The last time I interviewed Woody Allen, at his editing suite on Manhattan's Upper East Side, he was preparing the release of Match Point (2005), a dark morality play about an ambitious — and ultimately homicidal — tennis instructor working his way up the rungs of London society's rigidly defined social ladder. He had also just turned 70 and was, in his own words, "fighting off morbid resignation." When I visited Allen again earlier this month, I found him in a considerably more jovial mood befitting his latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a breezy — if also homicidal — comedy about two American tourists (played by Allen's 21st-century muse, Scarlett Johansson, and newcomer Rebecca Hall) who, while on vacation in Spain, find themselves caught up in a romantic quadrangle involving a passionate Spanish painter (Javier Bardem) and his unstable ex-girlfriend (Penelope Cruz). In addition, Allen has already completed another film — the first he has made in New York since 2004 — titled Whatever Works, starring Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm creator Larry David, and scheduled for release next year. Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation, I talked to the now-72-year-old filmmaker about his recent work, his extended European sojourn, and his upcoming night at the opera.
L.A. WEEKLY: When we spoke three years ago, I was surprised by the candor with which you were willing to discuss your own work. You told me, for example, that you thought Hollywood Ending (2002) was a funny film that the critics didn't quite get, while The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) was one that didn't turn out as well as you'd hoped. So, I'm curious how you assess your three most recent films: Scoop (2006), Cassandra's Dream (2007), and now Vicky Cristina Barcelona ?
WOODY ALLEN: Well, Scoop I found to be a trivial little Kleenex of a film — amusing, provided you like me and you like Scarlett. But it's not worth much in the scheme of things. If you're not doing anything on a hot afternoon and you want to get into the air conditioning, you can watch it. It's got some pleasant jokes in it; it's got some invention, but it doesn't undertake to say anything of significance. I mean, I don't hate it, but for me it's a lightweight little interlude kind of film — which I, from a personal point of view, enjoy making from time to time.
Cassandra's Dream I thought was a good picture that people have not flocked to in any quantity at all. But I thought it was a completely engrossing movie, brilliantly acted by everybody, and I was very satisfied with it — much more satisfied than with other films of mine that have been much bigger successes. And Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a pleasant surprise to me. I wanted to do a film in Barcelona. I created it for Barcelona. I knew Penelope was going to be in it and I was pretty sure Javier was going to be in it, so when I was writing it, I had the two of them in mind. Scarlett I think of for everything because she's great, so I was just lucky she was available and I could get those two women in the film and juxtapose them. Rebecca Hall I didn't know. Juliet Taylor, my casting director, said, "You've got to meet this girl." So I did, and she was perfect. She's not Scarlett and she's not Penelope — she's completely some other thing. Of course, when you speak to her in real life, she's British; she's doing the whole picture in an American accent. Then, when I cut the film together and put in the music, I was shocked that it seemed to float. I thought, "Maybe it's just me." But when we started showing it to people, they really were enthusiastic about it — enormously enthusiastic.
That's interesting, because you've said in the past that the experience of cutting a movie together and screening it for the first time can be pretty unpleasant.
When you come in here, as I just did that with this movie I shot with Larry David — the first time you put all the stuff together and you show it on the screen, you're hoping that you're going to get a feeling of, "God, this is much better than I thought!" And invariably, it's not that feeling. Invariably, it's, "Oh, God, what did I do? I've disappointed everybody. I've made a fool of myself. It's awful." Sometimes you're right — it never gets any better. But sometimes you're wrong — we take the junky moments out, and the good moments happen much faster. We take a little scene from here and put it over there, and suddenly it shifts the whole feeling of the film. Very often, we come back in here the second time and it looks much better, and then by the third or fourth time, it starts to really take shape. With this Spanish movie, it looked fairly good the first time I saw it. That was true of Match Point as well.
There's a definite difference between the person who makes the film and the people who see it, in terms of perception. What appears to me sometimes to be tedious, slow, and not worth anything, for some inexplicable reason will delight an audience. Conversely, sometimes I sit in here and think, "This is brilliant, this is so funny, these scenes are so great," and then I show it to audiences and they don't get anything out of it. They disagree with me completely. And over the passage of time, one of us turns out to be right. I will say that, usually, the audience is right. Once in a while, you get a film that the audience is wrong about, but that's a rarity.
A company in Barcelona called me and said, "If we put up the money, would you make a film here?" And since I'm always looking for backing — the hardest part of making a film is getting the backing — I thought to myself, "Gee, this is a city I could happily live in for several months." It's not like asking me to go to the Sudan to make a movie! It's Barcelona. There's culture, restaurants, museums; it's beautiful. As soon as I mentioned it to my wife, she said she'd love nothing more than to live in Barcelona for a few months. So I started thinking about it, and I wanted to make Barcelona part of the film. I didn't want to just write a film that I could make anyplace and merely set it there.