He’s mildly mocking about his reputation as an actors’ director. “I encourage improvisation, so long as they get the action of the scene completed,” Allen says. “If you’re supposed to come home and divorce your wife in this scene, you should have asked for a divorce by the end of the scene. So the actors all tell me how wonderfully liberating this is, but then they’re much more timorous than I am. When it comes time to do the scene, they say exactly the words as they’re written. I tell them, ‘Don’t do that!’ ”
His casting choices can be deliberately counter-intuitive. In To Rome With Love, for example, Canadian actress Ellen Page, best known as the acerbic pregnant teen in Jason Reitman’s Juno, plays a vivacious young Hollywood star and serial seductress.
“I knew her work and knew she was a really good actress,” said Allen. “And I didn’t want a typical sexual bombshell. She was the right age and she has this complicated neurotic quality about her that was right. When [ Eisenberg’s character] first sees her, she’s been on a plane for 12 hours and his response is: ‘Well, she doesn’t look like anything special.’ But later, when she’s telling these little stories about her promiscuity and life, he gets pulled in.”
As his career rolls forward, Allen dismisses any notion he has a strategy, or that one movie’s financial success influences his next project.
“I followed Annie Hall with Interiors,” he says. “If there appears to be a plan, there’s no plan. I just sort of make them and put them out. Even in the most early stages of a movie’s release, they’re already a year old for me. I try to promote them because it’s the decent thing to do for the distributor, but I never really think about them. I don’t have that much interest. Not to say I don’t hope they’re well received – on the contrary – but I’m on to the next movie.
“With Midnight in Paris, people started mentioning the film was doing well and it turned out to be the biggest financial success I ever had. Amazingly, it was doing well in disparate places like Sweden, Brazil and Japan. Why this one and not that one? I don’t know. Other movies have had good reviews but no one has come to see them and I get disappointed, but there’s not much I can do.”
In any case, he’s usually preoccupied with writing, shooting or editing his next movie. In To Rome with Love, the actress Judy Davis, who plays the psychiatrist wife to Allen’s retired impresario, snaps at him at one point: “You equate retirement with death.”
As tempting as it always is to assume that Allen’s script is autobiographical, it’s perhaps worth remembering that his father lived to 100 and his mother to 96. Allen is still doing what he started doing professionally when he was in his teens , hammering out lines on the same portable Olivetti typewriter that he uses today.
“I just enjoy writing,” he says. “I finish a film and I stand around for a day or two. Then I start to write again.”