Reporting from Toronto —
Woody Allen will turn 75 this December, but the prolific clip at which he makes and releases films, roughly one every year for the last 30 years, would daunt many men half his age.
"I don't sense it as a maintained pace," Allen said recently in Toronto, where he spent less than one full day to mark the screening of his latest project, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"You know, a year is a long time," he said. "It takes a few months to write a script, if that, and I don't have big budgets so I film in eight or nine weeks. When you edit on an Avid it goes quickly. I have plenty of time to write and play with my jazz band and go to sporting events and go to movies and play with my kids. It's not a taxing thing."
Yet one can't help but respectfully inquire, if Allen spent more time on his films, which in recent history have largely garnered tepid reviews (with the exception of 2005's "Match Point" and 2008's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), would they perhaps be better?
"They wouldn't be better," Allen said matter-of-factly. "I have thought about that, yes, but they wouldn't be. When I've had time to do something, it doesn't come out better. There's no correlation between the time spent and how it comes out. It's really about the luck of a good idea. If you get a good idea you can execute it quickly. Kaufman and Hart, for example, wrote 'You Can't Take It With You' in two weeks."
Set in London, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" follows a woman (Gemma Jones) who has begun seeing a psychic after her husband ( Anthony Hopkins) leaves her and marries a young escort ( Lucy Punch). The woman's daughter ( Naomi Watts), though begrudgingly humoring of her mother's new interest in the paranormal, is little better off, drawn to her charismatic new boss ( Antonio Banderas) just as her struggling-novelist husband ( Josh Brolin) pines for a woman ( Freida Pinto) he sees in a window across the way from their apartment.
"You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is in some ways an encapsulation of the conflicts that motor Allen's work, concerned as it is with love, death and perennial discontent. But ask Allen if he's pleased with the finished project, and, well, the answer is complicated.
"I always start out thinking I'm going to make the greatest thing in the world, and I always hate my film when I'm finished. It's just automatic," Allen said.
"I didn't know it would be that way when I started. When I made 'Take the Money and Run,' I figured, 'This is going to be the funniest comedy ever made.' And I'm enjoying working on it and then I put it together and I think, 'My God, this is embarrassing.' A variation of that has happened to me, with the exception of 'Match Point,' on every film I've ever done — when I finished 'Annie Hall,' ' Manhattan,' 'Whatever Works,' 'Bullets Over Broadway,' any film, this film."
Allen has come to pursue a style of filmmaking he refers to as "Chekhovian" while also acknowledging the limits of his own ambitions — "the missing ingredient is that Chekhov was a great genius and that can't be quantified."
"You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," Allen said, was intended, like many of his films, to be both funny and sad, essentially a comedy of desperation.
"Now that's harder than just making [the audience] laugh," he said. "I'm trying to work with the fact that this is a loftier ambition — one could say grandiose — but I see it as a loftier ambition that I'm trying to make a brilliant comedy, a comedy that's sad and resonant and about life and about human beings and not with jokes in it but funny and also meaningful, and I'm trying to do it with low budget and no genius."
Fortunately, Allen, working with longtime casting direct Juliet Taylor, has once again assembled a rather impeccable group of actors for the new film to help him achieve his lofty aim. Having six times directed actors to Academy Award-winning performances and many more to nominations, Allen said he has a preferred approach to working with his casts: He prefers to do nothing.
"I try never to talk to them," he said of his technique directing actors. "There's no point. You have Anthony Hopkins, what am I going to say to him? I hire them to get out of their way. They made great movies before me, they'll make great movies after me, and I just don't want to mess them up. Once in a while, I have to talk to them because, you know, Josh had come in and said, 'I have a great idea, I'll play him in a wheelchair.' So I have to talk to him and say no and it involved a little discussion."
Asked if he really thought he would get away with such a seemingly drastic change, Brolin said he did and perhaps acknowledged the quiet resolve of Allen's artistic vision when he added, "And any other director would let me do it."
Punch didn't actually meet Allen until she was already cast as the naive gold digger named Charmaine and had done a wardrobe fitting to try out her character's trashy, revealing regalia.
"I went up to him and was terribly excited, obviously," Punch said, "and gave him this big hug and he went very, very stiff and started pulling away from me. It was very, very awkward, and I sort of walked away wondering what had I done and everyone was like, 'You don't hug Woody.'"
As for what the future holds for Allen, there are things that are certain and things that are uncertain. Though he hasn't appeared in a film since 2006's "Scoop," he hasn't ruled out acting again, though he doubts he would write himself a starring part.
But he will continue to work steadily. Two days before the interview, Allen finished editing his next film, "Midnight in Paris," which was shot in France. (He's eager to shoot down any rumors that there were problems working with the French first lady, Carla Bruni, for whom he specifically wrote a part.)
By Wednesday he figured he would watch the film for any final small changes. Within perhaps another week he would be back to his routine.
"I'll sit around for a few days like it's a vacation, but it won't be one; it'll just be anxiety," Allen said. "And then I'll start writing a new script."