According to Woody Allen, the coronavirus pandemic is “another nail in the coffin” for the movie business.
He acknowledges, too, that it may also be the final curtain on one of the most outstanding and prolific careers in that history of film – his own.
Allen’s latest movie, A Rainy Day in New York, is being released in the UK next week straight to streaming platforms with still no theatrical release planned in the US. The Oscar-winning writer and director of 49 films now admits he does not know if he will ever make another film.
Speaking from his Manhattan apartment, Allen cites the closure of the picture houses he so adores as reason to end his own record-breaking run of making movies. “It may have a negative effect on me,” he explains. “The movie houses are all closed here now and I don’t know if many of them will come back. They haven’t been able to handle it. This was happening before the virus but it’s certainly not helping now – people don’t want to go to the theatres, to stand in line and hassle with people. And they have found, during all this, that they can quite happily manage at home with their television screens.
“And now they’re thinking: ’It’s not so bad at home, I can just have dinner and then watch a movie on their big screen television set with high definition and surround sound. And they’ve gotten used to it now and they’re getting first-run pictures straight in their homes, major movies. So maybe they will be out of the habit of going to the movie houses and won’t go back.
“But I don’t want to make movies for television, so it may be I stop making them. For those of us who were raised in movie theatres, making a television show is not a satisfying or enjoyable experience and so I don’t know if I’ll participate in that.”
Allen has already shot another film, Rifkin’s Festival, which was rumoured to be debuting at Cannes this year, before that festival, along with many others, was cancelled. He is looking, instead, to premiere it at the prestigious but small San Sebastian Film Festival in October, where the comic film itself is actually set but there is no distribution deal in place for the as-yet unseen film.
He also says he has written a new script that was supposed to be shooting in Paris this summer. “But the virus has put an end to all that,” he says, glumly. “I’m 84 and I’ll be dead soon. If I wrote the best screenplay in the world, there’s no-one to make it and nowhere to show it, so for me, there’s no viable incentive. I’m used to finishing a script, ripping it out of the typewriter, running over to my producer who budgets it, we cast it and then we shoot it – I’ve been doing this for years and years the same way, a very simple process but now, it doesn’t work… what can you do?”
The news that Disney’s filming of their hit stage production of Hamilton – a play which Allen admires very much – will be premiering straight on Disney’s own new streaming platform Disney + has rocked the director. “Normally, that would be a huge theatrical event, with lines around the block. But now, it’s not going to play one day in a movie house -it’s going straight to television and I’m sure it’ll be a big success and they’ll make a lot of money, and they won’t have to split the money with a theatre owner, so they make even more. And I don’t agree with it at all. I think a movie is much better on a big screen with 500 people watching, and the movies were about photography, great landscapes and great visual pictures… on the big screen that all adds up, but not on a TV screen. And so the theatres try and say ‘Oh, but we have these great seats that recline and you can lay back and have wine and cheese – but it’s a nonsense, a total nonsense.
“The truth is we had a habit, an iconic tradition that is now a thing of the past. Friday or Saturday night comes now and you and your girlfriend don’t say ‘Hey lets go to the movies’, they say, “Let’s get some wine and marijuana and we’ll sit back and watch the movie here at home.’ And it gets worse, and they start to watch it on laptops and then you see a guy on the subway watching a movie on his telephone.
“For some film makers, they will love that and they will love going into a million homes all at once. But I don’t want to be part of that.”
For now, though, he is, and A Rainy Day in New York sees him back on his most familiar territory, making a romantic comedy in the city with which he became synonymous during a run of award-winning films in the 1970s and 80s that included Annie Hall, Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and her Sisters, Crime and Misdemeanours and Radio Days, all of them set amid neurotic characters in the city which, as he states in that famous opening monologue to 1979’s Manhattan, “he adored New York, romanticised it all out of proportion.”
But now, even for Allen, the romance – and the comedy – has gone. “It’s a miserable place right now,” he admits. “People are wearing masks and the stores are closed and there are no movie theatres. These are sad, tragic times. And I say that must be the case for London and Paris, all these great cities that are romantic, exciting tremendously compelling and beautiful stunning places and we’re all on a tragic pause now, living in suspended animation.”
Watching A Rainy Day in New York, it feels more than ever like an ode to bygone age, a place Allen has often been accused of living in – Midnight in Paris (2012) was, after all, about a man who traveled back in time in search of a more beautiful era, accused by his wife of ‘golden age thinking’.
“Well, yes,” admits Allen now. “Rainy Day in New York has particular resonance now. This city is always looming as one of the characters in my movies and now you see the city as it was prior to the pandemic, looking, as I have always found it, particularly beautiful in the rain. There are people in the streets, hailing cabs and going in restaurants, hugging and with no inhibitions anywhere. You see it and it rubs in and revivifies what you’re missing. New York, and I guess more so, New York through my eyes, is a wonderful, romantic place to be in as I’ve portrayed it over the years but not now.”
