Looking ruddily fit at 46 and clad in comfortably rumpled tan slacks and jacket, Woody Allen arrived straight from a dental appointment ("Everything's fine; just my regular oral prophylaxis"). He offered a pressureless handshake, gallantly obliged a photographer by posing outside his business manager's office, 11 stories up, on a tiny, crumbling terrace ("Portrait of a coward--I'll have bad dreams about this tonight") and launched into an extended discussion of his new picture, his previous work, his life style, his artistic expectations and his attitudes toward peculiar nuisances like the press and the Academy Awards.
Breaking press silence for the opening of his new movie, "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," Allen had agreed to conduct the interview in advance of today's national release. The site was a bleakly functional little sitting room, adapted to double as a videocassette screening room on West 57th Street in Manhattan.
A boudoir farce about three fickle, turn-of-the-century couples, "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" depicts a weekend of infatuation and flirtation at the country residence of an amorous, whimsical inventor, played by Allen, and his shy, suspicious wife, played by Mary Steenburgen. Their houseguests who join them in games of romantic hide-and-seek are Jose Ferrer and Mia Farrow and Tony Roberts and Julie Hagerty.
"Sex Comedy" is the 10th feature Allen has directed in a directing career that began 13 years ago with "Take the Money and Run." It also represents the first installment of a new three-picture contract with Orion, the distribution company formed by Allen's original executive mentors at United Artists, Arthur Krim and Eric Pleskow. Allen has completed the second film of the deal, a comedy costarring Mia Farrow scheduled for release at Christmas. He begins shooting the third, a comedy intended for release next summer, within a month.
Q: Exactly where are we situated in your new movie?
A: We're situated in 1906 in upstate New York, actually at Sleepy Hollow. That's pretty much where the thing would have been. That would have been a feasible automobile drive out of the city with cars going at low speeds.
Q: When did the idea of doing a stylized period comedy pop into your head?
A: Well, I had written another comedy--the script for the movie that's coming out at Christmastime--and thought of doing a serious film as a companion piece. I thought I wanted to do a film about poignant relationships, a film about a guy who missed an opportunity and was haunted by the thought and a girl who was about to throw in her lot with a much older man, not really the right one for her. The genesis was not a comedy but a kind of serious Chekhovian story, in the style of "Interiors" almost. That serious a thing. Then I started to think, God, it sort of cries out for a comic treatment--a group of people at a summer house on a weekend and the silvery moon in concert with the animals and flowers. Why not take a comic approach to it? Let the seriousness be a subtext. So I started to write it, and it worked very rapidly for me. I started to take delight in it. You know, I hate the country, but I began wanting to create the country, not as I experience it but as I would like to.
Q: A lyrical country.
A: Yeah. Where you could tiptoe out of your bed at night and run down to the brook and there would be a trysting spot. If all went well, if you got back with your wife, or if you met a girl you loved, you might see some intimations of immortality. You might see some forest creatures or spirits or something. The more I did that, the more I got away from the serious idea and kept making it a comic piece.
Then I had two scripts on my hands. I had the original, black-and-white, surrealistic comedy and this, the pastoral romantic thing that needed soft, warm colors. I thought, I'll wait a year to film this. Then I thought, no, why don't I film them together, because that way I could take advantage of the nice weather. In New York I can't film in the cold months. So I started to structure them and film them together. They're completely unrelated stories. The other one takes place in the 1920s in New York.
Q: Are the casts identical?
A: No. Mia and I carry over, but no one else. The production team was exactly the same, of course. So I shot them together, and, interestingly, it's economically feasible to do that. There was some slight saving by doing them together. Sometimes, you know, it takes all summer to get that maximum summer day look. We shot 14 weeks of summer to get a usable weekend. If you want two women in a swing musing about getting older, for example, and the sunlight dropping, you've got to shoot the scene between 4:20 and 4:45, when the sun figures to be casting just the right illumination. In order to take maximum advantage of our scheduling, not just sit and wait all the time for the sun to be in the right place at the right time of day, we could shoot other things for the black-and-white movie.
Q: You've chosen Mendelssohn's Wedding March as the main title theme for "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy." Should this be taken as confirmation of the rumor that you're getting married?
A: No, no.
Q: That's just a bum rumor?
A: It's just a pure fiction that the press made up.
Q: Wishful thinking?
A: I don't know. The oddest things are made up about me in the press. I mean, some things are grounded in truth but other things are just made up out of left field like that.
Q: For example?
A: One thing was that I purchased a home on the beach, which is not true; that Mia Farrow and I were moving to Connecticut--this, is, of course, not true. That we got married, then that we were getting married. There was an item about the movie in Liz Smith's column . . . that I was feuding with Orion when in fact I had just gone to lunch with Orion and we were talking about a new deal. I like them very much. It's been a good arrangement for me, as close as you could get to family. I don't ever have a problem with them. They've proved out over the years, been very supportive, very nice.
