Woody Allen On ‘Irrational Man’, His Movies & Hollywood’s Perilous Path – Cannes Q&A
by Mike Fleming Jr
14 May 2015
For Deadline’s Cannes Q&A, Allen invited us to his Manhattan screening room. There, he explained how he has managed a storied career without ever showing a script or cast list to a financier, or getting a script note. And how, despite a groundbreaking TV series deal with Amazon, he doesn’t own a computer or understand what a streaming service is; all he knows is, he regrets a deal that has taken him out of his comfort zone. And despite his four Oscars, and the seven won by actors in his films, Allen believes he has never done anything of real consequence in all the years of generating stand-up comedy, books, plays and movies. The room is a warm, cozy dimly lit place with dated drapes and upholstered chairs and couches. It has the vibe of a place where people might play bridge, which is exactly what they did until he got hold of it.
DEADLINE: What is this place?
ALLEN: A bridge club years ago that we took over and made into a screening room with a projector, to screen films recreationally. I found it a great place to work. So we edit in the other room, and come in here and look at it. Then we become depressed, go back in that room and try to fix it.
DEADLINE: How long is it from depression to finished film?
ALLEN: It used to take a long time, when we worked with celluloid. Now with the Avid I can edit a film in seven to eight days and it is no big deal.
DEADLINE: Purists like Scorsese and Tarantino are dedicated to preserving film. You?
ALLEN: I have no strong feeling on it. I’m happy to go whichever way everyone is. Digital looks very good to me if it’s done well. Film always looks great if it’s done well. I’ve never shot anything in digital, but I think I will shoot my next film digitally to see what that’s like. It is more than the wave of the future; it’s the wave of the present, really.
DEADLINE: What are the advantages compelling you to try it for the first time?
ALLEN: They seem minimal. It’s all the after-stuff of not having to cut celluloid, but digital is really not cheaper and it’s not faster. It’s just that that’s the way everything has moved and it looks pretty. I see digital shot by good cameramen that is beautiful and I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, so I don’t mind it. I like that I can edit fast. You just punch electronics where it used to be you’d cut and then have to splice it and tape it and then look at it and un-tape it. Now, it’s bang, bang, bang, bang, bang and it’s done. I never start editing a film until it’s completely shot; I don’t edit along the way, ever. When it’s finished I come in here and we start with reel one, scene one and start editing shot by shot by shot until we’re finished. Once we get in here, going from nothing to the first draft is the longest part and that’s only about eight days for me. Then you look at it and the big problems become apparent, the ones you can’t get rid of by cutting or speeding it up.
ALLEN: You need to make a character less likable or more likable or a relationship more believable. Maybe you add a music track or narration. Or certain things aren’t coherent in that version that’s two hours and ten minutes long. By the time you’re done running back and forth, it’s an hour and forty minutes. And you’ve removed all the junk, the stuff you were so gung-ho about, that you thought was so great. Reality sets in, and it’s gone.
DEADLINE: Are you a ruthless executioner of lines you loved when you wrote them on the page?
ALLEN: Ruthless. I think probably over the years I’ve been too ruthless, mainly because I’m anxiety-ridden. I’ve cut jokes and bits out of movies that would have played just great, if only I had had the nerve to leave them in. I regret having cut different jokes and different bits out of pictures and in retrospect I think they would have worked fine. I just didn’t have the nerve at the time. I worried they wouldn’t work.
DEADLINE: Afraid of overstaying your welcome with audiences with an overly long film?
ALLEN: Sometimes it didn’t even get to that. Once you’ve tested it, if they laugh they laugh; if they didn’t then you could always throw it away. There is a number of funny things that I never even tested with audience because I didn’t have the nerve to even show them, I was so anxiety-ridden they might be embarrassing or terrible or unfunny. They never saw the light of day. A number of them I regret because they were funny…probably.
DEADLINE: Can you recall specific jokes you killed that you regret?
