Woody's 'Dream': Allen examines savage side of life in drama

TORONTO " Woody Allen's latest film touches on all the things he likes to ponder " that there's no God, that life is savage and fleeting, that anyone potentially can get away with unspeakable acts if they don't have a conscience to bother them.

Obviously, "Cassandra's Dream" is not a throwback to what Allen once called his early, funny films.

Allen's third straight film shot in London after a career based mostly in his beloved New York City, it's as dark and merciless as anything he's ever done.

The 72-year-old filmmaker often has used violence and bloodshed to propel stories, but the films generally are leavened with a good dose of humor.

With "Cassandra's Dream," Allen wanted to craft an all-out tragedy, the film relentlessly tracing the gloomy consequences after two decent, upstanding brothers (Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell) are drawn into abominable misdeeds.

One finds he can live with his actions, the other cannot.

"I've always felt that the worst kind of crimes and sometimes not the worst crimes often go unpunished. Everyday, from genocide in the political spectrum to street crime, people do terrible things and get away with it," Allen said in an interview at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, where "Cassandra's Dream" played.

"The fact that there is no god and that we're alone in the universe makes it more important than ever to act decently, but people don't, very frequently."

Wicked behavior fueled Allen's first two films in London, the drama "Match Point" and the comedy "Scoop," both featuring Scarlett Johansson and each dealing with murder plots.

Allen had intended to make "Match Point" in New York until he was approached by European backers offering to finance the film with no strings attached if he shot it in London.

Since then, he has been returning to Europe each summer with wife Soon-Yi Previn and their two children to shoot films, among them the upcoming "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," a drama shot in Spain that stars Johansson, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Rebecca Hall.

"It's a drama, but not heavy Germanic drama. Nobody dies. Nobody does anything terrible," Allen said.

Allen's films are budgeted modestly at about $15 million, compared to big-studio flicks that can cost $100 million to $200 million. Even with his smaller-budgeted projects, though, Allen found his U.S.-backed films prone to meddling.

"The American studios want input. Their basic philosophy is, 'We're not just bankers. We want to know who's in the film. Can we read the script?' Whereas in Europe, they are just bankers. They have no studios. They're tax people, bankers, and they don't read my script. They trust me as a filmmaker. I've been around for many years. They trust that I'm not going to suddenly go $20 million over budget, or 20 cents over budget even " that I'm going to give them an acceptable film at worst. Maybe a good film, but it's never going to be a humiliation where they lose their whole $15 million. It'll be a reasonable film, so it's not that much of a risk."

While "Match Point" proved his biggest financial success in years, Allen generally has been on a dry spell, with other recent films such as "Anything Else," "Scoop" and "Melinda and Melinda" not connecting much with audiences.

Still, actors always are eager to work with Allen, who lately has focused on casting younger performers such as Johansson, Cruz, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Hugh Jackman and Christina Ricci.

Allen's style " long takes that let actors burrow into a scene, free rein for performers to play around with his dialogue " hold strong appeal for actors.

"It starts with the writing. You always get a good part, anyway, but he's an actor ... so he knows how to get the best out of you," said Michael Caine, who won an Academy Award for Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters." "What he does is, he lets you run with it until you screw it up, and then he'll stop you ... You get a lot of directors who are sitting there worried about the lights, the camera, the angle and all that. He's worried about the acting."

"I think he has very, very good taste in terms of judging the reality and pitch of a performance," said Kenneth Branagh, who starred in Allen's "Celebrity." "People are so respectful of him that they really do their homework before they start a Woody Allen film, so I think everybody is just on their mettle when they're working for him."

For all his cynicism about life and his conviction that we live in an indifferent, pitiless universe, Allen remains a passionate and prolific filmmaker, even as he dismisses the meaning or legacy of art or other human endeavors.

"I feel the trick is to try and find, not meaning, because there is no meaning, but to try and find some enjoyment in that context and know that it's meaningless, short, nasty, brutal, and still, you know, find a modicum of enjoyment, get what you can get out of it, which is not a lot," he said.

Allen speaks eloquently of existence as a random accident, the universe eventually giving way to absolute nothingness, the work of Beethoven, Shakespeare and others ultimately leaving no permanent mark.

"People say, 'Well, why go on at all?' Camus' question, why choose life?" Allen said. "And the only answer I can ever give to that is we seem to be hard-wired to. The brain asks the questions, but the blood says live. So if a guy comes in here with a gun, you do everything you can to get it away from him. You do whatever you can to live. You bargain, you lie, you jump on top of him.

"You're hard-wired for self-preservation, but when you think about it cerebrally, why, to what end, what am I savoring here? And you can't really think of a good answer, so you give up and say, 'I can't think of an answer, but my body fights to live, so I'm not going to resist that. I'm going to go along and trust the impulse toward life."'

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