Woody Allen loves the writing process. He says he can get up in the morning and go write in his room. He is a workaholic. As soon as he has finished a script he cannot relax until he begins working on the next one. He doesn’t believe in taking any time off, averaging one movie every year or so. As a director, comedian, screenwriter of his own films, playwright, and writer of New Yorker articles, even a clarinetist in a jazz band, he has made waves in every creative direction he has delved into. His films have incredible range, going from the broadest of comedies to the most serious of dramas and every shade in between.
Despite his critical and increasingly commercial success he is in no way arrogant in his rare interviews. He always plays himself down, is always self-deprecating, stating that his movies are for the few people that like him and that they don’t make money. As he puts it, “Nobody comes to my films but I make any movie I want to make.” At the same time his films have been becoming increasingly popular among general audiences over the last ten years. Even in less successful days he has always had complete control over his own production. The studios learned early on that they needed to leave him alone, to let him do the projects he wanted in the way he wanted. He admits he has had an incredible amount of luck throughout his career. Despite this, he says that he makes his films for himself and those who enjoy them, not critics or wider audiences.
Woody Allen started his career as an incredibly successful standup comic and television personality. When he began making films during the 1960’s, he worked solely in the realm of farce and broad comedy. He has said that if you have a comic take on life it’s hard to see things except from a comical standpoint. It is also medicinal in a way. It helps you to cope with pain. During the 70’s however, be began to inject elements of drama into his comedies in order to create a richer and deeper cinematic experience. This culminated in what many people think is still his best film, Annie Hall, in which he decided to make human relationships the center of the film as opposed to jokes. This really shook up the industry, especially in how it viewed comedy as a genre.
He also began to show the influence of dramatic cinema, such as the work of important European directors. The most crucial of these were Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Allen outright copied elements of their films while using similar editing and lighting techniques, or even the simple idea of working in black and white. These allusions to the works of the great directors didn’t usually feel like pastiche, in fact they tended to add depth and a push towards something new in American filmmaking, something more introspective, high minded, even intellectual at times. To be fair to these giants of cinema, he is quick to mention that he also copied from Groucho Marx and Bob Hope.
Though he would come back to comedy as a genre, he also investigated serious drama as a subject. In the case of an early experimentation, Interiors, he eliminated comedy altogether from the final film. He has always put more stock in tragedy than comedy because tragedy looks at the realities of life and death head on while comedy puts a spin on it to make it seem less harsh. All the same he feels that he has to often fall back on comedy as he does not have the skills to do straight tragedy. His films often deal directly with tragic issues, most notably with the inevitability of death. This seems like a fairly heavy theme but it has found its way into many of his films, even the straight comedies.
Allen’s process has never really changed over the years. He likes to get to work right after getting up because he says it keeps him distracted from blue moods and thinking about his own mortality and the banal difficulties of life. “Busy fingers are happy fingers,” he says. He writes ideas all over legal pads or any pieces of paper he can find. He can come up with them anywhere and doesn’t require isolation to do his work. After he comes up with a few he goes through them slowly and arduously thinking about whether they excite him at all.
Choosing can be somewhat difficult. He says he has an embarrassment of riches and is always indecisive about which project to work on next. When he finally decides he gets right down to writing. He states that as a writer you don’t have to worry about coming up with anything good. It can be amazing in your head. The hard work comes when you have to make it into a movie. He still works in an analog process for writing using the same typewriter he’s had since he was sixteen years old. If he makes a mistake or wants to edit what he’s written, he cuts and staples corrections on top of the original. While he is working he will notate his scripts thoroughly. Writing never takes him long. He has spent as little as forty minutes on some New Yorker pieces for instance.
The fact that he works so fast and that he claims he never gets writer’s block doesn’t mean that working is always effortless for him. Sometimes he will need a change of location to get ideas moving. He used to go on walks and think about his work but he is pretty much always recognized now, which distracts him, and instead paces around the terrace of his apartment. Other times he needs to get away from his typewriter and go take a shower or even multiple showers in order to get his mind working. He will stand there and try to figure out where to move his story. After he finishes he will lie down on his bed and continue to think. There are no idle moments. The process can also be tough with other types of writing. He finds writing prose far more difficult than writing for a film. Unlike a film script, a work of prose is its own end product. But in a film, at least in Allen’s case, the final product bears little resemblance to the original script. He is disappointed with it more often than not and only considers a handful of his films to have been successful enactments of his vision.
