Published: May 10, 2011
Even for people who have never been to Paris, the name of the city is more than a metaphor for magic—it’s almost a synonym. Certainly there’s no better place on earth that Woody Allen could have chosen for his new romantic comedy than Paris. It is a city with a unique mythology and heritage, celebrated for the extraordinary beauty of its streets, boulevards and gardens, as well as the splendor found inside so many of the greatest museums in the world. The resonance of its history, from major political and cultural events to the aura of its legendary restaurants and cafes, is felt everywhere. The past endures and shines brightly in Paris, which makes it well-suited for a story of a man reinvigorating his feelings and finding inspiration to reflect on his life.
Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s valentine to the City of Light, which he considers equal to New York as the great city of the world. “Of course I’m partial to New York because I was born there and grew up there,” he says, “but if I didn’t live in New York, Paris is the place I would live.” The film is the second time Allen has filmed there, after a small bit of EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU. “I get great enjoyment out of presenting Paris to the cinema audience the way I see it,” he says. “Just as with New York, where I present it one way, and other directors present it other ways, somebody else could come and shoot Paris in a completely different way. I want to present it my way, projecting my own feelings about it.”
Allen fell in love with Paris during the shooting of WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT, his debut film as an actor and writer. Much like Gil, the protagonist of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, he’s rueful about not staying there after the filming, as others on the film did. “It was an adventure that was too bold for me at the time,” he says. “In retrospect I could have stayed, or at the very minimum taken an apartment and divided my time—but I didn’t, and I regret that.”
Gil (played by Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter who had aspirations to be a serious writer when he was a younger man. He idolized American novelists like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and wanted to be a novelist in their tradition. But somewhere along the way, Gil left that path, discovered he had a talent for writing screenplays, and fell into a well-paid routine of work that didn’t satisfy him and affluence that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. “He found himself to be a victim of that old Hollywood joke,” says Allen. “I laid down at the pool… and when I got up it was ten years later.”
As the story begins, Gil and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) are tagging along on a trip to Paris with her father, John (Kurt Fuller), and mother, Helen (Mimi Kennedy). John, a conservative businessman who has come to Paris to finalize a high-level deal, makes no attempt to disguise his disapproval of Gil, who he sees as an unreliable lightweight unworthy of his daughter. Gil’s absorption with the novel he’s writing, rather than the more lucrative profession waiting for him at home, makes him seem even more frivolous in John’s eyes.
Being in Paris triggers Gil’s memories of his one-time literary ambitions. “Gil lived in Paris when he was in his twenties and he has this romantic attachment to it,” says Wilson. “It represents the time when his professional life was just beginning, when he thought about what he was going to do with his life. That was when he came to the fork in the road. So of course being there again makes him think about that time and the road he didn’t take.”
Allen originally conceived of Gil as an east coast intellectual, but he rethought it when he and casting director Juliet Taylor began talking about Owen Wilson for the role. “I thought Owen would be charming and funny but my fear was that he was not so eastern at all in his persona,” says Allen. Realizing that not only could Gil come from California, it would actually make the character richer, so he rewrote the part and submitted it to Wilson, who readily agreed to do it. “Owen is a natural actor,” says Allen. “He doesn’t sound like he’s acting, he sounds like a human being speaking in a situation, and that’s very appealing to me. He’s got a wonderful funny bone, a wonderful comic instinct that’s quite unlike my own, but wonderful of its kind. He’s a blonde Texan kind of Everyman’s hero, the kind of hero of the regiment in the old war pictures, with a great flair for being amusing. It’s a rare combination and I thought he’d be great.”
Rachel McAdams joins the cast as Gil’s fiancée, Inez. “Inez is used to having her way,” says McAdams. “She’s very sure of what she wants. She’s in love with Gil or she thinks she is and is maybe not too inquisitive about the state of their relationship or the health of their relationship. She thinks Gil’s a good guy, a good catch, and he’s stable provided that he keeps writing screenplays and they can have a comfortable life in the States. She’s supportive of his dabbling with a novel, provided that it’s a slight preoccupation, but I don’t think she’s encouraging it as a life-long dream, something he should spend too much of his time on.” Says Allen: “Inez just wants Gil to make enough money so they can go to parties and raise children. There’s nothing wrong with her aspirations; they’re just not Gil’s.”
