Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Exclusive: Woody Allen On Marriage, Kids, His Great Films, Influence on Movie Making, Writing a Novel, Epstein, and Not Retiring


Just so we’re all on the same page — and it’s typed on a manual typewriter — let’s get something straight. Woody Allen is not retiring. At least, not intentionally.

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Yes, he’s surprised to be 88 years old, but (knock wood) he looks great and has all his marbles although his hearing can be iffy. He waited for me at the top of the stairs of his cozy Upper East Side townhouse last week almost impatiently, and led me into a warmly paneled room full of books and records. His hair is a little whiter than the last time I saw him, but otherwise Woody seemed pretty pleased that his 50th feature film, “Coup de Chance,” has been a critical hit.

Woody, I’d say, is back. His previous two films, “A Rainy Day in New York” (which could have been a hit under different circumstances), and “Rifkin’s Festival” were met with a variety of unfortunate obstacles. Luckily they streamed and were issued on DVDs at just the moment when people stopped going to the theater.

“Coup de Chance” — now streaming wildly and still in some theaters after a hit run in France — translates to “Stroke of Luck,” and that’s what it is — almost a fluke, a crime drama in the manner of his “Match Point” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” It demonstrates that Allen’s refined skills of making comedy and drama have never slowed down. We’ve just caught up to him again.

How did a nice boy from Brooklyn make a movie in French, acted by French actors, in Paris?

Woody tells me: “I can’t speak French, really. I know a few words. First, we hired somebody to translate it, and he or she, I don’t even know, translated it. And then when we gave it to the actors, the actors said, no, no, they never talk like this. And then the actors put it in their own words.”

Woody is famous for saying he never gives actors direction. But how does he direct them in another language? He says, “You can tell if someone’s overacting or they’re not making it, they’re not getting it. And so, I could go up to them and say, could you do that again? A little more enthusiasm, a little more intensity. And they’d say, yes. I mean, it was not that I had to say it in French and people were looking around and nobody knew what we were talking about.”

“Coup de Chance” stars Melvil Poupad, Lou de Laâge, and Cesar winner Valérie Lemercier as a wealthy husband, his beautiful younger wife (who is cheating on him), and the girl’s suspicious mother. At least one murder occurs, and the air is tense with retribution. The acting matches the crisp writing and storytelling. Famed three time Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro makes every picture look like a piece of art.

This is probably not Woody’s final film. He has at least two screenplays that could be fixed up quickly for production. He’ll make another movie, he says, if someone turns up with the money. He’s not going out to ask for it anymore.

“What I really need is, you know, like a Medici. Somebody to feel that they want to patronize an artist and they’ve mistaken me for one,” he says wryly.

“How about a Kardashian?”

“That would be fun,” he replies, although I have no idea if knows who I mean.

Woody Allen at 88 is a family man and has been for a long time. He and wife, Soon Yi, have been together for 30 years and share two charming daughters who are out of college and working abroad on “Emily in Paris.”

Woody, who’s very proud of them, jokes, “They’re not thieves, drug addicts. They have jobs. And they’re good kids.”

Did he ever think he’d be married to anyone for 30 years? (Woody was married twice briefly, including to actress Louise Lasser in the 1960s.)

He knows the marriage is always a topic of public conversation. “You know, as I said before, there were many people who thought Soon Yi and I would never click in a long-term marriage. And it was just a little that I was exploiting her in some way, she was exploiting me in some way. But that was not the case at all. We’ve had a very healthy, good marriage. We’ve traveled all over Europe together. We’ve been on many adventures and done many things together. And, you know, she’s an amazing woman.”

Ten years ago I interviewed Woody for the New York Observer. “Magic in the Moonlight” starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone was coming. We talked all about the preceding 44 movies. Since then he’s released six more, plus a TV mini series. It’s astonishing.

