Woody Allen: ‘I am realistic in my appraisal of the human condition, but not realistic in my everyday life’
Recent scandals haven’t dimmed Woody Allen’s enthusiasm for making films – though he doesn’t understand why people still want to watch them
“I am realistic to my detriment,” Woody Allen says. “There is no God. There is no purpose to the universe. One day the sun will burn out. Earth will be gone and further down the line the entire universe will be gone.”
We’re not finished yet.
“Everything we’ve created will have gone: Beethoven, Shakespeare. It’s a meaningless thing. I am realistic in my appraisal of the human condition, but not realistic in my everyday life. I do many, many foolish things.”
Speaking with the flesh- and-blood Woody Allen is a most peculiar business. It takes only the odd “um” and the occasional “ah” to establish that, yes, the onscreen personae really is a variation on the 78-year-old Brooklyn legend.
It’s been an uncomfortable time of late for Allen. Recent allegation of sexual abuse – deemed off-limits in this conversation – from Dylan Farrow, his adoptive daughter, have, following denials, left those outside the family in a state of confusion. The stories are incompatible. We weren’t there. None of us really knows anything.
Meanwhile, the Allen show continues uninterrupted. Here he is in Paris, promoting his 47th film as director. Every time he looks to be on the way out, like near-contemporary Bob Dylan, he digs out another unexpected gem. Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris, numbers 46 and 44, respectively, were unexpected critical and commercial smashes. “I never know. It’s always a surprise,” he says. “I never thought Midnight in Paris would be a hit. Who knows who Ernest Hemingway is any more? The people who go to the cinema are young people. They’ve never heard of Gertrude Stein. We thought: it will open; a few people will come. It ended up being seen in France, Argentina, everywhere.”
Woody’s latest, Magic in the Moonlight, seems unlikely to emulate that level of success. Starring Colin Firth as a grumpy magician who, in 1920s France, seeks to unmask Emma Stone’s clairvoyant, the film is firmly in the “middling” sector of Allen’s oeuvre. As ever, it opens with credits in the familiar Windsor font accompanied by a tune from the Great American Songbook. As has so often been the case, Allen seems to be yearning for the days before rock’n’roll.
“I grew up with those songs,” he says. “And we all love the music we’ve grown up with. I talk to kids and they grew up with The Beatles. They think that’s the most beautiful thing they’ve ever heard. For me it was Gershwin and Cole Porter. ”
The kids who “grew up with The Beatles” are contemplating retirement. Half of that band are dead and the other two have passed into their eighth decade. It’s as if the “Great Allen Project” is aimed at stopping the world from advancing forward.
Since Annie Hall emerged in 1977, there has been only one year (that’s 1981, trivia fans) when an Allen film did not bring its hot jazz and Windsor type to lucky cinemas. Nobody else in the history of cinema has managed this steady rate of production. The troughs come and go, but he ploughs on tirelessly.
“As a film-maker I think I am very lucky,” he says. “I have always had complete creative control. If one of my films is bad there is nobody else to blame. I don’t take it too seriously. I don’t think I have made any great masterpieces. I have made some good films. I have made some mediocre films.“But it’s a nice way to live. I wake up at seven o’clock and go into work. There’s Scarlett Johansson and she looks amazing. There’s Colin Firth and he looks so handsome and he’s so funny. That’s a good way to work.” There is, of course, always a sombre coda with Allen. This is a man who describes himself as “enormously pessimistic about the human condition”. He has enjoyed the work very much, but he feels that he has never come close to the standards of idols such as Bergman or Fellini.
“I should have been able to make more great films,” he says with a wag of the head. “I have made some good ones, but I should really have done better. If I had been less lazy and more hard-working, if I had been more dedicated I would have a better record. I really believe that.”
Read these quotes without any supporting information and you could be forgiven for thinking the interview is a depressing one. But Allen’s conversation is always alleviated by the amused, fatalistic tone that has informed his comedy for well over half a century. It is there in the stand-up that launched his career. It’s there in – to quote Stardust Memories – his “early funny ones”. You get it in more serious pictures such as Blue Jasmine.
Life is hard, but it seems to be (just about) worth pursuing. “I can never understand why they come to my films,” he muses. “It’s best not to think about it. It’s best just to make the films, get out of the way and hope for the best.”