Back to Coney Island: Woody Allen returns to the '50s for his 47th feature film

Movies Features

Woody Allen is reluctant to shake hands. Although, he insists, “I’m not one of those crazy people who washes constantly and puts little white gloves on before I touch a doorknob or something. I’m not that crazy, but I do wash my hands for what I know to be a sufficient amount of time.” That time, he says, is as long as it takes to sing the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” twice.

I am fortunate to have interviewed Woody Allen on several occasions, sometimes in New York, once in London and twice on his rare visits to Los Angeles. And every time he reveals another little quirk.

This time, talking in New York shortly before the release of his new film, Wonder Wheel, he says: "I never, ever, ever wear a watch, ever. Or a ring. Or carry an umbrella or anything. I can’t bear to relate to objects at all, I don’t like anything on me."

At the age of 82, Allen is fit, alert and funny, and a conversation with him is like being in the front row of his standup comedy act. For someone who has achieved such iconic status and who manages to attract some of the world's biggest stars to work for him for very little money, he is refreshingly self-mocking and totally free of any ego or self-importance.

After a peripatetic few years in which he was forced to film in Europe—he went to London, Barcelona, Paris and Rome—because he could not raise financing in the U.S., he is now firmly ensconced back in his native New York thanks to backing from Sony Pictures Classics and, more recently, Amazon Studios.

He has set Wonder Wheel in the 1950s in the Coney Island amusement park of his youth. "It seemed to be a very good atmosphere for a film, because it had all that glitz and rides and fantasy and fake thrills. They were right in your face there," he recalls. "So it was a very colorful atmosphere to use in the movie. I always loved it and I always used to ask my father to take me there and he would, but he never liked it. He always said that he would rather take me someplace else ’cause it was not very nice."

Wonder Wheelstars Kate Winslet as Ginny, the wife of a carousel operator (Jim Belushi) who falls for a handsome young lifeguard played by Justin Timberlake. Things start to go wrong when her husband's estranged daughter (Juno Temple) arrives and sets her sights on the lifeguard too.

Amazingly, while he is promoting Wonder Wheel Allen has almost finished his next film, A Rainy Day in New York, which stars Selena Gomez and Jude Law, and is already planning the one to follow it, which he thinks he will call American Blues.

"So I'm not interested in Wonder Wheel anymore," he says bluntly. "If people and critics like it, that’s delightful. If they don’t, I am not interested. Either way, my life doesn’t change. If the film is a success, I don’t get any younger or healthier or anything; nothing really substantial happens to me. If the film is a failure, nothing happens to me either and I go on and I am almost finished with the next one.

"I have been very lucky that way, because I can always do what I want to do. I am limited, but I have had unlimited freedom." he laughs. "So if a picture is not good, it’s down to me.

"I don’t care about the money, I never have, and very often I have put my whole salary into the picture so the picture came out better and I could reshoot scenes and make them better, and I worked the whole year for nothing at all. No salary. So I have never been in it for the money."

When Allen is not making movies, he is very much a homebody. "The biggest misconceptions people have about me are probably that I am an intellectual and a workaholic," he says with a straight face. "They think I am an intellectual because I wear these glasses and they think I am an artist because my films lose money.

"So it’s a great image, but it’s not me. I am the person that is home with a beer in front of the football game on television, not upstairs with a book on Danish philosophy. People think all I do is work, but I don’t. I spend a lot of time fiddling with my clarinet, and I spend a lot of time watching sports on television and taking walks with my wife. If anything, I would say that I am lazy."

It is his wife of 20 years, Soon-Yi, who runs the household, he says, and he is very happy to leave it to her. "My wife has a very domineering, strong personality, and she’s hyper-competent, and I am hyper-incompetent," he says drolly. "I can’t work the television set without calling her into the room, so she handles the staff and runs the house and she handles the money. I get a small allowance." He laughs. "And I have what's left of it in my pocket now and I’m fine with that. I have never had any problem and it takes a huge amount of tedious responsibility off me so I can work and I feel confident that she runs things very well."

An "ideas drawer" in his office is stuffed with notes, scribblings, thoughts and possible plots. That is why he has been able to churn out a movie a year since the 1980s, ranging from classic New York comedies like Manhattan, Annie Hall, Bullets Over Broadway and Hannah and Her Sisters to stylish London-set crime capers like Match Point and the Spanish-set romance Vicky Christina Barcelona.

He has been nominated for an incredible 24 Oscars and has won four, for his screenplays for Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters and Midnight in Paris and for directing Annie Hall.

Allen shoots quickly and economically, using small crews. Despite paying his actors minimum rates, he never has any problems getting the cast he wants: Most actors would willingly work for him for nothing.

