While he’s drawn controversy for the past two decades due to his personal life after marrying the adopted daughter of former girlfriend Mia Farrow, Woody Allen has been on undeniable creative hot streak for much of the past decade.
Last year, he had the biggest box-office success of his career and won yet another Oscar (Best Screenplay) for “Midnight in Paris,” and since shooting his career-restoring hit “Match Point” in London eight years ago he’s found new creative life by making films in such foreign locales as London, Barcelona, Paris and now Rome.
Allen not only wrote and directed his latest film, “To Rome with Love,” he also appears on screen for the first time since co-starring in his 2006 feature “Scoop.” “Rome” is not only hilarious, but also has a zippy pace, optimistic spirit and yet another star-laden cast with such fellow acting luminaries as Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis and Roberto Benigni (in a return to the glorious form he showed in “Life is Beautiful.”)
Allen spoke at a press conference to promote the film at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel late last month and proved himself to be down-to-earth, verbally expansive and a lot of fun. He also revealed some amazing behind-the-scenes insights about the forces that have inspired his work.
“I cast them because they’re perfect for what I’ve written,” says Allen, when asked about how he picks his illustrious actors, including the surprising choice of shock comic Andrew “Dice” Clay for his next movie. “They don’t have to be compatible with me. I didn’t think Benigni would be, I thought I’d have a difficult time with him, that he’d be irrepressible running around. But in the end he turned out to be intellectual, quiet, poised and a pleasure to work with. He just did his role, and was quite easy actually. I haven’t directed Clay yet, that’s next summer.”
Yet Allen himself hasn’t acted in many of his recent films, and it’s refreshing to see him back on the big screen. He seems practically buoyant playing an avant-garde opera director who feels he’s found his greatest discovery in a man who can only sing well while standing in a shower.
“I’m only in this because there’s a part for me,” says Allen. “As I’ve gotten older, the parts have diminished. When I was younger I could always play the lead in the movie, could do all the romantic scenes and it was fun. Now I’m old and reduced to playing the backstage doorman, or the uncle and I don’t really love that. So occasionally I’ll do a role if the right bigger one is there.”
“To Rome with Love” arose out of a very basic idea, it turns out – an idea that Allen kept in a drawer filled with premises.
“I have a lot of notes and ideas come to me in the course of the year,” Allen explains. “Ideas come to me and many seem unfunny and I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I originally did it. But sometimes there will be a note on a matchbook – like a man who can only sing in the shower, which occurred to me this time could make a funny story and that’s what happened with this. We searched for a long time to find someone who could sing opera, speak a little English and could act a little bit. Suddenly we found this guy who had lived a year in New York once so he knew English enough to do well while having the other special skills.”
Allen is famous for sitting courtside at New York Knicks basketball games, as well as for playing clarinet each Monday night at the lush jazz bistro Elaine’s in New York City. His fame has given him access to corners of the world that he would never have seen if he were an anonymous working-man, and that fact also played into his creative process behind “Rome.”
“The fact that some of the film deals with that theme is post facto,” says Allen. “I just thought of a funny idea with a guy who sings beautifully but only in the shower, or a guy who wakes up and is famous without knowing why. I never thought of any thematic connection in anyway. It may have been in my unconscious at the time and came out in a strange way. I myself feel about fame the way the chauffeur in the film talks about it: Life is tough whether you’re famous or not famous, so of those two it’s probably better to be famous.
“There are better perks, better seats at basketball games, better tables and reservations, and if I call a doctor on a Saturday morning I can get him,” Allen continues. “A lot of indulgences you get. Not saying it’s fair, it’s kind of disgusting but I admit I enjoy it. There are drawbacks but you can live with it. Paparazzi outside your restaurant it’s not a big deal. Get used to that. The bad is greatly outweighed by great dinner reservations.”
As a musician who not only plays New York but has traversed Europe with a killer jazz band, Allen is known for his love of music. His films are filled with the sounds of classic jazz and Tin Pan Alley songs, but in “Rome,” he also repeatedly uses a chugging Italian dance-pop song to keep the film’s tone bouncy. For Allen, that musical tone is key.
