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A book of conversations usually collects interviews done over weeks or months and so, regardless of the time span covered, the result is a snapshot that reflects the attitudes and feelings of the subject at a given point in life. This book, however, is an album assembled over half of Woody Allen’s life, beginning in 1971, and like time-lapse photography, it offers a clear view of his transformation from novice to one of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers, and what he learned along the way.
For thirty-six years I’ve had the pleasure of watching an artist’s evolution from close range, but I wouldn’t have laid money on the chances of that after our first meeting. In the spring of 1971 an editor at the New York Times Magazine sent me to investigate three ideas for a possible story. One of them was a profile of Allen, a thirty-five-year-old comic who had written two Broadway plays (Don’t Drink the Water and Play It Again, Sam), whose prose was now often in The New Yorker, and who had recently begun to act in and direct his own screenplays: Take the Money and Run (1969), the purported documentary of a petty criminal so spectacularly inept that he can’t even write a legible holdup note, and the just-released Bananas, a comic turn on Latin American revolutions and U.S. foreign policy. With just enough plot to bind them, the pictures are strung together like a nightclub monologue, with little attention paid to character development or cinematic style. They are one often surreal gag after another, and they are uproarious.
The films announced the arrival of an idiosyncratic and original talent, and editors at the Times wanted to know more about him, as did I. I thought he was in a league with my comic heroes, S. J. Perelman, Bob Hope, and the Marx Bothers, and even more varied in his ability to provoke laughter. I telephoned his managers, Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, to ask for an interview, and an appointment was made. I arrived at their duplex office on West Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan with a couple of pages of questions and a brand-new tape recorder and was taken upstairs, where Woody was waiting in a small room furnished with a table and lamp and a couple of nicely stuffed chairs. He looked uncomfortable and seemed shy; I was new to journalism and nervous about meeting someone whose work I admired. We shook hands, said hello, settled into the seats, and I asked my questions like someone reading off a checklist. His answers were succinct. His shortest was “No,” which would not have been so bad had any of his longest been more expressive than “Yes.”
So I wrote a piece on one of the other two ideas I looked into, and figured I was done with Woody Allen.
Six months later, while riding a bicycle in Sausalito, California, I was nearly run down by a Ford station wagon with a card in the front window that read “Rollins and Joffe Productions.” In that day’s San Francisco Chronicle I had seen a short article about Woody being in town to film Play It Again, Sam and, being young and solipsistic, I figured that instead of mere coincidence, this was a sign that he was ready to talk more openly. I phoned Joffe to see about another interview and was summoned to meet Woody on a houseboat in the Sausalito harbor, which was being considered for a scene in the film. We chatted about the baseball playoffs and then he excused himself to look at something with the location manager. A few minutes later, Charlie came over and said, “Why don’t you come to the set and hang around? But be sure to keep quiet and out of the way, otherwise you’ll have to go.”
I dutifully did as I was told and, after a few days, Woody came over between shots and we talked for a minute. He came back later and we talked longer. Soon we began more formal interviews. The Times commissioned a profile and I stayed through much of the filming. As Woody didn’t direct Sam (Herbert Ross did), my editor suggested I also interview him while he acted in and directed Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex immediately after. I went to the old Goldwyn Studios in Los Angeles, talked with him for many more hours on and off the set, and finally, months after the original deadline, turned in my piece the day Time ran a cover story on him.
In journalism as in comedy, timing is all. After the Times killed my story, I thought Woody should at least see the result of all the weeks he spent with me, so I sent it with a note of thanks for his time. I didn’t expect a response, but a couple of days later he called to say that he was sorry it wouldn’t run.
“You quoted me accurately in context, and you honored my jokes,” he said, meaning that I had not quoted one without including both the straight line and the punch line. “Feel free to stop by my editing room whenever you like.”
I did, several times.
Woody is preparing to go back to London to film Scoop, at present untitled. He is not in Match Point but will appear in this one, as will Scarlett Johansson for the second film in succession.
We are in his screening room at the Manhattan Film Center, in the dark avocado green velour swivel chairs that have been there for years. Next to us are cabinets filled with the records, mostly of music from the thirties and forties, that he draws on to score his films.
Almost everything is as it has been for twenty-five years. The one thing that is different is his enthusiasm for Match Point. He rarely shows any for a film when it is finished, but he is happy with everything about this one, including the script.
EL: Why did it work so well?
WA: I think it had to do with a few things. One was that I was not confined to comedy. I could do what I wanted to do. I didn’t have to think, “I’m doing a film but it has to be a comedy,” or “I’ve got to be in it.” I had no restrictions, so I could do the film I wanted to do. I wrote, I thought, a good script. And I was able to bring it off. I had all the resources.
EL: There are two brutal murders in the film, but you show neither the shooting nor any blood. Why?
