IAR INTERVIEW: Woody Allen Talks 'To Rome with Love'

Thursday, 21 June 2012 13:01 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR INTERVIEW: Woody Allen Talks 'To Rome with Love'

Since becoming managing editor of iamROGUE over a year ago, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to some of the most accomplished filmmakers of all-time including Francis Ford Coppola, John Carpenter, Lawrence Kasdan, Guillermo del Toro, J.J. Abrams, and Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. So you could imagine my delight recently when I was invited, along with several other members of the press, to attend a press conference with one of the most celebrated directors in the history of cinema … Woody Allen!

Allen, who very rarely does press, was in Los Angeles last week promoting his latest film To Rome with Love, which was the opening night film at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival and begins playing in theaters on June 22nd. The movie follows-up last year’s Midnight in Paris, which earned Allen an Academy Award for Best Screenplay and was also nominated for Best Picture. In fact, the director has now won four Oscars in total and has helmed such classic movies as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry, Sweet and Lowdown, Match Point, Scoop, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

To Rome with Love features another all-star “Woody Allen Cast” including Alec Baldwin (The Departed), Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful), Jesse Eisenberg (30 Minutes or Less), Greta Gerwig (Lola Versus), Ellen Page (Juno), Italian actress Alessandra Mastronardi, Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato, and Allen himself, as well as Penelope Cruz (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), Alison Pill (Goon), and Judy Davis (The Ref), who have all worked with the director before. The film’s plot revolves around a number of different people in Italy, some American, some Italian, some residents, some visitors, and the romances, adventures and predicaments they get into.

Allen was first asked about his choice to cast international comedic actor and Oscar-winner Roberto Benigni in the film, and if it is difficult to get a different comedian to be compatible with his distinct style and humor. “I cast them because they are perfect for what I have written. They don’t have to, in any way, be compatible with me,” he explained. “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 would never be able to get his attention, and that he would be running around and crazy. But in the end, it turned out he was quite intellectual, quite poised, quiet, and a pleasure to work with. It was quite easy, actually.”

The director makes his return to acting with Rome, his first time since ‘2006s Scoop, so Allen was asked why he chose this movie in particular to once again appear in front of the camera. “Only because there was a part for me,” he joked. “When I write a script, if there is 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. 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, and I don’t really love that. Occasionally, when a part comes up, I’ll play it.”

The director went on to explain how he came up with the concept for his new film. “I have a lot of notes. Ideas come to me, in the course of a year. I write them down and throw them into a drawer in my house,” Allen said. “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, that it could make a funny story. That is 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.”

Allen also discussed why he decided to set his film in Rome and shoot the movie on location. “I had been talking about making a film in Rome for years, with the people in Rome who distribute my films,” he explained. “They always said, ‘Come and make a film.’ Finally, they said, ‘Come and do it. We have been talking about it for a long time. We’ll put up all the money necessary to make the film.’ 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.”

When filming in Rome, it is almost impossible to not end up shooting in front of a location used in a Fellini movie, so Allen was asked if it was deliberate or unintentional that some of his locations were similar to those used by the legendary Italian filmmaker. “It was probably inevitable because I didn’t know Rome very well. The art director went around finding pretty locations and interesting locations, but I had no idea if any of them had appeared in other movies. I was sure that, if I was shooting at the Coliseum, or something like that, that it had probably appeared in fifty movies, and that would be true of a number of the locations. But, I didn’t know where I was shooting and many of the places and streets I was seeing for the first time. It was really the art director who found all of the beautiful locations that we had.”

One of the major themes that Allen explores in the new movie is the idea of celebrity and the director discussed that topic. “The fact that some of the film deals with that theme is post facto,” he explained. “I didn’t think about that when I made the film. I thought; it’s a funny idea that a guy wakes up one day and suddenly he is famous and doesn’t really know why. I’d never thought of any thematic connection, in any way. That’s all just an accident. 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 chauffeur talks about it in the movie,” Allen continued. “Life is tough, whether you’re famous or whether you’re not famous. 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 at places. If I call a doctor on Saturday morning, I can get him. There are a lot of indulgences that you don’t get, if you’re not famous. I’m not saying it’s fair. It’s kind of disgusting. But, I can’t say that I don’t enjoy it,” he admitted. “There are drawbacks to being famous too, but you can live with those. They’re not life threatening. The bad stuff is greatly outweighed by the dinner reservations.”

