The creative mind of Woody Allen
By Caryn James


THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS, AN OLD BRONX BALLROOM HAS BEEN turned into a 1940's dance hall, Mia Farrow transformed into a U.S.O. singer complete with seamed stockings and a huge corsage, and Woody Allen has stepped into his role as director on the set of his film-in-progress. It's an easy workday; the brief scene- the actress singing "I Don't Want to Walk Without You" - had been shot days before, and two versions of the song prerecorded. But the lighting had been wrong, the tempo of the music too fast, so Allen has rebuilt the set and brought back 100 extras to reshoot. Mia Farrow lip-syncs a dozen times while Allen stands quietly beside the camera; between certain takes he whispers something to her. Then, he offers his most conspicuous direction of the day; in the middle of her song, he smiles and gives her a tiny wave -her cue to wave back on camera.

This is Woody Allen in action. And that small wave, which seems almost private - Allen and Mia Farrow have been all-but-live-in companions for about six years - is a gesture of absolute authority. It captures the essential paradox of Woody Allen as film maker. He insists on total control - one of the very few major film makers with authority over every idea from the script to the advertising, every detail on and off his set - because he equates this dominance with artistic freedom. "If I had to make films without complete control from start to finish, I definitely would not do it," he says. "I'm only making films because I'm as free there as if I were writing novels. You can't create unless you're completely free." Few artists of his stature admit to so many self-doubts while displaying so much confidence; rarely is such an overwhelming need for control manifested in such a mild manner.

WOODY ALLEN last month, during a moment of relaxation in his apartment in Manhattan.

As writer, director and usually star of some 15 films in 17 years, Allen has hubristically reached for the large themes of love and death, yet handed us brilliantly nuanced, small-scale movies - such as "Annie Hall," "Manhattan" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo." To pick out any one of Allen's strengths -his quirky comic persona, his eye for the ticklish spots of upscale urban life, or even his astonishing technical growth and diversity - does not begin to define him. Vincent Canby, The New York Times film critic, says of Allen: "There's nobody else in American films who comes anywhere near him in originality and interest. One has to go back to Chaplin and Buster Keaton, people who were totally responsible for their own movies, to find anybody comparable." And like these silent-film heroes, Allen is an iconoclast who has become a popular icon, so that at a recent benefit reading for the writers organization PEN, Norman Mailer playfully introduced Allen simply as "L'auteur des auteurs cinématiques." The auteur appeared on stage, ducked his head, smacked his lips, shuffled his feet; he was a familiar bundle of nervous energy. In his Manhattan apartment, he is placid, the pensive interview subject; a few more gray hairs are visible at close range, many fewer neuroses.

Allen has just turned 50, and at an age when many artists who matched his early success have disappeared, he continues to intrigue and often startle us. For his movies offer that inconspicuous blend of content and form that distinguishes the finest art: his on-screen families are portrayed by Allen's real-life friends and lovers; his romanticism is so lush it flows through the music and photography; his obsession with death so strong it must be deflected through the skewed vision of comedy. In film, he has found his perfect vehicle. Movie making accommodates his protean imagination and enormous need to dominate - he has shaped careers for Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, taken over a whole town while filming "Purple Rose," even checked out the details on his wartime set, where original World War II posters hang on the walls and an extra wears a genuine WAVE uniform, right down to a garter belt the cameras will never see. But beneath the complexity of film making, writing and directing them offers the subtlety to match Allen's self-effacing postures. A look not at Allen's films but at the way he creates them reveals a skeptical yet romantic mind at work.

His latest film, "Hannah and Her Sisters," which will open next month, may offer the strongest congruence yet of his major themes, the most emphatic view of the uneasy coexistence between his comic and serious sides, and the best example of the autobiographical and professional crosscurrents flowing through all his work. Shot partly in Mia Farrow's New York apartment, the film includes Mia Farrow as Hannah and Michael Caine as her husband, who becomes romantically obsessed with Hannah's youngest sister. In a story that runs parallel to Hannah's, Allen plays her hypochondriacal former husband, Mickey Sachs, who this time may really have a brain tumor.

