Producer Recalls Challenges of Making PBS' Woody Allen Doc

Robert Weide, Mira Sorvino and Mariel Hemingway discussed the filmmaker on Sunday morning.
Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

BEVERLY HILLS -- Woody Allen was the subject of discussion during PBS' Television Critics Assoc. press day on Sunday.

"I had approached him over the past 25 years and he always politely declined," filmmaker and producer Robert Weide told reporters of the genesis of Seriously Funny: The Comic Art of Woody Allen (working title). "People say, 'Why doesn't AFI give him a life achievement [award]?' He can't stand it."

"The Kennedy honors, he'd be up with the president throwing up," Weide inferred.

The latest American Masters program, set to premiere Nov. 20 and 21, has been in the works for years, with Weide approaching Allen in October 2008 to pitch him the possibility of making a series focused on his career. "When I pitched to Woody, I pitched it as a possible American Masters program and that appealed to him," Weide recalled, adding that the "prestige" of the American Masters name was key in getting the OK from Allen.

Oscar-nominated actress Mariel Hemingway, who starred in Allen's Manhattan as his 17-year-old lover, spoke of her character. "It wasn't a well-rounded character in writing," she says. "It really was a character that blossomed out of the creation of the movie. ... it was the first I had done any improvisational work at all."

Mira Sorvino, who won an Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite as Linda Ash, spoke about the decision she had to make to go forward with the feature. "I had to turn down the movie Hackers to do it," Sorvino said. "I read two scenes in the audition ... They didn't even tell me in the first audition that she's a prostitute."

But according to Sorvino, Allen is unlike other directors when it comes to sticking to the script. "He said, 'Listen, whatever I've written here is a blueprint. You don't have to say anything that I've written. ... He would do a 12-page scene in one shot and he would use it" in the film.

During the making of the program, Weide said that he had unprecedented access to Allen. He spent 3 1/2 hours following the filmmaker in Brooklyn, had six formal sit-downs interviews, shadowed Allen on the movie set of one of his recent films and went to the Cannes Film Festival.

"Scarlett Johansson describes Woody as 'crippingly shy' and he always was," Weide says. Back in the old days when Allen was appearing on talk shows and doing stand-up, Weide said Allen's managers at the time "wanted him to sink into the pores of the public.

Hemingway addressed Allen's infatuation with younger women. "It's not really a subject I like to talk about tremendously. It was certainly detrimental to him for a while," she said. "He's an artist. He makes choices we don't all understand."

Allen, who is currently filming in Rome, was and still is the quintessential New York filmmaker, so why -- as of late -- is he going elsewhere? "Follow the money," Weide said. "It's really as pragmatic as that. ... He as approached by the U.K. saying, 'Come make a movie here.' ... Match Point was originally a New York film ... he just retooled it a little bit."