Woody Allen interview: ‘I was happy until I was five’

After a difficult year, the director talks about his new film ‘Magic in the Moonlight’, why he doesn’t read critics – and, well, about the end of the universe

This year has been an eventful one for Woody Allen. The 78-year-old New Yorker’s last film, ‘Blue Jasmine’, won Cate Blanchett an Oscar in March. Since then, Allen has finished another movie, ‘Magic in the Moonlight’, with Colin Firth and Emma Stone, and shot yet another one, a still-untitled murder mystery again starring Stone, this time alongside Joaquin Phoenix.

But away from the cinema, Allen has been in the headlines for other, darker reasons. In February he went public to deny allegations that he abused his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow in the 1990s. Allen says that the denial he wrote in the New York Times will be his final word on the matter. As such, the subject was off the table when we met in Paris last month.

Instead, talk swirled around ‘Magic in the Moonlight’. Set in the 1920s, this thoughtful, light romance stars Firth as Stanley, a magician who travels to the south of France to prove that a psychic, Sophie (Stone), who has wormed her way into the lives of a wealthy family, is a fake. It’s a gentle, short story of a film, a sun-drenched yarn that riffs breezily on ideas that have long obsessed Allen, not least the eternal battle between love and reason, head and heart.

Dressed in his Woody Allen uniform – beige shirt, beige trousers, brown shoes – he was amused and amusing company, even when talking about some of his favourite heavy subjects: death, misery and the meaninglessness of our existence.

You’ve said that you dig around in your drawers for old stories when deciding what to make next. How long had ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ been around? 
‘A long time. I’d just done “Blue Jasmine” and wanted to do something more romantic, less gritty. I had this idea a long time ago about a magician who debunked spiritualists. In the 1920s, seances, fake psychic readings, spirit photographs and all that nonsense were very popular. I always thought it would make an interesting movie.’

Like Colin Firth’s character Stanley in this film, you’ve always said you don’t believe in God, just in cold, hard reason. But if you look at Stanley, that doesn’t seem like much fun.
‘I know, that’s the problem. Years ago I was on television with [evangelist] Billy Graham and we were debating this in a friendly way, and he said to me, “Even if I’m wrong and you’re right, then when I die and there’s nothing, I’ll still have had a better life than you.” And I’m thinking: Yes, you’re right.’

So were you exploring that same conundrum when writing Colin Firth’s character?
‘Yes, he is like a character in an Ingmar Bergman film, who wants to believe but can’t because his common sense, his intelligence, his logic and rationality tell him clearly: what you see is what you get. There is no afterlife, heaven, God, Santa Claus. We live for a while, then everything is over. Eventually the universe will be gone. Everything will be gone. All the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven. The sun will burn out, the Earth will be gone. Eventually the entire universe – the entire universe – will be gone. There will be nothing, no light, no air. Nothing!’

Do you ever regret setting yourself up as a cheery spokesperson for the inevitability of death and the absence of God?
‘It’s a sad thing. I wish I had grown up with a different disposition. I wish I had grown up sanguine and buoyant and not obsessed with these questions, but I didn’t. My mother said that I was a very happy kid until about five years old and then I turned sour. Nothing happened: I had no traumas in the family, nobody died. I never missed a meal. Everything was fine. I think the trauma was that I realised: my God, this ends! It comes to a point where one day you vanish. You totally vanish for ever. You’re gone. Period.’

‘You need to tell yourself a couple of lies to get through life. Otherwise it’s too grisly. If you don’t have a strong denial mechanism, try waking up in your bed at 3am when there are no distractions. You get a cold chill.’

When Robin Williams died recently, there was the usual talk about the tears of clowns, that comedy is an outlet for deep sadness. Do you think that’s just a cliché?
‘Well, I think it’s just an ironic truth. Everybody feels that pain and existential loneliness and terror. When you see it in a comic persona, you tend to think it’s special because the person is so funny and seems to be the very antithesis of gloom. How ironic that that person is sad. But he’s no sadder than the guy who drives a cab. It just looks more ironic on him as he makes his living as a funnyman.’

You used to appear in most of your films. Were people wrong to describe them as autobiographical?
‘They’re right in the sense that it’s close to how I sound and dress. They’re wrong in that they think the events happened to me. They’re not autobiographical in the sense that people think they are. They’re autobiographical in a greater sense. I’m never going to do a film where I play a fascist or something. I’ll always be a democrat because that’s what I am. The feelings behind the films always reflect my feelings. Also, when I go into a movie, I wear these pants, this shirt.’

It’s cheaper.
‘Yes, and I don’t have to waste time changing in the morning. So they think, “Oh, that’s him.” Also because my range is so limited I’m always playing a character who’s some version of my natural persona. Dustin Hoffman could play Mahatma Gandhi and be convincing. I can’t. I can only be convincing as a few things.’

