Robert B Weide interview – the long version

By Guy Somerset

Everything you always wanted to know about Woody Allen (but were afraid to ask).

Woody Allen and director Robert B Weide

Six hundred and eighty words – yes, dear reader, that is what one page of the Listener contains – were not nearly enough to do justice to Robert B Weide and his film Woody Allen: A Documentary, yet nearly 7000 words across 10 pages of the magazine seemed a tad on the excessive side. But for those of you – those of us – who could quite happily read 7000 words about Allen and his half-century career, here is the full(ish) Q&A transcript of my conversation with Weide (who as you’ll see is quite a talker). Meanwhile, for those who prefer the rendered-down version, the print edition of the magazine awaits.

Probably not unlike a lot of people, I’ve lost faith with Woody Allen’s films in recent years. They’ve been a more mixed bag. They are described in the documentary at one point as “Woody adrift”. But the thing that struck me was nobody’s as hard on his films as he is himself. His comment at the end about how few of the 40-odd he’s made he considers to have been successful, is that genuine on his part or is he just being excessively modest?

No, I know it’s genuine. As much of an admirer of Woody as I am, I’m hardly sycophantic. I don’t love all of his movies and there are some that even in the process of researching the film and watching them again I thought, “Oh God, I’ve got to sit through this again.” So I totally understand that. But I often find myself in friendly debates with people who say, “Oh, Woody hasn’t made an interesting film in so long” or whatever. I’ll debate those people. But I’ll realise that if Woody joined the debate he would probably be on their side. I’ve had these debates with Woody, too. Our rapport was good enough and we were friendly enough that when he said he thought Manhattan [1979] was something of a disaster, I would say, “How could you possibly say that?”

The other big debate we would have is he just completely writes off this 10-year period when he was doing standup comedy. Now I’ve been involved in comedy in one way or another for years and years and a lot of my friends are either comedians or film-makers or comedy writers. I don’t know one person involved in comedy in one form or another worth their salt who doesn’t idolise Woody’s standup comedy, because a lot of it is still on record. And so many people I know were influenced by that and have the records and listen to them over and over again. And Woody just totally dismisses it as just so mediocre. It was one of the biggest hurdles in getting his approval for the film that he knew I would have to include some standup comedy, because he knew I was going to do something fairly definitive and comprehensive, and he was so not looking forward to having to watch that material again.

With regard to the later films, he talked about working on the quantity theory. If he just keeps knocking them out and knocking them out and knocking them out, every now and then one will turn out okay. And he’s the first person to say that’s what he does. Now the period to me that was not terribly interesting – and this is the conventional wisdom about Woody – was that late 90s/early turn of the century stuff. I really don’t need to see The Curse of the Jade Scorpion [2001] again. I don’t need to see Anything Else [2003] again. I don’t need to see Melinda and Melinda [2004] again. So there was this period where I felt, “Okay, well, maybe he has played himself out.” And then Match Point [2005] came along. And then everyone thought, “Okay, now he’s back.” And there seemed to be some wind in his sails. That may or may not have had something to do with him filming in London. Although what’s interesting about that film is he wrote it as a New York piece but England said, “Make a film here and we’ll help pay for it.” It was a very quick rewrite to have it take place in England. But in any event, the theory was that now he’s making films in Europe it’s put fresh wind into his sails. So with Match Point suddenly he was back again and people weren’t so ready to write him off. Then, again, his next two films really did very little business in the States – I don’t know how they did overseas – Scoop [2006] and I know Woody fans who don’t even know about the film Cassandra’s Dream [2007]. I don’t know if it was even released in the United States. If it was it did very little business. So then people thought maybe Match Point was maybe an anomaly. And then he did Vicky Cristina Barcelona [2008], which again was sort of embraced, and then a couple of more films that didn’t do much business. And now Midnight in Paris [2011].

I think the lesson at the end of the day is that you can’t write this guy off. Yes, it’s hit and miss, as it is with anybody. And if you’re making a film a year for 42 years, there’ll be a lot of misses. Again, it’s all subjective. There are films I can’t stand that people love and films I love that other people don’t like. But the point is you make a film a year for 42 years, even if you’re batting one for four, that’s still more than 10 great films.