WA: It wasn’t about either the killing or the blood, so I didn’t feel there was any necessity to just blast people away in front of you. It wouldn’t have added anything. I was very lucky on this picture. Everything that usually goes wrong on a movie went right here. There are things that often give you a hard time–getting the right actors, having to compromise certain roles, getting the right weather every day–that just worked. Every decision that was made on the picture, not just by me but by everybody, just worked. I don’t know if I can ever repeat it or make a film as good.
EL: Paul Kaye, who played the real estate agent renting the flat to Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, has about the only funny lines in the film. Did you write the scene that way?
WA: That’s the perfect example of every person in the film making a contribution. I wrote it very simply, not funny at all. But he was ad-libbing all over the place and ad-libbing in character and he was funny. Not one actor came in, read the lines, took the money, and left. Everybody made something out of their part.
EL: Time moves from season to season smoothly and with little exposition. For example, the two weddings in the same church tell us that months have passed without your having to do any exposition.
WA: My instinct for telling the story was that I could do that, that it didn’t require any more than that. I just felt [snaps fingers], This is all information, get it quickly and move on.
EL: Do you think being in a city other than New York made a difference?
WA: It’s always fun to see a new city, but I wasn’t doing the kind of film where I could exploit the city as much as I wanted. I could exploit London a certain amount, but if I had been doing a romantic movie, I could have done it in the way I exploited Manhattan in Manhattan. But here there was a real narrative story to tell and I couldn’t indulge myself very much on sightseeing.
EL: This film came out just as you saw it in your mind. But how about other films–Purple Rose of Cairo, for instance?
WA: Yes, that’s one of my films that came out as I envisioned it. Not that I ever see it.
EL: You once told me that you got stuck after you had the notion that a character comes off the screen.
WA: The inspiration I had was that a character [played by Jeff Daniels] comes off the screen, but I couldn’t follow through. I wrote fifty pages and gave up on it and put it away. I only came back to it when it dawned on me that the real actor is troubled by this. So he comes to town and the girl [Mia Farrow] falls in love with him as well as his character from the screen and is forced to choose, and chooses the real one and he hurts her–that’s what made the story for me. But until then I had fifty pages where the guy comes off the screen, and I had some fun with that but that was it.
EL: Reality always gets you in the end.
WA: My perception is that you are forced to choose reality over fantasy and reality hurts you in the end, and fantasy is just madness.
EL: What a choice.
WA: Yes, like life it’s a lose-lose situation.
EL: When you’re writing are you able to transport yourself into the fantasy?
WA: I transport myself in very easily. You get into the story when you write something. You get into it in a pleasurable way. It’s hard to explain, but it’s the kind of thing I imagine a graphic artist has when he or she formulates a collage or works on a painting. You want to return to it and build it up. It’s a pleasurable feeling.
EL: Some of the themes of Match Point are in Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which there is a Woody Allen character. How did the writing of these two scripts differ, having you in one and not the other?
WA: In Crimes, nobody had any interest in my aspirations [those of Cliff, the obscure documentary filmmaker]; they were only interested in success. My part of the picture was for comic relief. The real story of Crimes and Misdemeanors is Martin Landau’s.
EL: Who gets away with murder.
WA: There were a lot of people who felt that Marty was haunted and he had to keep telling the story like the Ancient Mariner. But that was not it at all. He was in no way haunted. He was just fine. He realized that in a godless universe you can get away with it and it doesn’t bother him.
EL: How does Crimes and Misdemeanors stand in your estimation?
WA: It was okay, but it was a little too mechanical for me. I think I was working too hard, whereas Match Point just flowed organically. I just happened to have the right characters in the right place at the right time.
EL: You also were fourteen years ahead in terms of experience. When you were writing Match Point were you thinking, I’ve dealt with this subject somewhat before in Crimes and Misdemeanors but I have these other things I want to say?
WA: No, I was saying that I want to obey the story and if you obey the needs of the creation of the piece of fiction, the meaning reveals itself. And for me, naturally, it’s going to reveal itself in a particular way. Years ago Paddy Chayefsky said to me, “When a movie is failing or a play is failing”–he put it so brilliantly–“cut out the wisdom.” [He laughs.] Marshall Brickman said it a different way–I told you this before–but just as cogently, just as insightful: “The message of the film can’t be in the dialogue.” And this is a truth that’s hard to live by because the temptation is to occasionally take a moment and philosophize and put in your wisdom, put in your meaning. I did that in Match Point to a certain degree–they’re sitting around the table and they’re talking about faith being the path of least resistance. But the truth of the matter is, if the meaning doesn’t come across in the action, you have nothing going for you. It doesn’t work. You can’t just have guys sitting around making hopefully wise insights or clever remarks because while they’re saying these things the audience is not digesting them the way the author intends–“Hey, did you just hear that Shavian epigram?” They’re looking at it as the dialogue of characters in a certain situation: “He’s saying this because she’s thinking this and he wants to get on her good side. . . .” They’re watching the action of the story. When you lose sight of that, and we all do–I certainly do–you think you’re making your point, you think you’re infusing your piece with wisdom, but you’re committing suicide. You’re just militating against the audience’s enjoyment.
