The Total Film Interview - Woody Allen

He's been nominated for 20 Oscars but hates awards. He's an American film icon yet he despises Hollywood. And he's made some of cinema's greatest comedies but is depressed by the thought of even watching them. On the eve of the release of his 33rd feature, Anything Else, Total Film catches up with the myopic Manhattan auteur...

Brooklyn, the early '40s. Children are playing in the sunshine, enjoying the fresh air as they race along streets and splash in swimming pools. Not, however, Allan Stewart Konigsberg. He's holed up in the neighbourhood picture house, busily ruining his eyes.

Konigsberg - or Woody Allen, as he would later become - fell in love with movies at the age of five. Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs was his first cine-sweetheart, but he soon blossomed into something of a celluloid casanova, passionately embracing the pictures of Cagney, Bogart, Cooper, Astaire and the Marx brothers. His much-vaunted adoration for the European masters (Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini) wouldn't bloom until adolescence, however; the sudden emergence of 'foreign-film houses' introducing new idols to worship.

Woody knew he wanted to be a filmmaker at the age of eight, but initially found success penning gags for seasoned comedians working in cabaret, radio and television. Not that he was willing to just take the money and run. He instead opted to perform his own material, touring clubs and breaking into TV. Next stop: cinema.

Early acting and scripting experiences proved testing, painful even, and Allen failed to find his stride until he wrestled the megaphone to direct a series of vigorous comedies. Yet it was 1977's Annie Hall that really registered, simultaneously inventing the modern-day romantic-comedy and setting the Woody template: New York backdrop, anxious one-liners, defensive hostility, neurotic relationships and philosophical pontificating. There have been diversions since, some determinedly doleful (September, Another Woman), some fixedly flimsy (Manhattan Murder Mystery, Everyone Says I Love You), but Woody's at his best when flashing between sobriety and frivolity in films like Manhattan and Hannah And Her Sisters.

A private man who's endured frequent maulings in public, journalists forever merging his life and art, it's no surprise that nowadays he grants few interviews. The rare concessions are often rather glum affairs, Allen perhaps bearing the scars of the tabloid thrashing he received during his caustic split from actress Mia Farrow and his subsequent marriage to Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Which makes it all the more heartening for Total Film to find him in fine fettle: witty, gracious and self-effacing, his congenial patter spilling over two lengthy sessions. There is, after all, so much to talk about. Starting with his latest New York rom-com, Anything Else...

Your character in Manhattan, Isaac, famously said, "People should mate for life, like Catholics or pigeons." Like so many of your movies, Anything Else suggests this is a pipe dream...
I think it is possible, but you have to be incredibly lucky. Sometimes you meet your soulmate on your first marriage, sometimes on your fifth. What I don't believe in are people who say, "I have a good relationship because I work at it." You shouldn't have to work at it. You should want to see that person, to spend time having fun with them. It should be like the guy who works all day then goes home to play with
his sailing boat.

Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci start off hopelessly attracted to each other, but the sex soon peters out. It was the same with Annie and Alvy in Annie Hall...
Yeah, the sex often dries up. I'm not sure if this happens first and the relationship crumbles after, or if you stop having sex because, on some level, you're unhappy with the relationship. But when the sex stops, there's only so long you can convince yourself that you're happy. You can fantasise and you can have affairs but the truth will out.

Steven Spielberg's studio DreamWorks has distributed your last four films. Has its involvement curtailed your artistic freedom?
Oh, not at all. I make my movies - I cast them and shoot them, I have final cut - and then I show them to DreamWorks and it decides how best to market them. It decides if the film's good or bad, if it will make money or not. It may be a good film that won't make money, or a bad film that will make money…

Still, they chose to market Anything Else by leaving you out of the trailer...
I have no problem with them focusing on Jason and Christina. They're two very popular young actors.

Unlike Spielberg, you never went to film school. Is it fair to say that you learned to make films by watching films - through osmosis?
I also had the advantage of being the writer, so I knew what would make the jokes work best. Basically, though, I believe you can either make films or you can't. Sure, you learn things and experience makes you more technically adept, but it's all there to begin with. Or not. Elia Kazan [director of On The Waterfront] said he never got to know the inside of a camera, but he knew how to make films. And he made some great films…

The visiting aliens in Stardust Memories claim to prefer your "earlier, funnier" movies. Do you regard them with a special fondness?
Not really. Films like Take The Money And Run, Bananas and Sleeper were the best I could do at the time, on very limited budgets. It's all down to individual tastes. If you prefer helter-skelter gags, you may like the earlier movies. But I'm not especially fond of any of my films.

