Even as he approaches 80, Woody Allen remains one of the most prolific filmmakers working today. With the release of his 48th feature, "Blue Jasmine," the celebrated director opens up about playing the romantic lead, the hit-flop trap and why he just can't quit the business.
June 28, 2013
IN REAL LIFE, WOODY ALLEN isn't much different from the character he plays in his movies. He has the same reedy Brooklyn accent he uses on-screen and wears the same dorky, black-framed glasses he's worn since he was 17. He's shy, meek, insecure, a little phobic. When he showers, he makes a point of standing away from the drain, and he's not crazy about tunnels. Too much like the womb.
That such a person manages the existential crisis of getting out of bed in the morning, or accomplishes anything at all, let alone becoming a celebrated filmmaker, seems miraculous. But Allen's nebbishness disguises immense willpower and Stakhanovite work habits. Not long ago, Marshall Brickman, an old friend and collaborator (he cowrote Manhattan and Annie Hall, among other classic Allen movies), was reminiscing about Allen's career. They first met, he recalled, in the early '60s at The Bitter End, a club in Greenwich Village, where Brickman performed with the Tarriers, a folk group, and Allen, a stand-up comic, was the nervous opening act. Though Allen was an inspired joke writer, stand-up did not come naturally to him then. He didn't have the temperament and was often terrified and miserable. Yet he kept at it, even attempting stunts like boxing with a kangaroo if Jack Rollins, his longtime manager, thought it would help the act. "Some hole in his persona needed it so badly that he was willing to endure all the anxiety and humiliation of getting out in front of an audience and bombing," Brickman said. "And to think he went from that to being thought of in the pantheon along with people like Bergman."
But though he has gone gray and is a little stooped, Allen, who is now 77—how can that be?—doesn't look or act like an old guy. He's so busy you could say it's a little neurotic, a little overcompensating. Most Thursdays he rehearses with his jazz ensemble, and every Monday he plays clarinet at the Carlyle hotel. He frequently writes "casuals"—or humor pieces—for The New Yorker. He's working now with the theater director Susan Stroman on a Broadway musical version of his 1994 film Bullets Over Broadway, and he just finished making a movie written and directed by John Turturro in which he plays the owner of a failing bookstore who turns to pimping to make ends meet. And Allen continues to write and direct his own movies at an assembly-line pace, just as he has for five decades. Some are better than others, but there is no such thing as a really bad Woody Allen movie, and they come along—a new one every year—as reliably as the taxman. The critic Peter Biskind once called Allen the Joyce Carol Oates of moviemaking.
Allen's 48th feature, Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin, opens in July. It's based on a story Allen's wife, Soon-Yi, told him about a woman she knew whose lifestyle became suddenly downsized after a financial disaster. Blanchett plays a pill-popping, vodka-swigging East Side sophisticate married to a Waspy version of Bernie Madoff (Baldwin). When he's found out, she loses everything and has to move into the San Francisco apartment of her adoptive sister—a bagger at a grocery store—and her two mouth-breathing sons. The story is more serious than comic, and though it's hard to take your eyes off her, the Blanchett character isn't always likable. Will it work at the box office? Allen can't stop to worry about that. He's already at work on the next one.
Chaplin, whose career in many ways resembles Allen's, stopped making movies in the late '60s. Fellini quit when he was 70. Allen, who used to say that filmmaking was a young man's game and that he would be done by the time he was 50, is edging into the rarefied territory occupied by Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman, who both made movies into their eighties. After a brief slump, he is even on a bit of a roll now. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and To Rome With Love (2012) were well received, andMidnight in Paris (2011) was, by Allen standards, a big hit, making more than $150 million worldwide.
But despite his enormous body of work, Allen no longer occupies the place he once did in the moviemaking firmament. He might be more highly regarded, in fact, if he'd made fewer films. There are so many you can hardly keep track. Broadway Danny Rose, Mighty Aphrodite, Radio Days, Sweet and Lowdown: They're all packed away in the attic of our movie-going memory.
Some of his fans deserted Allen after the tabloid debacle of 1992, when Mia Farrow—with whom Allen had a son and two adopted children—discovered that he was also romantically involved with Soon-Yi, her 21-year-old adopted daughter with André Previn. Farrow's custody suit, in which she alleged, though it was never proven, that Allen had molested their adopted daughter, Dylan, made headlines for weeks. (Allen and Soon-Yi married in 1997 and have two adopted daughters, now teenagers. Meanwhile, Allen's son with Farrow, Ronan, remains estranged from him, claiming it's not possible to have a relationship with someone who is both your father and your brother-in-law.) And with younger moviegoers Allen has never established the kind of following he enjoyed in the '60s and '70s. By now, his movies—small, talky, with no action scenes or special effects, owing less to Hollywood than to arty European masters like Bergman, Fellini and Luis Buñuel—may even be a bit of an acquired taste.
None of this bothers Allen very much. His main regret these days is that he's getting too old to play the romantic lead. "It's an inevitable disaster of aging, and there's nothing I can do about it," he said recently, sitting in the cutting and screening room he rents in a swanky East Side apartment building. (It says "Manhattan Film Center" on the door, but in fact the place used to be a bridge club.) "I can't play the scenes where I'm sitting opposite Diane Keaton or Mia or Dianne Wiest or Judy Davis. If I think of parts for myself now, all I can be is Pop, the lovable doorman backstage at the theater who takes phone numbers for the guys, or the psychiatrist, or the amiable dad at the wedding." He sighed. "I like to be the lover."
