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Woody Allen, Colin Firth, Jacki Weaver cast a spell in 'Magic in the Moonlight'

Emma Stone, "Magic in the Moonlight" writer/director Woody Allen and Colin Firth on the set of "Magic in the Moonlight"
Emma Stone, "Magic in the Moonlight" writer/director Woody Allen and Colin Firth on the set of "Magic in the Moonlight"Sony Pictures Classics

Set in the 1920s, the romantic comedy “Magic in the Moonlight” (written and directed by Woody Allen) is about a cynical, pompous British magician named Stanley Crawford (played by Colin Firth) who is determined to expose a sassy, American psychic medium named Sophie Baker (played by Emma Stone) as a fraud, at the urging of his fellow magician friend Howard Burkan (played by Simon McBurney). Sophie and her mother/manager Mrs. Baker (played by Marcia Gay Harden) have been staying in the south of France at the home of the wealthy Catledge family, whose widowed matriarch Grace is convinced that Sophie can communicate with her dead husband.

Woody Allen, Jacki Weaver and Colin Firth at the New York City press conference for "Magic in the Moonlight"
Woody Allen, Jacki Weaver and Colin Firth at the New York City press conference for "Magic in the Moonlight"Carla Hay

Meanwhile, Grace’s son Brice (played by Hamish Linklater) has fallen in love with Sophie and has plans to ask her to marry him. Stanley does everything he can to outwit Sophie, but then he begins to doubt that she is a fraud, and develops genuine affection for her, even though Stanley is engaged to be married to someone else. Allen, Firth and Weaver recently gathered for a “Magic in the Moonlight” press conference in New York City. (Stone could not attend the press conference since she was working elsewhere.) Here is what Allen, Firth and Weaver said at the press conference.

Mr. Allen, can you talk about the genesis of “Magic in the Moonlight”?

Allen: Magic has always been of a great interest of mine. I was an amateur magician when I was young. I used to practice and read up on it a lot. I’m well-aware of the history of magic. At the turn of the [20th century] and the ‘20s, there was enormous amount of great vogue in fraudulent spiritualism in the United States and abroad as well.

There was a lot of people exploiting the public with seances and with fake mind reading and predicting the future. They were very good at it, in a way. They were able to fool the general public. They were able to fool educated people and intellectuals. They were able to fool scientists and doctors, but they could not fool magicians. The tricks they were using were known to magicians.

And so, a number of magicians — among them, Houdini — used to debunk them and took great pleasure in exposing them, because they were fraudulently deceiving the public and stealing money from them. That’s what led me to the idea. I thought it would make an interesting romance between a fraudulent little mystic and a magician who has a much more sober view of the world. Houdini, as a matter of fact, had a very hopeful, but grim, realistic view of the world. Once I had that, the ideas developed rapidly, but that was the genesis of the idea.

Colin, can are you sympathetic to Stanley Crawford’s world view? Is he to be admired or chastised?

Firth: All of the above, I suppose. I think he’s not just a single-faceted character. The trouble with being the smartest person in the room and knowing it is that you’re probably missing something. One of the themes that seems to come out is that absolute certainty is a rather precarious position. However much I sympathize with his skepticism, I also sympathize with [Sophie Baker’s] assessment. She thinks he’s rather sure of himself.

One of the wonderful things about making a film of any genre is that you have dialogue. You can take up a position … You put these people together. [Stanley] will argue with himself. It’s part of the comedy. If you want to say something about your position, you can just say it. You don’t have to spend massive amounts of screen time. I think his less appealing qualities are a set-up for a fall.

Jacki, did working on a Woody Allen movie live up to your expectations?

Weaver: I feel I’ve known Mr. Allen for 40 years, because I used to plagiarize his stand-up [comedy] as a teenager. He didn’t know that. I’m going to get sued!

So it was a totally surreal experience to meet him to have him say, “I want you to be in my next film.” I thought it was a hoax at first. And then, every now and again, I’d be on set and I’d see him in his director’s chair, watching his monitor, and I thought, “I can’t believe this is happening.”

Mr. Allen, can you talk about casting Colin Firth, Emma Stone and Jacki Weaver in “Magic in the Moonlight”?

Allen: The hardest part to find was Colin’s part, because you needed someone with enormous elegance and being able to play that role and deliver those lines appropriately. It’s not an easy thing to find. There are very, very few people who could do it. Colin was the first person we thought of, we were determined to have him, but he was scheduled to do another project.

