In Whatever Works, written and directed by Woody Allen, Larry David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a misanthrope living in a Manhattan, who meets Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a bubbly young woman from the Deep South who's old enough to be his own daughter. He lets her move in with him and, soon enough, they get married and affect one another's way of attitude toward life. Eventually, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), Melody's mother, shows up as well as her father, John (Ed Begley Jr.), both of whom have problems and yearnings of their own to deal with. Woody Allen has previous written and directed many films, such as as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Scoop, Match Point, Melinda and Melinda, Hollywood Ending, Small Time Crooks, Deconstructing Harry, Mighty Aphrodite and Bullets Over Broadway, Manhattan Murder Mystery, New York Stories, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan and Annie Hall, which gardered an Academy Award for Best Picture. It was a real privilege to interview Woody Allen together with Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson.
Sony Pictures Classics releases Whatever Works on June 19th, 2009 at the Angelika Film Center, City Cinemas 1, 2 & 3 and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What does New York mean to each of you? What are your fondest memories of New York?
ERW: I did what Melody did, and I moved to New York when I turned 18, and I was filming Across the Universe. I was filming on the streets of New York for the first time and singing Beatles songs, and it changed my entire life. I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't made that movie. I spent a year here, and I felt like I knew who I was finally. This city really does something to you. I have a different experience every time I come here and I’m always finding new places. I don't know where we filmed--I want to say Battery Park, but that was a nightmare, it was terrible, but it was still pretty cool. The wax museum was pretty fun. LD: I grew up in Brooklyn, and I lived in Hell's Kitchen from the time I got out of college 'til I moved to L.A. in my early 40’s. I remember very distinctly the smell of urine as I left my front door. I remember having to take my shoe off before I came into my apartment to kill the thousands of roaches that were in my bathtub. I have very fond memories of it.
PC: The first place I lived was the YMCA because at Fordham University they didn't have dorms then. I was at the YMCA on 63rd. I remember on Friday nights there were a lot of nice young boys around, and I thought, “Did they just return from a YMCA camping trip? No...” I have since left the YMCA. I'm a New Yorker now I guess. I love the West Village, I love downtown. I've lived downtown for a long time. I never get tired of walking my dog down the street, ever.
LD: I remember fighting with people every day because I couldn't get change for a dollar to get on the bus. Nobody wants to give me their change.
WA: My memories of New York are unrealistic. The New York that I grew up loving was, ironically enough, the New York of Hollywood movies, where people would live in the penthouses with the white telephones and come home at 5 in the morning with ermine draped over their shoulders. This was the New York that I knew. I grew up in Brooklyn, not that far from Larry. I never knew New York as it really existed. For that you have to speak to Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese. I only knew New York the way it appeared with popping champagne corks and people dressed in tuxedoes and making very witty banter, and the elevators rising into the apartments directly. So that's the New York that I have depicted in my life, and have tried to live in my life. And it's caused me a lot of grief.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Larry, have you worked with director Woody Allen before?
LD: I had two very small parts. One was in Radio Days and the other was in New York Stories.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think Woody Allen could have easily played your role instead of you?
LD: I know that’s a part that normally people would see him play, but I never considered for a second that I would be playing him nor would he want me to play him. It just wasn’t an issue at all. There was only one moment in the movie when I remember having trouble with a line and I asked him, “Come on. How do you want me to do it? Just do it, and I’ll do it like you.”
WA: This is not a part that I could have played even if I was younger. I had originally conceived this many years ago for Zero Mostel. Larry is able to do this kind of sardonic, sarcastic vitriolic humor and get away with it because there’s something obviously built into him that audiences like. Groucho Marx had this. They were never offended by Groucho; they were offended if he didn't insult them, he told me once. If I was to do that, I wouldn't be as graceful at it, and you would think that I was nasty. If I was insulting people and proclaiming my own genius and saying that people were cretins, you would not like me. But certain people can get away with it, and he's one that can. It's not something that I would ever do. When Zero died, I never thought for one minute of doing the part myself. I never thought, “Oh, I've got a script here, and why can't I do it.” I put it in the drawer, and were it not for an imminent possible actor's strike, I never would have taken it out of the drawer even to look at it. Juliette Taylor, my casting director, thought Larry could do it, and I agreed completely. It would be like mother’s milk to him.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you re-write the screenplay at any point for Larry?
