The wit and wisdom of Woody in Cannes

Allen on moral crises, TV series, distractions and ageing in Irrational Man.

by Richard Mowe

Woody Allen and Parker Posey. Allen: I never look back at my films but if I had the opportunity I would shoot them all over if I could.”
Woody Allen and Parker Posey. Allen: I never look back at my films but if I had the opportunity I would shoot them all over if I could.” Photo: Richard Mowe
Woody Allen, who turns 80 later this year, returned to Cannes Film Festival today to premiere Irrational Man, a comedy about an existentially challenged professor, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone and Parker Posey. It’s Allen’s 46th film as a director, because he makes one a film a year.

At his encounter with journalists, flanked by Stone and Posey, he explained how he has managed his career and talked about a groundbreaking TV series deal with Amazon, which he now regrets. Allen says he intends to film until he drops, despite his fluctuating fortunes both professionally and privately. There was the legal battle with his former producer and one-time friend Jean Doumanian, the death of his parents at a ripe old age, the complicated break-up with Mia Farrow, and his marriage to his adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, all of which grabbed more attention than some of his films.

He remains unstoppable and remarkably resilient. “I have so many ideas, and it doesn’t take that long to make a film. I want to make as many of them as I can before I die. It is not that big a deal: you write for a few months, shoot for a few months and then I edit pretty quickly. Seven or eight months go by and you’re finished. I sit around the house until I get the notion to write another one. And after a few days at home I think: What else is there to do? So I start all over again…”

Would you ever consider murder as an option as Joaquin Phoenix’s character does in the film?

WA: Yes, even as you speak I am considering it … There are times and turning points when you suddenly realise something momentous can possibly happen if you make a choice, and in this case, the choice made by Joaquin’s character is irrational but not so much so given the choices we all make in our own lives. As long as there is something dedicated you believe in, you make a choice and you go with it. Now did I answer the question or am I just rambling?

Emma Stone in Cannes
Emma Stone in Cannes Photo: Richard Mowe
Are we living in a time of great moral crises?

WA: It is no different today than any other time. There are these horrible events going on laden with moral crises and this is the way of the world and always has been so. People are in moral crises and make agonising choices - they are the stuff of Greek Theatre and Shakespeare and that is the conflict that unites any dramatic action.

Do you keep on learning about film-making even now?

WA: You do learn stuff but very little. On the first two or three movies I learned a lot. Most of it is instinctive, most of it cannot be learned. It is a combination of talent and instinct and sometimes it works. I never look back at my films but if I had the opportunity I would shoot them all over if I could. Charlie Chaplin had the luxury of being able to shoot again and again because it was so much cheaper to do so in his day. Once a film comes out I deliberately don’t look at again because you would see where it all went wrong and what you could do to improve it. I could improve them all.

How are you progressing for your TV series with Amazon?

WA: It was a catastrophic mistake for me, but I am struggling with it at home. I thought it would be easy. To do six half hours should have been easy but it is very hard. I hope I do not disappoint Amazon. I do not watch TV so perhaps that is why I am floundering. I expect it to be a cosmic embarrassment. I thought it would be so much simpler than making a movie.

Do you have a philosophy of life you can share?

WA: My conclusion is that the only possible path through life is by distraction. Turn on a baseball game or a Fred Astaire movie. Distract yourself so you have moments when you are not facing reality. Too much reality can be too much to bear. I go in to a movie and watch Fred Astaire dance for an hour-and-a-half and then I come out and have to face the fact that I will be old one day in the very distant future. Come out of the movie house and I am struck by reality. Movie making is a nice thing to keep you busy - like the basket-weaving they give inmates in an institution.

What is your relationship with your actors?

Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in Irrational Man
Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in Irrational Man
WA: The trick is you hire great people and then you get out of their way and you do not play the director and hover over them. The people I have worked with have had careers and they were great before and they are great after they leave. You must hire wonderful people and do not mess them up. It is a simple thing. And you get credit for directing them as long as you are not messing them up.

You hit 80 later this year - does that mean you may become more serious?

WA: I had always wanted to be a serious filmmaker - remember my idol was Ingmar Bergman. No one would give me money to be serious. They wanted me to be funny. I was very serious when I was young and I would have made one heavy movie after another all my life. I would not have worked in comedy but people would not let me.

Irrational Man is released on July 17 in the US. No UK release date has yet been set. Read more Cannes coverage.

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