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At 79, Woody Allen Says There's Still Time To Do His Best Work

When asked about his major shortcomings, filmmaker Woody Allen says, "I'm lazy and an imperfectionist." i

When asked about his major shortcomings, filmmaker Woody Allen says, "I'm lazy and an imperfectionist." Thibault Camus/AP hide caption

toggle caption Thibault Camus/AP
When asked about his major shortcomings, filmmaker Woody Allen says, "I'm lazy and an imperfectionist."

When asked about his major shortcomings, filmmaker Woody Allen says, "I'm lazy and an imperfectionist."

Thibault Camus/AP

Woody Allen is a prolific filmmaker — he's been releasing films pretty much every year since the mid-1960s. (His latest, Irrational Man, is now in theaters.) But Allen isn't exactly prolific as an interview subject. When film critic Sam Fragoso sat down with Allen in Chicago, the filmmaker revealed his insecurities (well, not so much revealed as reiterated), and discussed why actors like to work with him and what he regrets.

Allen also discussed his relationship with his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, whom he met when he was in a relationship with actress Mia Farrow. Previn is Farrow's adopted daughter and is 35 years younger than Allen.


Sam Fragoso: You're more prolific than most people.

Woody Allen: But prolific is a thing that's not a big deal. It's not the quantity of the stuff you do; it's the quality. A guy like James Joyce will do just a couple of things, but they resonate way beyond anything I've ever done or ever could dream of doing.

Would you say your quality, in spots, dipped because of the quantity?

It always [has]. When you start out to make a film, you have very big expectations and sometimes you come close. When I did Match Point, I felt I came very close. But you never get that thing that you want. You always set out to make Citizen Kane or to make The Bicycle Thief and it doesn't happen. You can't set out to make something great head-on; you just have to make films and hope you get lucky.

Have you considered scaling back, making a film every few years?

It wouldn't help. It's not that I feel, "Oh, if I had more time or more money, I could make this better." It's coming to terms with the shortcomings in one's own gift and one's own personality.

What are your major shortcomings?

I'm lazy and an imperfectionist. Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese will work on the details until midnight and sweat it out, whereas for me, come 6 o'clock, I want to go home, I want to have dinner, I want to watch the ballgame. Filmmaking is not [the] end-all be-all of my existence. Another shortcoming is that I don't have the intellect or the depth or the natural gift. The greatness is not in me. When you see scenes in [Akira] Kurosawa films ... you know he's a madman on the set. There would be 100 horses and everything had to be perfect. He was crazy. I don't have any of that.

You wouldn't consider yourself crazy?

No, no. My problem is that I'm middle-class. If I was crazy I might be better. That probably accounts for my output. I lead a very sensible life: I get up in the morning, I work, I get the kids off to school, do the treadmill, play the clarinet, take a walk with my wife. It's usually the same walk every day. If I were crazy, it would help. If I shrieked on the set and demanded, it may be better, but I don't. I say, "Good enough!" It's a middle-class quality, which does make for productivity.

You're never bored.

Look, we all have to make a living in life and do something. Making films, by the general standard of jobs, is a very good one. You work with very gifted people. I work with beautiful women and good men.

Most performers want to work with you.

There are two factors:

1) I give them good parts to play and they are artists and they don't want to keep doing blockbuster movies. They want to act in something.

2) But they want to work with me when the blockbuster movie hasn't offered them anything. If I offer them something and then Jurassic Park offers them something, they take Jurassic Park because of the money.

The way you describe filmmaking, it comes across as a job first, passion second, so where do you find happiness?

It's not a tedious chore; it's a pleasant way to make a living. I like playing music, I like being with the family, but I don't have any ecstatic highs. I'm not like Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I enjoy working. If it's 7 in the morning and you're on the set and there's Scarlett Johansson or Emma Stone, and you're dealing for a year with costumes and music ... it's like arts and crafts, you're making a collage. But I'm not someone who does heroin.

Have you experimented with drugs recreationally or for creative purposes?

I've never done any drugs whatsoever. I've never taken a puff of marijuana. I've never taken a recreational pill of any sort. I can barely bring myself to take two Extra Strength Excedrin.

Not once?