He hasn’t written any material in response to COVID-19 or the lockdown. “It’s not the kind of thing I write well. That kind of movie is best for TV shows who can satirise or dramatise and react quite quickly. Even though I think you can find laughs in the most terrible subjects – look at Roberto Benign who won Academy Awards for a comedy set in a concentration camp – but you have to handle it right. There will be pandemic comedies and some might be obnoxious and boorish but some will be insightful and true and amusing.
“But not from me. I have found it too horrible. I have just hidden under the bed. I’m useless, wasting the day, waiting for it to be over. The best I can do is sit in my room and work on a vaccine – but don’t hold your breath til I come up with one…”
The wry, philosophical Allen humour is still there. It has had to be. The closure of cinemas and the pause on the film-making business is perhaps not the only reason he is finding it hard to get another movie made. His reputation and personal life have taken a famous bashing over the last three years, ever since his estranged daughter Dylan Farrow, supported by her Pulitzer-winning brother Ronan Farrow, re-surfaced with accusations that the film maker molested her in 1992, when she was four years old.
Actors in A Rainy Day in New York including its star Timothee Chalamet and bit-part player Rebecca Hall publicly disowned their roles in the film. Not because of its quality – the film is fine, light and charming, even, and the cast hadn’t seen it before denouncing – but because they did not want to be associated with the increasingly toxic Allen brand. After that, and the ensuing legal battle with Amazon Studios who had financed it. casting Rifkin’s Festival was tricky under the circumstances, with Allen struggling to find actors after stars such as Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page said they would never work with him again.
It’s an extraordinary turn of events for the film maker who was won more screenwriting Oscars than anyone in history, and whose films have earned Oscars for actresses including Diane Keaton, Cate Blanchett, Dianne Wiest and Penelope Cruz. Actors used to clamour to work with him, taking pay cuts just to notch up an appearance in his movies, but since the downfall of Harvey Weinstein was sparked by journalism from Ronan Farrow, support for Ronan and Dylan’s claims of abuse (a single incident of abuse) has grown throughout the film industry and among film culture influencers. The Allen name has become toxic.
What are you supposed to do if you’re a fan, or like me, a biographer with a book about his films? Even having written such a book, I’m accused by the #MeToo movement of enabling a monster, of adding to the fog of fame around him so that his crimes become obfuscated and overlooked and the voices of female victims are swept under the carpet. I don’t want that.
I know film critics who won’t review his movies now, newspapers who won’t take interviews with him. Earlier this year, staff at book publisher Hachette staged a walk-out when it emerged the company was about to publish his memoirs, A Propos of Nothing. Hachette dropped the book immediately, leaving its publication in doubt until another smaller house stepped in. It is now available on digital edition only. I read it on my wife’s kindle, and some of it, the bits about Mia Farrow and all the accusations, make for ugly, if compelling reading.
“I assure you, you have nothing to be embarrassed about,” he tells me. “But you can’t say anything to those people. Nor can I. I put down in the book the truth, from the point of view of the doctors, the police, the investigators and the eye witnesses. Then there are the lie detector people and the welfare people , the people who looked into it all meticulously for 14 months, and then there are the nannies who worked at the house and the view of my son Moses who lived there.
“All you can do is what I do, and ignore the nonsense. People who are interested enough can investigate the story for themselves or in my book and any thinking person would come to the same conclusion that the investigators came to: that this was non-event and pre-fabricated and just didn’t happen.
“Every independent investigation – and there were a number of them – would come to that exact conclusion and I don’t think most people have the time or interest to investigate it and I don’t blame them. So they go on thinking what they think – they either realise it’s silly on the face of it or they buy into the false allegations, because that’s easier for them or more pleasurable for them in some way, or it or sounds better to them. I just go on with my life and after Mia, I went on with the next phase of my life, with Soon Yi, which has been wonderful.”
I ask again for a response to my initial question, about my continued appreciation of his movies. “Kid,” he says, “You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
He continues: “When you get older and your life is coming to a close, you’ll see what matters is your relationship to your loved ones – nothing else matters. It’s all meaningless: press a button forward 100 years, you see the whole world changes: everyone running around and being frantic now, they’re all gone and replaced by new people. And a100 years down the line, they’re replaced, and 100 years after that, they’re all gone.
“So my conclusion is, that it’s a meaningless ritual, so to me it doesn’t matter. I’ve had a very good life, been very lucky, a great marriage and two lovely daughters, and when my life is over I will think I’m lucky and then you disappear forever. So, you see, it’s irrelevant to me if people see my movies or don’t see them, or if they think I’m a mass murderer or a wonderful saint, it’s irrelevant, because I won’t exist.”
It’s doubtful reviews will be ecstatic for the new film. Not because it doesn’t have its nice one-liners or gorgeous photography by Vitorrio Storaro or fantastic New York locations or a fine performance from Timothee Chalamet as Gatsby Wells, a young wealthy Manhattanite who yearns for Irving Berlin tunes and crap games. It has all that, and a lovely jazz score. But it will meet with disdain and some distaste mainly because, at its core, it is about the ‘comic’ travails of a beautiful young student reporter, Well’s college girlfriend (played by Elle Fanning), an ingenue from out-of-town who is pursued through rainy Manhattan by, in turn, a film director (Liev Schreiber), his screenwriter (Jude Law) and a macho actor (Diego Luna). Did he not feel that, in the circumstances, this was material that risked the wrath of audiences now keenly attuned to spotting evidence of predatory behaviour in his work?