Fortunately for us, kind of at the last minute, his other project was postponed. And we were able to get him. We ran through a number of other names, who I won’t mention now, when we thought we weren’t able to get Colin. They were all very good people but an enormous drop in what we had hoped for. Colin was the perfect person to play this, because it requires a certain savoir faire. You want an elegant, good-looking person who can do the wit and have that attitude without getting on your nerves.

Emma, I had just seen her on the treadmill. She did movies that I never watch, but I was on the treadmill in the morning and I’m surfing through to kill the time. And suddenly, I would see five minutes of this or five minutes of that and I’d be thinking, “Who is this girl in this movie.” The movie would be those sort of adolescent or post-adolescent type movies.

She’s beautiful and very good. I mentioned her name to Juliet Taylor, who casts for me, and she said, “Yes, she’s not just a pretty face. She’s a very, very good actress.” So we had her in, and she’s very intelligent to chat with, and I cast her. She did such a good job that she’s in the movie that I am doing now. She happens to be right for the part, but I was thrilled to be working with her.

Jacki, I met her in my cutting room. I’d seen her briefly in a movie and I liked her very much. As soon as I met her, we wanted her. And she said she would do it, I thought it was a hoax.

We were absolutely thrilled to get her to play the part, and I couldn’t be more delighted. I met her for the first time in my screening room, just to say hello to, but the minute she walked out, Juliet and I knew we wanted her. Emma, I had only seen on my treadmill. Colin, I had seen before and was thinking of him as I was writing it.

Woody, two of your most recent movies — 2011’s “Midnight in Paris” and 2013’s “Blue Jasmine” — have been the most commercially successful of your long career so far. Why do you think you’ve had your greatest commercial success at this time in your life, and why do you think some of your other movies have not been as commercially successful?

Allen: It’s pure accident. You make a film and always hope you’re going make “Citizen Kane” or “The Bicycle Thief.” You make the film, and for one reason or another, one clicks and one doesn’t, but it’s out of your control completely.

Sometimes the critics will like a film, and the public doesn’t come. Sometimes the critics won’t like the film, and the public will come — that’s rare. It’s completely spontaneous. It’s a hazard.

I don’t why whatever works and whatever doesn’t. You just make the one that you enjoy making at the time, and you think there’s a good chance that people might enjoy the story. You’re surprised pleasantly when they do — or you feel, “No, I guess they don’t. I guessed wrong.” It’s just luck.

Colin, can you talk about how you avoided what critics call the “Woody Stand-In Role,” with the male protagonist imitating Allen’s rhythms, speech and mannerisms? How did you prepare and what kind of research did you do for “Magic in the Moonlight”?

Firth: [He says jokingly] I was trying to imitate Woody and was spectacularly unsuccessful. [He says seriously] It wouldn’t have been a fit. It [the Stanley Crawford character] didn’t call for that. It was a wonderfully specific character that belonged absolutely in that culture in the way it was aimed.

I found myself, when I was preparing, reading P.G. Wodehouse and Shaw, just to refresh myself as to how people sound. We don’t really sound like that much anymore. I might a little bit because I’m a relic. It’s disappeared, to a very large extent.

It really struck me how remarkably he hit it. I play it how I see it or hear it. When dialogue is good and when relationships are good, so much of the work is just done for you, it comes to life. It’s telling you how to do it. If I’d misjudged that, I had Woody to make it clearer what was intended. But good writing just takes you away toward it.

Magic would have been a lost cause for me. I think genuine, close-up magic is an art form that is very, very hard to achieve. I noticed that the script had very wisely not provided that challenge. If you tried to use trick photography of any kind, it’s pointless.

The whole point of that stuff is we all know what you can do with a camera. I might as well have done a crash course in being a concert pianist or something. I can’t do it. To achieve it, you’re practicing every waking hour of your day.

We did have a moment when I was asked to attempt the simplest possible card trick. It was the closest I feel we came to seeing Woody’s patience threshold. Only a little sigh at my eighth attempt to do this very simple thing with one card, which he can do brilliantly.

I simply dropped it. It didn’t make the final cut. Stage magic set piece is much easier to cheat. I read up on it, and I was endlessly fascinated with it.

Mr. Allen, you’ve said, “I make escapist films, but it’s not the audience who escapes. It’s me.” A similar description is used for Stanley Crawford in “Magic in the Moonlight.” Can you talk about how you feel about escapism as it relates to your work?