No, and I don't even have the curiosity. People say all the time, "Aren't you curious?" But I'm not a curious person. I'm not curious to travel, but I do because my wife likes it. I'm not curious to see other places, I'm not curious to try new things. I go to the same restaurants all the time, and my wife is always saying, "Let's try something new!" I don't enjoy that. When Elaine's was open in New York, I ate every dinner, seven nights a week, for 10 [to] 12 years.

I'm still surprised you've never taken a hit from a joint.

And I was right in the thick of it. I would play [the Chicago nightclub] Mr. Kelly's and the [San Francisco nightclub] Hungry I and college concerts in the '60s, and afterwards everyone would be doing it. All the folk acts, the rock acts. The subject of drugs never interests me. There are a lot of subjects that don't hold my attention. I'm not interested in technology. I don't have a computer. I'm not interested in traveling, popular music. I can't bring myself to get motivated.

And yet you're making a series for an online audience with Amazon.

Right, I've never seen one. I think they're going to be embarrassed. They're going to regret that they started up with me. I'm doing my best. I'm working a six-episode series.

They're no good?

I have grave doubts about them. I thought it was going to be an easy score. Movies are not easy, but it's not a cinch. I don't want to disappoint them.

After all these years of making movies about death (the fear of it, how to beat it, etc.), do you feel, at 79, any better about it all?

You don't beat that anxiety. You don't mellow when you get older and gain a Buddhist acceptance.

Is it worse now?

It's not worse; it's the same. If you wake up in the middle of the night, at 20, contemplating your extinction, you have the same feeling at 60 and 80. You're hardwired to fight to live. You can't give logical reasons why, but you're hardwired to survive. You would prefer not to. You would prefer that the life story was a different scenario, but it's not.

How long have you been seeing an analyst?

Well, not continually. I was in analysis when I was 20 and then stopped for a while, then saw a shrink when I was a little older. I've been in and out. Now I check in once a week just to charge the batteries.

Has it helped?

It's funny, it's helped, but not as much as I've wanted. Years ago, I remember, I brought my clarinet into the repair shop, and the guy took two weeks and put new pads on and everything. When I went in, I said, "Thank you, but am I going to sound better?" And he said, "Yes, you will sound better, but not as much as you'd like to." The truth is you can't get what you want.

Are you suggesting people can't get better?

I do think you get better to a certain degree. Every case is different. It depends how close you are to getting better by yourself. If someone is close to it, the shrink can give you that little push and they make it.

Where/when have you experienced that push?

When I first started to be a comedian, I used to have the fantasy all the time that they'd hate me. I'm going to get on stage and they're not going to like me. The problem was — psychologically, but unbeknownst to me — I was worried I was not going to like them. And that was causing me anxiety, which I transferred to, "They're not going to like me." That was a significant contribution of relieving the anxiety of going on stage.

Also, when I was 19 I was married.

What was that?

It was fine! It got me out of my parent's house and got me into New York City and reality. My wife was a nice, smart person, but I would sometimes become nauseated during the night and I kept thinking it was the food. "Oh, I shouldn't have eaten at the Chinese restaurant, the Italian food." It was anxiety, and when someone finally pointed it out to me that it wasn't the food causing me those stomach problems, it was a big help.

You didn't like the people.

I never liked people.

What's your problem with people?

I think some of them are wonderful, but they are so many of them that are not. I was one of the few guys rooting for the comet to hit the Earth. Statistically, more people that deserved to go would go.

Would you consider yourself a good person?

I would consider myself ... decent as I got older. When I was younger I was less sensitive, in my 20s. But as I got older and began to see how difficult life was for everybody, I had more compassion for other people. I tried to act nicer, more decent, more honorable. I couldn't always do it. When I was in my 20s, even in my early 30s, I didn't care about other people that much. I was selfish and I was ambitious and insensitive to the women that I dated. Not cruel or nasty, but not sufficiently sensitive.

You viewed women as temporary fixtures?

Yes, temporary, but as I got older and they were humans suffering like I was ... I changed. I learned empathy over the years.

Do you have any major regrets?

Oh! My biggest regret — I have so many, trivial ones and big ones — is that I didn't finish college. I allowed myself to get thrown out. I couldn't care less about it at the time. I regret that I didn't have a more serious life; that my films were too entertaining when I started. I wanted to be [Ingmar] Bergman.

