9 Things I Learned From Woody Allen

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I hate Woody
Allen. Here’s why. Because if you’re Jewish and a little
neurotic then it has become a cliché that nerdy neurotic
Jewish people describe themselves as “Woody Allen-esque”
thinking it will attract women. They do this on dating services.
The idea is that they will then attract some waif-like Mia Farrow-ish
(or the 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan)
blonde who will love all of their neuroses and want to have sex
all the time and will, in the ideal case (the 17-year-old Mariel
Hemingway in Manhattan, the 21-year-old Juliette Lewis in
Husbands
& Wives
), be the most mature in the movie and yet still
be madly in love with the 30-year-older Allen.

This only happens
in Woody Allen movies. And power to him. He made the movies. He
can do whatever the hell he wants in them. If Mariel Hemingway wants
to have sex with him all the time then no problem. He wrote the
movie! It’s up to you whether you believe it or not.

And people
believed it. Manhattan is considered one of his greats –
shot in black and white, skyscapes of Manhattan in every direction
which are actually shot from Allen’s penthouse apartment. It
was beautiful and makes you fall in love with Manhattan.

Allen puts
out a new movie or two every year. None of them will compete with
Star
Wars
or Harry
Potter
in terms of gross dollars. But it seems like his
studio gives him $10 million, his movie will make $20 million, and
everyone is happy and he gets to keep doing what he’s doing.

So he’s
built up a substantial body of work that we can learn from. Why
learn? Because clearly he is a genius, regardless of what other
opinions anyone might have of him (and I only know him through his
work. I don’t know his personal life at all). It is interesting
to see how he, as an artist and creator, has evolved. To see how
his idiosyncratic humor has changed, how he twists reality further
to stretch our imagination. He always stands out and stays ahead
of the other innovators. And for other people who seek the same,
he is worth observing.

Here’s
some of the things I’ve learned from him:

1. Failure.
Some of his movies are just awful. He admits it. In a 1976 interview
in Rolling Stone he says, “I would like to fail a little
for the public…What I want to do is go onto some areas that
I’m insecure about and not so good at.”

He elaborates
further. He admits he could be like the Marx Brothers and make the
same comic film every year. But he didn’t want to do it. It
was important for him to evolve. To risk failure. To risk failure
in front of everyone. And his movies did that, going from the early
slapstick humor of Sleeper to the darker Crimes
and Misdemeanors
and Match
Point
.

One of my earliest
memories is having a babysitter while my parents went to a movie.
Then when they got home I asked them what they saw and they described
a movie where a man falls asleep and wakes up in the future where
a giant Nose ruled the world. Woody Allen has been there since the
beginning for me. And just the other day I watched Midnight
in Paris
with Owen Wilson (who, despite looking very un-Woody
Allen-esque, plays the virtual “Woody Allen” role very
well. The movie explores the history of art and how no art form
exists by itself but is always influenced by generation after generation
of artists before it, dating back hundreds if not thousands of years).

Woody Allen
has also failed spectacularly, in every way we can imagine –
personally, professionally, etc. And yet he’s always pushed
forward, trying to surprise us again and again, and largely succeeding
rather than giving up.

2. Prophetic.
In a Washington Post interview in 1977 he states, “We’re
probably living at the end of an era. I think it’s only a matter
of time until home viewing is as easy and economical as desirable.”
In the past three days I’ve watched three Woody Allen movies
on my ipad. I don’t know if this changed the way he made his
movies. But it’s clear he never got himself stuck in one particular
form or style that would eventually fail to cater to the tastes
of the average audience.

3. Flexible.
We admire the entrepreneurs who quickly recognize mistakes and then
transition their business accordingly (the catch-phrase lately is
that these entrepreneurs know how to “pivot”). Allen typically
starts off with a broad outline, a sort of script, but it changes
throughout the movie. Specifically he states, “To me a film
grows organically. I write the script and then it changes organically.
I see people come in and then I decide…it changes here. It
changes if Keaton doesn’t want to do these lines and I don’t
want to do these- we shift around. It changes for a million reasons.”

The entrepreneur,
the entre-ployee. Relationships in general, all shift and change.
You set out in life wanting certain things – the college degree,
the house with the white fence, the promotions, the family –
but things become different. You have to adapt and be flexible.
To say only the lines you are comfortable with and evolve into.

4. Productivity.
To put out a movie every year or so, plus plays, magazine stories,
books. you would think Woody Allen works around the clock. From
a 1980 interview, “If you work only three to five hours a day
you become very productive. It’s the steadiness of it that
counts. Getting to the typewriter every day is what makes productivity.”

He states later
in the interview that when he was younger he liked to get things
out in one impulsive burst but he learned that was a “bad habit”
and that he likes to wake up early, do his work, and then set it
aside for the next day.

Probably the
most productive schedule is to wake up early – do your work
before people stop showing up at your doorstep, on your phone, in
your inbox, etc, and leave off at the point right when you are most
excited to continue. Then you know it will be easy to start off
the next day.

I read in a
recent interview that it takes Allen a month to write a comedy and
three months to write a drama. On three to five hours a day it shows
me he writes every day, he’s consistent, and he doesn’t
waste time with distractions (going to parties, staying out late,
etc)

5. Avoid
outside stimulus.
Every day right now I make a huge mistake.
I start off with the loop: email, twitter, facebook, my amazon rank,
my blog stats, my blog comments. My wife Claudia asks me: “did
you finish the loop yet?” And I think it will only take a few
seconds but it actually takes about twenty minutes. I probably do
it ten times a day. That’s 200 minutes! 3 hours and 20 minutes!
Ugh.

Here’s
Allen’s description of when he won an Oscar for Annie Hall.
First off, he didn’t go to the Oscars. Why get on a plane (8
hours door to door), and go to a party where he would feel uncomfortable,
to win an award he probably didn’t care much about (although
it magnified his prestige in Hollywood, the city that paid his bills):

In a 1982 interview
with the Washington Post he states that he went to Michael’s
Pub to do his weekly jazz clarinet playing although he says “I
probably would not have watched anyway” just to see everyone
he knows hunched down in the audience waiting for hours to see who
would win. He states that he had “a very nice time” at
Michael’s. So for him his pleasure came first. Rather than
the anxious watching and waiting.

Read
the rest of the article

January
19, 2012

The
Best of James Altucher

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