You were an introverted teenager and a highly sensitive student. What possessed you to go into films?
As a kid, I felt I was wasting my time at school. I used to cut class and go watch a movie instead. I’d go to theatres in Manhattan, rather than somewhere in my neighbourhood, because the theatres in New York were bigger, the seats were softer, the usherettes wore white gloves, and most of all the popcorn didn’t taste of rancid butter. The movies felt like heaven’s waiting room. Later, they became a way of expressing myself, a means of living vicariously. Writing screenplays and acting has allowed me to experience situations I never would have had the courage to provoke as an individual.
It seems you've never wanted to be "in synch" with reality, whatever the era. Is that true?
Absolutely! I’ve always hated reality. I live in Manhattan, you know, in this big apartment. When I was a boy, the kid from Brooklyn, I thought people in the fancy neighbourhoods lived in a permanent tinseltown. Even today, I’m always expecting a limousine driver to break into a dance routine outside my door, or to see Buster Keaton hanging from the hands of a clock, hundreds of feet above the ground! The reason I make one film after another is to escape the cruelty and coldness of life. The minute I stop, it all comes rushing back. It’s so awful I have to get started on a new project right way. That way, hopefully at least, I can be with imaginary characters who are to my liking and who obey my every wish…
I don't like to be aware of passing time. I prefer to let the writing take over. It's a powerful sensation.
On average, how long does it take you to write a good screenplay?
There’s no hard and fast rule. Sometimes it just flows, sometimes it’s harder to get it down. Either way, I have a constant, frenetic desire to write. I put ideas on scraps of paper or on matchbooks which I then keep in shoeboxes. Let’s just say I have a lot of shoeboxes! I never look at my watch or at a clock when I’m writing. I don’t like to be aware of passing time. I prefer to let the writing take over. It’s a powerful sensation.
In all the years you've been writing, have you ever been left with a blank page?
The hardest part isn’t so much finding the idea as knowing how to structure it. When you’re transcribing an abstract idea, you need to know what the end of your story will be. Otherwise you can spend hours working on it and probably kill yourself in the process. I need to know where I’m going more than how I’m going to get there. It’s also essential that you create an atmosphere, a setting. A life!
Still, you must get creative block sometimes. Do you have a method for working through it?
I’ve been lucky enough to never really experience creative block. I don’t necessarily mean in terms of quality. Like anyone else, I can write a load of hooey, stuff that just doesn’t cut it, but I’ve never actually sat down and been unable to write. When I’m depressed, work tends to have a positive, healthy effect that helps get me through the rough patches. I’ve never had to wrestle with blank page syndrome. I’ve been fortunate in that respect, and from an early age.
I love to hear cars honking in jams, fire trucks weaving their way through the traffic with sirens blaring, pneumatic drills.
Is it true you have to be in New York in order to write?
I need to hear New York. I’ve spent the occasional night in the countryside, listening to the silence, or the odd grasshopper or toad. It was unbearable. My ears aren’t “tuned” to that kind of sound. The countryside is just too quiet. It’s great for half an hour, an hour at most, after that I start getting jittery and I’m itching to get back to New York. I love to hear cars honking in jams, fire trucks weaving their way through the traffic with sirens blaring, pneumatic drills [laughs]. There has to be noise, life, something going on!
Do social issues interest you as a filmmaker?
Social and political issues have never interested me as an artist. As a citizen, yes, of course I’m interested in my president, my government, and how my city, New York, is run. Social inequalities bother me as much as they do anyone else, or at least anyone who happens to be a liberal Democrat like me! [laughs]. But it’s not a subject I’ve ever considered for a movie. Philosophy, psychology, human relations, themes that could get people rushing to the theatre for the wrong reasons, have never appealed to me.
What would those wrong reasons be?
I don’t want people to see my movies because they’re topical. They might seem interesting at the time, but the years go by and circumstances change. I don’t want people to feel they’ve been “caught” by some topical subject I made into a movie. It’s not an honest attitude. It’s really a question of timing. Take gay marriage, for example. Gay couples can get married today without any difficulty, at any rate legally. This would have been virtually impossible a few years ago. What if I’d made a movie about gay couples wanting to marry and the problems they faced? It would be totally outdated, obsolete now. I try and make movies on subjects that have a more long-term relevance. Movies that aren’t driven by a fashion or a trend. My interest in the problems of society is part of my private life.
Politics don't interest you as an artist, but could someone like the flamboyant Donald Trump be a character in a Woody Allen movie?
[Laughs]. Believe it or not, Donald Trump did have a part in Celebrity, and he was actually very good. I think he spices things up, in fact I’m sure everyone watches the debates when he’s taking part. Donald is a real showman. Between you and me, I don’t think he seriously wants to become president of the United States, but he does add some theatricality to the process. He’s flamboyant, like you said. He gets the debate going. He stirs it up! I could get a couple of gags out of it, but there’s a difference between that and an entire screenplay. These days, you only need mention his name to get a laugh but in ten, five, even two years’ time, his verbal “exploits” will be a thing of the past. Unless he’s elected! [laughs]. As far as I can see, the Donald Trump episode will become a detail in history. A story everyone will find funny, except the Republicans!
How do you explain your amazing longevity? Vitamins?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to remain in good health, and lead an active, energetic life. Work is all the vitamins I need. Work keeps me young. Most of all it keeps my brain working. I’m on constant intellectual alert. Work isn’t an ordeal, something we have to endure; it’s our opportunity to stay switched on. For as long as I’m healthy, I see no reason why I won’t carry on making movies, until I’m 92 even, like my dad. Believe me, if he’d been able to keep going, he would have. I still have a million ideas to write, although to be honest, I don’t see what else I could do. I’m not about to switch careers, not at my age!