'Sweet' Woody Allen on Sean Penn and Creative Freedom

Enter Woody Allen, self-deprecating wit and worst critic of his many movies: "I'm a very sweet guy and much maligned unfairly, but I'm not an artist," Allen announces.

And this new, self-critical Allen isn't joking. As proof of his own disparagement, Allen invites comparison with nothing less than a titan of world cinema, the late Akira Kurosawa whose classics like Rashomon and The Seven Samurai put Japanese movies into the international lexicon of film. "Put one film by Kurosawa and one by me side by side," Allen suggests. "You can say one's an artist and [with me], even with my best film, you can say it's 'entertaining' or 'not so good.' But Kurosawa was an artist in every cell of his body."

Allen the non-artist, however, is content to merely take it easy: "I like to make films near my [Manhattan Fifth Avenue] apartment. I don't like to do many takes. I like to go to basketball games." If Allen is "not an artist," why then is he the longest-working writer-producer-director, who's had the most enviable perk of all filmmakers, final cut and total control over his films?

"I don't know," he says. "I was once thinking of doing an article about how I've lasted. It hasn't made sense to me. It's not that my films are great works of art and America can say, 'He's our Bergman or Kurosawa,' not at all. It's not even like my films have made much money, like Steven Spielberg.

"I'm blessed," he concludes. "Through a series of cons and misunderstandings, I have been able to have all that [creative freedom]." Allen recalls his first film, 1971's Take the Money and Run, where "I didn't have final cut or anything at all, and I was lucky the film company gave it to me. They didn't have to. After that, I made a deal with United Artists and they gave me all the freedom I wanted. The feeling there I remember (and it was the same with Mel Brooks too) was, 'These guys are comic geniuses, and they have some kind of thing we don't know about; let's leave them alone.' So they left me alone.

"Then, after 10 years go by and I have freedom, a film company making a deal with me says, 'Yes! Of course.' Nobody ever questioned, 'Why do we give it to this guy?' So I've been very lucky," Allen says.

Maybe the subject is on Allen's mind because of Sweet and Lowdown, his newest film (and most expensive at $28 million), which stars Sean Penn as — an artist! Penn plays a 1930s jazz guitarist named Emmett Ray who though fictional is ranked by music buffs second only to the legendary Parisian Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. Allen, who wrote, directed, and appears as himself in Sweet and Lowdown, presents Penn's Ray as a genius onstage and a walking disaster as a human being offstage.

"What interested me the most was the dichotomy — a guy who in his real life is awful, boorish, insensitive, a jerk. And when you hear his music or read his book or see his paintings, you think this person has to be so wonderful, so capable of poetry and insight. Then you see the person and the way they live, and they're just creeps — obnoxious and insensitive."

These artists, Allen feels, "claim because they're artists they have special privileges — and that can excuse the worst kind of behavior. I've never felt that's fair. I don't think an artist should get anymore of a break than anyone else.

"All an artist is is someone who, through no fault of their own, was born with a great gift. Picasso was born with this flair! And minimal self-discipline to use it. And if they do not become a drunk or a dope addict and not die at 18 of overdose, we think it's a great moral accomplishment. When it's not. It's a delightful thing and it's great they can write or play music, but there it ends.

"I've known through the history of jazz, I've known of musicians that played such great jazz music, who were so delightful and wonderful and composed it even, and such dopes in real life, egotistical and nasty and selfish. Django was one of them, a monster. If you read [his lover] Anais Nin's book The Four Chambered Hat about him, you'd know. The guy was just a selfish monster."

So is Allen, whose recent films have been more often dissected for their misogyny and digs against Mia Farrow than praised for their comic insight, making some kind of personal comment here?

"I don't relate personally," he insists. "I'm not as selfish or insensitive to people as that. Emmett is such a creep. I don't consider myself a creep."

Allen doesn't address rumors of his battles with Sean Penn while filming Sweet and Lowdown. Reportedly the actor, whose father died during the making of the movie, was often absent from shooting. But Allen does suggest that if you want a creep onscreen, it works to get someone who's perceived as one off screen.

"Sean Penn is one of the great actors in America over the last 20 years, and he seemed right for the part," Allen says. "It's hard to find someone who's got a built-in nasty quality as Sean Penn has, but you like him. He's managed to play the worst characters over the years — and you get interested and like him, you don't write him off. He's perfect casting for me."

As for Allen's controversy with last year's Celebrity, where many critics contended the filmmaker ordered Kenneth Branagh to "do" Woody Allen in the picture, Allen says, "All this gets made up. I don't prefer to stay behind the camera. I wasn't using him as my stand-in. I said to him 50 times while we were filming, 'You shouldn't be doing me' and 'You're going to be criticized!'"

The role, Allen pointed out, was never conceived as a Woody Allen role. "I had written this for Alec Baldwin, I wanted a handsome dashing guy, not a guy I would have or could have played years ago. Kenneth felt comfortable doing me and did me — and people made up a whole story.

"He was attractive enough and a sexy guy, maybe not as attractive as Alec Baldwin. But I also think — and this is only my thought and has no bearing on anyone else — doing me is not a legitimate criticism of the picture to not like it. I think there are people who didn't like the picture, and if you're not sure why, I think they penalized him for doing me because it was something they could hang on to. But it wasn't the problem with the picture."

Allen has already completed his next comedy, Small Time Crooks, which features Allen, Tracy Ullman, Elaine May, and Hugh Grant. He calls it "a silly film. Its ambition is to be nothing more than amusing. It's a bank robber film with nothing profound to say." Which sounds entirely fitting for this unstoppable no-longer-deserving-of-being-called-an-artist filmmaker. — Stephen Schaefer

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