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March 2005
Melinda and Melinda: An Interview with Woody Allen

Melinda and Melinda: An Interview with Woody Allen

By Wilson Morales

In the last 15 years or so, there have been at least two directors who have released a film year after year. Spike Lee is one of those directors and Woody Allen is the other. Allen is mostly known for making films around New York and has won numerous accolades including a couple of Oscars for some of his actors (Michael Caine, Dianne Wiest, Mira Sorvino). His last few films haven't generated the kind of buzz that was associated with his earlier work, but his latest film may bring him to form. In Melinda and Melinda, Allen directs Radha Mitchell in two alternating stories about Melinda's (Mitchell) attempts to straighten out her life. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Allen talks about his writing of films and how roles are non-color, such as the casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor.

How did you come to work with Cinematographer Vilnos Zsigmond this?

Woody Allen: What made me choose him was I had just worked with Darius Khondji and I was going to work with him again and he was stuck on this tennis movie--I think it was a tennis movie, it was a either a tennis movie of the one with Nicole Kidman, I can't remember which; anyhow he was not available. So they gave me a list of the cinematographers that were available and Vilnos was a guy that I had lived through the years and had never even met. I had no idea what to think and he was available. Like Alderman, he was anxious to do it and I had a very good time with him, he was very pleasant to work with.

This has been gestating for a number of years this project, what was it about this particular idea?

WA: There have been many times when I've had ideas that I felt would have worked either way, the idea could have been written amusingly or as a serious story and in the past I'd always chosen one and gone in that direction and here I had an idea and again I thought gee this could make quite a serious story, but it could also make a quite funny romantic story and then it occurred to me why don't I alternate the two and see if I could picture and maybe learn something from trying to juxtapose the two. Of course, I learned nothing in trying to do this. It was fun to do, but it was not enlightening.

Do you have a particular preference in the writing of comedy or tragedy?

WA: It's always fun to write the heavy stuff for me because over the years I've done a lot of movies and almost all of them have been comic so it's fun to do something occasionally that's very, very heavy just for the change, but then when I realized I was going to be working with Will, I went back over the script and tried to customize it more for him and that became fun.

Will Farrell does such a great alter-ego, it's very different.

WA: First of all, he's so physically different. He's a big, silly person and everyone that's seen him and laughed at him as I have in these broad, broad ridiculous comedies the question was could he act and be believable as me. It turned out because I guess his size and his face and whatever talent he has that he's vulnerable, there's something sweet about him and your heart goes out to him and he's very, very amusing. Now, there were things in the script, in the actual dialogue of the script, that he couldn't do, since I'm writing the dialogue, the tendency s to write it for myself. Even though I knew I'd never be playing it, but I write it instinctively for myself, but I had to cut some lines and some dialogue out of the thing because he couldn't do it. It just never sounded funny when he did it, but there were things that he did do that I could have never imagined when I was writing it before I met him. I never could have imagined for the script and these were contributions that he would make that are just so built in to his ridiculous persona, you know the way he moves, there's something in the look of his face, it's intangible, but it's silly and sweet.

Can you give me an example of a line that you cut?

WA: I can't give you an example of an exact line I cut, but there were jokes, kind of one liners that I knew and that's easy for me to do and doesn't sound like a joke when I do it, it sounds like dialogue but it's really a joke and that comes naturally for me, it was not that natural for him. I've had that problem before with believe it or not Diane Keaton, she's someone who I used to write these sharp remarks before and she could never do them. She's the funniest person I've ever met and always used to steal the picture from me. I always wrote the picture for me and I would write her a secondary role and when the movie actually came out she was always the funny star and I was always in the secondary part, but she couldn't do any of those one liners either for some reason. There's some people that just can do them, it just comes naturally and Will was not one, Will has a different gift completely, and it's hard to quantify it, but it's working great for him, and not just on my pictures, but in general.

Speaking of Diane, how does your casting process work?

