With 'Cafe Society' set to open the French festival, the director reflects on his unreflective stance on aging ("If you focus on mortality, the house always wins"), his movies ("I would erase all but a few"), saving wife Soon-Yi, working with Miley Cyrus, why TV is "harder" than he thought and his willful avoidance of his own press: "I scrupulously have avoided any self-preoccupation."
"People often have said, 'Gee, you live in a bubble' — and maybe I do," admits Woody Allen as he settles into an armchair inside his private screening room on New York's Upper East Side. A creature of habit, he has been watching movies (and taking meetings) in this somber little theater for the past 35 years. "I get up in the morning," he says, "take the kids to school, then do the treadmill, then get into my room and work, have lunch, go back and work, practice the clarinet, see friends or go to a basketball game. It's a bourgeois, middle-class worker's life. But it's enabled me to be productive over the years."
Productive is putting it mildly. Allen has churned out a movie a year — from classic New York comedies (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters) to Bergman-esque dramas (Interiors) to stylish London-set crime capers (Match Point) — since the 1980s, with combined grosses of nearly $600 million. He barely missed a beat even during the tumultuous 1990s, when his split from Mia Farrow threatened to blow up his reputation (accusations that Allen abused their then-7-year-old daughter Dylan were not pursued by police after an investigation, but the battle still rages, with a grown-up Dylan reasserting the claims two years ago in The New York Times).
Right on schedule, Allen is about to bring his 47th picture to Cannes — Cafe Society, a coming-of-age tale set in the 1930s about a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who moves from New York to Hollywood, where he lands a job with a big-time agent (Steve Carell) and falls in love with a pretty assistant (Kristen Stewart). "It was such a glamorous time in California," says Allen. "You'd read about the Mocambo and the Cocoanut Grove and Ciro's and all the movie stars going out at night. And then there was New York nightlife — socialites and politicians and gangsters."
At 80, Allen no longer is the bespectacled, saddle shoe-wearing comic genius who famously was too busy playing clarinet at Michael's Pub to collect his Oscar for Annie Hall (at least he doesn't wear saddle shoes anymore). But on this April morning, the razor-sharp director invites THR inside his "bubble" for a conversation covering everything from his 20-year marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, now 45 (they have two daughters, 15 and 17; he also has three children with Farrow), to his nonexistent relationship with technology. He doesn't use a computer but, ironically, is now part of the Amazon revolution. The internet giant not only bought Cafe Society for $15 million — marking the end of Allen's six-film run with Sony Pictures Classics — but also is funding Allen's first streaming TV series, a limited-run comedy in which he will co-star with Elaine May and Miley Cyrus.
You're 80 now. Mortality was always a theme in your early work. Does it still worry you?
Well, yeah, sure it worries me. First of all, it did worry me when I was 5. And it's worried me throughout my entire life. And yes, it does worry me, sure. The only thing you can do, I think, the best solution, is to try and push it out of your mind, not think about it and just focus on, "Gee, am I going to be able to get the right scene for Jesse Eisenberg and Steve Carell in this movie?" To focus on problems that, if you strike out and they don't succeed for you, you are still OK. If you focus on mortality, the house always wins.
Have you changed over the years?
I do think I evolved artistically. When I first started making movies, I was interested in just the jokes. Then, over the years, I became more ambitious and wanted to do deeper works or better works. And this is either a good thing, depending on where you sit, or a bad thing. There are people that would say, "I think this is great and very healthy and you went on to make some very good films," or they could say, "You never should have done [that]."
You had to reshoot part of Cafe Society. What happened?
I shot a few scenes in California with Bruce Willis, and Bruce was going to do something on Broadway [Misery] and it was just too much for him. So we replaced him with Steve Carell.
"You know, that was always a myth. I never hated L.A. It’s just not a place I could live in because I don’t like sunny weather. But I like cities like New York, where I can walk out of my house and I’m right in the middle of everything and there’s noise and traffic and we get gray, cloudy days and snow,” says Allen, photographed April 20 at Manhattan Film Center in New York City.
