Press conferences in New York are hardly unusual, but when Woody Allen holds forth at one the event is special, given his intellectual heft and his range as a writer, filmmaker, actor and his iconic status. The occasion for his holding a press conference (May 17, 2011, at the Regency Hotel in New York) was the release of his elegant, impressively imaginative and delightfully entertaining new film, “Paris at Midnight.” I’ve attended other Allen press conferences over the years, but he seemed especially relaxed and engaging this time, earnestly and affably responding to whatever the question, apparently enjoying the interchanges and, of course, occasionally getting a laugh.
“The questions were good,” he observed afterward. Perhaps there is also the self-satisfaction of having made a very good film.
So much was covered within nearly an hour that those in attendance could pick and choose whatever especially interested them. When asked, for example, how his ideas for films come to him, he noted that the current film began with only the title that stayed in his mind for quite a while before the ideas started to fall into place. He explained that once he hit on the key to where the story should go, everything moved easily after that. The subject led him to comment on the writing process itself.
“I can get into a room and force myself to write,” he said, tracing that ability to when he wrote for television shows and had to come in with something on a Monday morning. He spoke of his high school days when he started writing jokes and sending them to columnists Earl Wilson and Walter Winchell and the jobs that resulted. There were no thoughts then of making movies.
Asked about who had inspired him most, he cited author S.J. Perelman, Groucho Marx and Ingmar Bergman, and pointed out what opposites Groucho and Bergman were. One, of course, can spot the influences in his films over the years.
Re working with actors, he stressed that “a script is not something written in stone,” and that he allows actors to make changes unless there was something that would hurt the film. If something good happens with what an actor changes, he said, “I’m perfectly happy to take credit for it later.” Actors are known for being eager to work with him.
Asked about his next film that he’ll be shooting in Italy, he characterized it as “a broad comedy—not a romantic comedy,” and said it involves a group of characters—he plays one of them--and their stories. As for his returning to acting, Allen acknowledged that he can’t play a young lover anymore. “And that’s very frustrating.” In earlier days he could have cast himself in the romantic Owen Wilson role in “Paris at Midnight.” As he elaborated on the way out after the conference, “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
Attention was paid to his having been working abroad in the last few years—England, Spain, France. Allen said he couldn’t separate business from the reasons he has filmed abroad, but stressed the pleasure of fresh experiences in different countries. He recalled how Jules Dassin, who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, had been known for his filmmaking in New York but left the country for France and “did some of his best work.”
One journalist asked Allen whether he had disdain for popular culture in America. He said that wasn’t the case at all. He said he didn’t get to watch much television, not because of any disdain, but because of not getting the chance. “I go out to dinner, and when I get back I catch up on the news and go to bed.”
Yes, he said, he intends to make movies in New York again. “I’ve made so many movies in New York and I don’t think I have even scratched the surface” of the stories that can be made here, he said.
I asked him how he appraised the talent of Nina Arianda, who plays a small part in his film, and who has become a hot stage actress in NewYork with raves for her starring performance in the revival of “Born Yesterday.”
“She came in and read and she was great.” he exclaimed, but lamented that the only part he had for her was as Michael Sheen’s wife. He observed how she did interesting things with the small role. “I wish I could use her in a meaningful way,” but he said he doesn’t have a role for her at the moment. He predicted that the person who does will have a great success “and she will be fabulous.”
Someone brought up the news that Elaine’s, the famous New York restaurant was about to close in the wake of Elaine’s death, which led Allen to launch into what the restaurant was like in its heyday. “I don’t think there will ever be anything like it in New York again,” He remembered how he first started going there to play after-hours poker. He added: “I went there for dinner every night for about ten years.” He recalled how you could meet everybody who was anybody there. I met Antonioni. I met Simone de Beauvoir.” He said there was privacy in the sense that nobody would intrude or ask for an autograph. He stressed that you had to have been there to have known what it was really like.
He called Elaine Kaufman, the owner, “a gracious hostess” and said that “it could be snowing outside and it would be six deep at the bar.” He got a laugh when he called the food at the time “terrible,” but said that if the food had been great it would have changed the character of the place. “People would have gone there for the wrong reason.”
As to the main subject at hand for the conference, there are certainly right reasons for going to see “Midnight in Paris.” In addition to being so witty and such fun to watch, it is a current example of why Woody Allen has been such an astute and accomplished filmmaker.