On Woody Allen’s Work Ethic: ‘Start to Finish’

A comprehensive discussion of sight, sound, inner vision, and personal complications in the production of the 2015 Woody Allen film, Irrational Man.

It’s been a quarter-century since film fans have been able to see Woody Allen without first having to navigate through the cloud of brutal sex abuse allegations that came in the wake of his dating and eventually marrying ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow’s daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. The cloud of suspicion and perversion surfaced again during the making of Irrational Man, the 2015 film that serves as the background of Allen biographer Eric Lax’s comprehensive Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of MovieMaking. More recently, reporter Ronan Farrow, Allen’s estranged son with Mia, was the vehicle through which the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal broke wide in October 2017. The age of an iron-fisted patriarchy in Hollywood is being ripped apart, and its effects will surely be overwhelming.

Eric Lax has connected himself with Woody Allen since 1971. As he notes in his Introduction, this has resulted in being able to watch Allen make more than a half-dozen films from the first day to last, and parts of over 20 others. Quite simply, this is unprecedented access to the creative process and Lax is a kind, patient observer. This is what should be clearly understood here: Lax is more of an observer, a chronicler, a reporter determined to account for every step his subject seems to be taking. “Craft is crucial but art is elusive,” Lax writes. “Copy every move of [your auteur of choice] and you might create a facsimile but not their work of genius…new art can emerge from observing how a master filmmaker proceeds.”

This is the point of Lax’s work with Allen, and most readers willing to go through the journey with him will be rewarded. No matter the peculiarities of Woody Allen as a persona, the fact that he consistently played on-screen variations of the hapless schlemiel somehow seen romantically enticing women 30 years his junior for far too long, Lax is most interested in the process. How and why has Allen annually produced a feature film (writing, directing, and sometimes starring in) since 1977? It’s not about the quality of the work. By no means have they all been successful, and recounting the balance between hits and misses is not Lax’s point here. What compels him (and should keep the reader’s attention) is the work ethic.

“He makes no notes or outline,” Lax writes. He’s convinced that a writer needs to know his subject’s story better than anybody else. The writer needs to understand not just where it can go, but where it will go. “He says he admires many movies but few scripts… ‘My screenplays don’t read like anybody else’s because I don’t put in any directions… The movie exists on the page, I guess, because it has to be sold.” That seems to be the modus operandi of Allen, the work ethic, which remains undeniably admirable. Lax cites the usual suspects for Allen’s influences: Federico Fellini, the wise-cracking persona Bob Hope assumed on screen, and in particular the films of Ingmar Bergman.

Those who have followed the origins of Allen as a gag writer for variety program Your Show of Shows, a New York University drop-out, a fan of Existentialism, will know this already. Still, it’s effectively spelled out by Lax. Through most of this book, the film that would eventually be called Irrational Man is referred to by its working title, “The Boston Story”. Lax cites, early in this book another influence of Allen, William Barrett’s 1958 book, Irrational Man. In summarizing Barrett’s thesis, Lax notes: “For an existentialist, any philosophy that fails to consider our irrational urges cannot be complete.”

What works most about the way Lax has constructed this book are the longer passages where he allows Allen to pontificate about the essence of comedy. On Shakespeare’s comedies: “…just not funny. What’s beautiful about them is the language.” Allen finds hilarity in the Marx Brothers films and W.C. Fields movies, but he notes that they are just recordings of their acts. Comedy is difficult, but Irrational Man would not be funny. The key would be a poisoning, a murder by a philosophy professor intended to make his life complete. Allen knows how to make murders, See Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point and others. Allen cites Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious and Suspicion, and he knows what needs to be at the heart of these types of films:

“There is no intellectual content in a movie like ‘Notorious,’ but it’s as fine a movie as has been made.”

Lax understands that this is a story he needs to tell in a systematic order. To those who question why Allen keeps making film after film without letting them marinate, without taking time to ensure they’re all of a consistently high quality, he notes that “…almost all his scripts have marinated and been rethought and reworked over many years.” It also seems to be about surrounding yourself with the best of the best, cinematographers like Sven Nyqvist and Gordon Willis, costume designers and set decorators and others who understand the sensibility of Allen the auteur. Lax sets the foundation that’s undeniable: Woody Allen has cinematic connections. He has basically taught himself how to create his vision by aligning himself with the best. The cycle of on-screen players has changed over the decades, but the persistence of vision remains admirable.

The actual sensational and perhaps tawdry aspects about the life and times of Woody Allen, which have been unavoidable for any biographer/critic since 1992, are covered very clearly by Lax. He notes:

“Woody says she called him many times late at night to scream…’You took my daughter, and I’m going to take yours,” meaning Dylan…During one phone call to Woody, Farrow warned, ‘I’ve got something planned for you.” Allen asks if she’s going to shoot him, to which Farrow reportedly responds: “…No, this is worse.”

