A CONVERSATION WITH WOODY ALLEN
To Rome with Love/Woody Allen Interview by Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.
As press conferences go, most are riddled with chaos and trying to navigate through that chaos for any reporter is challenging. Then there is Woody Allen. As witty and elegantly funny as ever, Allen has always shied away from the press as much as possible. But duty calls as he sits amidst his female co-stars promoting his latest film, To Rome with Love, the title of which he hates. [“It’s a terrible title, but nobody knew what the others meant so I had to come up with a generic title.”] Though often accused of shyness when he is working, as he takes questions from a packed room of reporters, Allen is in top form, regaling us all with punchy one liners, observations about his work. To Rome with Love is his latest cinematic foray exploring love and misadventure in another gorgeous European city, Rome. The film is a collage of comically skewed vignettes thematically linked by the notion of fantasy and regret. One vignette involves budding architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), living abroad with girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and suffering from mounting attraction to her visiting actress friend Monica (Ellen Page). Jack also takes advice from a mentor he meets on the streets, established architect John (Alec Baldwin), who used to live in town and whispers romantic advice in Jack’s ear at every turn, who may or may not be Jack’s older self.
In the other arc involving an American abroad, Hayley (Alison Pill) gets engaged to Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) and her parents (Judy Davis and Allen) venture to Rome for the wedding. Allen, as retired talent manager Jerry, finds that Michelangelo’s father Giancarlo (prominent Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato) has an unappreciated ability as an opera singer that could rejuvenate Jerry’s career except he can only sing in the shower. Then there are specifically Roman stories. Roberto Benigni plays a middle-class everyman who wakes up one day to find himself inexplicably transformed into a celebrity while a sheltered young man (Alessandro Tiberi) traveling to Rome to introduce his wife (Alessandra Mastronardi) to his judgmental family becomes entangled with a prostitute (Penélope Cruz), whom he must haul around as if she were his new bride to avoid suspicion.
One of the nicest aspects of the film is seeing Allen in front of the cameras delivering another priceless comic performance. It’s been some 10 years since Allen acted in one of his movies, but as he told me, the parts were not available. “For this movie, there was a part for me. When I write a script, if there’s a part for me I’ll play it. As I’ve gotten older the parts have diminished. I liked it when I was younger, I could 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, which I don’t like. So occasionally when a part comes up I’ll play it.” But in crafting this particular film, Allen wove his stories into the fabric of his latest European city, following in the footsteps of London, Barcelona and Paris. In deciding to set his latest film in the Eternal City, Allen says that “I have been wanting to make a movie in Rome for years because I promised the people who distribute my films that I would make a film there. Finally they said they’d put up all the money 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, so it came together like that.”
As with all of his films, Allen explores the fragility and complexity of relationships, so when asked what the biggest lesson he has learned about love, Allen offers a pause. “About the important things in life, you never learn anything. You can learn technological things or specific things, but you can’t learn about the real problems that people deal with, so you make a fool of yourself when you’re 20, 40, 60 or 80. The ancient Greeks were dealing with these problems and screwed up as we do today. All over the world, relationships between men and women are very tricky and 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 always betrays you, because you want what you want when you want it. So it’s tough going and most relationships don’t work out, and when you see one that does, it’s a rarity. It’s great that two people with all their complex and exquisite needs have found each other. But I have nothing new to offer.”
One of the recurring themes of To Rome with Love is the idea of fame and celebrity, from the once anonymously dull businessman who discovers fame for no apparent reason, to the the guy who becomes famous singing opera in the shower. “The fact that some of the film deals with that theme is post-facto,” Allen commented. “That may have been something that was in my unconscious mind at the time and it came out in some strange way. But I myself feel about the way the character of the 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.” Allen himself has, of course, had brushes with tabloid celebrity in the past, and is no stranger to the downside of fame. But he confesses, laughingly, that the downside of fame beats the alternative, conceding, “The perks are better,” he observes. “You get better seats 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. There are a lot of things that you don’t get if you’re not famous. Now, I’m not saying it’s fair – it’s kind of disgusting – but I can’t say I don’t enjoy it.” The director further admits “There are drawbacks in being famous, but you can live with those too,” he confesses. “They’re not life-threatening. You know, if the paparazzi are outside your restaurant or your house and actors make such a big thing and scurry into the car and drape things over their head – you think they’re going to be crucified or something – but it’s not a big deal. You can get used to that. It’s not so terrible,” he says. “The bad stuff is greatly outweighed by the dinner reservations.”
As for retirement, Allen has no intention of giving up the directorial mantel quite yet, “unless I suffer a stroke or a heart attack. I love to work, and I’ll continue to do so while I can.” And that’s good news for his devoted fans.
To Rome With Love enjoyed its North American premiere at the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival. The film opens nationwide June 22.