But you contributed joy to the world through laughter.

Yes, that's what got me by. It saved me. But it was the easy road when I started, and I did it. If I had it to do over again, I would be a more dedicated artist. I would've been more serious right from the start. People could look at that and say, "You're nuts. Those are the only movies of yours that we enjoyed. Whenever you've tried to be serious or tried to be meaningful, we walk out."

That's dialogue from [your film] Stardust Memories.

You're right, and it may just be that the amount of depth I have, and the talent to amuse that I have, goes up to three, and that's where it is and I did very nicely with it.

You make it sound like your life is over.

Well, I am 80 in a few months. Who knows what I can count on? My parents lived long, but that's not guarantee of anything. It's too late to really reinvent oneself. All I can do is try to do good work so that people can say, "In his later years, in his last years, he did some of his best work." Great.

Since you are nearing 80, I'm curious: Do you still believe "love fades," as Annie Hall claims?

It fades almost all the time. Once in a while you get lucky and get into a relationship that lasts a very long time. Even a lifetime. But it does fade. Relationships are the most difficult thing people deal with. They deal with loneliness, meeting people, sustaining relationships. You always hear from people, "Well, if you want to have a good relationship you have to work at it." But there's nothing else in your life that you really love and enjoy that you have to work at. I love music, but I don't have to work at it. A guy likes to go out boating on the weekends, he doesn't think, "Oh, I have to work at it." He can't wait to leave work to get to it. That's the way you have to feel about your relationship. If you feel that you have to work at it — a constant business of looking the other way, sweeping stuff under the rug, compromising — it's not working.

Do you feel that way now with [your wife] Soon-Yi Previn?

I lucked out in my last relationship. I've been married now for 20 years, and it's been good. I think that was probably the odd factor that I'm so much older than the girl I married. I'm 35 years older, and somehow, through no fault of mine or hers, the dynamic worked. I was paternal. She responded to someone paternal. I liked her youth and energy. She deferred to me, and I was happy to give her an enormous amount of decision-making just as a gift and let her take charge of so many things. She flourished. It was just a good-luck thing.

Luck is something you play with in your movies often.

Yes, I'm a big believer in that.

But when you found Soon-Yi, when did you know that this relationship worked? I must say from afar — to the general public — it's a bit harder to understand.

I thought it was ridiculous.

So run me through your thought process back in late '80s.

I started the relationship with her and I thought it would just be a fling, it wouldn't be serious. But it had a life of its own. And I never thought it would be anything more. Then we started going together, then we started living together, and we were enjoying it. And the age difference didn't seem to matter. It seemed to work in our favor, actually.

She enjoyed being introduced to many, many things that I knew from experience, and I enjoyed showing her those things. She took them, and outstripped me in certain areas that I showed her. That's why I'm a big believer in luck. I feel that you can't orchestrate those things. Two people come along, and they have a trillion exquisite needs and neuroses and nuances, and they have to mesh. And if one of them doesn't mesh, it causes a lot of trouble. It's like the trace vitamin not being in your body. It's a tiny little thing, but if you don't have it, you die.

The separation between church and state, artists and their personal lives — do you think the allegations [that you sexually abused your adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow] have affected how people approach your movies?

I would say no. I always had a small audience. People did not come in great abundance, and they still don't, and I've maintained the same audience over the years. If the reviews are bad, they don't come. If the reviews are good, they probably come.

You really don't believe they carry that external baggage into the theater?

Not for a second. It has no meaning in the way I make movies, too. I never see any evidence of anything in my private life resonating in film. If I come out with a film people want to see, they flock to see it, which means they see it to the degree of Manhattan or Annie Hall or Midnight in Paris. That's my outer limits. If I come out with a film they don't want to see, they don't come.

At the end of it all, what do you want to be remembered for?

People always ask me this now that I'm turning 80, but I don't really care. It wouldn't matter to me, aside from the royalties to my kids, if they took all my films and dumped them. You and I could be standing over [William] Shakespeare's grave, singing his praises, and it doesn't mean a thing. You're extinct.

Sam Fragoso is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Playboy and elsewhere. A book of his interviews with emerging filmmakers, titled Talk Easy, will be published by The Critical Press in 2016.

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