When the comedy “Midnight in Paris” was released in 2011, it not only became the biggest hit of writer/director Woody Allen’s career, but it also became one of his best-reviewed movies. Allen won his fourth Academy Award (best original screenplay) for “Midnight in Paris.” In the movie, Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams play Gil and Inez, an engaged couple who are vacationing with her parents in Paris. Gil is a Hollywood screenwriter who is dissatisfied with his work because he thinks he’s a hack who’s churning out meaningless scripts; what he really wants to be is a novelist. Inez thinks Gil is a dreamer who should stick to his more financially secure career as a screenwriter.
While walking by himself on the streets of Paris around midnight, Gil is offered a ride in a car, which takes him to a place where he finds himself transported back to the 1920s and mingling with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dalí, Gertrude Stein, Josephine Baker, Cole Porter and Pablo Picasso. He’s transported back to “the real world” in the morning. Telling Inez about these experiences will make Gil look crazy, so he keeps his late-night adventures to himself, as Inez starts to grow suspicious about Gil’s late-night absences. Tension is also rising between Gil and Inez in Paris when they meet up with her married friend Paul Bates (played by Michael Sheen), a pompous blowhard whom Inez finds attractive.
During his journeys back in time, Gil has a romantic distraction of his own, as he meets and falls for Adriana (played by Oscar winner Marion Cotillard), who happens to be Picasso’s mistress. Adriana encourages Gil’s novelist aspirations, and he starts to question which reality makes him happier and what he can do to change his life. Léa Seydoux has a supporting role as Gabrielle, a Paris antiques dealer in the “real world” who shares Gil’s appreciation for the same writers and artists from the 1920s. “Midnight in Paris” had its world premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where Allen, Wilson, McAdams, Sheen, Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody (who plays Salvador Dalí) and Seydoux gathered for a press conference to talk about the movie. Here is what they said.
Mr. Allen, would you want to go back to the 1920s and meet any of the famous writers and artists who are in “Midnight in Paris”? And even though you probably have very good knowledge about 20th century writers, was there a little more research that went into “Midnight in Paris”?
Allen: You know, it’s a big trap to think that living in another time would be better. Everyone wants to get out of living where they’re living now, because life is a pretty tough proposition and not much fun. But when you think back to earlier times, you only extrapolate the nice things.
When I think back to the ‘20s and the Belle Époque, naturally, I think of all the wonderful things, but when you went to a dentist, there was no Novocaine or anything, there was no air condition or any of the things that you’ve gotten used to that make life tolerable now. So I really wouldn’t like to go back to any time other than right now. I think I would have a hard time adjusting. It sounds seductive, but it’s a trap.
And I didn’t really have to research this much, because when I grew up, I was a big fan of all of these people. I was a great admirer of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein’s writing and T.S. Eliot and the work of [Salvador] Dalí and [Pablo] Picasso. These were all the people who were all icons of my young adulthood and adolescence, so it was fairly easy to write the script of this and include them.
Owen, how did Woody Allen get the best out of you?
Wilson: The way Woody worked with me, he gave me a lot of freedom to try different things and wasn’t so exacting on getting every word precise. And so I felt very comfortable trying different things. And then I heard going in, “Oh, Woody doesn’t give a lot of direction.”
And even when I first met Woody in Paris, when he asked how my flight was, and I said, “Fine.” And he said, “Well, this will be the last you hear from me.” And that wasn’t the case. He was steering this character Gil.
But also the way we’d do a three- or four-page scene, and you’d do it one take is an exciting way to work as an actor, rather than breaking everything up, and moving in for all of this coverage. So you kind of had more excitement doing the scene.
What about the other actors? Can you comment on working with Woody Allen?
McAdams: For me, I experienced something very similar to Owen: a lot of freedom, a lot of room to play and grow. But also, if I needed help, I could turn to Woody and ask for guidance. So I felt very balanced and exciting to work that way. I felt very supported and at the same time had lots of freedom. Yeah, it was wonderful.
