Woody Allen hopes to direct till he’s 100
LOS ANGELES—Even the way Woody Allen explained why he showed up late for our interview with him on a recent Sunday afternoon in his beloved Manhattan was almost straight from one of his iconic films.
After putting down his trademark hat on the table and sitting down, he explained, “Soon-Yi took the kids to see ‘An American in Paris’ this afternoon. I figured, great, she’s gone, they are gone. I can stay home and work on my Amazon script.”
“I started working and the phone rang,” continued the writer-director whose career spans over five decades, giving us such cinematic gifts as “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.”
“It was Leslie Dart, my press representative, and she said, ‘Where are you? You are due over here speaking to these people.’ I went, ‘Wait a minute.’ I raced out of the house and got here a tiny bit late.”
But film’s much-admired auteur, who will turn 80 in December, looked unharried in his trademark look: a well-worn pink shirt, khaki pants and brown Oxford shoes.
The untitled Amazon project he referred to will be his first-ever TV series, comprising of six episodes, lasting half an hour each. He is writing the script for the show which he will direct for Amazon Studios’ streaming service. The series will be shot in New York, according to the prolific filmmaker who has won four Oscars, three Golden Globes and the most number of Academy screenwriting nods than any other writer.
Asked if he has fulfilled his promise to his wife, who is of Korean descent, to bring her to Seoul (as he told us in a previous interview), Woody replied, “The equation is exactly the same. My daughter (Bechet
Dumaine Allen) just came back a few days ago from Seoul. She worked at an orphanage there for a few weeks. Soon-Yi is dying to go. I wish she couldn’t hear you because everybody said to her, ‘You have got to go to Seoul.’ I really don’t want to go very much.
“But I know I am not going to be able to resist. Soon-Yi’s been onto me for years. I fob her off and say, ‘Let’s go to Paris now’ or ‘Let’s go to Barcelona.’ She is now at the point of saying, ‘Enough Paris, enough Barcelona. You are going to be 80 years old in December. You will be dead soon. I would like to go to Seoul.’” That typical Woody Allen wisecrack, delivered with a straight face, made the meeting room at The London NYC Hotel erupt in laughter.
The former stand-up comedian whose real name is Allen Stewart Konigsberg (he adopted the Woody Allen pen name when he started writing in his teens) quipped further, “So I am going to have to take her soon, but I am stalling as long as I can. Maybe if I am lucky, I will be dead.” More laughter.
“I have always been obsessed with mortality since I was 5 years old,” he cracked about his dark humor.
“So there’s not a big change between 5 and 79 to me,” he said in response to whether there will be a big celebration of his milestone on Dec. 1.
“I was always at death’s door every second. I mean, I was always petrified. I am not planning anything because I don’t like that. There is a sadness when people get together and they say, ‘Well, now you are 70 or 80 or 90.’ People drink, celebrate and there’s a great exchange of insincerities all over the place. It’s not for me.
“I will be very happy to go with my family to a restaurant and have a quiet dinner. It’s like how I would prefer to sleep through New Year’s Eve all the time and not get involved in it.”
He has no specific wish except to continue churning out films, his current one being “Irrational Man,” which features solid performances by Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix.
“There’s nothing that I particularly want to do before I die. I would like to continue to work. I hope my health holds out. I hope I can still work. My father lived to 100 and my mother, 95. If I do have a long life, if there is anything in genetic rendering, hopefully I will be able to do more work, improve and make better movies.”
Going by his new film’s title, is he an irrational man? “Totally rational—too rational,” replied the man who started contributing jokes to newspapers and TV shows even before he graduated from high school in 1953.
“That’s why I would make a better teacher than an artist. If I was a little bit more irrational, then I think I would be a better artist. But I am too middle class, too rational, too organized and too cowardly. So I think I am very rational. It’s good in one sense—it keeps you sane but too much sanity is not good for the artist.”
In “Irrational Man,” Joaquin plays Abe Lucas, a tormented philosophy professor who falls into a creative and emotional rut. When he moves to a small-town college, Abe gets involved with two women, Rita Richards (Parker Posey), a professor who’s in an unhappy marriage, and Jill Pollard (Emma), his student with whom he becomes close.
But Abe is still in a funk until he and Jill overhear a stranger’s conversation with her friends. Abe’s decision after hearing this fateful chat lifts him up from depression but this sets off a chain of events that typically falls within Woody’s bleak humor.
We asked Woody if he himself experiences these emotional and creative doldrums. “I have been very lucky because I have never had a terrible block or creative problem,” he claimed. “I am not talking about the quality of the work. I can certainly do bad work. I have never had any problem working.
“Usually for me, if things are down or depressing or if I am blue, work has the opposite effect on me. Work has a healthful effect. It has a positive effect on me so I get out of the bad feeling. I never had to deal with that. I have been very lucky since I was young.”
On how he has changed as a director, Brooklyn’s famous son said, “On the set, I am the same because my personality tends to be quiet and uninteresting. But everything has changed. I have made about 45 movies or so since then. You do, even the dumbest student, which I am, absorb a certain amount of technique and experiential knowledge. So I am a better filmmaker than I was then.
