By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 11, 2011 at 11:19AM
Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen's best movie since Deconstructing Harry in 1997.
The prolific filmmaker, 75, who writes parts for himself and then casts others in them with varying results, has been nourished by Europe for the last six years, from London thriller Match Point to Vicky Christina Barcelona, which soared on Spanish stars Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz.
But it's been been 14 years since Allen delivered a home run. Midnight in Paris, a valentine to the City of Light, will not only wow audiences opening night at Cannes but around the world (trailer below). It's a magical story about writer Gil (Owen Wilson) who dreams of abandoning his screenwriting career to live in Paris and finish his novel. But when he visits Paris with his fiance (Rachel McAdams), he finds that she doesn't enjoy the same things he does. She'd rather hang on the pronouncements of pretentious pedant professor Michael Sheen than explore back street flea markets. On the ring of midnight on one street corner, something fantastical happens, and Gil gets to meet the great expatriates of Paris in the 20s, from Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. Gertrude Stein even reads his book-- and likes it!
On the phone from his office in New York, sounding happier than he has in years, Allen admits that he and his producing team see some breakout potential in this movie (his first to open Cannes). But every time that happens, he says, "We've never been right. Once in a while we think a film can go far, but with even my most popular movies there's a majestically low ceiling." Allen clearly envies the global success of films like True Grit or The King's Speech. But he adds, "I can't see people across America saying, 'Hey, did you see Gertrude Stein?'"
Allen explains the strange process of making this hour-and-a-half movie, shot as usual in 1:85 with one 35 mm camera (only two films are wide-screen: Manhattan and Anything Else). He started off knowing that his producers had lined up funding for a movie to shoot in Paris. "I quickly said 'yes,'" he says, "because I love Paris very much and the thought of making a film there was exciting. I didn't have an idea for the film when I accepted."
Allen started off thinking about the cliches that every American grows up on: "Paris always says romance," he says. "I thought of the title 'Midnight in Paris' from Billy Wilder's 'Midnight' and thought, 'what a romantic title.' But I couldn't figure out what happens. When I don't have an idea, and I'm looking, locked in for days and weeks, I get angry and exhausted. The agonizing part is getting it."
Allen writes lying in bed with a ballpoint pen and yellow pad. Then he types up the pages. But he was stymied until he came up with an image of his protagonist walking round Paris at night. At midnight a car pulls up full of people waving champagne: "Hop in!" they say. "From there the story developed readily," Allen recalls. "I had no problem writing it. Once I get the idea, a tight premise, it becomes fun, it goes someplace. I can write anything within a month or three weeks. The real work is done already, the writing comes fairly easy."
Allen thought that it would be fun for his character to "get into a car and get taken someplace he couldn't go, not some nightclub, but someplace where he could really see the Paris of Hemingway, Picasso, as it's come down to us mythologically."
Writing dialogue for Stein and Hemingway--played by Kathy Bates and Broadway actor Corey Stoll, whom Allen had admired in a revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge--was easy. "I had him come to the cutting room and dollied him up a bit to look like Hemingway. He's a wonderful actor, he has such an ear, he's a mimic. Any artist is a high stylist, whether in music or in prose. It's easy to imitate them, whether it's Bergman or Fellini. Real style is easy to do. They really create their own vocabulary."
Allen initially wrote his leading man as a younger version of himself--an East Coast intellectual from Manhattan or Boston, from an Ivy League school, and I couldn't think of anybody to play him."
When casting director Juliet Taylor came up with the idea of Owen Wilson, Allen resisted at first. "He has wonderful delivery, he can do comic and sell it as real," she told him. "Owen Wilson is so California, so blond, I thought of him with a surfboard, beach combing," Allen admits. But then he started rewriting the movie with Wilson in mind, turning him into a successful Hollywood screenwriter, writing scripts, longing to live in Paris as a novelist. "He sold out at an early age," says Allen, "and regretted it. It all fell into place. I called him and he was available. I was lucky to get him. He's able to do the dialogue and make something real, and get laughs when he had to. I got to know Owen. He's from Texas, intelligent, sensitive, nice, down-to-earth, thinks about things and sufffers. He's not such a carbon copy of me. He's so different. I'll be more frantic, more New York."
Allen had fun playing with another cliche: America and France's love/hate relationship. "It's grounded in truth," he says. "Americans look up to the French for their artists and fashion and beautiful cities but conflict politically, while the French thank America more for its movies and jazz." Marion Cotillard and Lea Seydoux provide welcome French romantic alternatives to McAdams' ugly American. "Her parents are elitist right-wing conservatives," says Allen. "She is clearly beautiful and sexy and manipulative. She feels she can handle this successful screenwriter and seduce him into doing what she wants." It doesn't take long for us to root for Gil to dump his would-be bride.
For the opener, Allen wanted to luxuriate in the experience of Paris. It's not the same as the montage accompanied by George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue that opens Manhattan (clip below) which Allen narrated. "Here I just wanted to take two and a half to three minutes, like an overture," he says. "It does not have any dialogue, there's no talk over it."
It's a travelogue of Paris, first on a sunny day, then in the rain. "I wanted just to convey to audiences the protagonist's love and adulation for the city," he says, this time with music by early jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet, who spent many years in Paris and was a huge influence on Allen's own clarinet playing. "I named my daughter Bechet after him. He was the single great musical figure in my life."
Allen has already campaigning for the film, which has long-term Oscar potential, ahead of Cannes, where the movie met a rapturous response Wednesday from the press corps. Sony Pictures Classics is banging the drum so loudly because they want to build on Cannes momentum, said Michel Barker, and then open the movie stateside right away, in limited release May 20. Raise high the ceiling.