Robert Weide interview: on making Woody Allen: A Documentary

With his latest work Woody Allen: A Documentary out now, Michael caught up with filmmaker Robert Weide for a chat about the making of the film...

Making a documentary is no easy task – especially, it seems, when your subject is Woody Allen. As the theatrical cut of his biographical flick Woody Allen: A Documentary hits the UK, Michael had the chance to speak with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Robert Weide (who also directed the majority of Curb Your Enthusiasm, trivia buffs) about the art of the documentary.

Where do you start? Where do you stop? And how do you tackle Woody’s eclectic, prolific career in just under two hours? Thanks to Weide’s tremendous experience and insight, here is Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Docs, But Were Afraid To Ask.

I’m not sure where to start…

Well, let’s not! [laughs]

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Let’s start at the beginning, then. You made your first documentary, about the Marx Brothers, when you were 22…

Yes. I was 18 when I conceived it. It took four years to make, so I was 22 when it was finished. And it’s funny, because I started to pursue Woody soon after that, and the great thing about starting so young is, I figured, if I have to go back to this guy every decade, provided we both survive, eventually I can wear him down. And that’s really what it came down to, because I approached him once in the 80s, and once in the 90s, and I’m sure I did in the 2000s, and then finally my letter of October 2008 finally turned him around. So, fortunately, he was still around and so was I.

That’s funny, because in this documentary, Martin Scorsese says it’s Woody Allen’s tenacity that defines him as a filmmaker, and it seems there’s a similar tenacity on your part behind this film.

Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s the only way to get it done. He’s always been resistant to this. Other documentary filmmakers had approached him as well. Of course, Barbara Kopple did Wild Man Blues, but that was about his jazz band touring Europe, so that wasn’t this sort of film. But at least with me, the reason he’d turned it down had nothing to do with concern about content or creative control, it all came from this self-deprecating streak, and feeling he wasn’t a worthy subject, and that he wasn’t any kind of a big deal to warrant anybody taking him seriously in this sort of treatment. So I had to convince him not to worry about that, and finally he caved in.

Did the fact that this was an entry in the American Masters series of documentaries help?

I think that did, because it’s a very respected series. It helped in a way, but in a way it almost put him off, because his thinking was, “American Masters? How do you figure I’m one of those?” But it is a well-regarded series, and I think when they do broadcasts on somebody that he likes, he’s tuned in to the series. Unlike a lot of biography series on TV, which are very cookie cutter and slapdash, you rarely see an American Masters episode that isn’t first-rate.

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So when you start up a documentary like this, where do you start?

Well, my feeling is, first of all, because my subjects are always subjects that I already know about, because I’ve been interested in them for my whole life, there’s no real heavy-duty research period, because I’ve been researching my whole life. Be it Woody or the Marx Brothers or Kurt Vonnegut or Lenny Bruce, or whatever. So my feeling is, just collect as much material as possible. This means, obviously, in Woody’s case, it’s the films, getting early TV stuff, the interviews.

I mean, I interviewed Woody many times and just milked him for everything I could think to ask him about. I must have, I don’t know, twelve hours of filmed interviews with him, at least! The interviews with the other subjects, even people who appear in the film for 45 seconds, sometimes I’d film for two and a half hours.

So, for me the process is going into the editing room with all of this material, and then trying to make sense of it, rather than having a real specific outline of what was what. And some things occur to you. You know, when I was filming Woody and he said that he was a pretty normal, happy-go-lucky child until he was five, when he realised wouldn’t be around forever and that really bothered him. In my mind, as he’s talking on camera, I’m thinking, “Oh, this is where I cut to the clip from Annie Hall, where little Alvie Singer is worried that the universe is going to expand, and what’s the point of doing his homework”. That was an obvious connection. So those kind of connections form, and you patch them together, and hopefully you have something cohesive at the end.

So is that where the mysterious ‘written by’ credit comes into it, even though there isn’t a narrator in this film?

Yeah, this is the first documentary I’ve done without narration, but I am a Writer’s Guild member, and the Guild rules are that you have to take that credit. Now, a film like this is not written in the traditional sense, but it is written in the editing room. Every time you decide to use this piece of interview, and then go to this clip, it’s writing of a sort. It’s writing via editing.

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How much of that structure is informed by the access? You have so much footage of Woody not only in a talking head interview set-up, but also walking around Brooklyn and going through his apartment. And you also have on-set footage from You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger.

Yes. Everything informs everything. Those things, being on the set of Tall Dark Stranger, and going to Brooklyn with him, are just ideas. I knew certainly, even before I started, that I wanted to film him on a set. And, again, in typical Woody fashion, his first reaction was, he said, “My sets are very boring, nothing exciting happens, I barely talk to the actors.” He said, “You’re going to be flying from Los Angeles to London, and that’s a lot of money. I don’t think you’re going to wind up with anything useful. But, if you really want to do it, yes, of course, I’ll give you access and you can come and do it.”