But he’s in this unique position where generally once they play overseas and play all the various ancillary markets, because he makes the films for so little money, generally they’ll at least make a buck. If they don’t do very well – which some of them do, like Midnight in Paris of course – he’s in this unique position where the people who finance his films aren’t that much concerned about that particular film. They just want to be in the Woody Allen business. So if someone else had that period in the late 90s where they made three or four films that weren’t that well received, they may be out. But he’s always got somebody who wants to finance the next Woody Allen film so it sort of frees him up as an artist, it liberates him to do what he wants to do without being totally plugged into the concern about “is this going to be a hit?”. As he says in the film, he doesn’t want to make a film that’s not going to do well. Nobody wants to do that. But that’s not the motor that runs him. He’s unique that way.

It’s interesting you said there he still holds to that view of Manhattan. He talks in the film about his attitude at the time, but does he really still have that view of the film?


Yes, he does. If it hasn’t changed, it’s only because I’m sure he hasn’t seen the film since then. Famously, once he’s finished with a film – and obviously he’s watching it over and over again ad infinitum in the editing room and then he’s got to look at the final cuts and there’s the mix and all that, so he sees the film over and over again – but once he hands it in as a finished film, he really never looks at it again. Now, there have been several times over the last few years where he’s premiered the films in Cannes and when you have a film in Cannes as the director it’s protocol you have to go to that opening night screening and watch it with an audience, so in those cases he has to watch it once he’s handed it in, but otherwise he never looks at it again. When I would mention these films and talk about scenes in the films, his memory is actually very, very sharp on these things, but he would always give me the disclaimer, he would say, “Well, let’s see, I haven’t really seen that film in 35 years, but from what I can remember”, and he’d tell me something.

Something like Annie Hall [1977] – which, again, there’s nobody whose important in my life who doesn’t love Annie Hall – but you talk to Woody about it and Woody just says, “Well, it was all right. It came out okay. I never quite understood why people made such a fuss about it. But it’s all right.” Manhattan is such a beloved film that he must have resigned himself at some point to think that maybe it’s not as bad as he thought it was. But at the time he just thought he really missed the boat.

What was it about it he thought hadn’t worked?

I’ve tried to get at that. Here’s a combination of what he’s told me and what I can make of it. He will have an idea before he starts shooting of what he is attempting to make. And he will judge the finished product against whatever ambition he had in mind. On the other side of the coin, he will look at something like The Purple Rose of Cairo [1985], which is a film he quite liked, and Match Point. And he looks at those finished films and says, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I set out to do and I achieved it. For better or worse, it’s a fair execution, a fair realisation, of what I attempted to do.” With Manhattan, as much as everybody likes the end result, it is not the film he set out to make. And the key to figuring that out in any more detail might to be to read whatever the shooting script was. Because I know there are a lot of films that were shot for that film that were cut. Maybe that was part of it. God knows what he had in mind, but he had something that I guess was far more ambitious. But part of what I personally love about Manhattan is its simplicity.

For a man who doesn’t look back on his previous work, doesn’t even look at the films again, and moves on to his next film, does it pain him that so much of his career has been spent with people looking back at his reputation for the films he’s already made, whether it’s people saying the early comedies are really funny or looking back to Annie Hall and Manhattan? Does it irritate him people are always looking back at his reputation rather than looking at what he’s doing now?

I think as modest as he is about his own work some part of him knows it’s a good thing people care about his output over the years. That people are still looking at these things on DVD. That people are still talking about him. I think it surprises him but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it irritates him. I don’t think he’s that self-deprecating.

He doesn’t look back, he’s always looking at the next thing. To the point where, because he’s so prolific, by the time Midnight in Paris started to get that momentum of being so successful, he had already shot the next film and was already thinking about the film after that. What’s funny is, often when the films come out, by the time they’re reviewed, he’s already either casting or has shot the next film. So he really does take that approach of a moving target. That if a film does well he says, “Isn’t that nice? It’s nice the critics like it and the people like it and it’s making money.” But if a film is reviled, what does he care? In his mind, it was two films ago.

