Midnight in Paris
Coverage by Nobuhiro Hosoki
Story : A romantic comedy about a family traveling to the French capital for business. The party includes a young engaged couple forced to confront the illusion that a life different from their own is better.
Press Conference with Director Woody Allen
(Q) : You said you're somewhat of a romantic in regard to your films, but I noticed something in this film. You have a love or obsession for the European or Parisian culture, but show a distain for the Western or American type lifestyle. Is that true?
(Woody Allen) : No, not at all. Actually, a number of the significant artists in the picture are Americans. America is a huge country and there's an enormous amount of positive culture to always come out of it; great writers, certainly some fabulous painters in recent decades, and great jazz musicians. So no, I don't feel that way at all.
There are plenty of cultural deserts in the United States as well, but I'm sure if you went in any country you'd find sections of them and periods of time that were very fertile and exciting, and others that weren't. But I don't feel America is at all uncultured. I feel there's quite a bit of remarkable culture that's come out of America.
(Q) : Talking about culture, what about pop culture? How do you feel about television stars and movie stars of today? If you could spend the afternoon with any one of them would you choose to?
(Woody Allen): Well I don't get a chance to watch too much television, but not out of any sense of disdain or superiority. When I come home in the evening generally we go out to have dinner, I might go to a basketball game or a movie or something, and I'm out for the evening. When I come back the brunt of the evening is over and I generally catch up on the news or something and go to sleep early, so I'm not an expert on television. I have seen things on it that seemed wonderful to me that were usually in the documentary area, in the news area and things like that.
Of course Turner Classic Movies is fabulous. And as far as films go yeah I'm sure if I lived in California that I would have a number of friends who are movie stars, but I don't, I live in New York and so I don't. I'm not that social anyhow, but if I was I'm sure that I would have. They seem fine. It's a different generation of movie stars. When I grew up and I was a little boy the movie stars were so much larger than life.
Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, it's almost as if they didn't exist in real life, and now the movie stars have gotten much more down to earth and much less larger than life they were. But that's probably in a sense, in one sense anyhow, a good thing because it's a more realistic appraisal of who they are.
(Q) : Can you talk about how and when ideas come to you? Like in the morning, at night, when you can't sleep in the middle of the night. Is it constant?
(Woody Allen) : It is. It is unpredictable and constant. There are times when I have to force myself. When I first started I was a television writer and shows were on at the end of the week and you had to come in Monday morning and write because we're live. You couldn't just come in and wait for your muse to inspire you, you had to get in there and turn out something because something had to be on the air. And so I can still do that.
I can get into a room and force myself. It's no fun, let me tell you, but I can force myself. But usually the ideas come in the course of the year, and I write them down and go and look at them later, and some of them see terrible and I don't know why I bothered to write them down, but others are okay. Now in the case of "Midnight in Paris," interestingly enough I was going to make a film in Paris because it was being financed and I had no idea for a film in Paris. And I was just thinking and thinking and I thought that it would be a romantic film because we all grew up on Paris in the movies as romantic.
And I thought of the title "Midnight in Paris," and I thought "Gee, that's a very romantic title. It's a great title for a movie." And for a long time, six weeks or so, I didn't know what happened at midnight in Paris. What goes on at midnight in Paris that two people needed? And then one day it occurred to me that the protagonists would be walking along in the street and a car would pull up and there'd be some exciting people and they'd say "Get in" and take them on an adventure. And that's the way that it happened. It was very unpredictable and capricious.
(Q) : What relationship or lack of it is between Gil and his perspective father-in-law that was quite interesting. And by extension the Tea Party versus liberal sentiments and how Gil keeps getting called a Communist. Why were you inspired to include that political standoff, and is this in any way perhaps autobiographical in that you may have ever been called a Communist, not necessary by a Tea Party person?
(Woody Allen) : I've never been called a Communist. I could never even share a bathroom. I'm not a Communist in any way and I was never accused of it. I'm a Democrat and I just wanted to make the girl's parents in the movie antithetical to Gil. I wanted him to try and be a good natured guy who tried to get along with everybody. And the mother was annoyed that she was marrying him, figuring her daughter could do better, and that the father didn't like him politically and that they belonged to that strain of Americans who are always critical of France and always have a problem, and who wanted to change it to Freedom Fries from French fried potatoes, and I just thought that would be funny. But I had no other motivation other than that. It expresses my own feelings, my own political feelings. I would never do anything that didn't, that ran antithetical. I wouldn't make my hero a Fascist, for example, but I was really just trying to be amusing.
