The A to Z of Woody Allen

Everything you wanted to know about Woody Allen but didn’t know whom to ask. An exclusive interview with the troubled genius.

Updated - November 16, 2021 06:40 pm IST

Published - July 21, 2012 04:03 pm IST

The show goes on: Woody Allen during the filming of "To Rome With Love." Photo: AP

The show goes on: Woody Allen during the filming of "To Rome With Love." Photo: AP

Life is a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience.

The first time I met Woody Allen seven years ago in a temporary suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London, the constant and increasingly irritating reminders of his assistant were still echoing in the back of my head. Sure, I was granted this interview, but questions directed to the Maestro should be phrased in a clear and thoughtful manner — soft-spoken equivocation was not only ineffective, it would also lead to silence. “And please, no longer than 20 minutes,” were the last words while being gently directed into the foyer of his suite.

And there he was, standing motionless by the window, looking at the grey and foggy skyline of London. About 15 seconds passed before he turned around and looked, through those thick, black glasses — the same ones he’s worn since the 1960s — at my boyish face (I was 22 at the time). “Good luck,” were his only words while shaking my hand. This brief moment would be the beginning of a series of interview sessions that found us reunited in various cities over the last decade.

No matter if it’s London, Venice, Cannes, or Toronto: A talk with Woody Allen is never the same, his answers never repeating. Only the tone remains the same. His thoughts are the output of a life that many would deem desirable, but to him is nothing more than a painful, meaningless endeavour — a grim enterprise that ultimately leads to nothing.

It’s a surprising thesis for a man who is widely considered to be one of the most influential directors of all time — and who is also extremely prolific: Since 1969, Allen has directed a film just about every year, collecting more awards and nominations than Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd combined. He has more Academy Award nominations (14) for writing than anyone else, he has directed 15 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances and he has, of course, consistently refused to attend the ceremony or acknowledge his Oscar wins.

His private life has also been known to create waves. He has dated Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, and since 1997 he has been together with his unofficial stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn, with whom he has adopted two additional children. (Frank Sinatra famously offered Farrow to break his legs after their affair became public.)

The reason for his lack of social skills might be the myriad neuroses that constrain him to living a normal life outside the movies. The now-76-year-old is rumoured to be sincerely afraid of crowds, heights, sunshine, illnesses, germs, and — according to Allen himself — completely incapable of seeing the sunny side of life.

Nevertheless, Conversations with Woody Allen are not only highly enlightening and entertaining, they are also charming in their own context. It’s a rare chance to talk to one of the greatest minds of our time — a troubled, anxious visionary, unique in his approach. Who else could be a more ideal candidate for the assembly of an A to Z directory consisting of the very best statements from our interview sessions? A run through a special life.

A for Agony

Maybe it’s a cliché that successful comedians have suffered, but my experience has taught me that it’s true. Just take a look at the biographies of great comedians and clowns, ask their families and wives. Regardless of whether you’re talking about Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or the Marx brothers, all of them suffered for the duration of their lives.

B for Beyond Me

If you talk to my wife or some friends of mine they would tell you that everything is beyond me. By good luck I have the talent that I amuse people. When I went to school, I was a poor pupil, all my friends went on to become doctors and lawyers. I was thrown out of the school. I have made my talent a very productive life for me, but everything else I am not good at. I am not good getting through life. Even the simplest things — checking in at an airport or hotel, handling my relationships with other people, going for a walk, exchanging things in a store — these things that are child’s play for most people are traumatic for me.

C for Crying in the Cinema

I cry in the cinema all the time. It's probably one of the only places I ever cry, because I have trouble crying. In Hannah and Her Sisters there was a scene where I was supposed to cry, and they tried everything, but it was impossible. They blew the stuff in my eyes and I could not cry. But in the cinema I weep. It’s like magic. I see the end of Bicycle Thieves or City Lights. It’s the only place. Never in the theatre, and almost never in life.