Allen has high praise for McAdams’s work on the film. “Rachel just gets it,” he says. “She’s funny when she has to be funny; she’s serious when she has to be serious. She’s unfailingly real, she doesn’t do anything too big or too under-acted, and she’s totally alive on the screen.” Says Wilson: “What I saw even more from Rachel’s performance was how Inez is kind of funny in the way she uses her sexuality to manipulate Gil. Rachel has a very good sense of humor and knew exactly how to play those scenes.”
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is the second occasion when McAdams and Wilson co-starred as a couple, after “Wedding Crashers” in 2005. “I was so excited to work with Owen again because we had so much fun when we worked together a few years ago,” says McAdams. “As this was a much more antagonistic relationship than the one we had in the other film, I was curious about how that would play out. So our characters aren’t getting along this time around—but we did again.” Says Wilson: “I loved working with Rachel again. She came in during the second half of filming, and I think she brought this burst of energy and got everybody renewed, got us charged up for the final push.”
While in Paris, Gil encounters Adriana (Marion Cotillard), an exquisitely beautiful aspiring fashion designer who has been the lover and muse to a series of famous artists. “Adriana doesn’t know where she belongs, she is searching for her place,” says Cotillard. “She admires artists because their world is wide and their imagination takes them to some marvelous places. She needs to dream.” Says Allen: “There are always special women that artists painted a number of times, women that lived with the artists and provided an enormous amount of support for them. Adriana is not only lovely, she’s also very intelligent, someone who can provide a very strong artistic force for them to bounce things off, to support them when they’re down, to encourage them when they need it, and to tell them when they’re wrong. In many cases this can provide a rich partnership with the artist.”
The role of Adriana fits Cotillard, an Academy Award® winner for LA VIE EN ROSE, like a lace glove; one look at her leaves little doubt about Adriana’s ability to become an object of desire for so many formidable men. “Marion has got a built-in charisma,” say Allen. “She makes the most ordinary kind of moments and dialogue sound interesting because she herself is such an interesting movie actress. And she’s got a very lovely and interesting face to look at; I never get tired of looking at it. I also noticed that she’s able to call up any kind of emotion she wants quickly and easily.”
When Adriana hears the first sentences of Gil’s novel-in-progress, she is almost instantly drawn to him. “She has always felt she didn’t belong to the era she lives in and she feels Gil is the same kind of person,” says Cotillard. “She recognizes herself in him.” Despite his almost-married status, Gil is amazed at his good luck in having attracted the attention of such a beautiful woman, and flattered that someone who has been the muse for so many virtuosic artists would admire his writing. But as Gil’s interest in Adriana deepens, his doubts about his relationship with Inez increases. “While Gils’s very smitten with Inez,” says Wilson, “he also sees that there’s a disconnect about where they want to live their lives, what he would like to do, and even if she’s the right person for him.” In a way, Gil and Inez are both caught up in illusions: he dreams of being somewhere else, and she expects a status quo that might not exist. “I don’t think they’re seeing each other anymore,” says McAdams. “They’re both just going through the motions, and carrying on—nobody wants to rock the boat. But I don’t think they could be any further apart than they are at the moment.”
While Gil is otherwise engaged, Inez spends time with Paul (Michael Sheen), a handsome intellectual visiting Paris with his wife Carol (Nina Arianda), while he lectures at the Sorbonne. While Inez sees Paul, who she has had a crush on since college, to be as charming as he is cerebral, Gil finds Paul to be an insufferable know-it-all, and can’t stand to be around him. As Gil is increasingly absent, both with his novel and with Adriana, Paul makes a move and starts flirting with Inez. While Gil sees Paul as an annoying stuffed-shirt, he does possess a substantial body of knowledge, which presented a balancing act for Sheen. “Michael had to do the pseudo-intellectual, the genuine intellectual, the pedant, and he came in and nailed it from the start,” says Allen.
