Feature: Woody Allen on 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona'
Fri, 15 Aug 2008 17:33:27
Scarlett Johansson Photos
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Woody Allen is nothing if not prolific, directing an alarming average of one film per year. He is a New Yorker through and through, but of late Allen has strayed from his Manhattan stomping ground to explore alternate cinematic terrain, having ventured to London to shoot three of his recent movies. With Vicky Cristina Barcelona Allen not only keeps his feet firmly planted overseas, but delves into sensual storytelling, albeit with his signature brand of light humor and biting pessimism. In other words, Vicky Cristina does not drastically deviate from Allen’s oeuvre, though it does explore relationships with an honest, fresh, and youthful bent.
The film marks his third collaboration with Scarlett Johansson and his first with Spanish actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, both of whom effuse praise about his natural “genius.” Vicky Cristina is set in the sensual environs of Barcelona, a city rife with sexual energy that plays home to the romantic entanglements of its two main characters, stuffy graduate student Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and free spirited seductress Cristina (Johansson). Allen, who, at 72, shows no signs of slowing his career’s steady momentum, is both endearing and incisive, speaking about his work with total clarity of vision. What follows is Part One of our coverage on Vicky Cristina Barcelona, highlights from Allen’s earnest discourse about the film, including his thoughts about writing for women, being inspired by Johansson, his dramatic muse, and attracting the attention of Catalonian fans during production of the movie.
On writing for women:
The interesting thing is, and I’ve said this before, when I first started, I could never write for women. When I wrote my first couple of films…I always wrote the male point of view. This went on and on for quite a while, and people even commented about it at the time. And then, I got into Play It Again, Sam with Diane Keaton on stage, and Keaton and I started dating; we started living together and became very close. Through some kind of Socratic osmosis or something, I started writing for women. I started writing for Diane. I found that I could write women. And then, I sort of only wrote for women…I get a big kick out of [women]. For some reason, I find them interesting to write about. Men occasionally, but really, my heart is in it more when I’m writing for women.
On first working with Scarlett on Match Point:
I knew Scarlett was a great actress and a beauty, but I didn’t know if she was really what I had written [in Match Point]. I hired her and I then became totally captivated by her. I thought she could simply do anything, and she was not only beautiful, but bright and amusing and charming and gifted. So, I’m very happy to work with her whenever there’s a part that fits anything she could do. I [will] always call her and hope that [she’ll] be available for it, as I did with Keaton for years and with Mia [Farrow]—[I] did many roles with her, thought she was a wonderful actress and she never let me down. I think the same would be true with Scarlett.
On the genesis of the story of Vicky Cristina Barcelona:
I had the idea about two women going away on a summer thing someplace. Then someone called from Barcelona and said, “Would you like to make a picture here? We’ll finance it.” And that’s always the hardest part of making any picture, is getting the financing. Writing it, directing it, anything else is easier than getting the financing for it. So, I said, sure I would do it…And then, about a week or two later, I got a call from Penelope Cruz, who I didn’t know. She wanted to meet. She was in New York, and I had only seen her in Volver, nothing else ever, and I thought she was great in it. She said that she knew I was doing a picture in Barcelona and she would like to participate. So I started out with Barcelona and with Penelope, and in the back of my mind I was going to go to Scarlett. And then I heard Javier was interested, and gradually things took shape and I was writing for these people. I was deliberately writing for Penelope and for Javier and for Scarlett. I didn’t know Rebecca Hall at all. Juliette Taylor, my casting director, discovered her, said that she’s great and I should meet her and look at some film on her, and I did, and she was right. I put the thing together for the people, almost, as I did it, and did the best I could.
On love and relationships:
I have a pessimistic view of relationships. My view of it has always been, you talk about it with your friends and you scheme and you plot and you see psychoanalysts, and people see marriage counselors, and people get medicated. They do everything they can. But in the end, you’ve got to luck out. It’s complete luck—total luck. You have all these exquisite needs and some woman has all her exquisite needs, and the odds of all those wires going together are very, very slim. And if one of those wires—it’s like salt missing from a diet—if one of those wires is not there, it gets annoying and she gets dissatisfied and you get dissatisfied. To get it all clicking in is a very happy accident, and it does happen to people, because there are so many people in the world that, statistically, a certain amount of them luck out. They meet someone and they fall in love and they’re happy with that person and there’s no real friction. But, it’s luck. This is my observation of it. This can be argued, but if you ask me, I would say that’s what I’ve learned. All the advice and all the planning and all the self-help books and anything you do—dating services—you’ve got to get lucky. And if you do, it’s great. Some people do, but you [observe] the divorce rates and the amount of relationships that people go through and the amount of people that are in unhappy relationships but stay together because of inertia, because of children, because of loneliness or something. There’s very few really wonderful ones, and you just have to get lucky.
