Given that Woody Allen has written practically a movie every year since 1965, one has to marvel at his capacity to not repeat himself.
Not every movie is a classic, of course. And there was some quite frenzied discussion of his abrupt turn into darker territory a few years back with films such as Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream.
Allen is a favourite amongst academics and pundits who love to deconstruct his movies, his heroes, heroines and backdrops to find similar themes that stream through his work. He’s won four Oscars for his writing and been nominated for 16 more as writer, director or actor.
Actors who have won Academy Awards for portraying characters written by Allen, such as Michael Caine and Cate Blanchett, often claim the experience was one of the best of their careers.
Allen is now 78. He continues to turn out scripts at the rate of one a year. The latest, Magic in the Moonlight, considers a theme that crops up in several of his scripts: magic and its effects.
Allen has been a student of magic since his teens. His characters over time have included hypnotists, fortune tellers and healers. Now, in Magic in the Moonlight it’s the turn of Colin Firth to bring life to the director’s lifelong fascination with whimsy, fantasy and magic.
The backdrop is the French Riviera in the 1920s. The hero is Wei Ling Soo, a Chinese conjuror who is the stage alter ego of Stanley Crawford (Firth), an arrogant Englishman dedicated to exposing phony spiritualists.
“Stanley is an intelligent, scientific-minded, rational person, so what he sees as the stupidity of the gullible public and the fraudulently exploited grates on him,” says Allen of his hero. “At the time much was made of it. Very renowned people like Arthur Conan Doyle took it very seriously. Séances were very common.”
What undermines Stanley is his conceit, snobbery and ego. He comes unstuck when he meets Sophie (Emma Stone), a blue-collar American girl whose psychic gifts baffle him. What’s more, despite the enormous class void, he starts to fall for her.
“Seeing someone and being instantly attracted to them is an unexplainable thing,” explains Allen. “You can try to give reasons for it: I like the person’s style, I like their sense of humour, I like their ideas, I like the way they look – but in the end, you never really know what it is. There is a certain magical excitement to meeting somebody and having positive romantic feelings for them.”
After the perceived failure of so many of his movies in the first decade of the new millennium, audiences and critics hailed projects like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine as a return to form.
What’s more Allen has the continued freedom to experiment. “People always impute to me a calculation: the last film was a comedy so I made this film a drama. Or I make a film for a certain reason because it resonates in my private life. But none of those things are ever true,” he says.
“I make a film for the fun of making it and I hope that people like it when it’s finished. I am able to be productive, make a film every year and not get caught up in the win-or-lose, hit-or-flop syndrome or the showbusiness aspect of filmmaking.
“I live in New York and stay in my room and work.”
• Magic in the Moonlight is on nationwide release.