Soracha Pelan Ó Treasaigh caught up with director Robert Weide to find out more about his film biography of Woody Allen, which is released in cinemas this Friday, 8th June.
Woody Allen: A Documentary chronicles the trajectory and longevity of Allen’s career: from his teenage years furnishing jokes for comics and publicists, his work in the 1950s-60s as a TV scribe for Sid Caesar, stand-up comedian and frequent TV talk show guest, to a writer-director averaging one film each year for more than 40 years.
Congratulations on the film. I’m an avid Woody Allen film and really enjoyed it.
Was this a project you wanted to work on for a long time?
Yes, I first met Woody when I was 22, making a documentary on the Marx Brothers, I’ve been coming back to him every decade trying to get him to make the film. He initially refused but eventually I wore him down. He really didn’t believe that he was interesting enough for a documentary to be made about him.
What interests you about Woody Allen?
I’ve long admired his work. I find the narrative arc of his career really interesting, he started out writing jokes in school, then went on to become a comic and then moved to film. Also, there isn’t a lot known about his writing process, or how he is on set, he never does DVD extras or anything like that. The only way to see him on set is if you are in one of his films so I really wanted to show his approach to his work.
As you said, Allen famously dislikes publicity and you had to wear him down; how did you convince him?
I eventually wrote him a really convincing letter, about three years ago, saying that now was the time to do this and that I was the one to do it. I think it helped that myself and Woody have shared interests. He had seen my films because he was interested in the topics, so he trusted me as a filmmaker.
He comes across as very relaxed on film and you have great access to him, on set and in his home. How did you build this relationship with him?
We had a lot of email contact beforehand. Now, Woody doesn’t like using technology, so I would email his assistant and she would either print them out and he would read them or she would read them aloud to him. He then would dictate the emails back to her. We got to know each other quite well that way, and our emails go to the point of being sarcastic and calling each other names in the way that men do to show affection for one another.
The tone of the film shows him in a positive light, you clearly admire his work – some have criticised the film as overly sympathetic to him – what is your opinion on this?
I’m not a total sycophant. I don’t think it is gushing. If any of the interviewers would gush and go on about him being a genius, I would just cut it. Who wants to watch a documentary and someone is saying that they don’t like his work or think anything of him. I show the narrative of his life, we show Stardust Memories and the outcry about that, we talk about that people had written him off because of the reaction to his films in the early nineties, we also show his relationship with Mia Farrow and Soon Yi, but I wasn’t interested in making the film a courtroom drama. It’s strange because no one ever made that comment on any of my other films that they were one-sided.
As a big fan of his work myself I don’t find the scandals in his life relevant to how I watch his films but some people cannot get past the negative aspects of his public persona– what was your approach to addressing this?
I find it the least interesting part of his life. For some people it is the most interesting, or the only thing they know about him. People act like it is something that happened to them. He’s now been with Soon Yi for 17 years. People asked me was I going to include his relationship with Mia Farrow and Soon Yi and I said yeah, of course because it’s part of his life. I was interested in how his personal life impacted his work. And it had very little impact on his work, really if any at all. When he was going through that he was making Bullets over Broadway, which is an excellent Allen film.
After an early stand up performance in the Bleaker Street club, The Bitter End, in which the audience did not respond well, manager Jack Rollins said to the owner – ‘you see, he’s an industry!’ Do you agree that he is an industry, almost a genre to himself?
That’s one of my favourite moments in the film. Woody jokes that he has a small and disloyal fan base. He has a niche industry. Midnight in Paris took in over 100 million but that’s a Thursday night preview screening of The Avengers. The way he looks at it, as long as he makes a couple of bucks on a film, he can go on to make another one. He has made 43 films in as many years. He doesn’t read his reviews, he doesn’t listen to his critics – either good or bad, he doesn’t go to the award shows. He honestly doesn’t believe that he is all that good, and it’s not modesty. For him, the great directors are Fellini, Bergman and he doesn’t believe that his films are comparable.
The themes of his films are discussed in the documentary – how do you think he manages to ask similar questions throughout his films without it becoming repetitive?
Some people say that he is making the same film over and over but I would say to them how is Purple Rose of Cairo similar to Match Point? They are a totally different style. I think if you are not interested in those existential questions of why are we here, our relationship with death, etc. and you’re not so keen on him then you could find it repetitive. My favourite author is Kurt Vonnegut, and he talks about the same subjects throughout his books.
The film was a three hour documentary on PBS. How did the feature edit come about?
I had always planned to make a two-hour documentary but when I was in the editing room there was so much that I phoned PBS and asked if I could get two nights, they said that was fine. Woody didn’t want a theatrical release in the US but was ok with a release overseas. I’m happy with the final cut of the film, I cut it myself so I can’t blame any network people. I would encourage people to see it. When the executive producers watched the cut they said they cannot notice what I left out. I don’t think that it’s lacking. For the diehard Woody fans, there will be a DVD version of the full PBS Documentary at some stage. I had ongoing bets with Woody as he said that no one would fund it, no one would distribute it, no one would want to see it!
Lastly, what’s your favourite Woody Allen film?
Why do people always ask me that? [laughs] My default answer is now Annie Hall, I like about eight films as much as Annie Hall but I went to see the premiere when I was in High School and it was such an amazing experience, it really felt that not only would Woody Allen’s films never be the same but that genre of comedy would never be the same again. I mean it won best Oscar over Star Wars that year. I love Crimes and Misdemeanours as well, but Annie Hall has that nostalgia for me of when I first saw it.