“How much longer do I have to go?” Woody Allen asks, at once rhetorical and inevitably amusing. “Once you hit 80, you figure what can happen to you at that age, except becoming decrepit, which I’m looking forward to. I’m planning to pass away in my sleep; I’ve got it all figured out.”
Sitting in a quiet hotel room, perhaps the only tranquil spot in all of Cannes, Allen, who makes even everyday comments funny without seeming to try, is talking not so much about his own mortality — his father lived to over 100, so he’s not particularly worried — but about the age-related choices that made “Café Society,” which premiered here Wednesday, into his most successful film at Cannes since “Midnight In Paris” debuted at the festival in 2011.
Set in the glamorous world of Hollywood and New York in the 1930s, “Café Society” stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in a film that is of course funny but also something more: a poignant romance that deals with memory, regret and the fate of relationships in a world where, as one character says, “in matters of the heart, people do foolish things.”
If he had made this film earlier in his career, Allen says, “it would have been played for more comedy. Now that I’m older and dying and don’t care what happens, I’m willing to take more risks, willing to go out without the protection of comedy. Now I can see a value in the poignancy and depth in it and I’m willing to go for it.”
Key to making that happen for Allen were a pair of connected elements: the way he structured the screenplay and the care he took in casting the leads.
“The story here doesn’t progress traditionally the way a film does, setting up a premise and suspensefully proceeding with it,” he explains.
“My plan was to make a film with the structure of a novel, where you would be introduced to characters and go in and out of their lives throughout the story in a literary way.”
“Café Society’s” protagonist, a young man named Bobby (Eisenberg), leaves his family in New York to try his luck in Los Angeles, hoping to get some help from his uncle Phil, a big deal Hollywood agent (deliciously played by Steve Carrell). He also forms a connection to Phil’s young assistant Vonnie (Stewart) that changes and evolves over time.
When casting his two leads, Allen was concerned that the actors chosen were able to play their characters through both innocence and experience. Eisenberg, who he’d used in “To Rome With Love,” was his immediate choice for Bobby, and Stewart emerged after he went through “a list of movie names” with casting director Juliette Taylor.
“We’d keep saying ‘This one is too old, this one is too high powered,’ and when we came to Kristen we thought she could definitely do it. People are used to her playing vampires, she had to scowl in earlier pictures, but she really is up and amusing in person.”
Allen is up front about the fact that here, as in “Midnight In Paris,” he himself would have played the lead if he’d been younger, but feels that the change was all to the good.
“These guys played it much more interestingly,” the director says. “I’m a comedian, I would have gotten one or two more laughs, but Jesse is an actor with real dimension, he made the whole thing much more complex and touching.”
Talk turns then to “Midnight In Paris,” in Allen’s words “an overwhelming success by my meager standards,” and how no one saw it coming.
“People close to me were saying ‘No one is going to know who Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau and Luis Buñuel are, and the younger generation don’t even know Hemingway and Fitzgerald,’ so we didn’t even dream it would do what it did.”
As to where the idea for that film came from, Allen reveals it was born from an unlikely combination of legendary agent Swifty Lazar and romantic star Cary Grant.
“Every time I would see Swifty Lazar at Elaine’s, he would would come up to me and say, ‘Cary Grant will only come back to films to work for you.’ And in fact one night Cary Grant came down to Michael’s, where I played jazz, and sat there and listened the whole night and behaved like the biggest fan in the world.
“So I cooked up this film where a car pulls up on Sutton Place in Manhattan and Cary Grant is in it and he takes me to a party and all of a sudden we’re in 1920s New York. I called Cary Grant’s office and he tells me ‘I’m retired, I’m not ever going to make a film again.’ Garson Kanin then told me, ‘Don’t ever believe anything Swifty Lazar says,’ and years later the idea metamorphasized into ‘Midnight In Paris.’”
That story epitomizes Allen’s core feeling that despite numerous and continued attempts by all and sundry, the film business is not capable of being figured out.
“I did a million interviews today and I’ll do a million tomorrow,” he says a bit wearily.
“I don’t believe it means anything at the box office, but investors and distributors insist that it does, and I don’t want to be one of those people who takes the money and doesn’t do publicity, so I do it.”
The same thing goes for release strategy.
“They use a voodoo system, ‘Let’s put it out after the Olympics but before Passover on a day they’re expecting a tsunami.’ They’ve got it all figured out, but it doesn’t work, it’s not an exact science. If there is a feeling in the air, then they come. If it’s meant to be seen, people will fight to get to the box office.”
As to grosses and reviews, Allen is similarly uninterested. “I’m not one of those people who want the studios to call me every hour.
One critic says it’s a work of art, the other says I’m an imbecile, you become crazy and self-obsessed if you pay attention. I believe if you put your nose to the grindstone and work, good things happen. The doing of the work becomes the joy.”
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before Ronan Farrow’s essay in The Hollywood Reporter — in which he holds the media partially responsible for concealing what he says is Allen’s history of sexual abuse — was published.