How did the movie come about?
I wanted to do kind of a novel on film, about a family and the relationships of the members toward one another, and the protagonist's love relationship. I wanted it to have the structure of a novel, so I could move around and dwell on various members of the family. That's why I narrated it because I was sort of the writer of the novel that you were experiencing when you saw the film.
Was the agent played by Carell based on anyone specific?
Yes and no. When I first started in the business, I was 16, 17, and I would go up to agents' offices. And these agents were very powerful figures to me. I remember going out to California once, going to William Morris, and there was a very beautiful receptionist there. And I thought, "My God, she's as beautiful as any of the movie stars."
Do you still hate L.A.?
No, no. You know, that was always a myth. I never hated it. It's just not a place that I could live in because I don't like sunny weather and I don't like being dependent on a car. I like cities like New York, where I can walk out of my house and I'm right in the middle of everything and there's noise and traffic and we get gray, cloudy days and snow. But I have many friends in California. I enjoy going out there for short periods of time. I don't like to drive. I can drive, but I don't like to.
What kind of things did you read for research to make the movie?
Well, you read the [old] gossip columns, the Hollywood columns, [which] were in New York as well. So much of what you knew from California, you knew from the columns that you got in New York — Hedda Hopper and Sheilah Graham. They would give you the Hollywood news, and it sounded very exciting.
Do you read a lot in general?
I never enjoyed reading. I was not a bookish guy. I read comic books till I was 18. I read over the decades because one has to read to survive in life. But it's not what I do for pleasure. I'd always rather watch a baseball game or a basketball game or go to the movies or listen to music.
Which newspapers do you read?
The [New York] Times because it's habitual since I was younger. And then somehow or another I catch up with the tabloids. My driver has them when I'm sitting in the car.
Do you read about yourself in the tabloids?
I never, ever, ever read anything about myself. Not my interviews, not stories about me. I never, ever read any criticism of my films. I scrupulously have avoided any self-preoccupation. When I first started, that was not the case. [But now I] just pay attention to the work and don't read about how great I am or what a fool I am. The enjoyment has got to come from doing the project. It's fun to get up in the morning and have your script in front of you and to meet with your scenic designer and your cinematographer, to get out on the set and work with these charming men and beautiful women and put in this Cole Porter music and great costumes. When that's over, and you've made your best movie, move on. I never look at the movie again — I never read anything about it again.
From left: Allen, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and Eisenberg on the set of 'Cafe Society.' “I always wanted to do a movie that had some of the nightlife [of the 1930s] in it,” says Allen. “It was such a glamorous time.”
In the early 1990s, when you were criticized for starting your relationship with Soon-Yi, were you immune to all that? Were you unaware of it?
I was immune, yes I was. You can see I worked right through that, undiminished. Made films all through those years and at the same rate I was making them. I'm good that way. I am very disciplined and very monomaniacal and compartmentalized.
So you weren't traumatized by the scandal?
Oh, no. Not in the slightest.
I assume you haven't seen Mia Farrow at all?
No. I don't think she lives in New York. I think she lives in Connecticut. I'm not sure. Or travels for UNICEF or something.
How has your wife, Soon-Yi, changed you?
Oh, well, one of the great experiences of my life has been my wife. She had a very, very difficult upbringing in Korea: She was an orphan on the streets, living out of trash cans and starving as a 6-year-old. And she was picked up and put in an orphanage. And so I've been able to really make her life better. I provided her with enormous opportunities, and she has sparked to them. She's educated herself and has tons of friends and children and got a college degree and went to graduate school, and she has traveled all over with me now. She's very sophisticated and has been to all the great capitals of Europe. She has just become a different person. So the contributions I've made to her life have given me more pleasure than all my films.
You're saying how you changed her. How has she changed you?