“I believe music covers multitude of sins. [Swedish director Ingmar] Bergman didn’t believe in music, but I need help,” says Allen. “From my first movie I used music at the editor’s suggestion to make a scene come to life. I’m a big believer in supporting action on film with appropriate music, and it’s gotten me out of a lot of jams over the years. I’ve used classical and Tin Pan Alley songs. It’s a great pleasure to watch a film when it’s ice cold and then drop in Gershwin, or Mozart, and see the film become lively and magical.”
Having used time travel as a theme in “Midnight in Paris,” Allen has obviously given some thought to where he would go if he could travel back himself.
“I’d tell myself, ‘Don’t do THAT!’ I’d like to go back in time, but just for lunch. I would not like to live there because you don’t get anesthetics at the doctor, or cell phones, and it takes a year for the ambulance to come. But it would be fun every now and then to meet a friend at Maxine’s in Paris for lunch in 1900.
Despite tons of Oscar nominations and a few wins for his scripts, Allen is known for allowing actors to improvise. He also feels like “Rome” is a return to the slapstick comedy of his early-’70s hits like ‘Bananas” and “Sleeper.”
“I have great faith in actors. When they improvise on set, it feels different to the actors and they make it sound alive,” he says. “I’m alone writing in my apartment in New York, so I’m in my own little bubble and what do I know about how people really talk at length? Javier [Bardem] and Penelope [Cruz] improvised in Spanish [on “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”] and to this day I didn’t know what they said sometimes. I just knew by their body language that it was right.
Despite his film’s characters’ messy love lives, having covered the topic of relationships constantly over the course of more than 40 films should give Allen some genuine insight into the ways that the human heart works. Or at least, it would seem that way.
“I was saying to someone else before – about the important things in life, you never learn anything,” says Allen. “The real problems that people deal with in any subjects, existential or romantic, you never learn anything so you make a fool of yourself, at 20, 40, 60, and even 80. The ancient Greeks screwed it up and people do now. All over the world, relationships are tricky and very difficult, they’re not an exact science so you’re always stuck with your instinct and that betrays you. It’s very tough going and most relationships don’t work out or last long, so when you see one that’s really lovely, it’s a rarity and great that all the wires go to the right places.”
Just as he himself once wrote and directed “Love and Death,” it seemed a perfect time to follow up a question of love with a discussion of death. Or as he might put it, retirement.
“Some retire who never miss work at all. I can’t see myself retiring and fondling dogs. I like to get up and work and go out, because I have too much energy, nervous anxiety,” he says. “I don’t see myself retiring if my health holds out. I don’t expect to retire. The money could run out and they say it’s not worth all the suffering. I still wouldn’t retire, I’d write books or theater.”
But in staring down death or at least the twilight of his career, Allen admits that even some of his greatest accomplishments were riddled with doubts.
“It’s like a chef dices and cuts food all day, then they don’t want to eat it. I never want to see a film again after it’s done,” he says. “When I begin a film, I always think I’m gonna make the greatest thing ever to hit celluloid. Then when I see it later I’m praying it’s not an embarrassment to me. I’ve never been satisfied or pleased with my films, never watched once they’re done. There’s a big gap between what you conceive in your mind and showing up on a cold morning with screw-ups on set that you can’t go back over. There’s such a difference between the idealized film in your mind and what you end up with that you’re never happy. I’ve never liked any of them and I’m thankful that audiences sometimes feel otherwise.
“Even ‘Annie Hall’ was not supposed to be what I wound up with,” says of his Oscar-winning film. “It was supposed to be a stream of consciousness in a guy’s mind. The film was completely incoherent, no one understood anything, and my relationship with Diane was all anyone cared about. It was a small part of a big canvas and at the end I had to reduce that film to me and Diane and that relationship. I was very disappointed with that and ‘Hannah [and Her Sisters’]’ because I had to compromise my original intentions severely.”
And so, as he wraps up his thoughts on “Rome,” a film rooted in fantasy and surreal moments and thoughts about fame, Allen gives one final assessment of the meaning behind his career and why he loves it so.
“You’re able to do this escapism in film, which is inevitably sadder most of the time,” he says. “In film, you control anything going on because you can indulge your escapist feelings and fantasies. That’s why it’s seductive and pleasurable to make your living in movies, you go to work with made up stories, costumes, music, makeup, not in real world but fabricated and escapist. It’s great, it’s not real and it’s fun.”