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An audience with Woody Allen.

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7.30 Report An audience with Woody Allen


An audience with Woody Allen

Broadcast: 03/12/2008


KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: The world's most prolific filmmaker Woody Allen turns 73 this week. Since 1969, when he wrote, directed and starred in, Take the Money and Run, he's been churning out films at the rate of about one a year. Famously shy on the night his celebrated film ‘Annie Hall’ won four Oscars in 1978, he was playing his clarinet in a Manhattan bistro.

Allen attributes his longevity as a filmmaker to his determination to keep his budgets low, always under $20 million, so he can retain artistic control. Yet some of the biggest names in Hollywood queue up to be in his films.

Allen's reputation took a hit after adverse publicity over his messy break-up with actress Mia Farrow 16 years ago and his affair with adopted stepdaughter Soon-Yi. They're now married with two children.

Woody Allen's latest Australia release ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ starring Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson will hit the cinemas here later this month. And he was in his Manhattan cutting room when I recorded this interview.

Woody Allen, you've now made close to 40 films in as many years. Is it true that the ideas largely come from jottings on scraps of paper that you've accumulated over the years and carry around in a bag?

WOODY ALLEN, FILMMAKER: Yes, during the course of the year, if an idea occurs to me, I write it down, even if it's on a match book or a napkin. And when it comes time to write, I get out all these disparate little scraps of paper and many of them are incoherent to me and many of them don't seem to hold up at all and I don't know what I was thinking at the time. But some of them are good. Some of them are good ideas and worth pursuing. And I've written many scripts based on momentary ideas that just struck me.

KERRY O'BRIEN: In Eric Lax’s book of conversations that he conducted with you over four decades, he asked you in 2000 whether you saw yourself as an artist and you said, "I'm far from an artist; I'm a lucky working stiff." Is that really how you see yourself?

WOODY ALLEN: Over the years, I've had a very lucky career. I mean, I have some talent, but it it's not like a major artist or something. I don't kid myself about that. I have what Noel Coward would have called a talent to amuse. And I can amuse people. And, if you work very hard, which I do, 'cause I enjoy it, and you

have a little talent, and you're not a loafer, you know, you can parlay that into a very nice career.

KERRY O'BRIEN: In that same interview, you said, "I haven't made a great movie." Not even 'Annie Hall' or 'Manhattan' or 'Husbands and Wives' or 'Purple Rose of Cairo', ‘Zelig’?

WOODY ALLEN: I don't consider any of the movies I've ever done great. I've made some nice movies. But if you look at the world's production of great movies, if you look at 'The Bicycle Thief' and 'Grand Illusion' and ‘Rashomon’ and movies like that, I could not in all conscience put up anything I've ever done up against those films and feel, "My gosh, I'm right in with these guys and my films are just as significant and just as original and just as dazzling." I don't feel that way. I don't kid myself. I'm not putting down my films. I think, you know, a number of them - I mean I've made so many of them, you gotta get some good ones. I do have some good films and they're entertaining. But I don't feel if you were - if you had to pick, you know, I don't know, the 50 greatest films ever made, I couldn't see that I would ever qualify for that at all.

KERRY O'BRIEN: So if someone you respect says that your films represent a great body of work, you would beg to differ?

WOODY ALLEN: Well, you know, you're forced to allow others to say anything they want because it's a democracy. So they can praise your films or knock your films and there's nothing much you can do about that. That's why it's very important I feel - I've done this and I always recommend it to younger people - is to avoid reading about your films. You know, avoid reading your interviews, avoid reading your critics. Just work and forget about the rest. If you're good, everything will fall into place. If you're not good, Darwin will take care of you.

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KERRY O'BRIEN: You said once that after your first few films, you gave up caring about popularity, not out of arrogance or superiority, you said, but because the so-called reward wasn't making you happy or satisfied. You said you needed a spiritual centre and being an atheist, that was hard to come by. Have you since found your spiritual centre?

WOODY ALLEN: I haven't, no. I'm spiritually empty 'cause I am an atheist and I've never found any consolation for the misery of life and the terror of what we go through, and I'm talking existentially now, not politically. So I've never - I was never able to do that. And I found after my first couple of films that success didn't do anything for me. I mean, I had the same kind of lonely, terrified life that I had before I was

successful. So, I sort of gave up caring about most of it and just cared about the enjoyment of the work. I do the projects without any career thoughts or any strategy or anything. What appeals to me at the moment to do the project, whether it's musical or a murder or a drama or a black and white film, what I think I'll have fun doing, just as when they came along with the 'Barcelona' offer, I thought, "Gosh, my kids and my wife will have a wonderful time in Barcelona for the summer and I'll have a nice time 'cause I like Barcelona." And so I thought up a film for it.

KERRY O'BRIEN: So you were offered Barcelona as a location for a film idea you hadn't yet developed, Penelope Cruz got wind of it and asked to be in it, and you then wrote your script around Penelope Cruz. Is that how 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' came to be?