Perhaps the height of Paul’s pompous actions is when he argues with the tour guide at the Rodin Museum, played by none other than France’s First Lady, Carla Bruni. Allen offered Bruni the role almost as a lark when he and his wife and sister were invited for breakfast with Bruni and her husband Nicolas Sarkozy, President of the French Republic. While chatting with Bruni, Allen found her so charming and beautiful, and knowing that she is a celebrated singer/songwriter and performer, he decided at the spur of the moment to offer her the part. “I told her, ‘I won’t take much of your time, you won’t have to rehearse—just come in for a couple of days and shoot,'” says Allen. “And she said, ‘Yes, it would be fun. I’d like to be able to tell my grandchildren I was in a movie, just for the experience.” Allen adds: “She did all the scenes very well, and I think if I cast her in a larger part, she would have been just as good, but I don’t think it would have been practical for her to take seven weeks off to shoot a movie.” Owen Wilson was impressed by how down-to-earth First Lady Bruni-Sarkozy was. “She was so gracious and nice to me and to all the crew,” he says. “She’s a great ambassador for the country.”
As is typical for a Woody Allen film, a group of superlative actors fill out the supporting cast, ranging from stars like Adrien Brody and Kathy Bates to talented newcomers like Corey Stoll, Nina Arianda, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, and Léa Seydoux.
The film’s locations include some of Paris’s most cherished sites, including: the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, the grounds and Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, Monet’s Gardens at Giverny, Musée de l’Orangerie (Monet’s Water Lilies paintings), Musée Rodin, Musée des Arts Forains, Marché Paul Bert (flea market), Rue Montagne St. Genevieve (where Gil goes at midnight), Notre Dame Garden Square – Jean XXXIII (where the museum guide translates for Gil), Place Dauphin, Maxim’s, Quai de la Tournelle (book stalls), Pont Alexandre III, as well as the restaurants Le Grand Véfour, Les Lyonnais, and Lapérouse. “It was such a treat to spend time in these places which are usually swarming with tourists and be completely alone, with a really small camera crew, and a few actors wandering around as though it belonged to us,” says McAdams. “It was really magical.”
Woody Allen has often stated that he prefers to give his actors as much freedom as possible on the set. Speaking, of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, perhaps with a degree of overstatement, he says: “I didn’t have to give any direction to anybody.” While Owen Wilson says he’d heard reports from other actors that Allen was “pretty quiet,” he didn’t have that experience himself: “I felt he very much had a point of view about the way the scenes should go,” he says, “which isn’t to say that he was fussy or too exacting with the words in the script—you could change things and make it more how you might say it.” Wilson discovered that Allen likes to shoot three-minute scenes in a single take, rather than the typical way of breaking up scenes into numerous shots. “It gives you that feeling of adrenaline like when you’re playing a sport,” says Wilson, “you know that you have to get it right and you won’t have all these different chances. It makes you concentrate a little bit more.” Says McAdams: “It was very relaxed, and I love that he knows what he wants—that really gives me a sense of confidence and direction. And yet he’s so open and collaborative at the same time, which I think is the ideal combination for an actor.” Cotillard simply considered herself “lucky” to be invited into Allen’s world. “Woody Allen is a brilliant man in the way he observes life, people, things,” she says. “You feel a lot of wit, tenderness, and humor.”
While there are always dark themes underneath all of Woody Allen’s comedies, the tone of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is more upbeat. “I guess there will always be dark themes in my movies, because they’re underlying in my life, or anything I’ve ever thought about” says Allen, “but in this particular film, they’re not really addressed, they’re just minor themes. The tone and emphasis of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is more romantic and light.”
The story of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is about unusual journey that Gil takes. He makes a lot of mistakes and missteps along the way, and his behavior isn’t always admirable, but in the bigger picture he’s making progress. “Gil is a character who is digging himself out rather than digging himself in,” says McAdams. “He’s upsetting the balance, he’s pulling himself up by his bootstraps, and he’s making changes.” Through his relationship with Adriana, Gil rethinks his idea that he’d be better off somewhere else, and recognizes that being somewhere else carries with it its own issues and problems. “I think he has to find a way to be happy just where he is,” says Wilson. Allen adds: “If he’s going to take himself seriously, not just as an artist, but as a human being, he’s better off facing reality and recognizing that the contentment and happiness and spiritual peace that is required to get through life is something that’s inside you. So the movie is hopeful in that Gil comes to that conclusion that it’s better not to delude yourself—even though it’s more pleasant and less painful, it’s still better not to.”
“I think this film couldn’t be more hopeful,” says Wilson. “It couldn’t be more hopeful with the sense of endless possibility that exists in a place like Paris. It’s a celebration of that.”