Woody Allen: Blending Real Life With Fiction Filmmaker Woody Allen has made more than 40 films in the past five decades. His latest, Midnight in Paris, just received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. In 2009, Allen joined Fresh Air's Terry Gross for a wide-ranging conversation about many of his films.
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Woody Allen: Blending Real Life With Fiction

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Woody Allen: Blending Real Life With Fiction

Woody Allen: Blending Real Life With Fiction

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Veteran director Woody Allen is having a good year. His most recent film, "Midnight in Paris," is nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and Allen's nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.

"Midnight in Paris" tells the story of a writer, played by Owen Wilson, who comes to Paris with his fiancee and her parents, and he finds himself time-traveling to his favorite era: 1920s France. Every night when the clock strikes midnight, he meets famous writers and artists of the period, and on this night, he's introduced to a writer who happens to be one of his idols.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Now this is a writer, Gil. Yes, Gil.

OWEN WILSON: (As Gil Pender) Gil Pender.

COREY STOLL: (As Hemingway) Hemingway.

WILSON: (As Gil) Hemingway?

STOLL: (As Hemingway) You like my book?

WILSON: (As Gil) Liked? I loved all your work.

(As Hemingway) Yes, it was a good book because it was an honest book, and that's what war does to men, and there's nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully, and then it's not only noble, but brave.

DAVIES: Hemingway is played by Corey Stoll. Woody Allen has directed more than 40 films. He's been nominated for 17 Academy Awards and has won three, including Best Writer and Best Director for "Annie Hall."

Terry spoke to Woody Allen in 2009, when his film "Whatever Works" was released. They began with a classic scene from "Annie Hall."


WOODY ALLEN: (As Alvy Singer) There's an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort, and one of them says boy, the food at this place is really terrible. The other one says yeah, I know, and such small portions.

(As Alvy) Well, that's essentially how I feel about life: full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.


Woody Allen, welcome to FRESH AIR.


GROSS: You know, it's interesting how your characters try to find pleasure in a life full of pain. My impression of you is that you're the kind of person for whom pleasure is hard to come by, in part because you've said you're a claustrophobic, agoraphobic.

"Annie Hall" was originally going to be named "Anne Hedonia," which means an inability to experience pleasure. Is pleasure hard to come by, even when your work can find it?

ALLEN: I do - there are a number of things that give me pleasure. But you know, hanging over the pleasure is always the dark cloud of, you know, the human predicament so that I can get pleasure when I'm playing with my children or I'm doing something with my wife or playing jazz.

I like to play music, and I do find it pleasurable, but these are transient oases in a vast desert of unspeakable gloom, you know. But I do get pleasure like everyone else. It's pleasurable for me to go to a basketball game, you know, but always overriding it is the notion that it's, you know, ephemeral, very ephemeral.

GROSS: Now you started in comedy by writing jokes and you were writing for an older generation. What was the pay like? Did they pay you per joke or per joke that they used?

ALLEN: You know, the pay was a lot. I mean at the time, you know, when you think that my father and mother both had to work their whole life - my father drove a cab, and was a bartender, was a bookmaker, and was a, he ran poolroom. My mother always worked for the flower market. And they had to combine their salaries.

And I started working - and you know, their combined salaries would be, you know, maybe less than a hundred dollars a week combined. And I started working and the - immediately I was making close to $200 week, just as - I mean, I was 17 years old, and I was making that. And before long I was making $1,500 a week. And in those days, I mean this was the early '50s...

GROSS: That's a lot of money.

ALLEN: You know, the mid-'50s, and it was more than my parents put together would make in ages. So the show business salaries I always felt were way out of whack with reality. Now, I haven't made a big protest over that over the years you'll notice...


ALLEN: But I always did feel that they were, you know, when you see what a school teacher gets and what some terrible comedian gets or some awful singer gets, you know, it's shocking.

GROSS: Did you say your father worked in a poolroom, and he was a bookmaker?

ALLEN: Yeah, he - my father had a lot of jobs. He was always scuffling to make a living. He sold jewelry, he was a waiter, he was a bartender, he was a cab driver, he ran a poolroom, he was a bookmaker for a while...

GROSS: You must've met a lot of colorful characters through him, unless you were not welcome in that world.

ALLEN: I was young to have met the colorful characters. But he was always bringing home stolen merchandise, and you know, that was fenced to him for no money at all.

So he'd always be coming home with you know a fur coat for my mother, or a typewriter, or a tape recorder, or this, you know, and picked this up for $2 and this up for $20. And you know, there was a lot of that over the years, a lot of stuff bought, I remember that, you know, fence junk.

GROSS: Were you supposed to keep that a secret, that it was fenced?

