‘You move on. I’ve already finished another film and I’m at home now writing another one. I don’t like to dwell,’ Woody Allen tells us, as if to highlight his non-stop attitude to his craft, and one suspects to life in general.
Allen remains one of the most celebrated names in modern cinema. His films, particularly his work in the 1970s with seminal hits like Manhattan and Annie Hall, have transcended the following decades and are relatable commentary pieces on modern life. There is also no escaping the reviews surrounding the filmmaker’s more recent movies, titles that have been deemed inferior by many commentators. In addition, there are persistent stories about his private life, all of which Allen denies but that have been given sharp focus with the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal that has swept Hollywood, with some actors who have collaborated with him in the past choosing not to work with the director again.
When we spoke to the 82-year-old last year, we found him to be in remarkably candid form. His most recent film is Wonder Wheel, a typically stagey affair, telling the story of a group of characters living in and around New York’s fabled Coney Island in the 1950s.
Not that the director would know much about what audiences – or critics – have to say about his work.
‘The film comes out but I never really read about my films. I never check the box-office or anything like that. People will come up [to me] and say “I like your film” or “I didn’t think it was one of your best” and that’s how you get an inkling.’
Allen, perhaps surprisingly, has always had this attitude to his own films.
‘You reach a point where you are happy to let it [the film] go. You want to get rid of it! You have been doing nothing but working on it. You edit it, put in the music and do the colour correction and you don’t want to see it again. When I get asked to do the television version I often ask “do I have to sit through it again?” I have no problem walking away from it, it’s a good moment to think that you never have to see it again.’
With as many films as years in the industry under his belt, 2018 marks Allen’s 50th year in the film business.
‘I made my first movie in 1968, Take the Money and Run, and it was finished, done, and I’ve never laid eyes on it again. This is true of every movie I’ve made. This is true of the 50 or so movies I’ve done, I’ve never watched them again after I say goodbye to it. If it’s on the TV when I’m on my treadmill or something, I skip straight past it. I know I’ll pick it apart and think “Why did I do this? If only I could do this scene again.” It’s better not to dwell on the past,’ Allen told us, repeating the line he used at the start of our interview.
Wonder Wheel deals with some powerful themes, which are not just relevant to the wider audience, but also inviting conversations around Allen himself.
Jim Belushi stars at the irritable Harold ‘Humpty’ Jablon, a volatile blue-collar man who is at odds with his wife Ginny (Kate Winslet). Out of the blue, and after several years away, Humpty’s daughter from a previous relationship returns and moves in with the dysfunctional family. We learn that Carolina (Juno Temple) is on the run from her mobster husband and intent on keeping a low profile. Humpty dotes over Carolina, much to the annoyance of Ginny who makes sly references over perceived the inappropriate closeness of the father and daughter. Into this combustible environment comes Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a charming life-guard who apparently has his pick of women from his lofty vantage point atop a viewing platform overseeing the beach.
Mickey and Ginny begin an affair, the latter falling for Mickey in a big way and privately threatening to leave her husband for the new man. As goons for the unseen mobster close in on Carolina, Mickey has a chance encounter with the young blonde and soon they too begin a romance. How will the temperamental Ginny react when she finds out the truth?
As with most Woody Allen movies, the ‘certainty of chance’ plays an important part in the story. The location, too, seen through sepia-tinted spectacles of a nostalgic worldview, is clearly a place that the director knows – or knew – all too well.
‘A lot of that [recreating Coney Island on film] is from memory because I grew up right next to it. Coney Island was a magical place when I grew up. You would live in a residential area with houses and schools, and then you would walk to Coney Island and suddenly there is this magical thing in every direction with rides and lights and acrobats. They were selling popcorn, and ice-cream, it was always a great treat when you were a kid. You could shoot rifles for prizes, and there was nothing like it. It was great.’
The area clearly holds a special place in Allen’s heart. We asked if it was still as he remembered it.
‘When they first built it, long before I was born, it was fantastic. It was one of the great wonders of the world. It has gone down and down, so by the 1950s, when this movie takes place, It was already having a hard time. Then it really hit the skids. I think about five years ago they built it back up, but it’s a skeleton of what it once was.’
With nostalgia playing an important role in Wonder Wheel, Allen has a surprisingly matter-of-fact attitude to the passing of time and the ageing process.
