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Woody Allen: "What have I got to live for? I'm here? Is that enough?"

Mia Farrow and Woody Allen.

NEW YORK -- The sky crouched low and gray over Central Park, and hard little snowflakes blew against the glass doors of Woody Allen's penthouse. He once put a camera up here and photographed the New York skyline for the opening shots of his movie "Manhattan," with the lush romanticism of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"  playing on the sound track. Today, something by Beethoven would have been more appropriate. He was worried about his girlfriend, Mia Farrow.

"Mia has this terrible thing that's been going around," Allen said, sticking his hands deep into his corduroy pockets and looking unhappily at the dark clouds. "She's been in bed for weeks. This awful flu. She's taking everything. Dristan, Advil, aspirin. I had it, too, but she has it the worst. After we finish up here, I'm going to spend the rest of the day nursing her." I had arrived at the appointed hour to talk about "Hannah and Her Sisters," Woody Allen's new movie, opening Friday in Chicago. It already is being talked about as the best movie he has ever made. I sensed that the good reviews were not going to add much cheer to the morning. This did not depress me. Woody Allen always sounds a little dubious, a little distrustful, when he is talking about cheerful things. He is at his best and most quotable when things look the worst.

We settled into overstuffed sofas in his living room, and he took a pillow and held it in front of him like a teddy bear. The room was filled with antiques and paintings, baskets and flowers and rugs. The coffee table was stacked high with newspapers, magazines and books, including a psychological analysis of the work of Eugene O'Neill. Allen is a voracious reader.

"When I'm at home, I can't eat without reading a newspaper, and I also like to have the TV on," he said. "It used to be worse. When I'd go someplace, if I knew I would have to take an elevator, I'd take along something to read for the duration of the ride. To go up 10 floors, God forbid I would get stuck with nothing to read. And in a restaurant, I've never been able to sit alone and eat, without reading."

You're talking about reading, I said, and when I see your next movie I'll probably hear one of your characters talking about reading in the same way. I had a funny experience the last few months. I looked at a lot of your movies again for this class I was teaching, and I kept recognizing dialogue on the screen that you had also said in interviews. It's as if your mind comes up with this stuff and turns it over and polishes it, and then it goes into the movies.

"Probably because I'm so obsessive," Allen said.

For example, I said, you talk all the time about loving the city and hating the country, and then that turns up in the mouths of your characters.

"Funny, I was talking about that just yesterday at lunch," he said. "We were eating at this Italian restaurant out in Queens. The subject came up: Where do you go if you want to get out of the city? A little hideaway? Do you go for someplace close to New York, or do you go for distance and tranquility? How about Europe? But what about the fear of abduction and terrorism? If you got a little place in the woods, what would you do in the woods? I said I would like a little place about an hour from Manhattan. Brian Hamill, the photographer, said I'd never ever go there. He said I'd go nuts in the woods, and he's right. People have fantasies about great old colonial houses on the Hudson. I would go nuts. I can't visit Mia at her place in the country, because I can't sleep at night, I'm so terrified. She has 75 acres. I want to sleep with a gun under the bed. I know I'm more vulnerable in New York, but I'm streetwise in New York. I have options. Where to run. Who to contact. One chance instead of no chances.

"I don't know how people do it, living in the country. To me, a vacation is a trip to Stockholm, Paris, Rome. Robert Redford has this film festival out in Utah, he likes to look at the mountains. Not me. I'm into looking at bridges, waterfronts, bars, the metropolitan reality. When I played Tahoe, years ago, they were driving me up in the snow, and they stopped and said we were at the most beautiful place in America. All these mountains and lakes. I couldn't wait to get out of there and feel concrete underneath my soles."

It is fascinating, listening to Woody Allen speak. He plays clarinet in a jazz group, and he speaks in a jazz way, introducing themes, restating them, improvising, turning the answer to a question into material that may turn up, sooner or later, in a movie. In "Hannah and Her Sisters,"  he touches on several of his favorite subjects: beautiful women, psychoanalysis, fear of rejection, fear of death, the rituals of meals, the search for permanence and love in a world that is waiting for its chance to pull the rug out from under you.

