Funny people fascinate Robert Weide. Since his 1982 breakout documentary on the Marx Brothers, the veteran filmmaker has essayed thoughtful TV profiles of W.C. Fields, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. He's also worked closely with Larry David as producer and director on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm and directed the feature film How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.
Weide focuses on Woody Allen in his latest film treatise for PBS's American Masters. The two-part film boasts unprecedented access to the notoriously shy film legend and takes viewers behind the scenes of his creative process. Weide recently spoke to us from Los Angeles.
Why did the famously reclusive Woody agree to participate in your profile?
I really made the case for it. Plus I had the slightest acquaintance with him. He was in my Marx Brothers documentary, which was nearly 30 years ago. Probably foremost though is that he's familiar with my work and we have the same heroes. I sent him a letter by fax in 2008 and when his assistant got back to me and asked, "If Woody were to do this…,' I knew I was in.
How did you get him to open up about his life and career?
He was very, very easy to deal with. It was a delight getting to log some face time with Woody, just because he's been a presence in my life for so long and I admire his work. So many people walk on eggshells around him, and there's such an air of reverence, that if you mess with him and kind of tease him and insult him a little bit, he responds to it. That was easy for me because that's my dynamic with most of my friends.
Is it no accident that your film begins with Woody Allen waxing romantically on the life of a writer?
It really does come down to the written word for him. After the disastrous experience he had on What's New, Pussycat?, he decided he would never write another script for anyone else, he would only write scripts for himself to direct, so he became a director. At the heart of it, he's a writer.
Some of the archive footage – Woody boxing a kangaroo, singing to a dog, wearing top hat and tails – seems surreal, given his low profile today. Why was he so outgoing early in his career?
That was his manager Jack Rollins's idea – to just get him out there and get his face known and become a household name. They had one of those old-school relationships where your manager told you what to do and you did it. There was so much stuff I couldn't include, like when Woody hosted The Tonight Show and one of the guests was Bob Hope, his idol. Woody is like a little schoolboy giggling at Bob Hope's jokes.
In the film, Larry David talks about the huge impact Annie Hall had on movies back in 1977. Was that your experience?
When I was 16 or 17, I just happened to be at the premiere of Annie Hall in Los Angeles. I'll never forget the electricity in the room that night. It was a comic's dream. Everything played, every joke got howls, right from the opening scene. The audience reaction was explosive. It really was a game-changer.
Woody is surprisingly forthcoming about his breakup with Mia Farrow and the subsequent legal battle for custody of their children.…
A few people were surprised the subject was even broached at all, let alone that Woody would speak to it. But it had to be dealt with. We talked about the media-circus element of it, but this was always a film about Woody's work. When it comes down to how the breakup and legal battle affected his work, the answer is not at all. He never missed a beat.
Did you gain any insight into his prolific nature? At 75, he still turns out a film each year.
By today's standards, that's very unusual. By the time one film comes out, he's already shooting the next one. Woody is very streamlined. He finishes a script, he hands it to his line producer who does a budget, and soon after he's shooting. To this day, he keeps it very simple.
Has Woody seen the finished product?
The only thing he asked for was a chance to see the film once I had my final cut. He just wanted to make sure there wasn't anything too egregiously misrepresented. Any comments he did have were of a self-deprecating nature. There were literally three or four small things he objected to, most of it because he didn't like the material, including one clip of him in his standup act.
Did making this film change your opinion or perception of Woody Allen?
No. There's that old cliché about not meeting your heroes because you'll be disappointed, but that wasn't the case. I've met a number of my heroes but the two I've become closest with are Kurt Vonnegut and Woody, to a degree. Kurt Vonnegut and I became very close and he was a delight. He was everything I hoped Kurt Vonnegut would be. Woody and I became friendly, but we're not hanging out or anything.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Woody Allen: American Masters airs Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. on most PBS stations.