Woody Allen insists he's not a big thinker, a hard worker or even funny. Nothing could be further from the truth
By Adam Higginbotham12:11PM BST 22 Jun 2010
Woody Allen is a man of well-established and peculiar habits. For more than 30 years the 74 year-old has risen every morning and exercised on a treadmill before taking a shower.
If he happens to be in a bathroom where the shower drains into the centre of the floor, instead of the corner, he will not use it.
Afterwards, he makes his breakfast, which, despite living for many years with a household staff including chauffeurs and cooks, he makes himself, in the same way he has every morning since he was a child living in an overcrowded apartment in Brooklyn: a bowl of Cheerios, with raisins and topped with a banana, which must be cut into exactly seven slices.
‘I’m very superstitious,’ he explains, ‘about a lot of things.’
Since he was 15, he has practised playing the clarinet for at least 40 minutes every day; for more than three decades, since he began a once-weekly engagement in Manhattan playing with a jazz band every Monday night, he has made sure he always puts in an hour.
Above all, he works almost constantly on making movies: since 1969, Allen has maintained a prodigious work-rate, averaging one feature film every 12 months for the past 40 years.
The relentlessness of his film-making process is important, he says, not primarily for any creative reason, but simply because it keeps his mind from pondering the inevitable.
‘When you’re worried about this joke, and this costume, and this wig, and that location, and the dailies,’ he says, ‘you’re not worried about death and the brevity of life.’
The production of Allen’s films now starts and finishes at the grandly named Manhattan Film Centre – a threadbare suite of windowless rooms on the ground floor of an imposing apartment building on the Upper East Side of New York.
When I visit one afternoon in June, a willowy young assistant is stationed at a wooden desk, a laptop balanced precariously on a stack of documents and yellowing reference books.
Just inside the door, the handwritten labels on a set of oak filing cabinets catalogue Allen’s efforts at keeping his existential angst at bay: Alice – Crimes and Misdemeanours; Love and Death – Stardust Memories; Sweet and Lowdown – Zelig.
Nearby, his battered green fishing hat – once intended as a disguise, but long-since established as a trademark – rests on a bookcase.
Allen leads the way into the screening theatre, a low-ceilinged room lit by chintzy wall sconces and swagged with velvet curtains, and takes a seat in a small revolving chair.
He is dressed in a familiar drab uniform – blue shirt, army surplus trousers and scuffed, heavy-soled black shoes – and his hair is now almost entirely white.
Softly spoken and diffident, often droll but rarely funny, he talks in the same halting cadences as his comic characters, but without their mannered delivery. He is also slightly deaf.
Even so, his work-rate remains frantic. When we meet, he is in the middle of final preparations to leave New York for Paris, where he will soon begin filming his next feature; he has recently returned from Cannes, where he screened his last, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger; but the movie he wants to discuss is the one before that, the Manhattan-set farce Whatever Works, which is now receiving a belated release in Britain.
It stars Larry David as quantum physicist Boris Yellnikoff, a failed suicide whose disgust and despair with the futility of existence is challenged by an improbable romance with Melody, a naive Southern runaway 50 years his junior.
Despite apparently obvious resonance with his own personal life – he has been married to Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his long-time girlfriend Mia Farrow, since 1997, when she was 27 and he was 61 – Allen insists that the movie is in no way autobiographical.
Indeed, he originally wrote the screenplay in the mid-Seventies, with Zero Mostel, the corpulent star of The Producers, in mind for the lead. When Mostel died in 1977, Allen put the script away in a drawer, where it remained until someone suggested that David would be good for the part.
‘All I had to do was change the topical references,’ he says. ‘But the script was the same – many, many years before I met my wife.’
Allen says that the idea that his films are autobiographical remains the most widespread misconception about him. For all the obvious parallels between his life and the fretting, hypochondriac, psychotherapy-fixated characters in his films, he maintains that the Woody Allen of popular imagination is simply a screen persona designed to get laughs.
He believes the second popular misconception about him is that he is an intellectual: ‘Which I’m completely not. I never read any books when I was younger, never had intellectual interests, flunked out of college in my freshman year with low marks. To this day, I much prefer watching a basketball game or baseball game to reading. I don't have any profound thoughts on anything,’ he says.
Any similarities between himself and a man of cerebral pursuits, he insists, are largely cosmetic. ‘These glasses,’ he tells me, and waggles his distinctive spectacles away from his face, ‘that’s what does it.’