Allen, who also wrote and directed it, describes the film as "an ensemble story about the intersecting lives of groups of characters" - including a third sister, parents (Mia Farrow's real-life mother, Maureen O'Sullivan, plays her mother on screen), friends and children (several of Mia Farrow's appear briefly). Allen says: "It is sometimes amusing, sometimes sort of sad. If it's successful, the laughs don't come from jokes, they come from characters in emotionally desperate circumstances."

In the old Savoy Manor ballroom in the Bronx, he directs Mia Farrow in his current "almost musical" film, which is set in the 1920's, 30's and 4O's.

Ever since "Annie Hall," a warm comedy of a romance found and lost, he has been resisting the impulse toward the jokes and frenetic comic action displayed in his early movies, like "Take the Money and Run" and "Bananas." The birth of "Annie Hall" suggests the interplay of Allen's multiple talents; that work, which established him as a respected film maker, started as a novel. The unfinished book, he says, "begins the same way 'Annie Hall' does, with a monologue, but you don't perceive it as a monologue because it's written. It has the exact same scene, of Alvy meeting Annie at a movie house, and his obsessional thing of not wanting to go in after the movie had started." A short time later, Allen and Marshall Brickman (his co-author on three films), conceived a script idea - a murder mystery set in the Victorian age- but the night before they were to start writing, Allen decided he would rather do a contemporary story. ("Choosing an idea," he says, "sometimes goes on to painful obsessional heights; you wear yourself down after weeks of getting up with one idea, then changing your mind 20 minutes later.") So he pirated the characters from his own novel-in-progress.

"The first draft of that script was a murder mystery with Annie and Alvy; that metamorphosed into 'Annie Hall,"' he explains. "I thought, 'I'm sure there's a movie there, where if I face the audience and talk and bring them in on my problems, they'd be interested.' And I knew there would be fewer laughs in it than my other films."

"Annie Hall" was his first film to contain believable, if exceptionally neurotic, people. But Allen says he wanted to be serious all along: "Probably if my parents had pushed me along more cultural lines, I might have started out being a more serious writer, because that's what has always interested me. But I had no cultural background whatsoever, and I mean absolutely none," he says of growing up in what he calls "a typical, noisy ethnic family" in Brooklyn. "I didn't go to a play until I was about 18 years old, almost never went to a museum, listened only to popular music, and never read at all."

Sounding more like a novelist than a film maker, he adds: "I had only comic books as a kid, but from the first grade, I was always the class writer. I remember very distinctly, I'd buy those little black and white notebooks and say, 'Today I'll write a mystery story.' I'd go home and write, and invariably they'd come out funny. I certainly couldn't care less if I ever performed again, and don't care much if I ever direct another film, but I would not like to be in a position not to write."

FOR SOMEONE OBSESSED WITH PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS, ALLEN is surprisingly inarticulate about the sources of his talents. As with writing, he finds his early impulse toward comedy to be mysterious: "My guess about that kind of thing is that it's almost all genetic. It was just something I could always do - like some kids had an ear for music, I could be funny. So in my films, things get filtered through a comic prism. When I'm sitting down to write something, my perspective seems to go to what's humorous, even if it's a grim situation. An extreme example would be 'Love and Death,' which takes a broad comic perspective, but what is it when you think about it? It's actually about war and people dying, betrayed by death or God at the end."

In the character of Mickey, Allen has created another of his death-haunted men, like Alvy in "Annie Hall" and Isaac in "Manhattan." Their near-paralyzing fear, Allen says, has been with him almost as long as he can remember- although he can point to nothing that triggered it: "I was always obsessed with death, even as a child. It always used to frighten me. I have memories of being very young, probably 6 or 8, and being put to sleep at night and lying in the black, thinking, 'Someday I will be dead,' and really focusing vivid feelings on it, a vivid attempt to imagine the emptiness, the finality, the irrevocability of it. I'll occasionally still do it if I wake up in the middle of the night in a bad week."