D for Dealing with Death

If I could reach a hundred years in a positive way, then I’d like to reach it. I don’t want to reach a hundred with an aluminium walker, dribbling. My relationship with death remains the same: I am strongly against it. All I can do though is write. I was lucky my parents lived a long time so maybe that will be good for me, I don’t know. But I’m a big coward.

E for European Encounters

I live in New York, which is a European style city, certainly more than California. As a young man, when I was 18 or 19, and I wanted to go into film, European cinema had such an impact on those of us in New York. Every week we would see a new film by Bergman, Godard, Truffaut, and they were so much superior to the junk Hollywood was making. Occasionally Hollywood made a good movie, but very rarely. For every one good movie there were 100 that were infantile. We didn’t get the bad European movies; we only saw the crème de la crème. I grew up loving Fellini, Kurosawa. So it’s possible that that influenced, without conscious effort, the style of my films. Like a musician who listens to Coleman Hawkins his whole life. He doesn’t imitate him, but when he plays that’s what it sounds like. And I feel I have been a derivative of European cinema.

F for Fame

I never see myself as a famous person. I always see it as much, much less glamorous than that. I live an extremely ordinary middle class life. I don’t live the life of a bohemian where I get up in the morning and I live over a café and I meet with intellectuals. Nothing like that. All around me are stockbrokers and bankers where I live in New York. I get up in the morning and take the children to school and come home and write, practise the clarinet, go on the treadmill and exercise. You know, take a walk, watch a basketball game. It’s a very “nothing” life compared to what you think. “Oh, you are famous, and you work in the movies. There must be parties every night with movie stars and conversations with writers.” But it’s not.

G for Getting Older

I find getting older a lousy deal. There is no advantage to getting older. You don’t get smarter, you don’t get wiser, you don’t get mellower, you don’t get more kind, nothing good happens. Your back hurts more, you get more indigestion, your eyesight isn’t as good, you need a hearing aid. It’s a bad business getting old and I would advise you not to do it if you can avoid it. It doesn’t have a romantic quality.

H for Hiring the Right People

The trick in directing films is to be a good hirer. When you’re hiring these wonderful, international, talented actors, how wrong can you go? How much direction do you have to give these people? Hardly anything at all. So if you hire the right people you can give them responsibility and then keep your mouth shut and get your pay cheque.

I for Imagination

When I’m sitting home writing a story, I finish it and I think, “This is a good script, I want to make this into a movie.” Then I go make it into the movie and the movie is never as good. Because, you know, when you’re at home everything happens in your mind and it’s all beautiful and great, but when you actually see the actor pick up the thing and walk across the room and put it down and talk, it’s not so beautiful as in your mind. So the movies never come out the way you want them to. Some movies do. Purple Rose of Cairo was a film of mine where I felt, “My god, everything I wanted is right there in the film. It’s great.” I felt that way about Match Point when I made it. That doesn’t happen to me very much. Usually it’s disappointing.

J for Jazz

I’m not a good musician — and I’m not saying that just to sound modest. I used to meet up with friends at my house once a week to make music. In the same way some people like to relax by playing poker, I had my clarinet. At some point someone suggested that we hold our music evenings in a cabaret. Then we received our first offers from Europe. I gave in and let everything take its natural course. Now we play in concert and opera houses in front of thousands of people and I really don’t know how it happened. People probably come because they know my films and would like to get a look at me. What we play isn’t so important. I even feel a little guilty. I once held a sold-out concert in Paris shortly after a jazz legend finished playing for a handful of people. I just do my best, but that’s apparently good enough for our audience.

K for King’s Court

Any award that you have to campaign for can’t really be a serious award. You have to spend money and take ads and say: “Please think of me.” When a film company says, “We want to distribute your film. We’ll distribute it and we will guarantee spending this much money on an Oscar campaign.” To me that’s very silly. I never let them do it for me. They can do it if they want for the other actors, I don’t care. For the cameramen, for the actors, I don’t want to get in their way if it’s meaningful to them, but not for me. There are never ads that say “for your consideration” because of me.