I think it genuinely irritates him that anyone would look at his old standup material. But I don’t think he would hold anything against anyone looking at his older films, so long as he’s not forced to do so.

What was interesting was when I was asking him a lot of detailed questions about those early films his memory is good and he was fine talking to me about it. He’s a very good interview subject. I’ve talked to a lot of other people. Eric Lax – who has written a number of books about Woody and is one of the interview subjects in the film – reporters who talk to him about his films and ask him nostalgic questions, everyone goes in anticipating he’s going to be a little grumpy or irritated talking about this stuff and not only is his memory very clear but he’s a very gracious interview. I never found him to be rolling his eyes at me asking him the 30th question about Bananas [1971] or whatever.

In my case, because he agreed to do this, I think he understood he could either totally cooperate and give me whatever I asked for and have a shot at making an interesting film or he could be uncooperative and I wouldn’t have much material to work with, and what would be the point of that, authorising a film that didn’t come out well? So I just found him to be very, very giving.

Were there ground rules at the beginning?

No, there were literally none at all. The other thing is, the business about the so-called scandal in the early 90s with Mia Farrow and Soon-Yi, he talked about that as much as I wanted him to.

There were no ground rules. The only thing he asked – which I thought was terribly reasonable, God knows much less than I would ask if someone were making a documentary about me in some parallel universe – was he wanted to take one look at it before I considered it completely locked and delivered to PBS [to screen on TV]. Just in case there was anything in there that was either terribly inaccurate or taken out of context or terribly embarrassing or anything like that. And when I showed it to him he said it was fine. There were just one or two clips from his standup where he said, “Oh, please, I can’t bear to have that in the film, can’t you find anything else than that?” So he just asked I swap them out for something. It was so easy to do I said yes. And then there was one clip from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex [1972], one of his early films he totally writes off, that again he just thought it was just such a bad clip was there anything else. And that was it.

You don’t have a lot of him with his current family, his young children and Soon-Yi. Was there a particular reason for that or did it just not really work with the film?

Yeah, it was really that. Those kinds of decisions, I have seen people read all kinds of things into them. They are nothing more than my own subjective perspective as a film-maker as to what’s important to the story or not. The whole business with Mia, obviously I had to get into that. I didn’t want to make it exploitative. I didn’t want to go into every gory detail. I didn’t want this to turn into a courtroom drama. I just wanted to acknowledge this happened and really deal with it in the context of how it affected his career. Which at the end of the day was actually very little. But to not cover it at all, people would cry foul or they would think it was a whitewash or that somehow he has dictated it.

I asked Soon-Yi if she wanted to be interviewed and she politely declined. Her basic attitude is she’s just not interested in having a lot of attention on her, in being in the spotlight. I thought what I’d get out of her would maybe be some funny stories [about Allen], eccentricities just as a husband or living with him or whatever. Even that was negligible. And for that matter I actually did offer Mia …

I was going to ask if you approached her.

I did. I did this all through her management. I said, “I know this is a longshot” but I really wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. Just assuming she’d turn me down. To ask her. Again, I didn’t want to get into any “he said, she said”, because all that was 20 years ago and I just didn’t care anymore. I didn’t want that part of the story to hijack the film. But I thought if there was a way to talk about the years working with Woody – and by the way I read Mia’s autobiography, where she goes into all the business with Woody in a lot of detail but I found she was also able to objectively talk about working with him and making the films and all that – so I thought even if it were just that, where we talked about those years of the films and creative collaboration and all that, what the heck, maybe she’d do it. But her managers got back to me a couple of days later and said, “She read your letter and she really did give it some thought and ultimately decided she would pass.” But what she did do, which was no small thing, was the Screen Actors Guild regulations are that any time you use a film clip that has actors in it you have to get a release from them. So I did have to get Mia to sign off on my use of her appearance in all those clips, and boy, I’ll tell you, she could have really hung me up if she’d decided not to give me permission.

There go the 80s.

Yeah, I would have had a 12-year gap in Woody’s career. But she agreed to that. I thought that was very nice of her.

Does he have any relationship now with the children from his years with Farrow?