Way back in the middle of the pack, circa the 00s, he had a more fallow period after the “Annie Hall”–“Manhattan” heyday that went on from 1977 to around 1994 with “Bullets Over Broadway.” I watched a couple I’d forgotten a bit — “Melinda and Melinda” and “Celebrity,” each of which has aged surprisingly well.

“Celebrity,” from 1998, in fact, is worth a second look by everyone. A young Leonardo DiCaprio is featured, and you can spot other young up-and-comers like Adrien Grenier and Sam Rockwell. (Kenneth Branagh and Judy Davis — who should have had an Oscar nod — are the actual stars.)

Woody remembers the guys well. Of Grenier, who went on to fame and fortune in “Entourage,” Woody says: “I was looking for a gorgeous young man. And [longtime casting director] Juliet Taylor said, oh, there’s this guy, Adrian Grenier. And I met him. And I used him, I think, like in three movies or something.” (Two, actually.)

In “Celebrity,” Rockwell — pre-fame, and an eventual Oscar — has no lines.

“I said to Sam Rockwell, you’re in Leonardo’s group. You can ad-lib anything you want. Whatever you’re interested in. Anything you want to do. And they all thank me for giving them the freedom to ad-lib.

“And they’ll do ten minutes talking to me about, yes, they’re so thrilled to get that kind of freedom. Right, right. To be able to ad-lib and use their own words and find their own character.
And then when we’re rolling, they run right back into the script all the time. I try and discourage that. But they’re comfortable, you know.”

DiCaprio, playing an indulged movie star, has a scene in which he fights with his girlfriend, rips up a ritzy hotel room while Branagh determinedly pitches his script idea.

Woody says: “It was based on something that happened right up here in a hotel on Madison Avenue, I think. I think it was Johnny Depp. I remember reading about it in the paper. And so I, you know, I thought it would be a good scene. And, of course, he [Leo] brought it off amazingly.”

So Depp’s public escapade was research. In some ways, so was Woody’s association with Jeffrey Epstein. To make it clear, they were never friends. They never played cards, went fishing, or to the local diner for lunch.

Woody spoke to me with candor on this sore subject.

At the time, Woody and Soon Yi lived around the corner from Epstein, who was hosting salons at his townhouse.

“You’d go over there for dinner and sit down and he would listen to people. He would throw out a subject that people would talk about. You know, he was very big, I believe, in supporting cutting edge science. That came up a lot. There were interesting conversations about cryobiology and astronomy. And this one would be a mathematician and this one would be, you know, gerontology.”

The Epstein dinners weren’t all college lectures. “We’d get a call saying, come over because, you know, the ambassador from this country is having dinner or there’ll be journalists. One evening he had an evening of all comedians. And one evening he had an evening of all magicians.”

There were no young girls around at these events. Had he even heard of Epstein before all this? “No,” Woody says, which is completely plausible since Allen spends most of his time writing. That’s how you get 50 movies, not to mention books, essays and plays. He does not read People magazine, folks.

Woody did meet Prince Andrew. “They said, “We’re having probably a group of people over there to meet Prince Andrew. You know, it didn’t mean anything to him,” Woody observes, meaning Andrew had no interest in Woody Allen. “But Soon Yi, you know, always followed the royal family, always read about them. I don’t think we said two words to him. He was there and people would speak to him. But, you know, he seemed like a quiet, you know, [guy].”

I reminded Woody there’s one picture that always runs in the news of Epstein, Woody, and Soon Yi walking together. That, he says, was a result of Epstein walking them out after a dinner at his house. He and Soon Yi always walked home.

Enough of that. But wait: Donald Trump made an appearance in “Celebrity” back in 1998. Woody did not know him. Trump is ambushed in a restaurant scene by Judy Davis, who’s interviewing society types. She asks him what he’s up to, and Trump replies: “I just bought St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s a tear down.”