You're certainly not fond of Manhattan. Why did you beg United Artists to burn the negative?
I was sick of it by the time I'd finished editing it. The same is true of many of my films. It's like being a chef: you prepare the meal, you add all the spices and by the time it's ready you don't want to eat it. I'd lived with Manhattan for too long. I wanted to be rid of it. In fact, I've never gone back to any of my movies. I made Take The Money And Run, my debut, 35 years ago, and I've not seen a single frame since. People always ask me about certain scenes in my movies and, more often than not, I can't remember them. They know my films better than I do.

Sounds like you self-consciously abandon your own movies...
Well, I'm always disappointed with them by the time I've finished editing. I start off with optimism, while I'm writing, but so many compromises have to be made along the way. If I went back to my films it would be even worse - I'd be so crippled with disappointment I'd never work again. It was the same with my stand-up comedy. At first I thought I was good: I was on TV a lot and everyone liked my work. Then, one day, I saw myself. I was terrible! Dismal! I don't know how I ever got the work.

Annie Hall saw you move on from the broad comedy skits of your early work. Do you view it as a watershed film?
Certainly. The funny thing is, people told me not to do it, just as they told me not to make a 'serious' film when I did Interiors. But I've never thought about commerce. I've only made films that I've wanted to make.

Is it true Annie Hall started life as a shaggy-dog murder mystery?
Yeah. I thought it would be fun to make a murder mystery, then I suddenly didn't want to do it anymore. The stuff that I dumped popped up many years later in Manhattan Murder Mystery.

The first cut of Annie Hall ran to three hours, right?
The original version had many digressions, some of them very funny, but the story was getting lost. I decided to zoom in on the relationship between Annie and Alvy.

You were playing jazz in New York when the movie beat Star Wars to the 1977 Best Picture gong. How did you find out about Annie's triumph?
I was playing clarinet at Michael's Pub. I finished early, went home, went to bed, got up, had a shower, got dressed and went downstairs to make my breakfast. Then I picked up the New York Times and saw that Annie Hall had won four Oscars. I thought, "Oh, that's nice." And it was nice. But it didn't change anything.

Did you ever pick up the statuettes?
They posted them to me and I gave them to my parents, who then left them to me when they died. I wouldn't sell my Oscars or give them away because that's not the agreement with the Academy. Equally, I'd never put them on the mantelpiece because I don't have any kind of memorabilia. They're in a package somewhere. Someday they'll probably wind up back at the Academy.

Your attendance at the 2002 Academy Awards broke a four-decade duck. Was it purely because of 9/11?
Absolutely. The Academy put a lot of pressure on me to take part. They were going to do a tribute to New York with or without me, but they wanted me there because I'm associated with the city. That's why I went. It's the only reason.

Incredibly, Manhattan was blanked at the Oscars...
People forget that. For all the fuss about Manhattan, it never won any awards - even Gordon Willis' photography was ignored. We shot in black and white because it's so beautiful, and we went for widescreen because I wanted to do an intimate picture in a format that was associated with epics and war pictures. I wanted to show that you didn't need thousands of soldiers to fill the frame.

Tell us about that iconic poster-image shot. Did you take a look at the dailies and think, "Ah, that's special"?
I knew it was beautiful - I was working with a great DoP - but I had no idea it would become so iconic. We went down to the 59th Street Bridge at five in the morning, taking our own bench because there aren't any there! We shot the scene again and again as the sun came up.

Manhattan is your most composed, stylised movie. Husbands And Wives is your most chaotic...
I broke all the rules on that one. I wanted to reflect the dissonance of the characters' lives, so I used jump cuts and a hand-held camera.

Many people look at that movie and see your break-up with Mia Farrow. Do the constant comparisons between your life and work annoy you?
It used to. It's like when people equate my on-screen persona with the real me. I'm exaggerating! I'm attempting to be funny! It's not me, just as Charlie Chaplin wasn't The Tramp. Annie Hall isn't my relationship with Diane Keaton: we didn't get together like that, and we didn't split up like that. In fact, I co-wrote that film with Marshall Brickman and many of the observations were his. I had it with Deconstructing Harry, too. People said, "Now that's Woody." Well, it's not. I've never had writer's block, I don't go home and drink and I certainly don't have the courage to kidnap a child! I'm a drone. I sit and I work…

Surely you get upset when people write terrible things about your own love life?
I don't care. What they say is of no interest to me.

