Hailed as one of the greatest film and comedy writers, Woody Allen is still going strong. The lengthy list of award winning, now classic films Allen has cooked up is almost absurd – how can one man produce hit after hit, year after year? Sure, some have fallen by the wayside, and he has his fair share of critics, but without a doubt the man has not lost the fire for his work.
With his latest film, Allen returns as an actor for the first time in six years, building on his neurotic, particular persona as a retired opera director. After the wild success of filming in London (Match Point), Barcelona (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), and the Academy Award winning location, Paris (Midnight in Paris), he tackles another vibrant city – Rome. While promoting To Rome With Love, the iconic writer/director reveals where his ideas come from and his constant quest for perfection.
Rachel Heine: You’ve mentioned in interviews before that you have a drawer full of notes and ideas and when you make a movie you look at all the different ideas that you have and say, “I think this is a good one.” Is To Rome With Love the product one of those ideas?
Woody Allen: Yes, I have a lot of notes that I – you know, ideas come to me in the course of the year and I write them down and throw them into a drawer in my house. 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 I’ll pull out an idea like there will be a little note written on a matchbook or on 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. And 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.
RH: The man who can only sing in the shower is just one of the characters who grapples with the idea of fame and accomplishment. What sparked the idea to meditate on those themes?
WA: 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, “Gee, it’s a funny idea, 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 get – they’re just married and they get involved in the situation.” I had never thought of any thematic connection in any way. And 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.
I myself feel about fame the way the character – the way the chauffeur talks about it in the movie, that, you know, life is tough and it’s tough whether you’re famous or whether you’re not famous. And in the end it’s probably of those two choices better to be famous because, you know, the perks are better. You know, you get better seats at the – at the basketball game and you get better tables and reservations places. And if I call a doctor on Saturday morning, I can get him.
You know, there’s a lot of things that – indulgences that you don’t get if you’re just – if you’re not famous. Now I’m not saying it’s fair. It’s kind of disgusting in a way actually. But I can’t say that I don’t enjoy it. And there are drawbacks in being famous, too. But you can live with those. They are not life-threatening. You know, if the paparazzi are outside your restaurant or your house and actors make such a big thing of it and scurry into cars and drink things over there. You know, 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. So the bad stuff is greatly outweighed by the dinner reservations.
RH: The film includes so much slapstick-y humor and absurdist sight gags. In that regard it feels like a throwback to some of your earliest films. What inspired you to return to that approach to comedy at this point in your career?
WA: Those stories that make up To Rome With Love – 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. So then I changed it to Nero Fiddles and, um, and half the countries in the world said, “Well, we don’t know what that means. We don’t have the expression.” And, you know, 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.
And the stories in this picture are just require that 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. It just – you can’t tell the story and avoid – you know, you just can’t tell the story properly without doing that. So I had to do it. And I don’t mind. You know, it’s fun. I like broad comedy and 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, you know, I enjoy watching those kind of films, too.
RH: Throughout your career – for decades even – you said you would never leave New York to make a film. Then suddenly over the last eight or ten years you’ve had this whole vibrant array of settings. What have you gained from getting out of New York?
WA: Yeah, it was strictly financial. The first one was Match Point, which was not a really up funny film, you know. But they gave me the money to make it in London. I was happy to make it there. And then I found that other countries started calling me. Barcelona wanted me to make a film and then Paris and Rome. And I’d get calls from countries that asked me to come and make films there. So it’s an interesting experience.
And the change of venue cannot do anything but help. You know, I made – I don’t know what – 30 pictures in New York, 40 pictures in New York or something. I can’t remember how many – 35. And then suddenly you find yourself you’re working in London or Barcelona or Rome. And the necessity of accommodating to these exotic new surroundings forces you into areas that you would not have otherwise explored. So, you make films and it gives it a certain freshness and exuberance.
I’ve been lucky, the films that I’ve made in foreign countries have been coming out good and I’m sure the fact that I’m not making them in New York has been one contributing factor. I think Match Point would have worked in New York. I had originally written it for New York. But doing it in London – I don’t know what it was – gave it a certain freshness. I wasn’t again shooting in Central Park or on Broadway or Park Avenue. That alone made a contribution.
Just as Rome in this picture – the scenery and the very Roman sensibility makes a contribution to the picture that’s beyond anything I can contribute to it. It’s just pleasurable for the viewer to just watch a story unfold in that atmosphere. So, you know, as long as that works for me and they keep putting the money up, I’ll do it.
RH: With all the films that you’ve directed, produced, written, starred in, and all the awards you’ve received, all the nominations, is there one film that remains the most memorable for you?
WA: When you make the film, it’s like the chef who works on the meal. After working all day in the kitchen and dicing and cutting and putting the sauces on, you don’t want to eat it. And that’s the way 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. And 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 this is going to be the greatest thing that ever hit celluloid. And then when I see what I’ve done afterward, I just am praying that it’s not an embarrassment to me.
