NEW YORK -- Woody Allen's new comedy, "Bullets Over Broadway," is about a man who takes his art so seriously he is willing to kill for it. The man is a gangster, circa 1930, who gets involved in the rewrite of a play, and doesn't want anybody screwing it up.
We're discussing this as a concept. We're drinking coffee in Allen's editing room, in midtown Manhattan. He's on the ratty old couch, I'm in a chair, and there are shadows all around. I'm asking: If you had to choose between saving the works of Shakespeare or the life of a drowning person, such as your mother, which would you choose?
"Well," he said, "usually, the example is not your mother, because there are a lot of people who would save their mother. Usually, the way they phrase the question, it's just a nameless derelict." He paused to consider. "I think you have to go with saving the person, right? I mean, you have to. Because I'm not that committed a Shakespeare fan. The question would be harder for me if I was saving the work of certain other people. Louis Armstrong, for example."
What about if you had to choose between the nameless derelict and your own life work?
"Oh, I don't care about my life work for a second. When I die, I don't care what they do with it. They can flush it down the toilet. There's that delusion that it's going to have some meaning to you when, in fact, you'll be a nonexistent thing; there'll be not a trace of consciousness. So it becomes completely irrelevant, what happens after your death. Totally. It doesn't mean a thing."
To you, but . . .
"To me, yeah, and so I don't care."
He didn't, either. I could tell it from his voice. And in a sense, he was speaking from experience, because the recent events in his life made it seem possible that he would lose his life's work, or the freedom to go on making more of it. Two years ago, Allen was an American artistic hero, a legend, a good guy. Then came all the charges and countercharges between Allen and former wife Mia Farrow, all the headlines, and the astonishing sight of Allen giving press conferences to deny child molestation.
Investigators have not turned up any evidence of Allen's guilt, and now the charges seem to have quietly disappeared. But did the tumult in his life bring his artistic work to a halt? Not for a second.
"I've done a lot," he said. "I finished "Husbands and Wives" (1992), I wrote and directed "Manhattan Murder Mystery" (1993). I wrote and directed 'Don't Drink the Water' for television. I played with my jazz band without missing a session. I wrote a play that's going to be done this season, and I wrote and directed 'Bullets Over Broadway.' Because, you know, for me one thing had nothing to do with the other. The legal battles I've been in were basically fought by my lawyers. There was nothing I could do about it."
Many times when we've talked, I said, you've said that you consider suicide every day.
And so now, I said, comes probably the worst possible thing that could happen to you. And you don't kill yourself. You continue to work. My belief is, if you were guilty, you would have killed yourself. Or been paralyzed in some way. Your work is all about guilt. I don't think you could have survived as a guilty person.
"You're exactly right. I thought the whole business was foolish. I thought it was going to blow over in two days; I never even took it seriously when it first happened. Apart from the horribleness of not being able to see my children, those of us on the inner circle - myself, my sister, my close friends - found it almost amusing.
"But from a total non-event, a multimillion-dollar industry grew. I mean, magazines all over the world, newspapers, television . . . lawyers were hired, private detectives were hired, more lawyers were brought in, psychiatrists were brought in. It was incredible. And nothing had happened. I certainly wasn't going to participate in the craziness. I worked, I never missed an evening with my jazz band, and I conducted my life normally."
I was afraid at the beginning, I said, that maybe it would turn out like the Fatty Arbuckle case - where here was a great Hollywood comedian and whether he was guilty or not, people simply couldn't find him funny anymore. I wondered if after all the controversy people would never be able to laugh at a Woody Allen picture again.
"Yes, people said to me, 'Are you worried about this having an impact on your career?' But from where I sat, it couldn't have an impact. Am I going to be less popular? I was not popular when people thought I was popular. I never had a big audience to begin with. And it never mattered to me. If people said to me tomorrow that I couldn't make a movie again because no one would come, it wouldn't bother me in the slightest." A secret hope
He was looking into the middle distance, seeing possibilities that had perhaps occurred to him more than once.
"I almost had a secret hope that maybe this would change my life in a way I didn't have the nerve to do. They'd say I could never make a film again. And I could wake up in the morning and think, 'Oh, great, that option is closed to me. I don't have to think about it. I don't have to feel guilty that I'm not making films.' And I could write for the theater, which is something I like, or even stay home and write a novel.
