The Making of Woody Allen: A Documentary

By Nick Dent

What’s really behind the black-rimmed glasses? Robert B Weide discusses making the ultimate film about Woody Allen and his movies (not just the early, funny ones)

sleeper wa in costume

When Robert B Weide finally got the OK from Woody Allen to shoot a biographical documentary, he was surprised by the first question many observers asked him: “‘Are you going to cover the whole Mia-Soon-Yi thing?’”

The dust, it seems, has not quite settled on one of Hollywood’s great all-time scandals. Allen split with his long-time partner Mia Farrow in 1992 after she discovered he was having a relationship with her 20-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. “Personally I think that’s the least interesting thing about him,” says Weide, whose PBS American Masters film Woody Allen: A Documentary is screening in the Sydney Film Festival in its two-hour version and gets a DVD release at the end of June. “I knew I had to cover it, but I didn’t want it to hijack the film and turn it into a courtroom drama.”

Allen, however, put no restrictions on questions Weide could ask him. “His summation of [the Soon-Yi affair] is that people could either love him or hate him, see his films or not see them, and none of it mattered, he just kept working. This event could have capsized many careers but it really impacted his career very little. And that marriage [to Soon-Yi] has lasted longer than the marriages of most people who were screaming at the time.”

The documentary takes in the 76 year old’s extraordinary career, from selling gags to newspapers as a teen to stand-up comedy stardom in the ’60s to writing and directing 41 films in as many years. (“Sitting down to watch these films again I realised if I watched one every weekday it would take me two months to go through them,” Weide laughs.) Weide interviews Allen at length along with his major collaborators, family members and peers.

A comedy aficionado, Weide saw Allen’s debut film as writer-director-star,Take the Money and Run (1969), when he was just nine years old. “I thought, wow, I’m going to see everything this guy does.” He completed his first documentary, The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell, at age 22. Allen, one of Weide’s interview subjects for the project, rejected repeated requests over the years from Weide and other documentary makers. (Barbara Coppel’s 1997 Wild Man Blues focuses on Allen’s jazz clarinet playing.) But when Weide wrote Allen a letter in 2008, he relented. “He was familiar with my work, we share the same heroes. I guess I finally wore him down.”

Allen allowed Weide to tail him during the shooting of 2010’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and on the Cannes red carpet for Midnight in Paris. The origins of the famous black-rimmed glasses are revealed, and Allen shows Weide the typewriter he has owned since the age of 15 and has used to type everything in his professional career. (For cutting and pasting purposes, Allen uses a stapler.) “I knew he wasn’t a man of modern technology. After the show aired on Public Television here I wrote him and said, ‘You were the number one Tweeting trend in NY and LA last night’ and he wrote back, ‘I have no idea what Tweeting is but it sounds computer-related.’”

In addition to documentaries about WC Fields, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, Weide made the Simon Pegg comedy How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and won an Emmy directing episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. “Larry David and I had been friends since the early ’80s and he called me in October 1998 and said ‘I’ve got this idea for an HBO special to be shot like a documentary, do you want to direct it?’ We had no idea there’d be a series.”

He hopes to complete in the next year a long-gestating documentary about novelist Kurt Vonnegut. “Woody, Vonnegut, Lenny Bruce – they all take the existential questions, about mortality and our purpose in the universe, and turn it into comedy," he says. "I’m pretty much out of my top tier of cultural heroes, so the Vonnegut film might be my last documentary.”

Weide notes ruefully that in the time it took him to make Woody Allen: A Documentary, Allen made three feature films. Luckily, the most recent wasMidnight in Paris – Allen’s biggest ever box office hit, which has brought him back into public favour just in time for the release of Weide’s film. “I wrote to Woody that Midnight in Paris inadvertently gives me a nice happy ending. And typical Woody, he writes back, ‘Don’t believe in happy endings. It’s all a myth, the next film will tank, and what does box office success really mean anyway?’”

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