“I was the world’s worst student. I hated it with a passion.”
“I am plagued by doubts. What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”
Over the weekend I stumbled upon Woody Allen: A Documentary on Netflix and was surprised how little I knew about writer/director Woody Allen. That led me to flip through a couple of books Woody Allen has written and read various articles about him and interviews with him. I’ve condensed the making of Woody Allen down to 10 simple steps:
1) Start with a Jewish kid born in Brooklyn named Allen Stewart Konigsberg in 1935, and raise him in a strict home where Charlie Chaplin and Bob Hope movies offer a humorous relief.
2) Add coming face to face with the deep existential questions as a child; ”I didn’t like my own mortality. What do you mean, this [life] ends? This doesn’t go on like this? Deal Me out I don’t want to play in this game.” (As Allen got older he added Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment and Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal into his mental & philosophical blender.)
3) At 17 begin sending jokes to the newspaper using the pen name Woody Allen; “A Hypocrite is a guy who writes a book on atheism, and prays that it will sell.”
4) Turn that unpaid newspaper gig into a paid gig writing 50 jokes a day for radio.
5) Turn the radio gig into a well paid TV gigs that end up paying you well working on The Sid Caesar Show and learning from the best of that era; Larry Gilbert, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Danny Simon (whose brother Neil Simon credits him with teaching him to write), and Sid Caesar.
6) Take the style of black rim glasses from comedian Mike Merrick and wear them your entire life making them your trademark.
7) At 26, though shy, begin a stand up comedy career in New York City in 1961 just as Greenwich Village just started to take off creatively and become a household name on TV. (He once boxed a kangaroo on TV. A feat you’re—understandbly for a couple of reasons—never likely to see repeated on national TV in the United States. Other than the PBS documentary produced and directed by Robert B. Weide that I mentioned at the start of this post.)
8) Start writing movies (What’s New Pussycat) which gets you a WGA nomination, but quickly move into writing and directing (Take the Money and Run) because you want more control.
9) At 42 win your first two Oscars for writing and directing Annie Hall (co-written with Marshall Brickman) in 1977, which is eventually named on #35 on AFI’s “100 Best Movies” and the #4 AFI “100 Best Comedies.”
10) Don’t ride off into the sunset after reaching the top of the mountain with Annie Hall. Continue making films—some good, some not so good— and win your fourth Oscar in 2012 for writing Midnight in Paris.
Of course, that’s just the quick ten step overview of his creative journey. There were other people that helped Allen along the way. He was influenced by Mort Sahl, and he was encouraged by his managers Jack Rollins and Charlie Joffe. He learned from cinematographer Gordon Willis and editor Ralph Rosenblum, and no doubt other comedians, actors and production people.
And while no one could follow that exact path Allen has taken, he has in turn inspired and influenced a whole new generation of creative people including Larry David, Chris Rock, Edward Burns, and Nora Ephron. You could say his voice (and neuroses) paved the way for their voices.
“I never cared about commercial success, and as a result I rarely achieved it.”
Yet, over his unusally long career, Allen has been able to write and and control the kind of films he’s wanted to make. And his films (including Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhatten, Zelig, and Radio Days) have grossed over $500 million., and he’s personally collected 17 Oscar-nominations along the way.
What about Woody Allen’s failures? I think of that ending line in Billy Wilder’s classic Some Like it Hot— “Nobody’s perfect.” (A film by the way, Allen doesn’t care for.)
Related Post: Screenwriting Quote #102 (Woody Allen)