Woody Allen, C'est Moi

by Gilles Verdiani Premiere (France), February 1999
**translated by Renata

The first thing you notice in "Celebrity" is that it is in black and white. The second is that Kenneth Branagh, in the main role, acts like Woody Allen. It's obvious that he observed him a lot.

Premiere: Did you try to imitate Woody Allen or is it impossible to do otherwise?

KB: It's very difficult to do otherwise. Especially in the comic scenes and generally for everything which is not realistic, which needs to be played at a very high "tempo". For example, the scenes with Leonardo Di Caprio have a touch of farce, like Feydeau; if you think about them a bit they don't make any sense, but they carry you along with a manic energy which is supplied to a great extent by my character, his nervousness, his stuttering, his internal tension. And that doesn't work unless you play the scene like Woody Allen.

P: Does this mean he wrote the role for himself?

KB: I think it's the role which he would have given himself in the film had he been younger and if he still liked acting in his own films - which I'm not sure he does. To have someone else play the role is a way of putting a distance between what he writes and what he is, to avoid the overly direct connections which people make between him and his character. What is more, he wanted Celebrity to have a certain melancholy to it, a certain emotion which he does not feel he is able to embody himself because he is automatically associated with comic characters. He has the face and body of a clown and feels trapped in that. Even in comedy scenes, it's difficult for an actor to detach himself from the character of "Allenian neuroticism". It's 25 films by now... and even if he never stops repeating that the character is not him - and that's true - he has become a part of him, of his identity as a film-maker. I felt my mission was to take on the character by simply giving him a different physical appearance.

P: Did you try to be as far away as possible from the original, or as close as possible?

KB: Woody and I asked ourselves whether I should wear glasses like him - like John Cusack did in Bullets Over Broadway. But in that film, his role as an agitated author was undoubtedly the young Woody Allen, whereas mine, the failed novelist-journalist, is farther away. I didn't try to get close to the original, just to play what was written as sincerely as possible. I was, however, influenced by him because I have loved his films since forever. But I told myself that if I ever started to do a bad version of Woody Allen he would stop me.

P: You were able to make him laugh?

KB: Yes! Very rarely because this isn’t someone who laughs openly. You feel like you're with someone who has already heard all the jokes in the world. What is more, when he is on set he is working, and a director who is working doesn't laugh much. Especially Woody Allen, who uses comedy like a form of surgery. It's an extremely serious business, and he takes it extremely seriously.

P: Why did he choose an English actor to play a typically New York character?

KB: He goes to the cinema once or twice a week, he sees everything that comes out, and he saw me acting in roles as an American. He also asked Robert Altman to show him the rushes of The Gingerbread Man to see how my accent was. What is more, I think he has a little bit of Anglophile in him. And then, he chooses his actors for what they bring with them, including their capacity to be ridiculous or pathetic: that's the difference from a "movie star". My character is a loser, but he is also a leading man, the one who attracts attention in the film. Woody told me "we have to believe that he appeals to women, in one way or another, and at the same time, we have to understand why he loses them all". I don't know what that says about me, but the fact is that Woody felt that I would be able to carry that off.

P: What did you learn making this film?

KB: From a professional point of view, I had never worked with someone I admire so much. And then I was very nervous. You know, Woody has a reputation for firing actors he is not satisfied with. In The Purple Rose of Cairo Michael Keaton was supposed to play the main male role. He filmed for two weeks and it ended there. In the end, it was Jeff Daniels who made the film. So my first desire was to survive. I also didn't expect to be doing a job which would reveal things about myself to me. I knew that Woody doesn't particularly like talking with actors about their characters. He's more likely to answer suggestions you make with a yes or a no. Nonetheless, I realised that I wanted him to teach me things, that I wanted to ask him questions. I tried... But I didn't want to seem like some sort of adolescent fan.

P: What did you want to ask him questions about?

KB: I continually wanted to ask him why he filmed the way he did, to what degree he had prepared his work, to what point he adapted to the conditions of a particular day. Sometimes he had done "reconnaisance" to choose the settings in which we filmed, but sometimes he hadn't had the time. In those cases he would demonstrate an incredible sense of improvisation with the camera, like Altman. He often does "master shots" (a sequence filmed from carefully chosen specific vantage point), he doesn't "cover" himself very much. At every opportunity I asked him why he made this or that choice. He was very kind and indulgent with me. When someone is annoying him he has a little secret gesture, he scratches his ear, and one of his assistants brings him a telephone, saying "Mr. Allen, a call for you". He never did that to me.

P: Did you pick up any directing tricks?

KB: Woody never has any actors rehearse and only gave the complete script to Judy Davis and me. I was curious to see how that would turn out because, on the contrary, when I film a scene, I have a rehearsal, share all the information, talk it over with the actors... Woody leaves the actors completely alone. The results are excellent, even though the working conditions are uncomfortable for the actors, who need to be reassured. He feels that it's not his job to reassure them, and that if they are nervous or worried that is something that can be used in the scene to be filmed. Of course you don't see anyone breaking down or starting to cry, but you feel unbalanced all the time. At the same time, I expected to have to do lots of improvisation. In fact he expects a certain degree of naturalness from his actors but it is limited to expressions like "Hey, how's it going? - Yeah, great!" . And then you stick to the script, and at the end of the scene, the same thing, two conventional comments in conclusion. We filmed a scene in a restaurant during which he asked us to improvise while at the same time including a certain number of fixed expressions. That's hard! There are six of you around the table, you haven't rehearsed even once and you have to improvise a restaurant conversation without leaving out the important expressions. That gives you six petrified people! What is more, you are not sure that you'll have the right to a more than one take, to warm up. If he's happy after two takes he moves on to the next part. The actors have to be very alive, very alert and very prepared for this type of exercise in order to make a film with Woody.

P: When did you realise that you would't be fired?

KB: About half way through, I'd say. But it's difficult to tell at which moment I knew because we re-filmed almost half the scenes! And he never told us why. I think he doesn't have any energy to waste in explanations. When you film a masterpiece every year, you can get away with saying "do what I say".

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