No. He’s got his own family, his own kids now. I found from what I witnessed, which was not for the camera, because I didn’t put it on camera, he has this very kind of domesticated life. There were times when I would call him up and I would say, “Okay, we’re going to do the interview Thursday, what’s a good time for my crew to show up?” and he says, “Well, I walk my kids to school at nine. I’ll be back by 9.30.” Or, “I have a parent-teacher conference at 10 o’clock.” The things that were in his schedule that were not related to film were very typical fatherly duties. And I’ve seen him with the kids and he’s very sweet with them. That’s something that if I wanted to go in that direction I think Woody’s answer would have been a stock answer, which is, “I don’t find this stuff very interesting but if you really want to do it sure you can film.”

That was his stock response to many of the things I wanted to do. Like when I suggested filming him on the set. Which I knew would be a real coup, because Woody doesn’t even allow publicity film crews on his set; there’s no behind-the-scenes footage of Woody at all. There’s a little bit in my film that was done in 1980 and before that 60 Minutes came and did something with him on Sleeper in 1973 and that’s really it. But his answer to that was, “You know my sets are very boring, nothing exciting ever happens, I barely talk to the actors.” He says, “I think you might be wasting your time but if you really want to do it sure you can come.”

And it was the same thing when I suggested bringing him back to his old neighbourhood in Brooklyn. He said, “Really, I can’t imagine whose going to care about that stuff. Nobody cares where I grew up or where I played stickball in the streets.” I said, “Believe me, if they care enough to watch this film they’re going to be interested in those things.” And he’d say, “Well, if you want to do it we’ll do it.” He just couldn’t imagine anyone caring about this stuff.

In that behind-the-scenes on-set footage you have, there’s a hilarious meeting of Allen’s very diffident direction technique and the rather needy Josh Brolin.

Yeah, it’s funny, I’d turn to my editor or if I’d bring something home I’d show my wife, and I’d say, “I hope Josh doesn’t come off looking bad in this.” Because Josh’s needs as an actor are perfectly reasonable needs. It’s just that he was dealing with a director who only likes to give information on a need-to-know basis. The week I was there [on the set of 2010's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger], it was primarily Josh and Naomi Watts and Antonio Banderas. And I found that particular week Woody was spending a lot of time talking to the actors. There’s that bit where he and Josh and Naomi are discussing the next scene, and I asked him about that and he said, “Yeah, I’ll give them as much direction or advice as they want. My initial instinct is to get out of their way and let them do what they do.” There are a number of directors who say this. That it’s all in the casting. Hire great actors, get out of their way and let them do what they do. Woody says, “If they need to ask me something, if they want some direction, I’ll be there and I’ll give it to them.”

I think that week those particular actors wanted that kind of input and he gladly gave it. Josh, I think, is one of those actors who really wants to dig in. and yet Josh totally respected Woody’s method. I talked to Josh very frankly and he wasn’t annoyed with Woody at all. He really admired him. He would say he would send Woody these emails at night saying, “I’m concerned about the scene we’re shooting tomorrow and I’m not sure if I should play this that I’m still angry about the fight we had” or whatever it was, I’m just making this up. And Josh laughed and said Woody’s answers were always, “Hey, memorise the dialogue, show up tomorrow and don’t worry, I’ll get you through it.” Josh would want an essay response from Woody and Woody would just say [adopts voice], “Show up tomorrow and we’ll just do it.” But he liked Woody. It was interesting to see an actor like Josh working with Woody, but they got it done.

The nature of Allen’s films is that there’s barely an actor working of any note that hasn’t been in one at one time or another. You have a lot of them in the film – everyone from Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts to Sean Penn and John Cusack - but you could have approached any number. Were the ones you did approach all receptive? There was nobody who said, “That douche bag, I don’t want to be talking about him”?

