People always wonder where great artists get their ideas. For Woody Allen, it’s the middle drawer of his bedroom dresser. For years it was a rumpled brown grocery bag in the back of his closet. But now this unassuming drawer is where he stores decades of stray jokes scribbled on the backs of matchbooks and half-formed movie premises written on scraps of yellowing hotel stationery. ”There’s a lot of funny stuff in there,” says Allen. ”When I finish a picture, I empty the drawer onto my bed. Some of the ideas are tantalizing and I know there’s something there, but I just can’t crack them. And there are some where I go, ‘What was I thinking?’ Most are just great beginnings that don’t go anywhere.”
Allen picked out a winner for his latest film, Midnight in Paris. In the comedy (out May 20; rated PG-13), Owen Wilson plays a Hollywood screenwriter who, while on vacation with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams), is magically transported back to an era he’s always romanticized: 1920s Paris, when literary heavyweights like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald tipped elbows and traded bons mots by the Seine with artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. It takes Wilson’s character a while to understand this, but as glamorous as that past golden age is, it prevents him from living in the present. Midnight feels a bit like a hilariously surreal companion to Allen’s 1985 classic The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s also one of his best movies in years.
Allen is 75 now. But in person he looks pretty much like he did when he was 65 or 55 — or 45, for that matter. He still talks in that familiarly anxious New Yorkese, whether it’s to discuss movies (preferably not his), jazz (the older the better), or the meaninglessness of life (still better than death, for the record). He wears the same thick horn-rimmed glasses he’s worn since the ’50s and the same threadbare corduroys that always look one laundry cycle away from Goodwill. If Allen lives according to any philosophy, it’s that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The same holds true behind the camera. At an age when most legendary directors slow down, Allen still relentlessly cranks out a film a year because that’s what he’s always done. And while the actors may change from picture to picture, nearly every movie is guaranteed to open in the same signature way — with old-timey music playing over white-on-black credits written in the same Windsor Light Condensed font. Why not? It ain’t broke.
Lately, though, Allen says he’s more tempted than ever to break with the past and move into the 21st century. Sure, he still writes on the same Olympia portable typewriter he bought for $40 when he was 16. But he recently purchased an iPhone (though he mostly uses it to listen to old records). In fact, his new mantra might be: It’s nice to take a stroll down memory lane, but you don’t want to buy a house there.
”Nostalgia is an unhealthy trap that’s very seductive,” says Allen. ”The problem is, life is a very cruel, tragic, and unsatisfying experience and you always think that another time in the past would have been ideal for you. For example, if I think back to belle-epoque Paris, it’s like Gigi, with beautiful costumes and carriages and great wine. The reality is there was no novocaine when you went to the dentist.”