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Rediscovering Woody

His wistful new comedy, Midnight in Paris, is a riff on the pleasures and perils of nostalgia — and one of his best movies in years. In a warm, surprising interview, Woody Allen talks about his image, what he thinks of his own classics, and his lifelong struggle to live in the moment

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People always wonder where great artists get their ideas. For Woody Allen, it’s the middle drawer of his bedroom dresser. For years it was a rumpled brown grocery bag in the back of his closet. But now this unassuming drawer is where he stores decades of stray jokes scribbled on the backs of matchbooks and half-formed movie premises written on scraps of yellowing hotel stationery. ”There’s a lot of funny stuff in there,” says Allen. ”When I finish a picture, I empty the drawer onto my bed. Some of the ideas are tantalizing and I know there’s something there, but I just can’t crack them. And there are some where I go, ‘What was I thinking?’ Most are just great beginnings that don’t go anywhere.”

Allen picked out a winner for his latest film, Midnight in Paris. In the comedy (out May 20; rated PG-13), Owen Wilson plays a Hollywood screenwriter who, while on vacation with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams), is magically transported back to an era he’s always romanticized: 1920s Paris, when literary heavyweights like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald tipped elbows and traded bons mots by the Seine with artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. It takes Wilson’s character a while to understand this, but as glamorous as that past golden age is, it prevents him from living in the present. Midnight feels a bit like a hilariously surreal companion to Allen’s 1985 classic The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s also one of his best movies in years.

Allen is 75 now. But in person he looks pretty much like he did when he was 65 or 55 — or 45, for that matter. He still talks in that familiarly anxious New Yorkese, whether it’s to discuss movies (preferably not his), jazz (the older the better), or the meaninglessness of life (still better than death, for the record). He wears the same thick horn-rimmed glasses he’s worn since the ’50s and the same threadbare corduroys that always look one laundry cycle away from Goodwill. If Allen lives according to any philosophy, it’s that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The same holds true behind the camera. At an age when most legendary directors slow down, Allen still relentlessly cranks out a film a year because that’s what he’s always done. And while the actors may change from picture to picture, nearly every movie is guaranteed to open in the same signature way — with old-timey music playing over white-on-black credits written in the same Windsor Light Condensed font. Why not? It ain’t broke.

Lately, though, Allen says he’s more tempted than ever to break with the past and move into the 21st century. Sure, he still writes on the same Olympia portable typewriter he bought for $40 when he was 16. But he recently purchased an iPhone (though he mostly uses it to listen to old records). In fact, his new mantra might be: It’s nice to take a stroll down memory lane, but you don’t want to buy a house there.

”Nostalgia is an unhealthy trap that’s very seductive,” says Allen. ”The problem is, life is a very cruel, tragic, and unsatisfying experience and you always think that another time in the past would have been ideal for you. For example, if I think back to belle-epoque Paris, it’s like Gigi, with beautiful costumes and carriages and great wine. The reality is there was no novocaine when you went to the dentist.”

Sitting in a plush velvet chair in the dimly lit screening room of his Manhattan production office, Allen comes across like a character in a Woody Allen movie — one of the ”early, funny” ones. He’s self-deprecating, endearingly tense, and lethal with a one-liner. Two weeks before Midnight’s Cannes premiere, he says the idea of making a film about nostalgia — and what a double-edged sword it can be — first came to him when financiers approached him about shooting a film set in Paris. With that backdrop, Allen began thinking back to his first trip to the City of Light in 1964.

Back then, Allen was a hot young nightclub comic trying to break into the movie business. He’d been asked to write the screenplay for a film called What’s New Pussycat? — a lavishly budgeted comedy set in Paris. ”I had a miserable experience,” he says. ”It was a big studio picture and they ruined my script completely, and I vowed I would never make another film unless I could be the director.” But, he adds, ”when I first saw Paris, it lived up to the hype. These two young American girls in the costume department decided to stay after the movie was over. I thought about it, but I didn’t have the courage. I’ve regretted that decision many times.”

