I recently went to the Great Big Book Sale here in SF, which is basically an airport hangar-sized room where people spend hours of self-inflicted scoliosis digging through something like 400,000+ used library and donated books, looking for gems.
I walked away with a few choice samples, but the first one I opened and tore through at a rather brisk pace was: Woody Allen on Woody Allen. I always think of him as sort of an artistic template. He works in a variety of genres, has an amazing work ethic, is a brilliant writer/director, and has amassed an amazing body of work.
As I read the book, whereby Woody (prompted by an interviewer/friend) walks through his career on a film-by-film basis, I was rather startled how few of the movies I recalled, knowing I didn’t see many of the flicks he considers his best work. For someone I cite as an influence, this seemed shoddy. I mean, sure, if he was a novelist with 40 books to dig through, that would be one thing. But a filmmaker? That’s easy.
So, as soon as I watch Orson Welles’ The Third Man, my Netflix queue is literally the Woody Allen filmography, in chronological order, save for one unavailable title (I am sad to report that Netflix offers no one-click button to add a director’s entire filmography in order to one’s queue, but I got it done).
The goal is to just tear through them pretty briskly, and re-read his comments before each viewing. So, if I start quoting more Woody Allen in the short term, now you’ll know why.
The best thing about the book was just seeing how unencumbered he was about his work. That is, of course, my idee fixe: making the work enjoyable. This whole notion of the put-upon novelist in a world of construction workers, dim sum rollers, and animal agriculture gut pullers is really something that needs to end. I’m not saying I don’t understand it, but it is really something that can and needs to be disconnected from the work.
As I read, whenever Woody would talk about his work process, I’d fold the corner of that page down. Here’s what I found on those bent pages…
ON WORKING REGULARLY:
“I’ve tried very hard to make my films into a non-event. I just want to work, that’s all. Just put the film out for people to see, just keep grinding them out. I hope I’ll have a long and healthy life, that I can keep working all the time, and that I can look back in old age and say, ‘I made fifty movies and some of them were excellent and some of them were not so good and some were funny…’ I just don’t want to get into that situation that so many of my contemporaries are in, where they make one film every few years and it’s a Big Event. That’s why I’ve always admired Bergman. He’d be working quietly on the island and would make a little tiny film and put it out, and then he’d be working on the next one. You know, the work was important. Not the eventual success or failure, the money or the critical reception. What’s important is that your work is part of your daily life and you can live decently. You can, as in my case, do other things I want to do at the same time. I like to play music, I like to see my children, I like to go to restaurants, I like to talk walks and watch sports and things. When you’re working at the same time, you have a nice, integrated life.”
ON ACTING IN A BROADWAY PLAY:
“There is no easier job than being in a play. I mean, you have the whole day off and you do whatever you want. You can write, you can relax, whatever you want. You just drop over to the theatre at eight o’clock at night. I would walk over there with Diane (Keaton). I lived within walking distance and we could take a nice stroll down Broadway. Then you go in. There’s no nervous tension. The play is running. You’re onstage with your friends. Curtain goes up. You play it. It’s about an hour and a half. And two hours later you’re in a restaurant having dinner with your friends. It’s the easiest job in the world! So it was very pleasurable.”
HIS WORK PHILOSOPHY:
“I’ve always kept my nose to the grindstone. All I do is work, and my philosophy has been that if I just keep working, just focus on my work, everything else will fall into place. It’s irrelevant whether I make a lot of money or don’t, or whether the films are successful or not. All that is total nonsense and superfluous and superficial. If you just look at the work and try and keep working and striving and setting ambitious goals for yourself, the rest is unimportant. You find that, if you do that, everything else falls into place.”
ON WRITING RITUALS:
“I felt that anything that distracted from the work and minimized your effort on it was a self-deception that was going to be detrimental. So to avoid getting caught up with a lot of writing rituals and time-wasting, you’ve got to get there and just work. Art in general, and show-business, is full to the brim of people who talk, talk, talk, talk. And when you hear them talk, theoretically they’re brilliant and they’re right and this and that, but in the end it’s just a question of ‘Who can sit down and do it?’ That’s what counts. All the rest doesn’t mean a thing.”
ON KEEPING WRITING HOURS:
“When I’m writing, it’s easy. When I get up the day when I’m going to start the actual writing, I can celebrate. Because that’s the day when everything is over. The day I put pen to paper, it’s all over. Because all the agonizing work is done before that. And to write it down is pure pleasure. And I write it fast. I will be as fast as I can write, because I’ve done the work already. Once in a while I’ll get huing up on some special thing, but very rarely. And I can write in any place, under any conditions. I’ve written in hotel rooms, I’ve written sitting on the sidewalk. I’ve got scenes written on the back on envelopes. I don’t need all that nonsense I’ve seen purported writers do. They have to have nice white paper and sharpened pencils. I don’t have any of that, I don’t care about any of that. I can write something in longhand and then thype the next few pages and write the next thing on the back of a laundry bill. The script can look like anything at all. It doesn’t mean anything to me. But once I’m writing, then the pleasure sets in. Writing is a complete pleasure for me. I love it. It’s a sensual, pleasurable, intellectual activity that’s fun. Thinking of it, planning it, plotting it, is agony. That’s hard.”
So, there you have it: Woody on writing. I’ll check in after the Woody Allen film festival to see if I have any new favorites.