Woody Allen On Life, Films And 'Whatever Works' Academy Award-winning writer and director Woody Allen discusses his life and his films — and why audiences shouldn't confuse the two. His latest movie, Whatever Works, tells the story of a "genius" professor in New York who marries a much younger woman.
NPR logo

Woody Allen On Life, Films And 'Whatever Works'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/105400872/105401741" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Woody Allen On Life, Films And 'Whatever Works'

Woody Allen On Life, Films And 'Whatever Works'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/105400872/105401741" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Woody Allen. He has a new movie that's partly an old movie. Woody Allen wrote the screenplay for his new film, "Whatever Works," in the '70s. The leading role was written for Zero Mostel, but Allen put the screenplay aside after Mostel died in 1977, the year "Annie Hall" was released.

Last year, when Woody Allen was ready to start a new film, he faced the possibility of an actor strike. He wanted to finish shooting a new movie before the threatened strike, but that left him no time to write a new screenplay. So he dusted off the one he wrote years ago for Zero Mostel and cast Larry David in the leading role.

Larry David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a former Columbia University professor who came close to winning a Nobel Prize in quantum mechanics. He's as misanthropic as he is brilliant. He hates most adults, and he hates children, which is bad news for the children who come to him for chess lessons.

In this scene, Boris is sitting in a cafe when he's confronted by the mother of one of his chess students.

(Soundbite of film, "Whatever Works")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) You! I have been looking for you. I want to talk to you.

Mr. LARRY DAVID (Actor): (As Boris Yellnikoff) Go ahead.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) Did you pick up a chess board full of pieces and hit my son with it at his lesson today?

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) That idiot's your son? Do me a favor: Don't send that cretin to me anymore. I can't teach an empty-headed zombie chess.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) I will have you know that he is a very bright child.

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) In your opinion. In your opinion, which is skewed because he's your unfortunate issue.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) So you threw a chess board at him?

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) I didn't throw it at him. I picked up the board and dumped the pieces on his head as an object lesson to shake him out of his vegetable torpor.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) You wait until my husband gets back from Florida.

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) What's he doing in Florida without you?

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) He will punch you in the nose.

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) Her husband's in Fort Lauderdale. He's probably hanging out with your naked co-eds on spring break. He tells her it's a business trip. Your son's an imbecile. Teach him Tiddlywinks, not chess.

GROSS: One day, Boris finds a teen-aged runaway named Melodie, played by Evan Rachel Wood, sitting in front of his Manhattan home, begging for some food. He reluctantly takes her in, she stays, and they eventually marry, in spite of the approximately 40-year age difference between them and in spite of the fact that Boris thinks she's brainless.

At the start of the film, Boris states his philosophy of life, which is: Life is short, so take what little pleasure you can get in this chamber of horrors. It's a philosophy expressed in several Woody Allen movies. Here's Woody Allen at the beginning of "Annie Hall."

(Soundbite of film, "Annie Hall")

Mr. WOODY ALLEN (Filmmaker): (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.

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.

GROSS: That basic philosophy is restated in Woody Allen's recent film, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." Here's Javier Bardem inviting two beautiful, American tourists, Vicky and Cristina, to spend the weekend with him.

(Soundbite of film, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona")

Mr. JAVIER BARDEM (Actor): (As Juan Antonio Gonzalo) We'll spend the weekend. I mean, I'll show you around the city, and we'll eat well. We'll drink good wine. We'll make love.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) Who exactly is going to make love?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Juan) Hopefully the three of us.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) Oh my God.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Juan) I'll get your bill.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) Jesus, this guy. He doesn't beat around the bush. Look, senor, maybe in a different life.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Juan) Why not? Life is short. Life is dull. Life is full of pain, and this is a chance for something special.

GROSS: Woody Allen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. ALLEN: Hi.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting - hi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: At least three of your films kind of start with the same premise. I'm wondering why has this question framed several of your movies, that life is hard, life is full of pain, but life is short, so do what you can to get some pleasure.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, this is hardly an original thought with me. I mean, down through the ages, all the important writers and all the important philosophers have, in one form or another, come to the conclusion, the obvious conclusion, that you know, life is a terrible trial and very harsh and very full of suffering, and so whatever you can do with the stipulation that you don't hurt anybody without, you know, ruining a life here or there or causing any damage, there's nothing wrong with it.

