New York Remains at Heart of Iconic Director’s Work
At the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, Woody Allen’s comedy “Whatever Works” had the honor of playing as the opening night film. In Manhattan, The Washington Diplomat attended a press conference with the iconic writer-director and his American cast members: Larry David, Patricia Clarkson and Evan Rachel Wood.
Allen’s latest project has his signature wit and New York backdrop, focusing on an eccentric older man (David) who falls in love with a much-younger Southern belle (Wood). After shooting several features in Europe, Allen returned to filming in New York City with “Whatever Works,” which still used French financing.
“That’s strictly a function of finance,” Allen explained. “It’s very expensive to make movies in New York. I work on a very low budget. I’d like to do it; I’d like to make more movies in New York because I live here and I love it. But surprisingly, New York and California, which is the film center of the United States theoretically, is too expensive.”
Like Allen, his actors had strong connections to Manhattan. Evan Rachel Wood recalled coming to New York just like her character in the film: “I did what Melody did, and I moved to New York when I turned 18,” she recalled. “I was filming on the streets of New York for the first time and singing Beatles songs, and it changed my entire life…. I spent a year here, and I felt like I knew who I was finally. This city really does something to you. I have a different experience every time I come here.”
Larry David has his own New York memories. “I grew up in Brooklyn, and I lived in Hell’s Kitchen from the time I got out of college till I moved to L.A. in my early 40s. I remember very distinctly the smell of urine as I left my front door. I remember having to take my shoe off before I came into my apartment to kill the thousands of roaches that were in my bathtub. I have very fond memories of it.”
Patricia Clarkson also had a few Big Apple moments. “The first place I lived was the YMCA because at Fordham University, they didn’t have dorms then,” she said. “I remember on Friday nights, there were a lot of young boys around. And I thought, did they just return from a YMCA camping trip? No … I have since left the YMCA. I’m a New Yorker now, I guess. I love the West Village. I love downtown.”
David added, “I remember fighting with people every day because I couldn’t get change for a dollar to get on the bus. Nobody wants to give me their change.”
Allen interjected: “My memories of New York are unrealistic. The New York that I grew up loving was, ironically enough, the New York of Hollywood movies, where people would live in the penthouses with the white telephones and come home at five in the morning with ermine draped over their shoulders. This was the New York that I knew. I grew up in Brooklyn, not far from Larry. I never knew New York as it really existed. For that you have to speak to [directors] Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese. I knew New York the way it appeared with popping champagne corks and people dressed in tuxedos and making very witty banter, and the elevators rising into the apartments directly. So that’s the New York that I have depicted in my life and have tried to live in my life. And it’s caused me a lot of grief.”
But the director says he hasn’t had much grief from his actors, explaining his reputation for coaxing great performances. “People always ask me over the years about performances in my movies, and they think I’m being facetious when I say this, but I’m not. I hire great people, and then I get out of their way. They were great before they met me, they were great in my movie, and they’re great in movies after me. I just don’t want to mess them up. I hire them and then tell them that they’re free to go. If they’re doing something that I notice that’s egregiously wrong for some reason, I’ll say something to them. Say this needs to be a little more grim, a little louder, or quieter. But that’s it,” Allen said. “If you hire good people, then they read the script, they understand it, they get it, that’s why they take the job – and they do it. You look great as a director with the actors, but the truth is if you hire the right people, that’s 99 percent.”
The director added: “Evan I had seen very briefly in some things. She was great. I didn’t know she could do a Southern accent. She said to me, ‘Yes, I can do one.’ But she didn’t want to do it and show me. I just assumed, look, I’ve seen her in other movies, and she’s not going to take the job and make a fool of herself. The first time I heard the accent she was doing was when we shot her. There was no rehearsal. I never heard it in conversation. She just came and did it.”
Allen also elaborated on his films’ many Oscar nominees and winners. “I don’t feel they’re getting this Oscar because I brought something out of them that nobody else could or that wasn’t in them. They basically got the Oscar because they’re good. If Penélope Cruz gets an Oscar, or Dianne Wiest, or Diane Keaton, it’s because they’re great. I do feel a modicum of contribution in that I supplied them with the role that they then spread their wings and show themselves off. They’re getting those Oscars because they’re who they are.”
About the Author
Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.