On the importance of a solid script:
What’s hard is getting a good script. When a project fails, 90 percent of the time it’s that the script is no good. The actors are generally quite good, and it’s rare that something doesn’t work because the actors have torpedoed you in some way…It’s rare that you’ve directed it so badly that it doesn’t work, because directing is not rocket science. You can do it, get it on the screen. But if you have a bad script, no amount of being Fellini or being a great stylist saves you. In the end, you wind up with a flawed movie or a boring movie or an illogical story or an unengaging story.
On improvisation in a foreign language:
Penelope and Javier, I encouraged them to improvise all the time. They’re great actors, and they improvised all over the place. I had no idea what they were saying, no idea. I could tell from their body language that clearly it was the scene I wrote in some way. Not the words I wrote, but they were breaking up or they were arguing over their emotional life. And I never knew what they were saying until I got back to New York City…[W]hen I was putting the [sub]titles in the picture, the person who did the titles was bilingual and told me what they were saying. And it was fine, and it was not always what I wrote by any means. It was often flamboyant flights of fancy that they took, but it was fine. You can do it. If you have a story to tell that’s a decent story and everybody just has common sense about how to tell the story you can do it. But if your script is no good, no amount of great actors or flashy direction or great camerawork ever bails you out. This I know from many years of being on both ends of these things.
On shooting in Barcelona:
There were huge crowds hanging around and it was no problem at all. They were the most polite, sweet people. They’d hang around; they didn’t bother us. Before a take if I needed quiet, I would [motion to them] and they would all get very quiet; they were totally cooperative and nice. We had an enormous amount of cooperation from the city in every way. If you look at the end of the picture, you see all the credits of people that participated. I mean, people were giving us things for nothing left and right for the movie. They just couldn’t have been sweeter. I was able to make the picture, and because of the freebies I could make it for the small budget that I had.
On inserting a narrator into the film:
I’m a writer and I always feel the narrative voice. I was a stand-up comic who always spoke to the audience, and I write. I very often in my films either talk to the audience, have a character talk to the audience, have a narrator or something because I just feel the presence of the author all the time. So, I’m literary in that sense. When I thought of the story I thought of it in that way.
On making actors feel comforable:
The actors should not feel ill at ease. I’m the one that feels ill at ease, and it’s maybe my ill at ease personality that makes them feel ill at ease. I’m nervous to meet Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. Also, there’s a lot of nonsense that circulates about me that they come to believing—that I don’t like to speak to anybody, that I’m reclusive…where these things originate, I can’t imagine. I’m not incredibly social, but I’m not forbidding, and I’m nervous around them. I don’t really have a way of putting them at ease. I think what happens is, they’re nervous before they come in, but after they meet me for one minute and they see that I’m no threat, that I’m not anything they’ve conceived, that I’m a pushover, that they can handle me effortlessly; they suddenly become relaxed. But there’s nothing I do to make that happen other than, they see it. But I think maybe my nerves around them to begin with, my shyness around them, could read to them as something that it isn’t.
On “discovering sex” at this point in his career:
It’s just by chance. Everybody…look[s] for an agenda that I have or certain psychological turning points in my life, but it’s not really so. It just so happens that this story requires a certain amount of sensuality in it, and there’s very little, really, when you think of it. There’s a kissing scene with Javier and Scarlett, there’s the scene between the two girls that’s brief. There isn’t really a lot of sex in the picture. It’s nothing, really, that I’ve discovered after all these years. Whatever’s required—for instance, I just completed a picture in New York with Larry David starring, and Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson. There’s no sex in the movie, really. It’s a comedy; it’s a romantic comedy, but there’s no sex at all in the movie. It’s just by chance. If the next film I thought of was a musical with no sex or a very sexual picture, or if I had an idea for a brilliant—[what] I thought was brilliant—pornographic movie, I would do it. If I had an idea for a family comedy, I would do that. It’s just whatever idea I come up with. Match Point had a little passion in it. Again, there wasn’t any major sex to speak of, and the same thing [with Vicky Cristina Barcelona]. Yesterday when I was practicing my clarinet in the hotel, I turned on the television set and Showgirls was on. Now that was a sexy picture. That was full of sex. But this is nothing.