(Q) : I want to ask about working with actors like Owen Wilson, who's also a writer. You worked with Larry David a couple of movies ago, who's also a writer. Is the collaboration with actors different when they're also a writer? Or is the screenplay in stone and cannot be changed or altered while you're on set?
(Woody Allen) : No to all those questions. I had no idea Owen was a writer at all and I don't do it any differently. I let anybody, any actor on a movie, the screenplay is not written in stone remotely. As soon as they're hired for the movie I tell them that they're free. If there are any speeches that they don't want to do, if there's anything they want to add or subtract or change go right ahead and do it, and I watch them closely and if there's some egregious mistake they make I tell them, but most of the time they don't.
If there's a joke I wrote or a speech I wrote that embarrasses them to say they don't want to say it and they don't say it and I couldn't care less. They could say it in their own words. If they see a scene and they feel more comfortable doing it their way, they don't want to walk where I tell them to walk, they'd rather walk some place else, that's fine with me. I don't really care as long as the thing gets done believably on the screen.
So in a scene if a guy is going to come home and tell his wife he wants a divorce I don't care if they use my words or if the actor comes home and tells his wife in his own way and she responds in her own way. As long as they make it real and exciting or amusing I'm very, very happy to take credit for it later.
(Q) : This film is such a lovely homage to some of the great cultural icons of the '20s and beyond actually, and through them Gil manages to find his muse in some way. I wonder whether you have any cultural icons of your own who seduced you in some way, and I hope you're not going to tell me it's Leo Tolstoy, because I won't believe you.
(Woody Allen) : No, and it wasn't. You're right not to believe me. It was Groucho Marx, a far cry from Leo Tolstoy. He was a big influence on me. My cultural icons were S. J. Perelman, Groucho Marx, when I got a little older Ingmar Bergman was a big hero of mine. But I would say those were the main ones, and it's an odd combination because I started out as a television writer and became a cabaret comedian and a television comedian, and by influences were Groucho Marx and Ingmar Bergman, and you couldn't get two more disparate kinds of personalities.
And that's what I was doing at the time and it made for an either interesting or disconcerting presentation for me. People either found it disconcerting and didn't love it or they did, they found it interesting the combination. But it was not Leo Tolstoy, though I much say I've enjoyed Tolstoy many times.
(Q) : I wish I could say he'd enjoy you too.
(Woody Allen) : Me too.
(Q) : For many, many wonderful years you've been associated with making films in the Northeast, in the New York area on location. The last decade or so, five, six years or so, you've been making films abroad, a marked change from before that. Business considerations aside for making films abroad, what has this experience been like for you working on foreign soil where you're certainly familiar with it but it is not like your own backyard, working with foreign crews, things like that?
As a cinephile and as a renowned movie lover are there any filmmakers and their films that you can think of that have inspired you or that you keep in the back of your head where these filmmakers have done the same thing? People who are associated with making films in one place and they're always associated with a certain country or city and then they enter a period where they sort of leave their home turf and do films elsewhere and take a turn in their career at a certain time?
(Woody Allen) : First off, I can't leave business matters completely unconcerned because I went originally to London because they offered to back "Match Point." And I had a very nice experience in London and I found that the foreign crews are just like the American crews and it was easy to work and no problem, and I found the same thing in Barcelona and Paris. Their film crews, their electricians and carpenters they know what to do.
The language barrier is minimal; most of them speak a little English or I can struggle through a minimal amount of French and you learn to communicate quickly. In the United States I worked with a Chinese camera man for three pictures for three years who never spoke a word of English ever.
But it doesn't matter because you're talking about the same things. Once you learn the same 10 signals everything is the same. So it's no problem working in foreign countries. It's the exact same thing. I am working in big cities, London, Barcelona, Paris, this coming summer it will be Rome, and it's just like working in New York. Everybody is very professional and very nice, and one nice thing is that these foreign countries welcome you so generously. They want so badly for you to make a film in Barcelona or Paris or Rome that everybody cooperates in such generous ways. They close off streets and you get police help. It was just wonderful working abroad because they're so enthused over it.
