Imagine Leonardo da Vinci saying he didn’t like the Mona Lisa, his masterpiece considered the most-viewed in history, visited by masses every year at its home in the Louvre in Paris. Think how absurd it might be to hear Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion or Whitney Houston describe her voice as rubbish. Or consider the collective gasp you would hear upon Francis Ford Coppola ripping apart The Godfather, a movie consistently voted by fans and critics as one of the best ever made.
And yet, writer/director/actor Woody Allen, a 23-time Oscar® nominee and winner of four, doesn’t think his movies are any good.
“I’ve never been satisfied or even pleased with a film that I’ve done. I make them, but I’ve never looked at one after,” Allen told reporters at the recent Los Angeles press day for his latest movie, To Rome with Love. “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 ‘cause there’s a big gap between what you conceive in your mind when you’re writing and having to meet the test of reality. 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 screw up here. When you see what you get the next day, 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 and you’re never satisfied.”
“I’m always thankful that the audience has liked some of them, in spite of my disappointment,” he adds.
Winning Academy Awards® for his original screenplays for Hannah and Her Sisters and last year’s Midnight in Paris, his first Oscar® nominations and wins came for writing and directing Annie Hall starring he and Diane Keaton. Allen says the final product is very different from how it started. “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,” Allen explains. “I did the film and it was completely incoherent. Nobody understood anything that went on. 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.”
Seventy-six-year-old Allen says he ended up changing the movie to focus on their relationship. “I was quite disappointed in that movie,” he laments over Annie Hall, also recalling another popular film. “Hannah and Her Sisters was a big disappointment because I had to compromise my original intention tremendously to survive with the film,” he explains. “To me, it’s always less than the masterpiece I had been certain I was destined to make.”
But Allen admits his more recent “international” movies, like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris and his latest, have had a different flair to them. “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,” he says. “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.”
Adding to the pleasure of Rome is Woody Allen, the actor, making his first appearance in front of the camera since 2006′s Scoop “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, [then I’m not in 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 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, and I don’t really love that. Occasionally, when a part comes up, I’ll play it.”
His part in Rome isn’t exactly a doorman. Rather, he’s playing Jerry, a retired opera director on vacation with his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis), visiting their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill) and her fiancé, Michelangelo.
In addition to Allen’s story, Alec Baldwin stars as John, famous architect also on vacation in Rome. Familiar with the city from his year spent there in college, he goes looking for his old stomping grounds and along the way is recognized by Jesse Eisenberg’s character, Jack, a studying architect himself. His girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) is worried about her visiting best friend, played by Ellen Page, an actress with a history of seducing guys. What ensues is a trip down John’s memory lane, reliving his days spent in Italy.
Italian actors Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi play newlyweds Milly and Antonio. When she goes out to get her hair done, Milly runs into her favorite actor after getting lost in the city and lives out an incredible fantasy-filled day. Meanwhile, Antonio has an unexpected visitor to their hotel room in Penélope Cruz’s Anna, an escort who ends up posing as his wife when his influential family arrives for a visit.
And then there’s Roberto Benigni, the famous Italian actor who made a splash at the 1999 Oscar® ceremony when he jumped up on his chair after being announced the Best Actor winner for Life is Beautiful, for which he was also nominated for writing and directing. He plays Leopoldo, a father and husband who lives a very mundane life, working a mundane office job. But when leaving home one day for work, he is swarmed by paparazzi, suddenly famous for no reason at all. Leopoldo’s every move broadcast on television and questioned by media, being the country’s biggest celebrity soon starts to take its toll.
To Rome with Love may not be Allen’s best-reviewed movie, holding just above 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. But I found it very easy to get swept up in the charm and humor or this quirky, whimsical tale. Allen is eccentric and neurotic as usual, but he delivers some great one-liners, and you can’t help but leave the theater with a smile on your face.
After premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 14th, the movie opened in limited release in New York and Los Angeles last weekend, posting more than $361,000 in box office receipts. To Rome with Love will continue to expand into more locations, hoping to capture the magic of Midnight in Paris, Allen’s highest-grossing movie that made $151 million worldwide.
After the trailer, there are more excerpts from the Los Angeles press conference where Woody Allen entertained reporters with his wit, frank answers and charm.
You have made some beautiful films, both here and in Europe. What was the inspiration for To Rome with Love? What was it about Rome that appealed to you for the setting for this film?
Woody: Well, there are two things. 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.” And 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.” 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.
Is it an inevitability 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 chose locations that were similar?
Woody: It was probably inevitable ‘cause 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 50 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.
Woody: 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. It’s a funny idea that a guy wakes up one day and suddenly he is 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’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. 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 ‘cause 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’s 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. There are drawbacks to 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 over themselves – 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.
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 films?
Woody: I’m a big believer in music in movies. 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 it them in the cutting room. 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.
Woody: 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 (Midnight in Paris). 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, like 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, just every now and then, meet a friend for lunch in Paris in 1900, or go back to 1870 for a couple of hours and take a walk in the park, and then come right back to Broadway.
You’ve really mastered the art and study of relationships throughout all your films, over the years. What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned about love?
This film explores fantasy and things that you, in your wildest dreams, would never expect to happen to you. Was fantasy something you thought about when you were writing this film?
Woody: 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. 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 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 escapist. It’s great, but it’s not real. It is fun to do. The only place you can do it is in fiction.