Fifteen Minutes with Wallace Shawn...



I doubt anything can be inferred from Woody Allen's latest film being released in pre-war Ukraine and Russia before hitting stateside. Throw Spain, Italy, and Slovakia into this mixture, too, to reach an international box office of barely over $1.7 million. Clearly, few folks are even aware Woody Allen released a new film entitled Rifkin's Festival. In fact, I haven't met any, even in New York City, his home base.

The director’s latest, a pungent paean to Neurosis with a capital N plus a master's bow to the classic films of Buñuel, Fellini, Welles, et al. had a brief run in American cinemas earlier this year before quietly settling into a streaming viewership on Amazon, VUDU, and their ilk.

The movie, which boasts several bona fide laughs and many more wry observations, retreads some familiar Allen storylines. An older film professor, Mort Rifkin (Wallace Shawn displaying a marvelous world weariness) accompanies his much younger wife Sue (a still seductive Gina Gershon) to the San Sebastián Film Festival, where she has an affair with her client, an acclaimed flavor-of-the-month film director (Louis Garrel).  The hypochondriacal Mort, after slowly realizing that he’s being cuckolded by a shallow helmer, whose movies he despises, falls for an attractive, unhappily wed doctor (Elena Anaya). In between his infatuation, his kvetching, and his undiagnosable aches and pains, Mort dreams about aspects of his life as if they were directed by art-house stalwarts such as Ingmar Bergman.

Shawn, who's upped his recognition factor lately by appearing as Dr. John Sturgis in 42 episodes of the hit TV show Young Sheldon, is also a renowned essayist, an acclaimed playwright (The Designated Mourner), a storied translator (The Three Penny Opera), a prolific actor (My Dinner with Andre), and even the voice of Rex in various Toy Story incarnations.

The following is a quarter-hour Zoom interview I had with Mr. Shawn, who once wrote: "Dreams can help, although they don't make their points in a direct way, and sometimes no one can say for sure exactly what their points really are. Dreams can even agitate for change, or for a better world, sometimes simply by offering people a glimpse of something agreeable that might be pursued -- or crystallizing into a vivid nightmare something awful that ought to be avoided. Dreams are actually involved in a serious battle. Despite a certain lightness in their presentation, they're not joking."

BJ: After reading your play Marie and Bruce, which was hysterical, I watched the film version with Matthew Broderick and Julianne Moore, which was only slight less hysterical. Your work is almost like Woody Allen's but with expletives. Mr. Allen never uses curse words or describes genitalia in detail, and you do that specifically. Have you noticed?

WS: I've noticed both things, yes: that I do it specifically . . . and that he doesn't. In his autobiography, he says he doesn't like comedians who use obscene language or talk a great deal about sex.

BJ: There have been many actors who've played the Woody Allen role in his films since he stopped playing himself. They try to imitate him in their vocal inflections, in their hand movements, etc., but you've done none of that.

WS: Thank you.

BJ: You are just yourself, and it works beautifully. It's almost as if Woody wrote the screenplay for you. Then I found out he had written it beforehand and only then realized you were perfect for it. So how did that work?

WS: Well, I, too, have seen those movies and was aware of the danger of even getting anywhere near sounding like Woody. Or behaving like Woody. It's hard to avoid because you know if you're near him, you kind of want to talk like him. But I was very aware of not doing that and strictly being me. I struggled to be me, and I guess I succeeded. Sometimes it was tough because in the course of directing the film, he might even recite one of my lines, and I would have to not say it just the way he did.

BJ: When you read the screenplay, did you say, "Lots of this philosophy is what I write in my own essays"? For example, what is the meaning of life or whatever? You ask questions like that in your work frequently?

WS: Well, I definitely, you know, feel that Mort and Woody and I are all somewhat philosophically inclined. I mean Woody in his autobiography is adamant that he's not an intellectual, etc., and I'm not, but I definitely try to . . .  I would dream of being an intellectual. I hang out with them. So do you apparently.

BJ: Once in a while.

WS: So I mean I revere intellectuals, and I do think about and I did study some philosophy, and yes, I am preoccupied with some questions, too.

BJ: There are lots of dreams and daydreams in the film, and you, in fact, in one of your essays, talk about dreams. You ended that piece with "[d]espite a certain lightness in their presentation, dreams are not joking." Did you realize how the dreams were going to appear in the film before you saw the final cut? And Mort in his dreams reveals lots of truths about himself, like he calls himself "a smorgasbord of neuroses." Do you, in your own dreams, ever have the same reaction? I mean not that you see yourself as a smorgasbord of neuroses, but that there's some analysis going on.

