STARBURST MEMORIES – Woody Allen on Woody Allen

Dirk's bedside edition

Dirk’s bedside edition

At the beginning of this year’s Woodython, I promised to provide a review of some of the Woody literature available in the Dirk archive. Woody Allen on Woody Allen is part of the Faber series featuring directors talking in detail about their work. They have rescued many essays for me in the past as they are a valuable source of quotes and insight straight from the auteurs’ mouth, so to speak. This book is a key text in Woody studies and a great companion piece to the documentary to dip and delve. It can live by your bedside. It can get a little repetitive when read in a single sitting: there is only so many times that you need to hear about Diane Keaton’s flair for comedy. The first edition finished with THE MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY, during a tumultuous and productive period of his life, and the second edition finishes with A HOLLYWOOD ENDING, when the distribution of his films became more difficult.

Woody Allen has a reputation for being a reluctant interviewee, however I think that this is totally unfounded as he is generous with his thoughts and opinions relating to his films and attitudes to the industry that he works in. He is a private person, but he can be seen frequently in public (playing clarinet in the Carlyle every Monday) and is accessible (he will engage in conversation with well-wishers when he is walking in Manhattan, or eating at his favourite restaurants.) Woody feels comfortable with the interviewer, Stig Bjorkman – a Swedish film critic who has a connection with his sometime cinematographer Sven Nykist – so the result is a candid exposition based around each of his films in chronological order. The questions are fairly gentle, but does digress into interesting diversions that go beyond his thoughts on film and into other areas like politics (people in all classes are nice and some aren’t) and music (his love of Jazz) .

There is much detail in these interviews, but it is possible to glean his methodology quiet easily. It is clear he doesn’t have any involvement as film-making as a life-style. Early in his career, after the making of WHAT’S NEW PUSSY CAT (1965), it is clear that he was uncomfortable with Warren Beatty’s approach with actors and producers, where everyone is in everyone’s pockets and lunches are more important than art.

He maintains a healthy detachment from the Hollywood scene, watching contemporary films in the same way a premiership manager may scout the lower leagues on the hunt for talent. In collaboration with Juliet Taylor, his casting director, and her magnificent address book he selects actors for his project. They seem drawn to the kudos of working with him and the potential recognition from the Academy. He says that he has not really written a part on demand, although around the time of SHADOWS AND FOG (1991) Jodie Foster expressed a wish to be in one of his films, so he fitted her in. If he is to believed, then the rest of the process is just a case of putting trust in the actors and his team that he has put together over the years. It is clear that he doesn’t socialise with the actors, preferring to keep a professional distance from them. He is effusive in his praise of Judy Davies in this book, but in recent interviews she has remarked on how she feels slighted by Allen’s stand-offish behavior.

It seems that Gordon Willis was instrumental in the development of Allen as a film-maker, challenging him to push action off the frame and having the courage in the audience to keep up with the action. Later, as his confidence grew he felt more able to direct his cinematographers Carlo Di Palma, Sven Nykist and others. Some of his films are technical experiments, taking more time blocking out the technicians rather than the actors, in films such as HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992).

He talks about his track-record of re-shooting. He is close to the editing process and if scenes are not working he is keen to get the actors back to reshoot scenes to make them work. He has not used redubbing the dialogue, he prefers to get the actors back together to redo the scene completely. The book features much discussion about the complete reshoot of SEPTEMBER (1987). He was unhappy with the actors. They just did not fit his vision for the drama, so he recast the key roles and started again. The ‘original’ version does not exist, he destroyed it, a method that he has employed for his off-cuts, so they’ll never make an appearance on DVD extras.

Bjorkman is keen to get under the skin of his influences and reveals a fairly narrow pool of writers (Flaubert, Chekov, Salinger) and film-makers (Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut). In interviews (and here) he tends to down-play his influences, saying that they have only had a superficial baring on his choices.

I am always struck by the version of Woody Allen that he wants to present. We know that he is very self aware, years of psychoanalysis have made sure of that, but he also has a highly developed skill of representing himself. Several times in this book, he emphatically denies that his character is not the same as the one that he depicts in his films:

So every film I make, they feel is an autobiography of mine. Many people just can’t comprehend that – and I don’t say this critically, its just that they don’t understand. They always think that my stories and ideas are based on reality. Therefore I have to explain to them, that ANNIE HALL wasn’t, that MANHATTAN wasn’t and that HUSBANDS AND WIVES wasn’t. When I finished the script for HUSBANDS AND WIVES it was strictly an act of imagination. I finished the script long before anything happened what you read in the newspapers. It had nothing to do with that.

It is his ability to have a professional detachment from his actors that allowed him to seriously consider Mia Farrow for MIGHTY APHRODITE (1995). Its unlikely that she would have agreed given the personal and legal situation. In one sense, it shows his emotional coldness, but in another it demonstrates his social naivety. He has a very closed and privileged lifestyle where he follows the same routine every day: seven hours of sleep, breakfast and exercise, writing, resting by watching movies, forty five minutes clarinet practice, a walk to a restaurant, watch some sport then off to bed. His schedule does not allow for much human interaction.

The version of Woody presented in this series of interviews is one that is professional, hard-working and one that is a narrow, yet clearly defined, range of influences. Get one for your bedside.

4 responses to “STARBURST MEMORIES – Woody Allen on Woody Allen

  1. Pingback: Woodython Five (4) – Mia | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

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  3. Pingback: Woodython Five (11) – For Hire | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

  4. Pingback: Starburst Memories: “A morbid curiosity” The Woody Allen Biographers | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

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