ALLEN: It was never expressed that way. It was, you know, it was that he came home with a bargain and...

GROSS: Right.

ALLEN: You know that - and you say my God, where did you get that you know electric typewriter for a dollar and quarter?


ALLEN: It's brand new.


ALLEN: And you know, but you never knew that. And my father was an inveterate numbers player. There was not a day in his life that he didn't play the numbers. And whenever he won, you know, it was money for everybody.

I mean he just spread it around, you know, like Jackie Gleeson and "The Honeymooners." I mean he just, everybody - you know it was such a pleasure if he came home and had hit his number. You know, my sister and I and my mother all knew we were going to be rewarded with an extravagant bonus.

GROSS: Can you describe the neighborhood you grew up in? A lot of people imagine you growing up under the rollercoaster in Coney Island like your character in "Annie Hall."

ALLEN: Right, right, people think that. No I grew up in a very nice section of Brooklyn called Flatbush. And when I grew up there, it was a lovely, you know, it was a lovely section. I mean there were ball field and playgrounds.

There were many, many, many movie houses within, you know, walking distance of no matter where you were dropped you'd be within walking distance of a couple of movie houses. And, you know, the blocks were tree-lined, and safe, and you could go out and play ball all day long in the streets and schoolyards, and it was a very nice neighborhood.

GROSS: What was your parent's relationship like? And what did you make, what did it make you think marriage was like?

ALLEN: Marriage for my parents was kind of like what it was in all the other neighboring houses and friends' houses. It was a long truce is what it was. The - all the parents in the neighborhood, the men and women, they loved each other.

They were people who were from the Depression, and so money was a big factor because nobody had any real money, and everybody had to work. But usually what would happen is the men and the women would, the guys would work all day, and they'd come home, and then on the weekends the guys would take bridge chairs out and play cards at a table and the women would keep with the women.

There was no sense that a guy was coming home on the weekend so he could take his wife and, you know, leave the son with the babysitter or the daughter with a babysitter and check into a hotel and have a romantic weekend or do something romantic. There wasn't that.

The guys would be, you know, watching the ballgame or - not watching so much, listening on the radio to the ballgames together. They'd be playing poker, or gin rummy, or pinochle together. And that's how it was even when there was a dinner or something, uncles and relatives would get together, and as soon as the dinner was over, the guys would be in the other room around the card table, and the women would be talking in their room about - you know, and you didn't get a sense, you didn't come away with the sense of romantic passion. There wasn't much interpersonal charm to it.

GROSS: I know that your movies aren't your life. But there's a scene in "Annie Hall" that I - it's just, like, so funny and I feel like I know these people. It's the dinner scene where you're at dinner with Diane Keaton, Annie Hall's family and it's a much more kind of formal, you know, quiet polite, everybody eating slowly kind of setting. And you compare that in your mind with the family dinners you were used to where people were, like, shoveling down the food and hollering at each other and everybody's aggravated and talking about who has diabetes. Was dinner like that at home?

ALLEN: Dinner was not really like that at home, no, because you know I ate by myself at, you know, 5:30, and my mother ate at 6:30 after she had made dinner for my sister and myself, and my father got home at a quarter to nine, and he would have a - so no, that stuff was made up and exaggerated for comic purposes.

GROSS: How come you ate alone?

ALLEN: I ate alone because I liked to eat alone, because I like, you know, I liked the solitude. I liked to, you know, eat and read a comic book or something and...

GROSS: Your parents let you do that without accusing you of being antisocial and turning your back on the family?


ALLEN: They were so happy that I wanted to eat alone, you know - no because my, we always lived with aunts and uncles and things. And my mother would have a better time eating with her sister. Or, if my father got home in time, and she was waiting for him, with him. But you know, what am I going to talk about with my mother? I was 10 years old or nine or 11 and out in the streets all day playing stickball, and, you know, we had nothing to talk about.

DAVIES: Woody Allen, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Woody Allen. His film "Midnight in Paris" is nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and Allen's nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. They spoke in 2009, after his film "Whatever Works" was released. It starred Larry David as an eccentric New Yorker who meets a young girl from the South.

GROSS: In the movie, Larry David is in his 50s, and Evan Rachel Wood is still in her teens when she shows up kind of homeless on his doorstep, and he decides, kind of against his will to - and against his better judgment, to take her in and give her a few meals and then to let her live there, and then they get married.

So forgive me for asking this because this is a little personal, but this was written before, like, long before you married Soon-Yi, but it means, let's be honest, that everyone's going to be looking for clues in this movie about your relationship with your wife.

And again, let's be honest: A lot of your fans were really kind of upset when you married the woman who is the adoptive daughter of your long-time lover. So I wonder if you thought about that kind of thing when you were making the movie, that people would just be, like, looking for clues about the older-man-younger-woman relationship and how that applies to you.

