Robert Weide makes the definitive documentary about Woody Allen

By Alasdair Duncan

There are very few comedy writers or directors who could say that, at some point in their career, they haven't been inspired by Woody Allen. His body of work, stretching over the last four decades and beyond, includes some of modern cinema's most enduring classics; more importantly, he single-handedly took weedy, neurotic guys and made them seem sexy. His influence cannot be underestimated, and for filmmaker Robert Weide (Curb Your Enthusiasm, How To Lose Friends & Alienate People), chronicling Allen's career has been a life-long passion.

"I've loved Woody since I was a kid," Weide tells me, "but the defining moment came in 1977, when I was just out of high school and I happened to be in Los Angeles for the premiere of Annie Hall. There was no press about it, and nobody knew what to expect. I just remember the magic of that night, because that film knocked everybody's socks off, including my own. Since then, I've continued to see all his movies, watching him grow and change with each one…. Woody is the artist whose work is the most important to me, and who has inspired me the most," the writer-director explains.

Woody Allen: A Documentary, has been a long time coming – largely because Allen himself proved such an elusive figure to pin down. "I'd wanted to tell his story in a documentary for many years, but he was always the most important hold-out," says Weide. "He appeared in my first film, which was a documentary about the Marx Brothers, and I approached him again about once per decade to see if he would agree, and I guess I finally wore him down."

The aim of the documentary, Weide tells me, was to tell Allen's story, but also get to the core of what he himself loves about Allen, as a filmmaker. "I'm not a super-fan," he explains, "there are as many of his films that I love as ones I don't necessarily like or want to see again, but the core of the film is just about me wanting to express my appreciation."

In many of the interviews I've seen and read with Allen, he seems reserved, even shy, but in Weide's film, he opens right up, talking about his development as a comedian, and even showing off the typewriter on which he drafts all his scripts. "The hard part was convincing him to do it at all," Weide says with a laugh. "Once I'd done that, he was very forthcoming. I think part of him understood that the film was definitely being made, so he had the option to stand back and not cooperate, meaning that the film wouldn't be all it could be. I think he decided in the end to cooperate with me and give me what I needed because he knew the film would come out better."

It helped that Weide and Allen had been buddies – or at least pen pals – for a long time before the documentary was made. "We had been corresponding with one-another for about six months before I started making the film," he tells me, "and I think that in that six months, the ice was really broken and we were able to get to know each other, to develop a comfortable rapport. The emails tended to take on that sarcastic quality, those insults that guys throw at each other – we'd already gotten to that point in our emails, and that really helped, because when I finally sat him down in front of the camera, I wasn't terribly nervous and he wasn't terribly uncomfortable!"

The documentary touches on every phase of Allen's career, from the early, funny films through to the introspection of the Stardust Memories period and his latter-day love of England and the continent. People from all eras come forward to talk about their experiences working with him – with one notable exception: his ex-wife Mia Farrow. Her absence is understandable, given that their divorce, even by Hollywood standards, was a brutal one. "I actually did approach her," says Weide. "The truth is, I thought it highly unlikely that she would agree to do the interview, but I wanted that to be her decision and not mine; I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. I wrote to her and got a very kind response from her manager, saying that she had considered the offer but was going to pass."

"Mia signed a release allowing me to show footage of the films she'd made with Woody," he says, "and for that, I was incredibly grateful. I think it would have been very difficult to interview her, though. I talk about their break-up in the movie, because I know it's a big part of the Woody Allen narrative and people want to hear about it – but I really didn't want it to hijack the film. I wanted to make the movie about his work, and if I delved too much into that, I worried that it would become too much of a courtroom drama. What I do find really interesting is Woody's ability to compartmentalise, to keep working while all this was going on. When the custody battle was going on, he was writing Bullets Over Broadway, which to me is one of his greatest films. I wanted to touch on it as much as was necessary to tell the story, then move on."

As a fellow Woody fan, I can't let Weide go without asking which film is his favourite. "My default answer is Annie Hall, because of the fact that I was at the premiere that night and how magic that was," he says. "There's that sense of nostalgia coupled with it being a great film. Crimes And Misdemeanours is another – that's something of a masterpiece – along with Hanna And Her Sisters, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, Bullets Over Broadway. I have maybe ten favourites, and then a lot of mid-level ones under that, and then I have a few that I don't care for. But I would say there are ten of his films that I could watch over and over again."

What: Woody Allen: A Documentary is out June 27 on DVD and Blu-ray through Transmission.

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