A new film not by but about Woody Allen is coming to the PBS series, “American Masters.” It’s called “Woody Allen: A Documentary.” It comes in two parts and airs on Nov. 20 and 21.
The film chronicles Allen’s career from his early years as a stand-up comedian to his more than 40 years as a writer-director of acclaimed films.
Allen gave unprecedented access to director Robert Weide for more than a year-and-a-half to create a comprehensive film biography. Weide had repeatedly asked Allen over the years to allow him to make a documentary about his life. In 2008, Allen finally said yes.
I spoke to the director, Robert Weide, earlier this week:
So first, how did this come about? How much cajoling and working the guy over did it take to make it happen?
Robert Weide: Well, you know, I was young when I started my so-called career. I was 21 or 22 when I made my first film, which was a documentary on the Marx Brothers, and I approached Woody not long after that about allowing me to do a documentary on him. And it was a good thing I was that young, because it allows me to check in with him every decade.
So, this has a long history.
Robert Weide: Yes, I had approached him a few times over the last 25 years or so, and he always politely declined. And this time I was determined to make him say yes. And I really just sent him a letter in October of 2008, and I really made the case for A) the film and B) for me as the director to do it, and he finally caved.
You clearly knew of him and then got to know him a bit over these years, but what is your case for why he deserves “American Masters” treatment?
Robert Weide: Well, you have to be careful with a guy like Woody, because he has this self-deprecating streak that if you use words like tribute or heaven forbid a word like genius, it will just turn him off. So I sort of took the approach of, “Look, someone is going to do this someday. It’s possible to do these kinds of things without the authorization of the subject and rather than have somebody do some hatchet job or some kind of cheap cookie-cutter thing, let’s do it right.” And he knew my work, we share a lot of the same heroes: the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields and Mort Sahl, who I’ve done documentaries on, and he knew those films. I think that helped a lot because he knew me as a filmmaker, and I think I knew I would do a professional job, so the big hurdle was getting him to say yes. And I have to say, once he said yes he was very open and forthcoming, and there was never a question he wouldn’t answer or a request that he would deny.
So once you got him, you sat for six long face-to-face interviews?
Robert Weide: People have asked me that and my best guess is six, but it might have been seven or eight as far as formal sit down interviews. Then it was a lot of filming on the fly. We went to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn and in the Midwood district. I was on the set with him in London when he was shooting “Tall Dark Stranger.” I was with him twice in Cannes. I filmed him in his homes. We logged a lot of face time over the last couple of years.
And what surprised you most? I mean, this is a guy you had known and known for many years. When you finally sat down face to face, what jumped out at you?
Robert Weide: Oddly it might be the fact that, despite the sort of mythology that’s built up around him over the decades, if you earn his trust to the degree where you can sit down with him and just have a one-to-one conversation, he’s a pretty normal guy. There are certainly some eccentricities and there are things that make you think, “Oh, yeah, he is sort of a strange kind of genius,” but for the most part I find him not to be ultra serious, that he is prone to laugh, he is prone to make a joke, and talking to him is like talking to anybody who is just especially intelligent and articulate. But he also likes a good pun, he likes a good joke and he really likes to be needled. You know, I asked Scarlett Johansson about her relationship with him, and she said, “It’s all based on sarcasm and insults. We just go at each other all the time.” And I think Woody kind of liked that because some people are so reverential around him and maybe walk on eggshells around him that if you can give him the business a little bit, I think he responds to that, so that was interesting.
What was that quote from Diane Keaton in your film where she says that he’s partly genius and partly idiot?
Robert Weide: Yeah, she says, “He could be really intelligent, his insights were incredible, and at the same time he could be a complete idiot.” Spoken like a true ex-girlfriend.
Yeah, of course. I assume getting others around him, like those two that you just mentioned, was not so hard to get them. Did they want to talk about Woody Allen?