He keeps his direction to a minimum. "I don’t want to be on top of them and say, 'Don’t do this' and 'Do it this way,' because very often they don’t do it the way I was thinking of and it comes out much better because it’s more natural for them. You don’t have to direct these people, you just have to hire them and not supervise them too much and not get in their way."

For Woody Allen, the 1970s were the Golden Age, although not for the reasons most people would think. “Then, although the film studios were very greedy and basically Philistines, they still wanted to do a couple of quality films a year just for their own conscience,” he observes. “So they would finance some small films and they were content to make a small profit. I was very lucky because they just backed my films one after the other and didn’t read the scripts or ask any questions.

“Now they couldn’t care less about making good films; they’re just interested in making huge profits. They would rather make bad films that make money than good films that lose money and you can understand that because they’re businessmen and I’m not. We have different goals.”

Woody Allen has always had a select audience for his films, which is something he appreciates. “I always make films for literate people,” he says matter-of-factly. “I have to assume there are many millions of people in the world who are educated and literate and want sophisticated entertainment that does not cater to the lowest common denominator and is not all about car crashes and bathroom jokes.”

One would think that after a 60-year career, Allen would know exactly what he was doing when it comes to moviemaking. Not a bit of it, he says bluntly. “It doesn’t work that way. It’s a new thing each time, so you never learn anything. Maybe a bit of technique, that’s all. I don’t know how to do this film because it has completely different problems than all my other films. When I’m making a film, I never learn anything that will help me on the next one. So nothing I learned on my previous films will help me with this one.

“One of the things that’s so fascinating about an art form is that it may be good, mediocre or terrible, but it’s not perfect, so when it’s over you’re constantly impelled to try another one because you suffer from the delusion that you can get perfection. Intellectually, I’ve given up and I’m happy that the picture is not an embarrassment. I start out thinking it’s going to be the greatest thing ever made and when I see what I’ve done I’m always saying, ‘I’ll do anything to save this from being an embarrassment.’”

The prolific and talented octogenarian hasn't acted in a film since John Turturro’s little-seen Fading Gigolo four years ago and he has no illusions about his acting abilities. “I’ve never thought of myself as an actor,” he says. “I could never play Chekhov or a big range of characters, but there are one or two things I could do: I could play a bookmaker or a lowlife agent like in Broadway Danny Rose, or because I look scholarly—although I’m not—I could play some kind of intellectual and get away with it."

For now, he is concentrating on writing and directing, although, he says, "there’s not much pleasure in directing… I get up very early in the morning and come to the set and stand around all day while the cinematographer spends three hours lighting the set, then I get 30 seconds to do the scene and then we move on and he lights for another three hours and I get another 30 seconds. It’s tedious. I don’t do it in order—just a piece here and a piece there and it never looks like anything and you never imagine it’s going to come together in a story. The pleasure is when I get home and look at all the footage and sit down and put it together and put in the music and make it look like something.”

At an age when most filmmakers have long retired, Woody Allen shows no sign of slowing down and is as much a celebrity now as he was 50 years ago, although it is not something he embraces wholeheartedly.

“Fame has many drawbacks and many advantages and it’s close, but the advantages just outweigh the drawbacks,” he notes. “Believe it or not, there are many terrible things about being famous and many wonderful things, too. In the end, the good things are better than the bad, so if you have the chance, it’s better to be famous.”

If he is to be believed—and the answer is possibly not entirely—despite his fame and continued success, Allen’s view of existence and humankind’s place in the universe is a dark and dismal one. “Life is hard, harsh, brutal, short and nasty and there’s no hope for us,” he states baldly.

“You’ll go away thinking I’m pessimistic and cynical, but I’m not. I just feel that our job is to accept the fact that life is meaningless and empty and we’re at a random event in a meaningless kind of universe that is eventually going to be gone."

Then, without the glimmer of a smile, he asks: “Have I depressed you sufficiently?”

He has a similarly grim view of old age: "Everyone seems to think there's something kind of divine or mellow in getting older, but there's no advantage at all. Gradually you disintegrate. Your hearing goes, your eyesight goes and you're walking a little slower. You don't suddenly get wise and accept the world for what it is and accept people for what they are and suddenly realize what love is. None of that happens. What happens is your bones ache more."

Nevertheless, he counts his blessings gratefully: “Within the context of a very grim human existence, I’ve had a very nice life. People have had unspeakably horrible lives, so I’ve been incredibly lucky and have not had any major health problems and I’ve had parents with great longevity and I’ve been in love with some beautiful women who have made enormous contributions to my life and I’ve got great kids.”

Then he pauses and thinks for a moment. “But, you know, I could leave this room now and be hit by a falling piano.”