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The Woodman cometh

Woody Allen holds court at TIFF

Woody Allen speaks at the press conference for Cassandra's Dream. (Evan Agostini/Getty Images) Woody Allen speaks at the press conference for Cassandra's Dream. (Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

Wednesday. Day 7 of the Toronto International Film Festival. The inhabitants — and after seven long days, they are indeed inhabitants — of the Sutton Place Hotel are wilted, bent of posture, sallow of skin. The place has the melancholy vibe of an industrious leper colony. Inside the press conference room (32 festivals in, and TIFF organizers still don’t seem to realize that if you cram a small room with lights, equipment and bodies, it will become insufferably hot within a matter of minutes), fellow members of the journalistic fraternity cough wanly, chew multi-vitamin products and forgo the complimentary Starbucks for bottled organic orange juice.

“How are you?” one journo asks another.

“Extremely unwell. Yourself?”

“The same.”

The festival has become a form of combat reporting. “I feel more relaxed in Kabul,” one photographer tells me. “I’m just so darn tired!”

This is the sight that greets the principals of Woody Allen’s latest, Cassandra’s Dream, a dramedy concerning two working-class English brothers who have relied on a wealthy uncle’s financial benevolence, only to face a giant ethical dilemma when he asks for a dark favour in return. “Man,” says an artfully scruffy Colin Farrell, in expertly ripped denim, dusty boots and profusion of facial hair. “Y’all are so serious. You’re making me nervous.”

There’s no need for nerves — we can do Mr. Farrell no harm. We are just as unlikely to do any damage to cast mates Ewan McGregor (who plays Mr. Farrell’s brother in the film) and Haley Atwell, who have joined writer/director Allen for this morning’s explication on his latest, annual cinematic offering. “Speak loudly,” says Mr. Allen, in a voice that has lost its edge with old age, “I’m a little hard of hearing.” He seems appropriately pained, and not particularly overjoyed to be in the room.

The film, Mr. Allen tells us, “is a mixture of humour and ethical dilemma,” — of the Crimes and Misdemeanors ilk. (With 40 films in his lengthy filmography, there are distinct Woody Allen genres by now.) “I had the idea that there might be a tragic story of two nice boys — one who is willing to work hard and sacrifice, and the other who wanted a nice life and a nice house. And I thought it would be interesting if they had an uncle who had always helped them out financially…and if they were all chomping at the bit to ask him a favour. But he comes to make a request of them. An existential request of them. So I started to develop it — it grew from the nucleus of two nice brothers and an uncle who had an immoral request of them.”

Actress Hayley Atwell, left, and Woody Allen listen to a question. (Evan Agostini/Getty Images) Actress Hayley Atwell, left, and Woody Allen listen to a question. (Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

The Allen-esque use of the term “existential” (and this is a filmmaker who invented existential comedy, which is no small achievement), prompts thoughts of the passing of one of cinema’s legends. It’s uncannily appropriate that this year — the year of Ingmar Bergman’s death — sees the release of a serious Allen project. “He told me that he was afraid that he would die on a very, very sunny day,” Allen has said, “and I can only hope it was overcast and he got the weather he wanted.” But Allen has never had the hubris to compare himself the masters he has long revered. This is no Bergman film, but rather it finds its influence, says Allen, “from Greek plays — I wanted to obey some of the precepts of Greek theatre. You’re getting a standup comic’s take of Greek [tragedy].”

And Allen has come somewhat closer to his heroes — who include Roberto Rosselini and Vittorio De Sica — by moving his movie-making enterprise to Europe. “I’ve always felt slightly outside; by making my films in New York City and not Hollywood, with small budgets. But when I started making movies, I wanted to be a foreign filmmaker. It’s the fulfilment of my young filmmaker fantasies.”

It seems strange to see such a quintessentially American filmmaker nestled among the distinctly European Farrell, McGregor and Atwell, and well into his 70s, Mr. Allen’s career has taken an interesting turn. Because of the exigencies of film financing, Europe has proved a better environment for his particular brand of knock-’em-out-quickly filmmaking. “I always said: The only thing standing between me and greatness was me. I had all the freedom I wanted.” But at some point, the bean counters in America wanted more input into Allen’s scripts. “I said that I would rather not do that. And all of a sudden: London called.” (Allen shot his first film outside the U.S. in London, 2005’s Match Point, with a hodgepodge of British funding.)

The actors jump in on the griping about big films: “It’s like they’re looking for a guarantee to make money,” says McGregor. So why, asks a journalist, do they sign on to those projects? “It’s all the zeroes at the end of the cheque,” says Farrell. “Nah — just kidding. It’s part of the adventure. But it’s taken me years to get over the Catholic f---ng guilt thing — taking all the work I could.”

You can’t blame Allen’s fecundity on Catholic guilt — and nor, apparently, can one blame it on a particularly strong work ethic. “I’m lazy. I’m not a dedicated filmmaker. I don’t have the patience to shoot coverage. I want to shoot, go home, and get on with my life. I’d rather watch basketball.”

And it shows. Mr. Allen looks weary, stares down at his hands, and would clearly rather be elsewhere. That’s one trait he shares with the assembled journos. Even the presence of a genuine icon can’t shake the blues. I wonder if Ingmar Bergman showed up in a black shroud and challenged Mr. Allen to a chess game if anyone in the room would be impressed.

Richard Poplak is a Toronto-based journalist.

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