It's not so very far, as imaginations go, from projecting these visions in the dark to playing them out on a movie screen. Mickey jumps out of bed in the middle of the night and yells "I'm dying." Playing Boris in "Love and Death" - a take-off on 19th-century Russian life and literature - at the end Allen dances away with a white-shrouded figure. These are images that might be recognized by the 8-year-old Woody, or the schoolboy Alvy in "Annie Hall," who is despondent because the universe is going to expand and blow apart. When asked whether humor eases his death-obsession, Allen might agree, but still chalks it up to instinct. "Comedy probably does relieve some of the anxiety, but you don't consciously do it for that."

Woody Allen draws on his own obsessions so consistently that audiences often blur the distinction between his life and art. "Annie Hall," based loosely on Allen's relationship with the film's star, Diane Keaton, was considered pure, if exaggerated, autobiography. But Allen takes a literal-minded stance about the connection between his real life and his work; the films are not autobiographical, he says, because the events they depict didn't happen. For one thing, Diane Keaton didn't go to California and move in with a record producer, he points out. "People get the impression that these films are autobiographical in an acute way. There may be a brush from real life; I'll play characters who are in show business, who live in an apartment like mine, but those are the outer trappings. If I had played the Michael Caine part of Hannah's husband, people would have been convinced I'd had an affair with my wife's sister, just as in 'Manhattan' they were completely convinced I wanted to marry a 17-year-old girl. I wrote 'Manhattan' with Marshall Brickman, and some of the ideas triggered from life were from his life, not even mine, and they didn't even happen to him. They came from things he observed." (In that case, Allen-watchers speculated, Brickman's observation of a high-strung journalist was the basis for Diane Keaton's character.

While making "Stardust Memories," Allen was aware that the public would identify him with his character - a film maker, much like Allen, who yearns to be serious yet is surrounded by adoring fans, who gush, "We love your work," especially "your early funny ones." How could such details not point to Allen? Yet he willfully chose to ignore the extra-artistic problem. "I thought maybe I should have another actor play the role," he says, "but I really didn't care how it was perceived. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and I felt that some day when I'm not in the gossip columns, people will be able to see the film and judge it on its merits."

The problem of Woody Allen's being identified with his roles began during his days as a stand-up comic in the 1960's. He quickly found that "just talking as myself to the audience was the most comfortable for me and the most enjoyable for the audience." But the close-to-life comic persona that emerged was not planned, he recalls: "I never consciously did any of it. I just went out on stage and tried to get laughs. The only sense of a persona is that one exaggerates for the sake of humor. If I come out for 40 minutes and regale you with one harrowing tale after another, tales of childhood and relationships - and they were all reasonably funny because I had spent a lot of time getting the most out of them - I guess after a while a character emerges; it is me in a way and it's not me."

“HANNAH," HE CONCEDES, is about "personal concerns of mine." What's more, the film reveals how diverse the sources of Allen's creativity actually are. In this one movie, they range from his childhood to his subjective view of Mia Farrow to his reading of Russian novels - with all these impulses subjected to shrewd artistic decisions.

At first, the film had a simple single plot about a man who falls in love with his wife's sister. "Then," Allen says, "the summer before last, I reread 'Anna Karenina,' and I thought, it's interesting how this guy gets the various stories going, cutting from one story to another. I loved the idea of experimenting with that." He was particularly intrigued by Nicholas Levin, who "can't seem to find any meaning to life, he's terribly afraid of dying. It struck home very deeply. I thought it would be interesting to do one story about the relationship between three sisters, then one story about somebody else and his obsession with mortality."

Although his original idea was modified, Mia Farrow was always Hannah, a woman her husband and sisters consider almost too perfect. Allen says the character is "a romanticized perception of Mia. She's very stable, she has eight children now and she's able to run her career and have good relationships with her sisters and her mother. I'm very impressed with those qualities, and I thought if she had two unstable sisters, it would be interesting."