Now in answer to your other question, the only person that comes to mind, although I'm sure there are many others, was the wonderful film director Jules Dassin, who was terrific in New York and did some very good films, and then left for Paris because of the blacklisting. Though he did some good work in New York, like "The Naked City," which revolutionized the whole way of looking at a certain kind of film with the city, but when he went abroad and he did "Rififi" and the Greek films that he did with his wife he did some of his very, very best work as an expatriate. And why not?
You get a new location, fresh sites, fresh locations. As I say, the people are every bit as good and competent that you work with. The crews and the actors and actresses are great, so it's not a tough thing. It's not like you leave home and you're stranded in the desert and nobody knows what to do with the lights. It isn't like that. You go to a new city and it's great and you have new restaurants and new places to go to, and it's very exciting actually.
(Q) : But you'll be back here one day?
(Woody Allen) : I would love to. New York is a fabulous city to work in because there are a million things to do here. There are a million stories to tell and a million great locations in the city. I made many, many movies here and I don't think I've even scratched the surface of New York City. And it's great also there's a certain advantage to being in your own home.
For instance, I'm going to Rome this summer so I'm not going to be able to see any baseball, and that's a big loss for me. I will have three months of a hotel shower. I've got a great shower at home; it comes down hard and hot. So it's nice to work at home, I like that. My own bed, my own house and all my surrounding pharmaceuticals. But there are exciting things to be abroad as well.
(Q) : It was announced today that Elaine's will be closing next week. Considering its role in your films, in your social life, and in New York culture in general I was wondering your reaction to that news?
(Woody Allen) : I don't think there will ever be anything like it in New York, and it's one of those situations where you really have to say "You had to be there." I could wax euphoric about it and you'll listen but you had to have been there over the years. It was unique and amazing. I ate my dinner there every single night for maybe 10 years. It was like a home away from home. I saw everybody there.
One great thing is that you were completely undisturbed. Nobody asked you for autographs, no one made a fuss over you; you were just part of the wallpaper. Over the years I just saw everybody, every writer, every politician. I met Antoine there and Simone de Beauvoir. It just went on endlessly, one after the other.
Everybody was at Elaine's. You didn't have to dress, you could come at any time, they were open till the wee hours of the morning. She was a fabulous woman and a great hostess. The worst New York nights, when it was freezing out and blizzard and snowing you'd go into Elaine's and they'd be six deep at the bar, you couldn't get another human in the place. 90% of the people would be by most people's standards illustrious. It would be this film director and that actor and that singer and that opera singer and the mayor. I mean it was just astonishing. So it was a fabulous, fabulous place. I started out there playing poker. That's how I heard about it.
There used to be an after hours poker game there where you'd play and you'd write your bets down because they couldn't pass money around because it's illegal. And we'd write our bets down, there were a number of other writers that played, and I went up there to play poker. We started around one in the morning or so and played till five in the morning, and those poker games went on and these writers eventually brought friends and it grew and grew. Elaine subsidized many of the writers when they were having hard times, and it was just a fabulous, fabulous place.
The food was unremittingly terrible from start to finish, and my theory was that that was one of the appeals of the place, that if the food was great everyone would be going up there for the food. But they didn't. They went up there to be with other people and socialize and have a quick snack, but mostly drink and talk and a lot of conversation. I don't think there will ever be anything like it. I hope there is but I can't imagine it. And all my talk about it still doesn't portray it. You really had to go there and live through it to get the feel of it.
(Q) : I wanted to ask you about Zelda Fitzgerald. I read that you were interested in making a film about Zelda Fitzgerald. Is there any truth in that and if so, how did that evolve into this film?
(Woody Allen) : No, there's not truth. I would have liked to have made years ago "The Great Gatsby," because it's a great film for me to make. Everybody thinks this, it's grandiose, but I think I could have done a good job with it because I like that era and it's a New York, Long Island film. I just feel that I could have made that film work. And I've always had a crush on women like Zelda Fitzgerald. Now, this is very self-destructive and I've always selected in my lifetime women who had that sort of streak of insanity in them that she had and it didn't do me any good, let me tell you.