ALLEN: I can recall many bits. In Bananas, there was a very funny bit when the dictator came to the United States and was on the Cousin Brucie show. We cut that because I just didn’t have the nerve. There was a wonderful bit in Bananas too where the guys were in the jungle and all of a sudden a plane lands and the troops come out and it’s allegedly Bob Hope entertaining them. But then my character realizes, the guy’s not Bob Hope, he’s one of the police underground acting like Bob Hope; he’s a Latin American version, doing Hope jokes with the golf club, and all of a sudden when I realized that, the shooting starts and everybody scatters. I remember walking out of my house in Love And Death in the cold of winter, and the snow is covering the front door, and my having to dig a tunnel straight through. It looked very funny at the time. I cut it. There were a couple of great jokes in Manhattan that were too out of character, too broad for the tone of the picture. They would have been good in Take The Money And Run or Bananas. They were funny. In one, I was bicycling in a park with Mariel Hemingway and Michael Murphy and Anne Byrne Hoffman and Diane Keaton, and I got somehow sidetracked into a team of very fast cyclists. I was just riding this bike and made a turn and suddenly I was in with six guys who were going a mile a minute. It looked fun as I tried to escape that, but I worried it stood out like a sore thumb in the movie.
DEADLINE: Some would call that discipline. What you call it?
ALLEN: Anxiety. It’s easy for me to cut length, I never care about that. I notice a lot of people don’t like to cut, they’re reluctant to part with lines in stage plays and bits in movies. But I was brought up to cut stuff. When I learned how to write, the person I was most influenced by was always telling me, any doubt, cut it.
DEADLINE: Who was that?
ALLEN: Danny Simon. Neil Simon’s brother, who was really very helpful to me when I was 20 years old. He was a merciless editor and that rubbed off on me. This was when I was writing television. Danny and I would work on a skit. It would be coming along fine and then either he or I might come up with a great joke. And he would say, “Yes, it’s a great joke but it’s an expensive laugh.” He meant you’re stopping the action for the joke. I didn’t want to part with it because the joke was great, but then you thought, maybe the joke is too inside and only 100 people would get it. And nobody knows who Thelonious Monk is. Danny was a merciless cutter.
DEADLINE: Irrational Man marks the 11th time you’ve brought a film to Cannes, 12 if you count your contribution to the anthology New York Stories. You didn’t want to premiere in competition. Why?
ALLEN: I’ve never had a film in competition in my life. I just don’t feel you can say one film is better than another. Who’s to say some arbitrarily appointed group of judges can decide one is better? Is The Godfather better than Goodfellas, or whatever came out the same calendar year? You don’t make these films to compete. People make films for different reasons. For money. Or, they make them because something in them demands artistic expression. I do it because I enjoy the work. Once a film is over and I see it in this room and we’ve taken it as far as we can go, with no room for improvement… that’s it. It leaves this room and I never see it again ever, for the rest of my life.
ALLEN: Ever. I’ve never seen Take The Money And Run since I made it. I never saw Annie Hall again, or Bananas or Manhattan or any of them. Because, you can only have regrets. If I was to screen any of my films now I would only see what I could have done, what I did badly, where I screwed up, how much worse it is than the way I remembered it. You’re never going to think “Oh, God, this thing is great.” Many years ago I was in Europe making What’s New Pussycat. I was having lunch in a cafeteria in France on this film set. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were making a film there, I think it was The Sandpiper. I was chatting with him for a moment, I hardly knew him, and he said, “I never see my films after I make them, ever.” This was a great actor, but I thought, gee, that’s so strange. I was just a writer on my first film and I didn’t know anything. When I got into directing films myself, I understood completely what he meant.
DEADLINE: Daniel Day-Lewis once told me he rigorously prepares for roles and lives in the character’s skin through the shoot, and can’t watch the results because he sees only flaws. What’s it like when you have to watch yourself over and over in editing? Are you self-conscious or does that only kick in after you’re done?
ALLEN: Well, a little of both. If I’m in it it’s tougher. It’s like if you’ve ever heard your own voice on a tape recorder? It’s worse when you see and hear yourself. If I’m not in the film and it has delightful people like Diane Keaton or Emma Stone, I have no problem editing it. But then it’s finished, I have to let go because I get that feeling. Oh, God, I had such great people here and I let them down, whether it’s Dianne Wiest, Naomi Watts one all these wonderful actresses who I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with so many over the years. They trusted me completely and they do my films for very little money and I always feel, ‘Oh, God, I let them down.’ So… the less I have to do with the movie when it’s done, the better.
DEADLINE: Directors say, don’t ask me to choose my favorite film; they are all my children.