Allen: I’ve been escaping my whole life. Since I was a little child, I escaped into the movies on the other side as an audience member. I escaped by going into the movies and sitting in the movies all day long. Then when, I got older I escaped into the world of unreality by making movies, so I’ve spent the last — I don’t know — almost 50 years, not quite, but 45 years, something like that, escaping into movies, but on the other side.

When I get up in the morning, I go and I work with beautiful women and charming men and funny comedians and dramatic artists. And I’m presented with costumes and great music to choose from and sets. I travel a certain amount of places, so my whole year for my whole life I’ve been living in a bubble. And I like it. I’m like Blanche DuBois that way. I prefer the magic to reality, and have since I was 5 years old. Hopefully, I can continue to make films and constantly escape into them.

Can you talk about working with Eileen Atkins, who plays Stanley’s beloved Aunt Vanessa?

Allen: It was great. I saw her once in my life on stage. It was in a play with John Lithgow. I can’t remember the play, but I heard her name, and I saw her live on the Broadway stage, and I thought she was fabulous! She was in my consciousness for years.

And then, when we were casting, Juliet Taylor said, “What about Eileen Atkins?” It was her idea. I thought, “My God, that would be so great.” And we called her, and she was available for that period of time.

And it was a treat to work with her. She was absolutely great. Everyone does these press conferences and [says], “This was great, that was great, she was great,” but like I said, she came in and did everything perfectly. I never had to say anything to her or direct her. She simply came in and did it. Eileen has that thing that makes her that wonderful, now elderly stage presence that’s so captivating.

Firth: We’ve become great friends since the first time [Eileen Atkins and I worked together]. There is no better actor. I saw her in the play she wrote — “Vita and Virginia” — I saw it on Broadway with Vanessa Redgrave. She’s a delight. She brings her intelligence to it. In some ways, I like to think the relationship we see is not [dissimilar] to the relationship I have with her.

Woody, why do the protagonists in your movies seem to be neurotic people who find life meaningless?

Allen: Why do I find life meaningless? Because I firmly believe — and I don’t say this as a criticism — that life is meaningless. I’m not alone in thinking this. There have been many great minds far, far superior to mine that have come to that conclusion, both early in life and after years of living. And unless somebody can come up with some proof or some example where it’s not, I think it is. I think it’s a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing and that’s just the way I feel about it.

I’m not saying one should opt to kill oneself … but the truth of the matter is, when you think of it, let’s say, every hundred years, or certainly every 110 years, there’s a big flush and everybody in the world is gone. Everybody’s gone and there’s a new group of people. And then that gets flushed, and there’s a new group of people. And this goes on and on interminably toward no particular end — I don’t want to upset you — and no rhyme nor reason.

And the universe as you know, from the best physicists, is coming apart and eventually there will be nothing, absolutely nothing! All the great works of Shakespeare and Beethoven and da Vinci, all of that will be gone — not for a long time, but gone. It’s much shorter than you think, because the descendents burn out much earlier than the universe. You don’t have to wait for the universe to vanish. It’ll happen.

So all this achievement, all these Shakespearian plays and symphonies, the height of human achievement will be gone completely. There will be nothing, absolutely nothing. No time, no space. Nothing at all. Just zero.

So what does it really mean to get exercised over trivial problems? That’s why over the years I’ve never written or made movies about political themes ‘cause while they do have current critical importance, in the large, large scheme of things, only the big questions matter and the answers to those big questions are very, very depressing.

What I would recommend — this is the solution I’ve come up with — distraction. That’s all you can do. You get up. You can be distracted by your love life, by the baseball game, movies, by the nonsense.

“Can I get my kid into this private school? Can I get this girl to go out with me Saturday night? Can I think of an ending for the third act of my play? Am I going to get the promotion in my office?” You know, all this stuff, but in the end the universe burns out. So I think it’s completely meaningless. And to be honest, my characters portray this feeling. Have a good weekend!

Are you saying you think your work is meaningless?

Allen: I think it’s my job or the artist’s job, to try and find some solution or some reason to accept things. But given the grimmest reality, I feel the grimmest facts are the real facts, the true facts: that you’re born, you die, you suffer, it’s to no purpose, and you’re gone forever, ever, ever, and that’s it.

