The Magic in the Moonlight filmmaker discussed his latest romantic comedy, the late Elaine Stritch, his desire to make a movie starring himself and Louis C.K., and more.
Woody Allen is, without question, one of the most prolific filmmakers in history. The comedy legend has directed an astounding 44 films—averaging about one a year—including classics like Annie Hall, Manhattan, Love and Death, the list goes on. He’s won four Academy Awards and received a total of 24 Oscar nominations, including 16 as a screenwriter, the most of anyone ever (and all in the Best Original Screenplay category), as well as seven as a director, tying him for third all-time.
His 44th film is Magic in the Moonlight. Set in the French Riviera, it tells the tale of Stanley (Colin Firth), a renowned illusionist who goes by the stage name Wei Ling Soo and is hired by a wealthy family’s consigliere to expose Sophie (Emma Stone), a fetching young American woman who claims to be a medium that can not only see the future, but also speak to the dead. It’s a pleasant enough, aesthetically pleasing confection replete with some splendid vistas.
During the last awards cycle, Allen was the subject of an onslaught of media attention not for his filmmaking accolades, but his controversial off-screen life—namely, that Dylan Farrow, his stepdaughter with ex-wife Mia Farrow, penned an op-ed in The New York Times accusing him of sexually assaulting her as a child—allegations that were first brought to light over 20 years prior. Allen responded with his own op-ed in the Times, and the media, as is their wont, proceeded to pick sides.
Moonlight is Allen’s first film since that very public back-and-forth.
You worked with the late, great Elaine Stritch twice—on September and Small Time Crooks. What fascinated you about her as a comedian?
I loved her. I thought she was funny when I saw her years ago, and when I worked with her, I really fell in love with her. She was one of those people like Maureen Stapleton that I could insult and make the most sarcastic remarks to and she would always top me; she would always shoot back a line that was better than mine and nail me. I never tired of it, if I would meet her on the street, work with her in movies, or go to dinner with her, forever teasing her and forever being sarcastic with her—just merciless to her—and she would always laugh hysterically at what I was saying, and then instantly come back with a line better than mine. She was so great. I was crazy about her.
Do you remember one of her zingers to you?
I don’t remember the specific lines, because they were hot and heavy all the time, but she was just great; a wonderful, eccentric lady. She was a lady you’d go to dinner with, be eating at an elegant restaurant with her, and you’d be leaving and she’d be stealing the rolls from the roll basket and putting them in her pocketbook so she could have them later in her hotel room.
Magic in the Moonlight really seems to explore the battle between pragmatism and “magic.” Do you believe in mediums and psychics? I walk around New York City, where I live, and see all these elaborate storefronts for psychics and I always feel they’re running a cockfighting ring or something underneath to foot the rent.
You can tell from this movie and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger that I think they’re the acme of frauds appealing only to the most gullible, simple-minded people. Look, like Colin Firth in my movie, I only wish they were real. It would be great if someone could predict the future, there was more to life than meets the eye, and somebody could do a séance and communicate with someone from another world, it would all add enormous spice and hope to life. Unfortunately, I feel it’s wishful thinking.
"At the end of that, I said, 'I’ve said my last words on it,' and I have."
Some people who’ve seen the film have taken issue with the age difference between Colin Firth and Emma Stone playing lovers in the film, since they’re 53 and 25, respectively.
To me, it’s a complete non-issue. It’s no issue whatsoever. People that fall in love fall in love, whether the woman is 20 years older, whether the man is 50 years older, whether they’re the exact same age, whether they’re the same religion, color, or speak the same language, or don’t. To me, it’s a total non-issue.
What do you feel sets Emma Stone apart as an actress? She does have a certain zest, and you’ve chosen to work with her again on your upcoming movie that you’re filming now.
Apart from the fact that she has that magical feeling that movie stars have, you look at her on the screen and she’s very, very pretty—and not just pretty in a way that’s routine, but a certain movie-star pretty, like interesting-pretty. She’s a very beautiful girl with a special look to her face that sets her apart from other girls who are as beautiful or even more beautiful from a technical point of view, but they’re not as much fun to look at. And she happens to be a wonderful actress. I had never heard of her until I was on my treadmill and I happened to see her in passing in some silly movie, and I thought, “Oh, it’s a silly movie, but that girl is really interesting. She’s great looking, has a great look to her, and can really act.” When I spoke to my casting director, Juliet Taylor, about her, she told me she was one of the very best actresses around, so I got to use her, and she did not disappoint.
Jews from New York are a very different brand from the Israelis. What’s your take on the situation in Gaza right now?
More terribleness. Ever since I can remember, when I was 21 years old, they were telling me, “Peace is around the corner between the Arabs and Israelis. The next generation. Right now, there’s a lot of bitterness, but with time, new generations will grow up and be more peaceful with each other.” This would go on and on and on, and in the end, nothing’s changed. This situation remains tragic and terrible, and the leaders in Israel and the leaders in the Arab world have not been able to come to an agreement. It’s a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself—but I say that without knowing that it will. I hope that it will, but it seems, at this point, that nobody on either side is ready, willing, and able to.