It goes without saying that Allen is a New Yorker. Some of the best scenes from his films play on the fact that he’s not comfortable anywhere else…even if he’s not all that comfortable there, either. But starting with 2005’s Match Point, Allen began shooting most of his films in Europe, far away from his Upper East Side comfort zone (his next film, with Penélope Cruz, will be shot in Rome). It’s been a major shake-up for a guy who’s always been twitchy about change. But, he says, the choice wasn’t completely his. Allen’s films have never made the kind of profits that the big studios are interested in. By their math, he’s a losing proposition. As a result, he’s had to look beyond Hollywood to get his projects bankrolled.

When he started writing Midnight, Allen conceived the main character as his typical East Coast neurotic intellectual. His longtime casting director, Juliet Taylor, suggested Owen Wilson for the part. He couldn’t picture it: ”I thought of Owen as a beach boy. I imagine him walking around with a surfboard.” Although Allen doesn’t see many new films — the only TV he watches besides sports and Charlie Rose is Turner Classic Movies, because he still finds the Marx Brothers hilarious — he did, by chance, wander into Wedding Crashers a while back. ”I went in thinking I’ll never laugh, but I did! I’d never seen Owen or Rachel McAdams before. I thought she was so beautiful and talented and I thought he was very funny. He can do comedy and make it feel like a real conversation.” Wilson, for his part, says he didn’t even have to think about it. ”There’s not a lot of people you can work with who are icons,” says Wilson. ”Actors jump at the chance to do his movies not because they’re getting a big payday, but it’s a chance to be in something good and the chance to work with Woody Allen.”

Like Wilson’s character, Allen admits he’s always been guilty of romanticizing the past. ”It’s comforting like a soft lotion,” he says. But the past has nagged him, too. He’s all too aware of the fact that his fans would be happy if he just kept remaking Annie Hall and Manhattan. And there are also the tabloid headlines from the early ’90s that detailed his affair with his current wife, Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his longtime companion Mia Farrow. But Allen refuses to pay attention to any of this. ”I give no credence to anything anyone says about anything,” he says, growing briefly irritated. ”Whether it’s about me or my films. People spend their lives talking and they have no idea about anything. Certainly not my movies. They wouldn’t know a good movie from a bad movie. It goes in one ear and out the other. I have no interest because they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Then again, Allen may not be his best critic either. He famously never watches his own films after they’re finished — and doesn’t think they’re that great anyway: ”Most of them have ranged from acceptable to not so acceptable. And there have been a small amount that are better than that.” Actually, there have been more than a few that belong on anyone’s list of the best American films ever made. In any case, Allen says he particularly likes The Purple Rose of Cairo and Match Point but considers Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters overrated. He also seems convinced that Midnight belongs squarely in the good camp, even though he has no clue how it will do commercially: ”Honestly, I’ll finish a movie like Hollywood Ending and think, ‘This is the one!’ And then no one shows up. I wouldn’t bet the farm on my instinct.”

After more than an hour of talking about the past and modestly trying to deflate his legacy, Allen gets up from his seat and begins to give a tour of his editing suite. The windowless room where he’s cut every film since 1979’s Manhattan is crammed with hulking old machines. In the corner is a new, fresh-out-of-the-box video-editing setup. He doesn’t really know how it works, but he’s slowly coming around to it. ”I find these kinds of transitions very hard,” he says. ”I still don’t own a CD player or a computer. But this machine is like magic.”

Does Allen think that some filmmaker in the future will make a movie that’s nostalgic for the New York he’s lived in? He laughs. ”Of course! A hundred years from now they’ll think, ‘Ah, there was Elaine’s with all of these writers and Scorsese was making movies.’ They’ll think of me as some nerd with glasses who was reclusive and hated the country. They’ll think it was great.”

Sounds like a promising idea for Woody Allen’s dresser drawer.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE WOODY ALLEN MOVIE?

”STARDUST MEMORIES – I don’t know why. I thought it was really lovely and it stayed with me for a really long time. The performances were wonderful. That opening scene with Sharon Stone on the train and Woody’s stuck on the other train? I don’t know, I just loved it and I’ve seen it over and over again.”
— RACHEL MCADAMS

”HANNAH AND HER SISTERS – Wes Anderson and I used to talk about the movie a lot. The Daniel Stern character seemed so funny as the rock & roll guy going to Max Von Sydow’s loft to look at art and he’s talking about how he wants a painting to go with his ottoman. And Michael Caine was so funny and Barbara Hershey was really beautiful. It’s not such a surprising choice — I think it’s probably recognized as one of his classics.”
— OWEN WILSON