WOODY ALLEN: Only around her. Penelope Cruz was the only actress that I knew would be in the picture. So I did - I had her in mind when I wrote the movie. The others I didn't know. I hoped Javier would be in the movie. I was led to believe he was interested, but I had no real confirmation of that. And Scarlet, I hoped that she was available.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You've had a number of favoured female stars over the years - Australia's Judy Davis was one of them.

WOODY ALLEN: Oh, one of my favourite actresses.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And while you're reluctant to accept the genius tag about yourself, that's how you described Judy Davis: as a genius. So what is the genius that you see in her?

WOODY ALLEN: Oh, Judy Davis is just one of those actresses that has go it, you know? You can't teach it in a school and you can't learn it. She just has it. And she's just - she's simply exciting. You know, she's powerful on the screen, and arresting, funny when you need her funny, dramatic when she has to be dramatic, sexy when she has to be sexy and demure when she has to be demure. You know, she - and, but there's - what she really has is that intangible thing that goes beyond that that certain people have that - you know, she's just a great - great screen personality. I'm sure she doesn't know why she. I'm sure she does all those things that she thinks she's supposed to do as an actress without really appreciating that she was born with some kind of wonderful gift that you can never quantify.

KERRY O'BRIEN: What makes you decide whether to put yourself in a film or not?

WOODY ALLEN: When I was younger and I could get the girl, it not only was more pleasurable to play those roles but easier to find roles. Now, you know, not being of an appropriate age to be the love interest in the movie, you know, I've gotta play the good-natured grandfather or the backstage doorman or some kind of affable old codger that is wise beyond his years, and I don't really care about those roles very much. So, unless I can get the girl, if I don't get to kiss Scarlet Johansson, it's not much fun to do the movie. So, you know, I don't know how many I'll do.

KERRY O'BRIEN: So many of your films revolve around your fascination for relationships in Eric Lax's book of conversations with you. You talked about your relationship with Soon-Yi. You said it opened you up more, and if I can quote directly, "I always bounced in and out of relationships, none of them really working for me or for the other person. Then in the most absurd, accidental, preposterous way, I stumble

awkwardly into a relationship with a young Korean who I've got very little in common with and it works like a charm."

WOODY ALLEN: It's amazing, isn't it? I just happened to luck out with Soon-Yi. I mean, if you had told me when I was a young man, dating all these actresses in New York and writers that I was gonna wind up in my life with a Korean orphan 35 years younger than me and be happily married - we've been married 10 years already now. And, you know, and that was gonna be the solid best and defining relationship of my life - there's where I would have children and be happy, I would have thought the person that said that would be nuts, that there'd be no chance that I wouldn't be marrying some playwright or actress or screenwriter or, you know, someone in my business that I was involved with and that she wouldn't have come from New York and had all the same references as me and seen all the same movies as I saw and know all the people. But it doesn't work that way in life, you know, life is very random and this just - it was just a lucky break for me.

KERRY O'BRIEN: So you would say that the success of this relationship with the Soon-Yi is the best answer you could give to those who expressed outrage at the way things broke down between you and Mia Farrow?

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WOODY ALLEN: Well, you know, I hope everybody wishes me luck. I mean, I have had a wonderful relationship with Soon-Yi. We went together for, I don't know, a year or two before we got married and then we got married and had kids, and I'm crazy about her, and she's a great mother and I have two wonderful daughters. And, you know, I would think that that would read to people as a pleasant and a nice thing. I mean, I just wish everybody else luck and I would hope that they would feel the same way about me.

KERRY O'BRIEN: This may be a corny question, but so what? After all the decades of thinking and writing about relationships, after all your own experiences, do you know what love is?

WOODY ALLEN: You know, you learn nothing about the important things. You learn a lot of, you know, a lot of information and facts and you gain a certain amount of experience. But the real important things in life, the things about - the existential things: why you're here and what is the purpose of life and all the big questions that you ask the minute you get into high school, or before, and love relationships you learn nothing about. You, you, you - I'm as ignorant about those things now as I was then. I would make all the

same mistakes now if I was younger that I made then in my life. And if you read the Greek playwrights, they were concerned in asking those questions thousands of years ago, and they didn't know the answers, and we're asking them today and we don't know the answers. And no real wisdom comes with age. I mean, there's some wisdom, but they try and fob that off as one of the perks of age, but there are no perks of age. You know, age is a bad thing. Yeah, there's no upside to getting older at all. It's all negative. But they try and look for a silver lining and, you know, say that you gain a certain amount of wisdom, when in fact, you know, I would trade all the wisdom that I've gained for, you know, let's say, 30, 35 years wiped off the calendar.

KERRY O'BRIEN: I think few people of a certain age would actually disagree with you. Woody Allen, thanks very much for talking with us.

WOODY ALLEN: Thank you.

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