ALLEN: People do look for clues in my movies all the time...

GROSS: For who you really are.

ALLEN: In all of my movies. The people always look for clues in my movies, and they think, based on my movies, that they know me. And of course they don't know me. And there are some things you could've learned about me over the years but not much, really. You know, I was never who anybody thought I was from when I started.

When I first started as a comic in Greenwich Village, people thought that I was, at that time, some kind of a little beatnik and someone who, you know, was a kind of mousy intellectual. And, you know, none of these things were ever true. You know, I never lived in the Village. I always lived in a very nice neighborhood uptown in Manhattan.

I was never intellectual. I was never interested in intellectual things. You know, when I explain to people I'm the guy that you see in his T-shirt with a beer watching the baseball game at night at home on television. They find that hard to square with the characters that I played in the movies. But in the movies, I'm just acting.

But I've never been - you know, I was always a very athletic little boy, always, you know, never a loner or a loser, always the first one picked on any team.

GROSS: You were the first one picked on any team?

ALLEN: Always.

GROSS: See, I wouldn't have believed that.


ALLEN: I know. I was always a very...

GROSS: Very counter to your image.

ALLEN: Very good athlete. I was interested even in playing professional baseball. I was, you know, won track medals, you know. But nobody thinks of me that way. They think of me as, you know, some kind of little bookworm because I have these big, black glasses, black-rimmed glasses, and they think of me as a bookworm and give me more credit for intellect than I have.

And you know, I couldn't make it through college. I couldn't make it through my freshman year of college, you know. And this was not because I was some, you know, artist or intellectual above it. I couldn't cut it. I mean, I wasn't...

GROSS: You flunked out?

ALLEN: I couldn't get the - I flunked out. I was thrown out of New York University in my first year there...

GROSS: What did you fail?

ALLEN: Because I couldn't get the marks.

GROSS: In what subjects?

ALLEN: I was a motion picture production major, but now I had to take regular subjects, as well.

GROSS: Don't tell me you failed motion picture classes.

ALLEN: English and Spanish and subjects like that. I failed those subjects. And I didn't do well in motion picture production, either.

GROSS: Was this because you were busy writing jokes for other people and not studying, or...

ALLEN: No, no, I wasn't too busy. I wasn't too busy. I was uninterested. I mean, I - you know, I played ball. I was, as I say, I was athletic. I played cards. I liked to - I wasn't interested in erudition and education.

Those were not things that - I was not brought up to be interested in that, and I wasn't interested. You know, I didn't see it in my home. And so I just - this is long-winded - but just to say that people have, you know, constantly looking for clues to me in my work and seizing on things that are quite, quite unrepresentative of who I really am.

GROSS: When people love somebody's art they become very interested in the artist, and that leads them to be interested in the artist's personal life or what they can find out about it. And it's like some of your fans felt just upset, and in some ways even betrayed, maybe, because of your marriage to Soon-Yi.

And they started reevaluating well, do see his films differently now? I think a lot of people went back and re-watched "Manhattan" or thought about "Manhattan" because it's the story of an older man and a younger woman, a middle-aged man and a teenager.

Do you think it's fair or wrong to have - to evaluate an artist's work by what -by decisions they've made or what you think of decisions they've made in their personal life or do you think that that's...

ALLEN: I think you can evaluate an artist any way you choose to. You're free to evaluate an artist in any way that you want to based on anything that makes you happy.

GROSS: And do you care what people think of your personal life? Or is that just irrelevant to you?

ALLEN: Well, you know, if I say I don't care, it sounds so cold and callous. But let me put it this way: How could you go through life, you know, taking direction from the outside world? I mean, what kind of life would you have, you know, if you were - if you made your decisions based on, you know, the outside world and not what your inner dictates told you? You would have a very inauthentic life.

GROSS: So you told us you didn't eat with your family. Do you eat - when you were growing up, that you ate alone because you liked to be alone with your comic book at dinner...

ALLEN: Yeah.

GROSS: And your parents preferred the company of adults. Do you eat with your children now?

ALLEN: I eat with the children, yeah. But, you know, because they like our company, you know, and, you know, the generations are different. I'm much closer to my children than my parents were to me.

You know, my kids and I and my wife, you know, talk about the same subjects. And, you know, we're all friends. Now, I'm an older parent, but I'm still a parent in a younger generation than the generation that I grew up in, obviously. So, you know, which - I do eat with my children. And we like it.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

ALLEN: Okay. Thank you.

DAVIES: Woody Allen, speaking with Terry Gross in 2009. Allen's film "Midnight in Paris" is nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and Allen's nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Here's Sidney Bechet from the soundtrack of the film. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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