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Woody Allen: 'I'm ancient, a know-nothing'

The famously morose director is riding high again, soaking up the red-carpet applause at Cannes and basking in critical acclaim for his latest film, Midnight in Paris.
US director Woody Allen poses in Cannes in May, 2010.
US director Woody Allen poses in Cannes in May, 2010.

Listening to Woody Allen detailing his perceived troubles, it's easy to think that his life is one long ordeal of drudgery, hardship and battles against adversity.

According to the veteran filmmaker, the glory days of cinema are long gone, his children don't respect him, the ageing process hasn't been kind to him - and he's an absolute failure.

Yet as soon as he has finished pouring out his problems to me in a New York hotel room, Allen is whisked to JFK Airport, flown to Cannes and the next day is walking the red carpet, basking in the adoration of the crowds and glowing reviews for his latest film, Midnight in Paris, which opened the film festival.

Clearly things are not all bad. However, it is difficult to know when the 75-year-old director, screenwriter and actor is joking or being serious - his comments are delivered in the same deadpan style that he relied on during his early days as a stand-up comedian.

"We live a very, very cruel, terrible existence," he says with a straight face. "Life is short, nasty and brutal, and there's no hope for us, so I'm greatly in favour of any chance to escape reality, although it's very difficult to escape. But I wish I could. I would be the first one out of here."

Allen's desire for escapism may explain why so many of his films have that as their theme. Midnight in Paris, a delightful fantasy starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard and Adrien Brody, centres on a young writer holidaying in the capital who finds himself transported back to the 1920s, where he meets the Jazz Age luminaries Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali and their compatriots.

Like all his recent productions, Midnight in Paris was filmed entirely on location in a foreign country. Since 2005 Allen has made four films in London, one in Barcelona and one in Paris, and the next will be shot in Rome. The move has coincided with an upturn in his film fortunes.

After a lean spell in the US that resulted in a series of flops - Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else and Melinda and Melinda - the London-set Match Point, a romantic thriller with a surprisingly bleak ending, earned him an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, filmed three years ago in Barcelona, won Penélope Cruz both a best supporting actress Oscar and a Golden Globe.

In his 45 years of filmmaking Allen has been nominated for 21 Oscars and won three - for writing Hannah and Her Sisters and for writing and directing Annie Hall.

A quintessential New Yorker, Allen still has his heart in Manhattan, but the financing for his films now comes from other countries where filming has fewer problems and he enjoys the sort of cooperation he never experienced in the US.

"It's easy because the cities want me to film there so they're all extremely cooperative," he says. "They welcome you and make it a pleasure to be there and give you all the locations you want and tie up traffic for you if you need it. I've been working in great cities and each one dictates a certain vibration that you pick up on.

"The language is never a problem because when you're making a movie, there are only a few things you ever talk about and you learn them right away. I did three pictures with a Chinese cameraman who didn't speak a word of English - not a word. And it didn't matter at all because we were only talking about the lighting and the angle.

"I'd love to be able to shoot in New York again, but it's very expensive and I only have a limited amount of money for a film and it doesn't go as far."

For Woody Allen, the 1970s were cinema's golden age.

"Then, although the film companies were very greedy and basically philistines, they still wanted to do a couple of quality films a year just for their own conscience," he says. "So they would finance some small films and they were content to make a small profit. I was lucky because they just backed my films one after the other and didn't read the scripts or ask any questions.

"Now they couldn't care less about making good films; they're just interested in making huge profits. They would rather make bad films that make money than good films that lose money, and you can understand that because they're businessmen and I'm not. We have different goals."

Allen has always had a limited audience for his films, which is something he appreciates.

"I make films for literate people," he declares. "I have to assume there are many millions of people in the world who are educated and literate and want sophisticated entertainment that does not cater to the lowest common denominator and is not all about car crashes and bathroom jokes."

When he is not filming overseas he still lives in Manhattan with Soon-Yi, 40, the Korean-born adopted daughter of his former partner, the actress Mia Farrow. The two married 14 years ago, and have two adopted daughters, Bechet, 11, and Manzie, 10, both named after jazz musicians.

The scandal that erupted in 1992 when Farrow discovered nude photographs Allen had taken of Soon-Yi and subsequently accused him of sexually abusing their adopted daughter Dylan, then seven years old, leading to a long and public custody battle, has faded into the past, although he and Farrow still do not talk and he has no contact with their three children.

He admits that fatherhood is a problem for him and despairs of ever being able to communicate with his two youngsters.

"I'm a failure," he says sadly. "I can't stand up to the tide of overwhelming peer pressure that they have in school. All the time I tell them: 'This is a great artist... listen to this music by Cole Porter and this jazz by Charlie Parker,' but they don't want to hear it. They're into Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, and that's all they want.

"They have nothing but contempt for me and feel that I'm ancient, a know-nothing and an embarrassment as a father. I give it my best shot, but I can't fight it. They like what they like and what their peers like and I can't fathom it."

He shrugs and adds morosely: "But it doesn't matter. I'm on the way out."


Midnight in Paris does not yet have a UAE release date.


The Allen file

BORN Allen Stewart Konigsberg, December 1, 1935, Brooklyn, New York

FAMILY Father Martin, a jewellery engraver, died in 2001, at 100; mother Nettie, a bookkeeper, died in 2002, at 95; sister Lettie, 67

SCHOOLING Midwood High School, Brooklyn (the probable inspiration for his legal name change to Heywood Allen at the age of 17); New York University

FIRST JOB Selling jokes to newspaper columnists

HEROES Ingmar Bergman, Louis Armstrong

BIGGEST REGRET Never meeting Armstrong

CAN'T BE WITHOUT My clarinet

Updated: June 1, 2011 04:00 AM