But I was fascinated by it always and have used that kind of character in my movies many, many times. I just think I would have been good to make that picture but it was never in the cards. I was not eligible to make it when I first started and it's been made a few times and now I think they're making it again into a musical, there's some talk about it. Baz Luhrmann's possibly doing a version of it I think I read in the paper, who will probably do a great job on it. But it was a nice thought.
(Q) : You always pick the right director of photography. Could you talk about the aesthetic approach of capturing Paris?
(Woody Allen) : It's very important in a movie I always felt right from the beginning to have a good cameraman. I worked for 10 years with Gordon Willis, and I worked for 13 years or something with Carlo Di Palma, and Sven Nykvist, and Zhao Fei, a wonderful Chinese cameraman. I did another picture a few years ago with Darius Khondji, my second picture, and I'll be doing my third picture with him this summer because he's one of the great cameramen.
I want someone who can transfer what I see in my head to the screen, and there are probably any number of guys that can do it but they have to be guys that I can work with, that have the right personality for me to work with, that I'm not going to get into conflict with.
That's a really collaborative process. I want to give a lot of input but I want to get a lot of input as well, and so I had very good relations with Gordon and with Sven and Carlo, great personal friends as well, and now with Darius. It's just very important to me. We talk about the lighting beforehand and the approach we're going to take.
The one uniform thing that all the cameramen do that I want that's basic is I want warm pictures. I don't like the actors wearing blue, I don't like sunny days; I like the weather to be flat, grey, and the colors to be autumnal, yellows, beige, brown, tan, gold, and it's very important that the color correction is very, very warm, very warm. You can see it in "Midnight in Paris." When I first started working with Sven Nykvist he used to say to me "The actors all look like tomatoes."
But then he got to like it. I like it intensely red, intensely warm, because if you go to a restaurant and you're there with your wife or your girlfriend or something and it's got red wallpaper and turn of the century lights you both look beautiful, whereas if you're in a seafood restaurant and the lights are up everybody looks terrible. So it looks nice, it's very flattering and very lovely, and that's the fundamental aesthetic for the camerawork.
The rest is that we try and move the camera whenever possible without it being too self conscious to the viewer so you don't want to rush at the screen with an ax and say "Stop moving the camera." But that's the fundamental thing, that there's a warm kind of ambiance to it all. And when I achieve that with a cameraman then I like to use him again, and if he's not busy I always hire him if I can.
(Q) : If you could time travel would 1920s Paris be your first choice or would it be another time and place?
(Woody Allen) : You know time travel is a tricky thing because you extrapolate only the best. If you go back in time the women were dying in childbirth and people had tuberculosis and you go to the dentist and they drill and it kills you. It was not so pleasant really, but when you think of it and you go back and you think of Gigi and horse and carriage, Champaign. I would like to be able to travel back for the day. Go back, have lunch, and come home; that would be the great trip for me. If we could do that that would be a wonderful thing, and I would go to Paris.
1920s Paris would be some place I'd like to go to also, Paris before all the stores were on the Champs-Elysées and those terrible t-shirt and postcard joints were on the Rue de Rivoli. The way it was conceived had to be astonishingly beautiful. You can't fathom how beautiful it must have been because it's drop dead beautiful now and it's full of these commercial stores that have opened up there. So it would have been great, but I would not like to have been trapped there and not be able to get back. That would be not a good thing.
(Q) : Nina Arianda doesn't have a huge part in the film but she does very nicely with what she has. Here in New York right now she's become a very hot stage actress so I wonder having worked with her whether you would have any appraisal of her talent and her career and what you see in her in particular.
(Woody Allen) : She was great, absolutely great. And so I had her in and she read and she was fabulous and I kept thinking "I could do a movie with this person. I have a script where I don't have anything for her substantial in the movie. If somebody comes along and gives her a substantial part she will be tremendous because she's a tremendously gifted actress." So the only thing I had open was Michael Sheen's wife, and I wanted her very badly so I put her in. And of course she mumbles and does her own thing and turned a truly nothing appearance into a little bit of a something, which was all her contribution to the picture, nothing written, nothing I directed her in.
