The ONLY place Woody Allen ever really wants to be is in his bed. “My spot on the bed is my spot in the world,” he explains. It’s where he watches baseball games, and reads, and where he writes, usually in the morning, because if he starts at night, he sometimes gets so excited he can’t go to sleep. It’s where the act of imagination is actually “pleasurable and I might go cast the people and see my characters come to life. And I put the music in and I see the characters playing their scenes to the beautiful music behind them. You know, I get a kick out of that. And if nobody else does, that’s too bad.”
He sounds less defiant than resigned. Of all the major American artists, Allen has experienced one of the cruelest and most violent whipsaws of fortune, of tumbling from audience adulation to mass approbation. His solution to the vagaries of public estimation is to hold fast to the belief that none of it means anything. “When you’re a kid you think to yourself, ‘Fame and fortune and it’s going to be so exciting and . . .’ -- but then you quickly find after three or four films, you find, ‘Wait a minute, the upside is nothing and the downside is nothing.’ The adulation of the multitudes or of the critics is an impersonal experience, and the negative feelings [from] people is an impersonal experience. The contract that the audience has with the person is you entertain us and we’ll show up. And that is as the contract should be.”
From the way Allen is talking, one would assume it’s the eve of the release of one of his misfires, the platoon of piffles including “Celebrity” and “Anything Else” that followed the public scandal of his 1992 breakup with Mia Farrow, the ugly accusations (denied and never proven) of child abuse and his later marriage (now 10 years running) to Farrow’s adopted daughter, then-22-year-old Soon-Yi Previn. In fact, he’s just made one of his most charming and funny movies in over a decade, “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” the tale of two American young women (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) who, while summering in Spain, tumble into a relationship with an attractive, woman-loving artist (Javier Bardem) and his addled but delicious ex-wife (Penelope Cruz). The film, opening Friday, is a distillation on the vagaries of love with each woman struggling to find a stable foothold: the sexual adventuress who’s chronically dissatisfied (Johansson), the risk-averse would-be academic who’s in danger of squelching life’s passion (Hall) and the intoxicating, anarchic spirit (Cruz), who makes art great and life hell.
On a recent weekend, he was holed up in a hotel room, giving interviews -- a rare burden for Allen, who used to be able to escape such routine experiences. The filmmaker, now 72, is living in Los Angeles for the next month, staying in a hotel with his wife and two young daughters while he makes his opera debut directing Puccini’s comic opera, “Gianni Schicchi.”
He is frailer than expected, in a pristine blue-checked shirt and chinos. He has totally gray hair, thick black glasses and skin that is curiously unwrinkled. One gets the sense that he would be happiest if everyone just left him alone to do his work. His manner is sweet but cagey.
A piece of the big picture
Allen admits that going to Barcelona to make a movie fulfilled his fantasy to one day be a European filmmaker. “I always wanted to make the kinds of films that I saw in the 1950s. The Truffaut films and the Goddard films and the Bergmans and Fellinis, and those are the films that always influenced my work. And I’ve always copied them and been influenced by them. ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona’ looks to me, when I see it, like one of those films. It’s got all the earmarks: the music, the people bicycling through Europe, the interaction of the characters and the out-of-focus scenes that you see in those pictures.”
The film, full of lovely images of the Gaudi buildings and old churches, is one of the happy accidents that have come from falling out of favor in America. Allen has directed more than 40 films and made more gems than almost any other living filmmaker -- “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Husbands and Wives” -- but America hasn’t always treated its iconoclasts particularly kindly. Allen is not like Orson Welles, reduced to hawking Gallo wine, or Charlie Chaplin fleeing to Switzerland, but since the ‘90s, his box-office grosses have fallen off and the quality of his films has become more uneven. His last, “Cassandra’s Dream,” made less than $1 million here, although it garnered $20 million abroad. He has had to go with his hat in hand looking for financial backers, largely European.
Almost by necessity, he’s been catapulted out of his familiar New York tropes, into London and now Barcelona, and the change of scenery appears to have been rejuvenating, resulting in “Match Point” and “Cassandra’s Dream” -- biting nihilistic satire-dramas that examine whether evil ever gets punished.
