believing all the years.CrankyCritic:
A lot of your humor is tied to your appearance. If you could change your looks
and be conventional Hollywood muscular type of guy would you do it?
Allen: I wouldn't necessarily want to be a big muscular guy. It's nice to be gorgeous
whether you're male or female assuming you don't lose whatever else you have.
This is also a big staple of comedians. If you see Jackie Gleason always making
the fat jokes and Jack Benny with the cheap jokes (though that isn't physical
humor) WC Fields doing jokes about his big red nose and Bob Hope about his nose.
The physical part of it is part of the whole package that you joke about. CrankyCritic:
And in Jade Scorpion, it seems that happiness, for your character, is possible
only in dreams or under hypnosis!
Woody Allen: Well this is a personal
kvetch of mine. I feel that way. I always feel, I guess being a product of the
movies of the 40s where movies were the greatest things and screens were big and
palaces were palaces and stars were larger than life that reality was so much
inferior to what we felt was conceivably possible from what we had seen in the
movies. You saw the way people lived in the movies and then you saw your own life
and it always seemed to me, this has been an incessant theme of mine, Purple Rose
of Cairo is a perfect example, that reality is unpleasant and difficult and tragic
and awful for everybody and the fantasy world is much more seductive. CrankyCritic:
You're a happy guy never the less.
Woody Allen: Happy within the limitations
one could be happy. If I could change the structure of existence I would do it.
I could see a better way to live for everybody. Within the drab limitations that
we're all saddled with, yes, I'm very lucky.