Allen is fond of saying that the only thing standing between him and greatness is himself, and likes to come across not as a grand old director but as a self-taught schlepper. He insists, for example, that his characteristic use of long master shots—ones that record an entire scene from a single camera angle—is the result of laziness, not conscious technique. "I don't have a technical attention deficit disorder, but I have an honorary one," he said. "I don't have the patience or the concentration to shoot hours of us talking in a two-shot, and then your single and my single and from over your shoulder and over my shoulder. I like to do as many pages as I can in one take."
"It's an inevitable disaster of aging. If I think of parts for myself now, all I can be is Pop, the lovable doorman, or the amiable Dad at the wedding. I like to be the lover."—Woody Allen
But Brickman maintains that Allen is in fact very canny about every aspect of the filmmaking business. "Some instinct told him what choices to make, like not going to the Academy Awards, keeping himself apart a little, and yet so often delivering on the promise," he said. "He's figured out how to survive in a very hostile and competitive environment."
One of the things Allen is shrewdest about is money. His films typically cost about $18 million to make, which is next to nothing these days. Most of them go on to make a modest profit—if not in the United States, then when they're shown worldwide—and once in a while he has a hit on the order of Midnight in Paris. It's a fairly foolproof formula, even if it seems to have little appeal to the studios now, who would rather make bigger bets in hopes of bigger payouts. Allen's modest budgets enable him to retain total control of his films, something that's seldom granted to directors anymore, and to be flexible when it comes to probably his greatest strength as a director: casting memorable actors in memorable parts. "I'm not in the hit-flop business," he explained. "I make a film and if it's a big hit it's not going to do anything special for me. If it's a disaster it won't ruin anything, because I'll already be working on the next. The people who play the hit-flop game suffer a lot when they have the flops. I don't, but then I don't get the highs either."
Juliet Taylor, Allen's casting director, who has been with him since Love and Death (1975), pointed out that because he makes movies so cheaply, Allen doesn't have to find the kind of bankable star on whom you hang all the financing. "He's very cognizant of how some people like to see certain actors," she said, "but that's not required of him in terms of putting a deal together. He doesn't get too attached to any one idea. He'll want someone, and if it doesn't work out, he'll just pick himself up and go on to someone else."
Allen doesn't pay star salaries. His actors get the union minimum, with no dickering. And yet he has no trouble finding stars to work for him. Actors—women especially—love to appear in Woody Allen films because he makes them look great, writes interesting roles for them and, based on his track record of 11 best actress or best supporting actress nominations so far, there's a decent chance they might get some Oscar attention. "We have very good luck because actors aren't always offered a lot of stimulating things," Allen said. "The kinds of films that get made now don't always have great acting roles. So when people get a chance to really act, even if it's for no money, which it is, they grab it."
Blanchett said she had been hoping to work with Allen for years, and when the phone call came she said yes immediately. Talking about her part in Blue Jasmine, she said: "This kind of opportunity doesn't come along all the time. The character's like a combination of Ibsen, Tennessee Williams and Shakespeare. There's such electricity in the gap between her knowing and not knowing."
Though he's good at it, Allen actually hates casting, and his process is so eccentric that, Taylor said, "We warn people beforehand." The whole interview typically lasts about a minute, and in most cases the actors aren't even asked to take a seat. "I find the whole experience very awkward, because I am socially awkward," Allen said. "I don't like meeting people. Once in a while a star will come in and Juliet will say you have to let this person sit down for a minute. This is an argument she and I have all the time. She thinks they want to talk. To me, the person always seems to be relieved. They're happy to be in and out."
On the set, Allen is famously nonintrusive. He doesn't meet the actors beforehand, doesn't discuss their characters with them and doesn't believe in rehearsing. The cast simply shows up on the first day and goes to work. "I've worked with amazing people over the years," Allen said. "Meryl Streep, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Judy Davis and Gena Rowlands, one after the other, these fabulous women—what do I have to teach them? If Cate, or anyone, is doing it too fast or too slow, or too theatrically or not theatrically enough, I might go over and say, 'Why don't you try that a little faster next time?' They do it, and that's the extent of my direction."
By now there is a certain mystique about working with Allen. Actors want desperately to please him, and more often than not, by saying very little he gets exactly the performance he wants. He is always encouraging the actors not to stick to the script, for example—to change, cut or add to their lines however they see fit—and the more he does so, the more they tend to deliver their parts verbatim. Saying that she would do it again in a heartbeat, Blanchett called the experience of working with Allen "brutal and electric." "Everyone is on tippy-toes," she said. "I think he thinks the more he says, the more he screws it up. He wants to get out of the actors' way, and they want as much as they can get of him." She added: "He's incredibly restless, and that creates a sort of nervous energy on the set. He wants to get it done now. He wants all the energy of that day and then he wants to go and have dinner."
"Why does Woody still make movies?" Brickman asked. "Because he can. Because they still let him." He laughed and added: "I don't think people understand the degree to which Woody is relentlessly middle-class. From what I gather he's a good family man. He's a very good father, perhaps surprisingly so. He has a very strong, perhaps overwhelming work ethic. I don't think he knows how not to get up in the morning, get on the treadmill, practice the clarinet, write."
Allen ventured a slightly different explanation. "You know in a mental institution they sometimes give a person some clay or some basket weaving?" he said. "It's the therapy of moviemaking that has been good in my life. If you don't work, it's unhealthy—for me, particularly unhealthy. I could sit here suffering from morbid introspection, ruing my mortality, being anxious. But it's very therapeutic to get up and think, Can I get this actor; does my third act work? All these solvable problems that are delightful puzzles, as opposed to the great puzzles of life that are unsolvable, or that have very bad solutions. So I get pleasure from doing this. It's my version of basket weaving."