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It's easy to say that Woody Allen is a filmmaking legend. Fifty years from now, people are going to be looking back and studying his prolific career as an engaging record of the way we lived in the latter half of the 20th century. But it's hard to tell where his new film (his 40th—40th!—as a director), Whatever Works, will fit into that canon. It's a strange vintage/contemporary Woody hybrid (more on why that is in the interview)—it's certainly the funniest Woody film that I've seen in years and a pleasure to watch, even if its existential worries and airs have less bite than classic Allen.
Back in his beloved New York, Whatever Works follows the crankiest man in the world, Boris Yellnikoff (played by a spot-on Larry David), as he rebuilds his mess of a "perfect life." For Yellnikoff, this involves moving to the Lower East Side, and, despite himself, getting involved with a Southern belle of a runaway named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood). Complications ensue when her mother (Patricia Clarkson, pitch-perfect, as usual) arrives in New York. Both sour and sweet, the film is a tribute to the spell that New York can cast on people and the (slightly) redeeming power of love, ending on a shrug of a philosophical note—whatever works!
Allen, David, Clarkson and Wood all appeared at The Regency Hotel for a recent press conference. It was quite an experience to see Allen in the flesh—he has such an indelible link to movies and the big screen that it's sort of hard to picture him as a person, and not "Woody Allen." There was clearly loads of affection in the room for Allen and his cast, and there were quite a few big belly laughs derived from Allen's neurotic, engaging, and sharp persona and David's inimitable, always aggrieved-sounding delivery. (The latter is one of those comedians who doesn't need to be saying something funny to be funny; he just is funny, in his bones.) Here are some highlights. Some advice: Try to read every Allen quote in his voice. You know his voice.
Larry, how was it playing what could be perceived as "the Woody Allen part" in this film?
Larry David: I know it's the part that people normally expect to see him play, but I never considered that I would play him, nor would he want me to play him, and it wasn't an issue at all. There was one moment in the movie—I was having trouble with a line and I said, "Come on, how do you want me to do it? Just do it, and I'll do it like you." And he said, "The western WORLD," [David doing his best Allen] and so I did that for the next take, but he didn't use that one.
Woody Allen: I have to interject—this is not a part that I could've played, even if I was younger. I originally conceived this thing many years ago for [the late] Zero Mostel [best known as one of The Producers] and [like Mostel] Larry is able to do this kind of sardonic, sarcastic, vitriolic humor and get away with it because there's something obviously built into him that audiences like. You know, Groucho Marx had this—they were never offended by Groucho, they were offended if he didn't insult them, he told me once. Larry has this thing where he can get away with that.
If I was to do that, I wouldn't be as graceful at it, and you would think that I was nasty. If I was insulting people and proclaiming my own genius and saying that people were cretins, you would not like me. It's not something that I ever thought I'd get to do, because when Zero died, I never thought for one minute of doing the part myself. I put it in a drawer. If it were not for an imminent possible actors' strike, I never would've taken it out of the drawer, even to look at, and it never occurred to me that I would do it. Then Juliet Taylor, my casting director, thought Larry could do it, and I agreed, completely. It would be like mother's milk to him.
Since you wrote the script in the 70s, what kind of work did it take to update it to this era?
WA: What intrigued me about it originally was that Zero was this big, fat, blustery, self-aggrandizing—in real life he was so cultivated, he knew everything about art, literature, science, and music, and he was always sharing this knowledge with you from a justifiably superior position. I thought it was very funny to be around him, and I was around him when we made The Front (1976), and he was always carrying on and lecturing. I thought it would be very funny that he's living with this runaway, this dumb little runaway from the South, and suddenly her mother shows up, and she hates everything about him, can't stand him, and then her father shows up. That original material all remained the same, but references and the concerns of the picture changed. The existential concerns remained the same—those will never change, ever, anyhow, so the character remained mortally afraid of dying and hypochondriac-ical and washing his hands—but the social and political things, many of them had to be changed and freshened up to contemporary social patois.
