Woody Allen Discusses His New Film Midnight in Paris, Hemingway, Magic Tricks and How the Yankees Are 'Specks of Light in an Eternal Void'
Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams, with Woody Allen
The first time Woody Allen saw Paris, he tells me on a recent morning in the velvet-draped screening room of his New York office, the year was 1964 and his first original screenplay, What's New Pussycat?, was being turned into a movie starring Peter Sellers and Peter O'Toole. "Like everybody else, I grew up getting my impressions of Paris from American movies," he says as he sinks into a green roller chair and pulls up a hassock. "So before I ever went to Paris, I was in love with the city, because Hollywood was in love with the city, and whenever you saw Paris it was the city of romance, music, wine, beautiful hotels, Gigi. Then I went there, and the city lived up to its hype. When I saw it, it was so beautiful and so charming and so romantic and so amazing. Of course, everyone who goes to Paris does fall in love with it."
Allen lived in the city for a total of eight months, playing a supporting role in Pussycat and remaining on call for new jokes and rewrites. "On the one hand, I was having a wonderful time, because I was living in this magical city all expenses paid," he remembers. "On the other hand, I hated what was going on with my movie, because I felt they were ruining it." Then, as the shoot drew to a close, two young American designers from the movie's wardrobe department whom Allen had befriended announced that they would be making Paris their new home. "And I said, 'I love it too,' but I was afraid to stay. I thought, gee, I'd love to stay, but I could never leave New York, I have friends in New York, and I just don't have the courage to uproot my life and move here. Now, that is a decision that I've regretted many times."
Allen's love for the city is obvious right from the very first frames of his 41st feature film, Midnight in Paris, which opens with a three-minute, dialogue-free montage of Paris street scenes -- some iconic (the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Élysées), some ordinary -- as the expat jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet's "Si tu vois ma mère" plays on the soundtrack, day slowly giving way to night. "No work of art can compare to a city," notes the film's protagonist a bit later, a successful American screenwriter (wonderfully played by Owen Wilson) who, like Allen, lived in Paris as a younger man and now finds himself there once more, on vacation with his high-strung fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, while trying his hand at his first novel.
When French producers first approached Allen (who has directed five of his last six pictures abroad) about making a film in the City of Lights, he happily agreed. "But I had no idea for Paris at all -- none," he says. "So I asked myself: what do you think of when you think of Paris? Well, romance is what you think of -- at least it's what I think of. I'm not going to do a political thriller in Paris. If I was making a film in Berlin, a different thing comes to mind." Then Allen hit upon the film's title, but still had no story to go with it. "And I'm thinking to myself for months, well, what happens at midnight in Paris? Does someone meet and fall in love? Are two people having an affair? And then one day it came to me that somebody visiting Paris is walking around at night, and it's midnight, at suddenly a car pulls up and he gets in and it takes him on a real adventure."
That adventure, which (spoiler alert!) has been carefully concealed from the Midnight in Paris trailer and other publicity materials, is a journey through time, in which Wilson's character finds himself spirited away to the Lost Generation Paris of the 1920s, rubbing elbows with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, soliciting writerly advice from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and falling in love with the muse (Marion Cotillard) of Picasso and Modigliani. It's a premise that might have seemed incredibly corny, but which in Allen's deft hands becomes something magical, as sublimely enchanting as any Allen film since 1985's The Purple Rose of Cairo, where the hero of an innocuous Hollywood programmer stepped down from the screen and into the life of a Depression-era New Jersey waitress.
"A certain amount of people in the world become obsessed with magic, and as a boy I was one of them," says Allen of his recurring interest in fantasy and the supernatural, which also crops up to varying extents in films like A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Alice and the "Oedipus Wrecks" segment of New York Stories. "I was an amateur magician, and to this day I can do sleight of hand and card tricks and coin tricks. And I always feel that only a magical solution can save us. The human predicament is so tragic and so awful that, short of an act of magic, we're doomed. Many people feel they will be saved by their religion in some way, and that's a version of magic -- some all-powerful magician is going to give them an afterlife or in some other way make life meaningful. But in fact, that doesn't seem to be the case. If they suddenly discovered tomorrow that the universe had been created by a god and there was meaning to it, then everyone would be very cheerful and it would be a big help. You'd notice a lot of smiling faces."