L for Lousy Literature

I never thought of myself as a writer. I always thought of myself as being in show business. I was a cabaret comedian, I was a magician, I played music. I don’t understand writing. I can write, but when I write something — prose that I publish in The New Yorker or something — I always have to ask them, “Is this okay?” When I write a script, I know. I don’t have to ask anybody. I know: “This is a good script.” I wrote a whole novel — it took me a long time, it was maybe 400 pages — and I showed it to some people and they said, “Mmm, this doesn’t make it.” And immediately I said, “Okay” and I put it in a drawer.

M for Multiple Lovers

Can a man love two women at the same time? More than two. (Laughs) I think you can. I think all those possibilities are true. That’s why romance is a very difficult and painful thing, a very hard, very complicated thing. You can be with your wife, very happily married, and then you meet some woman and you love her. But you love your wife, too. And you also love that one. Or if she’s met some man and she loves the man and she loves you. And then you meet somebody else and now there are three of you. (Laughs) So why only one person? I think it’s important to control yourself because life gets too complicated if you don’t, but the impulse is often there for people. Some say society should be more open. That doesn’t work either. I think it’s a lose-lose situation. If you pursue the other woman, it’s a losing situation and it’s not good for your relationship or your marriage. If your marriage is open and you’re allowed to, that’s no good either. There’s no way, really in the end, to be happy unless you get very lucky.

N for Necessities

I avoid difficulty as much as possible. I’m always filming. As soon as I’ve finished a project, I immediately start writing for the next one. To do something else simply doesn’t make sense. I’ve been working on the same Olympus Typewriter since I was 16 — and it still looks like new. All of my films were written on that typewriter but until recently I couldn’t even change the colour ribbon myself. There were times where I would invite people over to dinner just so they would change the ribbon. It’s a tragedy.

O for Old Guys and Young Girls

The old guy quite often gets the girl in my movies. It’s a good gimmick for drama and laughter. I’ve done 41 films and I’ve used it several times. It’s a good laugh-getter and a good provocative kind of thing. I did it years ago in Manhattan because when we were writing that we thought that would be a funny idea. And I used it again with Larry David many years later because I thought it would be funny. I like it, it gives me something to write. When I am home and I am trying to think of dramatic scenes or comic scenes it gives me something that you can get good situations from and good jokes from and I enjoy it.

P for Pessimism

Happiness in life is impossible. This is my perspective and has always been my perspective on life. I have a very grim, pessimistic view of it that I’ve always had since I was a little boy. It hasn’t gotten worse with age or anything. I do feel that it’s a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience and that the only way that you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself. A lot of people see this differently but I am also not the first person to say this or the most articulate person. It was said by Nietzsche, it was said by Freud, it was said by Eugene O'Neill. One must have one’s delusions to live. If you look at life too honestly and clearly, life becomes unbearable because it’s a pretty grim enterprise, you will admit.

Q for Quality

I never know if one of my movies will be successful. That is just a question of pure luck. I make each movie hoping to make a very good movie. Some come out good, some come out less good, like every other director. For some reason, and you can never figure this out in advance, an audience will embrace one film. They just feel great affection for it. In the U.S., years ago when I made Annie Hall, people just loved it. It was just an emotional thing; they just loved the movie. I’ve made better movies than that. Movies that were very well received, that got good reviews and that people came to see. But that one had something extra, that I didn’t put into it, but was there by luck that people just loved. Sometimes you make a movie and it isn’t just that they enjoy it, but it touches some kind of nerve in them and they love it more than your last movie or more than your last 10 movies.