“Not at all,” he bats back. “I though it was a very comic situation and this young woman has to navigate her own way based on experience and wisdom, which she does. I would not write a film dictated to or influenced by movements or opinions. I merely write what I think is a comic situation for a character or set of characters. And my feelings about showbusiness is that it has been that way for many years. Each actor or actress has to navigate their life by what value they put on things.
“Look, you go back to early Hollywood and there were actresses who went to bed with with studio heads to get parts and others who chose not to, and said I’m sorry I don’t do it. It depends on the persons’ individual value. One woman puts her career ahead of everything else and does what she feels necessary to advance it. others chose not to. The same with the men, some worked for a studio and they’re offered 10 million dollars to write this thing and the author or director says no, I’m not going to sell out, so each person had to make career decisions, moral decisions for themselves – the arguments aren’t based on community feelings but on their own feelings and experiences – the writer who sells out and writes junk and gets money and his name on a movie; the woman who wants to compromise her morals has to live with it – she may be fine or she may regret it or she may be happy. Each person is responsible for their behaviour, for better for worse.”
Allen’s views aren’t fashionable. His writing in the book about certain actresses’ looks have drawn much comment. Does he still live in a bygone age? “We have moved from a bygone age to a digital age,” he sighs. “Fads change but my morals remain the same. A boy and girl on a date today are not as in the mid 1930s on a date – they conduct themselves differently – many things were sexually taboo when I grew up – were criminal , even and now are common. If you’d said to me when I was a boy that men could marry men and women could marry women, you would have said that was a preposterous notion to society, but that was a notion that was before its time, but as people get older and get more wisdom and mature as a civilisation, and become more tolerant and less rigid and bigoted, more and more things come part of the social and sexual fabric and this is good and healthy. This is about what you can absorb, be bigger, enlarge your scope of experience, not narrow it as a society.
“But my morals have always been middle class views. I’m in favour of marriage, always thought fidelity was desirable, I don’t think people should be inhibited sexually, as long as you’re not doing any damage to anybody else, each person makes their own decisions, – if you examine my morals I married young, as a teenager, and then I married another girl who I loved very much and we went together for a long time before, I had a long relationship with Diane Keaton, who I’m still very close to. You know, I was never a swinger in nightclubs with a million women, basically, had one relationship at a time that lasted fairly long, a number of years, so I’m fundamentally on the middle class side. I did not have open marriages. You marry and you’re faithful, and I’m in a marriage now for over 20 years with two girls in College and that’s very middle class. You know, there were people far more bohemian than me.”
He must admit, though, that his relationship with Mia Farrow, detailed so nakedly in his memoir, could be seen as unusual. The pair made 13 films together between 1982 and 1992 but never lived together, maintaining separate apartments on either side of Central Park. “It was unconventional,” he admits. “But pretty tepid. No, we didn’t live together, but she was older. I was in my 50s and been through a couple of marriages, she too. We weren’t two young kids, and at that age, she had seven children before I met her, we were practical about it – we did some things together, some not, we lived fairly near, worked together so we could go over to each other’s houses, it was a nice arrangement, very convenient, very pleasurable, and it served our needs at that phase of our lives. We were no longer 20-year-old kids searching for romantic ideals, we were looking for practical situations. She had a country home I was not part of and when she was back, we would go out in the city and it was very nice and we were close on certain social issues, but slowly, it started to fray and deteriorate.”
Allen can be forgiven for yearning for the past at the moment. The future does not look strong for his movies as he approaches making what would be for him, his official 50th film, a milestone. He has written a play, and an opera and suggests his future may be in the more traditional theatre, where he started out, writing Play It Again Sam and Don’t Drink the Water for Broadway. A Rainy Day in New York features several locations personally entwined with Allen’s life in Manhattan, including the Kaufman Astoria film studios where he has shot several times, and the Carlyle hotel, where he has played with his jazz band every Monday night for many years.
He is still mourning the passing, from coronavirus, of his band leader Eddie Davis, whose death near the beginning of the pandemic has affected him greatly. “We don’t know what the future of the band will be,” he says. “We were all shaken up – I played with Eddie on a Monday night as usual and two weeks later he was gone. I liked him very much personally, played with him for many years in the band, on tour, a wonderful guy, and we are terribly broken up over it. He was one of the great banjo players and we’ll never find another like him. He’s left a big hole in the band and in all our personal lives, so we felt that very much. Who knows if we will get back to playing. It’s a nightmare.”
Allen’s jazz nights have been as regular and defining as his movies for the last 50 years, fixtures in a clockwork calendar. That both are now under threat signal a huge shift in one of most iconic cultural lives in New York and world cinema.
A Rainy Day In New York is released in the UK on Jun 5 on various digital platforms.
An abridged version of this interview first appeared in the Financial Times.