The idea of taking him back to his old neighbourhood was something that occurred to me at some point during production. Because I was just going to go there with a camera and film some of the landmarks, and figured we’d hear him in voice-over talking about the cinemas that he went to and all that. And then, I thought, “Oh, what about bringing him out there, and having him point them out?”

Same thing, he says, “I can’t imagine that anybody would be interested in seeing me babble on about where I went to school, or where I saw movies, or where I grew up. Who cares about that?”  And I have to tell him, if people care enough to watch the film, they’ll be interested in these things!

So, Woody talks in front of his old house, he says, “This is where I grew up, and it was always full of relatives, we always had aunts and uncles and cousins living with us”. Okay, then I cut to a clip from Radio Days. Now that device, as far as using clips from these fictional films to illustrate points about his life, only goes so far. Annie Hall would be a typical example. Annie Hall was such a different kind of film, such a breakthrough film for him. Well, why? So, I’m asking people about why Annie Hall was different. Woody talked about it, Marshall Brickman talked about it, and other people talked about it, and I used clips to illustrate what they’re talking about.

Or if there’s a great clip you want to use, sometimes it goes the other way, and you ask somebody about that scene, and we’ll talk about it. One thing that I knew nothing about, speaking of Annie Hall, is the shrink scene, which we assume is a split-screen. The fact that it was a film set, where they were both on set at the same time. I thought that was fascinating.

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That is a particularly fascinating point. However, when you’re making a comprehensive documentary like this, there must be so many tidbits and equally fascinating points that you have to cut out, in favour of hitting Woody Allen’s career milestones. Is that the case?

Yes. Unless you’re really going to do a multi part, multi hour miniseries, you just have to make those choices. There are things that I never imagined if I did a Woody Allen documentary would hit the cutting room floor that did hit the cutting room floor. There are these TV specials that he did in the late 60s, which were very interesting to see, because it’s early Woody Allen. There’s the one deleted scene that he kept from Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, with him and Louise Lasser, I actually found that. Woody didn’t even know where that was. There was just no place for it. There are things you just have no time for, because, even in a documentary film, you have to keep the narrative moving.

And a lot of those things I just mentioned fell into this space between What’s New Pussycat, and Take The Money And Run, late 60s or mid-late 60s. But, to me, once Woody says he hated the film What’s New Pussycat, couldn’t even bring himself to see it, and vowed at that point that he would never write another screenplay unless he was in control and got to direct it, well, as soon as he says that, you want to get on to Take The Money And Run. So, to stop at that point, and say, “Oh, but he did do some TV specials”, it’s just like, ugh! You want to move on. That was really what informed a lot of those decisions. 

Now, some people have said there’s so much time spent on the early films, and less time spent on the later films. Now, I will say this. In the longer version, the later films get a little more time. That said, to me, I’m personally interested in origins. How did Woody Allen get to be a filmmaker? Looking at those early films of his, which were fairly rudimentary, but brilliant in their way, and then how Annie Hall changed everything.

Once you deal with the origins, at a certain point you have to say “What’s the next significant film?” Zelig was interesting in its way, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, there are some interesting things to say about that. The man’s made 43 films. So you can’t say, “Here’s a clip from Another Woman. Here’s a clip from Curse Of The Jade Scorpion”. I mean, at a certain point, you just have to hit the highlights. You can’t stop for every film. 

If you’re the filmmaker, you’re in charge, so you get to make those decisions about what to cover, and what not to cover. And there’s always going to be some point saying, “How can you not cover What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” And I go, “Really? What’s Up, Tiger Lily? A film that he just got some friends and dubbed?” It was not a significant point in his career. Some people love that film, so they want to see it. Or, “How can you not have the Marshall McLuhan scene from Annie Hall?” Because it’s not a 12 hour movie! That’s the only answer.

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And you do focus a lot on those early years, when he was a writer for other comedians, earning more money than his parents as a teenager, then he was moulded into a personality by Rollins and Joffe. Those are important stages in the creation of the Woody Allen we know today that people might not have known about before.

I didn’t film her for the film, but I talked to this woman who was teaching a university course on Great Directors, and every few semesters she would do Woody Allen. And I said, “So, when 19, 20, 21 year olds come into your class, how much do they know about Woody?” And she said “About a third of them are just film buffs who just know everything, and have seen his films; the other third are people who know a little bit about him, because their parents have shown them DVDs or whatever,” and she said, “the other third know him from Match Point on, because of Scarlett Johansson, and that film did very well in the States.”

 So they think of him as the guy who made Match Point, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and these films that he’s not even in – how would they react when they see Bananas? Or Love And Death? And she said they’re really quite shocked. They have no idea.

It’s interesting how, whereas The Marx Brothers and WC Fields, these other people I admired, were either deceased or not making films when I discovered their work decades later, one of the joys of Woody for me is that I was nine years old when his first movie came out, and I loved it straight away, so I went to see all of his films, and I’ve been able to watch his evolution as a filmmaker. And I haven’t loved all of his films, I’m hardly a sycophant.