R for Relationships

You are much more dependent on luck than you think. People say if you want to have a good relationship, you have to work at it. But you never hear it about anything you really like, about sailing or going to soccer games. You never say: I have to work at it. You just love it. You can’t work at a relationship, you can’t control it. You have to be lucky and go through your life. If you are not lucky you have to be prepared for some degree of suffering. That’s why most relationships are very difficult and have some degree of pain. People stay together because of inertia, they don’t have the energy. They are frightened of being lonely, or they have children.

S for Screenplays

The filming part is easy. Where you fail all the time in movies, or 99 per cent of the time, is in the script. That’s the problem. If you have a good script, a really good script, you can give it to a mediocre director and he’ll get, you know, not a bad movie. If you have a bad script and you give it to the best director in the world, it’ll look nice but you’ll never be interested in it. So it isn’t the locations or the technical parts that ever trip you up. It’s always the script.

T for Tragedy

For me there are two types of people. The first type are those who have a tragic outlook on things, but can still get by rather well. The others have an even more tragic perspective and they have to rely on poking fun of their own misfortune in order to get by. They find life so horrible that, if they weren’t always making jokes about how horrible it is, they would kill themselves right away. For me it’s not a question of “funny” or “tragic,” instead I think it’s a question of “tragic” or “very tragic.” The most tragic are those who attempt to use jokes in order to escape their predicament but don’t succeed.

U for Utopia

Life is full of moments that are good — winning a lottery, seeing a beautiful woman, a great dinner — but the whole thing is tragic. It’s an oasis that is very pleasant. You take a film like Bergman’s Seventh Seal, this is a film of great tragedy, but there is a moment when he is sitting with the children and drinking the milk and eating the wild strawberries. That wonderful moment passes, and you come back to really what existence is.

V for Verbal Verification

People on the street are very nice. People on the street, if they hate my movie, don’t say anything and they just walk past. They usually only speak to you with a nice thing to say. I am sure many of them may feel very angry or very disappointed, but they don’t come up and say, “I want my money back!”

W for Weather

As far as I’m concerned, London has the best weather in the world. Psychological studies show that human beings become more depressed when the sky remains overcast and gloomy for too long, but it has the exact opposite effect on me. When the sun shines in New York, I feel sick to my stomach. It doesn’t need to rain necessarily, but when the sky is gray and cloudy, I automatically get this wonderful feeling of warmth.

X for Xenophobia

My wife thinks that I have no friends — and maybe she’s right. I never got in with any groups. I never lived out in California and mingled with the film community. I have no friends who are film directors. I know them and say hello if I’m in New York. If I see Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee we say hello and we talk for a minute, but we never have dinner or socialise. I don’t know these people socially. I’m not part of any group. I just keep to myself. Now someone doing what I do and making many films over the years could have made many friends, gone out with many actresses, made friends with many actors and cameramen and colleagues, but I haven’t done that. Well, I’ve gone out with some, but you know I’ve been in the business for 50 years. I haven’t gone out with many. When you think that I’ve made 42 films and I’ve gone out with two: Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. There’s just a couple, maybe three or four of the hundreds that I’ve worked with.

Y for Yearning

For years I played the romantic lead and then I couldn’t play it anymore because I got too old to play it. It’s no fun not playing the guy who gets the girl, so unless I can think of some way to do it, I won’t play again! But if I can’t think of a part for myself or a way to get the girl then you can imagine how frustrating it is when I do these movies with Scarlett Johansson and Naomi Watts and the other guys get them and I am the director. I am that old guy over there that is the director. I don’t like that. I like to be the one that sits opposite them in the restaurant, looks their eyes and lies to them. So if I can’t do that it’s not that much fun to play in the movies.

Z for Zeal

I simply enjoy working. Where else could I develop ambition? As an artist, you are always striving toward an ultimate achievement but never seem to reach it. You shoot a film, and the result could have always been better. You try again, and fail once more. In some ways I find it enjoyable. You never lose sight of your goal. I don’t do my job to make money or to break box office records, I simply try things out. What would happen if I were to achieve perfection at some point? What would I do then?

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