“We said who would be in this restaurant?” Woody recalls. “We asked him and he said yes. And he was very nice. I mean, he came in, he knew his lines. He was polite to everybody. He sat down, he did the job. You know, there are certain things he’s good at.” (Yes, that’s a joke.)

Allen adds that he’s voting for Biden. Trump, he says, is “going to lose and lose in a much wider margin.”

Woody’s real friends are the same as ever. The people he speaks to “all the time” are still Diane Keaton, Marshall Brickman, Tony Roberts. He just spoke to old pal Dick Cavett. (Neither of us can get over the recent, unexpected death of our mutual friend, and his collaborator, Doug McGrath.) He and Soon Yi recently entertained Jerry and Jessica Seinfeld (the first time the two comedians had ever met). “We had a nice time with them,” he said. He thinks the world of Larry David, too.

Back to research: there’s a lot of cheating in his movies. How does he know about it considering his long term relationships. I ask for example, Did he model the womanizers in his many early films on Roberts, I wondered?

Woody chuckles. “He was a very popular guy. There was some joke in one of those Neil Simon plays about a guy who was a bachelor and he should have a map on the wall with pins in it. And that I always thought would apply to Tony. We’d be in the show [“Play it Again, Sam” on Broadway] with him and he’d have a date with this one for lunch and this one just left his house at 11:30 at night and there was another one scheduled to come in at 12.30 at night. He was wonderful that way.”

Roberts was so popular that he gave Woody the idea of the “Sam” character who’s constantly leaving messages with his answering service.

Woody says: “I got the character from Tony, yeah. I mean, now no young person would understand it that somebody was constantly calling their answering service and saying, now I’m here, then I’ll be there, sooner or… You know, it’s very funny. Now you can be walking down the street in Times Square or Fifth Avenue and be talking to someone in Bora Bora.”

The cheating characters are one of many recurring themes through the 50 movies. There are also many detectives. In “Coup de Chance,” the work of a private eye is used as familiar device to launch a third act.

Woody explains: “You know, there are certain things that give you conflict. That’s why there’s so many crime movies and cowboy movies … And conflict, romantic conflicts are… They’re staples of movies. I was starting with the Greek playwrights thousands of years ago and coming right through Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. And all these movies are about the same thing. Crime, infidelity, unhappy relationships. That’s what they are.”

Woody still believes he’s had no influence on film or TV, by the way. He knows Spielberg and Scorsese and Oliver Stone — some of his favorite directors — definitely have been inspirations for young filmmakers. But not him. I mention, off the top of my head, “Only Murders in the Building,” which owes its DNA to “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” And, of course, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” He’s never seen them. (He did single out actress Caroline Aaron, who was in his films long before “Maisel” — “she’s so great.”)

“I only say one thing,” he says, “And I don’t even know if I’m accurate with it. But I think I was the first to do the documentary style. Take the Money and Run. That was in documentary style. (48:42) And then others have followed.”

Like “The Office,” I ask. Did he ever watch “The Office?”

His answer, of course: “I’ve never seen The Office. [But] I think I was really the only one, or the first one to do it.”

So how have all these movies been written? Woody takes me to his office on the next floor, where he’s set up with a tiny desk. On the desk is his famous, small, portable manual Olympia typewriter. He’s had it for decades and never switched to, say, an IBM Selectric and certainly not to a computer.

He agrees to take a picture at the desk. I am now in an altered state. This would be like Paul McCartney showing off his original Hofner bass. Then I notice a pile of sheets of blank yellow-lined legal paper  next to the typewriter. Something is written on the other side.

What is this, I wonder? Those two screenplays?

“That’s what I’m typing at the moment,” he says. “I’m working on a book.”

“You’re working on a book?” He’s published several, of short stories, humor pieces, a memoir.

“Yeah, I want to see if I can do it,” he says, not joking. “I don’t know if I can do it. A novel, yeah. And, you know, I’ll throw it away if I can’t do it.”

We’ll see about that.


Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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