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Simply Do it: Talking with Woody Allen About Directorial Style

In an interview published in a 1984 issue of American Cinematographer, director of photography Gordon Willis said of his style: "The ideal situation is to take a sophisticated idea and reduce it to its simplest form because then it is accessible to everyone." The same is true of Woody Allen, who was shooting "Zelig" at the time of Willis's interview. The mockumentary style of "Zelig" is, by Allen's standards, a formal experiment. His unobtrusive, seemingly hands-off directorial style has crystallized over time, and is especially apparent in "Magic in the Moonlight," a new romantic comedy about a magician (Colin Firth) who seeks to debunk a spiritualist (Emma Stone) in 1928 Provence. RogerEbert.com talked with Allen last week about working with the recently-deceased Willis, cringing at Marlon Brando, and learning from Jennifer Lawrence.

Watching "Magic in the Moonlight," I'm reminded that you usually favor master shots in dialogue scenes. To paraphrase [director of photography] Gordon Willis, you shoot to cut. That's generally more freeing for your actors, but when do you feel more coverage is necessary?

WOODY ALLEN: The scene usually dictates it. If I can play a scene in a master shot, I always prefer it. And the actors always prefer it. It's fun to look at on the screen, the actors get a chance to sink their teeth into something substantial, and it's economically helpful. You don't have to spend a lot of time with unnecessary coverage. And the poor actors don't have to do the scene 50 times from every angle. So if I can shoot a master, it makes a lot of sense for me. But there are certain scenes that just don't work in masters because you need up-and-back cutting for them to work. That's the only reason that I do it. A certain film might come along where, coincidentally, there are many scenes that just won't work in masters. Then another script will come along where most of the script will work in master shots. But I'd always prefer a master shot if I can do it.

In a previous interview, you said "[...]after the first couple of films when you go into the business, all of your illusions are shattered right away." I thought of that quote when I rewatched "Interiors." After "Annie Hall," you had the freedom to make whatever film you wanted. But I can't help but imagine there was a difficulty, or challenge that went with that freedom, trying to visualize and cut a dramatic film for the first time. You worked with [editor] Ralph Rosenblum or Gordon Willis on that film, and had also worked with both of them on "Annie Hall." Before and while you made "Interiors," what kind of discussions did you have with them?

I had the same feeling of ignorant confidence when I made my first film, "Take the Money and Run," that I had when I made "Interiors." I just felt there was something instinctive in me that could make a movie. The fact that I had never touched a camera, or done any filming, or studying of movies—didn't mean anything to me. I just knew how to make it. I felt the same way about "Interiors." The fact that I had made comedies didn't mean anything to me. That had nothing to do with learning anything, or intellectualism of any sort. It was instinctive. I just felt I knew when it was dramatic, when the acting was good, and when it wasn't.

I didn't discuss anything with Ralph Rosenblum before the movie. Ralph taught me a lot about filmmaking and editing, but always during post-production. He opened my eyes to a lot of things. Gordon Willis and I always talked about projects in detail—what he called "the shot structure," how we were gonna handle camera movement, when to shoot master shots or coverage, the coloring or lighting of the film—before the film. He would always explain to me how difficult it would be to shoot any given scene. I could never get the effect I wanted the way I had written it. I learned a lot from him in the planning of films. But with Ralph, it was always post-production.

In interviews, Willis always talked about the vital importance of blocking in determining a film's tone and pace. I've also heard that you and he went to unusually elaborate lengths to light "Manhattan." Is that true, and if so, is that why your successive films' lighting and set-up were simpler?

Gordon always used to paint with light. He'd do the fundamental lighting, and then he'd say "Ok, I've got the lighting basically done. Now I'm going to paint for a while." He would put a streak of light here, a touch of reflection there, a little suggestion of a glimmer there. We had a great opportunity to do that in "Manhattan" because we were filming in black-and-white, which is always very beautiful. And we were also filming in anamorphic [widescreen photography], which at the time was only used for bigger pictures, more adventurous pictures, less intimate pictures. It was for war pictures, things with more action in them. And we took the position that the wide-screen, which was usually used for battle scenes, or westerns, would create an interesting tension with intimate scenes. And Gordon's way of working was..he always wanted me to direct the scene the way I wanted to direct it.

Gordon would watch, and would say: "You're gonna need something here, you're gonna need something there." And I'd say, Yes, but I want to get a shot of this, a shot of that...He'd say, Don't worry, we can do that. But there's a couple of essential shots you're gonna need in this. The script girl would then mark down all the shots we were gonna take. And we'd kick 'em off one by one. After a while, Gordon and I discovered the power of working in masters together. As far as back as "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," we started working more and more in masters.

