Woody Allen did not work during the pandemic. Covid’s new world has disrupted a flow that has continued uninterrupted since 1977, when he made “Neurotic Groom, Nervous Bride,” and brought in a new movie virtually every year.
The problems for the director, of course, were not limited to the pandemic. In 2014 allegations of sexual abuse, a case closed in the early 1990s, returned to the media when his ex-wife, actress Mia Farrow, ignited social media alongside his son with Woody, journalist Ronan Farrow, in the wake of rise of the #MeToo movement.
Many actors, especially from a younger generation, such as Timothée Chalamet and Selena Gomez, went public to say that they would no longer work with the director. Amazon, with whom he had signed a contract to produce films directly in streaming, canceled the deal. “A Rainy Day in New York,” shot as part of the deal, hit theaters more than a year after completion.
“The Festival of Love” is Woody Allen’s first film after the controversy. Shot before the Covid pandemic, it’s a romantic comedy strung out as a tribute to the filmmakers who inspired Allen as an artist.
With the arrival of “O Festival do Amor” in Brazil, I had a long chat with Woody Allen about the new film and also about the culture of cancellation, his routine during Covid and the state of affairs in the current film industry. “The situation is not good”, he comments, as you can see in the following interview.
“The Festival of Love” protagonist Mort Rifkin (Wallace Shawn) questions whether he is a snob for his impeccable taste and encyclopedic knowledge of film. Do you believe that nurturing this passion for cinema and its history these days can close moviegoers in a bubble?
I believe so. Cinema has followed very different paths from where it once was. When I first started working in this industry, movies were considered a far-reaching art form. Great directors created film art, and each week my friends and I were excited to discover new films arriving in the United States. French, Italian, Swedish, Japanese films… It was a huge cultural phenomenon and there was a huge audience for them. This industry was slowly changing.
What is the most strident change you see in this industry today?
Movie theaters house gigantic movies like “Spider-Man”, which make a fortune and cost another fortune to produce. But they are made for different reasons. They are not art, there is no attempt to make them art. The aim is to be as commercial as possible and attract crowds. And that’s okay, there’s no problem with that, because millions of people like to go to the movies to be entertained. I’m all for having two theaters. Commercial cinema, where people find exactly what they are looking for, and a more artistic cinema. The problem is that this artistic cinema has disappeared. European films don’t attract more attention in the United States, art films don’t perform well at the box office, the audience is very small. It’s an immeasurable loss.
How then to form a new audience for this cinema?
Hard to say. Young people go to great universities, but when they talk about the movies they’ve watched, it’s silly, commercial movies. It’s a generation with access to the best education and they’re enjoying seeing garbage. I was a terrible student, I dropped out of college for being a terrible student. My friends and I weren’t intellectuals at all, we grew up on the street playing baseball. And we loved the films by Bergman and Fellini, by Truffaut and De Sica. It was the kind of movie we watched. I believe, therefore, that the audience has changed in a way, and it’s a disappointing audience because they would be the people we were hoping to count on to get interested in cinema as an artistic expression. The result is that a movie made for $12 million ends up losing money. And movies made for over $100 million manage to make a profit. Producers prefer to invest in $100 million movies rather than $12 million. The risk is less when there is an obscene amount of money at stake.
You had an agreement with Amazon before the start of the pandemic, signed before the streaming platforms tightened their relationship with other directors. Will we see fewer and fewer independent and low-budget films in cinema, or is it too early to predict the future of the industry?
A huge part of the audience today chose to watch movies at home. It was a strong movement before the pandemic, and when the crisis hit, nobody wanted to leave their homes. Nobody wanted to die! Months passed, we stayed at home and turned on the television. The technology of flat screens and sound surround it makes it far better to sit in your pajamas than to face the cold outside. Just push a button, so there’s no reason to get dressed, go to the movies, and sit next to two hundred people who might have Covid. This account of movies to see at home and multi-million productions doesn’t close. I don’t know what it’s like with your generation, but my generation didn’t grow up with movies like that. The situation is not good, and I hear people all the time saying that there are no more good movies. I don’t want to see “Spider-Man”, I don’t want to see “The Avengers”. Even though good titles like Jane Campion’s “Attack of the Dogs” do appear, they are in the minority, squeezed into the year-end season. We can still fish for the occasional good art film among the flood of bad blockbusters, but they are getting rarer.
Is independent cinema destined to disappear?
We will always have a certain number of independent films, there are great directors and screenwriters who want to make films that are not just empty entertainment for profit. But life will always be difficult for the independent filmmaker. If the great directors I honor in “The Festival of Love,” such as Truffaut, Bergman, Fellini and Godard, were still among us, they would face more difficulties than in their time. I’m sure there are innovative and very talented directors in other countries who have original things to say. But there’s no audience for them, at least there isn’t a big audience.