GROSS: So when we talk about making movies, does that give you pleasure? Like what's the ratio of pleasure and pain in making a film?

Mr. ALLEN: Well you know, it's a different kind of pain. See, making a movie is a great distraction from the real agonies of the world. It's an overwhelmingly, you know, difficult thing to do.

You've got to deal with actors and temperaments and scripts and second acts and third acts and camera work and costumes and sets and editing and music, and you know, there's enough in that to keep you distracted almost all the time. And if I'm locked into what would appear to be a painful situation because half my movie works, let's say, and the whole second half of it doesn't work, or a character in my movie is terrible, you don't believe the love story or something, these are all problems that are, or generally are, solvable with reshooting, with editing, with thinking, diagnosing what's wrong. And they distract you from the real problems of life, which are unsolvable and very painful problems.

Also in the problems of moviemaking, if you don't solve your problem, all that happens to you is that your movie bombs. So the movie is terrible. So people don't come to see it. Critics don't like it. The public doesn't like it. This is hardly a terrible punishment in life compared to what you're given out in the real world of human existence.

GROSS: So, may I ask, what are some of the real problems that making movies distracts you from?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, they distract me from the same problems that you face or that anyone faces, you know, the uncertainty of life and inevitability of aging and death, and death of loved ones, and mass killings and starvations and holocausts, and not just the manmade carnage but the existential position that you're in, you know, being in a world where you have no idea what's going on, why you're here or what possible meaning your life can have and the conclusion that you come to after a while, that there is really no meaning to it, and it's just a random, meaningless event, and these are pretty depressing thoughts. And if you spend much time thinking about them, not only can't you resolve them, but you sit frozen in your seat. You can't even get up to have your lunch.

So it's better to, you know, distract yourself, and people distract themselves creatively, you know, in the arts. They distract themselves in business or by following baseball teams and worrying over batting averages and who wins the pennant, and these are all things that you do and focus on rather than sit home and worry.

GROSS: So we've talked about 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?

Mr. 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, or you know, but always overriding it is the notion that it's, you know, ephemeral, very ephemeral.

GROSS: Now your new movie, "Whatever Works," was written a long time ago by you for Zero Mostel to star in. What year did you write it?

Mr. ALLEN: I don't remember the exact year, but it must have been the '70s. I mean, I wrote it years ago, threw it in the drawer, and then I took it out because I needed a script quickly because there was going to be, possibly going to be, an actor strike. And so I had to - I couldn't work on a script. I had to have a script quickly to do a picture before that potentially imminent strike occurred.

So I took it out of my drawer, and I felt it was quite a good story, and unfortunately, Zero had been unique, and it was very hard to think of anyone to play that role, and over the years, decades, it occurred to us, Juliet Taylor and myself, that…

GROSS: She's your casting director.

Mr. ALLEN: Casting director, yeah - Larry David could probably do this in a very, very funny way.

GROSS: The character that Larry David plays is a real misanthrope, and unlike some of your other earlier characters, he's not self-deprecating. He's not insecure. In fact, he thinks he's a genius, a kind of superior being, And in that respect, you're almost, like, leaving out the likable part because what we identify with in your earlier characters, and I mention the early characters because that's the period that you wrote the script, is that they had these insecurities. They were self-deprecating. So I guess I'm wondering why you made this character so condescending to other people, somebody who thinks he's a genius.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, this was supposed to be for Zero originally, and he was a big, fat, blustering guy who thought that he had all the answers and thought that everybody in life was inferior to him.

GROSS: You think Zero Mostel himself was that way?

Mr. ALLEN: No, no, not Zero himself…

GROSS: Oh, oh, okay.

Mr. ALLEN: …the character that Zero was playing. Actually, Zero was, you know, quite the opposite of that. But you know, he was a big, blustering character who had no patience with anybody. But of course when you look at the character, the character is full of self-doubt and full of anxiety and can't fend for himself and can't function in relationships.