They were all very pleased. The only thing that nixed a couple of interviews I’d have liked to have done was a matter of scheduling. I got Owen Wilson by the skin of his teeth. Midnight in Paris for my film was a happy postscript. Because I was following Woody in London during Tall Dark Stranger and then went to Cannes with him for the release of the film and thought that would be the last film. Woody actually managed to make three films in the time it took me to make my one documentary. By the time I’d done my editing process, Midnight in Paris came out, so I thought, “I’ll go to Cannes with him for the release of Midnight in Paris just to bring the film up to date.” Then when the film became very successful I thought, “Hell, I can’t not address this”, because it became the most successful film financially of his career. So I did a couple of extra interviews. By the time I then got to Owen Wilson he was promoting I think Cars 2 and had a very busy schedule and I had a very narrow window in which to get him. But we worked it out. Penelope Cruz became very tricky to track down. She always wanted to do it but her and I being in the same place at the same time became difficult. But there was nobody that turned me down and for the most part everybody was thrilled to do it. Scarlett Johansson just loves him and was so thrilled. A couple of times when the scheduling wasn’t going to work out, I’d say to somebody, “I just don’t know I can do it. Maybe we’ll have to pass” and they’d say, “No, no, no, we’ll find a way, we’ll find a way.” It was that kind of enthusiasm from these people to go on camera.

And now since your documentary was made Midnight in Paris has won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Allen wasn’t there for the ceremony, though.

No, he never attends.

You have a bit in the film where he says if he won a track event that would mean something to him. He just doesn’t really care for these plaudits?

Because that [winning a track event] is objective. That’s his only gripe about it [the Oscars], that it’s all subjective. It’s okay to say “Annie Hall is my favourite film” but how do you say it’s the best film? That year [when it won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay], it was up against Star Wars and Woody as a director was up against George Lucas for Star Wars and Stephen Spielberg for Close Encounters. So there are a lot of geeky fan boys who are now middle-aged and still haven’t forgiven Woody for that. He never shows up at the Oscars. He thinks it’s fine when they give him the awards. They have no value to him. He doesn’t knock it. And for people who get excited about it that’s great. He just doesn’t take part in it. When he used to get the Oscars or the Golden Globes or whatever, he’d give them to his parents. Now his parents are both deceased I’m not quite sure what he does with them. He maybe gives them to his sister.

I will give you a little scoop I haven’t told anybody publicly. He and I still email all the time – which is a real joy for me, because you’ve got to realise what a Woody Allen fan I was growing up and the fact we have this rapport now is still a kick. He himself doesn’t email. I email to his assistant, who either prints it out for him or reads it out loud to him. And then he dictates a response back and she types it up and emails it. That’s how the communication works. But we still go back and forth all the time. Rarely a couple of days pass when we don’t send each other something. By the way, they’re these very funny, sarcastic, insulting emails. We just sort of manage to fall into that kind of comfort level with each other.

In any event, I wrote to him the morning after the Oscars and said, “Woody, you must be terribly excited about the Oscar and I bet you’re on pins and needles waiting for it to arrive so you can display it proudly in your home.” And he wrote back and he said, “Yes, terribly excited, awaiting the arrival of the Oscar, and I’ve already notified the local pawn shop.” In a subsequent email, I was going on about this and he says, “Yes, we’re in a very celebratory mood over here. The night following the Oscar win my housekeeper made chicken instead of fish so it’s a very exciting time.” That’s his attitude to awards.

You mention being a fan growing up. When did he first enter your world?

I don’t think I was aware of his standup but I probably saw some of the early TV stuff. I would have seen him on the talk shows, like on Dick Cavett and the Tonight Show. But I did see what I consider the first true Woody Allen film as writer and director, which was Take the Money and Run [1969]. And I would have been nine or 10 when that came out. And just loved it right away. In the same way that when I saw my first Marx Brothers film I fell in love with them. Or read my first Kurt Vonnegut. Woody just made it onto my shortlist of very seminal artistic or creative influences. The Marx Brothers, whom I discovered in junior high school, were either deceased or certainly not putting out movies at that time, so I got to enjoy all their films in retrospect. But with Woody here I was nine years old and saw this film and loved it so I literally got to grow up on his films, which was a treat.