The reader most interested in the process of making a film (which Lax covers quite comprehensively in this book) might get jarred by these 11 pages. Lax takes us away from the narrative (developing a film from pre- through post-production) and lands us deep into the mire that’s still brewing. Moses Farrow, one of Allen and Farrow’s adopted children, is quoted as follows: “‘Mia’s ability and intent to mold her children to do her bidding was matched by her living in constant fear that her secrets of abusive parenting would be divulged…”

As this section progresses, the reader understands that its presence in Start to Finish is unavoidable.On 1 February 2014, The New York Times published an open letter from Dylan Farrow on its Opinion pages that details a molestation scene with Allen as the perpetrator. Lax suggests this was fabricated from lyrics in a song by Dory Previn, ex-wife of Mia’s ex-husband Andre Previn. As a segment in this text, it’s necessary and effectively rendered. Still, the reader is frustrated. Lax might have better served his purposes had he simply reported the return of this controversy in the life and career of Allen and not tried to shoe horn it into his story. A more comprehensive examination of the creative and personal partnership of Allen and Mia Farrow remains to be written.

In “The Shoot”, (Chapter 5), Lax details the sometimes inconsistent means Allen used when communicating with his actors. You are terrific, but I don’t need you to act. Allen discloses, deep in the chapter, that he has never seen The Wizard of Oz. His experience is more informed by Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, DeSica, and other non-Americans. The debt Allen’s screen presence owes to Bob Hope’s acting persona might seem at odds with an auteur whose high-minded dramas are of a European flavor, but that’s always been at the heart of his filmmaking approach.

For all the controversy that has swirled around Allen and his on and off-screen relationships with his leading ladies, from as far back as his role as the creeping early middle-aged Lothario in 1979’s Manhattan, lusting after a teenaged Mariel Hemingway, his connection with creating interesting and successful roles for women is undeniable. “‘All these pretty, funny, talented women,’ Woody says of the actresses in his films, and how rarely he has easygoing banter with them… they’re great actors and amazing women… One after the other they keep coming in.”

Again, while this is interesting and certainly verifiable (Cate Blanchett, Penelope Cruz, Mira Sorvino, Diane Keaton, and Diane Wiest have all won Academy Awards for their roles in Allen’s films), Lax seems to be setting the stage for another text than what he’s providing here. He does his best within this chapter to contain a side-narrative that should be developed at length elsewhere. He notes how Bergman and Tennessee Williams, two of Allen’s heroes, created great complex female characters.

“Take a play like Streetcar. Stanley wants his essential pleasures… [but] Blanche is much more complicated… When they were human problems they were feminine. An existential problem could be more masculine because then it had a more life-and-death struggle…”

Lax provides in this chapter some interesting counter-arguments against Allen. The late playwright Sam Shepherd once noted, of Allen and director Robert Altman “…they have no respect for actors. Individually, each knows zip about acting…” Shepherd later clarified and adjusted his argument, but it’s an effective balance that’s needed for Lax to provide a clear view of Woody Allen as an auteur who still needs to understand collaboration.

Is Woody Allen aware of his legacy? Does he understand his work within the context of his contemporaries or those who started in TV and came up in the early half of the ’60s? “I’ve always felt Sidney Lumet is underrated,” Allen observes. Again, those familiar with on-screen Woody Allen at the service of others — from his role in Martin Ritt’s 1976 film The Front to John Turturro’s 2013 film Fading Gigolo — understand that this is a working man constantly looking to find something else, a different variation on an admittedly familiar (and perhaps tired) venue.

In Chapters 6 through 8, Lax takes the reader through technical aspects of the film’s edit, the score, and the color correction and mix. Again, it helps to come into this section (and the entire book) familiar with and perhaps at least somewhat in align with Allen’s style, particularly the selection of music. He has rarely commissioned original scores, opting instead to draw from a seemingly endless supply of original jazz tunes. It’s less about a stubborn insistence on staying with what he understands than it is about a perfect marriage of sight with sound. Watch and listen to Crimes and Misdemeanors, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Manhattan, and then understand the importance of Ramsey Lewis’s “The ‘In” Crowd” in “Irrational Man”.

A reader not experienced in a core section of Woody Allen films might be lost through much of Start to Finish. It’s an at times exhaustive look at the career of a man who has kept producing, acting, writing, and intensely supervising a body of work that is impressive at least in its numbers. Lax has the unfortunate luck of having this book released in a national climate of #metoo and revelations of sexual indiscretions from old school men in the thrones of Hollywood power. Allen himself unfortunately provided an immediate poorly worded comment upon the initial October 2017 allegations regarding producer Harvey Weinstein — that he wished it didn’t turn into a witch hunt — which he immediately had to clarify. We are living in a world where old gender-based power structures seem to be crumbling, or at least revealed for what they have always truly been. It may no longer be a world receptive to Woody Allen. Allen is a big subject, and Lax starts a few narratives he should have more clearly developed, but at the core of this text is an effectively rendered and at times fascinating look at everything it takes to make a film, even in an age when everything around the studio set seems to be crumbling.

RATING 8 / 10