He's really no different, it's just that his façade is, you know, if I had written that years ago for myself, the character that I could play with my limited range was self-deprecating, and the persona that I always felt comfortable acting out was that kind of a intimidated, victim-style character. But at the time, that was not the story. The story was written not for me but for Zero, and so it was - it would be the difference between having someone like Groucho Marx or W.C. Fields play a character and Charlie Chaplin play a character. One is more persecuted and victim-like, and the other is - the other two are much more insulting and condescending and superior.

GROSS: So why did you feel so at home playing the self-deprecating character and felt like that was your comfort zone?

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, I don't know. I just - you're just born into it, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Born into self-deprecation?

Mr. ALLEN: You know, I'm not an actor, and I don't have a big range. I mean, I could not play, you know, Shakespeare. I can't - I can - there's certain things I feel comfortable doing, and I just, I can't explain why. I just do. Yes, in life I think I am self-deprecating, and you know, frightened of everything, and you know, it's an area that I feel comfortable making jokes about because I'm always joking about my personal foibles.

GROSS: My guest is Woody Allen. His new movie, "Whatever Works," stars Larry David. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Woody Allen, and his new movie is called "Whatever Works," and it stars Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood.

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, 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.

Mr. ALLEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: 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.

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

GROSS: For who you really are.

Mr. ALLEN: …in all of my movies. They are constantly searching for clues in my movies. And no matter how many times I've told them over the years that, you know, I make these stories up, some of them I've made up with other writers. I've worked with Doug McGrath, with Marshall Brickman, Mickey Rose, they make up stories, you know, they make up half of the story with me. 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.

So it doesn't bother me, but it is something that I've tried to be honest about over the years and explain to people, but they don't feel comfortable hearing it. They listen to it, and either they don't believe me when I say it, or they don't want to believe me because it diminishes their enjoyment, or it's important that they have some kind of image of me that's meaningful to them for some reason. I don't know why. 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?

Mr. ALLEN: Always.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

GROSS: Very counter to your image.

Mr. 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?

Mr. 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?

Mr. ALLEN: …because I couldn't get the marks.

GROSS: In what subjects?

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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…

Mr. 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: Woody Allen will be back in the second half of the show. His new movie, "Whatever Works," stars Larry David. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Woody Allen. His new film, "Whatever Works," stars Larry David in a role Allen originally wrote for Zero Mostel. Allen wrote the screenplay in the 70s. Back in the 70s, when Woody Allen starred in several of his films, you couldn't help but wonder how closely the screenplays resembled autobiography.

Can you describe the neighborhood you grew up in? A lot of people imagine you growing up under the rollercoaster in Coney Island...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...like your character in "Annie Hall."

Mr. WOODY ALLEN (Academy Award-winning writer and director): Right. Right. People think that. They, 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, there was 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 the school that I went to was, you know, quite a nice school. 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. It was you know I was not deprived, and I didn't grow up poor. You know...

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

Mr. 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. There 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 Keeton, 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 or people 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?

Mr. 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?

Mr. 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?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: They were so happy that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: ...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.

GROSS: Now you started in comedy by writing jokes and you were writing for an older generation. Were you writing jokes that you couldn't imagine telling yourself, but that you were writing for the comics who would be telling them?

Mr. ALLEN: Yes. I couldn't imagine being in front of an audience. I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to be again, alone in my room, not bothered by anybody, not in front of an audience. And so I never saw myself performing.

GROSS: What was the pay like? Did they pay you per joke or per joke that they used?

Mr. 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 two hundred a week, just as - I mean I was 17 years old and I was making that. And before long I was making fifteen hundred dollars a week. And in those days, I mean this was the early 50s...

GROSS: That's a lot of money.

Mr. ALLEN: ...you know, the 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...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: ... but I always did feel that they were, you know, when you see what a school teacher gets and what a 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?

Mr. ALLEN: Yes. 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.

Mr. 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 two dollars and this up for 20 dollars. 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?

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

GROSS: Right.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: It's brand new.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. 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.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Woody Allen. His new movie, "Whatever Works," stars Larry David. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: My guest is Woody Allen and his new movie is called "Whatever Works," and it stars Larry David. Several of your characters have had, to one degree or another, a dose of hypochondria. And I'm thinking like, you've definitely reached the age where people get real symptoms.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: And you know, as you get older, as we all know, there are certain insults to the body. And I guess I'm wondering what it's like for you to deal with the body's aging process?