(Allen pauses.) Well, she's given me a lot of pleasure. I adore her, and she's given me a wonderful life. We've been married 20 years. And we were together for a few years before that. And she has given me the great years of my life, personally. She's a great companion and a great wife. She has given me a stable and wonderful home life and great companionship. I guess whenever you meet somebody and they're the right person for you, there is a great emotional contribution they make to your life.
But has she changed you in any way?
(Pauses.) Changed me? I don't know if you could say she changed me. I don't know if I've changed. I might be the same person I was when I was 20. I'm not sure. I mean, I seem to have the same habits, the same work habits, the same phobias, the same enjoyments. I don't think I have changed much over the years at all. When you mention it, I try and think about the ways [I've changed]. I don't know if I've changed much.
Do you still watch a lot of films?
There aren't a lot of films that interest me. When I first had this screening room 30 years ago, 35 years ago, I used to be able to come here every Saturday night and see something with my friends. But that doesn't happen anymore.
What have you seen that you liked recently?
I saw a picture called Rams, which I liked, an Icelandic film. But I don't see many American films. I used to be able to. When I grew up, there were a dozen films to see every week. Then we went through that period in the '60s where the director emerged as a formative figure in American filmmaking, and there were a lot of terrific films. And then the industry realized they could make more money making big blockbuster films. But none of them have ever interested me.
From left: Allen with Misha, Farrow, Dylan (in Farrow’s arms), Fletcher and Soon-Yi in New York in 1986.
Have you seen any of the superhero films?
Have you ever watched any of your own movies again?
No. Never seen them again. I made Take the Money and Run in 1968 or so; I've never seen it again. Never seen any of them.
This is your 12th film in Cannes.
It could be. I don't know. For years, I would send the film and not go. I don't know [why]. I never liked to fly on an airplane for six hours and get the time change. It makes me crazy; it takes me six months to get [over the time change]. Just from daylight saving time, I can't recover. So then I started to go, and my wife likes to go, she enjoys the South of France. I mean, I like the South of France, too. It's a film-oriented event, and so it's enjoyable.
Of your films, is there any one that you would erase if you could?
Of mine? Well, I would erase all but a few. (Laughs.) There's probably six or eight of my films that I would keep, and you could have all the rest. Purple Rose of Cairo I would include, and Match Point and Husbands and Wives, probably Zelig, probably Midnight in Paris. It's starting to get harder …
Annie Hall, Manhattan?
I made them so long ago, I don't even remember them well. I don't have the same affectionate feeling for them as the public had. When I made Manhattan and saw it, I was very disappointed at the time. And I spoke to Arthur Krim [the head of United Artists] and said, "If you don't put this film out, I will make a film for you for nothing." He said: "You're crazy. We like the film and we have an investment. We borrowed money to make [it]. We can't just spend a few million dollars and then not put a film out. It's insane." So they put it out, and it was a very big success. I have often said, it's great luck, and we take credit for stuff that is out of our control.
How far along are you with your Amazon show?
By tomorrow I'll have edited it and finished it. Six half-hour episodes.
Do you have a title?
No, I do not have a title for it, but it's six half-hour episodes. And it ends. It's not the kind of thing that could go on in perpetuity. It's one story. It's a comedy that stars me, Elaine May and Miley Cyrus primarily, a domestic comedy that takes place in the late 1960s. And hopefully people will find it amusing. It's not going to start any new religions, I can tell you that.
When did you first meet Miley Cyrus?
I met her for this project. I noticed years ago that my kids would be watching Hannah Montana. And I would say: "Who is that girl? She's got such a good delivery. You know, she snaps those lines off so well. The show is a silly little show, but she's very good at what she does." And then she emerged as a singer, and someone showed me a little clip of hers from Saturday Night Live, and I said, "It confirms what I always thought about her: She is very good, she is really a talented girl." She wanted to take some time off, but she [agreed to do the series] because the role interested her. So I met her right here.