WA: It's always a question of who's best for the role, and that's the first thing you think of. Then you find out that your choices are not available or that they won't work for no money, which is what we have, so that's really how we do it. Now, sometimes you get very, very expensive actors who couldn't care less about money and they're available and they rush to do it. They love it. In this picture, the hard casting was Radha, because it was very tough to find somebody who could be very dramatic and convincing and handle the light romantic stuff as well. Sometimes when we're filming, she had to do it in the same day. We'd come in the morning and she come in the morning and she'd cry and attempt to commit suicide or something and then in the afternoon she'd have to be light and frothy. I'd never heard of her. I had no idea that she existed even. And then I saw a scene from Phone Booth, the Joel Schumamker movie, and I thought she was very good, very attractive and very convincing actress. Then they sent me some independent film footage of her and she was very, very good and I called her and she wanted to do it and I just felt why not, I've been very lucky in the past with women I've worked with whether they were known or unknown, but even unknowns, I've been very, very lucky with them and I felt you know it seems to me that she could do this, and she looks great, she's charming and she's good actress and she was great, but it took a long time to find her. It was a very tough part.

How gratifying is it that actors are still so willing to work with you?

WA: I'm not surprised because they only work with me if they're between desirable jobs. If I call and actor or an actress and someone else like a Steven Speilberg or Martin Scorsese is calling them; they're fine directors and are offering them substantial money, they have no interest in me at all, but if they just finished a picture and they've earned their 10 million dollar salary and they have nothing to do till August and I call them in June and they like the part, you know, they say why not?

Do you think it's fair to say in this film the comedy is for Jews and the drama is for Wasps?

WA: That's very funny. I don't think of it that way, but I guess people think of comedy for Jews all the time. I'm forever being asked why are all the comedians Jewish. I always feel that they're not. This is a misconception based on the fact that there were many Jewish comedians that came out of the Catskills, but if you look at Bob Hope or Buster Keaton or WC Fields, they were not Jewish. They were great comedians. Charlie Chaplin was half Jewish, so which half is the comic half? Peter Sellars was half-Jewish, and there were many fabulous Jewish comedians, but there were many great comedians that were not. I don't think it's a particularly Jewish thing. I think there was that rush of circuit comedians that were quite that came out of that specific venue.

But your comic sensibility has always come out of your Jewish heritage.

WA: Well, I was raised in a Jewish neighborhood in a Jewish household so naturally my idiom is where I grew up. I've had this conversation with Spike Lee a number of times. I could never convincingly write about a black family and I don't know, but I doubt if he could write convincingly, and certainly not as convincingly as I could, about a Jewish family because you know you lived it every moment so it gets into the nuances.

Can you talk about the casting of Chewy (Chiwetel Ejoifor)?

WA: Chewy I saw, again I never heard of, I saw him in that one picture, Dirty Pretty Things, and I thought he was a gorgeous, charismatic, great actor and that's a perfect example, I made a phone call, he was available. He happened to be doing something in Canada and I sent the script up to him and he wanted to do. That's just my good luck. I had seen the other actor who played the black actor in the comic section on Broadway in take me out and it was great. I could have used either one for either role really. I saw Chewy first and thought he was great and wanted him for that, but they were both too wonderful charismatic guys which is what I wanted, I wanted guys that in one sense would sweep up both women and in the other thing I wanted someone that was really a threat to Will, someone that was gorgeous and again the guys were all available. Roles are non color in your films.

Also, I wasn't thinking of it in terms or color. As I was writing the story I never think in terms of anything but the story and I thought there's this party and this piano player of at the party and the piano player is actually Chewy, not an African American, but I thought in the context playing one. There's an African American piano player at the party and she doesn't' fall for the stiff that try and fix her up with but there's this great, gifted, attractive guy at the piano and once I decided on him and once I decided on him then in the other story I wanted an African American as well.

How was the switch from working with Dreamworks to Fox?

WA: Well, the switch was easy. Dreamworks was great to work with, they only distributed for me and they were great. They put the pictures out first class and very well and Fox was great. I had a wonderful time with them. To me it was no different. I always work the same way. Nobody reads a script. They either want to go with me or they don't and my pictures don't cost a lot of money so their really not risking a tremendous amount. There's not a big loss side for them and they don't get anything to say about anything, No cast, just nothing at all. If they want to do this, then we can do it and some how I always seem to find somebody that's willing to do it at the low price that I'm able to do the movie for, and I have, not out of obligation, but because it just worked out that way, gotten some very good people over the years for each film, so while I can't promise them to begin with that I will, they sort of imagine that I will and I have by good luck and availabilities of people and I'm not really driven that much. I finish a movie and then when I'[m finished with it, I sit around, this will sound facetious and I don' t mean it to, I heard Neil Simon say the same thing once, you sit around for a week or two weeks and what do you do? I'm not going to go to the Bahamas or fishing or something, so I start to write something else and when I'm finished with it, I go up and do it. I put it on,. It's not rocket science. You write for a few months, you finish a script. You cast it, shoot it, editing goes very fast with digital avid. The whole thing is not that big a deal. I finished this picture, I finished another picture and I'm preparing to shoot another film this summer.

