Woody Allen: talented, yes, but also particularly lucky

Watching a basketball game on television with a can of beer is not what one would imagine as Woody Allen’s favorite pastime. Yet when the celebrated writer-director-actor is being interviewed about his new film, he gives the impression that he would rather be at home watching a game rather than taking questions from journalists from all corners of the earth. It’s only fair that a man who never watches his movies once they’re finished, who almost never traveled until he got married to the much younger (and his former stepdaughter) Soon-Yi Previn and who invariably maintains consistent habits, such as playing jazz on Monday nights with the same band at the same place, does not feel at ease among a group of unknown men and women who have come to harry him with questions. Woody Allen spoke to Kathimerini in London, having just finished shooting a new film following «Match Point,» just a few weeks after the terrorist attacks on the British capital. Listening to Allen, one gets the impression of a man who, although he would rather be in another, safer, place, nevertheless speaks in a highly composed and quick way about his work. Besides, he appears firm about what he expects from his life and work, though he still feels anxiety about whether or not he will succeed. Released in Greek cinemas last week, «Match Point» is in many ways a landmark film in Allen’s career. It’s his first genuine drama since 1999, the first movie shot outside the world of New York – the permanent and undisputed, until now, backdrop for his stories – not to mention his best work in a long time. Chris, a young, good-looking, ambitious and avidly social-climbing tennis instructor (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), falls in love with the wrong girl: Nola (Scarlett Johansson), the wife of his future brother-in-law. Where will this passion lead? In this case to murder, remorse and punishment. Here’s a new dimension to Allen’s talent, one that strongly resembles that of Dostoyevsky in «Crime and Punishment» or even George Steven, in the 1951 «A Place in the Sun,» which starred Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters. At the same time it’s a fresh look at recurring human passions, the same ones he played with in some of his best comedies, films ripe with insecurities, just like the man himself. Are you pleased with your work? You never know til you put it together, that’s always the cold shower moment. When you write it, it’s great, you’re home on your bed and everything you do is brilliant, then you make it and reality sets in and you hear the people saying it and you find out that the jokes are not so funny, and it takes much longer to walk across the room than you thought and then you finish and you’ve seen your dailies and say: «I like today’s and I like yesterday’s;» you put them all together and that’s when reality sets in, when you see the first cut of the picture, it’s invariably such a disappointment. You know, a man walks into a jewelry store and looks at the jewelry and it looks good in the dailies. In the next scene, he comes to his car and gets into his car and the motor doesn’t work and in the next scene he pulls over and each one is beautifully photographed but when you put them together, it’s forever, and you realize that it doesn’t work at all and it’s quite terrible and then you gotta reshoot or condense or drop scenes. Do you consider yourself a lucky or a good person? One of the lines in the film is «I’d rather be lucky than good.» I’ve had nothing but luck, I can’t tell you. Years ago, when I wrote my first play «Play it Again Sam,» I named myself Felix and I used the name because it means luck. This was 35 or 40 years ago; I was aware of how lucky I was and I’ve always felt enormously lucky. I thought I was lucky to have some talent and I caught breaks down the line one after the other and my father lived to be a little over a hundred, my mother to 96. I have good genes, if there’s anything in that, I have never been sick or hospitalized in any way; everything that I’ve wanted, more or less, has come about and not always through my own ingenuity; I’ve been nothing but lucky. I know it can’t go on, but I certainly have had more than my share of good luck. Do you believe that there are people out there who are naturally unlucky, by contrast? And perhaps they might have been as prolific as you, but they are just inherently unlucky and therefore have had miserable lives. I don’t believe that you can be inherently unlucky, but I do think that there have been people that couldn’t get a break. You get a bad turn of the dice and it’s a shame. It can be really terrible. When I was coming up, there were guys who were potentially quite talented and bad things would happen to them. They would wake up with cancer and die. A bad break that their cells misfired. But I don’t think it’s a natural thing, they have been unlucky, truly due to bad luck. Are you satisfied with shooting your last two films in London, leaving New York behind you? I’ve experienced a certain amount of anxiety doing it, but it’s helped me in my work a little bit, because I do feel that the fresh atmosphere of London was a tonic to me. I’ve made so many films in New York and just having new parks and new streets and new countryside was an emotional lift to me. Did the recent terrorist attacks in London change the way you look at the city? I was filming slightly outside London that day, about 15 to 20 minutes outside the city in the countryside. It was an awful, awful thing. I lived through it in New York when it happened and it was a nightmare there and it’s a terrible thing, because it’s a terrible thing in itself. It creates a particular anxiety. My wife and children were in London at the time and you never know to what extent it’s going to be, whether it’s going to be two or seven or 27, or what’s going to happen. So, it was unpleasant. Like with New Yorkers, the city snapped back very, very quickly and they didn’t fall apart. Life went on. When I came here after 9/11, maybe three days after, suddenly everybody was treating me like I was an expert on terrorism and September 11 because I was a New Yorker. They were saying sweeping things to me: «Mr Allen, do you think this is the end of all humor? Is it the end of New York City? Will it ever be the same again?» And I felt «no, it’s not the end of humor, nor the end of New York and, yes, we’ll bounce back and take control of the situation.» The truth of the matter is if you were walking around New York before September 11 and I dropped you in New York today, and you didn’t know about it, you wouldn’t notice the difference. You’d go to the theater, you’d go to the restaurant, out to the ball park with 50,000 thousand cheering people. There are no people on the streets with machine guns, it’s not a police state. In London they absorbed this tragedy and then you try and figure out how to cope with it and hopefully not just cope with the symptoms, but with the root causes of it. Because there’s no way, no amount of policing is ever going to be able to prevent it, really, if they want to do it. More to the point is figuring out why it’s so important for them to want to do it and dealing with that problem, trying to alleviate their motivation from wanting to do such an awful thing because it’s not natural to human beings to want to do that, it’s not a natural human expression. Would you be interested in exploring this as a theme? To see what motivates people to do such a thing? No, because I’m not a political filmmaker at all. There are guys who can do it much better. I’m much more interested in the psychological and philosophical. A New Yorker in London As a New Yorker, how did you gain the necessary insight into the British upper class? I think it’s the same system in New York and in the United States, really. Perhaps the spoken idiom is different, but the story would have worked in New York just as well: an ambitious young tennis instructor, teaching at one of the clubs. The people who play at those clubs are wealthy and they have homes, not in the English countryside, but in the Hamptons, very, very opulent homes with tennis courts. All of that equation is maintained: the opera, Lincoln Center, they have chauffer-driven cars and spend weekends in the country. They don’t shoot, but you can obtain a gun much more easily in the United States. That was a big problem for me, because I just assumed you could get a gun, coming from the United States, it is like walking in and getting milk or bread or something. But in London you can’t get a small gun very easily at all, if at all, and rifles are checked very carefully and you know, that became a problem. I just thought it would be effortless, that Jonathan Rhys-Meyers would get a gun and shoot her, but he had to steal a gun and replace it. Could you describe the differences and similarities between filming in New York and London? It was a joy to shoot in London and that’s why I came back the second year. To me, and I’ve said this before, it’s like student filmmaking in the best sense of the word. I like shooting films in New York, did it for decades, but it’s very, very rigidly unionized. I come from a working class family and was always pro-union. But it really is very rigid which makes it much more expensive and difficult. In London, for example, the girl that stands in for Scarlett Johansson when they’re lighting, will also move furniture around, will direct traffic. They guy who’s moving the camera will move chairs somewhere, it’s like students, everybody does everything else. In New York, if I move a magazine, somebody comes over and says, «that’s my job, you can’t touch that» and he has to move it.

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