And facing that massive, massive overwhelming bleak reality to find a reason to cope with that, a good way to cope with that, and I feel it’s the artist’s job to do that. I’ve never found a good solution to it, and the best that I can offer is distraction.

I found there’s a story in two filmmakers. One filmmaker makes films that are deep, intellectual, profound and confrontational. And the other one makes purely vacuous, escapist films. I’m not sure the one who makes escapist films is not making a poorer contribution than the one who makes the deeper films that finally, you live in a world that’s so terrible and all these things are going on.

And you go in a dark room — the movie theater — and you’re there for an hour-and-a-half, and Fred Astaire is dancing. It’s like drinking a cold drink of lemonade on a hot day. And you’re refreshed, and you walk back out into the terrible heat. And you can take it for another few hours or even more.

That is the only think I can think of the artist doing. The artist can’t give you an answer that’s satisfying to the dreadful reality of your existence. So the best you can do is maybe entertain people and refresh them for an hour-and-a-half.

And then they can go on and meet the onslaught until they are sunken and crushed. And then somebody else comes along and picks them up a little bit. Aren’t you glad you came today?

Jacki, do you prefer doing theater or film?

Weaver: Film is more of novelty, because I’ve done so much theater over the past 52 years. I’m in love with making movies at the moment. Also, I find it easier at my age to remember three minutes of dialogue than three hours. So that is a factor. You need a lot of stamina to do eight shows a week. You need a lot of stamina to be a film actor, but it’s different. It’s easier if you’re an elderly person like myself.

What was your best day working on “Magic in the Moonlight” And what was it like working with Emma Stone?

Firth: I don’t what my best day was. Sometimes, you feel you know the scene. And it can feel like the best day for that reason, but it wasn’t necessarily the pleasantest way to get there.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is being wet in the observatory [where Stanley and Sophie go to escape a downpour of rain. There was great satisfaction in that we’d done something worthwhile.

I think it was a little dull for the director, but driving that car for miles along that road and that landscape, and not really having to do any acting — talk about an escape! I was in delightful company. So there were times I felt like I was just getting wind of something.

Can you talk about how “Magic in the Moonlight” has a theme of reality versus illusion, and how it fits into the historical context of the 1920s?
Allen: I’m all for illusion, because as you can tell from what I’ve been saying, for me reality is a painful grind. And I think it is for everybody, regardless of whether one is rich or poor in the end. I’m going to quote myself, there was a line in a movie — I can’t remember which movie it was — but it was, “We all know the same truth. Our lives depend on how we choose to distort it.” And that’s how I feel. So I’m all for illusion.

I’ve done this before in films. In “Purple Rose of Cairo,” the film is all about the difference between reality and illusion and how much better illusion is. But the problem is in that movie, Mia Farrow had to chose between reality and illusion. And she had to choose reality, because if you choose illusion it’s crazy. You can’t. You just go mad, so she chose reality, and it hurt her in the end.

The same thing is in this movie. The reality is in marked contrast to the illusion. Colin works as an illusionist. That’s what they’re called. The type of magician he is. He’s not a sleight-of-hand artist or telepathic. He’s an illusionist. He creates these illusions and I feel that’s the only the only thing that gets you up. The only thing that could possibly save us from the plight that we’re all in would be some kind of act of magic. Ad unless it happens soon, it’s a grim situation. I am obsessed with that subject.

The 1920’s for us now — I’m sure if you lived at the time it wasn’t that way — but what happens is your mind helps create an illusion when you cast something in the past, when you state something in the past. And the 1920s for me is all flappers and beautiful cars and jazz music and bootleggers and a different way of life. I’m sure if you lived there at the time, it was not so great. But now, with the years intervening, one can soften it and make it into anything you want. I do that all the time and set films very often in the past because I can create the illusion more tantalizingly.

Firth: I think the quote that Woody offered is absolutely perfect. If you’re in any creative practice, whatever the facts are, you interpret it or distort it. It’s your take, your twist, and I also think it’s interesting what he said about the filmmaker who provides the escapist entertainment is perhaps providing the greater contribution than one who’s making one to starkly confront things. I think that levity, lightness, escapism, diversion is often misjudged, undervalued and underrated as an art form, as a creative form.

Comedy, for a start. Comedy is about “Don’t take me seriously.” So the kind of people who hand out awards and write essays on people’s work, they take that at face value and are less inclined to take it seriously — even though [comedy] is a lot harder to pull off. I think life would be unthinkable without it.