ALLEN: Yeah, well I hate them all. None are different, and all are…unsatisfying, when you’re finished. Once, I had a generally positive feeling when I finished Match Point. I thought I was very lucky with this film. I was going to use an actress and she fell out a week before we shot and by sheer luck I stumbled onto Scarlett Johansson, who was luckily available. I was shooting in London. I needed a cloudy day, and that day it was cloudy. I needed it to be rainy for two hours — it would rain. I wanted a week of sun, we got it. I could do nothing wrong; I couldn’t screw up no matter how hard I tried. Everything fell into place. When the picture was over, I had a nice feeling about it. I felt that every actor, even those who had one line or two made a contribution to the picture. They didn’t just say the line in a neutral tone. If some guy was repairing our clock or delivering a sandwich, whatever they did they did beautifully and made a contribution. Everybody brought their own thing to this movie and I felt by wonderful good luck, that picture came out very, very close if not right on to what I had conceived to begin with.
DEADLINE: If you watched it now?
ALLEN: I would never watch it because I remembered it so fondly and it would be like, my God what was I thinking?
DEADLINE: What of Joaquin Phoenix’s work made him right for Irrational Man, playing this tormented philosophy professor who seems reinvigorated by a death wish?
ALLEN: Often, I write a part with an actor in mind; I didn’t in this case. I finished the story because I thought I had a good idea. Then, who would be good for this? The first thought I had was certainly Emma Stone because she’s great for practically anything. She’s young and beautiful and gifted and she plays comedy, romance, drama. I saw her singing and dancing on Broadway…she was an easy choice. And then Juliet Taylor, the casting director, mentioned Joaquin. All of us thought he was a great actor. I wondered to myself, would he be a crazy or hard guy to work with? But he wasn’t. He was a very sweet nice person and very, very self-deprecating and insecure. He doesn’t appreciate how good he is and my job was not to direct him as much as to explain to him that his last take was not bad, it was great. He has such a high bar for himself and you explain to him that he is reaching the high bar that he set for himself. We knew as soon as Juliet mentioned his name, oh, he’s perfect.
DEADLINE: I’ve covered the casting of your films for years and young actors consider your invitation to be real validation of their talent. How does a young actor get on your radar and how voracious are you in watching movies to keep current?
ALLEN: I see movies, but not to keep current. I watch strictly for enjoyment. But you do get exposed to the ones that come along. I saw Winter’s Bone and became aware of Jennifer Lawrence. And Juliet Taylor has an encyclopedic knowledge and will so often say, I want you to meet so-and-so. Like Chazz Palminteri. He had not appeared in anything and I was doing Bullets Over Broadway and the second he stepped into this room…I didn’t even have to hear him say anything. I just cast him right away.
DEADLINE: How does your audition process work?
ALLEN: Sometimes I read them but very briefly. I don’t like that as much as just hearing them say something. They don’t have to read from my movie; I just like to hear them and so they come in, sit down here and read for one minute. Half a page maximum and you can tell. Juliet also shows me videos, says here’s three things this actress has done. I see her and she looks interesting and we ask her to come in here and if she’s normal, not incoherent or crazy…I hate casting and keep it short. The person walks in and I do a quick look, just to see them live. I get them out in less than a minute. I say I’m doing a film next April, and Juliet thought you’d be right for something in it. I just wanted to say hello so I don’t have to cast strictly from video. And they say hello and I say OK. I’ve got nothing more to say than thanks for coming in. That’s the way we cast. Once in a while, we’ll read somebody if we’re not sure they sound correct for the character.
DEADLINE: If I was a young actor, auditioning for Woody Allen, I’d be crushed if I was out of there in one minute. Does your assistant routinely say, it’s OK, that’s how he works?
ALLEN: They warn them beforehand that I cast quickly. Actors of course are so insecure. We never turn anybody down because they’re bad; we don’t hire them because we found somebody that suits the part better. But naturally every actor that comes in and doesn’t get the role thinks it’s because they’re no good or they screwed up. It’s never that. Once in a great while if a big actor comes in…say like Joaquin, who actually didn’t come in. Juliet says, he flew in from California; you’ve got to let him sit down for a minute. Please. And I’ve got nothing to say to him. So I make up meaningless stuff. I say, ‘Well, what are you in town for? What was your last picture? Oh, great.’ And, was it boring in Mexico? And then I turn to Juliet and say, you know, I’m out of stuff to say…and I think they don’t want to stay there either. They have a life to lead and they’re not interested in sitting in here getting interrogated. Worse is that very annoying thing of having to read in a room with three people looking at you. I’ve seen the people on tape and it’s painful for me to put actors through that. I know what I would feel like if I had to come in to a room and say hello and you hand me a sheet of paper and I start to act.