‘You definitely don’t want to get older! You fight it, but there is nothing you can do about it. I have a hearing aid and my eyesight isn’t as good as it was. I was very athletic, but you can’t do that now. I miss it. I have gotten no wisdom from getting older… you just get more aches and pains that last longer.’
On the subject of love, something that can be seen as a common theme in all of Allen’s films to some degree, the director is once again a master of practicalities.
‘All the clichés are true. It is a nice part of life. It is a difficult part of life. Everyone has trouble with it. It’s heartbreaking but when it is good, it is a paradise. I’ve learnt nothing [over the years]. If I was 25 or 30 again, knowing all what I know now, I would probably make all the same mistakes.’
If there was one term that could be applied to the films of Woody Allen, then it would be tragicomedy. Of the two, tragedy or comedy, which applies to the life of the director?
‘My life has always been tragic ever since the age of five. Life is terrible and not a good deal, and I’ve never had a good word to say about it. I’ve never thought it was decent or fair. I wanted to be a serious playwright but my talent, for whatever crazy reason, was in comedy. I found myself succeeding when I did something comic, and that was what people wanted. I could only get money to do that. Over the years, I did not give up my dream for the serious, but of all my movies the majority are comic. They are pessimistic and often dark too.’
It’s a fascinating world view, and one that is hinted at in most of Allen’s films, even if, as he says himself, he is best known for comedies. It’s a talent that Allen explains has been an ever-present in his life.
‘I’ve always been able to make people laugh. I’ve always been funny and I don’t know why. No one in my family was funny or theatrical. I was also very lucky, in school, as my friends were deciding that they wanted to be lawyers, doctors, architects and so on, I had no desire for that. I could work a being funny and I don’t know how that happened. I would have a common job as a waiter or running an elevator, but I could write jokes. People wanted to buy these jokes for the radio and for TV. I didn’t have to choose an occupation, I was just lucky.”
This particular film, as with many in the director’s back-catalogue, has female characters in the main roles. Think back to the recent critical and commercial hit Blue Jasmine (2013) or his films with the likes of Diane Keaton and Scarlett Johansson, there seems to be something about writing for women that appeals to Allen.
‘Since the first dramas began in Ancient Greece, these [strong] women have been the heroines of these types of stories. It’s a common thing, and I like to do that. I like Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams with their wonderful female characters, who are highly emotional women, interesting and complicated. This happens once in a while with a man – I think of Match Point (2005) with Jonathan Rhys Meyers who was an interesting male character – but more often I see it from a female point of view.’
On the subject of women in the industry, Allen states his view quite clearly. He also tells us how his writing style has changed thanks to the influence of one woman in particular.
‘Women should be the complete equals of men. They shouldn’t be paid a penny less for the same job. I, myself, always used to write for me, as a man, but then when I was younger I went out with Diane Keaton. We started living together and I found her to be so brilliant and sensitive and artistically gifted that I started to write for her. I thought she was so much deeper than I was. I’ve worked with some great actresses and it has been one of the great pleasures of my life. I might not have done that if it wasn’t for Diane Keaton. It took some education.’
Early in his career, Allen starred in his own films, apparently playing a variation of himself and writing characters in such a way. In recent years he has moved to working exclusively behind the camera, but one wonders if there is a proxy in this film in the form of Timberlake’s Mickey.
‘Half of Mickey is me,’ Allen states, ‘I could never be a life-guard! I can swim but I couldn’t rescue anybody. I identify with his deluded and failed aspirations to be a great writer, but I’m not going to be [a great writer]. I know this, but Mickey doesn’t know it yet. He never will be a great writer. He may well be in a different job in ten years time working in a store or garage. I identify with those aspirations, I would like to be Chekhov but what he has is genius. You can take writing lessons and think you are writing the same stuff as as him, his plays, but why are his plays great? What is missing is the genius. There is something you can’t measure or find, like Picasso drawing or painting. Few people have it, not many, but sooner or later you realise you are not a genius and you have to make your peace with it.’
With everything he has achieved and created, we finally ask if there will ever be a point when Woody Allen will be able to say ‘life is beautiful’. The reply, given what we’ve already spoken about, is predictable.
‘Not for me. I see no reason to think that the phenomenon of life is beautiful. I see no evidence of that. I only see evidence of it being sad, tragic, awful, stupid, meaningless and absurd. I do not have a charitable view of it.’
Wonder Wheel is on general release from March 9