Woody Allen: ‘I’ve Learned Very Little After Annie Hall

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Photo: Patrick McMullan

As he told us in his recent New York cover story, Woody Allen wrote the script for Whatever Works in the seventies, with Zero Mostel in mind for the lead, and shelved it after Mostel's death in 1977; last year, he dusted it off in order to finish a movie before the threatened actors' strike. Allen updated its references, but not its main character, Boris Yellnikoff, a bitter, suicidal, genius physicist (played by Larry David) who houses, and eventually begins a romantic relationship with, a dimwitted Southern runaway (Evan Rachel Wood). Last week, Allen and Davis answered reporters' questions at the Regency Hotel. A few highlights, after the jump.

On playing the "Woody Allen role":
David: I know it’s the part that people normally would see him play, but I never considered that I would play him. And nor would he want me to play him. There was only one moment in the movie, I remember 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 so he went, you know, “the Western world … ” And so I did that, the next take, but he didn’t use that one.

Allen: I have to interject. This is not a part that I could have played even if I was younger. Larry is able to do this kind of sardonic, you know, sarcastic, vitriolic, humor, and get away with it. Cause 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.

On awards:
Allen: People have always asked me over the years about performances in my movies, and they think I’m being facetious when I say this, but I’m not: I hire great people and I get out of their way. I try not to talk to them as much as possible. They’re not getting that Oscar because I sat them in a room and drilled their character into them and tricked them. Penélope Cruz was great in the Almodóvar film before my film, and Michael Caine was sensational — actually Michael Caine deserved the Academy Award for Educating Rita, the film he did before my film. He didn’t deserve it necessarily for [Hannah and Her Sisters]. And I think they were paying him off.

On accents:
Allen: I didn’t know [Evan Rachel Wood] could do a Southern accent. She said yes, I can do one, but she didn’t want to show me. I heard the accent she was doing [for the first time] when we shot her. There was no rehearsal, I never heard it in conversation. And Ed Begley Jr. didn’t even know that he was supposed to be doing a Southern accent. We were on the set, and I told him, and he was surprised. I got panicky for a moment. Then he said, "Oh okay," and he made some kind of little mental adjustment, and then he was just great.

On dealing with panic attacks:
Allen: You turn on something on television, with me it would probably be a ball game, something that’s calming, there’s no sense of conflict. If I was to turn on a movie, I would be full of self-loathing: I make these movies, and there are so many great ones, and I couldn’t do that.

David: I generally stay with the panic. I embrace the panic. I know there’s no getting out of it, even if I turned on a ballgame. It wouldn’t make any difference to me – I would still hear that sick, psychotic voice going crazy in my head. And there’s nothing I could do.

Allen: It's perfect casting.

On screenplay input:
David: I tried to convince [Woody] at some point before we started shooting that he should change the character’s occupation to a former grandmaster. I didn’t want to be a physicist because I thought I wouldn’t be able to improvise because the character is so much smarter than I. I thought I would be able to improvise a chess champion, yes.

On life in general:
Allen: Life is quite terrible — this is fiction, it can be read as misanthropic, it can be interpreted that way. I think it’s simply realistic. The real world is as horrible, or actually, much more horrible, than the world that Boris envisions. He has compassion, he feels bad about this. But you can’t pick up the paper in the morning without a carload of atrocities — young women are thrown in prison in Korea, some guy enters the Holocaust museum and kills the guard. This is the average stuff we live on every morning. In a sense, the movie is almost mild compared to the ugly brutality that’s just a part of your morning Cornflakes.

On real funny:
Allen: The ones that aren’t authentically funny, you know. Your body knows. You may not be able to articulate it. You may laugh at them and get a certain amount of enjoyment, but when you go to sleep at night, and you wake up at three in the morning, and you’re alone in your bed, you know who’s really funny.

On adapting his movies for Broadway:
Allen: I myself would have no interest in that whatsoever. None. Producers call all the time. They wanted to make Bullets Over Broadway into a musical, and Purple Rose of Cairo into a musical. And they do propose these things. And I don’t care. If they want to, and they made some deal, they can. I have no interest in writing it, seeing it, knowing about it. What would probably happen is they take the rights, and they make it into a musical, and it would be a terrible musical, and everyone would be angry at me.

On New York memories:
David: Well, I grew up in Brooklyn, and then I lived in Hell’s Kitchen from the time that I got out of college until I moved to L.A. in my early forties. I remember very distinctly the smell of urine as I left my front door. I remember having to take my shoe off before I came into my apartment to kill the thousands of roaches that were in my bathtub. I have very fond memories of this. Shall I go on?


Allen: My memories of New York are unrealistic. The New York that I grew up loving was, ironically enough, the New York of Hollywood parties, where people lived in penthouses with white telephones and came home at five in the morning … people popping champagne corks and making witty banter and elevators that open into your apartment directly. I never knew New York as it really existed. For that, you have to speak to Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese.

On improving as a director:
Allen: Well, marginally, I’ve gotten better. Every time you make a movie — I’ve now made about 40 movies — every time you make it is a new and different experience. You learn very little from the past. I’m better than when I made Take the Money and Run, but not much better than when I made Annie Hall. I’ve learned very little after that.

On the temperature of the room:
Allen: It’s freezing
David: Woody’s chilled. Somebody get Woody a jacket.