Mr. ALLEN: Well first off, let me say, you know you get insults to your body all the time. I mean...

GROSS: True.

Mr. ALLEN: ... you're always walking on the abyss.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: And I was never a hypochondriac. I never have imagined that I get a sickness or a disease. My problem was being an alarmist. That is, if I get chapped lips I think it's you know brain cancer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: You know, so...


Mr. ALLEN: ...it's that I immediately go to the worst permutation possible. And as I've gotten older, I so far, haven't really gotten any terrible problems that I know of. I want to qualify that. So I haven't really experienced much breakdown. I've lost some hearing and I have a hearing aide that I use. I don't have to use it all the time because I haven't lost that much, but I'm much more fun to be with if I have it on. But I haven't started to seriously breakdown yet, and I'm hoping that it either never happens to me, that science always keeps one step ahead of me, or that I just die in my sleep one evening, and then that I never experience some terrible breakdown of my body.

GROSS: Now just one more question. And again, this is kind of personal, but it's really more about your movies I think. After you married Soon-Yi, 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 -middle-aged man and a teenager. And the ending of that movie was always ambiguous to me. I can never really tell whether you thought that the character you played, when he finally after telling the Mariel Hemingway character to leave and go on a trip to Europe to study, and that, you know, she'd be better off doing that and leaving him. And then at the end he kind of begs her to stay. Like, was he doing in your mind the right thing? I mean like what did you think of that character, the part you played?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: I had no idea. You know Marshall Brickman and I wrote that together and we tried to figure out some kind of ending for the picture. We would've been happy to write any ending on a picture that would've worked - that they stayed together, that they didn't stay together, that you couldn't tell. To me it didn't matter. I mean I had no - I had no special feelings about that. We were looking at the beginning of the movie for some rich areas to get comic scenes in. And one of the areas that we - we came up with a few. And one of the areas was the older guy and the younger girl. And, but that had no relation to my life at the time and it was nothing there that was any particular interest to me or to him. It was just a good laugh gimmick and a good romantic gimmick, so I really don't know, you know, what happens at the end. I mean I remember the ending, but I don't you know I never knew and we never cared. We knew we could end it that way and have a effective dramatic punch to the audience, and we moved on.

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? 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...

Mr. 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?

Mr. 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…

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah.

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

Mr. 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, I'm more of a friend to my children. My wife is more of a friend to my children than my parents were. You know, when I grew up, the parents were much removed in the hierarchy of, you know, the social ladder, the family ladder. And so, you know, my parents were one thing and I was something else, and we had nothing in common to talk about.

But, you know, my kids and I and my wife, you know, talk about the same subjects. And, you know, we're all friends. So, it's a different tenor to the relationship. But that's something that has evolved in general over the years. Younger parents are, you know, are different with their children than the older generation parents of 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: One more question. Of all the movies that you've seen, what movie have you seen the most times?

Mr. ALLEN: What movie have I seen the most times?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ALLEN: I guess I've seen - I have to name three movies that I've seen many, many, many times. I've seen "The Seventh Seal" many, many times. I've seen "The Bicycle Thief," many, many, many times. And I've seen "Shane," many, many, many times, because those are three of my favorites. Now I have other favorites that I like equally, but I haven't seen them quite as much as I've seen these.

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

Mr. ALLEN: Okay. Thank you.

GROSS: Woody Allen's new movie, "Whatever Works" stars Larry David. Here's Woody Allen in a scene toward the end of his 1979 movie, "Manhattan" in which he played a comedy writer. He's alone in his apartment lying on the couch, dictating notes into a cassette machine.

(Soundbite of movie, "Manhattan")

Mr. ALLEN: (As Isaac Davis) An idea for a short story about people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe. It's - well, it has to be optimistic. All right, why is life worth living? That's a very good question. Well, there are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile. Like what? Okay. For me, oh, I would say - what - Groucho Marx, to name one thing, and Willie Mays and the second movement of the "Jupiter Symphony" and Louis Armstrong, recording of "Potato Head Blues," Swedish movies, naturally, "Sentimental Education" by Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible apples and pairs by Cezanne, the crabs at Sam Woo's - Tracy's face.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Coming up: Maureen Corrigan investigates what people were reading during the Depression, and considers how that compares of what books a popular during this economic crisis. This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.