WS: I have . . . I have occasionally as in the character  . . . The character in the film is really influenced by his dreams. I mean he has dreams to teach himself certain lessons, and I think maybe sometimes I've done that, too. Of course, the funny thing about dreams is that you can bring other people into them, and to . . . . It can change your view of them which is not quite fair to them. But I mean if you dream about a person, and they didn't ask to be cast in your dream ... But yes, I think I have been influenced by my dreams. I mean mostly I forget my dreams, and I don't know. But I think I am influenced by them, yes, and I think they're important.

BJ: On another track, your character loves foreign films and another character in Rifkin's Festival tries to shameface him for only liking films with subtitles. Your Mort says, "American films . . . they have a false ending. They end with happiness." Do you feel American films are dangerous like your character does?

WS: I think they probably are. I mean there's just so much killing in most American films. And the killing is presented in a way that is enjoyable. I don't think that can be good for us myself. Scorsese actually shows you that violence is bad, and I admire him for that. But yeah, I'm not that interested in fantasy so I've missed most. I don't really go to those movies, and like Mort, I've gotten more for myself out of European films, and obviously, there are many American films that I absolutely adore, you know including many of Woody's and including Noah Baumbach's. Yes, there are many American films I love. Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. How can you beat that?

BJ: That's true. You've said, especially in your essays and in your other writings, that you're very upset with way the way the world is going, which is I guess an obvious feeling, but you state that writers might be able to change things. They might be our only hope. Do you include filmmakers in that?

WS: I think you know in my essays I sort of say, well, . . . there is . . . I don't put it this way, but to summarize, you know, there's a 1% chance that artistic work could lure people away from an obsession with supremacy, dominance, war, greed. I mean it is true that I do know some people who just like to read or write poetry and or make films, and that's an innocent use of the human mechanism, and you know if everybody were a film buff like Mort, I think the world would be much better.

BJ: I don't know if you've seen the film Don't Look Up on Netflix.

WS: I haven't seen it.

BJ: Well, it's about how the world is falling apart, and our leaders aren't doing anything, but lots of folk online criticize that. They ask, "What does this filmmaker think, that he could change the world?" I was sort of the opposite. I thought if more and more people made films like this and showed, especially to young people, the plight of what's happening, that could change the world.

WS: Well, the world does keep changing. I mean I don't know why the people who wrote in don't think it could change for the better as well as for the worse. That's a little bit silly. You know there have been changes for the better obviously. I mean women can vote now. Slavery was abolished. Of course, there can be changes for the better, and why wouldn't a film be able to influence that?

BJ: Sometimes a film such as Birth of a Nation can have a negative influence.

WS: Sure, of course.

BJ: I was wondering how young people are going to react to this film because as I keep aging day by day, I'm familiar with Xanax and I'm familiar with Bergman and Truffaut and Buñuel. Have you talked to any young people have seen this film who might not have the background in those films?

WS: I haven't met young people who . . . Yes, I'm curious whether . . . I mean . . . Obviously, they won't necessarily recognize the films from which those little parodies are made. I don't think it matters. I mean I don't think you need to be able to identify the original films. It could be about a character who loves films, and these are just made-up scenes. I don't think you need to know. I mean young people . . .  It would be an eccentric young person who would even go to this film because you know it doesn't deal with the concerns that many teenagers have.

BJ: The New York Times just published an article last week about how good sex can be for folks in their seventies. You never know what you're going to find in The New York Times.

PUB: We have to wrap up for the next interview so that's the last one.

BJ: So did you see that article in The Times?

WS: I actually haven't read that article.

BJ: So was filming Rifkin's Festival and being in San Sebastian with Woody and Gina Gershon a memorable experience?

WS: Yes, this is a very definite high point in my life, and one I never would have anticipated.

BJ: And you're more famous now with this TV show and everything.

WS: Well, yes, I mean I've somehow . . .  I don't know. I've had a lot of good luck in my life and a lot of it is piling on. You know now that I'm 175 years old

BJ: I think we're a few months apart. Anyway, well thank you so much. This has been glorious, and when I'm transcribing it, I'll be very happy looking at your face.

WS: Great. Thank you so much. Great talking to you. Bye.

(Rifkin's Festival is available for purchase or rental at Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, VUDU, and on numerous other platforms.)

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