25 years ago, Paul Fischer, a then university student in Australia, travelled by bus from Los Angeles to New York to interview Woody Allen. At the time, Carter was ousted as President, American hostages were on the verge of being rescued in Iran, and Woody Allen hadn't even met Mia Farrow.
Instead, his Annie Hall had won Oscars, Manhattan had just been released, and Woody Allen was already a legend. Fiercely shy, he rarely did interviews, but agreed to what became his first ever Australian interview up to that point. Paul even forgot to take the lens cap off his camera when photographing him. For the first time in a quarter of a century, Paul Fischer meets the elusive filmmaker and discovers little has changed.
Woody Allen wears the same, trademark, tanned corduroy trousers that he wore when we first met over 20 years ago. Still the most prolific and acclaimed writer/director of his generation, the former Allen Konigsberg, at age 70, is still able to attract major stars for his films, even at the meagre salary they are paid. But the bespectacled former stand up comic admits that he waits till the likes of Will Ferrell, star of his latest film Melinda and Melinda, have nothing to do between more high profile gigs, before acquiring their services.
"They only work with me if they're between desirable jobs," Allen says laughingly. "If I call an actor or actress and a Stephen Spielberg or Martin Scorsese is calling them and are offering them substantial money, they have no interest in me at all. However, if they just finished a picture, they have earned their 10 million dollar salary, they have nothing to do till August, I call them in June and they like the part, they say why not?"
Allen's films continue to be made at a fraction of the cost of the traditional studio film. No wonder, studios are happy to work with him, but even so, he does ponder what it would be like to have that $100m budget. "I'm making films where everything, my salary, the whole film will be like a maximum of 14 or 15 million dollars and it's tough, because there's a lot of things I want to do that I can't do. You know they say when I did this next film that hasn't come out yet, Match Point, you're not going to be able to afford music. And I figured out a way, by using all opera, and that I was able to connive with an opera company that was putting out an Enrico Caruso album to get the music. But there's a lot of things you can't do, any kind of special effects or reshooting things and taking the proper times, you can't do it."
But a Woody Allen film has never been about special effects, but about recurring themes that deal with love, relationships, sex and Allen's various neuroses. In his latest film, Melinda and Melinda, the director explores both the comic and tragic flip sides of the same coin, using his fictional Melinda [played by Australia's Radha Mitchell] in both a comic and dramatic love story. An idea that had been brewing in Allen's complex head for years, he decided the time was ripe for Melinda to bear cinematic fruit.
"There have been many times when I've had ideas that I felt would have worked either way, either amusingly or as a serious story, and in the past I'd always chosen one and gone in that direction. here I had an idea and again I thought that this could make quite a serious story, but it could also make a quite funny romantic story and then it occurred to me why don't I alternate the two and see if I could picture and maybe learn something from trying to juxtapose the two. Of course, I learned nothing in trying to do this. It was fun to do, but not enlightening," says Allen, laughingly.
Asked about his preference, Allen says that "It's always fun to write the heavy stuff for me because over the years I've done a lot of movies and almost all of them have been comic, so it's fun to do something occasionally that's very, very heavy just for the change. Then when I realized I was going to be working with Will Ferrell, I went back over the script and tried to customize it more for him and that became fun."
As Melinda juxtaposes an often bleak tragedy with a typically Allen tone of comedy, an interesting question surfaces: that perhaps the comedy is for Jews and the drama is for Wasps. The director chuckles at the suggestion and agrees to an extent. "I don't think of it that way, but I guess people think of comedy for Jews all the time. I'm forever being asked why are all the comedians Jewish, but I always feel that they're not. This is a misconception based on the fact that there were many Jewish comedians that came out of the Catskills, but if you look at Bob Hope, Buster Keaton or WC Fields, they were not Jewish. They were great comedians. Charlie Chaplin was half Jewish, so which half is the comic half? Peter Sellers was half-Jewish, and there were many fabulous Jewish comedians, but there were many great comedians that were not. I don't think it's a particularly Jewish thing."
Yet Allen's own comic tone, going back to his genesis as a writer and director, has remained very Jewish, a fact Allen reflects upon. "Well, I was raised in a Jewish neighbourhood in a Jewish household so naturally my idiom is where I grew up. I've had this conversation with Spike Lee a number of times: I could never write convincingly about a black family and I don't know, but I doubt, if he could write convincingly, and certainly not as convincingly as I could, about a Jewish family because you lived every moment, so it gets into the nuances."
Allen began life as a stand up comedian, and after four decades, one wonders if he misses that world or would ever re-enter it, as have the recent likes of Robin Williams. "I miss doing stand-up, but I'm too lazy to do it again," he says, smilingly. "To write an act, to be the funny stand-up for 45 minutes to an hour onstage is a huge amount of work, more work than a movie. Because in the course of an hour, a one line takes no time at all and another and another and another and in order to get an hour's worth of really funny, potent material, is a huge amount of work and I just don't have the energy or the patience to do. But I do miss it, it's a wonderful medium to work in and I love watching them. I love the fact that you can turn on your television set and because of the economics, it's good for them to show stand-up comedy, it's very cheap of them to do it. So anytime, day or night you can turn on the television set and see two or three comics working almost in perpetuity around the clock."
For Allen, his world is the movies, and even while we were chatting, he had already completed Match Point, set to premiere at Cannes, and one of his rare films shot outside of New York, in London. "It stars Scarlett Johansson, who's a wonderful actress, and we were able to shot in London quite inexpensively, so we did it." Of course, no other details were forthcoming.
In a career spanning four decades, as Allen approaches 70, the writer/director has explored all manner of the human condition as only Woody Allen knows how. While the world may often remember him for a much publicised private life, his work speaks volumes when it comes to the history of American cinema. A true auteur in the classic tradition, Allen says that even at this point in his career, he still has much to do and tell.
"I would like to make some films that are bolder than I've made. I've made romantic films and common films, but I would like to see if I could come up with something that was bolder and more aggressive. I've always been a passive comedian, in the mould of Bob Hope or something that's victimized. A coward, a failure with women, a loser and I'd love to sometime try a picture where I was a winner and I would like that just for the fun of it. When you see a Groucho Marx or a WC Fields, they have an aggressive sense of humour, and I'd love to try that. Now, it might not sit well, they might say who is this guy with the confidence, but I would like to try that?" Woody Allen, aggressive womaniser? An interesting prospect indeed.