Woody and the secret of eternal youth

Cannes veteran on being a romantic, fame and infidelity.

by Richard Mowe

Woody Allen in Cannes
Woody Allen in Cannes "I will continue to make films as long as people are foolish enough to finance me.” Photo: Richard Mowe
With his new film Café Society opening the 69th edition of the Cannes Film Festival tonight (May 11) Woody Allen, in the presence of his stars Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll and veteran cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, met the media to talk about his film - which tells the story of a love triangle set against the background of 1930s Hollywood and New York - the octogenarian’s zest for life, and why he believes he will continue to work to an even riper old age. Despite problems with hearing (he has aids fitted which proved incompatible with his Festival headphones) Allen as ever was game for a laugh.

What is the secret your longevity?

Woody Allen: I am 80 I but cannot believe it. I am so agile, nimble and spry. I eat healthily and look after myself. It is luck because my parents were long lived – my father was over 100 when he died and my mother lived to almost 100. With them as parents I hit the jackpot and it is great. I feel youthful but someday maybe I will wake up one morning and have had a stroke. I will be in a wheelchair and people will point to me and say: ‘Remember, he used to make films.’ I will continue to make films as long as people are foolish enough to finance me. The parents in the film are based on my folks.

Obviously I grew up in a Jewish family and the mother and father in the film, constantly bickering and berating each other and sometimes speaking in Yiddish, is the way I grew up.

You seem obsessed with themes of infidelity but are you a romantic at heart?

Woody on Jesse:
Woody on Jesse: "Jesse gave the character more complexity and interest. He is much deeper as played by Jesse than I would have done." Photo: Richard Mowe
WA: I always thought of myself as romantic but this was not necessarily shared by the women in my life. I think they think I am a romantic fool rather than Clark Gable. I romanticise the past, New York City, and I romanticise relationships. It is foolish but I was brought up by Hollywood movies and they had an indelible influence on me. Café Society is a romantic movie, whereas Match Point and Zelig were not. It all comes from my upbringing and my childhood.

You have worked with some of the best cinematographers in the business. Why did you think of Vittorio Storaro?

WA: I had crossed paths with Vittorio but I had not worked with him before. He is one of the greats, and so I was able to add another great cinematographer to the list of people I have worked with.

What was it like shooting on digital rather than film?

WA: The process is the same, everything still has to be composed. If anything you have a few more options working digitally and here I was working with a master cinematographer. There were no compromises or nullifications.

How do you cope with being constantly in the public eye?

Kristen, as Vonnie, is part of a love triangle in Café Society
Kristen, as Vonnie, is part of a love triangle in Café Society Photo: Richard Mowe
WA: There are upsides and downside to fame but, on balance, the perks outweigh the disadvantages. The negative aspects, are not life threatening and, on the plus side, there are enormous advantages as you go through life. When I was younger, I would have incarnated the character Jesse plays but I would have played him more narrowly and given the part one dimension. Jesse gave him more complexity and interest. He is much deeper as played by Jesse than I would have done.

Why did you decide to adopt the role as narrator of the film?

WA: The script has the structure of a novel. I wanted it to have the scope of a novel over a period of time with a number of different incidents. As a novel I felt it should have the voice of the author and as I had written it, 'I thought I may as well do it myself'. I don’t think Jesse speaks like me and the character is nothing like me. I was not involved in any of this. I am happy for the actors to put it in their own words. They can change the sentences and make them their own. The character is only vaguely in the ball park of reminding them of me.

There is a line in the film that: ‘Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.’ Is that your view?

Woody on Storaro:
Woody on Storaro: "One of the greats" Photo: Richard Mowe
WA: You can look at life as being amusing, with a husband cheating on his wife. You watch this from the outside and it is funny but it is also very sad if you penetrate it more deeply. These are empty lives and it may be amusing but it has a sad element to it. People say you have to laugh at things because if you do not laugh you might want to kill yourself. I bring a comic perspective to an existence fraught with peril and sadness and cruelty.

You have been to Cannes many times but never in Competition. Why the reluctance?

WA: I do not believe in competition for artistic things. It is great in sports. The jury will award best film but I might find it boring. It is very subjective. Is a Matisse better than a Picasso or a Rubens? You can say my favourite film and that is reasonable but to judge the work of other people is something I would never do or to make the implication that some film is the best. That’s why I do not want to participate but I love the atmosphere and the crowds and always run into people I know. To be in competition would be against my common sense.

Blake Lively plays Veronica in Café Society
Blake Lively plays Veronica in Café Society Photo: Richard Mowe
Would you ever consider a film about relationships between a 50-something woman with a 30-something man [Allen’s wife Soon-Yi Previn is 45]?

WA: I would not hesitate to do that if I had a good idea for a story with a 50-year-old woman and 30-year-old man. It is perfectly valid comic idea to have the age difference in that way. I had a crush when I was younger on a 50-year-old woman, who was married but she would not come near me with a 50ft pole.

Café Society is released in US on July 15 and in France from tomorrow. No UK release date has yet been set

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