Seat of his pants
“I don’t mean I am a great filmmaker by any means, but I am better than the first couple of films… ‘Take the Money and Run’ (and ‘Bananas’). I had never done anything remotely like those films. I was flying by the seat of my pants completely. I did what I thought was funny.
“Now, if you look at my films and not just the content, the themes and the structure of the writing but also the theatrical technique of the films, it’s much different. If you look at ‘Magic in the Moonlight,’ ‘Midnight in Paris’ or ‘Match Point,’ or whatever ones were more recently done, they have a much different look than ‘Bananas’ or ‘Take the Money and Run.’
“They are more sophisticated technically. This is nothing to be proud of. This is something that just happens from years of making films. But I think the films have gotten deeper. I have grown up and have had more experience in life.
“So the content of the films has gotten much more interesting to people than let’s say, ‘Take the Money and Run,’ which exists strictly joke by joke. If a joke is great, the audience laughs and the next joke has to be great. If the next joke is not great, the film dies for a few seconds. But hopefully, the next joke is great. Now, I do films about human beings and life situations. It is not dependent on that relentlessly fast pace of having to do jokes.”
Added New York University’s celebrated dropout (he flunked out in his freshman year), “So I think I have improved. That may not be everybody’s opinion but I do think that I have improved since then. When I can get a laugh, it’s great. But then it’s not desperately needed as in a film like ‘Bananas,’ which floats on laughs only.”
On how a notorious technophobe like him got involved with Amazon’s digital streaming service, Woody explained, “Here’s what happened. Amazon called me a few years ago and asked if I would do a miniseries for them. It could be as little as six half-hour shows. I said, ‘No. I don’t watch those things and I just don’t have the time. It just doesn’t interest me.’
“But then they called again and this went on for two years. They kept upping the ante and not just upping the salary.
“They said, ‘You can do it wherever you want. We don’t have to know anything about it. You can do it in black-and-white. You can do it in period. You can do it in Europe, New York or LA or wherever you want. Just do six half hours and they can even be as short as 22 minutes each. They don’t have to be 30 minutes. Just do six of them. Now, we will even give you more money.’
“They kept upping the deal. Finally, I thought, this is too good to resist. I can create and do anything I want. Nobody is going to look at it or know anything about it until I give them the finished product. It’s a very respectable salary. I thought, I would knock it off in a breeze.”
He deadpanned, “What is six half-hours for a genius?”
“But it didn’t turn out that way,” admitted one of cinema’s finest writer-directors. “It was much harder than I thought to do a decent job. I’ve been struggling and struggling. Now, I am finally just about finished.”
He joked about the script, “If it wasn’t for you guys, I could have finished it.” Well, sorry for the interruption this afternoon, Mr. Allen.
“It’s been very hard,” he confessed about his foray into TV miniseries. “It was not easy. A movie is hard because it’s an hour and a half. I thought, six half-hours are simple. I thought it would be that. But I overestimated my own capacity to do it and found that it was not easy. I really had to put a lot of work into it.
“I say mercifully it’s almost finished and it still may be terrible when you see it. It’s possible that when it goes on the air in 2016, you won’t like it and you will think ‘God, you should stay with movies’ or ‘Stay with nothing’ because this is terrible. I gave it my best shot. I worked very hard on it. But I underestimated the difficulty.”
Asked to cite a significant random moment that’s akin to Joaquin’s character’s overhearing a conversation, Woody surprisingly shared an anecdote involving Mia Farrow, his ex-wife from whom he had a controversial and acrimonious divorce. The separation was triggered by Mia finding that Woody and Soon-Yi, her adopted daughter with conductor André Previn, were having a relationship. Soon-Yi was 20 at that time.
“We all have had millions of random moments,” he began. “I guess a random moment for me in my life that was very meaningful was that I once threw a New Year’s Eve party. I got a nice present after the party
—a thank-you present from Mia Farrow. She sent me a book and wrote, ‘It was a lovely party. Here is a book you might like.’ Just by random, I called to say thanks for the book. I happened to say, ‘Should we have lunch next week?’ And from that, grew a worldwide industry.”
As our interview wound down, he reflected, “I have been lucky. I have had good health. I have remained active, athletic, up and energetic. That’s genetic—I think coming from my parents. I don’t lead a sedentary life. I exercise and eat well. I don’t smoke. I don’t have any terrible health-ruining habits so I have stayed in reasonable health.”
“I enjoy working,” added the director who’s prepping a new, untitled film with Kristen
Stewart, Blake Lively, Jesse Eisenberg and Bruce Willis. “People are willing to back my films. They are willing to put the money up and I keep making films. If tomorrow I get a stroke over something and I can’t remember my name, then I am out. It’s over.
“But if I turn out to be as healthy as my father when he was 90, 92, I see no reason why I couldn’t make films. If he had the ability to make films, my father could have made them in his early 90s and right into his mid-90s. As I say, he lived to 100. He lived decently until the very end. So I couldn’t see any reason why I couldn’t if my health holds out. I have got a million ideas. I like to write. I don’t know what else I would do. I really don’t.”
(E-mail the columnist at [email protected] Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.