INTERVIEW

‘I can’t play in my films because I can't get the girl anymore so it takes the fun out of it. I can't play the lecherous, inept character.’

WOODY ALLEN TALKS TO KENNETH WHYTE ABOUT SOON-YI, SCARLETT JOHANSSON, HOLLYWOOD TOILET JOKES,' AND HIS ODD EATING HABITS

January 14 2008
INTERVIEW

‘I can’t play in my films because I can't get the girl anymore so it takes the fun out of it. I can't play the lecherous, inept character.’

WOODY ALLEN TALKS TO KENNETH WHYTE ABOUT SOON-YI, SCARLETT JOHANSSON, HOLLYWOOD TOILET JOKES,' AND HIS ODD EATING HABITS

January 14 2008

‘I can’t play in my films because I can't get the girl anymore so it takes the fun out of it. I can't play the lecherous, inept character.’

WOODY ALLEN TALKS TO KENNETH WHYTE ABOUT SOON-YI, SCARLETT JOHANSSON, HOLLYWOOD TOILET JOKES,' AND HIS ODD EATING HABITS

INTERVIEW

QIn the new film, Cassandra’s Dream, we have a couple of brothers, a horrible crime, a family torn apart, a terrible ending. Is this the Russian novel that you’ll never write?

A: Well, you know, I have always wanted to do these kind of films, like Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, and it just so happened that I had a sense of humour and comedy was my strong point and so I succeeded by doing comedies, and I then became known for doing comedies and any time I would depart from that it was always difficult for me, first of all because I wasn’t as good at it, and because people didn’t want it from me. When I would go into the film company and say, “I’d like to do this dramatic story,” they wouldn’t be thrilled and didn’t want to put up the money for it. Fairly recently I’ve been getting my financing abroad—so I made Cassandra’s Dream and Match Point in England— and when you’re not working with a studio they’re not interested in the content, they just want to put their money in something that’s beneficial for them, and that’s good for me because then I can make whatever film I want to make. Then Match Point was quite successful for me, so I felt, “Well, if people will accept this from me, then I can do some of the films that I’ve always wanted to do.” Q: You have been near this material before, though, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, where a small crime leads to a larger crime, and the covering up of a small crime required a larger crime. The man behind the murder gets away with it. And you suggested life was like that, that people got away with things and could live with heinous crimes.

A: I do feel that in everyday life people on a great spectrum get away with crime all the time, ranging from genocide to just street crime. Most crimes do go unsolved, and people commit murders and ruin other people and do the worst things in the world and, you know, there’s no one to penalize you if you don’t have a sense of conscience about it. There is an element in life of enormous, enormous injustice that we live with all the time. It’s just an ugly-but-true fact of life.

Q: For someone who once said that life is a come-by-chance, meaningless little charade, this is a very earnest and searching film. This is a paradox, isn’t it, making meaningful films about the meaninglessness of existence?

A: I have no real answers or knowledge of these things, I only have my feelings about them, and I’m ready to explore all the possibilities. My own personal conclusion concurs with what seems to be the everyday finding of our physicists, that it was an accident, that it will end, and it was just an odd little phe-

nomenon that has no meaning, that [it] wasn’t created by any super-being or with any design, it’s just a chance phenomenon and a microspeck in an overwhelming, violent universe, and it will end, and everything that Shakespeare did and Beethoven did, all of that will be gone, and every planet will be gone, every star will be gone—down the line—but that’s where we’re headed, out of nothing to nothing. And yet the trick, to me, seems to be to find, not meaning, but to be able to live with that and to enjoy life. By enjoy it I don’t mean sybaritically, I mean to be able to find some kind of MO where you can enjoy your life, even if it’s abstemious and you spend your life in a monastery and you enjoy culturing flowers and pea pods every morning or something, but if that will get you through it in some decent way, that’s the best you can hope for. To live with the awful truth, we’re endowed with this denial mechanism. Some people have less of a denial mechanism than others, but without it, if you faced the real truth all the time, it’s very, very unpleasant.

Q: I’ve heard you say that you’re not an intellectual, you like to stay home, drink beer [and] watch the Knicks game.

A: That is the truth. I don’t lead what people call a life of the mind. I’m not a profound reader. I’ve been mostly dedicated to show business rather than an intellectual life, and it’s just that when I make films or write, these subjects interest me. Even as a stand-up comic in nightclubs those were the subjects that interested me. I was never politically wise or politically astute, and I was never interested in social issues, I was always interested in existential issues. I feel that if you solved all the political problems in the world, and solved all the relationship problems, and nobody was starving and everyone was living in peace and all of that, we would still have...