At least actors say nice things about you. Not surprising given you've teased out so many Oscar-winning turns...
There's really no secret. I hire wonderful actors and get out of their way. What do you think is going to happen when you have a Gene Hackman, a Meryl Streep or a Michael Caine in front of the camera? It's simple. I honestly don't direct actors that much. I might say, "A little louder" or "A little softer" but that's really about it.

It's said that everyone wants to work with Woody Allen. Has anyone ever turned you down?
There's a big misconception that anyone I offer a part to will immediately jump into my pictures. That's just not true. There have been plenty of people who've said, "I can't work for that little money" - people who've previously said they're desperate to work with me. Other people have said, "Look, I'd love to work with you but the script isn't right for me." But mainly it's the money.

Many actors have been very loyal to you. What are the advantages of forming a repertory company?
The advantages are the same as in any other business: you don't have to go through getting to know the people you hire. If you hire someone new, they may work out, they may not. It's better if you have experience of someone and at least know you'll get along.

Even so, you've employed plenty of fresh faces on your next movie, Melinda And Melinda...
I have. It's a romantic drama set in New York, starring Radha Mitchell, Chloë Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller. I think that Radha is a fantastic actress and I'm sure her work on this film will be recognised. Of course, people will then probably say it's down to me, but it really isn't. It's all her. I didn't have to do a thing.

Let's talk about your idols. Bergman's influence is stamped all over Interiors, Fellini's on Stardust Memories...
It's not conscious. I don't set out to make 'my Bergman film'. I think it's because I watch these great movies and it seeps into my own work.

You're also a big fan of Kurosawa. Will we ever see 'Woody's Seven Samurai', replete with action sequences?
[Laughs] That's not likely to happen!

Do any modern-day filmmakers deserve space in the Woody pantheon?
It's an exalted list so probably not. The people I talk about have large bodies of work. I don't know, maybe Bernardo Bertolucci deserves to join their ranks. He's a great filmmaker.

He's also been working since the '60s! What about guys like PT Anderson, David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino?
I don't know too many of their films. I've seen Pulp Fiction, which was enjoyable in parts, but I don't really watch a lot of contemporary movies. Hollywood at the moment is dismal. Films are made for commerce, not art. I know that sounds pretentious, but it's true. I mean, more money is spent on advertising one of these films than Ingmar Bergman spent on making all his films in his entire career. It's ludicrous.

Come on, Woody. You must have seen some great films in the last 10 years!
I've seen great films from France and Italy, China and Iran, but not from Hollywood. There are great filmmakers - Martin Scorsese is as good as there's ever been - but even they have to work within the system. Marty is given $100 million to make a picture and then has to argue his vision with Miramax. He should have sole creative say.

You'd probably need $100 million to realise your long-cherished jazz project ...
I've always wanted to make a jazz movie set in 1900, New Orleans, but to recreate that era would cost so much money. Also, not many people are interested in the subject. I am, of course - I'm riveted by it! - but not many people share my enthusiasm. I doubt it will ever be made.

You mentioned Scorsese before. He explores a very different side of New York to you...
I write about what I know. I mean, Marty knows a certain New York and Spike Lee knows a certain New York. They feel it and they write about it very, very well. I wouldn't have credibility in my work if I was writing about those kind of things. As a citizen, I'm interested in social issues and political commitments. As an artist, I'm not. It's philosophical subjects and relationships that interest me.

Detractors argue that your ethnic characters are stereotypes. Do you agree?
Absolutely. The Italian-Americans in Broadway Danny Rose are based less on people in real life than on actors who have appeared in movies. Broadway Danny Rose is not about verisimilitude, it's a larger-than-life conceit. To say that these characters are stereotypical is absolutely correct.

Of course, if you ever get around to recording a DVD commentary you could defend all these quibbles...
I'm not interested in all that extra stuff.

Really? Wouldn't you like to leave definitive statements on each of your films?
No, I'm really not interested. I want my films to speak for themselves. And hopefully they do…

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.