B Plus Productions
Gaining unprecedented access to the notoriously private film legend, Emmy Award-winner Robert Weide (right) delves into Woody Allen’s (left) life and creative process in this two-part documentary.
Emmy-winning writer/director Robert Weide has long been an admirer of great comedy and those who have devoted their lives to making us laugh. Since 1982, he has profiled comic legends in his documentaries The Marx Brothers In a Nutshell, Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition, Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth, and W.C. Fields Straight Up, to name a few. He also worked with Larry David for five seasons as the director and executive producer of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Despite his success, the subject he most wanted to profile remained elusive for over 20 years. With no small amount of perseverance, Weide finally managed to persuade Woody Allen to agree to be interviewed and filmed, providing the basis for Weide’s fascinating documentary premiering this week on PBS.
Clocking in at two and a half hours, American Masters Woody Allen: A Documentary took took two years to complete and details the life of the iconic filmmaker, from his childhood days in Brooklyn, New York to his early career as a stand-up comic, through his filmmaking years.
I spoke with Robert Weide about the making of the documentary and his 30 years of success in the television and film industry.
It took you 20 years to convince Woody Allen to let you make this documentary. Can you talk a little about that two decade-long conversation?
A bit of mythology sprung up around that. Although in some ways it’s true. It’s not that it was 20 years of constant pestering. I was very young when I started all of this. I did my Marx Brothers movie, which was my first. I was 22. I probably wrote to Woody not long after that, which was in the early '80s, asking about making a documentary and he politely declined, as I expected he would. But because I was young I figured I’d stick this out. I’d go back to him every decade. I remember I did go to him sometime in the ‘90s, I think the early ‘90s, again he politely declined. But this time he said yeah. I wore him down.
In your documentary, he comes across as such a humble man.
You hit it right on the head. That was really the theme of all the behind the scenes machinations to get him to do this. The difficulty in getting his cooperation was never about control or anything like that. It was all about his near refusal to believe that he would be a worthwhile subject for a documentary. And I could tell it wasn’t false modesty because it really sort of infiltrated our dynamic in so many different ways.
The first thing was he assured me I would never get the financing to make the film and that nobody would ever want to put it on the air. And now it’s “Nobody’s going to watch it.” He knows he’s still kind of a niche filmmaker. He just doesn’t think there’s any mass appeal to his work. So I always had to deal with that. Even things like asking him about filming in the old neighborhood in Brooklyn. He’d say, “Really? Who’d want to see where I grew up or where I went to school or where I played stickball in the streets?” And I would just say, “Look, if they’re interested enough to watch the film they’ll be interested in that. And if they’re not interested they won’t be watching the film anyway.”
He doesn’t have a clue. And the same thing with me filming on the set. He said, “Well, you’re welcome to do it if you want but my sets are very boring. I don’t really talk to the actors much. There’s a lot of sitting around. I don’t do anything exciting.”
You make a point of showing how thrilled Woody's actors were when he would send them personal letters welcoming them to his productions.
He would find it very peculiar. Each person I talked to talked about how they kept the letter, they had it framed or whatever. He finds that very unusual.
It seems odd that after all this time an astute person like himself refuses to acknowledge how influential and revered he is.
Not that it’s all about finances, because it’s not, but even something like [the film] Midnight In Paris, he warned me about making too much of the success of the film because he said, “What does that mean? So the next one won’t make any money. It’s all a crapshoot anyway.” In other words, Midnight In Paris, if you just look at the numbers, it’s his most successful film to date. I think it’s made something like 55 million dollars in the United States, which is outrageous for him, and 130 million dollars worldwide. And [if] you say those are really impressive numbers, he’ll point out to you that’s the opening night of a Spider-Man movie.
In some ways he’s realistic about his place in the overall picture but there’s got to be some part of him that knows that there are enough people like me that have been deeply affected or influenced by his work and think he’s a very interesting guy.
Has he seen the documentary?
Yeah, I wanted to show it to him right before I handed it in to PBS just in case there was anything egregious or anything that would really bother him. But he was fine. He asked for a couple of very minor things and again it comes down to his self-deprecation. Every stand-up comedy buff I know thinks that Woody’s stand-up is genius. He doesn’t care for his stand-up at all. There’s one joke in his stand-up act [he requested I cut]. He said, “Oh, God, I never liked that joke. I never understood why anybody did. Can you pull that? If you have to, put in something else but, oh, God, I can’t stand to hear that joke.” And there was one very, very short scene from one of his early movies that’s always bothered him.
There were two or three very minor things. Everybody said, “Oh, how’s he going to be with the Mia [Farrow divorce scandal] stuff and all that?” He was fine with all that. He didn’t try to take control of the film or tell me what to do. He just said he was embarrassed by his own work and asked if I could swap it out.
He was good at keeping his personal problems with Mia Farrow separate from his work and knew how to compartmentalize his life.
Yeah, that’s the operative word we’ve come to see that everybody uses about him. That scandal may have toppled some other career. First of all, Woody was minimally affected by that stuff. There’s no denying that this was a huge upheaval in his life. It was just a terrible situation for everybody involved. But Woody’s a guy who from the early ‘70s on has never read a word about himself in print. He doesn’t read his reviews. If he gives an interview to somebody and it winds up in print, it could be the cover of The New York Times magazine, he doesn’t read that.
