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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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)

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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):