Deconstructing Woody
The Director Considers Life, Art and Celebrity
By Iain Blair - Film and Video

Over the course of four decades and some 26 films Woody Allen has pursued his unique cinematic vision without any regard to being seen as hip or cutting edge, but "Celebrity," his latest and 27th film, may reverse that trend. The film is a multilayered story of individuals who either are or want to be famous and how their quests affect the lives as well as the lives of those around them.

Starring Kenneth Branagh as Allen's alter ego, a celebrity journalist and struggling writer who pursues a superstar actor played by Leonardo DiCaprio with an eye to getting him to star in his screenplay, the film examines the phenomenon of fame with the director/writer's trademark mixture of comedy and melancholy. In addition to co-stars Judy Davis, Bebe Neuwirth, Famke Janssen, Joe Mantegna and Charlize Theron, "Celebrity" is also packed with actors and celebrities playing fictitious actors and celebrities. Here, Allen discusses his working methods, how he deals with actors and the subject of celebrity.

IB: What motivated you to focus on the theme of celebrity while writing this film?

WA: It has always seemed to me that the culture we live in celebrates the oddest people. Whether it's a member of the clergy or a plastic surgeon or the prostitute as played by Bebe Neuwirth, someone rises to the status of celebrity in their area and becomes the specialist doctor you must go to or the priest you see on TV or the famous actor as played by Leonardo. All this seems interesting and amusing to me--all the attention we've given to people like Joey Buttafucco, who now has his own TV show.

The importance placed on celebrity is an amazing thing in our culture, and it says something about our society--although I'm not sure what as I'm not sharp enough to discern it. You need someone like Norman Mailer to combine all the social insights into one meaningful insight. What I do know is that there's this odd, mixed feeling toward celebrity. There's enormous reverence toward celebrities, enormous drawbacks and enormous perks to being a celebrity, and the oddest people get catapulted into celebrity.

IB: Did you use Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" as a model for this film?

WA: No, but I love that film. It's a great movie. No, the impetus for "Celebrity" was that I was trying to think of the emotional story of two people who divorce and go their separate ways, and one lucks out and one doesn't. And I wanted to tell the story with an emphasis on celebrity.

IB: Whose idea was it for Ken Branagh to take on your screen persona in this film?

WA: It was all his idea. I had no idea how he was going to play it. I picked him because he's a great favorite of mine--he's a great actor and a really serious filmmaker--and I felt very lucky to get him, but his performance was up to him. It's probably something that kept him interested in the project while he did it. He read the material and chose to interpret it in that way. The only direction I gave was when I wrote him a note saying, "When I was your age, I wouldn't have cast myself in the role," because it needed a more attractive person than I ever played or was. It needed an appealing young man who would have no problem with women like Charlize or Famke. The fact that he then chose to play it the way he did, well, I certainly wouldn't stand in the way of his interpretation.

IB: Did you write the role with Branagh in mind?

WA: No, As I wrote it I was thinking of Alec Baldwin, but when I finished, he wasn't available. So I though, who do I know who can play comedy and play real and has some style? Someone suggested Kenneth [we'd love to know who--Ed.] and I thought, can he do an American accent well enough? He sent me a clip from the Altman film "The Gingerbread Man," and he did it perfectly, so I hired him. I really always wanted a good looking guy for it--I wasn't thinking of myself.

IB: How do you guide your actors when there's no rehearsal process and many of them see only the script pages with their particular scenes?

WA: The long-running characters like Kenneth and Joe Mantegna and Judy Davis get the whole scrip, but people who pop in like Leonardo or Winona don't need it. Often they arrive on the set or location and start to do the scene, as you say, without any rehearsal. Very often, they're right on the money. They do it great and I just sit there and take credit later. Sometimes I have to give them a little direction, like "Be more flippant," or "Be more humble," but they don't need much. They need correction more than direction. You want to hire people like that, then get out of their way and let them do the thing that makes them great. You don't want to put them in a straightjacket and force them to do just what you want all the time. You want their performance.

IB: Why have you always been so secretive with your scripts?

I don't hand them out to every actor because they don't need the whole script. They're not unhappy. They never call up and demand the whole script. My theory is that they're thankful not to have to read 120 pages for their 18 pages. I always feel the less people know about the project I'm doing the better, because you want people to come to it fresh and be surprised. You don't want a lot of reporters on the set and people giving interviews about the film prior to its opening. If it's going to be good, let the audience tell me, and if it's not, I know they'll tell me.

IB: What has motivated your decision over the years to shoot some of your films, like "Stardust Memories," "Shadows and Fog," "Zelig," and "Celebrity" in black and white?

WA: Why not? It's pretty, and so many of the films I like are in black and white. it's something you have in your arsenal of options, and every once in a while I like to make a black-and-white film--particularly if the film takes place in New York City because the city photographs so well in black and white. And New York is so familiar to me in black and white, probably because of growing up with the tabloids. The Daily News and Mirror, where you'd see the city in black and white every day.

IB: Is it any easier to shoot in black and white?

WA: No. In fact, it's much more difficult because the labs are not geared up for it, so it's a big pain in the neck. Invariably I regret it when I'm deep into it and I say I'll never do it again. And I don't do it for four or five films, and then I do it again.

IB: Is it true that you're just as meticulous about costumes and colors when you're shooting black and white as when you shoot color?

WA: When you're shooting, you're seeing it in color, and it makes me nervous if it looks jarring or vulgar. Secondly, the gray scale is very important in black and white, so it takes a lot of attention, more for the costume department than me. I'm in it more if I catch something wrong. They're more obsessed with it than I am.

IB: All your actors say that you shoot very little coverage. Did you find that you had to re-shoot scenes?

WA: Well, I did re-shoot scenes. I do two kinds of re-shoots. I do some when the film's over and I look at it and suddenly find a boring scene or character that doesn't work. Then you can either release the film flawed or try and fix it. There was almost nothing like that on "Celebrity." But within the film, when I come home at night and see dailies and I don't get the scene, or I've ruined it in some way, then I go back the next day and re-shoot. I don't count those as re-shoots because I never got it right in the first place.

IB: The tone of this film seems very dark and cynical. Was that your intention as you were writing it?

WA: Someone once described me as a comedian with a melancholy streak, and that may be. I don't know because I don't do it on purpose. After I finish one project, I sit in a room and I think of a story to make, and one eventually comes out. As I stand back and look at my films, a number of them have a melancholy quality to them, and I think that's just in me, the same way as my feeling for New York is in me. It just comes out.

Return to top of the this page

For a review of Celebrity, go here.

For an interview with Kenneth Branagh about working with Woody Allen, go here.

The Good Bits




What's Up: STAGE

What's Up: BOOKS

What's Up: MUSIC

What's Up: FILM

Fictional Characters

What's Up:

Today's Special

Sure We
Thank You