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Woody Allen on Hollywood, Penélope Cruz and the Joys of Being a Foreign Filmmaker

Hyperbole runs rampant in the entertainment industry, but it’s hardly effusive to call Woody Allen a living legend.

At 72, the Brooklyn-born director of Annie Hall and Manhattan has received 21 Oscar nominations during his four-plus decades behind the camera, taking home the statuette three times. He has expanded his canon at the astonishing rate of a movie each year since 1992, and his latest, the remarkable romantic comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona, won an Academy Award nomination for Penélope Cruz. In short, he has earned his place in the fraternity of the finest filmmakers of any era: among them, Fellini, Scorsese and the man Allen once described as “the great cinematic poet of morality,” Ingmar Bergman.

Just don’t expect him to act the part.

In person, Allen is intimidating only if you pause to consider his credentials. He rises to greet you with an impressively firm handshake. Ask him a question and he leans forward in his chair, listening intently before offering a thoughtful, candid response. Asked by a fan to autograph the poster for Vicky Cristina, he signs in the margin, explaining that he’d prefer to leave the prime real estate for his stars.

Allen once expressed surprise at his first encounter with Bergman. He expected a dark, brooding genius, but the reality was far less daunting. “He was a regular guy,” Allen said later. “He commiserated with me about low box-offices grosses and having to put up with studios.”

Allen is no different, especially when pressed to describe the current state of American cinema.

“For years now I’ve had a very dim view of it,” he says. “There was a time in the early ’60s when the American film industry had a little flare-up that was great, but before that the studios were grinding out 500 pictures a year. People point to a golden age of cinema, those few films by John Huston and Orson Welles, but they don’t realize there were thousands of movies back then that were pure junk.

“Now, the studios have realized that if they spend $100 million on a movie they can make $300 million, and that’s all that interests them. I understand that because it’s an industry to them. But I like to watch a movie every Saturday in my screening room, just for fun, and it’s very hard to find an American film worth watching.”

Recent exceptions include Gonzo, Alex Gibney’s documentary about Hunter S. Thompson, and Trumbo, another documentary about one of Hollywood’s famously blacklisted screenwriters. (Allen had no interest in The Dark Knight, for example, observing only that he prefers movies made for adults.) Yet Allen is no indie snob. He simply feels alienated by a studio system that devours its young and pressures veteran filmmakers to compromise their work.

Lately, Allen has preferred to film abroad – in England for Match Point and Scoop, in Spain for Vicky Cristina. He could secure funding from an American studio if he were so inclined, but at what cost? European financiers are willing to bankroll his movies sight unseen, satisfied that their money is in capable hands. (“I’m a pretty good bet,” Allen reasons.) At home, studio heads attempt to impose their will on everything from rewrites to casting decisions. Allen, who dismisses them as “businessmen with zero qualifications,” wants no part of it.

Besides, where casting is concerned, he is hardly wanting for premier talent. For his latest, he recruited Cruz, who impressed Allen with her spirited, Oscar-nominated turn in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver, Javier Bardem, and muse-of-the-moment Scarlett Johansson. Allen admits he can’t afford A-list salaries – his budget allows each top-of-the-marquee star a relatively modest $5,000 per week, no exceptions – so he seeks out actors who are between jobs for his no-frills productions.

It’s an approach that has served him well, with a few notable exceptions.

“Years ago, when I was doing Hannah and Her Sisters, I asked Dustin Hoffman to play the lead,” Allen says. “He wanted to do it, but he came to me and said, ‘Look, I just scored with Tootsie, and after years I’m finally getting some big-money offers. I can’t afford to do it.’ That’s why I wound up with Michael Caine, an Englishman, and I didn’t want an Englishman.

“Some actors won’t work for that money. I wanted Robert DeNiro for Deconstructing Harry. He was willing to work for the minimum but he wanted some kind of back end on the picture, and I can’t do that. So he felt that was unfair to him, and I completely understand that. But usually, if the person likes the script and they’re available, they do it.”

Luckily, Cruz, whose riveting performance in Vicky Cristina as the volatile, self-destructive Maria Elena has once again made her a strong contender for an Academy Award, this time for Best Supporting Actress, did it without hesitation. Though she was intimidated by the character’s raw emotional energy, she credits Allen with giving her the clear, simple direction – “Be brave!” – that inspired her performance. He, in turn, couldn’t be happier with the results.

“I just thought she was amazing,” he says. “Of course I couldn’t wait to get her for my movie. Maria Elena is a force of nature, and that’s what Penélope is. She’s beautiful and amazingly sexy in a way that no other woman in the world is. And she’s a tremendous actress and she conveys it. It’s overwhelming.”   

Although Allen has relished his time abroad and plans to continue filming largely in Europe, his next film, Whatever Works – another romantic comedy featuring a fellow Brooklyn native, Larry David – was filmed mostly in Manhattan. Allen admits the location was chosen to facilitate a quick, close-to-home shoot to avoid a possible actors’ strike. But that doesn’t mean he’s back in a New York state of mind.

“My films have always done very well abroad, and people thought there was some kind of foreign appeal to them,” he says. “Now, through a strange set of circumstances, I find myself a foreign filmmaker.

“If it weren’t for the actors’ strike, I would have waited until the summer to make my next film in Europe. I like working there, I prefer working there. I like the sensibilities, and I love the freedom I’m afforded. I want to make movies in Rome and Paris. I don’t have to go back to New York.”