I just wish that I could use her in some meaningful way, because whoever the first person is that does is going to get a great, great reward out of using her. If she were older, I was younger, she would be great to play my wife because she's really got it. But I don't have anything for her that would really set her up and make her great at the moment, but if I did or I could think of something she's fabulous.
(Q) : How do you think that you've evolved as a comedy writer? What lessons did you learn and at what point in your life did you know that comedy was meant for you?
(Woody Allen) : I was in high school. I was about 15 years old or just turning 16, and at that age all my peers were deciding what they were going to do about college and what they were going to take, and in my neighborhood they were all going to become doctors or lawyers. Professional men; this was a big thing. And I had no interest in any of that at all. I had infantile interests. I mean you'd be remarkably surprised. I wanted to be a cowboy. I wanted to be a private detective. These were the things that were on my mind at the time.
I had no substantial interests whatsoever, but I was always amusing to my friends and someone said to me "Why don't you try writing down some of the jokes you're always making and send them in and see if there's anything to them?" So after school, I was going to Midwood High School in Brooklyn, I came home at one o'clock and wrote some jokes on a page and I mailed them in to the "New York Post," Earl Wilson, the columnist, and I found that he printed them. And suddenly my name was appearing weekly in columns, Walter Winchell's column, Earl Wilson's column, and it gave me great confidence that I could write things and people other than my friends in school thought they were funny on a sort of professional level.
And then I got a phone call from an advertising agency that had called Earl Wilson and said "Who is this guy?" and they said "He's some school kid in Brooklyn." And they called and offered me $25 a week to come in and write jokes for them. So I came in and I wrote jokes and from there I got to write a radio show and a television show. But I was working steadily from when I was 16 years old on and haven't stopped. I've never been unemployed, I've always worked. That's why I'm always such a big proponent of luck. I've had nothing but breaks.
Everything that I wanted that was not controllable by me fell in. Whatever I needed fell in, whatever I wanted I got. Not by sheer accomplishment but through pure luck very often. So it's been great, because otherwise I don't what I would do. I would be a cow boy or a detective or something.
(Q) : How do you think you've evolved as a comedy writer? What lessons have you learned?
(Woody Allen) : Well I learned that just writing jokes you could make a very good living but there was no future in that, that you had to learn basic structure first of little sketches, the kind of sketches you would see on the Sid Caesar show or on television, and then that you had to learn play structure. You wanted to incorporate your comic gift in something substantial, like a play which to this day is of course much more substantial in writing than a film script. A film script you could go in with 20 pages with no dialog if you want and still make a film.
There are guys like Mike Leigh and Ingmar Bergman that will do that and make fabulous films. But I wanted to learn how to write and I was studying playwriting, not at school, but I was studying playwriting and trying to learn to structure so it wouldn't be just my whole life I would be a guy who would write 10 jokes for Bob Hope about something. I wanted to write more important things. And eventually what happens is you learn it without thinking you're learning it. I guess it's like driving a car or something.
You keep doing it, and without learning how to do it because there's no exact science to it, but just by doing it something happens in you and you find you can do it. You feel it, you start to do it by feel, and then you're home, that's all you need to know. Once you do it by feel you can do it the rest of your life.
(Q): Following up on Nina Arianda, we also have Alison Pill. How did you discover Alison and have you seen either of them in their two plays?
(Woody Allen) : No, I haven't seen either one of them. I never knew Alison Pill at all, strictly Juliet Taylor. I was looking for someone who I could get to resemble Zelda Fitzgerald who's also a wonderful actress, and Juliet suggested Alison Pill. And she came in and I looked at her and she read and it was automatic and we gave it to her right away. She was wonderful. But I never knew her at all before that.
(Q) : There's one moment in the film where Gil finds the diary and he reads about himself but that's the only moment where the past bleeds into the present and you see what he's doing in the '20s affect modern day. There's obviously a ton of potential in that and you just didn't really go in that direction. I wonder if you just didn't want to make a time travel movie or what kind of steered you away from that?