Q: As I recall, you originally worked within a budget of about $2 million to $4 million.
Q: And inflation increased that range to, where? Maybe $5 million or $6 million by the mid-'70s?
A: The late '70s. Now it's like $7 million. If I did "Annie Hall" today, frame for frame, without any changes at all, my production expenses would be at least double.
Q: While your working conditions have remained essentially the same?
A: Exactly the same.
Q: What about "Stardust Memories"? Remembering your fiscal conservatism, I was shocked by stories that had it costing in the area of $20 million to $25 million. Were those also fabrications?
A: Let me tell you: "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" and "Interiors" and "Stardust Memories" put together cost less than $20 million. So that was, again, just a total lie.
Q: Hasn't a contradictory perception of you been spreading in recent years? At one time you were depicted as the most celebrated recluse in New York.
Q: Then we were led to believe that you were really a sneaky gregarious sort, always out on the town . . .
A: No, that I don't know--that image I don't know. What I still read is that I'm at Elaine's every night, but that's perfect reclusivity. That's the one restaurant in town where you can eat and people are not allowed to ask for autographs and photographers are not allowed into the place. That's the fun of eating at Elaine's. I'm only surrounded by the same 60 or 70 people that seem to eat there every night. At a different restaurant, just an arbitrarily picked restaurant, people come up for autographs, the management calls the newspapers and the Post and says he's down here, come and get a picture of him. But never at Elaine's. I don't go anywhere. I'm not as reclusive as I'm made out to be, but certainly not gregarious. I've never had that problem.
I mean, I'm working most of the time. On the average day I get up and write or film or something. I come back home at night, get Mia, go up to Elaine's, have a bite to eat, and go to sleep early. I'm usually asleep by 11 or 11:30 every night. I see the same people I always have. I just came back from my dentist, who's been my dentist for 31 years. I see Marshall Brickman. I see my friend producer Jean Doumanian. I see Mia, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts sometimes, Michael Murphy sometimes, but that's about it. That may be the only group of people I really see with any regularity. I did two pictures simultaneously. I'm about to shoot another picture. I spend my weekends writing. I enjoy it; it's not out of any frenetic drive. I like to keep working, I look forward to it. If you hear the press, you'd think that I slink around town with my hat jammed down over my eyes. I mean, sure, I wear my hat because I'm recognized by less people with a hat on, but many people will wear dark glasses for that reason. I just don't wear them. Things have not changed a great deal for me since I saw you last.
Q: Speaking of that occasion, which was right before the release of "Annie Hall," did you ever collect your Academy Awards?
A: No, no.
Q: They're still someplace out in Hollywood?
A: Someplace, but I don't have them.
Q: Shouldn't they be sent to you? Or do you inquire about such things?
A: I don't have the vaguest idea. If you were at my house, you would see I'm not a memorabilia person. I don't collect clips and photographs and programs and that kind of stuff. It doesn't mean very much to me.
Q: I remember five years ago we got talking about the Oscars, and discussed how rarely straight comedy received proper recognition by the Academy. You said emphatically that you'd never be nominated.
A: I didn't think I would be.
Q: Famous last words. That was your year.
A: It was a total surprise to me. I never thought I would be nominated. I'm not saying anything negative. The award was fine--it made more money for the picture after the Academy Award came out. The picture suddenly did better financially than it did originally, but the whole thing to me is . . . I didn't even watch it. I went to Michael's Pub, where I play on Monday nights.
Q: And if the awards had been on a Tuesday night?
A: If it had been a Tuesday night, I probably wouldn't have watched it anyhow. I didn't want to see Diane and Marshall and those people I knew sitting in the audience like this . . . he hunches down into the sofa, suggesting maybe cringing anticipation but I never got a chance to watch it. I went to Michael's, I played, had a very nice time . . .
Q: What about Michael's? They didn't have a television set?
A: No, no, they didn't.
Q: Nobody was really paying attention?
A: Uh, yes, there were a couple of newspaper photographers outside, but I go out the back way, so they didn't get me. I was there and I played jazz and went home at 12 o'clock. I had my milk and chocolate chip cookies, as is my custom after Michael's. Then I took the phone off the hook in my bedroom and went to sleep and had no idea what happened. The next morning I got up, put the phone back on the hook, went downstairs (I live in a duplex), got my New York Times, made my breakfast, and when I opened The Times, I noticed on the bottom of the front page, " 'Annie Hall' sweeps Oscars" or wins four Oscars or something. I thought, great, that's so nice.
Q: So you've got two statuettes gathering dust on a shelf somewhere in Hollywood?
A: I suppose so. And other awards are gathering dust too in other parts of the world. "Manhattan" won many foreign awards--a French Oscar, an English Oscar, a Spanish Oscar, South American awards. I don't know what happens to those things. I think the studio probably picks them up and gives them to the rep from Honduras, and he ends up with all the awards on his mantelpiece.
