By William Wolf


Writer-director Woody Allen seemed very relaxed sitting at a table in the 18th floor Metropolitan Room of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel as he wittily fielded questions from press representatives gathered in connection with his latest film, “Magic in the Moonlight,” being released July 25. (Click on Film section or Search to read review.) Seated with him at the press conference were two of the film’s stars, leading man Colin Firth and Jacki Weaver.

Firth plays a magician in the 1920s who sets out to prove a young woman known as a psychic medium is a fraud. She’s played by Emma Stone, who holds a séance to connect a rich widow, portrayed by Jacki Weaver, with her dead husband.

Allen spoke about his idea of dealing with magic in the film: “Magic has always been of great interest to me. I was an amateur magician when I was young.” He noted that in the 1920s there were a great number of fraudulent spiritualists with a lot of exploiting of the public and fooling of scientists, doctors and others. “But they couldn’t fool magicians like Houdini, for example, who used to debunk them.” That led Allen to the idea for the film, he said.

During the course of the press conference, when asked about why he likes to cast characters who think life is meaningless, he jolted the room with the retort, “I fully believe that life is meaningless,” then launched into an ultra pessimistic explanation that eventually everything will be gone:

“The universe, as you know from the best physicists, is coming apart and eventually there will be nothing, absolutely nothing. All of the great works of Shakespeare and Beethoven, all that will be gone, not for a long time, but gone...Nothing at all. Just zero.”

When finished elaborating on what he saw as the inevitable, with his sense of humor intact in the here and now, he added, “Have a good weekend.”

His solution: “Distraction.”Allen concluded that in the meantime the best we could do was to escape by various distractions. He cited two different types of directors, those who attempt to address important issues, and another category, in which he placed himself, of those who just try to distract.

(I would argue with him here to some extent, recalling major moral issues he addressed in such disparate films as “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and the recent “Blue Jasmine.”)

In answer to another question, Allen revealed his making movies as a form of escapism for himself. “I have been escaping my whole life. Since I was a child I escaped into the movies on the other side as an audience member. I escaped by sitting in the movies all day long. And then when I got older I escaped into the world of unreality by making movies.”

Noting that he continues to escape each day, he said, “When I get up in the morning I go and I work with beautiful women and charming men, and funny comedians and dramatic artists, and I’m presented with costumes and great music to choose from, and I travel a certain number of places every year. So for my whole life I have been living in a bubble.”

He added: “Hopefully, I can continue to make films and constantly escape into them.”

With respect to the making of “Magic in the Moonlight,” Allen said the hardest part was to find the right talent. For the male lead, he said “You need someone with enormous elegance. Colin was the first person we talked of.” He was to begin another project, but when that was postponed he became available. (Multi-award winner Firth received an Oscar for his performance as King George VI in “The King’s Speech.”)

Allen also expressed his pleasure at being able to get noted Australian actress Weaver, whom he wanted as soon as he met with her. She came to the film after a wide background on stage, television and films, including a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for “Silver Linings Playbook.” On her part, regarding work in film in comparison with work on stage, she quipped that she now finds film easier, “having to memorize three lines of dialogue at a time.”

Weaver was especially amusing when she said, “I feel I have known Woody Allen for 40 years, because I used to plagiarize his standup.”

With regard to casting the role of Emma Stone, whose film work Allen had not yet seen, Allen said that when he did catch her in a movie he was impressed and asked his casting director Juliet Taylor about her. He then gave Stone the starring role of Sophie opposite Firth. “I was thrilled working with her,” Allen said.

Firth, in a tribute to Allen, said in discussing his role, “When the dialogue is good, so much of the work is done for you.” He described his part in the film of “being the smartest guy in the room” as “a set-up for a fall." Although Stanley, the character he plays, believes there is no such thing as a a real psychic like Emma, he soon has doubts. While Firth was earthy and intimate in his comments, he still impressively projected the “elegance” mentioned by Allen.

The film deals with the issue of whether there is something more in life than reality, as expressed in the budding romantic relationship between Stanley and Sophie. As Allen put it about the character of Stanley, “He wants nothing more than to find out that he is wrong,” but the trouble is that “what he sees is what he gets.”

Among other elements emerging at the conference was Allen’s harking back to why he began to direct films. He said that at first it was only to “to protect my jokes,” as when he made “Take the Money and Run” and “Bananas.” As he went along, he said, he began to expand his viewpoint.

All the movies he has directed since, of course, add up to a career of greatness, and his “Magic in the Moonlight” demonstrates that he is still going strong.


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