Woody Allen Discusses "Melinda And Melinda"
By Cole Smithey
After a string of forgettable comedies Woody Allen returns to form with an energetic movie that contemplates the raw narrative material that separates comedy and tragedy. In "Melinda And Melinda" Radha Mitchell ("Finding Neverland") plays both sides of the genre fence as opposite versions of a woman who moves to New York to escape her past. The comic version of Melinda's escapades includes the ever-watchable Will Ferrell serving as an altered rendering of the Woody Allen alter ego, and the tragic plotline has Chiwetel Ejorfor ("Dirty Pretty Things") playing a pianist composer who seduces Melinda in search of a muse.
"Melinda And Melinda" marks the 69 year-old director's 35th feature film.
Q: What interested you about contrasting the duality of comedy and tragedy in this movie?
WA: There are many times where I've had ideas that I felt would work either way. The idea could be written amusingly or as a serious story and in the past I'd always chosen one and gone in that direction. And here I had an idea that I thought could make quite a serious story but could also make a funny, romantic story. And then it occurred to me why don't I alternate the two and see if I can do the picture and maybe learn something from it. Maybe juxtapose the two...of course I learned nothing from doing it. It was fun to do but it was not enlightening to me.
Q: Will Ferrell is such a different spin on the Woody Allen alter ego than we've seen. How did you customize the part for him?
WA: First of all, he's so physically different. He's a big silly person and everyone who has seen him or laughed at him, as I have in these broad ridiculous comedies, brought to mind the question could he act and be believable. And as it turned out, I guess because of his size, his face or whatever talent he has, he's vulnerable - there's something sweet about him and your heart goes out to him.
There were things in the script, in the actual dialogue that he couldn't do. Since I'm writing the dialogue my tendency is to write it for myself even though I knew I'd never be playing it, I write it instinctively for myself. I had to cut some lines and dialogue out of the thing because he couldn't do it. It never sounded funny when he did it.
But there were things he did do that I could never imagine when I was writing it, before I met him, I never could have imagined for the script the contributions he would make that are built into his ridiculous persona. The way he moved, there's something in the look of his face, it's intangible, but it's silly and sweet.
Q: Can you give an example of something you cut?
WA: I can't give you an example of exact lines I cut, but there were one-liner jokes that I do and are easy for me to do and that don't sound like a joke when I do it; it sounds like dialogue rather than a joke. It comes naturally to me, but is not so natural to him. There are some people that just can do them, it just comes naturally, and Will was not one. Will has a different comic gift and it's hard to quantify it but it's working great for him, not just on my picture, but also in general.
Q: In the movie it seems like the comedy is for the Jews and the drama is for the WASPs.
WA: That's very funny. I don't think of it that way, but I guess people think of comedy through Jews all the time. I'm forever being asked why are all the comedians Jewish. And I always feel they're not. It's a misconception based on the fact that there were many Jewish comedians that came out of the Catskills. But if you look at Bob Hope, Buster Keaton or WC Fields they were not Jewish and they were great comedians. Charlie Chaplin was half Jewish, so which half?
Peter Sellers was half. So there are some fabulous Jewish comedians, but there are many that are not. I don't think it's a particularly Jewish thing. There was that rush of borscht circuit comedians that were quite funny that came out of that specific milieu. I was raised in a Jewish neighborhood and household so naturally my idiom is where I grew up. I've had this conversation with Spike Lee several times. I could never convincingly write about a black family and I doubt --I don't know, but I doubt if he could write convincingly about a Jewish family because you lived it every moment so it gets into the nuances.
Q: We hear stories of actors on your sets not really knowing where they stand in the process and being afraid of being fired. What's a fireable offence on your set?
WA: Really what's fireable turns out in the end to be my casting mistake, because the person does no wrong. I hire them and I'm convinced they can do it and then they come in and they don't do it.
This has happened to me and I try every conceivable way to get them to do it. I talk to them, I explain it and I try to be as lucid as I can and then if that doesn't work sometimes I try and trick them in a transparent way. I take the script and I say the camera crew is over there and he comes in here and says this and I act it out for them and I'm hoping that they'll pick it up from me. And sometimes they do, but sometimes they don't and no matter what I do I can't get it.
I'm not a skilled director like Elia Kazan or Mike Nichols who can get a performance out of someone who can't act. But I can't do it. So after three days of trying to get the person to do the scene and every resource I can think of, I fire them because I don't know what else to do. I feel we're doomed if we use them and the whole picture will die and I can't think of what else to do. If I was more resourceful or if I had cast more judiciously-although I think I'm casting judiciously at the time. But it's possible that someone will come in and read and they'll be very good at the reading and then for some inexplicable reason they can't do it when the time comes. It doesn't happen a lot, but it does happen occasionally. It's happened to me over the years and it's a terrible thing.
Q: Are there any new aspects of the human condition that you'd like to explore in your films?
WA: I would like to make some films that are bolder than I've made. I've made romantic films and comic films, but I would like to see if I could come up with something that was bolder, more aggressive. I've always been a passive comedian. I've always been a comedian in the mold of Bob Hope or someone that's victimized, a coward, a failure with women, and a loser. And I'd love to try a picture where I was a winner. And I'd love that just for the fun of it. When you see Groucho Marx and WC Fields and their aggressive sense of humor, I'd like to try that. It might not sit well, I'd try it and they'd say who is this guy. But I would like to try it.
Q: Do you miss doing standup?
WA: I miss doing standup but I'm too lazy to do it again. To write and act, to be funny doing stand-up for 45 minutes or an hour on stage is a huge amount of work, more work than a movie. In the course of an hour, a one-liner takes no time at all. And in order to get an hour's worth of really funny, potent material, it's a huge amount of work, huge and I don't have the energy or the patience to do it. But I do miss it. It's a wonderful medium to work in. I love watching it and I love the fact that you can turn on your television set and because of the economics it's very cheap for them to show standup comedy. So any time of day or night you can see two or three comics working in perpetuity around the clock.
Q: Would you ever direct anything someone else has written?
WA: I've never done that. I've really only directed because I'm a writer and I like to write. But I wouldn't rule that out now that I'm getting older just to have the experience once to see what it's like to direct someone else's script. But I've only directed in the past because I wrote the script. The fun was getting the idea on, not directing.
Review Has your writing process changed over the years?
WA: I still lay down on the bed with a yellow pad and write it. And invariably I have to type it myself and that takes three days. I can write faster that way. I was taught to write on a typewriter and I think it would be healthier for me to do it. Because if you write on a typewriter, you act out the scene and you type it down and you sort of know it works. When you write on a pad, you're hearing it in your head and you don't know that it works when it becomes audible, but it goes so much faster that I've gotten into the bad habit and I've been doing it for years.
Q: All of your films are considered low budget. Do you ever wish you had a $100 million to play with or are you happy making small budget films?
WA: No, I wish I had the $100 mil. It's very hard. People are making films in my lifetime so that the average film is $50 or $60 million and $100 million are common and considerably more. I'm making films where everything is a maximum of $15 million or $14 million. And it's tough because there are a lot of things I want to do that I can't do. When I did this next film that hasn't come out yet, "Matchpoint," they said to me up front you're not going to be able to afford music. And I figured out a way by using all opera that I was able to connive an opera company that was putting out an Enrique Caruso album to get the music. But there are a lot of things you can't do. Any kind of special effects or reshooting things or taking the proper time with things you can't do. So if I had more money, I'd use it.