I was there for Bananas and Sleeper and Love and Death [1975]. But my appreciation for him went into hyperdrive with Annie Hall. I was a senior in high school and happened to attend the Los Angeles premiere of the film. Nobody had seen it so nobody knew what to expect. And I still remember that night so clearly. Everything played like gangbusters, from the opening monologue and the Groucho reference to little Alby and the universe is expanding to the Marshall McLuhan gag. Everything just played to huge, huge laughs. And I remember the lights going up at the end, and I don’t know if it got a standing ovation but it got a huge ovation, and I remember people walking up the aisle afterward, including myself, quite stunned. Just not expecting that. We all loved Woody and he was funny. But that’s all he was, he was just very funny. Now he was something else and this was a very heartwarming film and your emotions were invested. There are sad moments in it and it’s about a relationship. It was just so innovative in every way. I just remember the buzz in the room that night. Larry David, who’s 12 years older than me and grew up in New York, said it was the same thing in New York. It was like a bomb had just gone off.

That then kicked my appreciation for Woody into hyperdrive. And then I went into the next phrase, just finding old magazine interviews with him and just reading everything I could about him. That’s when I went back and got the record albums. And I’ve always maintained that interest.

When your documentary screened in two parts on TV, you divided it at Stardust Memories [1980] as a sort of cliffhanger, because that film was the first chink in Allen’s armour. What was your reaction to the film at the time and what is it now? What does Allen make of it now? And what about the critics?

He really liked Stardust Memories at the time. I will say this about Woody, and this is just my own theory, I have no empirical evidence for this, but I have a feeling Woody takes a slightly perverse pleasure in liking films that critics and audiences dismiss and then dismissing the films the public really likes. I have this theory that he kind of gets off on that. But he liked Stardust Memories then and I think he still likes it. I think there are other films that have come along since that if he had to list them in order that surpass that film.

It’s funny. Going back to look at all the films again for the documentary, I found my initial reactions to films that in some cases were 40 years old now to be fairly consistent with my point of view now. When Stardust Memories came out, it was not unlike what the critic in our film, FX Feeney, talks about: I wasn’t quite connecting with it but I just appreciated how innovative it was. And even at the time – by this time I would have been in college, I guess – I just appreciated that he was willing to go for it, as the kids say, or the kids used to say. I just appreciated his willingness to do what he wanted to do. And I thought the film was hit and miss. And when I watched it again a year and half ago, there were some parts of it I felt were brilliant and other parts I just thought were a little boring.

But at the time there was such a critical backlash because – and I think this probably applies to some of the fans, too – people took it personally. The critics who had been pretty much on Woody’s side for many years suddenly saw this character Woody was playing in the film as portraying both critics and fans to be undesirables. People see Woody Allen playing this character, Sandy Bates, and say, “Sure, call him Sandy Bates, but we know that’s really you.” So people took it personally and thought he was stabbing the critics and the fans in the back.

At the time, it had that kind of baggage going against it, whereas now, all these years later, it’s just so long ago, you can watch the film again without the baggage. So I think people tend to appreciate it more. What’s interesting is, and this is a great thing for me as a documentary film-maker to hear, I’ve heard from a lot of people who, after seeing the documentary and seeing those clips, have said, “I’ve got to go back and look at that film again and reevaluate it, because the clips reminded me there are a lot of interesting things in the film.”

You say people took him to be Sandy Bates. All though his career people have taken his on-screen persona to be him. How much is there between the two? Is that a mistake on people’s part?

I think people who really take it to be him, that’s a mistake. And I think Woody’s complete denial is also a bit of a shuck. I think that a lot of the ideas you hear his characters espouse in his films are obviously from Woody’s head. Where else are they going to come from? And I think Woody philosophically, theoretically and theologically is very aligned with the statements that come out of a lot of the characters mouths. But the stories are fictionalised. I think where a lot of people make a mistake is when they take the stories literally.

Husbands and Wives [1992] happened to come out at the time the relationship with Mia fell apart and he’s got the young girlfriend played by Juliette Lewis. So people say, “Ah, autobiographical.” Well, of course, the screenplay had been written long before any of this happened. Even with the film Larry David did called Whatever Works [2009], about an older guy and a younger girl … he wrote that in the 70s, he actually wrote that script for Zero Mostel, who then passed away and Woody just shelved the script and brought it out again. And some of the films like Manhattan, that was written in collaboration with Marshall Brickman, and there were probably as many of Brickman’s story ideas and as much of his dialogue in the film as Woody’s. So I think people make a mistake when they take it too literally and say, “Oh, that’s really Woody up there.” But obviously there’s some crossover.