You shot this new film on the French Riviera. When you travel to other countries and cities to shoot, do you miss filming in New York?
‘I miss living in my house. It’s so convenient. All my stuff, my music, my kitchen, my shower, my bathroom – it’s all there and I’m used to the rituals. I was shooting in Newport, Rhode Island this summer. It’s an exceptionally pretty town but I still had to rent a house for the summer and I was dependent on an automobile. In New York, I live right in Manhattan and don’t need a car. But my family enjoys going away to these countries for the summer, living in Barcelona or Rome.’

You’ve said you never read reviews of your films. Really? Never?
‘No, I never read any reviews, any place, ever. When I first started I read reviews for the first few films. United Artists would bring in the reviews. America’s a big place... The guy in New York liked the film. The guy in Chicago didn’t. The guy in Boston loved it. The guy in Philadelphia didn’t. The guy in Colorado... And I thought to myself: This is crazy. So I stopped reading reviews about 40 or 45 years ago.’

What about pieces about your personal life. Do you read those?
‘No, I don’t read anything about myself.’

You think it’s healthier that way?
‘Yes. Look, if you’re sitting at home and reading that you’re an idiot or terrible or have no talent, you’re going to think to yourself: God, is this guy right? Maybe I have a blindspot? Or if you’re reading you’re a genius, a brilliant, brilliant comic genius, you think: Well, every decision I make has to be right because I’m a comic genius. Neither guy is right. It’s much more complicated. It’s better just to not think about yourself. Just think about the next project, nothing in the past. I have no photographs of me with movie stars. I never see any of my films after they’re finished, ever.’

You’ve got two teenage daughters. Do they show any interest in your old movies?
‘No, they’re not particularly interested. Even my wife. I’ve made 46 films or something like that, she’s seen maybe 30 of them. We’re not that kind of a family. A couple of years ago they were doing a big retrospective on “Annie Hall”. They were showing it in Hollywood and had Diane Keaton along and asked me to come. I said: “Not a chance.” I don’t believe in living in the past that way.

‘The celebration of your work, of things gone by, I find so pernicious. You don’t want to do that. You write your film, you make your film, you have fun making it. Then it’s over. It’s irrelevant if it makes money. If all the critics in the world like your film and you wake up in the morning with a toothache, all the reviews don’t mean anything. The real things in life are not affected. Nothing stops my ageing process.’

You’re still working incredibly hard. That must keep you young?
‘If that works. If stimulating the brain staves off Alzheimer’s or dementia. But work is a distraction. If I’m sitting at home not working, I could be thinking: My God, we all die! But if I’m thinking: How am I going to solve that third act? That’s a problem that’s solvable. The worst that happens is that the play fails. It distracts you in a pleasant way.’

You were nominated for an Oscar earlier this year for ‘Blue Jasmine’. You didn’t go to the ceremony. Did you watch it at home or just wait for the newspaper the next day?
‘No, I don’t even wait for the newspaper. It’s not something that interests me much. The Golden Globes called last year and said they’d like to give me a lifetime achievement award but I’d have to come and get it. I said no thank you. Then they called two days later and said “You don’t have to come.” I said: “Hey, fine. If I don’t have to come or watch it, I don’t care what you do. No problem at all.” So they did it. But I never watch those shows. I just have interest in the work and my stupid things – music, basketball, baseball.’

It sounds like you wouldn’t have much interest in writing a memoir then?
‘No, but I am interested in writing about my early years: not about work, but recreating for myself the fun of going to the movies as a kid, getting into trouble. That interests me. But I would not like to write about what it was like to write “Take the Money and Run”.

So you like the idea of writing about your childhood?
‘Yes. It’s like a foreign world. Yet it seems – and it’s a cliché – like yesterday. Next year I’ll be 80.’

You look good for it.
‘Well, I do the treadmill. I like to keep in shape and eat right. But, in the end, it’s luck. You can contribute a certain amount to it. But then I could leave this building and get hit by a piano they’re hoisting into a building.’

Magic in the Moonlight’ is released in UK cinemas on Fri Sep 19.

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He’s made a movie a year for decades – and we can’t hide our broadest smiles when Woody Allen’s white credits pop up on a black screen and the jazz music kicks in. As for the romances, dramas and comedies that follow? We’ve got opinions. Take a trip through our countdown of Woody’s career: his ups, his downs, his essential masterpieces.

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Watch the ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ trailer

Read more about ‘Magic in the Moonlight’

Could there be a more Woody Allen-ish title than ‘Magic in the Moonlight’? It’s romantic, it’s old-fashioned, it’s just a little hokey. In true Allen fashion, the film features big names like Colin Firth and Emma Stone alongside lesser-known but highly respected actors such as Simon McBurney and Jacki Weaver. Expect glorious sunlit vistas, slinky jazz-age fashions and lots of snappy banter over cocktails.

See more about ‘Magic in the Moonlight’

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