“O Festival do Amor” was your first film after accusations of 1990s abuse against you resurfaced in the media. Now that the world is slowly recovering from what appeared to be the worst part of the pandemic, how do you see your work flow from now on, especially your relationship with the actors you want to work with?
Well honestly I don’t know how long I’m going to make movies. My next movie will be my fiftieth project, so I don’t know how far I’ll go yet. But let’s say I want to make movies until I’m 100 years old. So I make movies! I write the movie I want to write. I choose the cast I have in mind. If an actor wants to work with me, great! If not, I choose another actor. If no actor wanted to work with me I wouldn’t make any more films, but that’s not the case.
Were there any difficulties in casting “The Festival of Love”?
Some actors I wanted to work with didn’t want to join the project. Okay, it’s a free country. So we chose others. I don’t think much about this issue, I think I’ll always be able to work, at least as long as I want to keep this pace. Even because making movies takes work! We wake up early, we stay up all day, we have to make a million decisions, anticipate a thousand other problems. It’s exhausting and I don’t know if it’s something I want to do indefinitely. Let’s say it is, and maybe I really want to make movies for the rest of my life. So I’ll keep making the movies that pop into my head. I will always have a great cast and a great crew. Everyone is happy to work. Other actors do not. But it’s their decision.
The 21st century has seen you take your stories beyond New York, with films set in some of the most beautiful cities in the world, including San Sebastian in “The Festival of Love.” I was curious to know if the story comes first or if you write inspired by the city in which it takes place.
A bit of each. Sometimes I fall in love with a city and struggle to find a story there. Other times, as in the case of “O Festival do Amor”, there is a proposal to make a film in Spain with local financiers, so I think about what this story would be like. As I had already done a project in Barcelona, which is a city I love, I thought of San Sebastian, because I was there at its film festival and remembered how beautiful the city is. I thought about making “O Festival do Amor” about the festival itself, about films and about the illusions that life is about ending, forcing us to be flexible and change. But each place is different. Sometimes it’s a question of money. Someone funds a project in France, so I burn my brains out to find a story in Paris. Sometimes the idea comes up because I’ve always wanted to film in Rome, so I focus my energies on the city. It varies with each project.
I remember that a few years ago there was a buzz about the possibility of you shooting a film in Rio de Janeiro. Did the project actually exist?
Yes, it was a real project, and I would love to film it there. My sister, who is one of my producers, traveled to São Paulo and Rio, and she found the city charming. I looked for an idea that was good to be done in Rio. But not an idea that could be filmed in any city. I wanted something that was about Rio, that the city was also a character in the story. As in “Midnight in Paris”, where Paris is also a character. That idea hasn’t come up yet. But if I think about something like that, nothing would make me happier than filming in Rio.
Film production has had to be reinvented because of the pandemic for much of the past two years. How was your routine during this period?
My routine was to get out of bed and stay home. when we got into lockdown I was ready to go to Paris to shoot a movie. It was a frightening situation. Is still! But when it all started, I felt it was worse. People stayed at home, I stayed at home, I didn’t even go out to buy food. I was very careful. Even when I ventured out of the house, I avoided getting close to anyone, keeping my distance from anyone on the street. Basically I asked them to wake me up when everything was over, because obviously I couldn’t film, couldn’t find my jazz band, couldn’t play. I didn’t go to the theater, everything was closed, nor to restaurants, as they were also closed. I just wanted to be warned when someone defeated the virus. And the virus has obviously been politicized, with people taking pride in not being vaccinated. A very dizzy people. The more thoughtful realized the value of the vaccines, which restored confidence in leaving the house, in having control over the virus. The vaccine brings life back, the vaccine has prevented many people from stopping at the hospital on a respirator. If everyone had been vaccinated we would have already defeated the virus. But there is always a less smart group that refuses the vaccine. Because of these people, the pandemic will remain a factor for a long time to come.
Was going back to work within the new protocols never a possibility?
I don’t think it would be fun to make a movie with everyone wearing masks, with a doctor on set, with everyone getting tested regularly. God forbid one person has Covid and production is stopped for weeks. That’s not how you make a movie! Besides being very expensive, it’s crazy! Making a movie is hard enough when everything is perfect and everyone is doing the right thing. But it wouldn’t be the same to work with the shadow of Covid in our heads. When the world starts to breathe again, I’ll go back to filming.
I hope that this project, when the pandemic finally dissipates, will be a movie here in Brazil.
I would love to! Nothing would make me happier! Brazil is very charming and very exotic, it’s the perfect place to make a movie.