By Steve Appleford
© LA Times, November 18th, 2011 permalink
Photo: Woody Allen and Robert Weide.
Credit: B Plus Productions.
Robert Weide is a former executive producer and director of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and the maker of acclaimed documentaries on Lenny Bruce and the Marx Brothers. His two-part “Woody Allen: A Documentary” begins Sunday on PBS’ “American Masters.”
Weide, who won an Emmy for his directing on “Curb,” is also back to directing comedy himself. He returned to “Curb” for an episode this season and shoots his first “Parks and Recreation” later this month. He talked about comedy and the two years he spent looking at Woody Allen, a personal obsession since seeing “Take the Money and Run” as a child in 1969.
Woody Allen doesn’t even put extras on his DVDs. How did you convince him to participate in a look at his creative process?
I’ve known him just slightly over the years. He knew my work. Over the past 25 or 30 years, I had written him a few times about doing a documentary and he’d always politely turned me down. I made my case in a letter, which was, “Look, it’s time. I’m the guy to do this.” He only asked for an opportunity to watch it once before it was totally locked and delivered, just to see if there was anything that he felt was especially egregious. His only notes were: “Do you really want to use that joke from my stand-up act? I never thought that was funny.”
He felt a certain amount of trust that you understood his work?
His biggest concern throughout the process was "Don’t make a too big deal about me, because I’m not that big a deal." Once he took a look at the finished product, his one concern was that I made him look too good.Do you have a favorite Allen film?
It was “Annie Hall” that really spun my head around. I remember the audience that night — it was almost as if people were in shock. And it was a comedian’s dream, because everything played: Every joke got huge laughs, every emotional event had its full impact. I remember walking out of that thinking that nothing in comedy was ever going to be the same.
It’s good timing for the documentary to come with his biggest hit ever, “Midnight in Paris.”
When I told Woody that the film now ended on this upbeat note, he said, “Don’t make too much of that. It’s a false happy ending. It’s just luck. It’s no better or worse than other films of mine that haven’t done well, and my next film will probably tank.” He’s not a big fan of happy endings. He doesn’t like talking about the box-office success of his movies.
How did you deal with the 1992 collapse of his relationship with Mia Farrow, and the scandal of his affair (and later marriage) with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn?
Mia became his muse, so obviously I had to deal with the breakup as well. I didn’t want to delve into every salacious detail, but we do talk about the finding of the nude Polaroids, and we say outright that Woody was having an affair with Mia’s adopted daughter. We don’t shy away from that. Once that that happens, and their relationship takes a precipitous plummet, I dealt with it as media circus, because that’s what it was to me.
What is interesting to me as part of the story was the question of: Was that going to be his ruination? There was every possibility that would happen. He wrote a play during that time, he kept playing jazz Monday nights, he was writing a screenplay, he shot “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” That to me is what’s interesting — for better or worse, his ability to compartmentalize and keep working.
Did you try to talk to Mia Farrow?
I invited her to be interviewed, knowing there was precious little chance that she would. Who could blame her? She very politely declined. What she did do was allow me the releases for her film clips.
He’s made a lot of movies.
If I didn’t admire so much of his work, I wouldn’t be spending 2½ years of my life doing this thing. You realize, he’s made three movies in the time it’s taken me to make this one.
How was your return to “Curb” as director of the “Palestinian Chicken” episode this season after several years away?
It did feel like a homecoming, which is great. What changed was that there is now a real budget. There’s a lot more people and a lot more trucks and a lot more equipment. Otherwise, it felt like I picked up from where I left off. There are more voices in the mix now. When I left, I was replaced by a team of three guys, which I guess is some kind of compliment.
You’ve been working on a Kurt Vonnegut documentary for many years.
1988 is when I started shooting. The problem with the Vonnegut film is that it was never fully funded, so it became sort of a hobby project that I was financing out of my own pocket, working on it here and there. I really would like to finish it now.
What draws you to documentaries?
They all started with me simply wanting to see these things exist. As a Marx Brothers fan, I bemoaned the fact that there wasn't a good, definitive documentary on the Marx Brothers. The same with Lenny Bruce and Vonnegut or Woody Allen. I figured, “OK, then I guess I have to make them.”
A recurring joke in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is Alan Alda's character repeating his theory on comedy: “If it bends, it's funny — if it breaks, it isn't funny.” After studying the work of Allen, Bruce and the Marx Brothers, have you made any conclusions about what is funny?
It's completely subjective. Why do some people read S.J. Perelman and others go to Adam Sandler movies? Maybe Bergson or Aristotle could actually tell you what they have in common, but it's completely academic. I don't know anybody who actually works in comedy who gives any serious thought to comedic theory — other than what they know by instinct. The only rules that seem to hold up are that repetition by three is funny, and the letter K is funny. And monkeys water-skiing.