INTERVIEW: The Architect/Poet, James Schamus Takes a "Ride with the Devil"
by Brandon Judell
It’s a banner year for Mr. Woody Allen, if not more. Even as his current
offering hits the screens, “Sweet and Lowdown,” the master helmer has
already finished his 14th film, a comic crime caper starring Hugh Grant,
and is already beginning his next vehicle. All this activity seems to
disprove a statement he avowed many years ago: “I don’t want to achieve
immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”
Well, maybe he can do both.
“Sweet and Lowdown,” which already nabbed the top box office spot among
specialty releases last weekend, takes place in the 1930’s. It’s hero
of sorts, Emmett Ray (Sean Penn), is the second best guitarist in the
world. He’s Numero Uno though when it comes to self-involvement.
Consequently, he’s falling apart when he’s not making music. Is this
meant as a metaphor
for Mr. Allen and his art? There are some autobiographical tinges, the
Great One admits. But only tinges.
Tinges aside, indieWIRE sat down with Woody to discuss his sweetest,
most satisfying and amusing film in quite a few years, along with
musicals and his recent turn back to acting for other directors.
indieWIRE: What was it like directing Sean Penn, an actor who also
Woody Allen: Very easy. I’ve always had an easy time directing actors
because I always hire ones that are great before I get my hands on them.
Mostly, what I do is stay out of their way. If you’ve seen interviews
with actors who have worked in my films, they’ll sometimes say, “He
never spoke to me.” And sometimes that’s true. You hire someone like
Sean. He’s been great for years before I met him. The thing that you
want is not to mess him up. I want him to do that thing that Sean Penn
does that he’s always been great at. So I hardly had to do anything at
all with him. People think that I’m joking when I say that 90% of my
direction is either “Faster!” or “Louder.” They think that I’m joking
but I’m not joking. That’s really what it is. I had no discussions with
Sean about who his character or what his prior life was.
I just would say to Sean, “Could you do this a little faster?” Or
“You’re getting a little too much within yourself. Could you speak up a
little bit? The soundman is telling me he’s having a problem hearing
you.” But I hardly had to do anything. I hardly had to say anything to
Samantha Morton. Once she got the Harpo Marx thing in the first two
days. [Woody had told her to model her character on Harpo, and she
replied, “Who’s Harpo?”] She did all she did by herself. There was
really nothing that I had to do.
I just did a movie with Hugh Grant, and he asked me — in the movie he’s
supposed to get a loan for $40,000, and he doesn’t get the loan. And he
asked me, “What do I want the loan for?” And I had no idea. I didn’t
know how to answer him. I didn’t know what to say. I don’t really know
the answer to those questions a lot of times.
iW : Gus Van Sant just remade “Psycho” to learn how Hitchcock created his
classic. Is there a film you’d love to remake step by step from the
original script? And what do you think of his effort?
Allen: I don’t think it’s a great idea. I don’t think I could learn
anything doing that, and I think it was a waste of his time. He’s a
wonderful director and he should be doing . . . I’m not crazy about
remaking films in general as a practice, and to remake one that’s such a
classic to begin with, what can you hope to get when it’s over? What can
you hope to achieve?
iW: But you see painters in museums copying originals to perfect their
Allen: Yeah, but they might be copying them to do an exercise, but not
copying them to put out to the public as one of your works. If he was in
a room by himself shooting that film just to learn and never showed it
to anybody, but wanted to see for himself to see what he did and what
Hitchcock did and all that . . . But I can’t see the point of making it
and putting it out, especially when you’re that good a director.
iW: Is there one of your own movies you’d like to take another stab at,
Allen: Yes. You know I made one of my films twice and I regret it that I
couldn’t make it a third time. It was “September” — I shot it twice. I
would love to make all of them another time. All of them over. I could
improve every one of them by making them again. That’s why the reshoots
are so much better and so helpful to the films. Once you see the film
and then you go out and do it again. . . . Charlie Chaplin used to do it
all the time. He would shoot the film and look at the whole film and
then reshoot the film. But you can’t do that now.
iW : Why did you call the film “Sweet and Lowdown”? Is it from a song?
Allen: Yes. An old George Gershwin song. There were phrases that I was
trying to get for the picture. The first one I thought of was “sweet and
hot” which is a jazz phrase, and I felt it characterized the two
characters in the pictures. But I felt “Sweet and Lowdown” was even
better. “Sweet and lowdown” was a musical phrase, idiomatic, and she
[Samantha] was sweet and he [Sean] was lowdown.
iW: Would you classify “Sweet and Lowdown” in any way as a musical?
Allen: Well, there’s a lot of music in it, but to me “musical” is always
a classic musical. You know “My Fair Lady” or “Meet Me in St. Louis.” I
would love to make that kind of film again. I’d love to make a musical
and I’d love to make an “original” musical. The last time I made a
musical was with existing songs. I’d love to make one for the movies
with somebody writing a score for it.
iW: At the time of the release of “Everybody Says I Love You,” you said
you would go ahead and do just that. Were you satisfied with its
Allen: I’m not pursuing it at the moment but I was very happy with it.
Happy with the success of it. That people liked it and didn’t say, “Oh,
nobody here can sing!” They got the idea. I was pleased, and I was
encouraged that I wasn’t crazy, and that I might be able to do a musical
someday with an original score.
iW: You’ve in the past acted for a handful of directors, but recently
that’s happening more frequently. In the trades, it even says you’re
talking with the Farrelly brothers. Why now?
Allen: I’ve always been interested, but nobody’s ever offered me parts in all these years. I’ve always been interested in being in other
people’s movies. I never get any offers. I got an offer years ago to be
in a movie by Paul Mazursky with Bette Midler. I took it instantly. Then
Alfonso Arau who did “Like Water For Chocolate,” who’s doing this film
“Picking Up the Pieces,” offered me 3 weeks work, and I was thrilled to
do it. I have no idea what the film will be. It’s such a crazy film. I
mean I kill Sharon Stone with a chainsaw. So I have no idea what the
movie’s going to be. But I hope it’s decent. Maybe it will be. Maybe it
won’t be. I don’t know. I just try to give him my best as an actor and
hope that they can make a movie out of it. But I’m always interested in
being in someone else’s movie. It’s just that I rarely, rarely get any
[Brandon Judell is a film critic for MetroGuide and Flair magazine.]