Do you miss doing standup?

WA: I miss doing standup, but I'm too lazy to do it again. To write an act, to be the funny standup for 45 minutes to an hour onstage is a huge amount of work, more work than a movie. Because in the course of an hour, a one line takes no time at all and another and another and another and in order to get an hours worth of really funny, potent material, it's a huge amount of work and I just don't have the energy or the patience to do. But I do miss it, it's a wonderful medium to work in and I love watching them. I love the fact that you can turn on your television set and because of the economics, it's good for them to show standup comedy, it's very cheap of them to do it. So anytime, day or night you can turn on the television set and see two or three comics working almost in perpetuity around the clock.

Do you think you'll ever direct anything that someone else has written?

WA: I've never done that. I really have only directed because I'm a writer and I like to write. But I wouldn't rule that out, now that I'm getting older to try the experience once, just to see what it would be like to direct somebody else's script, but I've only directed in the past cause I wrote the script. The fun was getting my idea on, not directing.

Has the way you've written the screenplay changed because you used to write in longhand?

WA: I still do that. I still lay down on the bed with a yellow thing and write it. Invariably I have to myself and that takes three days. I can write faster this way. I was taught to write on a typewriter and I think it would be healthier for me to do it that way because if you write on a typewriter you sort of act out the scene and you know it works. When you write on a pad, you're hearing it in your head and you don't know that it works when it becomes audible, but it goes so much faster that I just got into this bad habit and I've been doing it for years.

What's your process with actors? What would you consider a friable offense?

WA: Well, what friable really turns out to be in the end is my casting mistake because the person does no wrong. I hire them and I'm convinced that they can do it and then they come in and they don't do it. This has happened to me before and I try every conceivable way I can to get them to do it. I talk to them, I explain it, I try to be as lucid as I can and then if that doesn't work, sometimes I try and trick them in a transparent way and I take the script and I say let's see, the camera comes in over here and then he says this and then I act it out for them and I'm hoping that they'll pick it up from me and sometimes they do, but sometimes they don't and no matter what I do I can't get it. So I'm not the skilled director like Elia Kazan was or Mike Nichols where they can get a performance out of someone that can't act. I can't do that. I don't know how they do it, but I can't do it so after three days of trying to get the person to do the scene with every resource I can think of, I fire them because I don't know what else to do. I feel we're doomed if we use them, the whole picture will die and I can't think of what else to do. If I was more resourceful or if I had cast more judiciously, although I think I'm casting judiciously at the time, but it's possible someone will come in and read and they'll be very goop at the reading and then for some inexplicable reason they can't do it when the time comes. It doesn't happen a lot, but it does happen occasionally. It has happened to me through the years at times and you know, it's a terrible thing.

Do you ever wish you had $100M to direct a film?

WA: No, I wish I had the hundred mil, but it's very hard. People are making films, and in my lifetime it went so that the average film is 50-60 million dollars and 100 million dollar films are common and considerably more. I'm making films where everything, my salary, the whole film will be like a maximum, maximum of 15 million dollars or 14 million dollars and it's tough because there's a lot of things I want to do that I can't do and you know they'll say when I did this next film that hasn't come out yet, match point, they said to me you're not going to be able to afford music. You just can't. And I figured out a way, by sing all opera, and that I was able to connive with an opera company that was putting out an Enrico Caruso album to get the music. But there's a lot of things you can't do, any kind of special effects or reshooting things and taking the proper times, you can't do it.

How have the common perceptions changed? What's left?

WA: I would like to make some films that are bolder than I've made. I've made romantic films and common films, but I would like to see if I could come up with something that was bolder and more aggressive. I've always been a passive comedian. I've always been a comedian in the mold of Bob Hope or something that's victimized. A coward, a failure with women, a loser and I'd love to sometime try a picture where I was a winner. I would like that just for the fun of it. When you see a Groucho Marx or a WC Fields, they have an aggressive sense of humor, and I love to try that. Now, it might not sit well, they might say who is this guy with the confidence, they weren't but I am. But I would like to try that.

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