Other bits and pieces filled out the idea. For the first time, Allen says, the title of one of his movies was provocative: "I thought the name Hannah would be good for one of my characters, then I thought I'd like to make a film called 'Hannah and Her Sisters.' " The title, he says, probably influenced him to create the character of the third sister. And he is fascinated by relationships among sisters, which seem to him more complicated than those between brothers. "Maybe that comes from childhood; my mother had seven sisters and their children were female, so all I knew were aunts and female cousins," says Allen, whose one sister is among the few people he tries out ideas on. (The others include Mia Farrow and, still, Diane Keaton.)

Creating the sisters was easy; oddly enough, his own role as Hannah's former husband was the most difficult: "I didn't have anything at first, just that he had been married to Hannah, and that he'd had this terrible scare. Then I thought, 'What is he going to do for the rest of the picture, just walk the streets and think?' Finally, I thought, 'That's O.K. In a novel, that's what you would do.' Of course, it's not a novel, so I had to make his walking the streets nice-looking. But I had a unique possibility there, since I had been a monologist, so for me it was natural. I thought, 'I'll let him walk the streets and obsess over the fact that life has no meaning. We'll hear him think.'"

Preview audiences have been enthusiastic about "Hannah," and Allen pays some attention to his audience. In the first cut of the film, the relationship between the title character and Mickey was not revealed until midway through, and early preview audiences were confused. Now, we learn much sooner that they were married. "I hope I did the right thing, it's the less daring thing," says
Allen, "but it seemed brutal for audiences to try to follow that first cut."
But even while Allen attends to his audience, he thinks: "The popularity of certain pictures makes me uncomfortable. If that many people like a picture; maybe I'm becoming part of the establishment, I'm not challenging anyone. The most popular thing, when you go to the movies, is to sit down and see a life style that you understand and are familiar with. The middle class likes to have its prejudices reinforced, and through some failure of my own, I may do that in some of my films - and that's what's wrong with them. It's one of the problems I have with 'Hannah.' I feel I haven't gone deeply enough."

While selecting a newspaper ad for "Hannah," Allen rejected one possibility that portrayed the film as too serious. But he says of that ad -and he sounds, as he rarely does, vehement - "It swept me off my feet. It breaks my heart that I can't use it, because it's the picture I wish I had made. It's the three sisters around a table; Mia and Dianne Wiest are really confronting each other in a dramatic way, and Barbara Hershey is in the middle, looking down with shame. You look at it and think, 'This is a powerful film.' I tried every which way to rationalize using that ad, because I so wanted my picture to be that, and in the end I have to admit it isn't."

It may be an unwelcome manifestation of Allen's paradoxical mind that he keeps creating characters like Mickey - easily the funniest, most appealing creation to some early viewers of "Hannah" - who, even while he expands the film, pulls against the seriousness that might have justified the advertisement Allen so loved. The film "would have gone in a much more serious direction" without his character, Allen admits. "Mickey's problem added the comic dimension because, if that theme had been treated seriously, it would have been lugubrious and leaden." So while he aspires to make that "powerful film," in his contradictory way Allen seems to undermine himself each time.

Even now, he describes the movie he is currently shooting as "a light film, because I wanted to do something that was the opposite of 'Hannah,' something cartoony, full of music and bravura energy. There are no major roles, and not much of a story; it's anecdotal, and I miss having a story to fall back on. What you gain in flexibility you lose in dramatic structure." Set in the 1920's, 30's and 40's, it has 200 speaking parts - including roles for Allen regulars, such as Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Tony Roberts and Jeff Daniels. ("I only got my three pages of the script," Daniels says of his role, "so I think I'm in the 1940's. I really don't know what it's about.")

FOR ALL HIS reliance on instinct at the start of a film, Allen follows through with supremely calculated choices. In fact, to hear him tell it, his films gain their rich ambiguity in spite of him. His technical sophistication can be dazzling in itself - the famous black-and-white silhouettes in "Manhattan"; in "Zelig," the virtuosic, seamless blend of historical film footage from the 1920's and new material; the stylized 30's film-within-a-film in last year's 'Purple Rose." As he says: “I always start with an idea and the form follows. It's content that makes or breaks a film. The most beautifully styled or structured film won't survive without content."

