Woody Allen, C'est Moi
by Gilles Verdiani Premiere (France),
**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
KB: Yes! Very rarely because
this isnt 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
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
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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