This seems an unlikely claim. What about his films, with their metaphysical preoccupations? The references to Kierkegaard?
‘I’ve always been obsessed with mortality and subjects that are, by accident, more philosophical than topical. I would never want to make a film about gay rights, or abortion, or black civil liberties – they don’t interest me artistically.
'The things that interested me turned out to be philosophical themes: Why are we here? And why is it so terrible?’
Still, I suggest, these are hardly unintellectual concerns.
‘Well – they’re given more weight than…’ he trails off. ‘I mean, I have nothing to add to those subjects. I can only complain about them.’
It’s been some time since Allen has made a film that seemed daring, ambitious, or unmissable. The annual arrival of the new Woody Allen movie once prompted queues around the block at Manhattan cinemas and excited eager anticipation in Europe.
But in the early years of the new century, his ideas and box-office appeal both began to dwindle. And although both the recent Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the crime melodrama Match Point – which Allen considers the best movie of his career so far – performed well at the box office, the themes and significance of his work seem to have shrunk with age.
For many years now, Allen’s day-to-day life has been circumscribed, not merely by the boundaries of New York City, or even Manhattan, but by a handful of blocks surrounding his home on the Upper East Side.
‘I walk around my neighbourhood, and eat at restaurants in my neighbourhood, and play jazz at the Carlyle Hotel, just a few blocks from my house,’ he says.
‘And my cutting room is right in my neighbourhood. My kids go to school on the Upper East Side.’
Is it fair to say that he lives in a bubble?
‘I think that would be a fair criticism of me,’ he says equably.
What was the last film you saw that you really liked?
‘Oh, God. This is…’ he begins, and then considers the question for a long time in silence. ‘Hmm. Oh. Gee, I don’t know. I haven’t seen anything I loved recently, and I’ve seen a lot of pictures.’
Eventually, he gives up; later, he mentions that he enjoyed the French prison thriller Un Prophète; and the following day, through his assistant, he also recommends his friend Roman Polanski’s The Ghost.
Even the hi-tech spectacle of Avatar has passed him by. ‘The last 3D movie I saw,’ he says, and allows himself a little chuckle, ‘was the House of Wax.’
He has, however, heard good things about the James Cameron juggernaut: ‘Diane Keaton said it was just great and that, you know, the 3D was great.’
He remains, infamously, technophobic: ‘I’ve never emailed anyone in my life, or received an email. I wouldn’t know how to do that,’ he tells me. ‘I have no interest in it. I don’t own a computer, you know, or any of that stuff.’
Nevertheless, now that he has a young family – he and Soon Yi have two adopted daughters, Bechet, 12, and Manzie, 10, both named after jazz musicians – there are all kinds of baffling up-to-the-minute gee-gaws around the house.
‘Each one of them has a computer for school, and they work it. And one of them has a…’ he pauses for a moment, as if fixing his grasp on a prickly fragment of a foreign language, ‘Kindle.’
It’s a surprise, then, to find our conversation interrupted by a ringtone sounding from Allen’s trouser pocket, and see him pull out an iPhone.
When the call is finished – it was one of the girls – he explains why he made an exception for such a new-fangled device: he needs it to practise the clarinet when he travels.
‘When I go away to Paris, or to anyplace, I have 1,200 jazz records in this. So when I have to practise, I put on my earphones and I can play with all those New Orleans bands.’
Allen says that the relentless rehearsal, like the other rigid routines of his daily life, is driven as much by a fear of self-recrimination as by a love of music.
‘Yes, there are days when I feel, “Oh, I don’t want to practise today. I just don’t want to.” But the guilt, if I don’t, is not worth it.
'Same thing with the treadmill. I hate the treadmill like rat poison. But if I don’t do the treadmill, the guilt is too… you know, it’s too punishing.’
Hypochondria has been a part of the Woody Allen shtick since his days as a stand-up. But it’s easy to get the impression that he genuinely does live in a world of health-conscious self-abnegation.
He rarely drinks alcohol, allowing himself only the occasional glass of wine with meals. For all his involvement in analysis, he has never taken any mood-altering medication: ‘I’ve never taken a Valium in my life, or a sleeping pill, or an antidepressant of any sort. I’ve never had Prozac – none of that nonsense.’
He loves meat, he says, but he rarely eats it. ‘I’ll have a steak twice a year. But the guilt afterward is not worth the pleasure of the meal.’
