Skip to Navigation Skip to Content

Woody Allen Struggles with the Agony of Creation and the Perils of Wish Fulfillment with 'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger'

Woody Allen (left) directs Anthony Hopkins on the set of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, now playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.

Perhaps old dogs can’t be taught new tricks, but many veteran directors are learning to adapt in a Hollywood where sequels, remakes and treatments of popular comics are very much in season.
 
This fall, Stephen Frears, 69, will unveil his first take on a graphic novel, the romantic comedy Tamara Drewe, before tentatively laying the groundwork for a remake of his 1984 thriller The Hit. Oliver Stone, 64, has returned to Wall Street. And, at 67, Martin Scorsese is busy directing his first 3-D fantasy – next winter’s Hugo Cabret – and planning a Taxi Driver sequel.
 
Yet Scorsese’s fellow New Yorker Woody Allen, who works outside the Hollywood system by necessity and has produced a movie each year since 1982, is comfortably married to the same routine that has served him well since his 1966 debut, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
 
“I started out as a television writer, for a show that was on live every week,” says Allen, whose new drama, the wryly comical You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, opens today. “You didn’t have the luxury of coming in and waiting to be inspired. You came in and you wrote, because you had to. So I can do that. It’s not always good, but I can get something on the page pretty frequently.
 
“I always write with a yellow pad and a ballpoint pen, on my bed. I go into my room, I take a walk, I take a shower, and eventually I write. Some things come out well, some don’t. When it works, I type it up afterward.”
 
Allen rarely minces words. He describes his approach to screenwriting as “wracked with anxiety” – the exception was 2005’s Match Point, which, he says, fell into place magically – and that Tall Dark Stranger, in which two discontented married couples retreat into increasingly dysfunctional fantasy lives was typically grueling.
 
“You always start off thinking you’re going to make Citizen Kane or The Bicycle Thief, the greatest movie ever made, and by the end you’re just praying that people will sit through it,” he says. “You end up compromising all your lofty ideas. You forget about Citizen Kane and The Grand Illusion, you edit characters out of the story, add narration – you’re in a battle for survival.”

In this battle, Allen, like Shakespeare, contemplates characters whose personal dramas make them seem trivial.

“They’re all running around, hurting each other, making mistakes – it’s chaos. But in the end, after a hundred years, everybody on earth along with them will be gone. And after all the ambitions, aspirations, the plagiarism and adultery, what was once so meaningful won’t mean a thing. It’s all sound and fury, and it means nothing.”

***

On Woody Allen:

Josh Brolin: "The thought of playing any character that's 'normal,' whatever that is, always frightens me. So my suggestion to Woody at the beginning was that [my character] be in a wheelchair. I wrote him a three-page e-mail about why I thought it was necessary, and I think I mentioned a Yugoslavian accent at one point. And he wrote me back an e-mail response that just said 'no.' I laughed a lot – I'm still laughing. That was the beginning of our friendship."

Naomi Watts: "I always wondered why people end up speaking or sounding like Woody in his movies. A lot of that has to do with the fact that you're kind of on edge in the scenes. You stumble through your dialogue, like, 'Uh-oh, I gotta pick up the glass! Now I've gotta go out there and get another drink!' But that's what I love about him. He gives you these brilliant words, but he's not so profoundly tied to them. When you do the scene and you're searching for words, you make them your own."

Anthony Hopkins: "I felt like he trusted me for what I can do. He didn't overdirect me. At the same time, he didn't let me get away with anything. He's very demanding, and he wanted the best out of me – and he was very upbeat when I got it right."

Antonio Banderas: "I asked Woody if he wanted me to read [the script] and he said it was up to me. If I didn't want to read it, I could do my part independently of what the story is all about, and everyone is just playing their parts. Because it was my first time with Woody and it was a different experience than I had ever had before, I decided not to. Normally, especially in America, I have been called to play characters that are bigger than life, heroic characters in epic movies like Zorro and Desperado. I never play just a sweet, normal, well-intentioned person. It's kind of new for me."