"Zelig" had always been based on "the idea of a chameleon-like personality, giving up your own personality so you can be part of the crowd- an attitude that, carried to an extreme, leads to fascism. Originally, I was going to do it as a contemporary story. Then I thought it would be fun to do a mock documentary" - which followed Zelig to the logical extreme of blending in as a Nazi. But doesn't the film also offer the pleasant fantasy of metamorphosis? No, says Allen, it's about the kind of personality that leads to fascism.

In "Purple Rose," Mia Farrow is Cecilia, a Depression-era woman who escapes, figuratively, into the fantasy world of the movies. Jeff Daniels plays both Tom Baxter, the movie star who literally comes off the screen to romance her, and Gil Shepherd, the actor who created Baxter and who finally jilts Cecilia. When she goes back to the movie house, absorbed in her fantasies, the ending is ambiguous: Perhaps the movies help her get through an unbearable life? No, Allen says: "The movies are just a narcotic for her. The reality of life was what was going on in the United States at that time, and also in her personal life. The ambiguity may be good luck, something that came from the healthy growth of that film."

That ambiguity probably had less to do with luck than the healthy atmosphere Allen fostered on the set, a classic combination of his auteur's authority allowing flexibility. He had originally cast Michael Keaton in the role of the 1930's matinee idol, but after two weeks of shooting, decided Keaton's style was too contemporary. In desperation, Allen considered playing the part himself. "That would have meant rewriting," he says. "I wouldn't be a 1930"s movie idol. I'd have to be a chorus boy or something."

Such a change would have been a more drastic version of the kind of revisions Allen makes all through his shooting schedule. The script is "constantly changing, up to the last second," he says. "I'm always telling actors, 'You can use your own words as long as you play the correct thing.' Sometimes you say the words and realize you get the idea in two sentences and don't need two pages.

Being both writer and director makes it much easier. I can make a dozen changes on the set in 10 minutes that in another setup would take a week." He was just about to rewrite the Tom Baxter part in "Purple Rose" when his casting director, Juliet Taylor, found Jeff Daniels.

At the screen test, Daniels recalls, Allen gave no direction or explanation of the plot; he simply said, "Do the scene." And even when shooting began, "there were no discussions about characters, motivations and backgrounds. The best thing was to get my idea lined up, and try to hit it in the first two takes. Sometimes it was all right, sometimes it wasn't. And when it wasn't, he'd step in quietly and say, 'That's fine, let's try it in this direction.' " In the scene in which Gil first begins to charm Cecilia, Allen's reaction to each take was, " 'Fine. Do more."' Daniels says. "Lots of actors would ask, 'What? Be specific.' But you don't say that to Woody Allen; by telling you to 'Do more,' he gives you freedom. It's as if he's got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions. That gives you the freedom to do 12 things - so it's alive and spontaneous, there isn't a right or wrong way. Also, the script is well written, so it's easier to act. It's not necessary for Woody's direction to be overly specific."

Daniels's experience on "Purple Rose" seems representative of Allen's approach, even on an atypical film such as "Interiors" - his one totally laughless work, about the emotional entanglements in a family of three sisters. (While writing "Hannah," Allen says, "I was worried that people would say, 'Oh he's writing about three sisters again.' It appeared to me as a negative, but it didn't stop me.") Sam Waterston, who had a major role in "Interiors," and has a small part in "Hannah," says there was much more flexibility in the recent film. "Directors define the world in which the characters are living," says Waterston, "and in 'Interiors' it was a cool, regimented world. It was a very strict movie, physically restricted. We were told to stand there and not there. It was all designed. But I see some of that in all his movies; they're not slapdash."

Today, Allen explains, "'Interiors' is a bit cool for me. That came from the fact that I wanted it all - the photography and the set decor and the way it was played - to stem from the Geraldine Page character" - the excessively proper, emotionally repressed mother. Geraldine Page and Max von Sydow, who appears in "Hannah," are the only actors who "awed" Allen with their talent, and it took a couple of scenes for him to get over this feeling.

