Three decades of upfront Allen

Biography | Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, the Moviemaking, by Eric Lax, Knopf, $30, 426 pages.

In the spring of 1971, Eric Lax was dispatched by The New York Times Magazine to check out three possible stories. One involved a 35-year-old comic who had written a couple of Broadway plays ("Don't Drink the Water," "Play It Again Sam") and had begun writing, directing and acting in his own films. Lax had a short interview with Woody Allen -- short because the nervous comic offered mostly "yes" and "no" answers. Lax pursued one of the other stories.

That fall, Lax was riding his bike in the Bay Area when he crossed paths with a production vehicle for Allen's "Play It Again Sam," which was being filmed in San Francisco. Lax took the chance encounter as a sign. He did several more interviews with Allen and eventually wrote a piece for The New York Times, a piece that was killed when Time magazine beat him to the punch with a cover story on Allen.

Lax sent Allen a copy of the derailed story. Allen appreciated the gesture, liked the story and extended an invitation: "Feel free to drop by my editing room whenever you like."

So for the next 36 years, Lax sat down periodically with Allen in his editing studio for a chat. The result: "Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies and the Moviemaking," Lax's follow to his 1991 "Woody Allen: A Biography." "Conversations" is a collection of interviews that begin in 1971 during filming of "Play It Again Sam" and run through last November as Allen was editing "Cassandra's Dream."

It's a remarkable effort not so much because of the span it covers, but rather that the conversations take place in real time. They're fresh with an immediacy often missing in a retrospective. (Good thing, too, because as soon as Allen finishes a project, he tends to forget about it, he says.) The conversations evolve from stiff question-and-answer interviews to contemplative, relaxed conversations in which Allen becomes increasingly forthcoming.

For instance, despite his productivity -- every year he averages at least one film, which he writes, directs and sometimes acts in -- and the perceived depth of his work, he tells Lax that he sees himself as lazy. " hen I've said over the years that the only thing standing between me and greatness is me, I've been completely right about that," he tells Lax in a 2005 interview. "I've been given more opportunities than anybody. I've been given the money and freedom for thirty-five years now to make whatever I wanted. ... So there's no reason for me not to make great films."

Does he think he's come close?

"Manhattan Murder Mystery" (1993) probably tops his list. He likes "Match Point" (2005), "Husbands and Wives" (1992), "Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985) and "Bullets over Broadway" (1994), too.

His least favorite? 2001's "Curse of the Jade Scorpion," of which he says, "It kills me to have a cast so gifted" -- Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, David Ogden Stiers -- "and not come through for them. They put their trust in me."

His feeling about his work is summed up by the movies' often short titles -- between 1987 and 2006, nine of his films have three-word titles, seven have two-word titles and four have just one. "I want a title that doesn't promise much. That's my confidence. I try to take a soft sell, nonpretentious approach, like one-word titles."

What success he admits to, he credits to his ability to stay out of the way. "I get very good performances out of my people by rarely or never speaking to them," he tells Lax in 2006. This is why some of Hollywood's top actors jump at the chance to work with Allen, even though his modestly grossing films pay poorly.

Allen seemingly tells all, yet this is no tell-all. He has nothing but praise for the people he's worked with, from casting directors to top-name stars with reputations for giving directors fits. Of Sean Penn (1999's "Sweet and Lowdown"), for instance, he says, "... I found him very, very nice, and as so often happens, what you hear about someone doesn't bear out." About the only person he shows disdain for is Charlie Feldman, who produced "What's New Pussycat" in 1965, for "mutilating my script."

"Conversations" offers insights into Allen himself -- he writes a typical script in four to six weeks; he takes showers for inspiration; the sun "is the bane of my existence" -- and his films. He's contractually obligated to act in a certain number of his films; "September" was such a mess that he completely recast and reshot it; he likes to shoot in New York because "it's convenient for me. I like to eat in my favorite restaurants and sleep in my bed."

Allen once described life as being "full of misery, loneliness, and suffering -- and it's all over much too soon." "Conversations" sheds light on what exactly that -- and Allen's cinematic take on life in general -- means.