Q: Have existential problems.

A: [We’re] up against a very terrifying situation.

Q: I think you said before that you wanted to do serious films pretty much from now on.

AI would like to do a cluster of them. I finished a film in Barcelona this summer that is a romance. It’s serious in the sense of like Hannah and Her Sisters, it’s not heavy at all, there’s no killing or lifeand-death issues in it, it’s a relationship picture. But I would like to make some weighty films because they’re the ones that I enjoy seeing. I’ve always been a great [Ingmar] Bergman fan, and I enjoy seeing those kinds of pictures, and so I would like to try and make some of those. And I’ve made many comedies, and now I can’t play in my own films very much because, you know, I can’t get the girl

anymore so it takes the fun out of it. It used to be fun to try and get Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow or Dianne Wiest, but now I can’t play the aggressive, lecherous, inept character I always got laughs doing. If I write for other people I would just as soon write serious things because I’m tempted to do the jokes myself and I can’t really do them.

Q: I think that [beautiful women] have to be one of the most consistent things in all your films.

A: It’s a treat when I pay my $10 to see a movie if I can feast my eyes on Scarlett Johansson, or in my new movie I have Scarlett Johansson and Penélope Cruz. And it is wonderful, you know, your heart beats in a way that no other phenomenon can make it beat when you see them. When you see Mia Farrow over the years, or Diane Keaton over the years, it’s just a great thing.

Q: You said Scarlett Johansson will have a limitless career if she keeps her poise. What did you mean?

A: Well, you know, she’s 23. She was only 19 when she did Match Point, and everybody is throwing things at her, and she’s so beautiful and so sexy and so gifted, she’s funny, she can sing, she can act dramatically, she can do anything, but she’s gotta make the right choices of films and she’s got to not go the Page Six party route. I don’t want to read about her in the paper with this boyfriend or that boyfriend, or in rehab or taking pills. Now, I haven’t—which is great—but she’s got to keep her poise and select good pictures. I don’t think she’s always made great choices. She’s gotta take her acting seriously, not the acting as an entree into a world of being the toast of the town but the way someone like Meryl Streep did it.

Q: Who are the cautionary tales?

A: Well, I mean, you read Page Six and you see Lindsay Lohan is in the papers every day, and Britney Spears. I don’t know what their degree of talent is—they may be incredibly talented—but I don’t want her to get into that situation. You know, she’s got too good an intelligence. Every time I nail her she tops me—in front of people—she’s so quick and so witty and I would just hate to see that lost in any way.

Q: Is it harder now than when you started out to keep your poise?

A: No, I think it was hard then too. When you make it very big and you’re young—I didn’t, I was older—and everybody in the world is throwing scripts at you, and everyone’s in love with you, you either have to have someone with you or in some way have

premature wisdom to be able to circumvent the pitfalls, because they are out there and what they call the bitch goddess of success really can ruin you.

Q: Tell me about the state of comedy today. Somebody like Sacha Baron Cohen—Bor^t—did you see that movie?

A: I didn’t see that movie, but I’ve seen him on television. He’s a very talented comedian. I was away when that movie came [out], making a film, and then when I got back I never got around to it. But I have seen him on TV on a number of occasions and I found him very gifted, very bright and funny, and I thought this guy would be wonderful in movies because he’s just genuinely talented. And, you know, certain television things have been quite funny. I mean, everyone has watched [Jerry] Seinfeld and they’ve watched Larry David, and these people are very talented and very good. Film comedy is a compendium of toilet jokes and a lot of money spent on stupidity.

Q: You mentioned Page Six. Are you reading the tabloids again?

A: Well, I don’t read the tabloids, but I take my daughters to school every morning and I’m in the car, and my driver always has

'Scarlett Johansson is so sexy and so gifted. I don’t want to read about her with this boyfriend or that, in rehab or taking pills.’

the tabloids, so I sit in the back and I go through the first couple of pages so I’m up on, you know, who’s having sex with who in an elevator.

Q: Are you relieved to be out of them yourself?