Yet even when he was in strictest control, Allen's hallmark of calmness was evident. Once, Waterston recalls, Allen decided at the last minute to replace all the furniture on one set, a decision that cost more than a day of shooting time. On most sets, Waterston says, "that would have caused a crisis, but he just waited patiently. Directors work on actors with their full natures, and he comes to work with care and quiet and alertness and calm. He's patient not just with actors, but with himself."

And although Allen can seem impatient with his own failures in individual films, he does have a remarkably calm sense of his own progress through the years: "I started so far back, with comedies like 'Take the Money and Run' in the style of - I'm not saying it's as good as - an old Marx Brothers movie, with crazy jokes and cartoonlike situations. Starting at that end of the spectrum, I've tried over the years to get more and more serious and rounded. I hope that before I'm finished I can make a couple of films I can have real respect for. But that would mean making films as good as 'The Bicycle Thief' or 'Grand Illusion.'" Yet at other times, he says, "I want to just keep turning out films, to make all the ideas I can think of and not try to make the great work each time. Some, like 'A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy,' are good for little wisps of fun, others because there are ideas to chew over in them."

"Hannah" has both, and though the laughs it generates are expected, Allen seems genuinely surprised by how positive and hopeful a film it has seemed to some early audiences: "The comment I want to make in the film is the one the character I play makes in the scene when he's watching the movies. "

"The whole film points to that," he says of a sequence in which Mickey watches the Marx Brothers on screen. He realizes that he'll never know whether life has meaning, but maybe it's worth living after all. "Maybe life isn't meaningless, and that's the best you can do - there's no great affirmation there," he says. "People have been telling me, 'The film is so positive, so up,' and I think, 'Where did I go wrong?"

What audiences probably have in mind is not Mickey's philosophical discovery but the story's near-miraculous happy ending. "I think my films are romantic," he says - sometimes willfully so, because "I'm trying to be truthful and I have such a grim view of life." But he gives a small ironic laugh on grim. "Hannah," he says, concerns "the irrationality of one's feelings in romantic situations," but he seems to revel in such irrationality. Even more than "Hannah," or the ending of "Broadway Danny Rose" - a sentimental scene of improbable love and forgiveness-- Allen's luxurious, romantic sense flows through "Manhattan," the story of Isaac's love affairs with the savvy Diane Keaton character and the almost-innocent ingénue of Mariel Hemingway. "I tend to romanticize people and culture heroes and the island of Manhattan. I never grew out of that," Allen says. "New York is not exactly the way it appears in 'Manhattan.' I know that at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, if you're sitting down by the Brooklyn Bridge, you do take a risk. I thought of doing the scene where Mariel Hemingway and I take a carriage ride through Central Park, and having screams in the background, and people yelling, 'Stick 'em up.' But in the end, I went for a very romantic piece of Gershwin music. So I do tend to create certain moments of escapist perfection. When I was doing 'Manhattan,' I was going all over looking for great places, and it was hard to find places that weren't broken down. I'll walk down Madison Avenue and see that every store has a grating in front of it, and on crowded streets there are peddlers selling jewelry every 10 feet. I was very selective, and I did the same thing with 'Hannah,' choosing the best locations. I presented a view of the city as I'd like it to be, and as it can be today, if you take the trouble to walk on the right streets."

In "Hannah," Allen's romantic instinct for the happy ending may have taken him further than he'd like. Even Mickey's small affirmation seems too strong for the man who invented him. "What you want is for there to be one truth, and to be in possession of it, but you want it to be good news," Allen says. "If someone said, 'I'll tell you tomorrow whether there is a God, whether life has meaning,' it's better not to know because if the answer is no, you'd better do some fast tap dancing. If the odds are 50-50, it's better not to know." Making films may be his version of tap dancing against the odds. When he speculates that his next "cluster of films" will be intimate pictures, much like "Hannah," he seems unaware of how extraordinary it is to talk of films in terms of clusters. He just keeps turning them out, quietly accumulating his remarkable body of work.

Caryn James is an editor of The New York Times Book Review.