In the film, Fred Astaire movies help Boris relax after a panic attack. What do you do?
WA: I do exactly that kind of thing, you turn on something on television. For me, it would be a ball game or something that's calming, with no sense of conflict. If I was to turn on a movie, I'd be immediately full of self-loathing and think, "Oh God, I make these movies and there are so many great ones and I couldn't do that," but I could turn on a ball game and just be very placid...
LD: I generally stay with the panic. I embrace the panic. Even if I turn on the ball game, that doesn't do it for me. I'd still hear that sick psychotic voice in my head and there's nothing I could do.
WA: It's perfect casting.
This film is your return to New York after a run of films in England. What brings you back?
WA: That's strictly a function of finance. It's very expensive to make movies in New York. I work on a very low budget, and I can't afford to do it. I'd like to do it, I'd like to make more movies in New York, because I live here and I love it. But surprisingly, New York and California, which is the film center of the United States, [are] too expensive. I was going to make my next film in New York and I couldn't afford to. It was millions of dollars short if I made it in New York. Then I thought, "Well, maybe I'll make it in San Francisco because that's also a very good city." But I couldnt afford to make it in San Francisco either, because that was too expensive. So we shifted it to London and made the cast British, just as I had done for Match Point, which I had written for New York and the Hamptons and Palm Beach.
If I happen to write a film that budgets within my limited budget, I would make it here. The sensibility's certainly the same in a city like London; it's very similar to New York. Barcelona's a little bit different.
There's a current trend to make Broadway musicals out of films. Would you ever let any of your films go to Broadway?
WA: Producers call all the time and they want to make Bullets Over Broadway into a musical and The Purple Rose of Cairo into a musical. They do propose these things and I don't care. If they want to, and they make some deal, they can, but I have no interest in it. Writing it, seeing it, knowing about it—I just never, it's something that would not interest me at all. But some of them would make good musicals in the right hands. The odds are not in your favor. So what would probably happen is that they get the rights to one of my movies, and they'd make it into a musical and it'd be a terrible musical and everyone would be angry at me.
Whatever Works is a paean to the magic of New York. Do you have any particular New York memories?
LD: I grew up in Brooklyn, and then I lived in Hell's Kitchen from the time I got out of college until I moved to Los Angeles in my early 40s. I remember distinctly the smell of urine, of having to take my shoe off to kill the thousands of roaches in my bathtub... I have very fond memories of it—shall I go on?
Patricia Clarkson: I don't know, I came here and the first place I lived was a YMCA, because at Fordham University they didn't have dorms then. I was at the YMCA. On 63rd. And I remember on Friday nights there were a lot of nice young boys around and I thought, "Oh, they just returned from a YMCA camping trip?" Nooooo... [laughter] I have since left the YMCA. I'm a New Yorker now, I guess, I love the Village, the West Village, I love downtown, I've lived there for a long time. It's my favorite part of New York. I never tire of it, ever. Walking the streets with my dog—
LD: I remember fighting with people every day because I couldnt get change for a dollar to get on the bus—nobody wants to give you their change!
WA: My memories of New York are unrealistic—the New York that I grew up loving was, ironically enough, the New York of Hollywood movies, where people lived in penthouses with white telephones and came home at five in the morning with ermine draped over their shoulders. You know, this is the New York that I knew. I grew up in Brooklyn and I never knew New York as it really existed—for that, you have to speak to Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese—I only knew New York the way it appeared with popping champagne corks and dressed in tuxedos and making very witty banter and elevators rising into the apartments directly. That's the New York that I have depicted in my life and have tried to live in my life, really, and it's caused me a lot of grief.
Whatever Works, the opening night film of the 2009 Tribeca Film Fesival, opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Click here for ticket information.
We talked with Evan Rachel Wood and her (hunky, less known for now, British) co-star Henry Cavill back in April, and we checked out the Whatever Works afterparty.