“Well,” he answers, “I was trying to think about what it is about Rome that hits me, how it’s so energetic and chaotic, with a ton of traffic and cars and people mingling, and some places with no sidewalks … the way everyone is out on the streets, sitting on steps or in cafes, the constant motion, the great flair for living with food and fashion and movies, and I couldn’t convey it with one story. I wanted to write about tourists, and people who live there, and people coming from small towns, with all the romance and chaos and emotion. So, it needed a number of stories.”
When I suggest the stories resemble the New Yorker short fiction he writes, he agrees: “That’s been said before. The New Yorker wrote that Annie Hall could have been a novel. The film scripts are similar to the short pieces that I write. They’re simple stories, not too abstract and the films are also simple, without any complicated special effects.”
These ideas, which might develop into a story or a film in New York, Paris or Rome, are born in his brain but are stored in the same place: his “ideas drawer” in his bedside dresser, filled with scraps of paper.
“You can see it in the American Masters movie,” he says. “There’s a scene where I spread them out on the bed. A million little pieces. And one of them will have a line like: ‘A man who can only sing in the shower.’ And I’ll construct the story from there.”
As prolific as he is, sometimes even Woody Allen must put an idea on hold. Midnight in Paris, for example, had been developed years earlier but was considered too expensive to produce until France introduced a tax rebate on international films in 2009.
He has another idea for a film, on the history of jazz, that he doubts will ever be made. “It starts in New Orleans at the turn of the last century,” he says, “then moves to Chicago, New York and eventually Europe. But it’s a period piece and would require a big budget. The audience for jazz isn’t that large. I made one jazz picture [1999’s Sweet and Lowdown] which came out pretty well and got Sean Penn an Academy Award nomination, but it was for a particular audience.”
There’s a clockwork efficiency to Allen’s working method. After thinking about an idea, Allen writes his scripts quickly, typically in two or three weeks, with a pace he learned working for episodic television in his 20s. The production style has never changed: the white-on-black credits, Mozart or Gershwin on the soundtrack, the warm red-and-gold colour palette, and a reliance on master shots for most scenes.
His mantra in recent years is that the secret to success is hiring great people. Since 2001, his main producer has been his younger sister, Letty Aronson, and for 40 years his principal casting director has been Juliet Taylor. Though it is his least favourite part of the movie-making process, creative casting has proved one of his late-career strong points. He doesn’t particularly like meeting actors, and a Woody Allen “audition” often consists of a two-minute hello and a handshake.
In his early career, he says, he wrote for himself as a leading man and specific parts for his leading ladies, Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. Since he has become too old to play leading men, he writes the script and then casts. There is one exception – Penelope Cruz – for whom he specifically wrote parts in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and To Rome With Love.
“I see movies, naturally, for pleasure, and I notice certain actors,” he says. “Then, after I’ve written a script, my casting director gives me 10 or 12 names for each part. Some of the people I know, like Alec Baldwin, for example. In other cases, I don’t know them and we’ll look at pictures and videos or DVDs. Occasionally, I’ll call people in. Ideally, I’d like to cast a movie only with people I know because it would be less work.”