Allen is often seen as unconventional or even eccentric in how he views his film’s production after the writing process is over. He never rereads a script after he is finished with it. It becomes too boring for him. He doesn’t like the casting process and often tries to hire actors he thinks are perfect for certain roles without auditioning them first. He doesn’t send the script to the actor’s agent but instead directly to the actors themselves. The process is secret and time sensitive. The actors must return the scripts promptly, usually within twenty-four hours. He writes them personal letters or emails asking them to take the role.
Although the letters have this personal touch to them (they are sometimes hand written or typed distinctively on his typewriter), he doesn’t like meeting with actors before filming. When picking actors for his parts he will often meet with them for as little as thirty seconds, look them over, and then decide if he thinks they would be good fit for the part. If he decides they are, he will say so and then leave, claiming that he doesn’t want to waste their time. He does sometimes make mistakes. He can be pretty brutal about re-casting in the middle of a project replacing actors or even whole casts if he feels they are not working out in the way he wants.
Allen’s directing style is something that people always point out as being quite unique. Although he has a reputation for not directing at all in the sense of telling actors what to do, many actors have stated that he’s an excellent actor’s director. It is true that he is fairly hands off with them and doesn’t expend much energy trying to tell them how to play a character. He will give them certain suggestions to nudge them in the right direction but doesn’t push them too hard. He doesn’t believe in too much improvisation despite his interest in jazz as he is a writer and thus tends to want actors to respect and stick to the script. He will make an exception if he thinks an actor can do it in a way that will still emphasizes the spirit of the original lines. He figures that if the director hires the right people for the part, then they can make the right decisions about the character.
He doesn’t believe in rehearsing. Actors show up on the day and do the scenes. He doesn’t do much preparation himself either. He doesn’t even know what scene is being shot before he arrives to begin directing most of the time. He gets there, gets the script pages for that day, and then figures out what he has to do.
Shooting is also quick. When he gets a take he likes he moves on. He only shoots a few. His films are straightforward. They are simple. He doesn’t like special effects or playing around with new technology. Nonetheless, he has a very strong grasp on the technical aspects of filmmaking. He knows about lighting, about camera placement, about framing. He has a very great understanding of the visual aspects of a film and is often cited as an important visual director. He hires great cinematographers such as Gordon Willis on Annie Hall and Manhattan, who had previously worked as the cinematographer for The Godfather movies. And like many other things in his life, film has been a totally self-taught process for him. The post-production and editing process of his films is more complicated than the actual filming and he often cuts and then totally recuts a movie. In Annie Hall, for instance, he cut as much material as appears in the final film and he went back five times to do reshoots of scenes.
Despite the differing levels of work Allen puts into projects, he has noticed that there is no direct correlation between the amount of work he has done on a particular project and critical or audience reception to it. Not all his films have much success overall. They can be too new or difficult for audiences or they can just not quite work. These are the films that Allen often likes the most. He is happy when he can pull something difficult off as opposed to just giving people what they want. Being popular doesn’t interest him. The artists he liked most never had much wide popularity or success. Nonetheless people have always been drawn to them. The humanity that is imbued into his films, that mix of comedy and tragedy that can be found in most of them, are what he believes make people attracted to them. They feel like life in some ways, even when they’re a bit surreal.
Allen’s tireless work ethic and incredible volume of production are paired with his incredible knack at combining genres and at moving film in new and interesting directions even when the result is not viewed as a success either critically or commercially. This is becoming less and less the case anyway as the mainstream is beginning to recognize the tremendous quality of his films. He is no longer only the favorite filmmaker of the New York and European intelligentsia, of critics, and of independent film buffs because of groundbreaking recent works like Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, and, most recently, Blue Jasmine. In his late seventies, he is finally gaining wide appeal and deservedly so.