He doesn’t look at his old movies. He keeps his nose to the grindstone. He’s always working on the next thing. So when all that was happening, as we see in the film, he could have a court appearance at 10 o’clock and a casting session at 12. And he just kept on with it and he kept writing.
The film he was writing in the middle of all that turned out to be Bullets Over Broadway. To me it’s one of his great films. That was the thing: he just kept working, he didn’t miss a beat. Some people could say that’s really weird, and maybe it is, but I think it’s what kept him going, kept his career moving forward.
From the footage of Woody at work, he seems to be one of the least stressed people in the business.
I spent a week on the set in London and every actor that I spoke to who worked with him all say the same thing. They’ve never seen him stressed or lose his temper. As Seth Green says, “He’s a very hard worker but nobody feels taxed on his set.”
He doesn’t like working late either because he either has a dinner with his family or friends or there’s a Knicks game that he’s got to make. He doesn’t like night shoots. He schedules it in such a way that nobody’s going crazy to make the day. I think he’s naturally a pretty calm person anyway.
How has Woody influenced your work, especially Curb Your Enthusiasm?
There’s a lot of overlap between Woody and Larry [David]. They’re both from the same part of the world [Brooklyn, New York], although Woody’s from Midwood and Larry’s from Sheepshead Bay. We’re all sort of neurotic Jews, I guess. Woody was part of my Mount Rushmore during my formative years. There was Woody, there was The Marx Brothers, there’s Kurt Vonnegut, there’s Lenny Bruce. These have all been the subjects of my own documentaries, and Woody was a very important part of that.
I think all those people I’ve named have somehow influenced my own view of the world and my own sense of what I’d like my work to be. Ultimately you find your own voice but those influences are always there. The same way that Bob Hope was a big influence on Woody’s early work certainly and, to a agree, Ingmar Bergman has been, as well. Mort Sahl was an influence on his comedy. You’ve always got those influences at the ready and sometimes they influence you in less tangible ways. But, yeah, Woody’s always been a part of my own comedic view of the world.
Woody's transition from stand-up comic to serious filmmaker seems like it was a natural progression. There were really no serious downturns. Even when films like Stardust Memories were panned, he took it in stride. Do you think he feels in some way blessed?
I doubt he would ever use any word like “blessed.” The word he uses a lot is “lucky.” He says he’s had a lot of lucky breaks. Again, he, in that self-deprecating way, just thinks he’s not a great talent but a guy who can sort of figure things out and land on his feet. For most filmmakers how your last film does will very much affect your ability to get the next one made.
But that’s not true for him because when one film comes out, he’s already making the next one because there are enough people who want to be in the Woody Allen business that he doesn’t get that fazed by it. He just thinks it’s all a crapshoot and he’ll keep going for as long as he can con money out of people and con studios into releasing it and con enough of the public to come see it so he can make the next one. He just thinks he’s a very lucky guy.
How did you decide who you wanted to interview for this film?
The people who were sort of associated with him over the years, like Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts, and Mariel Hemingway, Scarlett Johansson, those people I knew I wanted to go to just because they had had either multiple experiences with him, long-term experiences with him or an intimate enough experience with him that I thought they’d have something to bring to the table.
I knew his sister would be able to give us stuff that would go all the way back to his childhood. I knew that [producer] Jack Rollins would be there at the beginning of his career. Fred Weintraub, who owned The Bitter End, I knew could talk about his stand-up days. So you have to look at the story you want to tell and say, okay, who’d be a good witness for this and who’d be a good witness for that?
But once you get into the movies, then you’ve got those key people who’ve known him for a long time or have been friendly with him. And then there’s certain standout performances [by actors like] Mia Sorvino or Sean Penn. I went after them just because I thought them talking about those performances, which were either nominated for awards or won awards or got a certain amount of acclaim, I thought they’d be interesting to talk to.
I couldn’t talk to everybody so I just made my list of who I thought could really bring something to the table and move the story forward. I just took my best guess at it.
What’s next on your agenda?
It’s funny because the conventional wisdom in show business is have your next thing planned before you finish your current thing so you can move right into it. Of course I’m not savvy enough to do that. I finish something and then spend time thinking about what I’d like to do next so I have these lags of a year or a year and a half between things.
One thing I’d really like to do is finish up my documentary on Kurt Vonnegut, who’s another cultural hero of mine, who I became very, very close with. I started filming him in 1988 and filmed him on and off for a number of years. He died in 2007. So that I would like to finish. I actually get a lot of emails from Vonnegut fans, because that’s sort of a well-known work in progress, saying when are you going to finish the documentary. I better do it before one of them corners me.
I’d also like to do another feature. I directed a feature in 2008 called How To Lose Friends and Alienate People. I shot it in England. It did very, very well in England and did absolutely no business in the United States. That was always a dream as a kid was to direct a feature. I’d like to do that again.
When I was on Curb Your Enthusiasm, I was always offered episodes of other TV shows to direct, which I never took because I wasn’t interested. I had Curb going and I wanted to make a movie. I actually left Curb after season five full time but I’ve gone back since to do a couple of episodes. I did the one this year called “Palestinian Chicken,” which kind of made a lot of noise. Because of that I’m getting episodic offers again and this time I’m considering them. I’m about to direct an episode of Parks and Recreation and a couple of other things. I figure doing some TV work between the more long-term gigs will keep me occupied.
Part one of American Masters Woody Allen: A Documentary premieres on PBS Sunday, November 20 from 9-11pm. Part Two premieres on Monday, November 21 from 9-10:30pm.