Friday, January 18, 2008

Has Woody Allen killed someone?He seems awfully obsessed with the idea of murder and its guilty aftermath, after all. His new movie, “Cassandra’s Dream,” is just the latest of his films to explore the theme. Most recently, there was his 2005 masterpiece, “Match Point.” Before that, 1989’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Mr. Allen patiently explains his interest in the subject. “Crime has been a staple of playwrights and dramatists from Shakespeare to Alfred Hitchcock,” the 72-year-old writer-director says by telephone. “Half the movies out all the time are about crime, because it’s just a dramatic atmosphere. So I resort to it.”

He sounds just a little defensive as he goes on to point out that in his directorial debut, 1969’s “Take the Money and Run,” he played a criminal. A few years after that, in 1973’s “Sleeper,” he notes, he was being chased as a criminal.

Finally he comes right out and says it: “I’ve never killed anybody.”

One doubts he would have the time to cover up the crime. Mr. Allen is the most prolific American director, making about a film a year since he started four decades ago. And so many of them have been so good that it’s impossible to declare one as his “best.”

Is it “Annie Hall,” for which he won Oscars for best director and best screenplay? Or “Hannah and Her Sisters,” for which he won another screenwriting Oscar? Or “Manhattan,” perhaps the definitive New York movie? “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point” aren’t too shabby, either.

“I don’t find it difficult,” Mr. Allen says of his consistent output. Writing the script is “the hard part but the fun part.” That takes “some months” and then preproduction takes a few weeks. He shoots for 10 weeks and edits in, say, just six days: “It’s all electronic.”

It helps to always have funding in place. “My films cost $15 million, give or take a million. So when I pull a script out of the typewriter when I finish writing it, I don’t have to call some star in Hollywood and have lunch with him or call somebody else and hope in three months, he’ll do it.”

Every actor in Hollywood is dying to work with him. “I’m lucky that way, I must say,” he comments. “The truth of the matter is, though,” he quickly adds, “they only work for me if they’re not being offered something better.” If an actor will get $10 million for another movie, “they’re going to do that other movie, no matter what they think of me.” But if they’re in between $10 million pictures, it’s a good investment to take the time to work for Mr. Allen, who has helped make the careers of leading ladies like Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton and, most recently, Scarlett Johansson.

That’s not to say making a Woody Allen picture is effortless. “I do work seven days a week. Because I like to work,” he says. He doesn’t shoot on the weekends, though, not wanting to force others to do so.

Then, he says, “I write, not out of compulsion but because I enjoy writing. If I’ve completed a film script and they’re budgeting it, I start writing something I might want to publish in the New Yorker or accumulate pieces for a collection one day.” (His latest, “Mere Anarchy,” came out last year.) Ideas, he says, come easily. He gets stuck only every couple of years.

“I’m able to make a film a year or just over a year without struggling,” he says, “and still have plenty of time for my family and plenty of time for my jazz band and the Knicks and still see other people’s films.”

Mr. Allen, of course, is known as one of the few American directors to have complete creative control over his work. “As long as I’m willing to work for less money, both personal money and production money,” he adds.

But for one of our greatest living directors, he has a pretty laid-back attitude to his art: “I do the films, and some come out better than others. On the whole, it’s been a profitable enterprise for people doing the money over the long run.”

Just because the old hand has a routine doesn’t mean he never shakes it up, however. Mr. Allen usually uses jazz standards and classical music in his soundtracks, but “Cassandra’s Dream” features an original score by minimalist composer Philip Glass.

Neither opera nor jazz seemed to fit the mood of the film, so Mr. Allen was having difficulty coming up with a soundtrack until “the notion of Philip Glass came up.” It seemed a good fit: “His music is so sinister and so ominous all the time. And this was a tragic story.”

Maybe it was too good a fit. “The funny part of it is,” Mr. Allen chuckles, “he’d bring out a piece of music and I’d say, ‘This piece is awfully heavy, it gives away so much.’ And he’d say, ‘That’s the love song. I haven’t given you the crime material yet.’ ” He adds, “he’s quite brilliant.”

Another change that’s come over the years is that Mr. Allen has appeared on screen less. “I would just as soon not and ease off on that. When I became too old to get the girl, it became boring for me,” he comments. “I don’t want to play the affable janitor or gramps the loveable guy who brings the Christmas presents.”

After making four films in Europe, Mr. Allen starts shooting his next picture, as he calls them, in New York in April. He’s still looking abroad for inspiration, however.

When asked if there are any young filmmakers working today he admires, he quickly names “Sideways” director Alexander Payne, but goes on to add, “I like the same people everybody likes, but they’re not young anymore.”

Most of his favorite films aren’t made in his native land, though. “Occasionally, an American film surfaces: ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ or ‘Best in Show,’ I find them charming films. When I’m looking for films to see, generally speaking, I’ll catch up with a film that’s Japanese or Chinese or Iranian or French. Most of the stuff that comes out of Hollywood is factory made. I don’t know how anyone does that. It’s filmmaking by committee. And of course the film looks it. Whether successful or not, it has no individuality. The best you can hope for is to make some money.”

For many filmmakers, that’s the point. But thankfully, not for Woody Allen.

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