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by Paul Fischer
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Home    Review Archives    Posters    Interview Archives    History of Cranky

Woody Allen: If It's Funny, I do it.

Woody Allen. That face and the mind inside that head have been making people laugh for more than 40 years. His private life . . . well, that's another story, and one we're not about to trudge through here. Allen, when he sat down with about a dozen of us press types to talk about Small Time Crooks, got the biggest laugh when he inadvertently cracked "I'm not a Hypochondriac! I'm an Alarmist!" to a comment about an oncoming cold.

Allen regularly turns out one film a year, usually serious characters and situations with strong comic undercurrents. Small Time Crooks is the closest thing to the slapstick flicks like Take the Money and Run that marked the early days of his career, though there's only one purely visual gag in the movie. In addition to starring Tracy Ullman and Hugh Grant, STC also features his first teaming with Elaine May, a nightclub superstar, when Allen first started doing standup and comic legend, in her own right. We'll cover this connection, and the ins and outs of his writing style in this StarTalk (use your recollections of Allen's speech patterns to make this read well. He really does speak that way . . .)

CrankyCritic: People are calling this movie a throwback to your slapstick roots. What do you say to that?
Woody Allen: Well, you know, I'm a comedian. I make comic films and there are certain ideas that occur to me that are comic, with heavy, serious undertones. There are some ideas that are more frivolous to me. This idea occurred to me and I did it. Y'know, it's just the role of the dice. The next idea that could occur to me could be comedy about death and famine or something.
CrankyCritic: But you haven't done slapstick like the water main scene in years.
Woody Allen: That's just chance.

CrankyCritic: We've always heard that you disparaged the idea; that you knew you could make people laugh, you just wanted to do something a little more serious.
Woody Allen: Right.
CrankyCritic: Did you have to get over some kind of inhibition to go back to these roots?
Woody Allen: (tentatively) Yes. When I'm making a film like that I do have to think to myself "look there's room for all kinds of films. Don't get down on yourself because you want to make a dessert [instead of] a full meal. There's nothing wrong with it" Sometimes I feel, when I'm making that kind of a film, that I'm indulging myself and I'm making a film for pure enjoyment and pure fun and that I should be trying to focus what I can do on something more meaningful. And then I say "But that's crazy. I don't just make one movie. This is an idea that I had and why should I throw it in a drawer and never let it see the light of day?" If I had an idea for a musical, I did it. If I had an idea for a very serious film, I'd do that, too, and let the audience decide which ones they enjoy and which ones they hate, and come or don't come. I didn't censor myself and say I shouldn't do this. Truth is, probably, if an idea occurred to me tomorrow that was, I thought, a funny idea, I'd do it again.

CrankyCritic: So where do the ideas come from. In the bathtub? Do you lock yourself in a room?
Woody Allen: Both. During the course of the year a number of ideas just come up automatically. I could be walking down the street. Or shaving. An idea will hit me and I'll write it down. Then, when I'm ready to write, I check my little matchbooks and napkins and find that it is good or it's pretty terrible. There are other times when I don't have any ideas and I'll go into a room and close the door and I sit and sweat it out for a day or a month and eventually I come up with [something].

CrankyCritic: Is there one film that comes to mind, where you had to do that?
Woody Allen: Purple Rose of Cairo
[and the entire room goes "Oh??"]
Woody Allen: Purple Rose was a film that I just locked myself in a room. The truth of the matter is, I tried to write that . . . that the guy steps off the screen, and I wrote it and halfway through it didn't go anywhere and I put it aside. I didn't know what to do. I toyed around with other ideas. Only when the idea hit me, a long time later, that the real actor comes to town and she has to choose between the [screen] actor and the real actor and she chooses the real actor and he dumps her, that was the time it became a real movie. Before that it wasn't. But the whole thing was manufactured.

CrankyCritic: Tell us about the manufacturing of Small Time Crooks.
Woody Allen: I don't know if it was from a news story, that people were trying to break in to a jewelry store, or a bank or something, from next door. And it occurred to me, the premise of the story, that they take over the store and what if the store took off? And my original idea was that the crooks wanted to back off because the store was doing really well and some of the gangsters wanted to continue with the plan, but that didn't develop out very productively. Then it occurred to me "What if they hit it big and they franchise out and make a fortune and these two lowlifes find themselves suddenly rich?" I was always a big fan of (Ernst) Lubitch's and felt that I could see his influence in this kind of plot. Before I shot the film I was slightly intimidated because I was working with two comic geniuses, Tracey Ullman and Elaine May. You can't get better than that in terms of comedians. It would have been a hard part to cast if Tracey were not around. It's hard to get someone who can do the jokes and be believable as my wife and play the low life and be likable. There's a lot of requirements for that. When you think around for a while there are actresses who can do certain aspects of it but hard to find it all in one person. Tracey may be the only person...
CrankyCritic: But you didn't write with her in mind
Woody Allen: No. I wrote it and [casting director Juliet Taylor] and I were thinking who could play it, from traditional people. Tracey's name came up and we both figured "yeah! if she's available."

CrankyCritic: Let's talk about Elaine May
Woody Allen: As I was writing I started to think of her and so I named the character May in the movie because I thought of Elaine doing it. Not when I first started. I got halfway through the character I was thinking "oh it would be sensational for this, if she would ever do it, would be Elaine. I've known Elaine for many years and it's always been whether you could get her, what she's up to or what mood she's in

CrankyCritic: She's also a bit of an older love interest for you
Woody Allen: Elaine?
CrankyCritic: In most of your movies, the woman that you're going with is Julia Roberts or Mariel Hemingway. Someone younger. Now you're with a woman who's your own age
Woody Allen: Right. This is purely coincidence. I cast her because she was funny and it happened to be that. If I made a movie tomorrow where I needed a love interest or a wife, I would cast the best person in the role for it. If that person was Diane Keaton, it would be Diane Keaton. If it was Julia Roberts, it would be Julia Roberts. It's a function of casting. I wasn't thinking of that. I was thinking of getting those laughs. What I want here is a funny movie and nobody in the world could ever play that part like Elaine May and so that was her. If it had been Drew Barrymore, then it would have been Drew Barrymore [laughter] It's just the role of the dice.

CrankyCritic: Her character was always the half-wit?
Woody Allen: She plays that character brilliantly. I've seen her do it for 35 years, that kind of a character. As I was writing I thought 'My God Elaine May would be sensational to do this!'
CrankyCritic: What did she say when you called her up to do this?
Woody Allen: She said 'Let me read it...' [laughter]
CrankyCritic: Did she want the whole script or just her sides?
Woody Allen: No one ever wants the whole script. I sent the whole script to Tracey and I give the whole script to people who require the whole script but to those people who don't require the whole script I don't give it to them and no one cares. They're relieved not to have to read extra pages that they're not in [laughter]

CrankyCritic: Are you going to do more recordings with your jazz band? [question from David Jenkins, thanks!]
Woody Allen: Well, we did record with them once and we've been asked to record again and eventually will. I have no immediate plans to, but people ask us to record. I don't know why they ask us to record because I can't see that that thing can in any way can be profitable. All these obscure New Orleans tunes played at best mediocre-ly [laughter]. We had two albums out and, I guess, for the price that we were paid it was profitable.

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