DEADLINE: I recall the time when Hollywood studios backed your films, you gave them a bare-bones idea of what you wanted to do, a budget and they said yes without seeing a script. Do you still do it that way?
ALLEN: It’s even freer, now that I’m backed independently. I’ve never had a script note in my life. I write the script; nobody sees it, not the people that put the money in the picture. I cast who I want, and make the film. That’s why I’ve always felt the only thing standing between me and greatness, is me. There’s no excuse for me not to be great except that I’m not. What can I say? Nobody tells me who to cast, how long to shoot, what to shoot, what themes to do, what stories, what line to take out. The backing arrives, and I show up at some point with the film. It could be horror, a comedy; it could be a black-and-white tragedy in medieval Prussia. Nobody knows. What they’re buying is me and the assumption that over many years, he hasn’t done anything that outlandish. The budgets are small compared to most film budgets. If you were backing me my whole film career you would have made money. But also, a film opens like The Avengers and in one weekend, one weekend, it makes more money than six of my films make in ten years.
DEADLINE: It must take discipline not to waver from that formula. Did somebody say something early on that made you realize you’re better not having your confidence rocked by some silly suggestion?
ALLEN: No, I never had that problem. Now, once in a while I will sit down with my wife or with Juliet Taylor and say, who do you think would be better here, Joaquin Phoenix or Alec Baldwin? Every once in a while I bounce something off somebody to get feedback. But I was very lucky from day one, when I made my first film, Take The Money And Run. It was a new film company, Palomar, and the film only cost a million dollars and we brought it in for less. At that time they felt there were certain people like me or Mel Brooks, who had some inexplicable magic comic thing, and that we knew what we were doing and didn’t want to mess with it. They were wrong; I floundered and stumbled all the way through, but they let me alone completely. My second film I did for United Artists, whose policy was to leave the artist alone. Again, I did the whole film for a million dollars. By the time I was up to my third or fourth film, we were saying he gets final cut. I’ve never made a film in my life, outside of the first two when it didn’t matter, where I didn’t have final cut, where I had to show scripts to people, where I had to check with anybody on casting. I’ve never had that problem in my life.
DEADLINE: Did your transition from studios to overseas funding come because of a slump, or because the game was changing?
ALLEN: The studio game was changing. It started on Match Point. I wrote Match Point for New York. When we began raising the money, people from London called and said if you do a film here we’ll back it. I thought, gee, this film wouldn’t work in Africa, but it would work in London. So I did it over there and I had a wonderful time. The weather was cool in the summer, the skies were gray, the people were lovely that I worked with, the British crews were great. So I made four films in London. And then other countries started calling me. Would you make one in Spain, would you make one in Rome, would you make one in Sweden? If they’d said, make a film in Egypt, well I don’t have an idea for Egypt. But I knew Rome well enough. So I started doing that and it worked out very nicely. My family liked going away in the summers, and they were backing the film there and then the films were successful.
When private backers contacted me, we would tell them what it amounted to in a certain sense is, you put the money in a brown paper bag and you get the film when it’s done. There’s nothing else to do. And some would say OK, but when it came down to contract discussions they would say, well I would like to at least know that it’s going to have somebody in it whose name I recognize. And we would get rid of them. We would say no, this is not going to work out, because we can’t guarantee anything. But there were a few who said look, we have faith in you as an artist, and if that’s the way you want to work, we’ll back your films. I don’t try and be difficult. If someone said, can I come on the set? Sure, I don’t care. If I didn’t want them I’d say well don’t come Tuesday because that’s a very dramatic scene. But come after that. I’m not looking to make people’s life miserable. If somebody putting money in my film asks, who’ll be in your film and I know I’m using Emma Stone or Joaquin, I don’t say you can’t know. I just like to feel I have the final say. Same with the distribution company; I have final say on ads. But I’ve never had to use it, at all. They send me posters. I pick a poster I like and I send it back and if they say to me we don’t really love this one, could you consider some of these others, I do; I’m very easy to work with, and flexible.
DEADLINE: So what are you looking for?