Rosenblum's feedback was crucial on films like "Take the Money" and Run and "Annie Hall." There were multiple edits of "Annie Hall," and Rosenblum is credited with having shaped the film into what was released theatrically. When you edit, you tend to cut right down to a single frame. You do final cuts, not rough cuts, as you don't see the use for them. How did Rosenblum's feedback on "Take the Money and Run" and "Annie Hall" influence the way you pace and edit your films?

I met Ralph on "Take the Money and Run." I had edited that film completely, but it was not working. Ralph came in, and he changed only about 20% of the film. 80% of the film was exactly the film I gave him. But I can safely say that the 20% he changed made the complete difference between the film working and not working. Ralph and I edited every frame together. I would never let any film, and never have, be edited without me there, calling the shots, saying what I want. Ralph and I would argue frequently, and sometimes I would convince him, and sometimes he would convince me.

But everything was edited together all the time. We edited ["Annie Hall"] and showed it to Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote the picture with me. And he said "Parts of this are so jumbled up then even I can't understand it." So Ralph and I took it, and we started over, and clarified the points that Brickman felt were unclear. But every frame that I ever edited in my life with anybody...I never let the film be touched without me being there. This is not to say that the editor [doesn't give me essential feedback.] But I would never let a piece of music, or a frame be cut without me being in on it.

I'm also curious how [director of photography] Carlo Di Palma helped crystallize your style, especially on "Husbands and Wives," which I know is one of your favorite films. Di Palma said that, since that movie was so characteristically dialogue-driven, actors would end a shooting day feeling exhausted. He joked that they needed a good nap. With that film, your style was relatively disruptive: you used hand-held camerawork, and scenes where dialogue is interrupted mid-sentence by talking head interview segments. You've described this style as being almost "European." What made that aesthetic so satisfying?

I thought that, since the film's about such neurotic people, and such neurotic relationships, a neurotic style would be appropriate. So I thought I would obey none of the filmmaking rules. I wouldn't care if people were facing the same direction, if they crossed the 180 degree axis of symmetry, if things matched or didn't match, cutting away whenever I wanted, etc. I decided to make the film as crudely, and as neurotically as the content of the film indicated.

Di Palma also said that you worked so well together because you were about the same age. That's also true of you and Gordon Willis. I looked it up, and saw that [regular collaborator and "Magic in the Moonlight" director of photography] Darius Khondji is actually 20 years younger than you. Does that make a difference in terms of common points of reference?

Darius is a great cameraman; he's a great artist, like Gordon Willis. He's beautiful with lights, and with the poetic effects that I like. I just finished working with him on our fifth collaboration. And he's a great cinematographer, no question about it. I've worked with great cinematographers: Sven Nykvist, Vilmos Zigmond, Zhao Fei. Doesn't matter what age they are, but what they have inside them. And Darius is one of the most gifted around in the world today.

I figured there wasn't much of a difference since, when you shot "Midnight in Paris" with Khondji, you both immediately thought of "2001: A Space Odyssey" when you filmed in the Musee de L'Orangerie. You generally prefer a warm color palette, very warm colors. What was the film, or the experience that made you realize that's your general preference?

It has an effect on me, I like it. When I see cool films, no matter how beautiful they are, there's something off-putting about them. I have all my characters—or 99% of the characters—dress in autumnal clothes, beiges, and browns, and yellows, and greens. And I have [production designer and long-time collaborator] Snato Loquasto make the sets look as warm as possible. And I like the lighting to be very warm, and I color-correct things so that they're very red.

Sometimes, the cameraman will be shocked. Sven Nykvist said "My God, their faces will all look like tomatoes!"

And I said "Well, let's try it." He got to like it.

And when Darius was color-correcting "Midnight In Paris," we went all out and made it red, red, red in color-correction. It makes it like a Matisse. Matisse said that he wanted his paintings to be a nice easy chair that you sit down in, and enjoy. I feel the same way: I want you to sit back, relax, and enjoy the warm color, like take a bath in warm color. It's like how I play the clarinet with a big, fat warm tone as opposed to a cool sound that's more liquid, or fluid. I prefer a thicker, richer, warmer sound. The same with color; I feel it has a subliminal effect on the viewer in a positive way.