Brody: Well, I’ve long been a great admirer of Woody and his work — and also of Dalí — so this was a wonderful opportunity for me and a chance to pal around with my buddy Owen here. I was in [“Midnight in Paris”] for a very brief window, but I felt very comfortable.
I think the key to what made the experience so comfortable was that there doesn’t need to be a tremendous amount of discussion. What needs to be is a sense of trust from the filmmaker with his cast and succinct communication. I remember in one of the notes that Woody encouraged me to go a bit further was he said, “That was great. I want him [Gil] to know that he’s in the presence of a genius and a madman.” And I could go further. Mission accomplished.
Sheen: It was terrific. I’d heard that there wouldn’t be much direction. And there was a lot. Maybe I just needed it more than anyone else. There were notes that I got that genuinely — and I’m not just saying it because he’s here — I will use from everything I do from now on, really.
It was fascinating. It was absolutely fascinating to watch someone work whose work has such a distinctive and unique flavor. And to get a little hint of what gives it a distinctive and unique flavor. So I find it an incredibly illuminating process.
Seydoux: For me, it was extremely impressive. I was struck and moved to act with Woody, to meet with Woody. I admire him very much. So it was an extraordinary honor to be a part of this film. And it was very, very pleasant to work with Woody and be directed by him.
Mr. Allen, does the city you work in change the way you write or work on a movie? And the views of Paris in “Midnight in Paris” are somewhat cliché tourist. Was it your view or the view of the American characters?
Allen: It doesn’t change the way you work. When you work from city to city or country to country, you work the same way; the working method is the same. Paris is a very exciting city. I learned about Paris the same way that Americans do: from the movies.
I didn’t go to Paris until I was a grown-up in 1965. And when I went to Paris, it was the Paris I knew only from American movies. So that’s the same New York City that I’ve shown to people around the world in the picture “Manhattan.” It’s the Manhattan that I don’t see around me, but one I recognize from movies.
And this is the same thing in Paris. I wanted to show the city emotionally, the way I felt about it. It didn’t matter to me how real it was or what it reflected. I just wanted it to be the way I saw Paris: Paris through my eyes.
I had a wonderful time shooting it. I was able to shoot it in the rain. I was lucky in shooting the opening montage — we got a number of rainy days — that I could show it in the rain. I always love cities in the rain. Paris is particularly beautiful in the rain. It was just a nice experience for me, a pleasant experience, and I was able to present it to the world through my eyes, very subjectively — not realistically, but subjectively.
Rachel, you play a woman who is kind of shrew in “Midnight Paris.” Do you feel conflicted about watching your character versus the romantic images of life and Paris that Woody. Allen is presenting in the movie?
McAdams: I was so excited when Woody said to me, “You won’t be playing the object of desire. I hope you’re OK with that, but I think she could be a lot of fun.” And that was really exciting to me because often, a lot of the parts I see are to play the ingénue, which is fine as well. But I was excited about this deliciously direct character.
It was great because I could personally enjoy Paris for all that it is and all of its romance. And then see it from an entirely different point of view, from my character’s point of view, who wishes she were back in Malibu. That was fun for me. It was great.
I sort of tried to pull back a little bit, and Owen said to me, “it’s so much funnier when you’re mean.” So it was fun to go that far with her, and at the same time enjoy the city for all of its wonderful romance.
Mr. Allen, what is your relationship with French cinema and René Clair’s movie “Les Belles de nuit”?
Allen: When I was a young man, my friends and I and all of us in New York were very influenced by French cinema. We were very influenced by European cinema in general: Italian, Swedish. And not just European foreign to the United States: Kurosawa. But French cinema played an enormous influence on those of us who wanted to be filmmakers.
And filmmakers like [François] Truffaut and [Jean-Luc] Goddard and Clair were enormously important to us. And as we got into French films and went into the history and saw films by René Clair and Jean Renoir, these were films as art. And this was something that was not well-known to us as Americans.
