The story of Woody Allen is the amazing persistence of the story of Woody Allen.
At 76, he has just released To Rome With Love, his eighth film – and seventh set in Europe – in the last seven years. While the bottom dropped out of the independent film market in the United States over the last decade, Allen’s career moved overseas and flourished.
European financiers still hold Allen in high regard and give him the absolute control over his films that he demands. Actors from all over the world love to work on his films; they are, after all, a chance to participate in movie history. And that eagerness pays off: Five of Allen’s actors have won Academy Awards over the years, and another 10 have received nominations.
In the late-1990s, critics were complaining that his films were only fitfully interesting echoes of his earlier work. Yet his 2011 fantasy comedy, Midnight In Paris, starring Owen Wilson as a novelist who travels back in time to the Paris of Hemingway and Picasso, was the highest-grossing film of his career (made on a $17-million budget, it earned $151-million worldwide). It also earned four Academy Award nominations and won for best screenplay.
Twenty years after the supposedly career-wrecking scandal in which he split with Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, he is back in the world’s good graces. (Or at least most of the world. There was a Father’s Day tweet, a zinger worthy of Allen himself, from his estranged 24-year-old son, Ronan Farrow: “Happy Father’s Day – or Happy Brother-in-Law’s Day as we call it in our house.”)
What has redeemed him, finally, is his work, and not just the quantity. Since Match Point in 2005, he has delivered a surprisingly decent film every two or three years, and we’re reminded of something called a legacy. As critic Annette Insdorf noted in the PBS American Masters documentary about him last year, Allen is no longer just a New York director; he defines a cosmopolitan genre. He has inspired a French Woody Allen (Yvan Attal ), an Argentine Woody Allen (Daniel Burman), and an Italian Woody Allen (Gianni Di Gregorio).
To Rome with Love, Allen’s 43 rd film as a writer-director, is an anthology of four simultaneous but unrelated tales (one early title was Bop Decameron): A retired American opera impresario (played by Allen) discovers a mortician who is a brilliant singer, but only in the shower. A recent groom is forced to pretend a brassy call girl (Penelope Cruz) is his bride. An office worker (Roberto Benigni ) inexplicably finds himself lavished with fame and all its perks. An architect (Alec Baldwin) serves as a sort of Play It Again, Sam ghostly advisor to a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) caught between his fiance (Greta Gerwig) and her pseudo-intellectual actress friend (Ellen Page).
Currently, Allen is in New York preparing for his next untitled feature, set to shoot this summer with a typically eclectic cast: Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, comedians Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay, Michael Emerson, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Sally Hawkins and Peter Sarsgaard. As with all Allen films, the story details are treated with near-military secrecy.
When we speak by phone, he’s in his home office in Manhattan, finishing up casting decisions for the film. In two weeks, he says, he’ll head out to San Francisco, where he shot his first feature, 1969s’ Take the Money and Run, to scout locations for the new film. Allen, who is hard of hearing, asks that I speak loudly.
I start by asking him about his anthology approach to the screenplay. After crafting city-specific screenplays for London, Barcelona and Paris, how was Rome different?