Given the choice, Woody Allen would never leave New York and would probably avoid spending any time in Los Angeles, but his job has forced him to come today to one of his least favourite cities in order to promote his new comedy, To Rome With Love, which is premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
“It’s not a city I could ever live in because I don’t like the fact that it’s all spread out,” he exclaims, waving his hand in the air. “I don’t like to be dependent on an automobile. I need to get up in a city like New York or Paris or London and get out into the streets, buy food and have everything right around me. And I don’t like sunshine a lot. I like cloudy days,” laughs Allen as I chat to him at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Beverly Hills.
Other than his aversion to sunshine, the panaphobic director loathes flying. “I’m always sitting in my seat, clenched fists, braced for the crashing of the plane,” he muses, shifting in his seat.
Amazingly, in spite of a glorious career and a great fortune, the notoriously pessimistic director still finds life to be unfulfilling. “My life has been a tragic journey,” he exclaims in a dismissive tone.
And death is not something he is eager to visit either. “I’m still against it,” he laughs. “I see no advantage in death no matter how hard I study the problem.”
His phobias are invariably manifested in his movies, including To Rome With Love, in which he plays a retired music producer who reluctantly flies to Rome with his wife (Judy Davis) in order to meet the family of his daughter’s (Alison Pill) boyfriend (Alessandro Tiberi).
Playing this character was Allen’s first acting job since 2006. Although he enjoys acting and invariably tries to write a suitable role for himself, the multi-Oscar winning director-writer insists that he doesn’t consider himself an actor.
“I could never play Chekhov or big range of characters,” he says, waving his hand. “There’s one or two things I can do: I can play a lowlife like in Broadway Danny Rose and a more scholarly person because I look scholarly –although I am not- but I look that way.”
Allen, who began his career as a stand-up comedian in New York nightclubs, neither had formal training nor adopted any method in acting. Unlike other professional actors, who constantly seek to push the limits of their abilities and try a wide gamut of roles, Allen has no interest in expanding his acting talent or inhabiting unfamiliar characters.
“I don’t rehearse or practice,” he says. “It’s a very limited thing I can do, so if there’s a need for that kind of character in the movie, you can hire me and I can do it. But if there’s a need for something more complex then you get Dustin Hoffman.”
Allen’s philosophy on acting also extends to his dealing with his actors. Not only does he offer little direction, he rarely auditions actors for roles and never rehearses with them. Instead he hires the best actors around and trusts their interpretation of his characters.
Working with foreign actors, who speak a language he doesn’t understand, hasn’t affected his directing methods. Remarkably, to this day, he says that he still doesn’t know what Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz –who won an Oscar for her performance- were saying to each other in some scenes in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
“You can tell when someone’s acting well and when they’re not or when they are insincere,” he quips. “So I tell an assistant director to tell the actor to talk more swiftly or to not be so histrionic, but usually I don’t. I tell very little and let them go and do it by themselves.”
Nonetheless, actors from all over the world clamour to work with the legendary director. In To Rome with Love, Allen casts some of the finest Italian actors, including Oscar-winner Roberto Benigni, who plays an average family man being thrust into sudden fame and subjected to the harsh, scrupulous scrutiny of the press.
In spite of enduring the hazards of his own fame in the early nineties when he was unforgivingly attacked by the media for having a relationship with former girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, whom he later married, Allen still believes that fame is not a bad idea.
“There’s many terrible things about being famous, believe or not, and many wonderful things. The good things in the end are better than the bad. It’s better to be famous if you have the chance,” he chuckles.
Other than dwelling on the dizzying nature of fame and its victims, To Rome With Love, is a social commentary on family values, the anxiety of youth, the fragility of love and marital infidelity – a subject that Allen has explored in many of his movies.
“There is nothing more lucky than two people with very complex exquisite needs to meet and not get on each other’s nerves for 50 years of however long that monogamous relationship is,” he says. “When I was growing up people didn’t get divorced, they stayed together even though they were miserable. Now it’s much more freer and less people are even marrying.”
Having lucked out himself in finding the right woman after 5 decades of searching, the nerdy director says that his needs from a woman are not different from those of an average Joe.
“I have shallow needs,” he exclaims. “I need somebody that I enjoy looking over the orange juice in the morning. The rest of the stuff is not too far off the middle of the road. You want someone kind, intelligent and amusing. But if you’re really starting from scratch, you would start with, say, Penelope Cruz and you’d build from there,” he laughs.
Having shot movies in several European cities including London, Paris, Barcelona and Rome, the 76-year-old has been invited to work in other foreign countries such as Brazil, but he chose to shoot his next movie on home ground in San Francisco. Notoriously secretive about his projects, he is reluctant to reveal much about the new one.
“It’s a kind of serious piece about two sisters, Sally Hawkins and Cate Blanchett,” he teases.
Before he departs, the left-leaning director couldn’t resist predicting a win for Barack Obama in the next American Presidential Elections and suggested completely changing the whole Republican party.