Woody Allen’s new movie, To Rome with Love, is a kaleidoscopic comedy set in one of the world’s most enchanting cities. The film brings us into contact with a well-known American architect (Alec Baldwin) reliving his youth; an average middle-class Roman (Roberto Benigni) who suddenly finds himself Rome’s biggest celebrity; a young provincial couple (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) drawn into separate romantic encounters; and an American opera director (Allen) endeavoring to put a singing mortician (Fabio Armiliato) on stage. The ensemble cast also includes Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page.
MoviesOnline sat down at a press conference with Allen to talk about why he decided to go in front of the camera as well as direct after so many years. He told us what inspired the story that focuses on fame and accomplishment, why he chose to shoot on location in Rome, how he convinced world famous operatic tenor Fabio Armiliato to be a part of the film, and what it was like directing comedian Roberto Benigni. He also discussed the importance of music in his films, how celebrity can come in handy if you’re trying to score a dinner reservation, and why he doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.
Q: When you cast another distinct comedian in your movie, like Roberto Benigni in this or Andrew Dice Clay in your next movie, how compatible are they with your style of humor?
WA: They don’t have to be. I cast them because they are perfect for what I have written. 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, and 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 and I’d have to…. 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, just did his role. It was quite easy, actually.
Q: And Mr. Clay?
WA: Oh, I haven’t directed him yet. That is next summer.
Q: It’s been a long time since we have seen you in front of the camera. Why at this point and for this movie did you decide you wanted to be in the film?
WA: Only because there was a part for me. When I write a script, if there
is a part for me, then I play it. If there is no part… 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.
Q: You once said that you had a drawer of ideas. Was this one of the ideas that you had in your drawer?
WA: Yes, 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.
Q: Did you have a hard time convincing Fabio Armiliato, the tenor, to do this?
WA: We searched for a long time to find somebody who could actually 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, he spoke English pretty well, he was a pretty good actor and he had a lovely singing voice so we were very lucky.
Q: What was the inspiration for this and when did you decide the setting would be Rome?
WA: Well, 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. So, it came together like that.
Q: Is it inevitable that if you shoot in Rome, you’re going to eventually shoot in a location from 8 1/2 or a Fellini movie, or did you deliberately choose those locations?
WA: No, it was probably inevitable because I didn’t know Rome very well and the art director went around finding pretty locations and interesting locations. I had no idea if any of them had appeared in other movies. I was sure obviously if I was shooting at the Coliseum or something like that it probably had appeared in 50 movies, and that would be true of a number of the locations, but I didn’t really know where I was shooting and many of the places and streets I was seeing for the first time. It’s really the art director who found all the beautiful locations we had.
Q: So much of this film is a meditation on fame and accomplishment. What sparked the idea to focus the movie around that?
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, “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. 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.
Q: In addition to being an accomplished filmmaker, you’re also quite an accomplished musician and music always plays an important part in your films, including this one. Can you talk about the importance of music in your movies and particularly this?
WA: 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, 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.
Q: In the film, Alec Baldwin’s character takes a trip down memory lane. If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
WA: Well, it would be, “Don’t do that!” 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 the things that you are used to now, cell phones and televisions and 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.
Q: Not to say that you’re not an actor.
WA: It’s okay, it’s been said.
Q: How do you feel about your actors improvising?
WA: 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 Vicki 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.
Q: The film includes so much slapstick humor and absurdist sight gags, and it feels like a throwback to some of your earlier 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. 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. 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.
Q: You’ve really mastered the art and study of relationships in your films. What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned about love?
WA: Well, I was saying to someone else before 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, 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.
Q: In this film, your character equates retirement with death. Is that how you feel, or do you see a time when you will step away from the camera?
WA: You know, retirement is a very subjective thing. I was saying this before, 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.
Q: With all the films that you’ve directed, produced, written and starred in, and all the nominations and awards you’ve received, is there one film that’s haunted you?
WA: 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.
Q: Even Annie Hall?
WA: 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. 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. When you see us up here and we made the film and we’re here in California promoting it and everyone’s saying what a thrill this was and how great it was to work with this person, you think we made Citizen Kane. 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. It’s always, to me, less than the masterpiece I was certain that I was destined to make.
Q: So many of the movies I love explore fantasy and things that you in your wildest dreams would never expect to happen to you. Were fantasy and these big dreams part of what you thought about when you were writing this film?
WA: Yes, you’re able to do that in film. 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. You can do anything you want. That’s why it’s very seductive and pleasurable to earn your living making movies because you’re not living in the real world. You wake up in the morning and you go to work, you’re surrounded by women like this and scintillating guys that are handsome and witty and gifted. You make up stories and everyone has costumes and the music is beautiful. You live your life not in the real world, and you create something that’s completely fabricated, escapist. It’s great, but it’s not real, but it’s fun. It is fun to do. The only place you can do it is in fiction.
Q: For decades you said you’d never leave New York to make a film, but in the last 8-10 years you’ve gone to many places. What do you think you’ve gained from doing that and has it made the films upbeat?
WA: It was strictly financial. The first one started was Match Point which was not a really up funny film, but they gave me the money to make it in London, so 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. I get calls from countries that ask me to come and make films there. So it’s an interesting experience. The change of venue cannot do anything but help. I’ve made 30 pictures in New York, 40 or something, I can’t remember how many, 35. And then suddenly you find yourself 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. You make films and it gives it a certain freshness and exuberance and 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. 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 that 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 make a contribution to the picture that’s beyond anything that I can contribute to it.
It’s just 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.