ALLEN: I just want to know in the end that nobody can say to me, ‘well, that’s the one we’re using,’ even if I feel it doesn’t represent the picture at all or if it was cheap and burlesque-y and they could say, ‘too bad, we’re using it.’ David Picker tells the story in his book when I first went to United Artists and they made a deal where I could do anything I wanted. I brought in the script that 25 or 30 years later became Sweet And Lowdown with Sean Penn. David Picker read it and they didn’t want to do it. I said hey, no problem. I could have forced them; the contract was they do what I want. I said, don’t be silly; I don’t want to do a project you’re not enthused over. Give it back to me, I’ll give you another script. My manager, Jack Rollins, who just celebrated his 100th birthday, taught me years ago that no deal is worth the paper it’s printed on. I’ve been with Jack for 50 years, on a handshake. And that’s really how I work. If the guys who put money in my films are not satisfied then I don’t want to be with them.
DEADLINE: You might have started shooting these cities for financial reasons, but I’ve watched the way you shot them in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight In Paris or To Rome With Love, and wanted to go there. There is such romanticism…
ALLEN: That’s because I’m a city freak. I love cities, cosmopolitan areas. Not all of them but almost all of them. Paris, Barcelona, London; these are fantastic places. I don’t think I could do that if I made a movie in Albuquerque. But just like with Manhattan, if you’re going to be in Paris or London or Rome or Spain, these cities became part of the story.
DEADLINE: When did it go from hardship of leaving home to reinvigorating your storytelling?
ALLEN: Right away it was artistically provocative to shoot in those cities. I’d like to go back to Paris and make a film. I did four in London and I always wanted to make another in Spain. Maybe where the festival is in San Sebastian. Just a great visual place. I knew those cities, and over the years I’d been to Barcelona, and Paris a million times. London a lot and Rome. But it wouldn’t feel that way in all cities. I contemplated making a film in Sweden; I’ve been there several times and have some sense of it. But if I had to make a film in Japan, I’d have to be shown around. I don’t have any feel for it at all.
DEADLINE: Everybody is courting China. How about there?
ALLEN: That is one of the countries that asked me to come and make a film. I don’t think I can. I’d have to make a film in a place I could live in for four months for the pre-production and shooting. I can live in Paris for four months or London or, you know, Barcelona. These are places that are like New York. But I don’t think I could live in many places. When I had to make a film in the United States I picked San Francisco because to me it’s one of the great cities of America.
DEADLINE: What’s your favorite Cannes memory? And did global media react differently when you started making movies outside New York?
ALLEN: I’ve always been very lucky abroad. Europe, South America, the Far East, they’ve always supported my films enthusiastically. Right from the start with Take The Money And Run. Bananas was a big hit in Europe and I remember being surprised that it was seen as a movie about politics. To me, it was just a bunch of jokes. They have supported me devotedly. If I show a film at Cannes, the audience there comes to enjoy movies. They’re not going there with a chip on their shoulder, or to be nasty. They see a lot of new movies, mine among them, and the publicity I do permeates the whole of Europe and beyond into Israel, Argentina, Japan, Tokyo. The film gets off to a tremendous commercial start there. America is a totally different. You open in America, and you either get good press or bad press. If you get bad press usually nobody comes. These blockbusters, you can get the worst press in the world and make a hundred million dollars. If I get bad press, people won’t come. If I get great press? Maybe they’ll come and maybe they won’t.
DEADLINE: Culture, from books to movies, is increasingly consumed on smart phones and iPads. I imagine a room in your house with a floor-to-ceiling wall of cherished hardcover books that kids probably consider to be dusty relics. How does the reverence for literature and films shown on big screens compare to when you were imprinting authors and filmmakers who influenced your growth as an artist?
ALLEN: Big difference from when I grew up, and I’m talking about not just my childhood in the ’40s but when I was a young adult, living in Manhattan at twenty-five with my peer group. We were not intellectuals, by any means. I was thrown out of school and none of us were intellectuals. We were sports fans. It was a big talk when the next film by Truffaut, Fellini or De Sica was coming out. This is what we waited to see. We were thrilled to see those pictures and we talked about them. Now, if I talk to young, bright kids, they don’t know from Citizen Kane, La Grande Illusion; they don’t know who Ingmar Bergman or Bunuel is, or the first thing about their films. There are people who’ve seen Citizen Kane on a screen this size [he holds his fingers two inches apart]. So there is no reverence; it’s a different time. I think it’s a big loss. They don’t and I can understand that because they are the future and I’m not. But I think that’s a huge loss for them to go and see Treasure Of The Sierra Madre on a three-inch screen, but they don’t. As far as books go, it’s exactly as you said and what Marshall McLuhan said years ago, that as time passes, books will become art objects.
