A montage of images started rolling, clip after clip playing on-screen: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton stand in line at a movie theater in “Annie Hall,” and Allen complaining about the man “pontificating” behind them. From within a film, Jeff Daniels suddenly addresses Mia Farrow, sitting by herself in a theater in “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey then browse the narrow book-lined aisles of Pageant Book and Print Shop in “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
After the montage closed, Allen stepped out onto the stage of Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall where some in the audience stood to applaud his entrance. Here was a man who had captured the essence of New York, the essence of relationships and the essence of New York relationships in so many of his films.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center, which sponsored the evening’s event, had invited Allen to speak about his work and the craft of filmmaking. On stage, Allen not only resembled one of his on-screen characters, with his glasses, khaki pants and a tan jacket, he spoke like one too — stuttering through certain words. One might imagine him trying out a line of dialogue and then jotting it down without trying to make a character sound smarter.
Whatever his method is, it has creatively sustained him for four decades. Since “What’s New, Pussycat?” came out in 1965, Allen has scripted, acted in or directed one film nearly every year. He explained his prolific output by saying that ideas come to him almost spontaneously.
“Some of them make good films, and some of them don’t… They’re not all great or even good, but they’re there,” he said nonchalantly. He chooses to develop those ideas that interest him the most.
Allen finds writing the most pleasurable part of the filmmaking process. “You don’t have to meet the test of reality,” said Allen, who writes in his bedroom. “Every movie [seems] like the next ‘Citizen Kane.'” He also favors the control he has over his writing schedule, as opposed to when he’s directing and “out on the street, and it’s freezing cold at 7 in the morning.”
Casting also presents its own set of difficulties. “I’m awkward socially,” explained Allen. “When I interview actors, I keep it to a surreal minimum.” Imitating a meeting with an actor, he quipped, “‘I just wanted to meet you and say hello and don’t sit down.’ If they just appear in person as they do in film, then I hire them.”
On the set, he tends to give freedom to his actors, some of whom could qualify as Hollywood superstars. “I don’t say anything to them because they’re wonderful actors and actresses to begin with,” said Allen. “I don’t want to mess them up.”
He added, “I have great faith in the actor’s instinct.”
Despite all the films that he’s made, Allen continues to operate on a comparatively low budget. For his latest film, “Match Point,” Allen said his budget was $15 million. “I’ve often had to sacrifice my own salary,” said Allen.
“When I started making films, titles got to be a big thing,” Allen said. “Sometimes the graphics were better than the film that followed.” Because of his budget limitations, Allen resorted to plain black-and-white graphics for his opening credits. “It’s quick, fast… It’s the writing before the movie.”
At the same time, his use of popular music by the likes of George and Ira Gershwin as well as Cole Porter in his films have always meant high music budgets. “It’s expensive and irrational,” Allen concluded.
In discussing “Match Point,” Allen seemed particularly enthusiastic about the movie’s two leads, Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. “This guy goes to get the newspaper, and it’s a tragedy,” Allen said about Rhys-Meyers, while describing Johansson as a “dream girl.”
In the movie, Rhys-Meyers plays a former tennis pro who moves up the social and economic ladder when he befriends a wealthy family. Even as he woos the girl of the family (Emily Mortimer), he indulges in his desire for Johansson, the fiancee of his friend (Matthew Goode).
Allen raved about the chemistry between Rhys-Meyers and Johansson. “It’s not chemistry, it’s physics. They’re combustible together,” he said.
“Match Point” — a tennis term referring to the point that determines the winner of a game — comes out in limited release on December 28. The movie has earned four Golden Globe nominations, including best dramatic picture, best director and best screenplay.
Asked about his influences, Allen cited Ingmar Bergman‘s “The Seventh Seal.” For all the movie’s profundity, Allen appreciated that the film was more entertaining than didactic, but said he’s never made a film while consciously trying to emulate another filmmaker. He clarified, however, that the influence of other filmmakers can’t help but creep into what he described as “the marrow of my feeble spirit.”
That kind of elegant self-deprecation is one facet of Allen’s trademark pessimism. “There are oases… moments of respite [from the] abysmal nightmare that human existence is,” Allen opined. “As a kid, life was so grim, I’d duck into the movies, and Fred Astaire would be dancing.”
“I don’t have a good feeling about anything at all,” Allen added.
As if to prove that he really didn’t have a good feeling about anything, not even himself, he concluded the discussion with one of his favorite quotes: “The only thing standing between me and greatness is me.”