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. 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 it’s beautiful, and it’s 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 a wrong choice on something and you’ve 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. You’re never happy – you’re never satisfied. So 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.
RH: Even Annie Hall?
WA: Annie Hall, 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 and you were supposed to see a stream of consciousness in his mind. And I did the film and it was completely incoherent and nobody understood anything that went on. 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. And 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 know, you’re asking the wrong person. When you see us up here and we made the film and we’re in California promoting it and everyone is saying what a thrill this was and how great it was to work with this person – you’d think we made Citizen Kane. But it always sounds this way at a promotional thing. In the end you’ll see the film or you’ve seen the film and you draw your conclusion from it. But, you know, it’s always, to me, less than the masterpiece I was certain that I was destined to make.
RH: Well, your fans would be inclined to disagree. The actors you’ve worked with also sing your praises -- Penelope Cruz has been very vocal about the freedom you gave her in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. What inspires you to let your actors play with the words you give them?
WA: I have great faith in the actors and when they improvised, it always sounds better than the stuff I write in my bedroom because I don’t know what’s going on. I’m alone, isolated in New York. Then we get on the set and it feels different to the actors and when they improvise they make it, you know, they make it sound alive.
In Vicky Cristina Barcelona Javier and Penelope 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 this 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 that were going through and I really – I never had to know. You know, I just assumed they knew what they were doing. They’re professional. And I was right.
RH: This time around you cast a few famous Italians -- when you cast another distinct comedian in your movie like Roberto Benigni, how compatible are they with your style of humor?
WA: They don’t have to be. I cast them because they’re perfect for what I have written and they don’t have to in any way be compatible with me. I didn’t think Roberto Benigni would be compatible with me. I thought that I would have a difficult time with him, that he would be 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 and really had nothing to do with my kind of comedy – just did his role. It was quite easy actually.
RH: Another Italian star in your film, Fabio Armiliato, has been deemed “the best Chénier of our time.” How did you get such a talented opera singer to be a part of this movie?
WA: We searched for a long time to find somebody who actually could sing opera and could speak a little English and could act a little bit. And then all of a sudden we met this guy and he was great. He had all those qualities. He had lived in New York for a year of his life and he spoke English pretty well, he was a pretty good actor, and he had a lovely singing voice, and so we were very lucky.
RH: Speaking of acting -- it’s been a long time since we’ve seen you in front of a camera. Why at this particular point and for this particular movie did you decide that you wanted to be in the film?
WA: Only because there was a part for me. You know, when I write a script, if there’s a part for me, then I play it. 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, you know, the backstage doorman or, you know, the uncle, or something, and I don’t really love that. So occasionally when a part comes up, I’ll play it.
RH: Your character equates retirement with death. Is that how you feel as well? Or do you see a future where you step away from the camera?
WA: You know, retirement is a very subjective thing. I was saying this before that there are guys I know that retire and they’re very happy. You know, they travel all over the world, they go fishing, they play with their grandchildren. All that kind of stuff. They never miss work at all. And then there are other people – I’m one of them -- that kind that likes to work all the time. I just like it. I can’t see myself retiring and, you know, fondling a dog someplace. You know. [Laughs]. You know, I like to get up and work and go out. I have too much energy and too much nervous anxiety or something. So I don’t see myself retiring.
Now maybe I’ll suddenly get a stroke or a heart attack and I’ll be forced to retire. But if my health holds out, I don’t expect to retire. The money could run out… it could be that sooner or later the guys that back the films get wise and then they say, “You know, this is not really worth all the suffering,” and they stop giving me the money. But I still won’t retire, I don’t think. I think – I think I would still write for the theater or write books…
RH: One of your characters interacts with himself twenty years in the past. If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
WA: Well, it would be, “Don’t do that.” You know, I would like to go back in time but just for lunch. I would not like to live in the past because there are all those drawbacks, as I mentioned in my other movie. You don’t get anesthetic when you go to the dentist. You don’t get antibiotics. You don’t get – you know, the things that you’re used to now – cell phones, and televisions, things that are very convenient. It takes all year for the ambulance to come. You don’t want that. But it would be fun if you could every now and then just meet a friend for lunch at Maxim’s in Paris in 1900 or go back to 1870 just for a couple of hours. Take a walk in the park and then come right back to Broadway, you know.
RH: Last question -- in addition to being an accomplished filmmaker, you’re also quite an accomplished musician in your own right. Music always plays an important part in your films -- it certainly does in this one. Could you talk about the importance of music in your movies and particularly in this picture?
WA: Well, 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. And 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 at them in the cutting room. And the editor, Ralph Rosenblum, said, “Put a piece of music behind it.” And I was so inexperienced I didn’t – he said, “Here, let me just put this record on.” And 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. It just – 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 and 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’ve used all the classics, all the great composers, both classical and Tin Pan Alley. And it’s the most pleasurable part of the 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 and a little, you know, something else, and the thing suddenly becomes lively and magical in front of you. It’s a great feeling.
Woody Allen's 'To Rome With Love' opens in theaters Friday June 22nd, 2012.