A conversation with Woody Allen
On a sweltering Manhattan day, it's hard not to think of Woody Allen's old line about preferring air conditioning to the Pope.
Allen's Park Avenue office and screening room are a cool sanctuary, far off the Manhattan street and away from the heat. Asked if he was looking forward to the New York premiere that evening of his latest film, To Rome With Love, he answers "No" with comical quickness.
Depending on how you count, To Rome With Love is the 76-year-old filmmaker's 45th film, a total he's amassed by making, with remarkable consistency, a film a year. It's also his eighth film made in self-imposed exile, traversing European capitals.
His last movie, the Oscar-nominated Midnight in Paris, was his biggest box-office hit ever, a success Allen greets only with a shrug.
To Rome With Love - as much of a European postcard as Allen has made - is an ensemble farce about numerous characters (Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Penelope Cruz, Roberto Benigni, Ellen Page) chasing conflicting desires in the Eternal City.
The film, which opened Friday in New York and Los Angeles, hasn't received very good reviews, but Allen is already onto his next film, with plans to begin shooting a movie in August - again starring Baldwin - that will take him back to New York and also to San Francisco.
Allen chatted with The Associated Press about filmmaking Woody's way:
AP: You've often described filmmaking as a constant process of disappointment in not realizing your initial idea. So what keeps you trying?
Allen: You always think that you're going to do better the next time. It's deceptive. Sometimes you do better than the last time, sometimes you don't. It's like a gambler. You're constantly thinking, 'This next one, I'm going to really nail it. Everything's going to be perfect.' And you do it, and of course it's far from perfect.
AP: What was your initial concept for To Rome With Love?
Allen: The people in Rome who distribute my films (Medusa Film) always kept saying, "Come to Rome and make a film." Finally, they really got serious. Then I was faced with having to write something for Rome.
AP: Did you ever think that you'd be part filmmaker and part travel guide?
Allen: No, I never wanted to or expected to make a film outside of New York. New York became very, very expensive. The same $18 million spent in Barcelona or Rome goes much further there. I've had six other offers since then. ... I don't know if I could do that indefinitely.
AP: Your earlier films seemed to be more searching and questioning.
Allen: You can see them as searching, but you would find that after time, the conclusions are grim. No matter what kind of sugarcoating people put on it - whether it's a religious sugarcoating or a philosophical sugarcoating - no matter what they tell you, the facts are grisly.
AP: So what, then, is the point of art or a movie? Some look for enlightenment when they open a book or go to a movie.
Allen: The answer to your question, I think, on both sides of the camera or the novel: Distraction. I'm obsessed with: Can I get this actress or my third act to work? I'm distracted. I'm interested in that so I don't sit home and think, "Gee, life is meaningless. We're all going to die. The universe is pulling apart at breakneck speed." So I'm distracted with relatively solvable trivia.
AP: Have you ever felt you accomplished the film you set out to make at the start?
Allen: A couple times I've felt, "Gee, I've come very close to my original concept here and this is nothing to be ashamed of." ... For me, the trick is to execute my original intention. The audience may wind up hating my original intention. And it may be that when I prostitute the film and don't live up to the original intention - let's say like Hannah and Her Sisters - it's a big success, and a bigger success than if I had achieved my original idea. There's no correlation between what the public likes and what I'm after. I'm in a different world.
AP: How did you want Hannah and Her Sisters to be different?
Allen: It was much darker. I softened it a lot, and then people liked it. But I didn't. It was too neatly tied up.
AP: You were also dissatisfied with Manhattan, which is among your most beloved films.
Allen: When I saw it, I was not crazy about it. To this day, I have memories of it as being disappointing to me. I'm not saying it wasn't beautifully filmed - it was Gordon Willis, shot in black in white - and the people were good. But the writing was too preachy, too self-righteous. That's one of the reasons I thought Match Point was a good film, because it wasn't preachy or self-righteous. It just was what it was.
AP: At the end of Manhattan, your character listed the things that make life worthwhile, including Willie Mays, Louis Armstrong's "Potato Head Blues," Flaubert's "Sentimental Education," Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Groucho Marx and the crabs at Sam Wo's. If you updated that list, what would you add?
Allen: I made one big mistake on that list and I would change it today. I got a letter from a lady that said: "You named all the things that made life worth living, but you didn't name your child." I had a child with Meryl Streep in the movie. At the time, I had no children in my life, and I figured, "Eh, she's nuts," and I threw it away. Now that I have children, I realize what an egregious blunder that was and how short sighted I was. That would be the leading thing on the list.
- The Associated Press (Photo: Sony Picture Classics)
To Rome With Love opens in theatres on July 6.