Entertainment & Arts

Woody Allen says Cafe Society violence is justified

Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Woody Allen Image copyright AFP
Image caption Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Woody Allen at Cafe Society's Cannes premiere in May

Film-maker Woody Allen tells the BBC News website the gangster mayhem in his latest period comedy is justified, pointing out that murder and criminality has always been a feature in his work.

Even at 80 years old, Woody Allen is too young to remember the glittering Cafe Society of the 1920s and '30s that both informs his latest film and gives its title.

Yet that has not stopped him recreating the nightclubs, jazz bars and pool parties of this bygone era, in a film in which movie stars and Hollywood moguls rub shoulders with criminals and bootleggers.

The result is a film of pronounced juxtapositions: One in which a scene of tuxedoed and glamorously gowned socialites can slip into another in which a man is shot in the head in a barber's chair.

Could this be seen as Allen's homage to Martin Scorsese, another New York film-maker with a distinctive personal style, whose work abounds with such nefarious mayhem? "I should be so lucky!" he exclaims.

Corpses in concrete

One certainly does not expect a Woody Allen film to feature dead bodies being disposed of in wet concrete, or it to have a character who ultimately meets his maker via the electric chair.

"Oh no, [but] you should," he says with mock indignation. "Right from the start, [in 1969's] Take the Money and Run - even though it was a silly picture, I played a gangster.

"I made Match Point, which was a murder picture, as was Cassandra's Dream and Irrational Man and Manhattan Murder Mystery.

"I'm not graphic in general, but here it was indicated. I was writing about my [New York Jewish] background, and that was what happened."

Born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn, the director - born Allan Stewart Konigsberg - entered the world on 1 December 1935 - just five weeks after the Jewish-American gangster Dutch Schultz violently left it.

Image copyright Lionsgate/Warner Bros
Image caption Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg play 'Vonnie' and Bobby in the period romance

In Cafe Society, the romantic travails of youthful Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) are largely kept separate from the more ruthless activities of his brother Ben (Corey Stoll).

It is clear, however, that Allen's overall intention is to create a picaresque tableau - one in which the choices people make have a profound impact on whether they will ever achieve or experience lasting happiness.

Kristen Stewart's character Vonnie - a fresh-faced young studio secretary who is torn between Eisenberg's bashful ardour and the more seasoned attentions of a married movie star agent (Steve Carell) - is a case in point.

Which man she chooses will have massive repercussions not just for her respective paramours, but also a wealthy young woman named Veronica (Blake Lively) who comes to share more than Vonnie's (albeit abbreviated) name.

'Unconventional relationships'

Stewart, known to millions for her Bella Swan role in the Twilight film series, admits Vonnie's "mannerisms and demeanour are pretty outside of [her] more immediate go-to personality traits".

"But I'm far from a character actor, and Vonnie was definitely in there somewhere - I wasn't faking it.

"The movie would only work if she had this really contagious, enticing and inviting willingness to be impulsive - to live in the moment and appreciate life in a shameless, non-judgemental way.

"For a story told in the context of that era, it's really forward and cool and modern that she can indulge in unconventional relationships and not feel bad about it at a time when young respectable women were supposed to do very particular things."

Image copyright Lionsgate/Warner Bros
Image caption Other roles in the film are played by Steve Carell (left) and Ant-Man's Corey Stoll

For Eisenberg, the chance to travel back in time was as much of an attraction as the opportunity to work again with Allen, a director he collaborated with previously on the 2012 portmanteau comedy To Rome with Love.

"It's a surreal experience," he explains. "You enter into a different time period, a romantic glamour that doesn't exist anymore.

"You mourn the loss of that sweet formality, if not the horrible poverty, racism and sexism. At the same time, the clothes were nicer."

Trademark inflections

Eisenberg's own mannerisms and demeanour inevitably recall those of Allen, the role of Bobby being one it would easy to imagine him playing at the beginning of his career.

The Social Network and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice star says he tried to make "the character [his] own", while conceding it was difficult not to let some of Allen's familiar inflections seep into his portrayal.

"It's written by Woody Allen, it's written in his style and cadence [and] he's standing a foot from me every day giving me direction," the 32-year-old shrugs.

"I think it's impossible not to be inspired or affected by him subconsciously, even though I made every conscious effort to avoid it."

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Media captionKristen Stewart on being 'girly' for Woody Allen

Soon to celebrate his 81st birthday, Allen's ability to secure financing for his projects without surrendering artistic control makes him an anomaly in today's Hollywood.

He's had his ups and downs, many of the latter as a consequence of his turbulent personal life. Cafe Society, though, shows his working routine to be as robust and as streamlined as ever.

"When I finish a script I never have to show it to anybody," he reveals. "I never have to get any approval for it or approval of casting.

"I raise the money privately, so I make the movie I want to make and then I hope people like it.

"As a director, I would not have liked to work in Hollywood in the '30s, because the studio ruled film-makers and told them who to cast and what scripts they had to do.

"I've been very blessed, very lucky - and I've never had to argue for final cut."

Woody Allen, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart were speaking at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Cafe Society opens in the UK on 2 September.

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