Asked what vices he might have, Allen replies ‘laziness’
Part of the secret of his productivity is simply that he works very quickly: when he needs a new script idea, he chooses one from the hundreds of notes he has scrawled on scraps of paper and matchbooks over the years, and filed away in the middle drawer of the dresser in his bedroom, where he does all his writing.
Completing a comedy screenplay usually takes a month; a drama, three. Shooting is equally swift: and that’s where the laziness comes in.
‘If you look at guys who are not lazy,’ he says, ‘let’s say Steven Spielberg, or something – you know, they work. They go out on location somewhere, and they live in the desert for a year, or in some godforsaken country for ages, making a film. And they shoot every angle and do everything. I can’t do that. I don’t have the patience.’
Allen prefers to film in New York, Paris or London – ‘places that are easy to live in’ – where he casts experienced actors, gives them very little direction, encourages improvisation and tries to shoot every scene in as few takes as possible.
He hates night shoots and wants to be at home by six in the evening; towards the end of the day, if other members of the crew suggest doing more than one take, he often demurs.
‘I’m thinking, there’s a basketball play-off game on tonight, or the Yankees are playing. You know, artistic perfection is not my top priority.’
And yet he professes always to be dissatisfied when he examines what he has shot: ‘You always start out with great hopes. When I’m writing, laying at home in bed, where you don’t meet the test of reality, you know, you’re in your own home, and: “That’s great” and “Oh, this scene’s going to be fabulous” and “Wait till they see this” and “This is like Citizen Kane”.’
But every time the cameras start rolling, he discovers anew how difficult it is to make movies in the world beyond his bedroom: ‘Then, you’ve got to put up or shut up. You shoot and you make mistakes. You put the camera in the wrong place. And some of the scenes you wrote at home that you thought were so brilliant are not so brilliant. It’s always disappointing.’
He gestures towards the editing suite. ‘When we go from that room into this room, with the first cut of the picture, and put it up on the screen for the first time, it’s always like a cold shower,’ he says. ‘And all your grandiose ambitions reduce themselves to: How can I save this from being an embarrassment?’
Allen has felt this way about nearly every film he has ever made. After completing the now-seminal Manhattan he was so horrified by what he saw that he told the studio he would make another film for free to make up for it.
If he’s so constantly disappointed, why work so quickly?
‘Well, because it doesn’t…’ he begins. ‘You know, it’s the best I can do. I mean, it doesn’t come out any better if I work slow.’
Allen explains that in 1987, he completed September, a bleak Ingmar Bergman homage starring Mia Farrow.
‘I shot the entire film, edited it completely, put music in, put it in here, looked at it. And I said: “I’m going to start over and shoot this entire film again – I hate this”.’
Which was exactly what he did: reconvened the cast and shot everything once more from scratch, almost doubling its cost. ‘And the second version was not much better than the first version. And I knew it.’
Famously, he does not re-watch any of his films once they’re complete, and never has – he says if he did, he would notice only the myriad failures of his work.
At one point, I ask if he isn’t often so dissatisfied with what he produces that he wouldn’t mind if nobody at all ever saw them.
‘It’s a strange thought, that nobody would see them.’
Well you don’t see them.
‘I will say this: when I finish a film completely, there’s about a half dozen, maybe eight people, that I do want to see the movie.
'I will invite Diane Keaton here. I will invite some personal friends of mine, between six and 10, maximum. And once they’ve seen the picture, I don’t much care any more. That’s the fun that I get: to sit in here with Keaton, or my friends, and amuse or delight them with it. That gives me a kick. After that, it doesn’t matter to me.’
Allen will be 75 in December. Once, he says, he dreamed that he would become a great film-maker, like Kurosawa or Fellini. Today, he has largely abandoned that hope.
‘I’m not the great artist that I was certain I would be when I was younger,’ he tells me. ‘I still delude myself sometimes and think, “Well, maybe I’ll get lucky and something will come out like that.” But you know, after 40, 41 films, whatever – you start to realise: it’s just not there.’
None the less, he intends to continue working until his financing, or his health, gives out. For his next – Midnight in Paris, featuring Carla Bruni, Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard – he says he has taken a little more care than usual over the script. As with every one of the others that has preceded it, he doesn’t hold out any great hopes for its public reception.
For Allen, the way his films are received is just one more example of the extended and random cruelties of life.
‘I feel it’s a lose-lose proposition. If a film gets bad reviews, nobody comes. If a film gets good reviews, maybe people come, and maybe nobody comes. But it’s never, if it gets good reviews, then they really come. For me, it’s lose, and, you know… maybe.’