Director of Woody Allen: A Documentary, Robert Weide is the man to know, if you want to know about Woody Allen.
Woody Allen is not only a comedy legend and master director but he is also one of cinema’s classic enigmas. Known so well for his neurotic and often bumbling on-screen persona, in recent years Allen has distanced himself from the limelight, instead focusing solely on his creative output. He has made forty one films in forty one years, making him one of the world’s most prolific directors and at seventy-seven-years-old, he is still continuing to release a new film every year.
This month sees the release of Woody Allen: A Documentary, the first definitive film to be made about the reticent director, featuring contributions from fans, friends and Allen aficionados such as Martin Scorsese, Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton, Chris Rock and countless others. It is a funny, insightful and beautifully constructed study of a modern comedy genius and is helmed by the Oscar-nominated director of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Robert Weide. Weide has made films about a number of comedians including the Marx Brothers, Larry David and Lenny Bruce and also directed How To Lose Friends and Alienate People starring Simon Pegg.
i-D online asked Weide about his personal experiences, working with Woody Allen, being a documentary filmmaker and what he considers to be the secret of great comedy.
What compelled you make a documentary about Woody Allen? All of my documentaries have been on subjects of personal interest to me. It started with the Marx Brothers, they were my first love. I discovered them in junior high school. And when I got a little older I realised that no Marx Brothers documentary existed so I thought it was up to me to make one. Woody was a little different because he had been so resistant for many years about allowing something like this to be made. I had approached him a few times over the past twenty five years or so, as had other film makers.
Why do you think he was so resistant? It was never a question of content or creative control. It really derived from this self deprecating streak of his. He didn’t think he was a worthy subject for a documentary. He didn’t think people would be interested in seeing it so I had to convince him otherwise. That was the origin of it. I think his career narrative has been very interesting and his creative process has been shrouded in mystery. He has never allowed camera crews on the sets of his films. He never does DVD bonus material so I thought he would be an interesting subject for both of those reasons.
Did you discover any surprising, unexpected insights into his character? There weren’t any great surprises, more things I suspected were confirmed. One thing I did find interesting was this work ethic of his. The idea that when he finishes one film, finishes editing and hands it in, he goes away and starts working on the screenplay for the next one. And if his pre-production crew tell him that they’ll be ready to start casting in a couple of month’s time, he says “well what am I supposed to do for a couple of months”. So he’ll write another screenplay or a stage play or tour Europe with his jazz band or whatever. He can’t sit still and not do anything.
And he still writes using his old typewriter and random piles of handwritten notes… Yeah that was really a surprise. He bought the typewriter when he was fifteen. He paid forty dollars for it. I knew he was not a man who embraced modern technology and that he didn’t use a computer. But the idea that he has literally used the same machine for everything he has written throughout his professional life was amazing. Now I email him through his assistant and she will print it out and read it out or he will read it and then he will dictate his answers back. Everyone I know who has letters from him or emails, they treasure them because they are really quite brilliant.
You have made documentaries about Lenny Bruce as well as the Marx Brothers, are there any more comedians you would like to make documentaries about? There hasn’t been a good documentary made about Laurel and Hardy. I think they are cinema greats but I think the problem is that there are a lot of rights issues with the films. Somebody has the rights in the United States but somebody else has them overseas, somebody else has home video rights. I think that’s the problem and I have looked into this a bit over the past few decades but I always come away realising it’s too difficult. The film that I am looking to finish that I started shooting in 1988 is a documentary on Kurt Vonnegut who is one of my literary heroes. I discovered him in high school and became obsessed with his work.
What are your personal favourite Woody Allen films? At least you said “films” and not “film” so that takes some of the pressure off. As a kid I saw all the so called early funny ones and loved all of those. Love and Death is one of the funniest films ever made. Annie Hall had a big impact on my life. I was in high school when that came out. That was one of those seminal moments like seeing my first Marx Brothers film. Annie Hall was such a special film and such a different film for him. It was a romantic comedy like no other I had seen before. But there are a lot of his films that I like. Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose. Woody says that he works using the quantity theory, that if you keep making one after the other, after the other, then eventually one of them will come out well. My feeling is, that is a very modest summation of his work.
It’s interesting watching his style evolve from his earlier more slapstick films to the more mature adult ones… That was what I found exciting. And unlike the Marx Brothers and WC Fields who were deceased or no longer performing by the time I discovered their work, Woody is alive and working during my lifetime. So there is that ability to look forward to the next one and watch him grow as an artist, which is a phrase that he would probably throw up at if he heard me use.
What do you think are the differences between American and British humour? I will sum it up the way my friend Simon Pegg summed it up. When a Brit makes a dry, ironic, sarcastic joke he doesn’t afterwards have to say “just kidding”. I think that sums it up.
What is it that ultimately makes you laugh? I think for me the big element is surprise. There are things that I think are very funny and witty but they don’t physically make me laugh out loud. But if things totally catch me out by surprise that’s the element. I mean I’m not sure if that’s a rhetorical question or an academic question that I don’t know how to answer but I have realised recently that that’s the thing that makes me laugh out loud. When something happens and I absolutely do not expect it. There are other things that I have seen hundreds of times that will always make me laugh. Not to sound elitist but things like silent films, Charlie Chaplin’s movie Modern Times. There’s this scene where he is strapped into this feeding machine because they are trying to devise a way where workers don’t have to get off the assembly line to eat so they are strapped to this chair and fed via machines then everything goes haywire. I don’t know how many times I have seen this film but every time I see it I laugh to the point where tears are coming out. So that would be the exception to the rule because usually there’s no surprise anymore.
Woody Allen: A Documentary is in UK cinemas now.
Text: Daniel Goodwin
Images: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall; Woody Allen, Drew Barrymore and Edward Norton in Everyone Says I Love You © Copyright 1996 Miramax Films; Woody Allen, Luke Wilson and Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris © 2011 Sony Pictures Classics; Woody Allen by Mark Davis © 2011 Getty Images.