Interview: Robert Weide, director of Woody Allen: A Documentary
BEING a Woody Allen fan is often dispiriting but when he’s on form he’s unbeatable, a fact on which Robert Weide, director of a new biography, agrees with Alistair Harkness
At this year’s Academy Awards, something unexpected occurred that I didn’t think would ever happen again at the Oscars. It wasn’t the sight of a black-and-white silent film winning the Best Picture, it was the fact that Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s 41st film as a writer-director, not only competed alongside The Artist for Best Picture and Best Director, it trumped it for Best Original Screenplay.
This was no small thing. Since kicking off the new century with the inconsequential Small Town Crooks (2000), Allen’s creative freefall has been so great (take your pick from Hollywood Ending, Cassandra’s Dream, Scoop or You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, to name but four), I’d all but given up thinking I’d ever want to watch another of his films, let alone one that would reinvigorate my long-term love for his work and see him once again become a serious contender at the Oscars.
Having fallen in love with Annie Hall when I was edging into my twenties, I’m not one of those fans who have become so blinkered by “Golden Age thinking” – as Allen termed it in Midnight in Paris – that I’ve never been able to see anything of worth in his post-1970s output.
Coming to Allen relatively late in his career, I devoured each new offering in the 1990s (Bullets Over Broadway, Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry) with the same relish I had for the extensive back catalogue I’d already begun working my way through after seeing Annie Hall.
Even when I knew I wasn’t watching a classic like Sleeper, Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters, his films always seemed to have something to offer – a sly gag, a nervy romantic hero or that rare ability to pinpoint not only the magical moments in a relationship when things begin to flourish, but also the melancholic ones when they inevitably sour.
Even so, over the past 12 years it’s been a struggle to remain a fan, so much so that his work on Midnight in Paris genuinely took me by surprise. It shouldn’t have. He is after all, Woody Allen. This, it turns out, is a fairly common reaction among Allen acolytes. Robert Weide, director of the new film Woody Allen: A Documentary, remembers talking to Larry David (who starred in Allen’s 2009 effort Whatever Works) about this very phenomenon.
“Larry and I had the same experience,” says Weide, who has been a fan since the age of nine when Take the Money and Run – Allen’s first film as writer, director and star – was released in 1969. “Ultimately, Larry talks about how you can be talking to Woody, having a regular conversation, and suddenly he’ll say something so disarmingly funny that it makes you laugh out loud. It’s so unexpected you say to yourself, ‘Where did that come from?’ And then you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, this is Woody Allen; it’s bound to happen.’”
This ability to quietly subvert expectations can, I think, be attributed to the complete creative freedom he’s enjoyed since the early days of his filmmaking career. Prolific and economical, Allen makes movies without interference from studio executives, egocentric stars or the demands of critics or fans. It’s what enabled him to transition from the farcical Love and Death to the groundbreaking Annie Hall; it has also, alas, allowed him to indulge his recent fixation with woeful British-set morality plays such as Match Point and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.
Allen claims never to read his critics and yet no-one is more perceptive about his audience and their reaction to his films than Allen himself. Stardust Memories, for instance, was a brilliantly incisive, amusingly self-aware response to the critical and commercial drubbing he experienced after choosing to follow Annie Hall with his introspective Ingmar Bergman-influenced Interiors. That the Fellini-esque end result was itself similarly eviscerated didn’t prevent Allen from having the last laugh: he furnished critics and fans with the infamous “early, funny” gag that has since become a staple of every unimaginative critique of his work.
To be an Allen fan, though, is to understand that he’s full of paradoxes. For all his apparent self-awareness, Weide reckons he genuinely doesn’t have a clue about his place in the cinematic landscape: “I mean, this is the same guy who looked at Manhattan once he had finished it and thought he had botched it so badly he offered to do another film for the studio for free if they agreed not to put it out.” Similarly, while Allen knows he’s famous, he doesn’t understand why he’s famous, despite it being a running theme in films such as Annie Hall, Stardust Memories and Celebrity. Indeed, just look at the way he repeatedly tries to distance himself from autobiographical interpretations of his work. Sure, the narrative details may differ, but it’s surely not a coincidence that he was in the midst of making the emotionally raw infidelity drama Husbands and Wives with Mia Farrow when their real life relationship went into meltdown following her discovery of his scandalous affair with her adopted daughter, Soon Yi Previn.
This ability to function at such a high level of artistic impunity does reflect one of the most remarkable things about Allen however: his laser-like focus. “I’d always known about the work ethic and his ability to compartmentalise things,” says Weide, whose film opens with Allen scribbling away on his latest script, “but to witness it was pretty amazing. The day he finishes editing one film, he really does start writing the next… and we’re the beneficiaries because good, bad or indifferent, we get a film a year and, if we see something we don’t like, we don’t have to wait very long for the next one.”
Despite the increased number of clunkers in recent years, it’s this productivity that may well be the key to his continued relevance. In the documentary, Allen refers to it as working to the “Quantum Theory” – in effect, throwing stuff against a wall in the hope that some will stick. As such, he has an infuriating tendency of refusing to acknowledge Annie Hall for the masterpiece it clearly is, though perhaps it’s not unreasonable to think that his continued unwillingness to rest on his laurels has been part of a survival strategy, one that has enabled him to avoid being paralysed by the demand to replicate or top his most beloved film. “You may be onto something,” says Weide, “but he’s also his harshest critic and even though we love it, we don’t know what his ambition was for that film. That’s his criteria.”
What is clear is that without him, cinema would be a far poorer place. There’s barely an American comedy in the past 30 years that doesn’t have one of his films in its DNA (to say nothing of TV shows such as Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, of which Weide has been a regular director). Allen’s stylistic and narrative innovations are just as important. Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York would be unthinkable without the groundwork laid by the philosophical and existential underpinnings of Allen’s best work. The central conceptual gag in The Artist, meanwhile, is the sort of thing Allen might once have dispensed with in an amusing aside in one of his many films about creativity.
“I do see his influence everywhere,” confirms Weide. “I don’t know anyone roughly my age who does not consider him a seminal influence.”
And as Midnight in Paris proved, the 77-year-old Allen really isn’t done yet.
“I hate to put a number on how many films he’s going to end up making,” says Weide, “but even if he’s batting one for four, which is a conservative estimate, and he winds up making 60 films, that still means he’ll have written and directed 15 great films. That’s pretty darn good.” I can’t disagree.
• Woody Allen: A Documentary is on selected release from Friday.
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