Film
12:37 pm
Wed September 22, 2010

Woody Allen: A 'Stranger' Always, And Mortal Too

Woody Allen's films tend to involve rococo relationships, which is probably why questions about the autobiographical impulse tend to dog him in interviews. But he says the characters in "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" come mostly from his imagination -- though he won't entirely discount his unconscious obsessions.

The latest movie by Woody Allen, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, begins with a silver-haired woman who's been abandoned by her husband in London. She goes for solace to a fortune teller, a woman who offers a glass of Scotch and a vision of hope, promising "nothing but good" in her future.

For Helena, played by Gemma Jones, the future isn't that easy. Her husband, who's played by Anthony Hopkins, has run off and married a much younger woman. That story comes courtesy of Woody Allen, a writer and director who in real life famously left his longtime partner, Mia Farrow ? and then married Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, 34 years his junior.

Yet Allen tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that he created Alfie to be "just a guy who ... wakes up in the middle of the night, and is laying there as we all do every once in a while at three or four in the morning, [when] we start to imagine our own mortality and the meaninglessness of life."

Scary, for Alfie. "He was not ready to pack it in," Allen says. "He still wanted to live, and embarks on a life that becomes catastrophic."

Despite what the prurient might want to think, Allen says he parallels to his own life don't go much beyond those moments.

"I have moments of waking up in the middle of the night and questioning exactly what the purpose of life was," he says. "And it certainly has always frightened me."

But writing, for Allen, is primarily an exercise of the imagination. He gets his characters by making them up. He'll start with "traits sometimes, in people that I meet or newspaper stories I read."

"Or sometimes I just fabricate them from scratch completely," he says. "People always think that writing is based on characters that you've observed or autobiographical things, because it's hard for them to really empathize with an act of imagination. But the author is sitting in an empty room and making up the story completely."

And so audiences hoping to learn something about the inner Woody Allen may have to settle for whatever unconscious projection may manifest itself in his movies. He's willing to admit there may be some of that working itself out.

But "consciously, I'm trying to entertain, and hopefully make some kind of statement about life," he says. "Or call attention to something, or you know, to do something, and not just fill time for an hour and a half."

Over the years, Allen has appeared less and less often in movies as an actor, so it's tempting to try to identify a "Woody Allen character" in each film he directs. Allen thinks that only works so far as identifying characters he could have played in years past. The Hopkins character's son-in-law, for instance. (He's played by Josh Brolin.)

"I mean, if I was Josh Brolin's age, I might have played his character ? married to Naomi Watts, and coveting the beautiful next door neighbor and trying hard to be a writer," Allen says.? But "I couldn't play it as well as Josh. If I played it, I would play it much funnier, and much broader."

And when it comes to the character who's closer to his age ? Alfie, who leaves his family for a call girl ? Allen is ready with a joke.

"I could conceivably play that, but the difference is, if you can get Anthony Hopkins, or you can get me ..."

Allen laughs.

"You know, I'm the director of the film, and I want Anthony Hopkins," he says. "I mean, it's a blessing to get an actor of that quality to play it. I could have played the character, but I could never have played it in my wildest dreams like Anthony Hopkins plays it."

Besides the classical acting chops, there's the accent. Which changes things, Allen says. He hears the lines in his own head ? in his own voice? ? as he's writing them. But then like every writer, he's got to get used to them all over again when he hears another actor speaking them.? And a British accent is still a singular thing for this quintessentially American writer.

"When I did Match Point, and I first heard Jonathan Rhys Meyers read my lines, all of a sudden, it sounded like I could write. ... I think, 'My God, did I write that?'"

Allen, famously, is a New York filmmaker.? The city used to be thought of as a character ? a leading character, even ? in his films. In recent years, though, he's broadened his horizons, filming in Paris for 1997's magical Everyone Says I Love You (and again in a forthcoming film starring France's first lady); Barcelona in a 2008 romance named for two ladies and that city; London in Match Point and Scoop and this latest excursion.

Allen won't pretend he isn't most at home in Manhattan. But "these are all highly cosmopolitan, sophisticated cities," he says ? "places that are not that different from New York, in that sense." And don't think he's planning on venturing further afield.

"I couldn't, the way some directors do, go out, you know, in the desert and make Lawrence of Arabia for two years and live in that kind of atmosphere," Allen jokes. "They go away, and they pick these exotic, far-off places.? I can't do that. I don't have that kind of dedication to my art. If I get an idea for a brilliant film in the Sudan, I crumple it up and throw it away."