Over the course of four decades and some 30-plus films, Woody Allen has pursued his own cinematic vision without any regard to being seen as hip or cutting edge.
In his new film, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, the (2001) he returns to the 1940s and an idea he had been musing about for a while - the hypnosis craze that seemed to mesmerize many of the Jazz Era.
Woody plays crackerjack insurance investigator CW Briggs who is forced to relinquish bragging rights to being the best in the business when he falls under the spell of a mysterious hypnotist (David Ogden Stiers), a beautiful heiress (Charlize Theron), and a sexy colleague (Helen Hunt) in his most baffling case to date, and finds that he is the one left clueless.
Actually, Woody himself seems a little clueless when he walks into a suite at the trendy Parker Meridien hotel on New York's Upper West Side, not far from his home. Dressed casually in a grey shirt, black trousers and a blue blazer, the first thing he does is order tea and then complain that he can't hear properly. No, he's not going deaf. It turns out that he's caught another bad cold from his two youngest children, which explains why under his trademark big, black-rimmed glasses, his eyes look red-rimmed and watery.
Despite this, the 65-year-old director is in good spirits, and here, in a rare and revealing interview, he discusses everything from his susceptibility to colds and aversion to hypnosis, to his neuroses and working opposite tall women.
What happened to your voice? You sound terrible.
I feel fine but it's a bad cold directly from the babies. They both have them and I don't know how you can avoid catching it. But Soon-Yi never catches any and I always get everything, to the maximum length and the maximum virulence. So when the babies have a cold or sinus infection, I always come down with it too, for the whole duration and the full strength. And then once they get over it, they catch something else, and give it to me again. And now I can't hear properly because of the cold.
How old are your kids now?
Manzie is just over one, and Bechet is two and a half.
So do you ever get any sleep at all?
Oh, that's no problem during the night. It's just that they always get colds and then I catch them.
Did you ever think of trying hypnosis to resist the babies' bug?
I don't think I could be hypnotized. I think I'd just giggle. I don't think I could keep a straight face.
Have you ever tried?
No. I just never had any reason to try it. I don't have a weight or smoking problem. I've seen it done, but only on stage.
Why did you use 'Constantinople' and 'Madagascar' as the hypnotic commands?
Because they're two exotic places. Particularly when I was growing up, they represented two very far-off lands. It's not the same thing as saying Trenton or Dubuque. They connotated all kinds of exotic lifestyles, and I'm sure they're probably just like here if you go there, with fast food places and traffic, but as a kid they seemed vastly exotic.
Was Helen Hunt your first choice? It's very funny when you're in scenes together as she's so much taller.
That seems to be a problem with me all the time. I've played opposite Julia Roberts, Helen, and just recently Téa Leoni, and these are all tall women - or at least, taller than I am. And I didn't think of anyone when I wrote it, but when I was casting and Helen's name came up, I immediately felt she was ideal. And we were very lucky as she was available. In fact, the whole cast I'd wanted was available - Charlize, Dan, everything just slotted in.
It's really surprising when you and Helen end up together in this movie.
Because of the height difference?
Because it's such a twist.
Well, that's what those movies were. You know the man and the woman are going to get together, but you don't know how and somehow they do. And I was lucky to get her because she made all of that broad comedy believable.
Why do you poke so much fun at yourself in the film?
Comedians always make fun of themselves. There are very few who don't. Jack Benny did it, Bob Hope, it's a staple. And I don't have any sensitivity to making fun of how people perceive me. I'm a comedian, a public figure, and I think I'm as ripe for teasing and joking about as anyone is. Other people are free to do it, I like to do it to myself, so why should I be immune from it?
So many of your films are set in the '30s and '40s. Do you wish you'd been an adult then?
Yes. I think the '20s, '30s and '40s were three fabulous decades in Manhattan, because clothing styles were great, the music's great, and there was a ton of great Broadway theatre, nightclubs and so on. It was just a wonderful time to live. Now, of course, you also had no antibiotics and a lot of great things we take for granted today - cell phones, and so on. But it was a very romantic era, and those men and women with their uniforms and dresses, and the gangsters with their violin cases and machine guns in them, are all part of our folklore, and a very colourful part.
Small Time Crooks (2000) was such a hit. How surprised were you?
I was shocked. I can't couple any film of mine with being a hit (laughs). I'm always shocked when they're not an embarrassment. I really mean it. When I make a film, after I labour over it, even the ones that go easy, at the end nothing seems funny or delightful. It always just seems awful, and I'm always braced for a blow. I always feel, this is embarrassing. And when others say they agree, I have no argument with them. I'm forced to agree.
And I'm always amazed at other directors - I won't mention names, but there are a number of them - who call me up and say, 'I want you to come to a screening of my new film - it's just great. So delightful!' And they sit there with other people and watch it and when it's over they say, 'Wasn't that wonderful?' And sometimes they're right, but sometimes it's not so wonderful, but I'm amazed at their optimism. I don't know how they can do it.
After all these years are you really plagued by such doubt?
