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ALLEN, WOODY: Sweet and Lowdown

"The only thing standing between me and greatness is me," WOODY ALLEN tells Jenny Cooney Carrillo in this interview about his latest film, Sweet and Lowdown, about Emmett Ray, who, like so many people in life, is capable of such great beauty but is so insensitive and self-involved.

For the first time in his long, impressive career, Woody Allen seems to have taken all his loves and put them together. The 64-year-old writer, actor and director has now come up with Sweet and Lowdown, a comedy posing as a retrospective documentary on the colorful life of a fictitious jazz guitarist (Sean Penn) and his fixation with real-life guitar great Django Reinhardt. Allen, a New York native who shares his Manhattan apartment with young wife and former step-daughter Soon-Yi and their recently-adopted child, has been an avid jazz fan and musician since he was a teenager. He still plays saxophone with a jazz group weekly at the Carlton Hotel in Manhattan and occasionally tours the world as a musician. So itís understandable that the slightly eccentric but always interesting Allen would finally come up with a way to marry his love of music and film.

Were you excited about the musical aspect of this film?
Yes. The most pleasurable part of the movie, and is with any movie for me is at the end when I get to add the music. I always make my films and then cut them and when theyíre done, I go into my room with all my own records - I still have all my old long-playing records - and I pick out the music and drop it into spots and if something doesnít work, I take it out and try another one. Because this movie was about music, it was an even greater pleasure to use my favorite records throughout the movie, and it livened up the whole procedure.

Although Sean Pennís character is fictitious, he idolises the very real jazz great Django Reinhardt. Why him?
When I was about 15, I became interested in jazz from hearing a recording by Sidney Bechet from Paris on the radio, a half-hour concert, and gradually my interest widened to include a great many musicians from the New Orleans area that inevitably led to Django Reinhardt, because he was one of the greatest American jazz musicians at that time. It was an astonishing experience for me as it had been for millions of people. I probably own just about everything he ever recorded, along with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet and those three would be the most dominant jazz soloists of my lifetime in that era of music.

Why did you decide to shoot the movie in fake documentary style?
I knew the structure would have to take place over a reasonable period of time and as is true about Django and most other musicians, there is always a lot of conflicting and vague anecdotal material one learns about them. You hear from one person they drop out of sight for a year and then somebody else tells a story about them emerging in Texas and them someone else contradicts the other two stories. So thatís typical about the lives of a great many musicians and I thought it seemed like a natural way to tell the story; just people recounting incidents, some of which conflicted with others.

Why did you choose to make the female lead (Oscar-nominated Samantha Morton) mute?
I wanted her mute because I wanted Sean Pennís character to be able to talk the whole time so we could see him brag and be self-involved and insensitive. He can create great beauty but be a completely insensitive person and that is interesting to me because so many people in life are capable of such great beauty but are so insensitive and self-involved at the same time. The only direction that I gave Samantha when I hired her was that I wanted her to play it like Harpo Marx. Sheís so young and had never heard of Harpo, so I told her to check out some Marx Brothers movies and then she got it perfectly.

Now that you are happily married, does this influence the type of movies you make?
Not really. I think itís much more glamorous and much less controlled than people think. I did Sweet and Lowdown because I had an idea for a story about a fictitious jazz musician. Then I was sitting in a room and came up with a funny story about a bank robbery and that is my next film, Small Time Crooks. There are no real preconceived attitudes that affect the movies I make but yes, Iíve been very, very happy over the last eight years of my life. I have a great wife, a child and things have gone well for me but I think the fact that my next film is a broader comedy is really accidental. Itís not as if Iíve been sitting at home thinking how I could reflect that happiness in a movie. If I had thought of Death of a Salesman, I would have done that too.

Do you remember the first film experience you ever had?
I was a cabaret comedian and I was hired to write a movie for Peter OíToole, Whatís New Pussycat? I wrote it and didnít direct it and wasnít very happy with it. I thought they made a big mess of it and it was very embarrassing to me even though it was a successful film. I swore Iíd never work in films again unless I could be the director and then a few years later they let me direct and gave me a million dollars to make Take the Money and Run, which I never had any insecurity about at all. I was so ignorant and naive I didnít think I could possibly make a mistake and I sailed through it without any real problems. If I knew then what I know now, I would have been shaking like a leaf but at the time I wasnít smart enough to know how much can go wrong when you make a film.

How do you feel about getting older?
My birthdays have always been depressing because on the last one, I turned 64 but it felt like just yesterday I was 16 and writing for my first television show and people were saying, Ďyouíve got to see this kid!í I always think of myself that way but itís not so. Next year Iíll qualify for Social Security (old age pension) and a half-price pass at the moviesÖ.

What do you think of the new technology being used in movies today?
I think it permits creative people to do some very interesting things. The thing that people have to realise is that all this new technology is just a tool and if it can be used as a tool, great. But what happens is that the technology is very often used as an end in itself, a parade of demonstration of new techniques by not so gifted people who canít make interesting movies without technology. If it is used to tell a great story and incite emotions or make people laugh, thatís wonderful.

Has your sense of humor changed over the years?
The same is funny for me now as it was then. Even as a child - and I donít say this in any bragging or self-aggrandizing way - I always had an appreciation for sophisticated material. I was never a fan of the Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy. I was much more interested in The Marx Brothers or Ernest Lubitsch. And to this day I generally appreciate sophisticated comedy and donít have a very high tolerance for broad comedy. I still find Bernard Shawís Pygmalion one of the best comedies of all time, and Noel Cowardís Blithe Spirit is brilliant, not to mention Lubitsch films like Shop Around the Corner or Trouble in Paradise. Iím not saying I can do them but Iím a fan.

You have an extraordinary amount of control over your films and seem to work outside the studio system with a very faithful audience that follow you. Is this the ideal work situation for you or would you like to have a big blockbuster hit movie?
Thatís a good question. This is a good way of working and Iím very happy. I would love to have films that reach a wider general public but I would never do anything to make that happen. I wouldnít sit at home thinking of which idea would reach a big public. I make the films I want to make and hope that one day I will get lucky and there will be a big audience but this has not happened to me yet. Iíve made about 30 films, Iíve had some hits bigger than others but very few of those were that big.

As long as there is an audience all over the world so that nobody gets hurt financially, then Iím able to continue functioning like this and that makes me happy. Iím one of the few filmmakers that has this great luck; I could make a film tomorrow about any subject I like and nobody says donít do it. I could cast all famous stars or no stars at all and nobody says, Ďoh please put a big star in ití. The only thing standing between me and greatness is me. There is no excuse for me not to be the greatest filmmaker in the world because I do whatever I want. The only reason Iím not is because I canít.

July 13, 2000

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