It finally became my chance to ask Mr. Allen a question. In addition to being a legendary filmmaker, he is also an extremely accomplished musician in his own right, and music has always played a vital role in his films, as it does in To Rome with Love, so I asked Allen to discuss the importance of music in his films. “I’m a big believer in music in movies,” he answered. “It covers a multitude of sins. Now, a really great director, 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 at them in the cutting room,” Allen continued. “The editor said, ‘Put a piece of music behind it. Let me just put this record on.’ He put a record on and, all of a sudden, when I was doing something that 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. 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, and then you start dropping in a little George Gershwin and a little Mozart, things suddenly become lively and magical in front of you. It’s a great feeling.”

The writer/director was next asked if he allows his actors to improvise on set. “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, all alone and isolated in New York. When you get onto the set, it feels different to the actors. When they improvise, they make it sound alive.” That question was quickly followed up by someone else asking Allen if the long time rumor is true that he doesn’t really speak to the other actors while on set. “I try to avoid the cast because they come up with these questions, and I either don’t know the answer or don’t want to give them the answer,” he explained. “So, I avoid speaking to the actors, as much as possible.”

Allen was also asked which of his distinguished list of film credits is most memorable to him and why. “When you make the film, it’s similar to a chef who works on the meal. After you’re working all day in the kitchen, dicing and cutting and putting the sauces on, you don’t want to eat it,” joked the director. “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 it and put the music in, and 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, 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 pray that it’s not an embarrassment to me. I’ve never been satisfied or even pleased with a film that I’ve done. There’s such a difference between the idealized film in your mind and what you wind up with. You’re never happy and you’re never satisfied. For me, I’ve never liked any of my films. I’m always thankful that the audience has liked some of them, in spite of my disappointment.”

A reporter followed up that question by asking Allen if he felt the same about Annie Hall. “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 that was mine. I did the film and it was completely incoherent. Nobody understood anything that went on. The relationship between Diane Keaton and myself was all anyone cared about. That was not what I cared about,” he explained. “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 that movie, as I was with other films of mine that were very popular. Hannah and Her Sisters was a big disappointed because I had to compromise my original intention tremendously to survive with the film. So, you’re asking the wrong person. To me, it’s always less than the masterpiece I had been certain I was destined to make.”

Allen also discussed the art of making movies and what he enjoys about the process. “Real life is generally much duller and inevitably sadder, most of the time. In film, you control everything that’s going on, so you can indulge the most fantastic, romantic, escapist feelings and fantasies,” he said. “You can do anything you want. That’s why it’s very seductive and pleasurable to earn your living making movies. You’re not living in the real world. You wake up in the morning and you go to work surrounded by beautiful women and scintillating guys that are handsome, witty and gifted, and you make up stories, everyone has costumes and the music is beautiful. You live your life not in the real world, and you create something that’s completely escapist. It’s great, but it’s not real. It is fun to do and the only place you can do it is in fiction.”

Finally, for over twenty years Allen has pretty much exclusively filmed all of his movies in New York, but over the last decade he has been instead shooting in Europe and the director discussed what he has gained from that experience. “I get calls from countries that ask me to come and make films there. It’s an interesting experience. The change of venue cannot do anything but help,” he explained. “I’ve made thirty or forty pictures in New York. Then, suddenly you find yourself working in London, Barcelona or Rome, and the necessity of accommodating these new surroundings forces you into areas that you would not have otherwise explored. It gives it a certain freshness and exuberance.”

“I’ve been lucky that 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,” Allen continued. “I think Match Point would have worked in New York, I’d originally written it for New York. But, doing it in London gave it freshness. That, alone, made a contribution. The scenery and very Roman sensibility in To Rome with Love makes a contribution to the picture that’s beyond anything that I can contribute. It’s pleasurable for the viewer to watch a story unfold in that atmosphere. As long as that works for me and they keep putting the money up, I’ll do it.”

To Rome with Love opens in theaters on June 22nd. 

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