WA: I didn’t re-write anything for Larry. When I took the screenplay out of the drawer, I did have to re-write the script because it had been laying there for a long time and was dormant. I had to freshen it up to make it more contemporary, but I never changed it for Larry.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What was the process like to re-write the script?
WA: It took work. The original story, what intrigued me about it originally was that Zero was this big, fat, blustery, self-aggrandizing. Zero in real life he was so cultivated, he knew everything about art and literature and science and music, and he was always sharing this knowledge with you from a justifiably superior position, and I think it was very funny to be around him. I was around him when we made The Front. He was always carrying on and lecturing. I thought it would be very funny that he's living with this dumb little runaway from the South. And then, suddenly, her mother shows up, and she hates everything about him. And then her father show up. That original material all remained the same, but references [and] the existential concerns remained the same. Those will never change anyway. The character was mortally afraid of dying, hypochondriacal and washing his hands.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What kind of changes did you make to the script?
WA: The social and political things, many of them, had to be changed and freshened up. When I wrote this years ago, the political climate was, you know, not vastly different, but the references were different. The existential anxiety remains the same, but the political situation has shifted. Since then, we've been through a number of presidents [and] certainly a catastrophic last eight years. Now we're entering into at least a period of some hope, of some human possibilities for the country. All of this had to be factored in, in writing. Of course, the references are different. The religious right made an enormous march forward since that time. They existed at that point. There were those terrible television ministries that were conning people out of their money. The right became politically powerful, and now we've made progress, and elected our first African-American president. There are a number of things that have to be referenced in this movie. The seeds of them were there, some of them, but they were not vivid at that time.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Evan, what surprised you about working with Woody Allen for the first time?
ERW: I can’t say that I was surprised by anything because I don’t like to have any preconceived notions. I felt a whole new respect for comedians in general. I knew that it would be difficult and a challenge, but it was like running a marathon every day. It was just a whole new territory for me. I’m just glad that he had the faith in me to offer me the part without even seeing an audition.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Woody, what surprised you most about Evan Rachel Wood?
WA: I didn't know she could do a Southern accent. She said to me, “Yes, I can do one,” but she didn't want to do it and show me.” I just assumed, “Look, I’ve seen her in other movies, and she's not going to take the job and make a fool of herself.” The first time I heard the accent she was doing was when we shot her. There was no rehearsal. I never heard it in conversation. She just came and did it. Ed Begley Jr. didn't even know that he was supposed to be doing a Southern accent. We were on the set [with him], and he was surprised. I got panicky for a moment, and he said, “Oh, okay,” and he made some kind of mental adjustment, and he was just great.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Patricia, how were you able to relate to your character?
PC: I was born and raised in New Orleans. I'm a Southern girl through and through. I had a similar trajectory. I was a nice Southern girl, from a more progressive family than Marietta, but I do know that lady well, from being in the South for a long time. I just understood it in ways. At 19, I came to New York to pursue my art, and I arrived with very big hair that wouldn't fit through a door. Slowly it collapsed, and slowly the clothing became black. That's what happened to me, albeit at 19, not middle-aged. But whatever works, you know?
NYC MOVIE GURU: Woody, do you consider Whatever Works to be misanthropic in any way?
WA: I never think of it as misanthropic. I know that sounds funny, because that is the source of the humor. It seemed to me that it's a realistic appraisal of life. Life is quite terrible, as you can see by what goes on. This is fiction, and it can be read as misanthropic. It can be interpreted that way. I don't think it is; I think it's simply realistic. The real world is as horrible, or actually much more horrible, than the world that Boris envisions. He has compassion, and feels bad about this. You can't pick up the paper in the morning without a carload of atrocities. In a sense, the movie's almost mild compared the ugly brutality that's just a part of your morning cornflakes.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you consider Whatever Works to be the end of Jewish humor?