DEADLINE: How invested are you in the digital age?
ALLEN: I don’t own a computer. I’ve never seen anything online at all — nothing. I don’t own a word processor. I have none of that stuff. It’s not an act of rebellion. I’m just not a gadget person.
DEADLINE: But you’ll shoot your next film digital. Aren’t you curious about what else technology offers?
ALLEN: Yeah, but to me it doesn’t make any difference. I don’t work in it. I set the shot up, I compose, I do all that. But it’s irrelevant to me whether they push the button on the camera; it doesn’t matter.
DEADLINE: How do you reconcile your avoidance of computers and iPads, when you signed on to create a TV series for Amazon’s streaming service?
ALLEN: I don’t even know what a streaming service is; that’s the interesting thing. When you said streaming service, it was the first time I’ve heard that term connected with the Amazon thing. I never knew what Amazon was. I’ve never seen any of those series, even on cable. I’ve never seen The Sopranos, or Mad Men. I’m out every night and when I come home, I watch the end of the baseball or basketball game, and there’s Charlie Rose and I go to sleep. Amazon kept coming to me and saying, please do this, whatever you want. I kept saying I have no ideas for it, that I never watch television. I don’t know the first thing about it. Well, this went on for a year and a half, and they kept making a better deal and a better deal. Finally they said look, we’ll do anything that you want, just give us six half hours. They can be black and white, they can take place in Paris, in New York and California, they can be about a family, they can be comedy, you can be in them, they can be tragic. We don’t have to know anything, just come in with six half hours. And they offered a lot of money and everybody around me was pressuring me, go ahead and do it, what do you have to lose?
DEADLINE: So you said yes…
ALLEN: And I have regretted every second since I said OK. It’s been so hard for me. I had the cocky confidence, well, I’ll do it like I do a movie…it’ll be a movie in six parts. Turns out, it’s not. For me, it has been very, very difficult. I’ve been struggling and struggling and struggling. I only hope that when I finally do it — I have until the end of 2016 — they’re not crushed with disappointment because they’re nice people and I don’t want to disappoint them. I am doing my best. I fit it in between films, so it’s not like, no film this year, I’m doing Amazon. It’s a job within my usual schedule. But I am not as good at it as I fantasized I might be. It’s not a piece of cake; it’s a tough thing and I’m earning every penny that they’re giving me and I just hope that they don’t feel, ‘My God, we gave him a very substantial amount of money and freedom and this is what he gives us?’
DEADLINE: But haven’t you just voiced the anxiety and insecurity that fueled your entire creative career?
ALLEN: I hope it’s just the anxiety again, but this is hard. I’m like a fish out of water. Movies I’ve been doing for decades, and even the stage stuff, I know the stage and have seen a million plays. But this…how to begin something and end it after a half an hour and then come back the next time. It’s not me.
DEADLINE: You really regret that deal?
ALLEN: Oh, it’s amazing how you can regret. I haven’t had a pleasurable moment since I undertook it.
DEADLINE: You mentioned review-proof blockbusters. There is an obsession with global box office, sequels, cross pollination of branded content. You’ve never made a sequel. How do you feel about the way the movie business is going?
ALLEN: Well, I think it’s terrible. To me, movies are valuable as an art form and as a wonderful means of popular entertainment. But I think movies have gone terribly wrong. It was much healthier when the studios made a hundred films a year instead of a couple, and the big blockbusters for the most part are big time wasters. I don’t see them. I can see what they are: eardrum-busting time wasters. I think Hollywood has gone in a disastrous path. It’s terrible. The years of cinema that were great were the ’30s, ’40s, not so much the ’50s…but then the foreign films took over and it was a great age of cinema as American directors were influenced by them and that fueled the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. Then it started to turn. Now it’s just a factory product. They can make a billion dollars on a film and spend hundreds of millions making it. They spend more money on the advertising budget of some of those films than all the profits of everything Bergman, Fellini and Bunuel made on all their films put together in their lifetimes. If you took everything that Bergman made in profit, everything Bunuel made and everything that Fellini made in their lifetimes and added it all together, you wouldn’t equal one weekend with theThe Avengers and its $185 million to $200 million.
DEADLINE: Hasn’t the movie business always been art meeting commerce? Isn’t it just that the pendulum shifting toward the latter?
