NEW YORK — “The one thing between me and greatness … is me,” said Woody Allen, who’s been afforded virtually every creative freedom an auteur could ask for. So if “Match Point” isn’t his greatest film in a long time, he has only himself to blame.
That’s what Allen had to say at a rare public appearance at Lincoln Center on Monday before a screening of his new movie. He gave a little talk about where his ideas come from (“They just … come”), how he likes to work (with as little human interaction as possible) and why, even though he’s a pessimist, he has hope for “Match Point” and “Scoop.”
So actors, take note: If Woody doesn’t talk to you, that’s a sign things are going well. It’s when he pulls you aside that you’re in trouble. “I’m not a great social person,” Allen said. “I like to keep it to a surreal minimum.”
Allen might say a few words to prospective actors trying out for his films, he said. Something along the lines of: “Hello, I just wanted to meet you and say hello. No, don’t sit down.” Once actors are cast, he’ll give them their pages of the script, “and if they have any questions, they can ask me. Most don’t. So I don’t say anything to them.”
Unless they’re not getting it. Then Allen will pull the clueless ones aside to give them a nudge. “It’s a very transparent trick that I do,” he said. “I say, ‘Let me see the script,’ and I start to read it out loud to myself, as if for no other reason, and I read it how it should be read.” If that doesn’t work, they might be fired, but Allen said he takes that to be a failure on his part for having “screwed up the casting.”
But with “Match Point,” he said, he’s very happy with who ended up in the lead roles. Especially with the chemistry between Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who play would-be in-laws caught up in an obsessive affair. “Actually, that’s not chemistry, that’s physics,” Allen said. “They’re combustible. I don’t usually speak well of my films, so it’s not out of modesty that I say it came out well and they’re a hot team together.”
Allen originally spotted Rhys-Meyers in “Bend It Like Beckham” and says he thought the actor was “full of emotion and turbulence.” Johansson impressed him at first because she’s a “dream girl,” and then continued to blow him away with her wit on the set of “Match Point.” Allen said Johansson actually inspired him to write the comedy “Scoop” next, and cast her as the lead. “I try hard, and she does it effortlessly,” he said. “She’s funny.”
In “Scoop,” Johansson plays a college journalist traveling in London. She’s “kind of inept, and she stumbles into a mystery, as journalists do, and I’m a seedy showbiz magician who helps her out,” he explained. Hugh Jackman and Ian McShane round out the cast for the film, shot over the summer in and around London. That’s the same location Allen chose for “Match Point,” which was also made with roughly the same budget — $15 million.
The use of a mostly British cast and crew is a departure of sorts for the distinctly New York director. He’s hoping the move will provide him with a different type of homecoming — to be critically and potentially well-received again (his last film, 2004’s “Melinda and Melinda,” earned only $3.8 million in the U.S.).
“Match Point” is not a typical Woody Allen movie. There’s no distinctly Woody character played by himself or a more attractive surrogate (like Will Ferrell, Jason Biggs, Kenneth Branagh or John Cusack). There’s no New York neurotica. There’s no anachronism. Since Rhys-Meyers and Johansson’s affair takes place among the British upper class — they’re the interlopers — the trips to the opera and museum fit. Rhys-Meyers’ tennis pro is trying to ingratiate himself with an upper-crust family, so he reads the critical compendium to Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” so he can fake a conversation about it.
There’s also more passion than just talking about passion in “Match Point,” which has led to considerable Oscar buzz for both the director and Johansson. The New York Times calls it “both a departure and a return to form.”
But if you point any of this out to Allen — or even mention that the hot sex scenes or bright comic moments enhance the thriller — he’ll just dismiss the charges with a shrug and say there’s not much hope in his hostile universe.
“This is going to turn you all off,” Allen said, “but those small moments of respite are so that you can forget the abysmal mitigation that is human existence. I do everything I can to find those little moments, to give breathing space, like a cold drink on a hot day. But no, I don’t have a good feeling … about anything at all.”
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