There are some I didn’t even want to have to watch again, preparing for the film! I would say one of my least favourite films is Anything Else. It just bores me silly. But then, last year, the year before, Quentin Tarantino came out and said it was one of the best films since the 90s. And I didn’t know if he was saying that just to be provocative, or if he meant it, but it just goes to show, it’s all subjective. 

My intent was not to let the film gush too much. I admire him in the way that I admire all of the subjects of my films, otherwise I wouldn’t spend all this time making these films. I have to be interested in the subject. But any time I interviewed somebody who went on and on about what a genius Woody was, I think that was the first thing to hit the cutting room floor. Not because it would embarrass him, which it would, but because it would embarrass me. I didn’t want to have my name on a film that just paints this guy as the second coming.

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Is that where, in a film with no narrator, that the critics come in? For context and comments?

Right. You need somebody covering that. And, you know, Woody certainly isn’t going to speak analytically and critically about his films. He can talk anecdotally about making the film, or what he was trying to do with the film, or what he thinks about the film. The great thing about Leonard Maltin is, Leonard Maltin could fill in little narrative holes that I needed. Like, if I needed somebody to say that Woody did this play Don’t Drink The Water, and in a supporting role in that play was Tony Roberts.

Now, without narration, you have these holes. And I could go to Leonard and say, “Take us from Don’t Drink The Water to Play It Again, Sam.” And I would even give him a little thing that I needed, like, “mention Tony Roberts’. And he would do it. So that was great, that I could fill those gaps with those kind of third party voices, that weren’t involved in the films, but could speak about them.

So if a film like this is made in the edit, and it was originally broadcast in the States as a two-parter, and you’ve cut out an hour for this theatrical release...

It was more, actually. I think the total length of the long version winds up at about 3 hours 15 minutes, and the short version is 1 hour 53 minutes. So that’s a lot of major cutting.

And, of course there are many reasons to do that. People don’t want to be sitting in a cinema – certainly not a wide audience – for over three hours.

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Yeah, I’m not Judd Apatow! No one should have to sit through three hours of anything in a cinema.

But what was that process like? You already have a structure in place, was that where you start worrying that you’re cutting too much?

It’s a very good question. It’s a funny thing, because obviously I want to encourage people to see the film in the cinemas, and I totally stand by that cut, because I myself did the cut down. It’s not like it was in the hands of somebody who butchered it. All the choices were mine. I would say go to the cinemas, and if you’re a real Woody Allen nut, and need more, then that would probably be out on the DVD eventually.

When I first went into the editing room, I thought I’d come out with a two hour film. I was disabused of that notion very early on, and I realised there’d be no way to do it. So I got PBS to agree to let me do a two parter, over two nights, and make something that was three and a half hours, roughly. So I did that. And once I had that, I still needed to come up with a version for the cinemas, and I was really dreading this idea of having to cut it back down. But once I got the long version out of my system, and was sort of emotionally and creatively and psychologically satisfied, it was then much easier to cut that down, rather than build from nothing to a two hour version, because I thought, “This will always exist, this will be on DVD”.

And I have to tell you, because the film took roughly two years to make, I thought the cut down would be easily a few weeks in there. It was two afternoons. Not even two full afternoons. Not to make it seem like these were lackadaisical decisions, they weren’t, but by that time, I knew the film so well in my head, and had been thinking about this cut down, that basically we ran through the film, and I would say to my co-editor, “Kkeep it, keep it, lose it, lose it, keep it”, and I could do that. And we got it down.

Now, when I watch the short version, I’m still thinking about all the things that are missing that I loved, but I have to say there are five executive producers on this film, they were all familiar with the long version, and when I showed them the short version, every one of them said, “I cannot even tell what you’ve cut”. They had no idea. So that, to me, was a great compliment.

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It’s two different films, but the two-hour film is perfectly legitimate, and the long one is just more satisfying for people who want more Woody.

What do you think are the best qualities for a documentary filmmaker?

Now, my subjects, as I say, they’re subjects I’m interested in. The luxury for me is that I make these documentaries in the comfort of an editing room. I set up a tripod and a camera – well, I don’t do it, but my crew set up the lighting and everything in Woody Allen’s apartment or maybe I’m following him around on the set in London. This is a very luxurious way to make documentaries. I always admire documentary filmmakers who are on the front line, and are ducking bullets, those guys and women who are on the street making those kinds of documentaries. 

But I think both in the case of what I do, and what those filmmakers do, I don’t see any way around the criteria of having to love your subject, or be very interested in your subject. I think the key element that we all have in common, whether it’s me or Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock or Nick Broomfield, it’s that you have to have a genuine passion for the subject.

Otherwise, these things are just too hard to make. Even what I do, which is a comfortable way to make a documentary. It’s too time-consuming to not have the passion to do it. 

Is that the same when it comes to conducting good interviews?

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I don’t know, you tell me! [laughs]

Mr Weide, thank you very much for your time!

Woody Allen: A Documentary is out now. You can read our review here.

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