(Woody Allen) : I was interested only in this romantic tale and anything that contributed to this fairy tale was right for me. I didn't want to get into that, I wanted to get into only what bored down on his relationship with Marion. I passed those book stalls so many times and browsed in them in my life, and you can easily find a diary and I thought to myself that would be a nice touch for him to find something and have it confirm for him that she had feelings for him. That's all I wanted out of it was just that much, because all I was interested in was the romantic tale, the tale of them as lovers.
(Q) : I'm really fascinated to hear about the writing process for this movie because I believe you said in another interview that you kind of had this idea kept in your drawer for a while and then you revisited it. So my question to you is what was the writing process like? Was it just something that once inspiration hit to go back to that idea you worked on it non stop, did you work on it over several months continuously, did you stop and start? And also I have a second question regarding your next film in Rome. Is it true you're going to return to acting in that film and are you the central character?
(Woody Allen) : I was going to do this film in Paris about four years ago but I didn't have the money. I started to do the film quite seriously and they were backing it in France and I had worked it out, but the budget kept getting bigger and bigger so I had to stop. Now we worked it out so that we were able to do it and there were tax benefits and we were able to put the thing together. But the writing process was that I had the title and I agonized for a while about what happened at midnight in Paris, and then I thought to myself the protagonist is walking along and a car pulls up and he gets in.
And originally I thought to myself okay he gets in and maybe it's contemporary, I wasn't even thinking period, I thought and he goes to a party, they take him to this party and he meets Marion, it wasn't Marion at the time, he meets a French woman and he starts to have an affair with her but he's going to marry Rachel. And then I thought to myself what if they take him to a party and he gets out and he walks into the part but there's F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter. And once that happened everything came easily because the idea is so pregnant with possibilities.
Then automatically they go out for the evening and they'll meet Ernest Hemingway, and then he becomes personally involved, he wants his script read. That's why he had to be a writer, he wants his script critiqued. And he runs out and then runs back and it's a Laundromat, he can't find the place anymore. And then he keeps going back and of course the second time there had to be some development, he couldn't just go back with nothing, so then he meets a lovely woman and now the story gets richer because once there becomes a romantic conflict the thing really starts to give you potential, and from there it was just very simple.
That he was in competition with Picasso and Ernest Hemingway was a funny idea to me, and that on the one hand here was this woman who clearly had no sympathy for his aspirations and was attractive and sexual and could manipulate him and wanted to lead a life in California where she'd be reasonably secure and wealthy and doing those things they do, going to parties and having children and living that kind of life, and he was dissatisfied. And everything just kept tumbling in the right direction for me. And then I got the final piece of inspiration, which is always the key in writing. I've used this example before, but when I did "Purple Rose of Cairo," the guy steps off the screen, fine you get a lot of play out of that, but then what do you have? Half a movie.
But when it occurred to me months later, because I had put the screenplay away that the actor playing Jeff Daniels, the actual Hollywood actor comes to the town and now there are two of them, the guy who stepped off the screen and the live actor who's playing him. That's what gave me the movie, and the same thing here. When it occurred to me that Marion also was dissatisfied with the present and wanted to live in the past that gave me the whole climax and meaning of the movie. But once I got the inspiration that they take him to a party that was in the '20s the idea was so pregnant with possibilities after that that it was relatively simple.
(Q) : And can you tell us about your acting role in your next film? Are you a central character?
(Woody Allen) : I’m doing this movie in Rome this summer starring Alec Baldwin and Ellen Page and Jesse Eisenberg and Penelope Cruz and Judy Davis and Roberto Benigni and myself, and also a number of other Italian people that we're casting at the moment. And it's a broad comedy, not a romantic comedy but a broad comedy of various tales interwoven, and I'm in one of them. All the parts are quite significant, there are no cameos, these are all significant parts and there just happened to be a part that I could play.
You know, I can't play the love interest anymore and of course this is tremendously frustrating because that's really what I want to play. I wanted to play Owen's part, I want to play all the parts that I always played but they're not as believable anymore so I have to play Pops, the backstage doorman at the theater or something like that. So there is a part for me in this. My wife and myself go to Rome because our daughter is going to marry an Italian boy that she met there and we're going over to meet him and his family and what ensues. But the film is very broadly funny.