Robert Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary screens as part of the Cannes Classics on the Côte d’Azur this week and it’s probably fitting after the resounding success of Allen’s Cannes 2011 opening film, Midnight in Paris. Little has changed, though, for the New York director, who maintains his rigorous rhythm of making a film every year. In the movie, he admits that a film’s success comes down to luck. After all, some of his films starring the ever-popular and talented Scarlett Johansson worked – Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona – while Scoop certainly did not. Allen doesn’t believe that doing interviews makes any difference.
“People who make the movie always tell you it was artistically such a challenge,” he scoffs sardonically, “but when a picture comes out my theory is, regardless of all of this, the audience wants to see if it’s a good picture. If they don’t want to see it, I could do 5,000 interviews with people and they still don’t come.”
Weide is a former director-producer of Curb Your Enthusiasm and a documentary specialist who was Oscar-nominated in 1998 for Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth. With Woody Allen: A Documentary, he follows Allen’s life, unearthing rarely seen footage of the 77-year-old in his early days as a talented comedic writer for television and a stand-up comedian. Allen has been in demand ever since and has never had to worry about work, or money.
“I've never had any writer’s block,” Allen admits. “People have said to me, ‘You could wake up one day and not be funny’. But I can’t, because this is what I am and I have never feared that. If you said to me now, 'I will give you money to make a film in Serbia', then I could go in the next room and write a film set in Serbia. I have never been to Serbia but I could go home and write a film. I just feel I can do that. Why? Maybe because when I started I was a television writer. I was 16 years old and had to write a show live for every Saturday night. You couldn’t sit there and wait for your muse to come.”
Having interviewed Allen numerous times over the years, mostly in Paris where he enjoys his biggest fan base (until fairly recently half of his films’ box office came from France alone, and he’s also hugely popular in Italy), I ask Weide what came as his biggest surprise working with the film legend.
“His work ethic and how he can’t sit still like a normal person,” Weide responds. “Woody can’t relax. If he finishes one film then he starts another screenplay right away, and then for whatever reason, if it’s going to be a few months before he can start pre-production on his new movie, he will go crazy! So he will write a play or he will tour Europe with his jazz band.
A few years ago, he was out in LA directing an opera. He’s 76 years old now but I hope and feel that the day when he is physically unable to do this is many, many years from now. The other thing that I found interesting was his calm presence on the set. There is nothing melodramatic or eccentric about his personality there.”
This, of course, flies in the face of Allen’s neurotic shrink-loving characters.
“From the day I started doing movies in 1965, no matter what kind of movie I did, people always thought it was autobiographical, Allen laments. “I used to say that I am not this person, I don’t do this, I am not interested in this. But they don’t want to hear that. They humour me. They say, ‘Yes, yes we know’. There have been movies over the years that I have written with other people, like Marshall Brickman and Doug McGrath, and we make these things up in a room.”
A creature of habit, Allen comes up with ideas, which he writes on pieces of paper and keeps in a drawer, as we see in the film. When he needs an idea for his next movie, he shuffles though the scraps of paper. He still writes his movies in the manner he has always done.
“I see no reason not to,” Allen explains. “I write with a yellow pad and pencil or pen and when I am finished, I type it up. I have the same German typewriter that I bought when I was 16-years-old. It is perfect. If I showed it to you, you would think that it just came from the factory. Everything works and there are parts of it that I have never had to repair or fix in any way.”
Woody’s women, both onscreen and off, make their way into the movie. Diane Keaton, his partner and muse in the early days, most notably in Annie Hall, still remains a close friend and features prominently. His sister and producer, Letty Aronson, now says her brother has never been happier than in his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his former partner and second muse Mia Farrow. Understandably, Farrow was not prepared to participate.
“I did approach her just to give her the benefit of the doubt,” says Weide, “and I was certain she would turn me down, but I wanted it to be her decision and not mine. What she did do was give permission to use her clips from Woody’s movies. She could have very easily refused and I would have been greatly compromised because, post-1960, you have to have permission. But she granted me that, which I was very grateful for. Otherwise, the feature film clips for the most part were not a problem; it was just a matter of negotiating a rate, even if some of those more bizarre clips and old TV footage proved harder to find. In a couple of cases, where somebody wanted too much money, Woody actually sent letters to these people asking them to please reconsider letting me have the material. So that was great.”
Woody Allen: A Documentary is screening at the Sydney Film Festival (June 6 - 17), the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (until June 18), and will be released on DVD/Blu-Ray on June 27.