When a Spanish company, Mediapro, approached him with the proposition to finance a film in Barcelona, the writer-director basically thought, “Why not?” “Barcelona is a city that I can live in very easily,” he says. “If they mentioned some city in the Ukraine or the Sudan or something, I would have said no. But Barcelona is a beautiful, wonderful city.” While New York City is a character in many of his films, Allen had never specifically written a movie for a locale, but his task got easier when he received a call out of the blue from Cruz, who asked if she could come meet and visit him. “And when I saw her, I thought, ‘My God, she’s -- if you can believe this -- more beautiful in person than she is on the screen.’ I thought she was so beautiful it took my breath away.” Cruz told him that she’d love to be in his Barcelona film and by the time she left, “I would have given her all the furniture, you know?” Allen heard through channels that Bardem was also interested. “I thought, ‘OK, I have these two great tempestuous Spaniards and Barcelona, but I don’t have a film.’ ”
Throughout the year, Allen jots down ideas for films on scraps of paper and matchbooks and throws them into a big drawer. In the case of “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” he used an idea he once had about two girls going on vacation in San Francisco. He transported the story to Barcelona and added Johansson, who’s become a staple in his films of late, as a totem of youth, of intoxicating unavailability. He began to mold the characters to his cast and, when filming, he never talked to the actors, other than to give them stage directions.
He says he doesn’t care if he ever acts in one of his movies again. “If there are no parts for me, then I just won’t play any. . . . And if there’s a lovable character named Gramps who, you know, was wise beyond his years, you know, then. . . .”
It’s clear, as he talks, that he’s nothing like his on-screen presence -- he’s hardly a chattering neurotic scaredy cat seized with existential panic. He claims that his alter ego is just his comic shtick, like Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat and mustache, and the persona simply grew out of his limited acting ability. “I’m not like Dustin Hoffman or Robert De Niro. These guys go out and do miracles on the screen. I’m a perfectly believable actor in my small range. So I can play a college professor, I can play a shrink, I could play an intellectual, even though I’m not an intellectual, or I can play a lowlife. I can play like Broadway Danny Rose or I could play a cheesy little bookmaker or a grifter of some sort because I can handle that. Me, the character for real, is closer to the sleaze ball, but I can act both of them.”
For a brilliant man, one who understands many of the nuances of human impulse, he’s willfully anti-psychological (or simply guarded in public), intent on saying that none of his films reflect anything in his personal life. “I always feel like I am doing the same process all the time. I don’t make them any differently,” he says. “I don’t feel any sense of liberation in Europe. I don’t feel that I make happy films when I’m happy and sad films when I’m sad. I don’t feel I make autobiographical films. I was not particularly happy, or going through a good time of life, when I made ‘Take the Money and Run’ and ‘Bananas.’ Those are two of my most silly comic films. Whereas when I made ‘Cassandra’s Dream’ and ‘Match Point,’ I was going through a very wonderful time of life. These have been very good years for me. I have a great marriage, great kids. There is no plan or agenda to it or anything. It’s luck. It’s random.”
The only impulse Allen cops to is the one to work, maniacally, as if to stave off death. “It’s a way of coping with the world. You know, in the same way that somebody copes with it by being a stamp collector or a sports addict or a titan of industry or an alcoholic or something. My way of coping with the horrors of existence is to put my nose to the grindstone and work and not look up.”
Most who see his new work will luxuriate in the comedy and in the possibility of spending 90 sun-drenched minutes in Barcelona. But, he says, his Spanish fable is actually “a very sad film.” This is, after all, Woody Allen’s universe, no matter what continent it takes place on, or how many laughs are to be had. Nobody gets what he or she wants.
“A relationship is like two sets of wires that are all over the place and they all have got to connect,” says Allen. He uses his fingers to demonstrate, gently touching one hand to the other. They are delicate and surprisingly youthful, but his attitude about love is fatalistic. “If one wire doesn’t connect, then it doesn’t work. It’s like there’s one thing missing. The salt is missing from the diet. It’s a small thing, but it ruins you. You die.”