And American films, it’s a money-making industry. And in France, you can find great respect for cinema as art. This was very meaningful to us, because we fancied ourselves as artists in cinema and not commercial filmmakers. So the French cinema played a very, very important role. And René Clair was a wonderful comic French filmmaker and influential to myself and all of my contemporaries.
Do you pay attention to other writers’ opinions of your work? And do you have anyone you use as a sounding board?
Allen: I don’t know, but I did when I was younger. And I probably still should. But I write and I assume that I know everything, when I fact I don’t, and I make many, many terrible mistakes. When I first started, there were writers that I looked up to that I felt very influenced by and very respectful toward their work and their opinion of my work.
And now, they’re gone. They were much older than me. They died. So now, I don’t rely on anybody except my own judgment. I don’t get much input. I don’t know if that’s helped me or if I would be better off if I did rely on someone.
Mr. Allen, was “Midnight in Paris” influenced by your 1978 short story “The Kugelmass Episode”?
Allen: I can only tell you this: I didn’t know what I was going to write here. I was going to do a film in Paris. I was looking forward to it. And I thought of a wonderful title: “Midnight in Paris,” because it suggested an enormous amount of romance, but I didn’t know what was going to happen at midnight in Paris.
And months went by, and I couldn’t think of what happened. Two people meet, they meet at the Ritz Hotel or someone’s getting a divorce. I couldn’t think of anything. And then it occurred to me that someone like Owen would be walking in the streets at night. And a car would pull up and they’d say, “Get in,” and he’d get in, and they would take him someplace but someplace different.
Now, I was not thinking of the story I wrote years back or anything else. I was just struggling to come up with an idea of now that I have the title “Midnight in Paris,” what happens at midnight in Paris? This time, I was lucky. I thought of something, but I could have thought of something that was terrible or foolish and it would be a very bad movie, or not thought of anything at all and change the title to something else.
Adrien and Owen, how much research did you do for “Midnight in Paris,” and did it feel like fun to do that research?
Brody: This was the first time I had accepted to play Dalí. I had been offered this role several times in different incarnations. It was a relatively limited glimpse of that man at in his life, so I spent a great deal of my time researching the shape of the rhinoceros. That is all.
Wilson: There really wasn’t so much research for my character. There wasn’t.
Mr. Allen, was it like working with “Midnight in Paris” director of photography Darius Khondji? And did any French films influence how you made “Midnight in Paris”?
Allen: I worked with Darius before on a film called “Whatever Works” that I shot in New York. I’ve always been an admirer of Darius’ photography. He shot a film with Liv Tyler for [Bernardo] Bertolucci years ago called “Stealing Beauty,” and I found him to be a remarkably gifted cinematographer, so I worked with him in New York City. And we had a good time. And we always said we wanted to work together more.
And so I had a chance to do it in Paris, and I’m going to do it on my next film, as a matter of fact. And he’s such a great and sensitive cameraman, but I didn’t research anything for it. There were no films I was thinking of. I just wanted Paris to look very beautiful.
And the requirement that I have for all of my films and all my cinematographers is that the photography has to be very, very warm. All the exposures have to be on the brown, red and yellow side, not on the blue side. I don’t like actors who are blue in the movie. Sometimes something slips through and I make a mistake, but usually, the photography is all based on autumn colors. And this was no different from any of the others.
And Darius got the message very quickly in the first picture I did with him and is able to give me exactly what I want in that way: that very warm, soft autumn look in the photography. This is probably meaningless to you, but to me, it has enormous meaning, just like the rain in Paris has meaning to me and maybe to nobody else.
Why did you cast Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in “Midnight in Paris”? Was there a special strategy you used to maker her say yes?
Allen: One morning, we were invited to have breakfast with the Sarkozys. And she walked into the room, and I thought she was very beautiful and very charming and charismatic. I said, “Would you like to be in the movie, just in a small role, just for fun? I know that you’re vey busy, but just for a day or two or three maximum. And you might enjoy it”
And she said, “I would like to be in your movie because I would like to tell my grandchildren someday that I was in the movie. And I said, “Fine.” And she showed up, and she was everything that she would be.