What about your scripts? You once said "The actual script is a necessity for casting and budgeting, but the end product often doesn't bear much resemblance to the script-at least in my case." Is that why you generally don't read a script after you've finished writing it?

Yes, because the script is something you do need to get the picture off the ground. Somebody's got to budget it, schedule it, and make sure you're in a rational ballpark. But when you make the film, there's a big difference between when you're in your own home at the typewriter, and when you're standing on a mountain, or on a street corner, and buses are coming by—it's a different reality. All of a sudden, you're switching the writing: 'Don't bother to say all that stuff. We'll be out on the street corner for a half hour if you say all the junk that I wrote.' You make a million changes that were never in the script, but that reality dictates.

Of all the types of collaborators we've talked about, we haven't said much about actors. I was just struck by how great Gene Wilder's performance is in "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask." A good part of that comes from direction, particularly the way you accent his character's deadpan uncertainty with some fantastic pregnant pauses. Talk a little about filming a comedic performance like that. You've said that comedy is so delicate, and can make or break in editing.

Comedy is an extremely instinctive thing. Drama, at its highest level..if you go to Ingmar Bergman, or Tennessee Williams, or our finest dramatists, Arthur Miller...it's instinctive with them. But you can stay drama, and you can learn drama. And someone without as much talent as Tennessee Williams or Ingmar Bergman can learn and make a decent drama. So you will see dramas on television that are not bad. They're not terrible. But comedy--you can't do that. Comedy you just have to be born with. As a filmmaker, there's also something inside you that tells you where to cut, and where to pause. It's an unerring thing, and if you have it, it's no great achievement. It's like someone being able to draw with a pencil. I could never do that, but artists are just born with the ability to do it. Comedy's like that: you can either do it, or you can't.

Years ago, when I was editing on a moviola, and the reels were rattling through, I had to break to make a cut. I remember I was looking for the right place to cut a scene, and I hit the break, and cut it. We marked it, and twenty minutes later, when we ran the scene through again, I hit it again on the exact same frame. The odds of that happening are very slight, but for me they weren't so slight. I felt some instinctive rhythm: 'This is where to cut, now!' If you can do it, you can do it. One can't learn this. So the comedians, whether they're Mel Brooks or Gene Wilder, the ones that can be funny...can just do it. And the ones that can't do it...if you've ever seen Marlon Brando trying to be funny--our greatest actor of all time, by far--you know he's terrible! If you're born with it, you can simply do it. Someone like Bob Hope had absolutely impeccable timing. He was just amazing. Nobody else could tell a joke as well as Bob Hope. You can't imitate it; it's like trying to imitate Louis Armstrong on the trumpet. It never really sounds exactly the same. I'm a bigger believer in that for comedy.

You usually have a minimal involvement in casting, and prefer to pick people you trust based on, say, an earlier performance. So a lot of the work is done before it's done, it seems. In light of what you said about the delicacy of performance, I'm curious if there are any performers you haven't worked with yet, but you know: there's a role for this person.

Usually, I don't think of performers. I think of the script only, and whatever performer is right for it—whether they're famous, or I've worked with them before—that's who I want to cast. But if you were to ask me, just as an exercise, there are people out there [who] I've admired. I've never worked with, and I'm sure I'll never get a chance to work with Jack Nicholson. I always wanted to work with Reese Witherspoon. She's a wonderful comedienne. Maybe some day I'll have something for her. She's a wonderful actress.

I wouldn't mind working with this young girl who works in David O. Russell's pictures, Jennifer Lawrence. I think I could probably do something with her--or she would do something with me, is really what the story would be. I would gain more than she would gain...because when you work with these wonderful actors or actresses, they give you far more than you can. I can only supply them with the part, but you hire a Cate Blanchett, and she brings the part alive. If you hire a lesser actress, the part remains written the same way, but it never gets off the ground the same way.

Going back to what you said about the style of "Husbands and Wives:" it's messy to the point of being neurotic. The Italian aphrodisiac scene in "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask," the blocking and framing of that vignette is very neurotic. Now that some time has passed, do you still find the European style of filmmaking to be uniquely messy? Or has it become more universal?

Yes, a European style has become absorbed by American directors. It's become part of the world's vocabulary of filmmaking. [European filmmakers] are always so far in advance of Americans. While we were doing silly, brainless Hollywood movies made using formulas for money, Europeans were making grown-up films. But over the years, serious American directors have absorbed the European style, and now even Asian influences, like Kurosawa, or surreal influences, like [Luis Bunuel.] Now it's an almost universal style.

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