Eric Lax has been interviewing Woody Allen, off and on since 1971, when Allen was enjoying early success as a comedian and filmmaker, and the author was a young, inexperienced journalist.
Lax wrote a long piece for the New York Times Magazine, but it never appeared. But he also sent the draft to Allen, who liked it, and invited him to stop at his editing room "anytime" which he did off and on over the next 36 years.
The long-term result was Lax's 1991 best-selling biography of Allen. Now Lax has published what he calls "the oldest established permanent floating interview in New York."
In this substantial book, Allen discusses his rise from joke writer to stand-up comedian to world-famous filmmaker. He also talks about his ideas, his writing of screenplays, casting and acting. In particular, he focuses on some of the actors he most admires Alan Alda, Marlon Brando, Michael Caine, Robert De Niro, Mia Farrow, Gene Hackman, Scarlett Johansson, Jack Nicholson, Charlize Theron, Dianne Wiest and many others.
And he considers Diane Keaton second only to Judy Holliday among the great screen comediennes.
Allen comes off as witty and self-deprecating, always downplaying what some have called his "genius." He refers to much of his work as "accidental" or even "unintentional" ideas that emanate from the simplest beginnings.
He admits that most of his work is autobiographical, "and yet so exaggerated and distorted it reads to me like fiction. Like the character in 'Play it Again, Sam,' I'm not social. I don't get an enormous input from the rest of the world. I wish I could get out more and mingle, because I could write better things. But I can't."
When Lax asks Allen if he has ever lost a manuscript, he reports that when he was 25 he had written a TV series script based on an S.J. Perelman story. He went out and he was carrying the script. "It was the only copy, I had to deliver it some place that night. And there was a fire in Times Square ... and I'm watching the fire and then I go on with my evening. Two hours later I realize I lost the script. And I came back to Times Square, and there it was on the curb, all walked over, in the manila envelope. Isn't that incredible?"
So the script was saved but it was never made into a TV series. "The producers felt that my script was too prosy and they wanted it in dialogue. They were schleppers. They didn't know what they were doing. It was actually fine."
When directing actors, Allen admits to "being in the dark" much of the time, often knowing "instinctively" that something is wrong but not knowing what.He says he never does a lot of takes because he is easily bored. He also concedes that he uses a lot of the same actors in film after film because he finds a comfort zone with them as with Tony Roberts, Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton. "I feel they've played with me and were willing to do another movie with me, so they couldn't have hated it that much."