She’s not a lawyer or a diplomat, even though she’s married to a political man. She’s from a show-business background. She’s a singer. She plays guitar. She knows audiences. She has a theatrical feel.
And so she came in and played her part very gracefully and lovely. And she played that character perfectly. And I didn’t have to talk her into it very much, as long as, as I told her, I would be finished with her very quickly.
And it was a nice experience for her, I’m happy to say, because I’ve since spoken with her since she’s seen the film, and she was very delighted with how she came out and very happy with the way the cameraman photographed her, which is very important to many actors and actresses in pictures. When you put yourself out on the line out there, you want to look good. And she did.
Do you still think of yourself as an artist filmmaker? And how comfortable did you feel providing words in the “Midnight in Paris” screenplay for great writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald?
Allen: First off, I consider myself a completely lucky filmmaker. I’ve had nothing but good luck. Everything I’ve needed has come my way. I never considered myself an artist. I aspire to be an artist, but I never thought I had the depth or substance or gift to be an artist. I do think I have some talent, but it doesn’t go as far as being an artist because if you think Kurosawa is an artist or Bergman is an artist or Fellini, then it’s clear as a bell that I’m not an artist.
But I can make films. And some of them come out good, and some of them come out better, and some of them come out worse. But I’ve been very lucky over the years to be able to sustain the length of career that I’ve had.
And it was easy for me to write about all these people, because I was writing about them in a satirical way. So to write dialogue for Picasso or Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Zelda Fitzgerald was simple because I wasn’t trying to make them meaningful and deep and profound characters, but I was just trying to make them amusing and entertaining. And so it was not tough for me.
You mentioned “Manhattan” earlier. What was it like to watch Owen Wilson play a character not unlike the one you played in “Manhattan”: a writer who is argumentative about art and who is looking for love? Did you have “Manhattan” in mind when you were making “Midnight in Paris”?
Allen: Only in that both films celebrate cities. It was great to see Owen do it because Owen is the opposite of me — and that’s a big help to me, to find an actor who is completely the opposite. I’m very New York, very Manhattan, very East Coast, maybe some Europe.
And Owen is very West Coast. He personifies that in his whole demeanor and delivery. He’s relaxed and a beach lover. And this gives the character an enormous dimension that I could never have given it, nor could I have written it for some other actor if I had made him an Eastern intellectual. So the fact that Owen was willing to play it was a great gift to me and brought a real dimension to the film that it would not have had and would have sorely missed if he had not consented to do it.
Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams played a very different couple in “Wedding Crashers.” Did that movie influence your casting Owen and Rachel in “Midnight in Paris”? And how do you cast your movies in general?
Allen: I had seen with Rachel in a film with Owen years ago, and I thought she was sensational. She was beautiful and sexy and funny and a wonderful actress. And I wanted to work with her. I wanted to think of some way that I could use her to work with her. And the opportunity came up.
Now, the truth of the matter is, I didn’t like the fact that they had worked together in a picture before. That was a negative for me. I figured, “Oh, people would think it’s Rachel and Owen again.” But there was nothing I could do about it. They’re both great and I wanted them both.
And Rachel, I thought she would come in and nail this part. It’s very hard to play a woman who is manipulative and sexy and charming enough and likable enough and amusing enough in the movie so you stay interested in her, and you care about what she thinks, and it’s fun to watch her manipulate Owen. It’s hard to find that, so I wanted to get Rachel at any cost. And as I said, I was very lucky to get Owen, because in retrospect, I can’t picture the role being played by anyone else.
I’ve always been lucky in casting. The trick in casting is to hire great people, and let them do what they do, don’t interfere with them too much. And then when they’re great, take credit for it in the end. And I’ve done this for many years now — and it works like a charm.F
For more info: “Midnight in Paris” website