Woody Allen, now almost 79, has written at least a film per year since his screenwriting debut in 1965. He has been nominated for an Academy Award 24 times and won 4 (3 of which were for screenwriting) He is the most nominated screenwriter in history.
With our Comedy Script Contest deadline approaching, and with his new film Magic In the Moonlight, starring Emma Stone and Colin Firth, primed for a positive reception, the team at ScreenCraft dove into Allen’s interviews over the years in search of pearls of wisdom to share with our screenwriting community.
What is immediately apparent is his consistent artistic sensibility (albeit with his trademark cynicism). His career of over 50 years has been defined by a rather blunt understanding of his place in the cinematic canon, a struggle with mortality, and a love for entertainment.
What follows are 5 quotes, each on a different aspect of his writing:
1. On writing from the subconscious:
“What people who don’t write don’t understand is that they think you make up the line consciously — but you don’t. It proceeds from your unconscious. So it’s the same surprise to you when it emerges as it is to the audience when the comic says it. I don’t think of the joke and then say it. I say it and then realize what I’ve said. And I laugh at it, because I’m hearing it for the first time myself.” –Woody Allen for Esquire, 2013
2. On not worrying about critical success:
“That’s one of the nice things about writing, or any art; if the thing’s real, it just lives. All the attendant hoopla about it, the success over it or the critical rejection—none of that really matters. In the end, the thing will survive or not on its own merits. Not that immortality via art is any big deal. Truffaut died, and we all felt awful about it, and there were the appropriate eulogies, and his wonderful films live on. But it’s not much help to Truffaut.”
— Woody Allen for The Paris Review, 1985
3. On letting go of perfection:
“As an artist, you are always striving toward an ultimate achievement but never seem to reach it. You shoot a film, and the result could have always been better. You try again, and fail once more. In some ways I find it enjoyable. You never lose sight of your goal. I don’t do my job to make money or to break box office records, I simply try things out. What would happen if I were to achieve perfection at some point? What would I do then?”
— Woody Allen for The Talk, 2012
4. On outlining before writing:
“To me, the torture is getting the idea, working the idea out — its general plot, structure and story. But once I know that, I can write a screenplay in two, three weeks. It’s the difference between writing it and writing it down. It becomes pleasurable for me and flows easily because I’ve done all the spade work beforehand.” –Woody Allen in The Hollywood Reporter, 2012
5. On stealing from those who have come before:
“Oh, I’ve stolen from the best. I mean I’ve stolen from Bergman. I’ve stolen from Groucho, I’ve stolen from Chaplin, I’ve stolen from Keaton, from Martha Graham, from Fellini. I mean I’m a shameless thief.”
–Woody Allen for TIME Magazine, 2009