November 8, 2011

Wooing Woody: Robert Weide's Two-Part Profile of Legendary Comic Master Comes to PBS

What does it take to get the notoriously private Woody Allen to finally agree to a documentary about him?  Twenty-five years of perseverance, it seems.

 "Woody Allen was always the big ‘get' for me," says Robert Weide, who first started pitching Allen the idea back in the '80s. "He always very politely declined. The truth is, he's got this self-deprecating streak where he simply feels he's not worthy of that kind of a retrospective." For Weide, Allen was among his "personal Mt. Rushmore" of heroes, which would also include the Marx Brothers, Lenny Bruce and W. C. Fields-all subjects of previous docs by Weide.

Three years ago, Weide "determined to make him say ‘yes,'" and mailed off one final letter making his best case, promising himself, "If he says anything but ‘no,' I'm going to make this happen."  When Weide got the call from Allen's assistant saying, "If Woody were to do this..." says Weide, "I knew I was in."  Woody Allen: A Documentary premiers in two parts on the PBS series American Masters November 20 and 21.

 

Woody Allen with director Robert Weide. Courtesy of ©B Plus Productions

For all you tabloid addicts and psych majors out there, don't expect an exposé, and don't expect a treatise on the neurosis of genius. Don't expect dirt on Soon-Yi (to whom Allen has been happily married for 14 years, so get over it), and don't expect ticks or tantrums. This film doesn't poke around in Allen's medicine cabinet. This is a straight-ahead, clip-rich homage to Allen's amazing 60-year body of work that reminds you why he holds a record 14 Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay.

And don't assume the film's been watered down for PBS. "I made exactly the film I would have made no matter who it was for," says Weide, who first directed Larry David, the cranky co-creator of Seinfeld, to pay-cable infamy in Curb Your Enthusiasm. "If this had been for HBO, if this had been for theatrical release, it still would have been exactly this show."

The two-part special follows Allen from his first professional gigs as a teenager in the 1950s writing jokes for publicists, all the way to the 2011 Cannes premiere of Midnight in Paris, Allen's biggest box office success. The documentary is rife with clips from our favorite Allen films, including Bananas, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands & Wives, Mighty Aphrodite and Vicky Christina Barcelona.

Interesting insights come from co-writers Marshall Brickman, Mickey Rose and Doug McGrath; cinematographers Gordon Willis and Vilmos Zsigmond; Allen's sister and producer Letty Aronson; manager Jack Rollins; pals Dick Cavett and Martin Scorsese; and former wife Louise Lasser. Among the actors who testify to the joy of working with the famously hands-off director include Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Penelope Cruz, John Cusack, Larry David, Scarlett Johansson, Sean Penn, Mira Sorvino, Naomi Watts and Owen Wilson (Mia Farrow was asked and politely declined), with the most interesting comments from Mariel Hemingway, who still looks as luminous as she did in Manhattan.

Weide's impressive body of work helped convince Allen; He produced and directed documentaries on many of Allen's own heroes, including the PBS hit The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell in 1982, the Emmy-winning W. C. Fields Straight Up in 1986, Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition in 1989, the Oscar-nominated Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth in 1998, and the HBO hit Curb Your Enthusiasm, where Weide worked for five seasons as the show's principal director and executive producer (and scored the series its only Emmy win out of 34 nominations for his direction of the "Krazee-Eyez Killa" episode).

Once Allen finally said yes to Weide, the doors were open. "He gave me access and he agreed to everything I asked for," says Weide. "People who know him were really astounded." Weide not only shot Allen in his childhood haunts in Brooklyn, but also at work on the set of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger in London. Weide also filmed Allen in his bedroom, which doubles as his writing lair. "What you see in the film--him writing first in longhand on his bed, and then typing up his scripts on that little table in the corner, on that typewriter from 1950--that is his workspace," confirms Weide. "This is where it all happened."

Despite such unprecedented access, it still took guts for Weide to take the plunge on a project hinged on Allen's standard contractual nix clause. "He wasn't looking over my shoulder as I was making this; he wasn't calling any shots," Weide explains. "But contractually I had to show him my cut of the film before it was locked and delivered. If I had showed him something that horrified him, contractually, he could have said, ‘You know what? I have second thoughts.'"  A similar stipulation caused Crumb director Terry Zwigoff to turn over the 1997 documentary Wild Man Blues to Barbara Kopple, but Weide wasn't fazed. "I'm not confident in absolutely everything I do, but I knew I could make a decent documentary on him." And in the end, his confidence paid off:  "He saw it and he said fine."

 

Courtesy of Brian Hamill/©MGM

Weide turned his greatest personal "get" into a great get for American Masters, produced by his longtime friend Susan Lacy. "I knew she would eat this up," he maintains. "I think before the sentence was out of my mouth, she said yes." Weide retained final cut when it came to American Masters, but he considers that a "moot point" due to his longstanding relationship with Lacy. "A lot of these things come down to personalities and relationships and personal dynamics," he notes.

Luckily for Weide, his investors had a similar faith in the winning nature of his personal relationships. Weide knew PBS could never fund the film, which ended up with a budget of $1.5 million, half of which went to licensing fees. But most the investors who "came sniffing around" balked at Allen's right to quash the film's fate. None other than Brett Ratner, who directed the action hits Tower Heist and Rush Hour (and also executive produced Catfish) and is a huge fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Woody Allen, insisted on finding Weide his money. "Brett's one of those guys," says Weide. "He's an operator. He knows everybody. He's out at something every night, whereas me, you know, I don't leave my house, so I can't meet people." Ratner recruited Insurgent Media's Fisher Stevens (Oscar-winning producer of The Cove), Andrew Karsch and Erik Gordon, who had total faith Weide would earn Allen's approval. Executive Producer Michael Peyser rounded out the team.""These guys sort of understood that this was a question of personalities and personal relationships," says Weide. "They were willing to take that risk and they knew that everything would work. And of course it did."

Robert Weide's next documentary is a Kurt Vonnegut project he's been working on since 1988.

 

Elizabeth Blozan is a freelance writer and frequent transcriber of hundreds of hours of field footage for documentaries and reality TV shows.

 

 

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