Bodies on bodies, packed tightly under steel and concrete and built on the sweat of the masses. New York is grimy with their remains. It’s a cold city, jarring its inhabitants with constant motion. New York is the epicenter of culture, sometimes cruel but undeniably influential. I’m not from New York, but I wish I were.
From the bowels of Brooklyn, Woody Allen emerged some 30 years ago armed with a sharp accent and a subtle genius wit. He’s made an occupation of neurosis, coining an archetype in American film. His movies show self-deprecation as an art, setting the standard for modern comedic characterization.
Woody Allen doesn’t do appearances, and he doesn’t do interviews. Known for his hands-off approach to promotion, Allen prefers the dark shadows, leaving his work to stand on its own. But when he does speak, the power of his character comes across with unfettered feeling.
The reserved Allen is a complex character not easily digested as he sits on a whicker chair at a hotel table. Shifty and uncertain, Allen buries his chin in his hand when he talks. The man’s not quite emaciated, but he is disconcertingly skinny. Brow furrowed tightly, he admits his reserve in talking to the press.
“Every year I put a picture out. This year they had another little plan for me,” Allen said. “They wanted me to go to a few cities I’d never been to before. Dreamworks thinks it pays off at the box office. I see no evidence of it, and I’d be happy not to do it.”
Allen is welcoming once you’re in the room, possessing a distinct charm. Sitting before a man whose influence on modern film is undeniable, one is distressed by his apparent modesty.
“Every time I go to a movie, I feel like it’s influenced by (Martin) Scorsece or a bit by Oliver Stone, maybe. I rarely ever see my influence anywhere,” Allen said. “I’m not complaining about it. I’m just stating it as a fact as I see it. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist at all. I find all these pictures by young filmmakers definitely not influenced by me in any way.”
Regardless of what he may think, Allen is well respected within the movie industry. He is a safe bet, a consistent earner who is devoted to a constant level of professional film quality. He said he is disturbed by the increasing popularity of big-studio summer flicks, a genre which he feels is largely uninspired. Allen sees corporatization and uninventive directing as the cause for mediocre movie-making.
“If you’re a hired director, they put together some project conceived in complete venality. They get some silly idea and they say ‘lets get Billy Crystal, or Robert DeNiro or Robin Williams,'” Allen said. “They’ll get talented people, but the picture will be kind of a middle-of-the-road, uninspired formula that they are trying to make $150 million at.
“If they hire a traffic cop, he’ll bring the movie in on time and under budget and won’t have to many ideas of his own. They look for directors that have no vision, just some technique.”
In his newest film, Hollywood Ending, Allen explores the realities of film direction, playing off the eccentricities and absurdities inherent within the process of movie-making. Allen stars in the picture, which he also wrote and directed, as Val Waxman, a two-time Oscar-winning director who has fallen into an artistic rut. Despite his best efforts, Waxman is unable to get studio support for his films. Allen admits his own experiences helped inspire the character, but he is also quick to distance himself.
“I will say, in my own defense, I’m not as crazy as he is. I’m a responsible filmmaker who works industriously,” Allen said. “I’ve never been sued for not completing a picture, and I’m not temperamental.”
In Hollywood Ending, Allen’s character is essentially blacklisted from the movie industry despite his previous success, an experience Allen said he has not had but has observed.
“I’ve been lucky, had a charmed life. It may be undeserved, but it’s definitely been charmed. I never had to go through any of the junk (Waxman) had to go through,” Allen said. “I remember Billy Wilder, one of the titans of film, was not able to get a picture done in the last 20 years of his life. I see it all around me, and I’ve avoided it through one lucky break or another.”
When directing, Allen maintains an ardent policy of total involvement in his pictures.
“I wrote it, and I know how I want it to sound,” he said. “If I could do everything, it would be simpler yet. Be the cameraman, hang the lights. You’re always having to explain to someone what you want. Sometimes they get it, and sometimes they don’t.”
But Allen feels differently about acting.
“I like to not be in it. I have no compulsion to be an actor, and I make no claims to be one,” he said. “It sounds trivial, but it’s really is such a pleasure to get up in the morning and not have to think ‘I have to be clean and get into my costume and hit my mark.’ It’s easier to just direct somebody else and put the burden on them.”
Allen’s talent for filmmaking resonates throughout his work. The way he sees it, he is simply a student to the great masters of early films. One of his biggest frustrations is a lack of respect for classic and foreign movies, a problem caused by their increasing disappearance from distribution.
“I think if I showed movies that I think are great to kids, they’d love it,” Allen said. “People always talk about the dumbing down of America. It’s not possible that your generation is dumber than mine is, I think they just don’t have access to them. There’s no way that you could, on any given weekend, take your date to see any one of a dozen wonderful foreign films.”
He may be paying homage to others, but Allen certainly has seen his own share of acclaim. At the Academy Awards, he has been nominated six times for best director, 13 times for best screenplay and twice for best picture. Annie Hall, one of his earlier films, swept those awards when it was released in 1977. Allen said the acclaim has brought privilege.
“I can meet whomever I want and get to work with great people,” Allen said.
“You suddenly get a chance to be around the Mets or Mike Tyson or whoever it is you’re exploiting.”
These are only the beginning of the fringe benefits Allen said he sees.
“You do get a chance to meet many beautiful women that you would not ordinarily get a chance to see,” Allen said. “That’s one of the perks that make up for the Paparazzi. It’s a very pleasant experience to kiss those women.”
Although he mixes with some of the world’s most luscious ladies, Allen admits he is no playboy, despite rumors that circulate around Hollywood.
“You have to go through the same tedious and strategically planned process that an accountant would have to go through when he meets a girl,” Allen said. “You still get nervous and have to sweat it out. You still get rejected sometimes. Your usual rate of rejection comes into play. You don’t do any better than you would do normally.”