Completely. If you'd worked on this or any film of mine, after you write it and cast it and do all that, it's the chef working in the kitchen all day. At the end, you bring the meal out to someone else, and they see the soufflé for the first time, and it's fine for them. But for you, you've been chopping onions and so on, and I was just amazed that Small Time Crooks (2000) was successful, just as I'm amazed all the time.
There's a famous story that you didn't want Manhattan (1979), one of your biggest hits, even released. Is that true?
Absolutely. After I'd looked at it I begged them not to release it. I even offered to do a free film for them, if they'd not release it. They said I was crazy, not so much because they liked the film but because they'd taken a bank loan of millions to do it and they weren't just going to shelve it because I had the whim that I didn't like it. But to me, even films of mine that have been as big hits as Manhattan (1979) look lifeless.
What's going on with the lawsuit against your former producer, Jean Doumanian?
I can't speak about it because it's a pending lawsuit, but I'm sure it'll be resolved gently and soon.
Does your Jewish sense of angst and insecurity still haunt you?
Well I wonder if it is a particularly Jewish thing or if you get the same thing from Italian directors or Irish directors or Black directors or Chinese directors. There are some men and women that have a certain attitude in life and some that don't and it's more to do with psychology than one's religious background or ethnicity.
It's possible from a cultural point of view being raised in Jewish neighbourhoods and amongst Jewish people there was always a 'braced for a blow' mentality that gets communicated to me from my parents and from my grandparents who ran through Europe always braced for a blow. So it is possible that does get communicated to you in not direct ways, they don't sit you down and tell you directly, but in body language and nuance where you learn without even knowing that you've got to be on your guard all the time.
This is possible being a member of a persecuted minority. But I'm not 100% sure of that because I know other film directors who are Jewish and are completely buoyant about their films.
You said once you would rather have been Marlon Brando. Is that true?
Well, yeah. You are always a comedian by default. You are this way because you've been forced to be this way, but it is better to be the hero. So if you can be a persona, the great one of my lifetime of course was and is Marlon Brando.
You'd be a lot fatter now.
(Laughs) Yes, a lot fatter, but that is his own choice. His gifts were just stupendous. And you know it's nice to be the hero and the leading man. It's good to be the Tom Cruise or John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart, but you are always a comedian as a second choice. You can't function any other way so you make jokes about the situation.
Do you think of yourself as neurotic?
I think in certain areas I don't function well and in other areas I function very well. I'm very good professionally. I have good discipline, I'm able to write every day and do films and not go six times over the budget. I mean I'm a coherent person, but I also don't like to go through tunnels when I travel. I'm claustrophobic.
What other things make you neurotic?
When I travel I need to have my own shower. I have a number of symptoms that are neurotic and are constricting in the sense that if I had a brilliant idea for a film that had to be shot in Tulsa, OK I would tear it up and throw it away. Anything outside of New York, 'cause I can't exist in a hotel outside of my own home, I have to be in my own home and my own environment. This is a neurotic symptom that is constricting to my work even.
You need hypnosis. What are your other worst symptoms?
Well, that is a pretty constricting symptom.
You are never in the midtown tunnel I guess?
No, I'm not. When I go to New Jersey for instance I never take the tunnel anyplace.
What is it about a tunnel?
The thought of getting stuck in it. Claustrophobia. I'll always go the long way over the George Washington Bridge, even if I'm going to Jersey City. Instead of going straight that way which is just 20 minutes I go all the way up, it takes me 40 minutes to go.
In your whole life have you conquered any of these fears?
No, as a matter of fact, claustrophobia was a late bloomer for me. I never had it in my life till I was in my 30s. I used to ride the MT subway in the rush hour, nose to nose with a hundred people and it would be in 100 degree weather in the summer and they were not air-conditioned and suddenly we'd stop in the tunnel and all the lights would go out and we'd be stuck like this in a tunnel for half an hour, not knowing, and it wouldn't bother me, not even think about it. I would be there and be waiting.
Now of course I couldn't do that. But they feel that that is a hereditary thing, although I never saw it in my parents, but they feel it is hereditary. But they can cure it with drugs. I don't like to take drugs. I'd rather have the claustrophobia. So I have a number of neurotic symptoms, but in general I function normally.
I'm good with my kids, I can function in life, I have friends and business relations and I've been able to lead a fairly normal life for the most part and be productive.
Have you thought, with the success of "The Producers' now, of taking Bullets Over Broadway (1994) to Broadway?
No, I was asked to do that. Marvin Hamlish had talked to me about that. But it's not something that really interests me very much. I've gotten a lot of offers over the years for 'Purple Rose of Cairo' as a musical, some recently wanted to do Annie Hall (1977) as a musical, but it's nothing that really interests me, as once I'm finished with a film I don't really care about it anymore.
Tell us about your new film.
It's called Hollywood Ending (2002) and I finished it and it stars Téa Leoni, myself, Treat Williams, George Hamilton. It's a contemporary piece and I think it's going to be a very funny movie and for me to say that is a lot because you know I can't stand them. But this one I think is going to be funny just by good fortune
Would you like to work with Diane Keaton again?
I'd love to work with her. I speak to her all the time. We are always looking for a project to do together. I'd love to because she is one of the great film comedians ever. I think maybe next to Judy Holiday the best ever.