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Woody's wit and wisdom

In his new movie "Small Time Crooks," opening Friday, Woody Allen plays an ex-con who dreams up a bank heist. It involves tunneling into a vault from a basement down the street, and he installs his wife (Tracey Ullman) to run a cookie store as a cover. The cookies make them millionaires, the money goes to her head, and she hires a British art expert (Hugh Grant) to tutor her on culture, while her husband misses his old pals and their card games.

Allen never travels to promote his movies. But this time, he agreed to some campus appearances, including a Q&A session at the University of Chicago. Before he headed down to the campus in Hyde Park, we talked in his hotel room, and here are some of the things I learned:

* "I did standup here for five or six years in the mid 1960s, and cut my first two albums in Chicago. That's when I met Jean and John Doumanian; she's produced a lot of my films. We used to hang out at O'Connell's, diagonally across from Mr. Kelly's. It was an all-night coffee shop. We liked to sit in the window and watch Rush Street. I was the opening night celebrity at Franksville, the hot dog place up from O'Connell's. I declared it open. I was the best they could do. We'd attend Cubs games and eat ribs at the Black Angus, and go to Hefner's place frequently."

* "I've made about one movie a year for 35 years. I've been productive but it's not as big a deal as one thinks because I've had factors that enabled this to happen. Right from the start I have the mechanics in place, so when I pull the thing out of the typewriter I hand it to the production manager and they're budgeting, casting and going. With some other person, Scorsese or a director of that quality, he's gotta get the money for it. He says, 'Well, I need $58 million to make this movie,' and he's gotta interest Leonardo DiCaprio now or Sharon Stone or somebody. I don't have that problem. As soon as the script is over it's like hitting the ground running. When 'Small Town Crooks' was finished, and I don't mean this to sound facetious (it will, but it's not) I gave it to Dreamworks--and then what do I do with my life? I'm home, I play with the baby, I go for a walk with my wife, I practice the clarinet, I watch a Knicks game, I see a movie. That's easy for a couple of days, or a week. Then I don't know what to do with my life. So I start writing again. And if you're a writer, how long does it take to write a script?"

* "I'm accused of sameness. I have a feeling that in some way that's not perceptible to me, people think my films are like Chinese food. There are 800 different dishes but in the end it's all Chinese food. When I ask people, 'Why don't you come to my movies?' they say, 'Gee, I saw 'Everyone Says I Love You," I saw 'Broadway Danny Rose,' I saw one of the others on television, and I just loved it.' And I wonder, why didn't they see it when it was out? I guess they thought it was one of those Woody Allen pictures. What if I was the Marx Brothers? I'd be very happy to see a Marx Brothers film every year. I don't know; for some reason I've never been able to really maintain a big audience."

* "Basically, I'm a wit. That's even with an out-and-out comedy like 'Small Time Crooks.' I think Dreamworks was taken aback by the wit of it. Wit is scary to people. They said, 'What kind of film are you doing?' I said, 'It'll be a film I know you guys will like, because it's a comedy about a group of people who try and rob a bank. But soon the witty part of the idea came in, that it was really the cookie business that took off, and that's how they suddenly got rich, and how the wealth affected them, and the executives started to sense it was about something, in some small way, and began to expect smaller box office returns."

* "I think a story has to go somewhere. It can't just be the same idea from beginning to end. When I did 'The Purple Rose of Cairo,' I put it away half-written and was not gonna come back to it, because when the actor steps off the screen, that's a great idea, but then what? He steps down off the screen, and I have half a movie. But six months later when it was still in the drawer I happened to think, what if the real actor in Hollywood comes to the town, and both the actor and his screen image are in love with the girl, and she's gotta choose between them? Now the thing became worth doing."

* "With the plot of 'Small Time Crooks,' people ask, 'Do you think that money changes people?' It doesn't change people. What it does is liberate them to be who they really are. In this movie, Ray thinks he needs a big score to happy. He really needs maybe a couple of bucks, but that's all. He doesn't need to rob a bank. That's too big a score because all he wants to do is eat stone crabs and turkey meatballs and watch television and shoot a little pool. But suddenly he finds he's eating game birds on a bed of lettuce with some kind of sauce, and it's not what he wants in life."

* "I'm sandwiched in the picture between two female comic geniuses, Tracey Ullman and Elaine May. I gotta pull my weight. Tracey is amazing. Sam Cohn, my agent years ago, said, 'You gotta see this other client of mine.' And I said I had six million things on my mind. 'Play this tape! Play this tape!' I kept the tape in my house for months and then one day I played it and I couldn't believe how hilarious she was. Elaine May, I've known for 35 years, in New York, and she's always been elusive and hilarious. I wanted her for 'Take the Money and Run' years ago and she said, 'You wouldn't wanna lay eyes on me. I'm wearing a neck brace.' She wasn't wearing a neck brace, she was just hard to get for movies. This time I sent her the script and she wanted to do it. And Hugh Grant, it just so happened I hit him between films. He had finished one and was not gonna do another one for a little while, so..."

* "I get wonderful casts for my movies, if they're between jobs. Nobody is going to turn down $10 million to do a Spielberg film to be in my film for the fun of being in it. But if they're not doing anything else and I send them the material and they like it...well, often they do like it, because my films concentrate on eccentric or exotic characters, and they like that. Whereas, they may get $10 million to do a picture where they're forced to do special effects and car chases that are not very stimulating. We have a top for everybody of $50,000. It's $5,000 a week for 10 weeks and that's whether you're Julia Roberts or whoever. That's all we can afford, so they have to want to do it. Some want their price no matter what. They will not consider working for a cheaper price. I went to George C. Scott and couldn't even get him to read the script, because unless the money was settled first he was not interested."

* "Soon Yi bought me this sweater. It's been great for me. Now we have a little child. If anyone had told me I would wind up married to a much younger Asian woman, with no interest in show business, I'd have told them they were crazy. All I would go out with were little blond actresses, or women who did something in show business. Suddenly I find myself with a woman whose interest in life is teaching learning-disabled children, who is not interested in show business, who is much my junior and doesn't know many of the references from my life experience. She's a wonderful person and makes me very very happy. It's interesting how little you know about yourself as you go through life. I think, my God, why didn't I meet her sooner, I would have had so many more years of happiness."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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