We were at the press day for Woody Allen's To Rome with Love and you had to love the guy. There's the mistaken perception that Woody's averse to talking candidly with journalists -- but here he was up on a podium surrounded by the film's stellar cast, yakking away with his inimitable New Yawk diction about everything from his creative process, to the challenges of editing, to raising money for his films. Hell, after the last question, he could actually be seen posing for shots with journos like a doting uncle.
Rome -- Woody's 44th film as a director -- extends his love affair with Europe's garden spots, after Paris (Midnight in Paris), London (Match Point) and Barcelona (Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji so the city looks the color of butter scotch, Rome sets in motion four unconnected vignettes. Making his first onscreen appearance since 2006, Woody plays a retired opera impresario itching to jump start his career by managing an Italian undertaker (and his father-in-law) who can sing like Pavarotti -- but only in the shower. Alec Baldwin becomes an invisible adviser on love to Jesse Eisenberg, playing his benighted younger self. Penelope Cruz -- whose bosom deserves a credit all its own -- plays a hooker in a farcical episode about mistaken identity (maybe next time out Cruz should consider playing an astrophysicist). And celebrity takes a drubbing when Robert Benigni suddenly wakes up famous -- for being famous.
Though not without Woody's trademark gags and delights, Rome may struggle to rack up the attendance for Midnight. But I've come around to thinking that Woody is not just about his latest annual production. Each film is a must-see event in its own right, a freestanding chapter in an astonishing long-running oeuvre -- call it the Human Comedy -- that shows no sign of abating. Woody Allen, said Alec Baldwin from the podium, "is responsible for more memorable moments... than any other person that has ever lived in film. If he calls, you want to hitch a ride on that. He's on an island of his own in terms of filmmaking."
Below, six intriguing revelations about Woody Allen that emerged from the press day:
1. With each film he battles insecurity and the terrors of failure.
You start wanting to make Citizen Kane and then when you get in the editing room you realize that you screwed up so irredeemably that you'll edit the film in any configuration to avoid embarrassment. You put the beginning at the end, you take the middle out, you change things. The editing process becomes the floundering of a drowning man. It's been that way since Take the Money and Run. I'm just in here selling out left and right, trying to survive.
As for Midnight in Paris, he claims to have no idea "why everyone embraced it so enthusiastically. It was the best attendance I ever had on a movie. To me they all have the same appeal or lack of appeal."
2. Among the idiotic questions thrown at him on the red carpet, he finds this one perhaps the most idiotic: "Is Scarlett [Johansson]/Penelope [Cruz] your new muse?"
3. His attitude toward the latest technology: "It just makes it quicker to break up."
4. Secrets of his productivity. "Do you have a bank of ideas you draw on?" I asked him. "When do you get an idea for your next film in your annual output?"
"It's not as grueling as you think. A year is a long time. I read the paper, I live my life. I make notes and throw them in a drawer. Then I'll pull out a scrap of paper: a man can only sing in the shower."
"If I don't have anything, I'm good at forcing the issue. You don't wait for your muse. I can sit in a room and think and drum up something. It's just an accident of birth that I can come up with stories. I can't do anything except make up stories."
5. The nonstop battle to raise money for his films. For the next -- set in the U.S. -- "I had to tap dance and lie to raise the money."
6. Why he's back on the screen after an absence of six years. "I've always liked to act. I was happy that my film had a part for me."