ALLEN: Hollywood is just commerce, and it’s a shame. There are all these wonderfully gifted actors out there that, as you said before, will be in a film of mine for virtually nothing, union minimum, for what you called validation. Really, it’s because they want to work on something that doesn’t insult their intelligence; they don’t want to have to get in to a suit and practice stunts for two months and then do stunts and then… they want to be in something that doesn’t demean their artistic impulses.
DEADLINE: Some of your peers, Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott for example, are making big-budget broad canvas movies. Was there ever a big story you wanted to tell so badly that you have been tempted to compromise your creative control so you could get the financing?
ALLEN: No. I don’t have any interest in that. I’ve got to say though, the guys you just mentioned, I have nothing but amazed admiration for them. How a guy like Scorsese or Ridley Scott can make a big film, and still put their artistic vision into it and deal with the studios and stars and triumph over that to make the fabulous films that they make is something that is beyond me. I don’t have the personal resources, the character, the intelligence; I don’t know how they do it but they do it. They make wonderful films that work. Those directors compromise but the results are not artistically demeaning. They manipulate and navigate the waters and come up with great movies, fighting the battle against the Philistine studios, the money people, and triumph artistically. I have nothing but awe and admiration for them. I can’t imagine how they do it. Me, I don’t want to be bothered or have to talk to anybody. I don’t want to have to talk to anyone. I just don’t have the temperament for it. I couldn’t survive it so I’d rather get my little 18 million dollar budget and make my film. And if I go over, I give away a portion of my salary and that’s fine with me. Over the years I’ve given away a lot of monies, starting right from the beginning. I get the film I want, I never have to think about it but I still admire that those guys can make big-canvas, high-budget movies, these beautiful, wonderful films and they can finesse the terrible burden of having to deal with the suits.
DEADLINE: Quentin Tarantino has told me he will retire a couple of movies from now, on the grounds that he wants to stop before feeling that his next film can’t be his greatest, at which point he begins repeating himself. What is your feeling about a filmmaker’s longevity? Is there a time to stop?
ALLEN: Only when you want to. It depends. Some guys only make a few films, and then a guy like Bunuel made them his whole life. I enjoy the making of the film and it’s something for me to do. If nobody ever comes to my films, if people don’t want to give me money to make films, that will stop me. But as long as people come all over the world and I have an audience and I have ideas for films, I will do them for as long as I enjoy the process. And I like the whole process of making a film.
DEADLINE: So until you get that tap on the shoulder…
ALLEN: I’ll keep going. Now, sometimes I come out with a film and nobody wants to see it. But it doesn’t matter to me. I’m already working on another film and having the enjoyment of that and maybe that film a lot of people will come and see, but then I’m on the next one anyway. I never look back. When I was a little boy, I thought the fun in the movies would be the fame and the adulation and the money. Then when I started making films, I realized the fun in the film is not that it’s well-reviewed or that people line up and see it or it’s heartbreaking if they don’t or you’re a great hero if you win an award. All that stuff is nonsense. If it’s not fun when you’re spending the three months writing the film, and then three months shooting the film and the three months editing… if that comprises most of your year and it’s not fun, then why do it? It’s fun for me. I’m in contact with beautiful women and charming guys and art directors and costumes and Cole Porter’s music…it’s a wonderful way to earn a living.
DEADLINE: In that PBS Masters special on your early years, you were a prolific comedy writer, and did great stand-up comedy and you make a movie each year like clockwork. What’s the biggest thing that you struggle with as a creator?
ALLEN: The constant desire to do something great and the knowledge that it’s not really in me. I’ve had more than my share of opportunity over the decades to do something great, to break new ground, to find a new form, to electrify, to really stun people. After a while I had to realize, well, wait a minute, nobody’s stopping me. I mean, go ahead and do it. You can do anything you want to. You can have a blank screen for an hour and a half in the movie house if you wanted; you’re the boss. And then I start to think the reason it is not coming is that you can’t do it. You don’t have it in you. You do not have greatness in you; you’re not Kurosawa, or Fellini. You’re a comic turned film director with a modest talent to amuse, to entertain. But true greatness is not in you. You’re not William Faulkner or Cole Porter. You’re one of the entertainers of your lifetime and that’s it. So I’m constantly struggling to say no, this isn’t so, wait until you see what I do next. Then I see what I do next and it’s truly fine and nice but it’s not…I can’t live up to my own egotistical image of myself, I guess.
DEADLINE: Well, if it’s any consolation, this interview takes one item off my bucket list.
ALLEN: I’m 79. You got it in, just under the wire.