With “Rifkin’s Festival”, Woody Allen signs a dramatic comedy full of bitterness through which he pays homage to the masters of European cinema. For the release of the film, we met the director, who told us about the genesis of the project, his reunion with Wallace Shawn and the permanent difficulty in financing his feature films.
Rifkin’s Festival : an ode to European cinema
After reuniting with his hometown for A rainy day in New YorkWoody Allen is back in Europe, and more precisely in Spain, with Rifkin’s Festival. A dramatic comedy in which Mort Rifkin (Wallace Shawn), a former film professor, accompanies his wife Sue (Gina Gershon) to the San Sebastian festival. Press attaché, the latter takes care of a French director named Philippe (Louis Garrel) and Mort suspects them very quickly of having an affair.
To escape boredom, he ventures into the city he takes a liking to and falls under the spell of Jo Rojas (Elena Anaya), a doctor who never ceases to calm his hypochondria. Faced with his anxieties and hesitations, Mort is also overtaken by his most beautiful memories of the seventh art, fantasizing his existence on Jules and Jim, The Seventh Seal or Breathless. Through this story filled with bitterness but which is not devoid of humor, Woody Allen takes up emblematic scenes from European films that he loves, thus paying homage to Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut and Luis Bunuel.
For the release of Rifkin’s Festival, we spoke with the author ofAnnie Hall, Manhattan and Match Point. The opportunity to discuss his unalterable pleasure in writing, his point of view on the evolution of the cinema industry, his difficulty in financing his feature films and his next project, which he should start filming in France at autumn.
Meeting with Woody Allen
How did the idea of Rifkin’s Festival ?
People in Spain have told me that they would like to finance one of my films. I had already made a film in Barcelona. I was thinking about a place in Spain where I could make a film, I didn’t want to make a film again in Barcelona. And I remembered that years ago I went to the San Sebastian Festival and it’s a very beautiful city. I said to myself: “I could live in San Sebastián for several months and be very happy”. Then I said to myself: “I have to write a screenplay around San Sebastian”. I wondered why San Sebastian was famous and, beyond the food, I thought of the festival. So I decided to write a screenplay centered on the San Sebastian Festival.
Why did you choose to pay homage to all these European classics?
When I was young, it was the movies that changed cinema and influenced us in the United States, and probably around the world. They convinced us to perceive cinema as an art. I grew up in a time when cinema was delicious and wonderful, but it wasn’t really art, it was mostly very commercial. The comedies, the musicals, the gangster films… it was a lot of fun and all of a sudden, when the Second World War ended, we discovered Italian neorealist cinema and after that the New Wave, the Swedish movies.
It was like a kind of revelation that cinema could be art, that you could make masterpieces as good as in literature or in the theatre. We wanted to follow the path of these directors, work in their own way and perceive cinema as they perceived it.
Do you feel as uncomfortable as Mort when you go to a film festival?
Before Yes. When I started making films, I didn’t want to go to festivals because I’m against competition between different films, I don’t think we make them to compete with other movies. We make them to express our vision and we hope that they will appeal to the public. So I wasn’t going.
But one day I had to go because the producers told me it was very important. So I went there to be nice to those who had put money into the film. And I really liked that, because all the people who were present at this festival were passionate about cinema. They knew all about movies, they loved it, so I had a great time. So I went back a number of times. I am currently working on the fiftieth film that I write and direct, which will be shot in Paris, and maybe it will be selected in a festival, it depends on when it will be finished.
The film marks your reunion with Wallace Shawn, with whom you had not worked since Melinda and Melinda. But you didn’t think of him directly for the role of Mort Rifkin?
No, I wrote Rifkin for someone younger. But I couldn’t find the right person to play it. And someone said to me, in an innocuous conversation: “Why not Wally Shawn?” As soon as she told me that, I was like, “Oh my God! Wally Shawn is perfect!” He’s a real intellectual, he’s funny, he’s likeable… So I had to rewrite the script to make the character older.
You recently told Alec Baldwin that you were tired of making movies. What is your point of view on the film industry today?
I had a wonderful film career. I grew up watching films with Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn and the great American films, then European masterpieces. For me, it has always been a ritual. We made a movie and released it in hundreds of theaters across the country and around the world. People came, they laughed together, they cried together, it was a common experience. The film could remain for weeks or even months on display.
Today, we make a film and two weeks after its release, it is on television, available for streaming. People like to watch the movies at home, no matter if it’s a Spielberg movie or a Kurosawa movie. They have access to it effortlessly. And if they want to go to the bathroom, they can stop the movie and go to the bathroom. If they want to eat, make a phone call, stop because they’re tired… What I mean is that it’s not the same anymore.
I don’t like the idea of making a film that would be broadcast directly on television. I like the idea of releasing it in cinemas and that it can bring together hundreds, thousands of people. Some of the magic of this ritual has disappeared. And I wonder if I really want to make a film for television… Maybe it’s better to write for the theater and go to a performance, where I’ll see 500 people laughing at a play or being moved. It is an experience to be shared. Reduce it to general isolation, I don’t like that idea.
You published your memoirs By the way and the collection Zero Gravity over a fairly short period. Does this mean that you continue to write every day?
Yes, I write every day. And we’re talking about a seven-day week, not five. But that’s just because I like to write. Especially since the pandemic, I have nothing else to do. I get up in the morning, I work on my clarinet, I do my exercises but it doesn’t take me a lot of time. So I write a lot but I love to write. The pleasure is always the same because the life of a writer is a good life.
The life of a director is much harder. You have to get up and go and freeze them outside, there are dozens of people, you have to make decisions, time flies and it costs money… But writing… I’m at home , lying on my bed, I can stop whenever I want. It’s a very nice life! As long as we manage to sell what we write, but on that, I’ve always been lucky.
Rifkin’s Festival also talks about the reception of films and the perception we can have of an artist. Are you interested in what others say about you or your work?
No, I never read reviews of my movies or my plays for almost 50 years. The first films I made, I read what was written on them. Then I realized that someone was writing something in New York and someone was writing something completely different in California or Chicago, Boston. So I completely stopped reading things about me.
I realized that reading things that concern us, whether they come from critics, from the press… People call you “genius”, others call you “idiot”… It doesn’t matter what they write is not worth reading. You just have to concentrate on the work and forget about all that. Just because they call you a “genius” doesn’t make you a genius. Just because they say your movies suck doesn’t mean your movies suck. That does not make any sense.
Can you tell us a little more about your next film, which should be shot in Paris in the fall?
If all goes well, early October. I can just tell you that it’s a film that takes place in Paris, contemporary, in line with Match Point. Sinister, with my philosophical preoccupations that no one ever understands.
Is it complicated for you to make a film today?
It has always been complicated! All my life ! I always have problems to have the necessary money. Obtaining financing is always the most complicated part of a film. Very often, I had to give up my salary to finish a film. After 50 films, this is still the main problem.
Rifkin’s Festival is to be discovered in cinemas from July 13, 2022.