LD: I don't quite agree with that. Obviously comedic styles do change. It still has to be funny, and I guess that's the bottom line. I guess it's a little grosser now, to some degree. You can watch movies now, and I'm a little kind of shocked about what I'm hearing. I suppose that's the biggest change.
WA: First of all, I'm not a big believer in the sense of Jews having a monopoly on comedy. I believe they've made a contribution for sure. Bob Hope was not Jewish, Buster Keaton was not Jewish, W.C. Fields was not Jewish and Jonathan Winters was not Jewish. These people are not Jewish, and they're hilariously funny. So much has been made of this. I never think of it as an ethnic focus. I agree with Larry [David] that it's a question of just being funny. Some people are funny, and some people are not funny. Many people who are not funny can make a living at it. You don't have to be great to make a living at it. Just like a doctor who doesn’t have to be great can still make a living out of it. In the end, to really be wonderful at it, you've got to be funny. In every generation there are a few people who are authentically funny. The cosmetics change. You may not be able to articulate it, and you may laugh at them and get a certain amount of enjoyment. But when you're asleep at night, and you wake up at 3 in the morning, and you're alone in your bed, you know who's really funny. And that's what it is. Some people are and some people aren’t. It has nothing to do with ethnicity.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Why don’t you film more movies in New York?
WA: That's strictly a function of finance. It's very expensive to make movies in New York. I work on a very low budget. I'd like to make more movies in New York, because I live here, and I love it. But surprisingly New York and California, which is the film center of the United States theoretically, is too expensive. I was going to make my next film in New York, and I couldn't afford to. So then I thought, “Maybe I'll make it in San Francisco.” But I couldn't afford to make it in San Francisco either. So, we shifted it to London and made the cast British, just as we'd done for Match Point. I'd written it as an American story, and I Anglicized it, because to make it in New York was a fortune of money. I can afford to do it in London. I would love very much to make more films in New York, because I love the city and I love being here. It's just a question of being able to afford it.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would you be interested in having any of your films turned into a Broadway musical? WA: I myself would have no interest in that whatsoever. Producers call all the time. They want to make Bullets over Broadway into a musical, and Purple Rose of Cairo into a musical. They do propose these things. And I don't care. If they want to, and they make some deal, they can, but I have no interest in it. What would probably happen is that they would get the rights to one of my movies and make it into a musical and it'd be a terrible musical and everyone would be angry at me.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Given that you get out of your actors’ way while directing them, do you feel aloof when one of your actors gets an Oscar?
WA: I don't feel aloof from it. Aloof would mean feeling above it and superior to it. I don't feel that. But I don't feel they're getting this Oscar because I brought something out of them that nobody else could, or that wasn't in them. They basically got the Oscar because they're good. If Penelope Cruz gets an Oscar, or Dianne Wiest, or Diane Keaton, it's because they're great. I do feel a modicum of contribution in that I supplied them with the role that they then spread their wings and show themselves off. They're getting those Oscars because they're who they are. Penelope Cruz was sensational in the [Pedro] Almodovar film before my film. Actually, Michael Caine deserved the Academy Award for Educating Rita, the film before Hanna and Her Sisters. He didn't deserve it, necessarily, for my film. I think they were paying him off.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How has your approach to filmmaking evolved ever since you first wrote the script?
WA: Marginally, I've gotten better. It's true. You only get better marginally, because it's not an exact science. Every time you make a movie---I've now made about 40 movies---every time you make one it's a new and different experience. You learn very little from the past. So, I'm a little bit better than I was when I first started. I was very protective [and] I made a lot of coverage. As I got more confident, I was able to let actors improvise, and do long takes. It's 10%, 5% you learn and experience. The rest you just have or you don't have. I was lucky enough to have enough to tell my story. I'm better than I was when I made Take the Money and Run, but not much better than I was when I made Annie Hal or around that era. I learned very little after that. The only thing that does change, to some degree, is [that] you have some life experiences, you suffer a certain amount and you incorporate that into your work. Not in the content of your work, but in the sensibility of your work. It's nothing that you try and do; it just happens. And if you're lucky, people buy tickets to see it, and if you're not lucky, [then] they don't like it. But that's all. It's been a marginal increase in my technique.