Woody Allen, Jamie Blackley and Parker Posey turned up at the Grand Palace Hotel last week to promote “Irrational Man,” Allen’s 46th film (47th if you count his television work).
“Irrational Man” stars Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas, a tormented and brilliant philosophy professor, and an alcoholic who has hit room bottom and believes – as Allen has often said in interviews – that life is meaningless.
Lucas arrives at a small town, flask in hand, to teach at a small and elite Ivy League college, where he meets two women who become passionately involved with him: Emma Stone plays a young student who becomes fascinated with Abe even as she loves her boyfriend (Jamie Blackley). Parker Posey plays a flirtatious and lonely professor who sees Abe as a way out of her unhappy marriage.
Abe gets his mojo back after he commits an existential but criminal act after overhearing and becoming drawn into a random stranger’s conversation. “Irrational Man,” a serious film with comedic moments, feels in tone and subject like Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point.”
Following are highlights from the press conference for “Irrational Man”:
How Woody Allen gets big-name casts for little pay:
Woody Allen: There’s an enormous amount of talented actors and actresses around and not a lot of projects. There’s a lot of major talent out there, they don’t get enough work, meaty work. They get a couple weeks here or something else in a blockbuster picture, but you know, they’re out there … Those (blockbusters) are very tempting pictures for enormous amounts of money and enormous recognition, and you know, we offer them scale and nothing, almost no-frills kind of situation, but they will take it if they don’t have an offer from a blockbuster movie. And they will take it because they like to act.
And if you give them something to act that isn’t just running and ducking, explosions, chasing cars, if you give them a part to act, they’ll do it. They have heart, and they want to work, and they, you know, they’re actors, they’re artists. So if you give them something decent to sink their teeth into, they accept it and they’re willing to sacrifice the money.
On casting Parker Posey:
WA: It was actually Juliet Taylor, my casting director, who said that she had just run into Parker and chatted with her somewhere in Europe, and that Parker seemed to her a very good possibility for this role. And as soon as Parker came into our cutting room, the second we saw her … I thought she would be absolutely perfect for it. And it turned out that she was better than perfect, she made a contribution to the role far in excess of what I wrote.
Very often you’ll write a character and you write it, and it’s okay, and then you luck out and you get an actor or actress who brings something to it and it’s suddenly — and you get the credit for it as the writer and director — but the truth is, the actor has brought some kind of flare or personality to it, way above and beyond the relatively bland character that you wrote.
Every few years, Allen decides to do a murder movie, and the characters who commit the crime have no remorse or conscience. What is it about these characters and situations that interest him?
WA: You know, it interests me in serious things, really serious things like “Crime and Punishment” or “Macbeth,” but it also interests me when I see an Alfred Hitchcock and it’s well done, you know, on any level. It’s just something that I like. I like to read it, I like to see it, and it’s fun to make it.
And if you get an idea that has some substance to it, you know, I thought when I did “Match Point,” it had some substance, that it would not just be an airplane read, a whodunit, you know, that it had the chance to say something. So it was worth me trying it. I felt that in this picture too, because for some reason, it’s the stuff of drama, murder is used all the time, from the Greeks through Shakespeare, it’s just the stuff of drama.
About Abe Lucas, Joaquin’s characters, who is abstracted to the point where it takes a terrible act to jolt him back to life.
WA: At the beginning of the movie, he’s completely spent. He’s shot. I mean, all his idealism, everything in his life, he doesn’t care if he lives or dies. Nothing has gone right for him in his life. All these thoughts, noble thoughts, nothing seems to work, people have let him down in his estimation and the world has not operated well for him.
And then funnily, there’s a religious aspect. He gains faith in something. Of course, what he believes in is totally irrational, but it’s no more irrational than Catholicism or Judaism or any of the religions, in his case, it’s really crazy. And he believes in it, and it turns his life around, but unfortunately, it’s not the kind of choice that you want to make, that you want other people to make.
Parker Poser on how she sees her relationship with Abe Lucas:
PP: Joaquin’s character is like the minotaur in the maze and the women who are shining a light in his darkness, who are compelled and attracted and are flirting with the irrational man for whatever reason. For me, Rita just is teetering on her fantasy that he represents, and she is conscious and unconscious of it, as we see her, you know? She has experienced many loves and is in a marriage that is not very potent.
So she has this fantasy, and the timing is everything. We see the timing come to her in this kind of mystical way, and then it’s taken away from her. I love this movie, so I’m looking at it from the outside now since I’ve seen it once. It’s a very female story, the awareness and the consciousness, the women who survive these irrational men in this society right now.
Woody Allen on why he cast Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone:
WA: Well, I didn’t start with anyone in mind, but very quickly in there, when I was on page 15 or 20, I thought, oh god, who’s going to play this but Emma Stone? Who’s lovely and beautiful, projects intelligence, gets away with a college age …
I didn’t think of Joaquin to start with. I went through the script and I thought to myself, I want to get somebody that’s really attractive, really handsome… (For Abe Lucas, he thought he should get someone handsome) Brad Pitt or Leo DiCaprio … Joaquin’s name came up, and it was haunting.
When you get Joaquin, you automatically get a very troubled, kind of confused character. It’s all over his body language and his looks and his speech rhythm. So we went with him, but he was an afterthought. Emma was a middle of the road thought. It became clear that she was great for it.
On whether Allen ever reflects back on the influence his work has had on filmmakers and actors:
WA: I really don’t know a lot about that, that some guy in Oklahoma is watching my film in a class and getting something out of it. I don’t really know about a lot of that, and it always amazes me when I do hear about it. I don’t see any evidence of an influence by me. I don’t say this in any disappointment, I really don’t care, but I just don’t see it, objectively.
I see Marty Scorsese influencing everybody, and deservedly so, he’s fabulous … I’m not looking for that, I want to just make my films and put them out there and be left alone. But I don’t see it, I don’t see my influence anywhere, I don’t see learned articles written about me, or any fuss made, and that’s fine. As long as people back my films and I can make them.
You learn early on, when you go into the business, you think the fame and fortune is going to be euphoric. Then you find that it’s empty very quickly, and you find that what’s really fun, the only payoff is the act of making the film, showing up in the morning with Jamie and Parker and Emma and Joaquin, and getting out there with the cameraman and getting the costumes right…
The reaction to it by crowds, the reaction by critics, the money it makes or doesn’t make, it doesn’t give you any joy. You don’t get anything out of that. You thought you would at first, but what you really get the joy [from] is sitting down in a room with Juliet Taylor and saying, “Who can we get for this part?” and speculating a name, or what recording, should it be Ramsey Lewis or Mozart behind this? That’s the fun of making the movie, so that’s what I concentrate on.
I don’t see myself as a factor in motion picture history. I see myself as getting the Cy Young award. You won 511 games, a quantity award. I’ve made many films. Big deal. I’ve had good health, and I’ve had longevity.
On Allen’s next film, which begins shooting August 17 and reteams Parker Posey and Jesse Eisenberg, along with Bruce Willis, Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively.
WA: It takes place in the late 1930s, and it’s about a family and various characters, and also some racketeers.