It is an L.A. intellectual white-boy’s dream, in grasp but so elusive. To meet Woody Allen in Los Angeles. He was barely one to ever give interviews out of Los Angeles, let alone his New York stomping ground. He would never volunteer to do them, I don’t think. But he was in Los Angeles last week to promote his latest comedy To Rome with Love. Along at the press conference were five beauties: Alessandra Mastronardi, Alison Pill, Penelope Cruz, Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig. But the press was out to extract nuggets of wisdom from Woody. Ninety percent of the questions were directed at him. A fair amount of the rest of time was spent asking the ladies if they enjoyed working with him.
“We made the film and we’re in California promoting it. And everybody says what a thrill it was, and how great it was to work with this person… And you think we made ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941)!” Woody defiantly pokes fun. “It always sounds this way at a promotional junket. It’s always to me less than a masterpiece I had certain I was destined to make.”
His cast of actresses consider it a big deal. Mastronardi, for instance, has already seen “To Rome with Love” three times. “Every time I see it I discover something new that’s beautiful and funny. Two of my big dreams came together. Woody Allen and Rome!” she swells. “And to speak my Italian language, too.” (The film is in both English and Italian with English subtitles.) Page adds, “His scripts, the way they are written, have such a natural fluidity to what you’re saying and what you’re doing.”
Some of the script ideas had been percolating for years. Allen has a collection of notepads and crumbled paper kept inside his treasured drawer at home. “Ideas come to me in the course of a year, and I write them down,” he says, adding, “many of them seem very unfunny and foolish to me. I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I originally did it.”
One inspired idea was sitting in the drawer for years. “I pulled out an idea like ‘a man who can only sing in the shower,’ and it occurred to me at the time that this could make a funny story.” Opera singer Parenti, who plays a mortician with a hidden voicebox gift that only comes to fruition when he’s lathering up under the shower head. His character becomes a big hit with the opera house fans.
Woody seems so cavalier about the whole process that it was a tiny shock that he interjects something he wants to share. As it turns out, he does have particular feelings about something he wants to make clear. “My original title was ‘Bop Decameron’ and nobody knew what the Decameron was, even the Italians didn’t know it. So I then changed it to ‘Nero Fiddles,’ and half the countries in the world said, ‘We don’t know what that means.’ I settled on the generic title ‘To Rome with Love.’ So everybody would get it,” he chuckles. “And the stories in this picture have a broader sense of humor, which is required. You can’t tell the story properly without it. I like broad comedy.”
“To Rome with Love” has the running theme on the Faustian bonds of fame. “The perks are better,” he says. “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’s 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.”
“There are drawbacks in being famous,” 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 can get used to that. It’s not so terrible,” he says. “The bad stuff is greatly outweighed by the dinner reservations.”
It becomes clearer in his unfiltered speaking that Woody is cavalier on the set. He encouraged his cast of actors and actresses to use the script as a guideline, but to loosen up and improvise and just deliver what feels natural.
“It was absolutely terrifying to be like, ‘Yeah I can just say something else that’s not on the page,’” says Pill. “It’s a wonderful challenge, and a totally exciting and terrifying thing to do, but I am not a gifted wordsmith most of the time.”
Cruz, her second Woody film following “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” admires Woody’s trust. She fawns him this way: “He’s very liberating at the same time it feels like a big responsibility because you don’t want to ruin anything, especially when you’re working in a different language. He gives us a lot of trust.”
Turns out Gerwig is a total Woody nerd when she reveals, “I spent most of my life imitating characters from his movies, and from the age of 11, I was trying to talk like them, so my entire identity is confused with other character’s identities. So when he says be yourself, I’m like ‘It’s so fused with these characters that you’ve written!’ So for me, it was hard to change the words because I loved them so much.”
Mastronardi uses the word “joyful” to describe her working experience. “I didn’t expect anything at the beginning. The first day I sat on the set all day and didn’t say anything. On the first day we didn’t see each other. We didn’t talk to each other…”
Woody gets very cheeky. “I kind of avoid the cast. They come up with these questions. And I don’t know the answer or don’t want to give you the answer. So I avoid speaking to the actors as much as possible.”
His appreciation for his cast is genuine, of course. “I have great faith in the actors,” Woody explains, looking left and right to his sirens. “When they improvise, it always sounds better than the stuff I write in my bedroom because I don’t know what’s going on. I’m alone and isolated in New York. And then when we get on the set, it feels different to the actors, and when they improvise, they make it sound alive.”
What compels Woody to output one film a year and, uh, not retire? “Retirement is a very subjective thing. There are guys that I know who retire, and they’re very happy. They travel all over the world, they go fishing, they play with their grandchildren, and they never miss work. And then there are other people, and I’m one that likes to work all the time. I don’t see myself retiring and fondling dogs and playing with children. I like to get up and work and go out. I have too much energy or nervous anxiety.”
How about happiness with his work? He says that he’s never done anything on par with a masterpiece like “The Bicycle Thief” (1948), or “Grand Illusion” (1938) or “Citizen Kane” (1941).
An artist this accomplished shouldn’t be so critically harsh on his own work, should he? Woody’s admission: “I made my first film [“Take the Money and Run”] in 1968, and I’ve never seen it since. I just cringe when I see them. There is a big gap between what you conceive in your mind when you’re writing. And it’s funny, it’s beautiful, and romantic, and dramatic,” he sets-up.
“And then you show up on a cold morning with the actors. And you make a wrong choice on something, and you screw up here, and you see what you get the next day. And you can’t go back. The difference between idealized film in your mind and what you end up with, that you’re never happy. I’m never satisfied. I’m always thankful the audience bails me out and they like some of them.”
If Woody were to make films for another twenty years it pretty much means that he will never be happy with what he gets. But as a critic, and as a fan, I will always love at least two dozen of them. Click here for best career films of Woody Allen.