It’s a heady combination: Rome, the Eternal City, and Woody Allen, a filmmaker for the ages.
After a lengthy stint making films that were largely set amid New York’s world of the cognoscenti and their brethren, Allen has found renewed vigor – not to mention enthusiastic financing – in recent years placing his stories in locales abroad to great effect, including London (“Match Point”), Barcelona (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Paris (“Midnight In Paris”). Now the 76-year-old writer-director’s lens settles on Italy’s most romanticized metropolis for “To Rome With Love,” an eclectic assembly of comic vignettes focusing on love, fame and appearances featuring an all-star cast that includes Penelope Cruz, Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Greta Gerwig, Roberto Benigni, Alison Pill, Judy Davis and, after a long screen absence, Allen himself.
PopcornBiz had a ringside seat as Allen opined on making the film, casting and comedy, love lessons he might have learned and his own surprising opinions about some of best-loved films.
On the film’s prevailing themes of fame, celebrity and accomplishment:
The fact that some of the film deals with that theme is post facto – I didn’t think about that when I made the film. I thought, ‘It’s a funny idea that the guy sings in the shower, and it’s a funny idea that some guy wakes up one day and suddenly he’s famous and doesn’t really know why, and two young people come to Rome and they’re just married and they get involved in the situation.’ I had never thought of any thematic connection, in any way. That’s all just an accident. Now, it may have been something that was on my unconscious at the time and it came out in some strange way.
On his personal take on fame, celebrity and accomplishment:
I myself feel about fame the way the character of chauffeur talks about it in the movie: that life is tough, and it’s tough whether you’re famous or not famous. And in the end it’s probably, of those two choices, better to be famous because the perks are better. You get better seats at the basketball game, and you get better tables and reservations places. If I call a doctor on Saturday morning I can get him. There’s a lot of things, indulgences that you don’t get, if you’re not famous. Now I’m not saying it’s fair – it’s kind of disgusting, in a way – but I can’t say that I don’t enjoy it. There are drawbacks in being famous too, but you can live with those. They’re not life-threatening. If the paparazzi are outside your restaurant or your house – and actors make such a big thing of it and scurry into cars and drape things – you think they’re going to be crucified or something. It’s not a big deal. You can get used to that. It’s not so terrible. The bad stuff is greatly outweighed by the dinner reservations.
On allowing his cast to improvise:
I have great faith in the actors. When they improvise, it always sounds better than the stuff I write in my bedroom. I don’t know what’s going on – I’m alone, isolated in New York. Then we get onto the set and it feels different to the actors. When they improvise, they make it sound alive. In ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ Javier [Bardem] and Penelope [Cruz] were improvising whenever they felt like and they were speaking Spanish. I don’t speak a word of Spanish, and to this day, there are scenes in the picture that I have no idea what they were saying. I just never knew but you could tell they were correct by their body language and by the emotions they were going through. I never had to know. I just assumed they knew what they were doing, they’re professional, and I was right.
On casting seemingly disparate comedic talent Roberto Benigni:
I didn’t think Roberto Benigni would be compatible with me. I thought that I would have a difficult time with him, and that he would irrepressible and I’d never be able to get his attention, and he’d be running around and he’d be crazy. But in the end, it turned out that he was quite intellectual and quite poised and quiet and a pleasure to work with. He had nothing to do with my kind of comedy – he just did his role. It was quite easy, actually.
On why he chose to appear in the film after a lengthy hiatus from acting:
When I write a script, if there is a part for me, then I play it. And as I’ve gotten older, the parts have diminished. I liked it when I was younger: I could always play the lead in the movie and I could do all the romantic scenes with the women, and it was fun and I liked to play that. Now, I’m older and I’m reduced to playing the backstage doorman or the uncle or something. I don’t really love that, so occasionally when a part comes up I’ll play it.
On his always-full drawer of story ideas:
I have a lot of notes. Ideas come to me in the course of a year and I write them down and throw them into a drawer in my house. And then I go and look at them and many of them seem very unfunny and foolish to me and I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I originally did it. But sometimes there will be a little note written on a matchbook or a piece of paper that says, for example, “A man who can only sing in the shower,” and it will occur to me at the time ‘This could make a funny story.’ That’s what happened with this. There were some ideas in this movie that did come out of the notes that I had given myself over the year.
On the decision to set and shoot the story in Rome:
There are two things: One is I had been talking about making a film in Rome for years with the people in Rome who distribute my films. They always said ‘Come and make a film! Come!’ And finally, they said ‘Come and do it. We’ve been talking about it for a long time. We’ll put up all the money necessary to make the film.’ And I jumped at the chance because I wanted to work in Rome and it was an opportunity to get the money to work quickly and from a single source.
On how he uses music in his films:
I’m a big believer in music in movies. It covers a multitude of sins. Now, a great director, a really great director, let’s say like Ingmar Bergman, did not believe in music in films. He thought the use of music in films was barbaric – that was his word. His films are great enough, so that he doesn’t need any outside help. I need help. I noticed, right from the first movie I ever made in my life, 'Take the Money and Run,' there were scenes in it that were just dying when I looked in the cutting room. And the editor, Ralph Rosenblum, said 'Put a piece of music behind it.' I was so inexperienced, I didn’t. He said 'Here, let me just put this record on.' He put a record on and all of a sudden, when I was doing something and it was so boring originally, it came to life. Doing it to music just made the whole thing work. Ever since, I’ve been a big believer in supporting the action on film with the appropriate music. It’s gotten me out of a lot of jams, over the years. So music for me is a very big thing in films and I use it unashamedly. I have used all the classics and all the great composers, both classical and Tin Pan Alley. It’s the most pleasurable part of a movie, too. When you have a movie and you look at it and it’s ice cold with no music, then you start dropping in a little George Gershwin and a little Mozart, a little something else and the thing suddenly become lively and magical in front of you. It’s a great feeling.