The movie stars Mia Farrow as Hannah, one of three sisters, and Michael Caine as her husband. Caine is in love with his sister-in-law, played by Barbara Hershey. She lives with a proud, bitter artist, played by Max von Sydow. Hannah's other sister, played by Dianne Wiest, is a neurotic cocaine addict. Allen, who plays a television producer, used to be married to Farrow, and still visits to see their children. In the course of the movie Woody's character will become convinced that he is dying of a brain tumor, and will consider converting to Catholicism. There will be several conversations about the meaningless of life. Caine and Hershey will have an affair. All the action takes place in two years, beginning and ending with Thanksgiving dinners. Allen has said the idea for the film came from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which begins with the famous observation that all happy families are the same, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

"The movie has sort of a literary structure," Allen said, "and that's deliberate. I broke it up into chapters, and began each chapter with a heading. It was fun to work that way. We shot it in Mia's apartment, so I never had to leave mid-town Manhattan. All I had to do was go right across the park to her house. I could put all of my energy into the product. Directors like Fellini and Kubrick work in a big filmic way, which is why they only make a film every couple of years, but I've always been interested in turning out a lot of film, not spending years in preparation. The movie I'm making right now is very difficult. It's a big film, much lighter, almost a musical, cartoonlike, with hundreds of speaking parts.

"Whether it turns out all right or not, it's not the kind of work I like to do physically. I can't wait to get to the one I have planned after this one, which will be another small picture. I like to feel that if I have a sudden urge out of left field, to make a little farcical picture like 'Broadway Danny Rose' or a little conceit like 'Zelig,' I'm free to do that, and I don't have to keep repeating some successful formula. In a commercial sense, audiences have always liked my contemporary movies the best. They can identify. They can empathize with the characters. 'Annie Hall' and 'Manhattan' were relevant to their lives and fears. If I only made that type of film, though, I could never make other kinds. Like I might have the urge to make a 12th century religious film named 'Death and the Plague.' "

Speaking of death, I said, you were once quoted as saying that not a day goes by when you don't seriously contemplate suicide.

Allen was nodding almost before I finished the sentence. The snow tapped forlornly on the windowpanes. "The thought occurs to me," he said. "But not in the sense of, God, I'm so depressed, why don't I kill myself? It's more of a philosophical question: What is the point of going on? We just live out our years on Earth, we don't know why we're here, we create relationships that sever painfully when one party or the other dies. I always have to ask that question about life, because I can't see any point in it."

That's sort of what your character says in "Hannah and Her Sisters," I said, before he finally does find the will to carry on.

"Any creative person has got to take such questions into consideration," Allen said. "Here I am, huffing and puffing to finish my new movie and get a good color print out, and the audience will see it and get a little bang out of it, and then it will be forgotten. And eventually the symphonies of Beethoven and the plays of Shakespeare will be forgotten, too. They'll all be gone. And even in the short run, in 150 years from now, there will be an entirely new set of people."

In a lot less years than that, I said.

"Yes, but I don't want to leave anybody out."

He paused, and hugged the pillow tighter to himself, but he didn't look unhappy. He looked absorbed.

"The Earth is such an infinitesimal speck," he said. "I read the New York Times every morning, and they write about cosmic forces, and how the Earth is going to burn out, or they refigure their calculations on the universe and announce that they were off by 50 billion years. You start to think. You feel so vulnerable. What if they were off by another 50 billion years, and that meant everything was already over? They've found these gigantic lines in the middle of the galaxy, they don't know what they are, they think maybe they're a tear in the fabric of the universe. All of this is in the morning paper, and then you've got to go on with your day. And so you ask: What have I got to live for? I'm here? Is that enough? You seek the temporary pleasures of art, food, relationships, sex -- what's the point of not having them?"

We sat in silence and thought about that for a moment.

"Many times I've gone to sleep at night," he said, "and thought that it wouldn't bother me for a second if I didn't wake up in the morning. There's a line I didn't use in the movie: One of the most beautiful things you can wish for a friend is that they die in their sleep. You know how they say of somebody, 'He didn't go quietly?' I know this. I would dutifully go out with a whimper and not with a bang. In one of my totally paranoid moments, when it was suggested that I might have something really bad, which I didn't, I asked myself the question, what if this is it? If I had three months to live, what would I do? Sleep with every woman I know? Get a machine gun and shoot everybody I hate, all the Klansmen? When I imagined that the moment was possible, do you know what I did? Just lay in the bed. Just kind of motionless.

"When they actually say to you, Look, this thing has spread to your spine, and you're hanging by a thread every second, I'd fall to pieces. I've always had a faulty denial system. I have never been blessed with the two things that are necessary for a comfortable survival: religious faith, and a good denial mechanism. The ability to write great one-liners, that's what I got, while everybody else was being given the ability to deny these horrible things that are going to happen. Eugene O'Neill believed that too much truth is unbearable, if the reality of it cannot be denied."

Whew, I said.

