The big-time actor-director on his new movie, Small Time Crooks.
We sat down to talk with The Woodman at the Essex House hotel. The first thing you realize when you launch into a conversation with Allen is that he's not the kind of comedian who is always "on." Sure, he says funny things from time to time, but he doesn't try to make you laugh. Like so many great comedians, he takes humor very seriously. Gazing at us from behind his trademark black glasses, he is at once that sad-eyed urban everyman who has made countless millions laugh themselves silly since the 1960s and the coolly detached genius filmmaker (and playwright) who, you will soon see, has a rather low opinion of himself.
We started by asking the obvious question about the retro nature of Small Time Crooks: We wondered if Allen had made a conscious decision to offer up a comedy that, in the words of the aliens in his Stardust Memories, might be like "one of your early, funny movies." Allen replied, "It was by accident. When I finished Sweet and Lowdown, I went into my room and looked through my ideas, and this was the one that was most formed and most ready to write--so I wrote it. If it had been another Interiors or something like that, then I would have written that. But this was there at the time, so that's what I did."
As all Woody Allen fans know, "Neurotic" is his middle name. Who else would sound almost ashamed about making a movie that's so much fun? "I must say," he told us, "I had a little guilt because I never trust anything that I enjoy too much. It's great that people enjoy it, but this kind of film comes easy to me. If you can picture going to work every day and you're not preoccupied with any overriding seriousness, and you're working with Tracey Ullman and Elaine May--these are funny people, so it's an enjoyable thing. If it's not agonizing, and we're not all sitting around thinking 'This relationship is not deep enough, and this character isn't saying anything about life,' then I start not to trust it. I start to think, 'I should not be having fun doing this. Something is wrong someplace.' "
In Small Time Crooks, Allen plays a crooked version of Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden from the classic TV sitcom The Honeymooners. Kramden always had crazy schemes to make a fortune. So does Allen in this movie, except he insists upon making his money dishonestly. Also reminiscent of The Honeymooners is the relationship between Ray (Allen's character) and his wife, Frenchie (played by Ullman). He's the dreamer and she's the practical one. They fight constantly but, underneath it all, they love each other very much. Allen readily acknowledged his debt to the Gleason show, saying, "I've watched The Honeymooners and thought to myself, 'God, they're so great, they're so funny. There's not a bit of intellectualism about it. It's the best kind of comedy. It would be so great to be able to do something like that one day.' And, with this particular story, I had that opportunity.
"Another influence was [Ernst] Lubitsch," Allen continued, referring to one of the premier directors of sophisticated movie comedies of the 1930s and early '40s. "I loved his comedies above everyone else's in American movies. When I was making this film, I was aware of The Honeymooners and I was aware of Lubitsch as well."
"We were blessed on the film with actor availability," Allen continued. "When Tracey's name came up, Juliet and I figured, 'Yeah, she'd be funny as my wife. She's a great actress, but she has a tricky schedule.' But she was available. The same thing happened when Hugh Grant's name came up: We thought, 'Yeah, we should be so lucky.' I needed a villain who was sharp and smooth and charming and likeable, and also had a sense of humor. I didn't want a real villain; I wanted a guy who had wit. We said, 'Hugh Grant, absolutely. But now we have to get Hugh Grant.' And he was available. I was lucky in the other parts, too. Jon Lovitz was available, and Michael Rapaport--he's one of my favorite actors. And Tony Darrow, who I've used in a number of movies." Theater fans will also be pleased to see Elaine Stritch in a significant supporting role.
Of course, the one person his fans most want to see in any Woody Allen movie is Woody Allen. But he's a tough actor to cast: just ask him. "I have an odd, tiny range," Allen said self-deprecatingly. "There are two things I can play. One thing is a literate person, because I look literate; I have the glasses. And I sound literate. The other thing that I can play is a low-life. I have no range in between. But I can play Broadway Danny Rose, I can play the character in Take the Money and Run, and I can play this kind of character [Ray]. If you were a producer, you could cast me if you needed a cheap agent or a low bookmaker or a petty thief; I could do it for you. Or if you needed a college professor or a shrink, I could do that, too. In the middle, I don't know--you need Dustin Hoffman."
It's considered a badge of honor among actors to be in a Woody Allen movie, so we wondered how often he doesn't get the particular actor who might be his first choice for a role. "It's about a 50/50 breakdown," he said, surprising us. Allen acknowledged that "Actors and actresses want to be in my films, but they have to be between jobs, because we don't pay them anything. People who get $10 or $20 million on another film, we give $50,000 for the whole shoot. They don't get any percentage of the picture. That's it. It's a low paying job, so they have to want to do it."
Lest anyone think he's taking advantage of his actors, Allen was quick to add, "I don't get much money myself. I've not gotten rich doing films. There have been any number of times I've gone over budget and still needed two more weeks of shooting to make the film work, so I gave my entire salary back to the film company." He said that, nearly a dozen times in his life, he has "worked a whole year on a film--wrote it, directed it, edited it--and did it for no money at all."
Though the filmmaker grudgingly accepts that he has a devoted audience, he thinks his influence upon other directors has been virtually nil: "I feel, and I'm not saying this self-denigratingly at all, that I've influenced nobody. When I say nobody, sure, you can find one or two people. But if you look at all the movies that are out, you can see Marty's [Scorsese] influence everywhere. I've seen Altman's influence. I've seen Francis Coppola's influence. But me? I don't see it. Once in a while, someone will come along who says 'He influenced me,' but it's a very rare experience."