Robert Weide:Everybody was not only willing to be interviewed but eager to add their two cents, because people come away from his films with a very good feeling about him and his set and the way he works, and they all tend to be proud to be in his movies. But the thing about Diane Keaton is that she sort of shares that shyness with Woody. She is very shy and very private and she turns down pretty much everybody who wants to speak to her about Woody because she doesn’t want to invade his privacy. So she wasn’t exactly jumping on my invitation. And I got a hold of Woody and I said, “You know, it doesn’t look like I’m going to get Diane. She seems to be reluctant to do this.’ And Woody says, “Well, did you tell her that a documentary about me without her just doesn’t work?” I said, “Yeah, I told her everything.” He said, “All right, well, let me talk to her.” And then I got a call the next day from Diane’s assistant to ask about scheduling, so apparently he got a hold of her and set her straight.
Now, I told you before that I’ve seen the first half, and the childhood years and early scenes in Brooklyn were fascinating. What happens though when you get to the more tabloid heavy stuff of the later years? Does he get a little more shy about talking about some of that stuff?
Robert Weide: No, he put no restrictions on me about discussing any subject, including the tabloid period of his life. And I was guided by my own instinct to know part of that story I needed to tell and what audiences expect to hear. My feeling was always that this was a film about his work and it would certainly cover his life to the extent that it informs his work, and big news headlines and the tabloid stuff in the final analysis did not affect his work that much. In fact, what you get out of all of that is, aside from whatever judgment you come away with or whether or not you care about it at all, is you get a sense of Woody’s ability to compartmentalize his life. He said he can be writing in his room and the house can be on fire and he’ll keep writing until somebody drags him out. So he can keep working in the face of anything, and in the midst of all that he was working on a script that wound up being “Bullets Over Broadway,” which he co-wrote with Doug McGrath, which is one of his finest films. So my sense about it was that I knew I would have to tell that part of the story because people would expect it. And I didn’t want anybody to think of this as some kind of a squeaky clean, whitewash portrayal, and I didn’t want to go so deeply into that it would risk hijacking the film, suddenly turning it into a courtroom drama. I wanted to cover it and then get back to the work.
Let me ask you finally, since you had a chance to kind of look at the arc of his life and work in your film, I’m one of those people that always thinks of Woody Allen as having various periods: the early standup comedian and then the early films, which are quite different. Then they grew more sophisticated, and then he seemed to have a more difficult period, and now he’s got a renaissance again. He’s looking at different locations; the movies aren’t set in New York anymore and the more recent ones are in Paris and in London. Does he see a continuity to all of this?
Robert Weide: I don’t think he has that kind of a game plan. I agree that one of the things that I thought would be interesting in making a documentary about Woody Allen is revealing that narrative thread of his career, which I find very interesting and starts when he’s typing up jokes at the age of 15 and sending them into the columnists of the day like Earl Wilson, and those start to appear in print and how that led him to writing jokes for standup comedians, how that then led to writing plays and that led to his first movie writing gig with “What’s New Pussycat,” which he was very disappointed in because he had no control over it. Then that led to his vow that he would always control his work and he would direct his own scripts, which is what he’s been doing for about 42 years. So one thing does lead to another. But with regard to the current sort of globetrotting phase, you remember what they used to say during the Nixon years, “Follow the money.” That’s what he’s doing. Films are expensive to make in New York and, you know, Woody’s beloved all over the world, so if he gets a call from somebody in England saying, “Hey, we’ll give you the money to do your new film and we’ll do it under your terms and we don’t have any approvals or anything.” And then he does that. Then he gets a call from the government of Barcelona or Paris. Everybody wants him to make these films over there, so the stories are still the stories. They’re still Woody Allen movies, but they are just in different settings. And a lot of people feel that it’s reinvigorated him, but in his mind he’s still doing the same thing. He’s just doing it in different locations.
All right. Well, this film is “Woody Allen: A Documentary.” It’s in two parts on Nov. 20 and 21 on PBS. Robert Weide, thanks so much for talking to us.
Robert Weide: Thank you. I appreciate it.