San Sebastián has had the privilege of being chosen by Woody Allen as a location for shooting his latest film. Repudiated by some of the American public, this movie director has replaced his classic Manhattan with the great European capitals –Paris, London, Barcelona– and other elegant regions such as the French Riviera and, now, the Basque Country – destinations that have given him a big welcome. His public –loyal, intellectual, and well-educated, capable of understanding the satire and dark comedy of his impeccable scripts– is the kind of public that any city would like to receive as a visitor. To be the stage for one of Allen’s feature-length films is the best advertising campaign that a city can have.
Filming on the Basque coast features scenes shot at the Itzurun Beach, Pasaia, and different points of San Sebastián. The movie is set at the International Film Festival of San Sebastián, and the actual places where the festival is held are the ones Woody chose as a backdrop for his movie; among them are the María Cristina Hotel, one of the festival’s symbols of glamour. The lobby of the iconic hotel has become one of the film’s main sets and it is where one of the movie’s sequences that we had the honor of attending took place, being able to see firsthand the modus operandi of this legendary director.
The scene that we were able to witness happened in the daytime: the technical equipment was hidden behind the glow of the many spotlights illuminating the lobby; there were a hundred or so extras who played the roles of receptionists, tourists, festival guests, and journalists waiting motionless in their positions. Two of the extras that were playing receptionists told us that they actually did work at the María Cristina Hotel and, after going through a casting procedure, they were selected to play themselves. The next one to arrive was Wallace Shawn –one of the film’s protagonists– alongside Christoph Waltz, Louis Garrel, Gina Gershon, Elena Anaya, and Sergi López. Once all the technicians, actors, and extras were ready, Woody Allen appeared. Because of the way he walks –uneven and somewhat clumsy– and the way he relates with those present, Allen reminded us of the character that he played in Hollywood Ending – a film director who lost his sight at the start of a shoot and was forced to direct his film blind. Although his physical abilities are a bit impaired by his age (83 years), we saw how he analyzed the position of each one of the actors with an eagle eye, and his intellect is still as bright as when he wrote the hilarious book Mere Anarchy.
Once he had gone over the entire scene, he shouted “Action!” and everyone got moving: Wallace Shawn went up to the reception desk to speak with a hotel employee while a young couple, who were playing the roles of a famous actor and his lovely girlfriend, came down the hotel’s elegant staircase amongst a swarm of journalists taking non-stop photos. While filming, the narrator’s voice that was to accompany the sequence after editing could be heard. When the director shouted “Cut!”, the actors and extras returned to their starting position.
Numerous guests unrelated with the film were staying at the hotel and they were not even aware that filming was being done there. Between one take and the next, groups of bewildered guests crossed the lobby, not understanding why there were a hundred people standing still in complete silence, as if they were on the Truman Show. When an unmistakable older man with a fisherman’s hat and black-rimmed glasses appeared among the technicians, it all made sense for them.
The camera’s position was changed and the same sequence was filmed again. The director corrected the movements of Wallace Shawn and made some comments on the lighting with Vittorio Storaro, the award-winning cinematographer. Rifkin’s Festival, as the film is tentatively called, is the fourth time that Allen and Storaro have worked together.
As in all of Woody’s films, secrecy in terms of the script is paramount – although the director has revealed that “the film is going to be a tribute to the seventh art and great movies in which I will tell about my experience at the International Film Festival of San Sebastián.” When we asked him why he had chosen our city as his stage, he answered, “I wanted to film in Spain again and I thought that San Sebastián would be a good place for my family to spend the summer during the months of filming.” The director frequently makes reference to his family when he explains important decisions in terms of his work; for example, when attending festivals: “At first, I loved film festivals and to read about them. But, when I became a director, I stopped visiting them; I would send the films, but I didn’t attend. Nevertheless, in the last few years, I’ve been talked into going. They take good care of me and my wife enjoys it too, and I want to make her happy. What I don’t like is the direction that some festivals are taking, because I think that they should show the highest expression of the cinema as art, offer chances for new and great directors, and showcase the work that is best artistically instead of focusing on the big stars or best commercial films.”
While his family obviously is very important in his daily life, work is undoubtedly what drives him: “I’m not going to retire; in fact, I don’t think I’ll ever retire. My philosophy has always been that, no matter what happens, I’ll stay focused on my work. No matter what happens with my family, politics, and illnesses, my work takes up my energy and time. I’ll surely die in the middle of a shoot, on the set.”
The camera’s position was changed once again, this time to focus on the famous couple dazzling journalists. “I want you to go down the staircase more enthusiastically, and when you get to the bottom I want you to pose excessively, almost theatrically, moving your sunglasses about a bit,” Woody indicated to the two foreign figures who were playing the popular couple. Apart from small corrections, Allen doesn’t get too caught up in how the actors play their roles, “I owe everything to the fantastic actors that I work with; I give them a lot of freedom and benefit from their talent; thanks to them, I seem like a better director than what I really am.”
Although societies have changed, Allen stays true to his way of working and his relentless humor. “I don’t think in terms of social or political movements, and there is no correlation between the current political situation in the United States and the making of humor. On the contrary: the best of satire has been created during this administration. Comedy works anywhere and under any circumstance.” Woody repeated the couple’s descent down the staircase three times and shouted, “Cut!”. That was the end of filming for today.
The film is expected to be released in mid-2020. Only then will we be able to see the entire script that Elena Anaya describes as one of the most beautiful ones she has ever read. Surely, this new script includes phrases as famous as these ones, which the director has used to delight us for the last five decades: “God is either cruel or incompetent,” “I just can’t listen to any more Wagner, you know… I’m starting to get the urge to conquer Poland,” “Love is the answer, but while you are waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty good questions,” “In my house I’m the boss, my wife is just the decision maker,” “Eternity is a very long time, especially towards the end,” and “Nothing’s wrong with science. Between the Pope and air conditioning, I’d choose air conditioning.”
The cinema, like other arts, has the ability to transform reality and to project it in the way that the artist perceives it. Thanks to Woody Allen, we have recalled the nostalgic glamour of the French Riviera in Magic in the Moonlight, we have relived the French artistic scene in Midnight in Paris, we have discovered the life of London’s working class and upper class in Cassandra’s Dream and Match Point, and we have become familiar with the excessive lifestyles of the famous in Celebrity. “With Rifkin’s Festival, I would like to transfer my view of San Sebastián to the world”, concluded Woody. We are anxiously awaiting to see the perception that this genius from New York has of our city.