With his 2008 movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen set a new precedent. The movie was funny and sexy and boasted the onscreen chemistry of Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz as well as the beauty and talent of Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall. However, his darker 2009 follow-up, Whatever Works, skewed older with its story of Seinfeld's Larry David falling in love with Evan Rachel Wood. It wasn't as successful.
People are vulnerable and have problems and fortune-tellers see a chance to come in
When Allen continued along a darker vein with 2010's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the film failed to obtain an Australian release. However, following the success of 2011's Midnight in Paris and 2012's inferior To Rome with Love, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is finally releasing after Umbrella Entertainment picked it up in Cannes last May. It's well worth seeking out.
Allen does not appear in the London-set movie even if it's his most personal in some time. In the convoluted plot, Anthony Hopkins leaves his wife (Gemma Jones) for a gold-digging bimbo and aspiring starlet (Lucy Punch), while Josh Brolin's author with writer's block (a stock Allen character) has an affair with a younger woman (Freida Pinto) as he languishes in an unsatisfying marriage with Naomi Watts, Hopkins' daughter.
Overall, the film is about growing old and how difficult it is to stay happy in your life and work.
“In the movie, Gemma Jones will not stop telling Anthony Hopkins how old he is,” Allen points out. “If she had been sweeter then he would probably never have left her. But she was always saying, 'Don't do this, don't lift that weight, you are not 21 anymore! Don't eat those foods!'”
Does Allen's wife Soon-Yi ever say those sorts of things? “She does, but not so much about age. With me it is hypochondria. She is always saying to me, 'You are not sick, stop complaining. You don't have a cold.' She thinks that I am always complaining of the illness-of-the-week!”
Allen maintains it's not the work, the kids or the young wife that that keeps him young. “It is complete luck,” he says. “My father lived to one month over 100. My mother lived to almost 100 and they were lucid right until the final months. When my father was 88, people thought that he was 75. Now I am so frightened that I exercise every day, I eat the right foods and I do everything I can. But I feel that is 2 percent of it and 98 percent is genetics.”
Naturally, he hopes to be still working, like Manoel de Oliveira, at 104.
“I think he is amazing, like all those people who are older. But you have to be lucky. Your mind has to stay good. Doing a film is physically demanding. You have to get up early and while I haven't had a problem so far, I could walk out the door and have a stroke and then you'd see me like this [he contorts his body hilariously] and then it's like 'Oh God, look at him; he is terrible!'”
With You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Allen hones in on one of his pet dislikes: fortune-tellers and the power they wield. Jones' wife, a character Allen clearly despises—even if the British veteran steals the movie—is completely taken over by a psychic after her marriage fails.
“The first scene of Gemma with the fortune-teller is what led me to make the film,” Allen explains. “I know people who go to psychics and they don't do anything unless they get the information from them. I thought that would be a good story. I find the whole profession 100 percent fraudulent, just like I find all the religions of the world 100 percent fraudulent. They are schemes to make money and to get power. People are vulnerable and have problems and fortune-tellers see a chance to come in.”
Allen has never seen one himself, not even for research purposes. “I have a scientific mind and I just don't believe in it. I wish I could. It's a gift to be able to lose yourself that way. I was born into a family that was fairly religious and all my friends were religious. I thought, 'How lucky they are, they believe it and don't question it.' To me it just seemed like the silliest thing in the world. They dress up and do the [Jewish] ritual.”
Is there a difference between religion and fortune-tellers? “Not much!” he retorts.
Over the years, critics have protested that the women in Allen's movies are not particularly likable, yet actresses clamour to play them. In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Punch's former hooker is reminiscent of Mira Sorvino from her 1995 Oscar-winning role in Mighty Aphrodite, where Allen played the aging man.
“They are two very comic, loose women,” Allen agrees with a chuckle. “I'd never heard of Lucy Punch before I made the movie and we looked at many women and she just seemed like the best person. We looked at some pretty famous women too.”
They were prepared to shake their booty as Punch hilariously does in the movie?
“Yes. But they never did it as well as Lucy!”
Watts, currently the flavour of the month with her Academy Award nominations for The Impossible as well as her role as Princess Diana in Oliver Hirschbiegel's upcoming movie, Diana, relished the experience of working with Allen.
“It was a career milestone,” Watts admits. “For decades you grow up watching and absorbing his films and just feeling like it's almost too far fetched to dream about working for him. Then finally the opportunity comes up. I was completely star-struck when I met him; I was mute and couldn't speak. I only met him the day before we started filming and it was literally a handshake. I had a camera test showing the profiles, showing a particular blouse or something and then that was it.
“I was supposed to do movies with him before that but there was a clash in my schedule. I was worried that if you hadn't been able to do it then you probably wouldn't be asked back. So when the call came I was so pleased that the timing was right this time. Then I got the script and a really beautiful letter with some funny joke in it like 'I would really like the opportunity as you know to work with you before I die, which probably won't be long now!'”
Indeed, who could resist that?
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger arrives in cinemas January 17.