From left: Jodie Markell, Barney Cheng, Treat Williams, Tiffani Thiessen, Soon-Yi, Allen and Debra Messing at Cannes in 2002 for Allen’s 'Hollywood Ending,' which opened the festival. Says Allen of going to the South of France: “I never liked to fly on an airplane for six hours and get the time change. It makes me crazy; it takes me six months to get [over it].”
In this screening room, where we're sitting now?
Right here, yeah. She came in here one day while the casting people were here. She came in and we chatted for a few minutes — a perfunctory chat, just getting to know the person. But I wanted to hire her. I didn't need that five minutes of silly chat.
Last year, you seemed to regret embarking on a TV show. Do you still regret it?
It was much harder to do than I thought. I thought, "I'll sandwich this in between two films and knock it off. What's the big deal? It's television." But over the years, television has made enormous strides, and wonderful things are being done on television. And I found as soon as I started to get into the project, I couldn't bring myself to slough it off because this is not television of 50 years ago, where every silly thing was acceptable. You're working in a medium that has grown up and has got wonderful things being done in it, and, yes, you may prove to be an embarrassment, but you don't want to be a total embarrassment.
You don't watch those other great things on television? Mad Men, Breaking Bad?
I don't watch them. I'm not home. I don't have the incentive. I'm out having dinner with friends, and when I come home, I'm tired and I want to quickly see the last quarter of the Knick game or the last couple of innings of the Yankee game or the Mets game. I'm just not interested enough.
Do you have a DVR to record things?
I can't work any of that stuff. My wife could work it, but I can't.
Do you still have no computer?
No. I have none of that stuff. And I'm not good at that. I'm not good technically. I have a cellphone, but it's very limited. I know this: I can make calls, and my assistant put all my jazz records on it. It used to be when I would go out of town and I'd practice the clarinet, I was always schlepping a lot of vinyl recordings from city to city.
"When you turn 80, what are you looking forward to? Becoming decrepit? The solution is to push it out of your mind."
No, never emailed anybody.
Will you do more TV with Amazon?
No, I don't think so. The only other deal I made with them was to put out Cafe Society. But I didn't want to put it out and then go stream it right away, so we said it would have to be a normal putting out of a picture. It would have to play for several months in the theaters, the way I normally put a picture out — in a few theaters and then a larger amount. Depending on what the box office is, it either goes larger quickly or slower or whatever voodoo strategies those companies have. But that seemed fine with me.
What are your dreams like? Do you have nightmares?
Every once in a while, I'll have a nightmare, yes. Not often. But I will occasionally be screaming in my sleep, and my wife will be shaking me. But not often. I sleep like a dead person.
Has growing older changed your views of religion?
My views on religion are the same. I feel it's a pleasant fantasy for people to try and mollify the pain of the reality of existence.
How about politics? Who are you supporting?
I'm a Hillary fan. I like Bernie very much. I think what he espouses is wonderful. But I think Hillary will get more done of what Bernie would like than Bernie could get done.
Have you met Hillary?
No. I've met Trump because he was in one of my movies, Celebrity. He's very affable, and I run into him at basketball games and at Lincoln Center. And he is always very nice and pleasant — [which is] hard to put together with many of the things he has said in his campaign.
I read that you once met Samuel Beckett.
I did. I chatted with him for five minutes at I think it was Les Deux Magots [a cafe in Paris]. I was there having coffee, and someone said: "Samuel Beckett is over there. Would you like to meet him?" And I said, "Sure," and I went over and we chatted for a little while. He was very nice. I was never a great Beckett fan. But I wanted to meet Jean-Paul Sartre. I wanted to do that, and someone connected with him said, "It can be arranged for a price."
No, no. I didn't follow up on that because the whole thing was too sinister for my psyche.
Editors note: Corrected to reflect that in 1993 authorities did not dismiss charges against Allen, but declined to pursue them after an investigation.