bob and woody

When I was nine years old, I saw Woody Allen’s new film, Take the Money and Run. As with other seminal moments in my cultural formation (seeing the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, reading Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions,” etc.), nothing would be quite the same. Whereas other artists I admired had produced most or all of their creative output by the time I discovered them, Woody was at the beginning of his career as a filmmaker, so I got to literally grow up on his films. I saw every one of them during their initial theatrical run. The “early, funny ones” absolutely helped shape my idea of what comedy was.

When I was a senior in high school, I happened to attend the premiere of Annie Hall, which was the closing event that year of Filmex, L.A.’s prestigious international film festival. From the film’s opening monologue onward, everything played like gangbusters to a packed house – from “the universe is expanding,” to Marshall McLuhan’s cameo (“Don’t you wish life were really like this?”), to the sneeze in the cocaine, to “we need the eggs,” everything got huge laughs. But there was also a love story to invest in. Woody Allen had painted as realistic a picture of what it was to be in and out of  love in the modern world as any of us had ever seen in a movie – or at least in a comedy. We all knew Woody could make us laugh, but no one was prepared for this. I’ll never forget the buzz in the room that night – the feeling of being stunned, as we all made our way up the aisle when the lights came up. From that night forward, I started taking one of my greatest comic heroes very seriously.

By an odd coincidence -- or perhaps fate -- four years later, I would go to work for Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, Woody’s managers/producers, and six months after that I was producing my first film – The Marx Brothers In A Nutshell, which premiered on PBS in 1982. Woody Allen would actually appear as an interview subject in that debut effort. Woody and I shared a number of cultural heroes; among them, W.C. Fields and Mort Sahl – both of whom would eventually be among the subjects of my future documentaries. Having heard that Woody had seen and liked much of my work, I was emboldened to ask him a few times over the years if he would consent to my giving him the documentary treatment. He would always politely decline. The reasoning was that he simply wasn’t ready for any retrospectives on his life and work when so much of it still lay ahead. But the overall sense that I got was that he literally didn’t feel he was worthy of anything that might be perceived as a tribute. He thought he was only an average filmmaker with very little output that warranted any serious attention.

In the fall of 2008, I was frustrated with the amount of creative tampering that took place on the first feature film I directed, How To Lose Friends & Alienate People. I never dealt with any such meddling on my documentary work, and Curb Your Enthusiasm had always been interference-free. I decided I would return to the documentary world where I had always maintained control of my work. With the Kurt Vonnegut documentary still financially stuck in the sand, I decided I would approach the Wood-man one more time. I wrote him a letter, once and for all explaining why, A) it was time to consent to this film, and B) why I was the one to do it. I had decided that if he didn’t slam the door in my face, if he just left it the slightest bit ajar, I would push it open. Not long after sending the letter, I heard from his assistant. “Woody wants to know, if  he consented to do the film…” That word “if” was all I needed to hear. I was in the door. As it wound up, his initial questions were very practical: What would I need him to do? Would he need to be available for interviews? Would I need access to the film set? Where would the film be broadcast? All reasonable questions that were easy to answer.

By April of 2009, we had worked out a provisional agreement (one of the most amicable negotiations I had ever been involved with) and I flew to New York to film my first interview; not with Woody, but with Jack Rollins (then 94), a key interview subject who wouldn’t be getting any younger. (Charlie Joffe, sadly, had died in 2008). While in New York, I also interviewed my good friend Dick Cavett, so I was able to knock off two interviews on a single day. That summer, I traveled to London to film Woody on the set of his then-current production, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. This alone was a coup, since Woody had never allowed so much as a publicity film crew on his set. I continued to tail Woody through the summer of 2011, filming and editing simultaneously. I filmed several interviews with him, filmed him at home, in the editing room, filmed him twice at the Cannes Film Festival, and even got an on-camera tour of his old neighborhood in Brooklyn.

The end result wound up being a 3½ hour, 2-part documentary that premiered on the PBS series, American Masters, in November of 2011 and is now available on DVD at Amazon or your favorite purchase points.

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woody collage