Weaver: Anything I would add would seem banal compared to this. Because we [actors] pretend for a living, we get all off our backs when we’re pretending. Maybe some of us have a greater grasp of reality because we pretend for our work.

Woody, did you have any concerns that Stanley Crawford would alienate audiences because he was so sarcastic and egotistical?

Allen: Throughout history in the theater and film people do like sarcastic characters, and they do like curmudgeons — if they’re amusing, hey do like them despite the fact that they’re vitriolic, particularly if they’re for the right thing. If you can see that the person is a decent person and is for the right thing, and is not just a nasty person with base motives, but someone who is a decent human but expresses himself.

He’s annoyed with the phoniness of the character, the duplicity of the world. A character in the Salinger novel [“The Catcher in the Rye”], Holden Caulfield or “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” the Kaufman and Hart play — people who are vitriolic and find fault with everything, but you love them because they’re decent.

What are they finding fault with? Hypocrisy, phoniness, people who are exploiting the ignorance of other people, human ignorance. So I thought that if the character Colin is playing, he wants nothing more than to be wrong. He wants nothing more to find out there is more to life, and that he’s wrong, and that Emma is right that there’s are things that are unknown to us and magical and amazing and we don’t have all the answers, but the truth is pretty much what you see is what you get.

But as soon as he’s deceived into thinking there may be more to life, there may be some purpose or magic or underlying mystical meaning, it changes him completely. He smells the flowers. He loves everything. It gives you a purpose in life.

I was once on a television panel with Billy Graham. And I said, “What if when you die, you find out that I was right, and there is nothing [after death].” And he said correctly, “I still would have had a better life than you.”

He’s right. I would have had a life riddled with anxiety and questions. And he would have a life with complete confidence that he’s being protected and that in the after life, everything is great. And he went through life happy and secure — assuming he really felt that way, which he did.

So [Stanley] wants nothing more than to be changed and to find out that he was wrong. It’s great for a while, but his happiness is predicated strictly on being deceived, just as I feel the person who puts his or her faith in religion or his or her faith in some other life-affirming nonsense so they can take it is really deceiving themselves. You want to be able to say to yourself, “What I see is what I get. This is it. The facts are in pretty much, and they’re not good, but I still am going to go on and try to make a life and find some reason.

It’s not easy, let me tell you, but it has to be done without self-deception. Only when [Stanley] is deceived, he’s happy. When he’s not deceived, the best he can hope for, as he expresses in the movie, the same grim reality but with occasional oases here and there. And one of these oases is [Sophie]. Love does give you some little respite from the terrible world. It’s comforting in a certain way. People can get on each other’s nerves.

Were you influenced by George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” when writing “Magic in the Moonlight”?

Allen: No. I will say this: “Pygmalion” is the best comedy that was ever written. I do think it’s the perfect comedy. I think [I was influenced more by] Houdini exposing fake mediums, but I do think “Pygmalion” was a great, great comedy — one of the most perfect ones written.

In 1968, you said you had no desire to be a director and that you just wanted to be funny. What changed your mind?

Allen: In 1968, when I started directing films, I was only directing one to protect my own jokes. And those films — “Take the Money and Run” and “Bananas” — they were just jokes, one joke after another. And I did my best to do funny jokes. I threw away the ones that were not funny and left in the ones I thought were good.

And then gradually, when you do that, hopefully, you start to develop a little. You want to do something a little more ambitious. And when I did “Annie Hall,” people were saying to me, “Why are you doing this? You shouldn’t be doing a movie where you sacrifice laughs for plot. You should just do laughs. You’re good at that.”

But I kept getting more and more ambitious. And I was willing to strike out. I was willing to do movies like “Interiors” and fall on my face. It didn’t matter to me. I wanted to try and grow.

Over the years, to some degree, in some areas, I feel I’ve grown. In some areas, I made a fool of myself. In some areas, I think I can still do some funny things. But at that time, I was interested in just protecting the jokes, because I had made a film called “What’s New Pussycat?” which I was just the write of, and I had given them a lot of good jokes, I thought, and they ruined it one after the other.

And I vowed I would never do a film unless I could direct it, just to protect the jokes. I had no interest in being a director. And over the years, I’ve become pretentious and grandiose. And I see myself in a very different suit now. And so I make a fool of myself more frequently.

For more info: "Magic in the Moonlight" website