But I feel that the Arabs were not very nice in the beginning, and that was a big problem. The Jews had just come out of a terrible war where they were exterminated by the millions and persecuted all over Europe, and they were given this tiny, tiny piece of land in the desert. If the Arabs had just said, “Look, we know what you guys have been through, take this little piece of land and we’ll all be friends and help you,” and the Jews came in peace, but they didn’t. They were not nice about it, and it led to problems, and over the years, both sides have made mistakes. There’ve been public relations mistakes, actual mistakes, and it’s been a terrible, terrible cycle of mismanagement and bad faith.
We ran a piece by Robert Weide, who made the PBS documentary on you, defending you against the 20-year-old allegations by Dylan Farrow. Why do you think the allegations resurfaced?
I said everything that I had to say about that in my op-ed piece in the Times, so you can read that and that will give you everything I’ve got to say about that. At the end of that, I said, “I’ve said my last words on it,” and I have. But you can Google that piece and it will give you all my feelings about it.
The op-ed named and shamed many of the actresses you’ve worked with. How has it affected your career?
You have to read my piece. I have nothing more to say on that.
Was your choice to make many of your recent movies abroad a financial one? That it was easier to find foreign backers for your films than domestic ones?
It certainly began that way, yes. I got backing from foreign countries, so I went there and made films. But then I started getting backing from independent sources—patrons, and people who liked my films who said, “Look, we have no interest other than that we’d like to back you as an artist,” and they backed me.
I’m curious about your thoughts on Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham—two comedians I really admire who seem to have been heavily influenced by your approach to comedy.
I’m not really that familiar with their work because I don’t get a chance to watch television that much. I’m not a big TV watcher. I go out to dinner every night, come back home around 11 at night, get into bed, and either watch Charlie Rose a bit, the news, or the end of a basketball or baseball game, and by 11:30 pm, I’m out like a light. People always ask me about Louis C.K. who I love, and used him in Blue Jasmine, or something that happened on Letterman on some night, but I’m usually not home to see it!
Blue Jasmine touched on this a bit, but as a New Yorker, how do you feel about the state of New York City? Manhattan, in particular, seems to just be an island for rich people these days.
Yes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t agree more with you, and I think it’s a really bad thing. When the middle class was forced to leave New York City because it got too expensive for them, it lost an absolutely great thing. What you want are middle class families living in the city, and the city thriving as it had in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. As it started to become an island for the rich, it hurts the city. You can’t live in Manhattan at all unless you have a certain amount of money, and you certainly can’t live decently—you can’t live and raise kids. This is a terrible thing. It’s not going to be good for the future of New York, and it’s an unfortunate situation. What has to happen is there’s got to be a reversal so that middle class families can live on the isle of Manhattan in a decent way—not live in some tiny, little, squalid apartment or housing project they don’t want to live in, when they can go out and live in the suburbs in a much more decent lifestyle. Living in New York has got to be made practical for the middle class, and right now, it’s getting more and more for not just the rich, but the very rich.
Are there any young filmmakers out there that have really grabbed your attention?
Well, is… Paul Thomas Anderson a young gun? I think he’s a terrific filmmaker. There are. I can’t think of them all off the top of my head, but he’s one that springs to mind. Naturally, the guys that I’m always crazy about are more from my generation—Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Oliver Stone, and people like that.
Are we going to see you in front of the camera again? You’re not retired as an actor, right?
No, no. John Turturro gave me a part in his movie [Fading Gigolo], and I was happy to do it. Nobody offers me anything! In all the years I’ve been in the movie business, I’ve very rarely been offered an acting job by anybody ever. I’m not offered anything. When I was younger, it was easier to write stuff for myself because I could write the romantic lead in a movie and play the part, but now, I’m 78 years old and I can’t be the guy who’s flirting with the girl and gets the girl, so it limits the kinds of parts I can do. If I think of something I can do, I’ll do it.
I’ve always wanted to do a movie with Louis C.K. We’ve talked about it, and I have not been able to come up with an idea in my mind that works for the two of us. I’d love to act in a film, but I just can’t think of an idea that’s good for me.
You can still play the guy that gets the girl, though, if the girl happens to be someone like, say, Diane Keaton. It’s been over 20 years since you two hooked up onscreen in Manhattan Murder Mystery. Are we going to see you two reunite?
I’d love to work with her. I’m very close with her—we’re always on the phone with each other, and we see each other if she’s in town or I’m out [in Los Angeles]. She has two kids and big expenses, and she has to work for the money we can pay. She can’t always afford to work for me. She works for the money most of the time now, and we pay union minimum scale on my movies, so the people who work on my movies have to do it for the love of working. If she’s available, of course, she’d be the first one to do it, but a lot of her years are taken up writing books, doing movies to make money, or trying to do television pilots. But, if I had a script with a part that was available, she would do it in a shot and there’s nothing that would please me more.