"We grope for rationalizations and explanations to take the sting out of a very ugly truth we're faced with: No amount of tap dancing by religious people or psychological theorists can get around the fact that we are all going to die. But we want to be deluded so much, every drop of blood in our body is programmed to resist wanting to die. Death is just a lousy thing to have happen. All you can hang on to is: Maybe there's more to this than we know.  

"Just imagine, if they could tell you, really tell you for sure, what was after this life. And there was eternal life. That would be wonderful. People would walk around with tears of joy in their eyes. But what if they told you for sure that there was nothing? How would we accept that? It is so much more bearable to live with the uncertainty. God's silence may be merciful. I read the New York Times, with all of these articles of cosmic importance every morning, and they all come down to this: Why is there something, instead of nothing? To get away from such big questions, I try to make myself appropriately distracted. I play jazz or I see the new Fellini film or I have a nice dinner at Elaine's restaurant, and I forget. Only the death of a loved one shakes us up, and we consider the big questions for a time, and then we escape back into our routines. I'm cursed with the kind of mentality that, in a restaurant, everybody can be laughing, having a wonderful time, and I think, This won't last. It is temporary."

The telephone rang, and he got up and answered it. It was a wrong number. He sat back down again.

"I've been working on a short story, or maybe it will become a movie, about a man who can never live in the present. He can only live in the past or the future. If he is sleeping with a beautiful woman, he's thinking about the last woman he slept with, or the next one. He can't just have a nice time now. It's the same way with me. I'm always happiest in retrospect. God, I'll think, that was fun -- and I didn't know it was fun at the time. Remember the time Diane Keaton and I went to the movies, or Mia and I went on a drive? At the time, I was probably kvetching. In a relationship, you break up, you say I've had it, I'm going, and then, when you're gone, you remember the good times."

This is all so depressing, I said.

"This is my normal day," Allen said. "All of this stuff will come out in films that I make. My natural prism is comic. I use these things in a comic way. If I expressed myself without humor, my films would be heavy and cold and no one would come to see them. So I do them in a comic way. And yet I am baffled by what people sometimes see in them. You take 'Hannah and Her Sisters.' This is a film where people have told me, gee, it's so romantic. I'm glad they think so. I don't understand it. What I was putting up on the screen was: Here's a husband who develops a passion for his sister-in-law. His wife is a strong character but a bit underhanded. Her sister is living with a tortured older man. I'm divorced from Hannah, obsessed with Hannah, I wander the streets. Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey have an affair, which is painful. In the end, they can't act on their passion. Barbara marries a college professor. Mia and Michael Caine go on. I seek religious insight and fail to get it and am completely reduced to . . . well, anyway. And people say it's so 'up.' "

Two hours had gone by. It was time for me to go, and time for Woody Allen to cross Central Park and visit his sick friend.

"I miss when I was a kid, and every neighborhood had an art-movie theater," he said, out of a clear sky. "Those were the days. Every year, you'd get two Bergman films, two Truffauts, a De Sica, a Kurosawa, a Fellini. True classics and works of art, pouring out of the movie theaters, even in my little neighborhood in Flatbush. Now there are so few people trying to make real movies. I think of people like Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, still trying to make real movies, not trying to grab each other's scripts and get rich and make deals."

Could I see where you write?


Yeah. Where you write your stuff. I'd just like to see where you sit when you write.

"Sure. In here."

He led the way out of the living room and through a little book-lined corridor and into a corner library. A long antique table sat facing the tall windows that looked out over Central Park.

No computer? I said. No word processor?

"No, just this little portable typewriter I've had since I was a kid."

Do you sit here at the table?

"Yeah, right here."

Facing the light? Shouldn't you work with the light behind you?

"I like looking up at the view. Of course, in the afternoon when the sun is low in the west, that's bad, but I don't write them. I was reading Albert Speer's book, 'Inside the Third Reich,' and he said he wrote at a long table where he could look up at the view, and I thought: What a great decorating idea! Of course, the ideal would be what Colette had in Paris, where she wrote on the floor in the doorway, looking at the various people going by, and getting her ideas from them."

Who's this? I said, looking at a photograph.

"Sidney Bechet. These photographs are all of my heroes. Liv Ullmann. Martha Graham. Merce Cunningham. Here is a very rare picture Mia gave me, of Fellini and Bergman together, talking together. I wonder what they were talking about?"

That's probably when they met in Rome, I said, to discuss that movie Dino de Laurentiis was going to produce, about love. They were each going to make an hour film on love, and together it would be two hours on love by Fellini and Bergman.

"And of course they never made it," Woody Allen said. "That would have been hoping for too much."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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