Allow him to digress:
'To Rome with Love’ is a terrible title, incidentally. My original title was ‘The Bop Decameron’ and nobody knew what the Decameron was – not even in Rome. Even the Italians didn’t know. I changed it to ‘Nero Fiddles’ and half the countries in the world said, ‘Well, we don’t know what that means. We don’t have that expression.’ You do go through this on a number of movies so finally I settled on a generic title like ‘To Rome With Love’ so everybody would get it.
On how the film’s comedic style often hearkens back to his earliest films:
The stories in this picture just require, in the telling of those stories, a certain amount of that broader, slapstick kind of humor. Not much of it, but a certain amount of it is required. You can’t tell the story and avoid, you just can’t tell the story properly without doing that, so I had to do it. And I didn’t mind. It’s fun. I like broad comedy. If I had an idea tomorrow for a film that was all slapstick and broad comedy, and it was an idea that interested me, I would not hesitate to do it because I enjoy watching those kinds of film too.
On the lessons he’s learned about love:
About the important things in life, you never learn anything. You can learn technological things, you can learn about specific things, but the real problems that people deal with in any subject, existential subjects or romantic subjects, you never learn anything. So you make a fool of yourself when you’re 20, you make a fool of yourself at 40, at 60 at 80. The ancient Greeks were dealing with these problems. They screwed up all the time. People do now. All over the world, relationships between men and women are very, very tricky and very difficult and you don’t learn anything. It’s not an exact science, so you can’t learn anything. You’re always going by instinct, and your instinct betrays you because you want what you want when you want it. So it’s very tough going and most relationships don’t work out, and don’t last long when they do work out. When you see one that’s really lovely, it’s a rarity. It’s great that two people, with all their complex exquisite needs, have found each other and all the wires go into the right places. It’s great, so I’ve learned nothing. Years and years of failure. I have not got anything to say. No wisdom.
On the subject of retirement:
Retirement is a very subjective thing. There are guys I know who retire and they’re very happy. They travel all over the world, they go fishing, they play with their grandchildren, all that kind of stuff, and they never miss work at all. And then there are other people – I’m one of that kind – that likes to work all the time. I just like it. I can’t see myself retiring and fondling a dog every day. I like to get up and work and go out. I have too much energy or too much nervous anxiety or something, so I don’t see myself retiring. Maybe I will suddenly get a stroke or a heart attack and I will be forced to retire, but if my health holds out I don’t expect to retire. But the money could run out. It could be that sooner or later – the guys that back the films could get wise and then they say, ‘This is not really worth all the suffering,’ and they stop giving me the money. But I still wouldn’t retire, I don’t think. I think I would still write for the theater or write books.
On never looking back at one of his films:
When you make the film, it’s like a chef who works on the meal. After you’re working all day in the kitchen and dicing and cutting and putting the sauces on, you don’t want to eat it. That’s how I always feel about the films. I work on it for a year: I’ve written it, I’ve worked with the actors, I’ve edited, put the music in. I just never want to see it again. When I begin a film, I always think that I’m going to make ‘The Bicycle Thief’ or ‘Grand Illusion’ or ‘Citizen Kane,’ and I’m convinced that it’s going to be the greatest thing to ever hit celluloid. Then, when I see what I’ve done afterward, I’m praying that it’s not an embarrassment to me. So I’ve never been satisfied or even pleased with a film that I’ve done. I make them, I’m finished, I’ve never looked at one after. I made my first film in 1968, and I’ve never seen it since. I just cringe when I see them. I don’t like them because there’s a big gap between what you conceive in your mind when you’re writing and you don’t have to meet the test of reality. You’re home, you write and it’s funny and beautiful and romantic and dramatic, and then you have to show up on a cold morning, and the actors are there and you’re there, and you don’t have enough of this and this goes wrong and you make the wrong choice on something and you screwed up here and you see what you get the next day and you can’t go back. There’s such a difference between the idealized film in your mind and what you wind up with that you’re never happy, you’re never satisfied. For me, I’ve never liked any of them and I’m always thankful that the audience bails me out and some of them they’ve liked, in spite of my disappointment.
On the one film that nearly everyone considers his masterpiece:
Let me tell you, when ‘Annie Hall’ started out, that film was not supposed to be what I wound up with. The film was supposed to be what happens in a guy’s mind – you were supposed to see a stream of consciousness in his mind and I did the film and it was completely incoherent. Nobody understood anything that went on, and the relationship between myself and Diane Keaton was all anyone cared about. That was not what I cared about. That was one small part of another big canvas that I had. In the end, I had to reduce the film to just me and Diane Keaton and that relationship, so I was quite disappointed in the end of that movie, as I was with other films of mine that were very popular. ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ was a big disappointment, because I had to compromise my original intention tremendously to survive with the film. So you’re asking the wrong person…It’s always, to me, less than the masterpiece I was certain that I was destined to make.