When I meet Woody Allen in Paris, the legendary filmmaker looks exactly as you would expect: thick glasses on his nose, beige trousers pulled up high, scared-rabbit look in his eyes and a frame so slight that you feel a draught from under the door might topple him over. Yet don’t be deceived by his fragile appearance: the 77-year-old is enjoying a remarkable boom in his sunset years. Two years ago, ‘Midnight in Paris’ rivalled his 1970s hits ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Manhattan’ at the box office. Now his latest, ‘Blue Jasmine’, is set to do the same.
Allen is the quintessential New Yorker, and throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, he turned his city into a stage for films that radically redefined screen comedy. He was at the heart of most of them, playing variations on the wound-up, paranoid, hopelessly romantic intellectual. But for the past decade, he’s packed his bags most summers to film in Europe. These days, you’re as likely to spot him shooting ‘Cassandra’s Dream’ in Kentish Town as you are to see him playing his regular Monday gig with his jazz band near Central Park.
True to form, Allen spent this summer on the Côte d’Azur making a film with Colin Firth. But today he’s in Paris to talk about another one. ‘Blue Jasmine’ is one of his increasingly rare US-set stories. A tragedy with dashes of humour, it tells of a wealthy New Yorker (Cate Blanchett) who seeks refuge in San Francisco with her less monied sister (Sally Hawkins). It’s one of his best films in years.
You’ve spent eight of the last ten summers making a film abroad. Do these new cities give you fresh ideas and energy as you reach 80?
‘I enjoy it because it gives my family a chance to have a vacation. We just got back from the south of France; I worked there all summer. My wife loved it, the kids loved it. It’s interesting and provocative for me, but it’s limiting: there aren’t many places I want to spend three months. I made four films in London because it’s a nice place to work. But I would not want to make a picture in Damascus.’
Can you think of anywhere else in the world you’d actually want to live?
‘If I couldn’t live in New York, I’d probably live in Paris, then London. But if I had to be some place in the United States that wasn’t New York, San Francisco is probably where I’d go.’
‘Blue Jasmine’ is set there. A decade ago, that would have been cause for comment for someone so strongly identified with New York and the East Coast…
‘Yes, but San Francisco is the good West Coast! It’s lovely and beautiful. It’s not like Los Angeles… That’s got better, I have friends there, but it’s boring. San Francisco is not: it’s charming and interesting. Jasmine in the film needed to visit her sister somewhere, and I needed somewhere I could live graciously for a few months.’
You’re from a very modest Brooklyn background but your films are full of wealthy people and intellectuals. Why is that?
‘It’s the life I’m familiar with. I’m familiar with the lower classes too because I grew up in the lower classes. But I was 19 when I moved into New York. I started going out with women, marrying, having friends. Over the decades, the people who I know and whose experiences I could record have all been people who lived in Manhattan: they’ve been better educated, more financially secure.
‘They range from middle to upper class to even wealthy class – and I was lower class. They interest me. They’re amusing. They’re foolish. The fact that they have education and money doesn’t prevent them from making tremendous fools of themselves and having tragic lives. But every once in a while a story will occur to me like “Broadway Danny Rose”, and I like that.’
Do you know when you’ve made a good film?
‘I know by my standards, but that doesn’t bear any relation to the public response. If I get an idea in my bedroom, and I love what I write, and I make the film, once in a while I think: “This is perfect, I made exactly what I set out to make.” More times than not, I finish it and have a negative feeling. I think: “Oh my God, I had such a great idea and look what I did with it.” Usually you get an unpleasant surprise when you see what you’ve done. Once in a while, you think it’s what you wanted, and then the public has to like it or not.’
What films of yours are you most happy with?
‘“The Purple Rose of Cairo”, I thought that hit right on the nose. “Bullets Over Broadway” did. “Husbands and Wives” did. “Midnight in Paris” did. They were just what I wanted to make. They were what I conceived in my bedroom, where I write. I’ve always worked in my bedroom. I get up in the morning, have breakfast, do the treadmill, get the kids off to school, and then I go back into the bedroom and lay down on the bed and write. That’s how it works.’
Do you write quickly?
‘I write very quickly. Really quickly. People could ask me for a rewrite of a scene and I could be in the restroom with them and grab it and rewrite it in five minutes. I’m not a perfectionist. I don’t obsess over the right word. Not at all. I’m a careless, fast writer.’
Cate Blanchett is terrific as a damaged woman in your new film, ‘Blue Jasmine’. It’s a tragedy with dashes of humour. Do you think you’re better at writing serious roles for women than men?
‘It’s more comfortable for me, I don’t know why. When I started writing years ago, I only wrote for men, and I was the lead. People would say I’m always writing for the guy and the guy’s point-of-view, and it was limiting. Then, after I was living with Diane Keaton [actress in eight of his films and his partner in the 1970s], and I got to know her well, she was very impressive to me and very influential. I was able to write “Annie Hall” for her. It was the first, really significant woman’s part I ever wrote.
‘Then I found myself writing for women most of the time. It evolved unconsciously, and now, you’re right, particularly when the character is to be more serious and the story is more complex, I gravitate to the problems of women.’
And do you find it easier to be funny about men?
‘Yes, it’s much easier. I’m much more comfortable feeling the perspective of men when I’m doing comedy. I guess it’s because I’m a comedian. I just feel it from my own experience.’
How about in your life, do you prefer the company of men or women?
‘Oh, I prefer the company of women, and I don’t mean that in a joking way. I’m surrounded by women. My producer is my sister, I have two daughters and I find myself in female company all the time. I feel very comfortable around women. I don’t feel uncomfortable around men, but I feel more relaxed around women. It shouldn’t be like that because my mother was the strict disciplinarian and my father was a lovely, easygoing guy who took me to baseball games. And yet my natural tendency is to gravitate towards women’s company.’
You’re acting less in your films these days. Do you miss it?
‘I’m going to be in a movie that the actor John Turturro directed [‘Fading Gigolo’: Allen plays an amateur, late-life pimp] and I had a small role in that. I don’t write for myself at the moment. It’s only because there was a time for decades when I could believably get the girl and be the hero. But, when you get older, the possibility for parts diminishes. I can no longer play the husband longing for the neighbour’s wife or the guy who’s lusting after the girl. It’s not believable. It’s hard for me to find parts for myself that are funny. I don’t want to play geriatric parts. I want to play something that’s funny.
‘If, tomorrow, there’s a great part for me, I’ll write it and do it in a minute. It makes life easier if I’m the star of the picture. It means I don’t have to direct anybody. It cuts down on the conversations. It’s not twice as difficult to direct yourself. It’s half as difficult.’
The number of films you make suggests you never stop working. Do you?
‘I don’t work hard compared to a taxi driver or a teacher or a policeman. People think making a film every year is overwhelming. It’s not. Once you have the money and the script, how long does it take? It’s not that big a deal. I have plenty of time to play with my children, go to basketball games, see movies, take walks, play with my jazz band. The problem is making good films, that’s the hard part. Making films is not difficult.’
‘Blue Jasmine’ opens in UK cinemas on Sep 27.
Read our ‘Blue Jasmine’ review
One of the most pleasing things about ‘Blue Jasmine’ is that it feels truly knotty and never obvious in how it unfolds. It has a lightness of touch and a seriousness of purpose. Yes, Tennessee Williams’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ hangs over Allen’s portrayal of these sisters, their men and their pasts, and yes, some of those men are clunky working-class stereotypes. But mostly this is surprising and refreshing.
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