"But I never thought I was in the position of Fatty Arbuckle. I mean, he was a tremendous star. When you're a writer, you have control over your own fate. I mean, it would not bother me in the slightest if I'd awakened this morning and stayed in my apartment and was working on my typewriter or lying on the bed writing a book."
It was strange, listening to this detachment, this declaration of self-sufficiency, and then thinking about "Bullets Over Broadway" (opening Oct. 28 in Chicago). Because the movie expresses the belief that art is worth fighting for, even killing for, and there are moments that I thought might be autobiographical - reflecting not Woody's life, but his feelings.
The film is very funny. It is also relentlessly logical, like many great comedies, and follows its reasoning, no matter what the consequences.
It stars John Cusack as a young playwright whose latest work is being produced on Broadway. The catch: The financing comes from a mobster, who insists that his girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly) star in the play. She attends rehearsals with a mob bodyguard (Chazz Palminteri), who sits in the dark and watches the play and then begins to make suggestions. Before long, the thuggish bodyguard is rewriting the entire play, and it's clear he's much more of an artist than the Cusack character. The waters grow murky when he realizes that his boss' girlfriend is so untalented she is going to destroy his work.
"He has the commitment of a genuine artist," Allen said. "He can't compromise; he can't do less than he's able to do. It's irrelevant to him that the play is a hit and it's going to be fine and they'll replace the bad actress with someone later on down the line. The thought that his work isn't all that it could be is driving him crazy."
Is that autobiographical in a way?
"Not so much for me."
But you fight for your work. . . .
"Yes, I fight for it, but I'm not a dedicated artist, really. I would fight with producers if I had to. But I'm not an artist in the way this guy was. That is, a perfectionist. If I'm shooting, and it's 5 o'clock at night and there's a basketball game on at 7, I'm not going to do the extra takes and miss the first quarter. Or, if it's freezing cold and I wanna get a shot, I'll say, OK, we'll move it inside and put the conversation in a restaurant instead of the street. I compromise for my own comfort. Keeping a perspective
"When I first started making films, nothing was more important for me than the film. Like the first two films. But now I've made like 25 or something. I started to keep filmmaking in its perspective. I recently did `Don't Drink the Water' for television, and they pointed out to me that if I went to Budapest, I could have shots of great scope and it would be tremendous and it would cost us very little money. But I wouldn't go. And then they said, `Look, if we just go up to Canada for a week, you could do a week up there of the exteriors, in Montreal, and it would look great.' I ended up shooting the entire thing within like six blocks of my house and it all takes place behind the Iron Curtain or some Middle Eastern country. And it's just fine."
Most directors would instantly want to go to Budapest, I said.
"But would it really make the picture any better? There are artists who kill for their work in non-lethal ways, you know what I mean? They don't actually kill but they're so ruthless and selfish their whole lives that they kill you in so many ways. Is it worth it?" Cinema verite
Will what you've gone through in the last couple of years ever find its way into a film?
"It isn't all played out yet, but when it is, it's possible that I would want to make a certain kind of film about it. It would have to be a real-life film, not a fiction film."
"I have an idea for a film that's half documentary and half not documentary, and it would be a gift to my children. I would want them to know who behaved well in this and who did not behave well. I'm not talking about any controversy with Mia because that's not what's on my mind at all.
"In this whole situation, apart from the two protagonists, there were a number of other major participants. There was the psychiatric system, the legal system, the press . . . and there were a number of heroes who were really terrific and a number of people who were just awful. Just unconscionably awful. In any phenomenon, whether it's McCarthyism or Nazism or whatever, there are people who rise to the top and do the right thing and people who don't. And, you know, I think that when the kids grow up, they should know who behaved in their best interests and who failed them.
"So I have a real interesting film, but I want to do it when all the dust settles, when the whole thing is well over and is all clear. I want to make sure everyone had their full time to behave well - to either, you know, suddenly show up as a villain or redeem themselves if they had done something unscrupulous. I think it would make an interesting piece one day and something that I would like to leave for the children."
A silence fell. He had spoken so quietly, so softly, and with so much anger.
"But, apart from that," he said, "I just go along making the films that I can think of at the time. It isn't that there is a vast storehouse of billions of great ideas. It's when a picture's over, I go into a room and start to think of a new idea. And whatever comes is what I do."