Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"Whatever Works" Press Conference

Allen directs David in Whatever Works
Public sightings of Woody Allen are rare, even in New York, unless you catch one of his weekly jazz gigs. Hell, he never even showed up for the New York Film Festival Opening Night screening of Celebrity! (He obviously knew something we didn't.)

So that the Woodman himself was appearing at the press conference for his latest comedy, Whatever Works--alongside his stars Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson--was earth-shaking news. The movie itself is one of those single-joke Woody movies that coasts along for an often hilarious 90 minutes, but it's always nice to see that, after more than 40 years of writing and directing 39 features, he still has the comic chops to score.

Although actresses Wood and Clarkson were also on hand, it was Allen and David who dominated the press conference, as most of the questions were directed to the writer-director and his lead actor, the star of Curb Your Enthusiasm, playing Boris, the angry world-hater whose trajectory from pessimism to guarded optimism about life and love is the crux of Whatever Works.

Question: Did you ever think that you were playing the “Woody Allen role”?
Larry David: I never considered for a second that I'd be playing him. I know it's the part that he would usually play, but it wasn't an issue at all. Only once, when I was having trouble with a line, I said to him, "Do it, tell me how to do it,” and he said (in Woody's voice), “the western world.” So I did it like that, but he didn't even use that take!

Q: How did you end up casting Larry in the role of Boris?
Woody Allen: I wrote this many years ago for Zero Mostel, and Larry is also able to do this kind of sardonic, sarcastic character and get away with it. There's something in Larry that allows him to get away with it. It's like Groucho Marx--no one was offended by Groucho, unless he didn't insult you, that's when you were upset. If I was to do this role, I would be nasty, if I was insulting people and proclaiming my own genius, you would not want to hear that. But certain people can get away with it. When Zero died, I never thought for one minute that I would make this film. I put the script in a drawer, and if not for a possible actors' strike, I would never have taken it out of the drawer to make it. I thought about who could do this and Juliet Taylor, my casting director, said Larry, and I agreed completely.

Q: How much of the script did you rewrite, either for Larry or to update it after 30 years of being in your drawer?
WA: I didn't rewrite anything for Larry. I did rewrite the script because it was laying there dormant, and I had to freshen it to make it more contemporary. But Larry fit it like a glove from the start. It took work: the original story was for Zero, because he was so cultivated, and he was always sharing his knowledge with you from a justifiably superior position, and he was carrying on like that very amusingly on the set of The Front. The movie's existential concerns would always remain the same, but the social and political subtext had to be changed and freshened up to a contemporary social patois, thank you. When I wrote it years ago, the political climate was not vastly different, but the references were. Since then, we've been through a number of presidents, and certainly a catastrophic last eight years, and now we're entering into a time of hope of some human possibility for the country: all of this had to be factored in. The religious right has made an enormous march forward since that time: back then, it was just those terrible television ministries taking peoples' money, and now they are in power. So the seeds were there back then, but now they're a lot more vivid.

Q: Did you find yourself speaking like Larry in Curb Your Enthusiasm, instead of Boris?
LD: No. When I was doing those lines, it felt like Boris. I tried to convince Woody before we started shooting to change my character's occupation to a chess grandmaster. I didn't want to be a physicist because I didn't think I'd be able to improvise very well as this guy, because this character is so much smarter than I am.

Q: What is your response to the many Oscars that your actors and actresses have won, most recently Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona?
WA: In response to people who have asked me over the years about Oscars and my movies--and they think I'm being facetious and I'm not--I say that I simply hire great people then get out of their way to do what they do best. They were great actors before they met me, and are great acting in the movies they make after me, and I just don't want to mess them up. If they're doing something that is egregiously wrong--which rarely happens--then I'll say something to them, that it needs to be louder or quieter or something, but that's it. They make me look great as a director, but hiring the right people is 99 percent of the whole thing. Evan said to me that she could do an accent (as Southern runaway Melodie), but she didn't want to show me. She came to the set and I heard the accent for the first time was when we started shooting. There was no rehearsal: she just came and did it. Ed Begley (who plays Melodie's father) didn't even know he was supposed to be doing an accent. I told him when we were on the set, and I was worried that he might not do it. But he made a little mental adjustment and was just great.

Q: The movie seems misanthropic and judgmental, but with the recent ugly murders by right-wing loonies, it seems less so. Your thoughts?
WA: I personally was against those murders! (laughter) I never think of this movie as misanthropic: I know it sounds funny because it's the source of the humor, but it seems like a realistic appraisal of life. Life is quite terrible, as you can see by what goes on every day. This is fiction, and it can be read or interpreted as misanthropic: but I think it's realistic. The real world is much more horrible than the world that Boris envisions. You can't pick up the newspaper and not read about new atrocities. This is the average stuff we live with every morning, so in a sense the movie's almost mild compared to reality.

Q: Why did you make four movies in a row in Europe (Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra's Dream, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) before returning to New York for Whatever Works?
WA: That's strictly a function of finance. It's very expensive to make movies in New York. I'd love to make all my movies here, because I live here and I love it here, but I work on a very low budget, and I can't afford it. But surprisingly, even California, which is the film center of the United States, at least theoretically, costs too much. I was going to make my next film in New York, but it was too expensive, and I couldn't afford to make it in San Francisco either. So we shifted it to London and got a British cast, just like we did with Match Point, which I'd written it for New York City, the Hamptons and Palm Beach as an American story. I anglicized both Match Point and the new film, because it's just too much money to make them in New York. But I can afford to do it in London.

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