CANNES, FRANCE — You can take Woody Allen out of Manhattan but can you take Manhattan out of Woody Allen?
The reclusive director-writer-star has been prominent on the wide screen for the past 30 years. In person he's played hard to get, though, especially if traveling outside New York City is involved.
He surprised the world by appearing on the recent Academy Award show from Los Angeles, and this month after years of saying no he showed up at the Cannes film festival. After walking up the red carpet to the European première of "Hollywood Ending," his latest comedy, he stayed a couple of days to do media appearances and schmooze with journalists.
What's going on? Not a permanent vacation from his reclusive ways, says Allen, who seems as surprised as everyone else.
"It's just a coincidence that both events fell in the same year," he told a press gathering here. "It looks like I've had some kind of religious conversion I'm suddenly out of the house! but I'm not. I'll be back in the house in a few hours, and you won't have to put up with me anymore."
Everyone here in Cannes has been happy to put up with him. And no wonder, given Allen's huge output of movies over the past three decades. He's made a new one almost every year, becoming one of the most prolific directors in modern cinema.
How does such a distinctive filmmaker manage to thrive in a movie world driven by moneymaking formulas? One answer is efficiency. He makes his films on relatively low budgets and surrounds himself with a team that disdains Hollywood's elephantine procedures just as he does.
"The day I take a finished script out of the typewriter," he says over lunch after his press conference, "I make one phone call. The next day, we're in production on the picture."
Another secret to his success is simple "good fortune," he says with a smile, wringing his hands in a characteristic Woody gesture while ignoring the tempting lunch on his plate. "From my earliest pictures on, people seem to think I know what I'm doing, and they let me do things any way I want. I can't explain it!"
Allen chose an interesting year for his first Cannes visit. He's a proudly Jewish filmmaker, and shortly before the festival a group called the American Jewish Congress asked attendees to speak out against an alleged resurgence of anti-Semitism in France.
Allen disagrees with this charge, and he speaks pointedly about the recent French election, in which right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen scored surprisingly high during the first round of voting, then lost in a runoff. "One can be very proud of the way [the French people] responded," Allen says.
"The country came out in a clear-cut public statement on how they felt about issues like the extreme right and totalitarianism and intolerance and discrimination. People who hadn't voted in years felt it was important to show that France is a democracy that has no patience with the terrible ideas of the extreme right."
That pleased Cannes mightily. So did "Hollywood Ending," partly because its satirical plot about a blind director making a big-budget film ends with French critics praising his picture after US reviewers drub it.
Festival audiences also liked its implicit critique of Hollywood's studio system, based on an obsession with commercialism, to which, ironically, the fictional filmmaker's blindness makes him immune. Allen says moviemaking should be an intuitive process that "proceeds from the unconscious."
His belief that a film should grow from the creativity of its makers not the calculations of a business office explains why he's never been a full participant in the studio system, despite the power it wields in today's world.
This doesn't mean Allen's intuitive methods always work as well as he'd like. Only rarely does a movie come out on screen the way it originally played in his imagination, he admits.
"The Purple Rose of Cairo," his 1985 fantasy about a Depression-era film buff who falls in love with a movie character, is an exception. It's one of the few he's truly pleased with but even there the going was tough, especially when he felt compelled to replace Michael Keaton with Jeff Daniels since Keaton seemed "too contemporary" for a 1930s story.
Finding the right performer for a part is often difficult, he adds, revealing that he starred in "Deconstructing Harry," his 1997 comedy, "by default" after seven others actors proved unavailable, unsuitable, or both.
But problems and all, Allen would rather work on his own than bow down to Hollywood, and he doesn't mince words about this. "Hollywood films are calculated in venality from the start," he says. "The idea behind the films is to make as much money as possible.
"They're happy when the film comes out good, but they'd be happier making a bad film that made a lot of money than a good film that made less money. That's why you get all those Hollywood films that are uninspired. Everybody was trying to figure out the formula to make the most amount of money with the least amount of risk!"