EL: But Match Point fits into a long-standing theme of yours, that in a godless universe the only check you have on yourself is your own morality. No one else is going to punish you if you’re not caught.
WA: Interestingly, I read an article someone sent me that a Catholic priest wrote about the movie. It was very nice, but he made a wrong assumption. The assumption was: if, as I say, life is meaningless and chaos and random, then anything goes and nothing has any meaning and one action is as good as the next. And it immediately leads someone with a religious agenda to the conclusion, Well, you can just murder people and get away with it if that’s what you want to do. But that’s a false conclusion. What I’m really saying–and it’s not hidden or esoteric, it’s just clear as a bell–is that we have to accept that the universe is godless and life is meaningless, often a terrible and brutal experience with no hope, and that love relationships are very, very hard, and that we still need to find a way to not only cope but lead a decent and moral life.
People jump to the conclusion that what I’m saying is that anything goes, but actually I’m asking the question: given the worst, how do we carry on, or even why should we choose to carry on? Of course, we don’t choose–the choice is hardwired into us. The blood chooses to live. [Laughs.] Please note as I pontificate here, you’re interviewing a guy with a deficient denial mechanism. Anyhow, religious people don’t want to acknowledge the reality that contradicts their fairy tale. And if it is a godless universe [he chuckles], they’re out of business. The cash flow stops.
Now, there are plenty of people who choose to lead their lives in a completely self-centered, homicidal way. They feel, Since nothing means anything and I can get away with murder, I’m going to. But one can also make the choice that you’re alive and other people are alive and you’re in a lifeboat with them and you’ve got to try and make it as decent as you can for yourself and everybody. And it would seem to me this is so much more moral and even much more “Christian.” If you acknowledge the awful truth of human existence and choose to be a decent human being in the face of it rather than lie to yourself that there’s going to be some heavenly reward or some punishment, it seems to me more noble. If there is a reward or a punishment or a payoff somehow and you act well, then you’re acting well not out of such noble motives, the same so-called Christian motives. It’s like the suicide bombers who allegedly act out of noble religious or national motives when in fact their families get a financial payoff, revel in a heroic legacy–not to mention the promise of virgins for the perpetrators, although why anyone would want a group of virgins rather than one highly experienced woman is beyond me.
Anyhow, I disagreed with what the Catholic priest wrote, but I didn’t engage him. He was very nice; this was not a hostile thing he was writing. He was imputing to me a point of view and was trying to refute it. But he was refuting a point of view that I do not hold with what I feel is a preconceived religious agenda–and the film can’t honestly be read to imply I’m saying anything goes and that’s fine with me.
I saw another piece written by a priest-philosopher at St. John’s University, who thought the film was perhaps the most [laughs] atheistic film ever made. But he was very nice, very complimentary. His point of view was more lenient toward me because he felt that over the years the fact that I constantly espouse an atheistic and hopeless and godless and meaningless universe means I am saying that the absence of God in the universe matters. And I feel that he’s right, I am saying that it matters. I said that explicitly in Crimes and Misdemeanors. To me it’s a damn shame that the universe doesn’t have any God or meaning, and yet only when you can accept that can you then go on to lead what these people call a Christian life–that is, a decent, moral life. You can only lead it if you acknowledge what you’re up against to begin with and shuck off all the fairy tales that lead you to make choices in life that you’re making not really for moral reasons but for taking down a big score in the afterlife.
So the film inspired a lot of talk in that area and I’m glad. I’m glad it wasn’t regarded just as a suspense murder mystery, which, mind you, I’m not knocking. I love those as much as or more than anybody as a movie viewer. But I had hoped to use Match Point to at least make one or two points that are my personal philosophy and I feel I was able to do that.
EL: What do you think happens with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers [who murders his pregnant lover, played by Scarlett Johansson, and her elderly neighbor]? The same as with Martin Landau?
WA: Yeah. I think he’s in a situation that he’s not delighted with. He’s married to a woman he’s not passionate about. He’s a son-in-law who likes the easy life he’s married into but is claustrophobic working in the office. His wife is already saying to him that she wants another child.
He has no thoughts about the crime. He’s got what he wanted and he’s paid the price for that. It’s a shame that that’s what he wanted. I can see down the line that he won’t be content in that marriage and maybe he’ll be on such a good financial footing that he’ll leave her.