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?
“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.”
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.”