Did making the film change your view of Allen? Were there things you hadn’t really expected?

Not in any major way. It confirmed things I suspected. I suspected that despite the so-called Woody Allen character he’s a very calm person on the set. On the one hand, I found him to be not neurotic at all. To me, unless this is a statement about myself, he seems someone I’d hang out with and be very comfortable with and whatever little eccentricities he has are within the realm of normality. But then something would happen, like there was a time when I was going to film him in his editing room and the schedule was we would come by with the cameras and lights and start to set up and he would go home for lunch – which he does almost every day – and then by the time he came back we’d be set up and we’d start to shoot. So before he went home for lunch he and I were just standing around making small talk for five or 10 minutes and then he said goodbye and left and we started to set up. And his assistant editor walked up to me and said, like her jaw had dropped, “He just spoke to you more in the past five minutes than he’s spoken to me in the past five years.” And I thought, “Wow, okay, that’s really weird.” That’s where you start to see there is something a little strange about him.

But I think what all that goes back to is, as Scarlett Johansson describes him, he’s cripplingly shy. It’s true. That was the problem he had doing standup comedy. Getting up in front of a room full of strangers doing his little act terrified him. And you speak to someone like Mickey Rose, who was a childhood friend, from high school, and he says the shyness thing was well on its way back then. He was very, very shy. He had a few friends he was very close to. But otherwise he was very shy. So I don’t think it has to do with the celebrity element or being standoffish. Or any kind of showbiz thing. I just think Woody is very shy and unless there is a compelling reason for him to let you into his circle or make small talk with you he just tends to keep people at a distance.

I have just one last thing: I want to thank you for enabling me, after 30 years of seeing their names on the title sequences of Allen’s films, to put faces to the names of Jack Rollins and Charles H Joffe.

By coincidence, my very first showbusiness job was working for Rollins and Joffe as an errand boy. It was just a very weird piece of synchronicity I landed that job, because from being a Woody fan I knew all about them and their history and like you had seen their names on his films for all those years. I remember when I was going to USC and studying film Charles Joffe came with Manhattan and they screened it and he spoke and did a Q&A. Rollins and Joffe, those are very important names for me, so the fact I actually went to work with them is still pretty wild.

The first interview I shot after Woody gave me even a provisional yes was with Jack Rollins, because he was already 94. I think he’s 97 now. Charlie sadly had died in 2008. In fact, Charlie’s death was one of the things that made me say I gotta do this now. Fortunately, I found two other documentary film-makers who had filmed interviews with Charlie for other films where he talked some about Woody. And these were all outtakes because these films weren’t about Woody. Fortunately, I got that footage.

One last note about Rollins and Joffe. It’s actually a testament to Woody’s sense of loyalty that he remained with those guys thoughout his entire career. Jack has not had anything to do with Woody’s movies for probably a good 25 years, maybe more, but up until a few years ago Rollins and Joffe were still credited. Joffe remained credited for a good three films after his death. I asked Woody about that and he said, “I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for those guys. They were always my executive producers and just because Jack is no longer active, I wouldn’t be making these films if it weren’t for him.”

Not that Woody lives in Hollywood, but this is so antithetical to the Hollywood mentality, which is, you dump people, you stab them in the back, there’s no loyalty at all. I asked him about the three films he made after Charles died where he was still credited and Woody shrugged and said, “Charlie was still around when I came up with those stories. I filmed them after he had died but Charles was still technically my manager at the time I came up with the story ideas”, so he continued to give him credit. That’s Woody’s sense of loyalty. Which is the kind of thing I really like about him.

WOODY ALLEN: A DOCUMENTARY screens in its full-length three-hour version (rather than the 112-minute version advertised in the programme) as part of the WORLD CINEMA SHOWCASE, which opens in Auckland on March 29 and tours to Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch, until May 9.

woody collage