Why Woody Allen Won’t Stop Working

He’s 77 and his 48th feature film, Blue Jasmine, is out at the end of this month. That’s because, for the Great Neurotic One, work is life and life is work. Which again proves that Woody Allen isn’t afraid of death–he just doesn’t want to be there when it happens.

Why Woody Allen Won’t Stop Working

Woody Allen is 77 years old. And yet as a recent Wall Street Journal profile describes, he’s “so busy you could say it’s a little neurotic, a little overcompensating,” what with the clarinet and jazz, the columns for the New Yorker, the Broadway musical he’s putting together, and, oh yeah, the motion pictures: the newest, a certain Blanchett-Baldwin vehicle called Blue Jasmine, comes out on July 26th.


It’ll be his 48th feature.

So why does he keep making movies? Because, he likes to say, the only thing standing between him and greatness is himself. He doesn’t want to be thought of as a grand old director, but, like a good entrepreneur, as a self-taught schlepper. His working, he tells the Journal, is necessary for his living:

“You know in a mental institution they sometimes give a person some clay or some basket weaving?” he said. “It’s the therapy of moviemaking that has been good in my life. If you don’t work, it’s unhealthy–for me, particularly unhealthy. I could sit here suffering from morbid introspection, ruing my mortality, being anxious. But it’s very therapeutic to get up and think, Can I get this actor; does my third act work? All these solvable problems that are delightful puzzles, as opposed to the great puzzles of life that are unsolvable, or that have very bad solutions. So I get pleasure from doing this. It’s my version of basket weaving.”

We’ve seen behavior like this before: Jerry Seinfeld, another comic genius, Intends To Die Standing Up; while Warren Buffet, who has a few dollars saved, is happy to wake up every morning to paint the canvas of Berkshire Hathaway. His tip for hiring: find people who would prefer to work, rather than lounge on a yacht circling the Mediterranean.

What is it about the work?

Just as the protagonist of Norwegian Wood realizes that death is a part of life rather than its opposite, so it seems that long-toiling masters like Allen realize that work is not the opposite of life, but rather a part of it. Which is why, we can venture, the discussion about work-life balance may be better framed as a balance between stimulation and non-stimulationi.e. hassle-filled weekends aren’t exactly recuperative–but we digress.

What’s fascinating is that Allen’s relentlessness (and restlessness) in keeping at the pictures inspires a sort of devotion in the people that he works with–stars like Cate Blanchett or Alec Baldwin or Louis C.K. who leap at taking the union minimum.

As leaders tend to be, Allen acts as a curator of talent, especially for his female roles, as his record of 11 best actress or supporting actress nominations suggests. It’s like Seth Godin once said: talented people need clients or bosses who will allow them to showcase their abilities–whether as interns or an Oscar winners.

“We have very good luck because actors aren’t always offered a lot of stimulating things,” Allen says, explaining how he can pay A-list talent comparatively little. “The kinds of films that get made now don’t always have great acting roles. So when people get a chance to really act, even if it’s for no money, which it is, they grab it.”


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.