A: No, I’m still in the tabloids. It could be completely true or completely fabricated. I mean, fabricated to a point that you don’t know where they get the idea, you know, that I’m writing a play for my wife to appear in or something where, you know, she has no tal-

ent, would have no interest in acting in anything, I’ve never given the matter a moment’s thought or speculated on it, but they’ll write that. When we got married they wrote—in a very friendly way—that we wouldn’t be living together, that I would be living separately so I could keep my writing going.

Q: Are you and Soon-Yi living together?

A: Oh, of course. We live together as a middleclass husband and wife. I mean, we have a house in New York, we have two children, I never go anyplace that the family doesn’t come with me. We’re a very close family and we’ve been married for about 10 years now.

Q: So you took on family life in your 60s, essentially.

A: Yes. My first wife, I was very, very young—I was 19—when I got married and it just didn’t work out, but she was a lovely girl, very bright. And my second wife I’m still very friendly with—Louise Lasser, an actress—also lovely but it just didn’t work out, but we remained friendly. But I would have been happy to have had a family with each of them if it had worked out, and when Soon-Yi and I got married we wanted to have a family. I lead a very, very middle-class life, you know, up in the morning, take the kids to school, do the treadmill, write, go for a walk with my wife, eat out with friends. I don’t do anything adventurous or exotic.

Q: Do you feel that the controversy around you being in a relationship with Soon-Yi has affected your ability to make or market movies?

A: No, not in the slightest. I’ve been constantly productive, I’ve never made less than a movie a year my entire professional life. If anything, to have a firm, solid family life is very good for my kind of artistic life, because I’m a very disciplined worker, and to be out and dating is not as good for me as having a very stable middle-class life.

Q: I read that one of your quirks is that you cut your bananas into seven pieces.

A: I’m afraid not to because, you know, I

‘I take my daughters to school every morning, and my driver always has the tabloids, so I go through the first couple of pages so I'm up on, you know, who’s having sex with who in an elevator'

started cutting it one morning into seven slices and nothing bad happened to me.

Q: How did you settle on seven?

A: I just cut the first one into seven slices and then the next day I cut it into seven and then it started to become a thing, like Babe Ruth always touching second base coming in from the outfield. For someone who is so scientific-minded as I am and such a skeptic, I have a surprising amount of superstitions. I have no religion, I’m completely atheistic, and yet if I spill salt I do throw it over my left shoulder, I won’t put a hat on the bed, I won’t whistle in the dressing room. I don’t know why. It’s like—again, to use a sports example— when you’re watching a ball game and things are going well for your team you don’t want to get up and get a drink of water or something because you think that you’re in the giant scheme of things, the Buddhist giant oneness, that that’s part of it too.

Q: But you don’t even tempt it and do six little pieces and one big piece?

A: Yes, I can do that. It doesn’t matter, it’s just the quantity.

Q: Do you have to eat all seven?

A: I don’t have to eat them all. I do eat them all because seven is not a lot, and I generally cut relatively proportionate slices.

Q: But no other food... I don’t want to call it a fetish, but...

A: Nothing I can think of offhand. I won’t accept salt being passed to me at a table. If I say to my daughter, “Can I have the salt?”, I always make sure that it’s put down and I pick it up.

Q: One last question. You tend, culturally, to look backwards for movies you liked, the

music that’s in your movies. Your points of connection with American culture seem to be tightest in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. Is that true? Are there things out there now that are fascinating to you, in literature/movies/music of a contemporary sort?

AI am very retro in that way.

I do feel that the popular music of America was at its greatest up until 1950 or ’51. As much as I get criticism for this, I feel the music of Kern and Gershwin and Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, was superior popular music to the endless guitar groups that I hear now. I don’t buy into the fact—which I’m told all the time— that there’s been a dumbing down in America and this generation is dumber than my generation. You know in your heart that can’t be true, that if anything they’d be smarter, in the way that the average country doctor today is miles above Hippocrates, you know? And yet I do feel that the culture of past eras in some way resonates with me in a more profound way, and I make the personal value judgment that it was better, that films were better and that music was better, and that we’re going through a period that’s not as good. But it’s strictly a subjective judgment.

Q: Does it apply to basketball, too?

A: Basketball? Well, yeah, that’s demonstrable. The game is exciting still. It’s less cerebral than it was, because the athletes that have come along are so spectacular and so acrobatic and gymnastic and the audience encourages that part of the game. When Rick Barry was playing, and Larry Bird, it was more complex, and I appreciated it more. M