Q: Your former editor, Ralph Rosenblum, described your association in great detail in his book, "When the Shooting Stops." Among other things he pointed out that you began shooting more routines, more sketches than you'd actually have screen time for, after "Take the Money and Run," in order to protect yourself in the editing room with a wealth of material.
A: Right. I could do that up to "Annie Hall." I could take a scene out of "Annie Hall" from the front and put it in the back and it would still be a coherent picture, because the time frames were so jumbled. Certainly pictures like "Love and Death" and "Bananas," you could play around. But in a more tightly structured, dramatic comedy, like "Manhattan" or "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," you can't do that. There's no point in accumulating that kind of material because you can't use it.
Q: As a method of working, is one way more fun, more satisfying, than the other?
A: No. What happens is it goes in cycles of personal taste. It was fun this summer to do a tightly structured picture and a pastoral picture. Now, it would be fun for me to do something else--perhaps just a joke comedy from start to finish, or a very serious picture. It's important for me personally to mix up the stuff.
I've been lucky because my films have consistently made a profit, almost all of them have made a profit. Never a huge profit, but nobody gets hurt. And therefore I get a lot of freedom.
Q: How do you assess your filmmaking career after 14 years now? Has it been satisfying? Do you think you've achieved as much as you could have under the circumstances?
A: I think I'm working to the best of my ability. I'm not dogging it. I wish I was able to do better, and I hope that as the years go by, I will continue to grow and do better films. But I've never done anything cynically, something calculated because it was the path of least resistance.
Q: What are your perceptions of the mistakes made on "Interiors"?
A: I should have brought Pearl, Maureen Stapleton's character, in earlier. I thought the audience would be entertained before the nub of the conflict emerged. I thought that it was entertaining enough before Pearl entered, but it wasn't. It should have been. I should have started it with Pearl coming in right away and the whole thing would have flowered right from the start. And, I should not have been quite as overtly didactic as I was. It was just from lack of experience and lack of skill, that's all. I think if I did a drama, a serious drama, the next time that I could correct some of those mistakes. I could start the conflict earlier and I could try and get my messages not so much in the dialogue as in the behavior of the people.
Q: Where did "Stardust Memories" go wrong?
A: Here's what I must say in defense of that film: I feel it was a misunderstood film. Now again, it may have been my problem that I just didn't have the skill to make it clearly understood. A certain amount of people understood it, so I always felt down deep that I had made it clear at least to some people. But I'll admit a lot of people saw that film and came away thinking, well, this is a film where Woody Allen is saying, I hate my fans; they're dumb and they're grasping and they're gross-looking. Now, of course, there's nothing further from the truth. I don't feel that way. I don't have that many fans, and they're not grasping. What I wanted to do there was make a film about a totally fictional character--and I'll explain that in a second--a guy who had all the outer trappings of success--a penthouse, a limousine, a chauffeur, fame, an entourage, all of that--and yet, he was having a breakdown, he was completely unhealthy.
None of these things have happened to me, incidentally, but what happened was that people thought the character was me. Not only did those things not happen to me, I do not have those problems. I play a character who's a filmmaker because I'm familiar with the outer trappings of a profession like that. I can write about them. I'm not going to make myself a nuclear physicist who's having a nervous breakdown, because I just don't know what he'd do in the course of a typical day. So many people who saw the film felt that this Sandy Bates guy is Woody Allen and he hates all of us. And who is this guy to have a penthouse and a limousine and this contemptuous attitude? But I wasn't having a contemptuous attitude. I was having an attitude where I was taking the audience very seriously. I think they're at least as smart as I am, if not smarter. I didn't want to give them another formula picture.
Q: So separating the identities is an acute problem in your case?
A: Interestingly enough, this is a problem that the American public has had--not just the American public but the public in general--with their movie actors since the beginning of time. They think John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart is a kind of hard-hitting tough guy. If Cary Grant was ever at a loss, if they saw him act clumsily . . . Well, the same thing occurs in some distorted way with me. They think I am the guy I portray, and I'm playing a character. For some reason people felt betrayed by me in that film. They put their faith in me, they thought they knew me from all those other films, and suddenly I turned on them. But I didn't turn on them. I was coming off a very good experience with "Manhattan." I had no bad feelings. My life was not threatened.
Q: Are you still in analysis?
Q: What did you make of the psychiatric testimony in the Hinckley case?
A: Well, you've got to have insanity as a defense. I think that's got to be a defense, but the whole legal system in America is so screwed up. The fine points of law in the United States are so ridiculous. They're like laughable from an Italian movie. They'd make a good Italian comedy, you know. Obviously, this was not the correct outcome of that trial. It shouldn't have come out like that. Nor should he have been treated in any way except as a sick man.
Q: Did you bring up the topic with your analyst?
A: No. I've learned not to do that generally, because my analyst won't answer me.