Thirty-five years after Alvy Singer obsessed over the universe’s inevitable expansion in “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen is still grappling with the transience of life in his films. In “To Rome With Love,” which opens June 22, he co-stars as a reluctantly retired American opera director who tries to resurrect his former career by convincing his daughter’s future father-in-law—an Italian mortician who happens to sing well in the shower—that he could be a star.
The movie, the director’s 45th feature film, also marks Mr. Allen’s first appearance in front of the camera since 2006’s “Scoop,” in which he played a magician-turned-amateur-sleuth. “I’m too old now, is the problem. I like to get the girl,” said Mr. Allen, a spry 76, adding that his lack of credibility as a romantic lead “is a sad, terrible pill to swallow.”
In the film, the classic neurotic male role that a younger Mr. Allen would have snapped up for himself is that of Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), an architecture student who falls for Monica (Ellen Page), the charmingly crazy friend of his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig). Ms. Page’s character complains of “Ozymandias melancholia,” a bogus diagnosis inspired by a Shelley poem about an eroding monument. (Mr. Allen invented it for his character in 1980’s “Stardust Memories” but says he suffers from it, too.)
To distract himself from the fact that even great art will eventually fade into the past, Mr. Allen tries to stay focused on the present, making movies—one a year—watching sports, practicing clarinet and spending time with his family. He’s currently preparing to shoot his next movie in New York and San Francisco. In his editing room on New York’s Upper East Side, he spoke about why he’s making so many films in Europe, how he picks his actors and why his characters don’t text. An edited transcript:
How did you decide that you wanted to set your recent films in London, Paris, Rome or wherever?
Well, the Italians call and say, “We want to pay for it.” It’s strictly economics. It started with “Match Point.” I wrote that film, and it was originally going to be about a family in New York, in Long Island and Palm Beach. But it was expensive to do in New York. And they called me from London and said, “Would you like to make a movie here? We’ll pay for it.” And so I said, “Yes.” It was very easy to anglicize it. From then on, other countries call up and invite me to make movies, which is great because they don’t invite me in the United States. What happens in Europe, in South America, in China and Russia—all these countries call me and say, “Would you make a movie here if we financed it?”
Do you think maybe Americans are loath to finance your films because you retain so much control over everything?
Yes, that’s a big problem for me. Where it starts is that I feel I’ve been making films for years. They know what they’re buying when they buy into me. I usually have a good cast of actors and actresses. They know that over the years, all of my films cost about $17 million or $18 million. They know that none of them are suddenly going to balloon to $25 million. They can rely on a good cast. And they know I’m not going to do like a medieval religious movie or something like that. So they know what they are buying. But I don’t let anybody read a script, so that’s an immediate deal breaker for 95% of them.
You had no inkling that your last film, “Midnight in Paris,” would be such a big hit. Do you ever know, or care?
It’s definitely better if people like it. If you asked me my druthers, I’d much prefer for people to like the film than not to like it. But I’d never do anything to bring about that effect. I want to make the film I want to make, and if they don’t like it—and I know this sounds terrible—it’s too bad. I much prefer that they liked it. When “Midnight in Paris” was so successful, it was delightful. It was great. But if they didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have changed a thing to curry favor, or get them to like it, or do the kind of thing that I anticipate they might like and give them that. That would not interest me.
You are known for being easy to work for. What’s a typical shooting day like?
It’s a reasonable workday. If there’s a crisis and we’ve got to get out of a location and we can’t get it anymore, I will work late. But I don’t know if I am the most dedicated artist in the world. When I first started making movies, everything was sacrificed for the movie. And then I thought, “Wait a minute, I went into this business not to kill myself but because it’s fun to make movies, and if I’m not going to enjoy myself I am not going to do it.”
You make a movie every year. It’s interesting that you call yourself not dedicated.
I am prolific but there is nothing special about being prolific. It’s not in the quantity. There’s no medal for quantity. It’s the quality. It’s better to do two or three movies in your lifetime that are masterpieces than close to 45 movies without a masterpiece.
You don’t think you’ve done anything that qualifies as a masterpiece?
Not as a masterpiece. If you actually think about this for a minute, if you think about “The Bicycle Thief” and “Rashomon” and “Grand Illusion,” then no. I don’t think I have anything that can be in a festival holding its own with those. Those are masterpieces. I have made some films that are good, some films that are less good, some films that are pretty good, but a masterpiece? It’s hard to make a masterpiece.
Do you think that feeling—that you have yet to make your masterpiece—drives you to keep going?
Yes, I think it does. I think that’s one thing that drives you—you’re always trying to make that one thing where you think, “God, I’ve done it! This thing is just so great.” I’ve never felt that way.
Your recent piece in the New Yorker was about a guy pitching a film that concerned mice who become bank robbers. In “Rome,” your character refers to a production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in which all the characters are dressed as mice. Are mice funny to you these days?
Mice have always been funny to me, sure. Mice are funny. Someone’s in the house and you hear a noise and someone says, “Mice!” There’s something funny about mice. They are silly little creatures. I don’t know. It’s just funny. I don’t find dogs funny or cats. Mice are funny.
One of the characters in “Rome” is a mortician who can sing brilliantly but only in the shower. Where did this idea come from?
Over the years I and many people I know sing in the shower. Occasionally it will come up in conversation. People will say, “I can sing better in the shower because of the positive ions in the shower.” Others say, “It’s resonance from the tiling in the shower.” When I was doing that [in the script] I became so anxious. I thought “This must have been done a hundred times, I just don’t know about it! It must have appeared on 50 television shows!” But apparently it wasn’t.
“Rome” presents two opposing views of fame. There’s this talented opera singer/mortician who just loves to sing in the shower—not for an audience—and then there’s Roberto Benigni’s character Leopoldo, who suddenly becomes famous for nothing. Which do you identify with?
I identify more with the guy who sings in the shower. I have been tracked by the paparazzi because I appear publicly. But I think I could be happy the way Salinger was allegedly in his later years, just being at home writing and not publishing. If you are home writing and not publishing, then nobody edits you. You don’t have to cut down space, change your phrasing or your grammar, you just write. Nobody criticizes it. Nobody sees it. It’s just the joy of writing.
You own an iPhone with no email, yes?
Yes, I do carry an iPhone because I want to have a phone. But more important, on the iPhone my assistant put a few hundred jazz records, and when I travel and practice the clarinet I used to take all this equipment with me. Now, I just have earphones and I can practice the clarinet effortlessly with this thing. I have never sent an email in my life. I never received an email. I have two buttons I can touch—the weather and the Huffington Post.
In “Rome” the young Italian wife, Milly, loses her cellphone in a sewer at the beginning of the movie, which seemed to be a message about how you feel about technology.
I tend to have my characters use typewriters, because that’s the way that I think. I think they’re home with a typewriter. I hate when I have to put them home with a word processor or something. I don’t have one and I wouldn’t know how to work it if I had one, and I don’t like the idea. I’m sure it costs me in some way, in the content of what I am writing. I am sure I could communicate with an audience on certain levels if I knew about technology. I could write something about cyber-espionage or whatever, but I can’t. So I think probably it narrows my scope.
Do you ever use a computer?
I don’t have a computer. It’s more than just incompetence, which I also have. I have an aversion to anything mechanical. I never liked cameras, tape recorders, cars. I have a car. I don’t drive it. I don’t have a camera. At home, if I want to watch a DVD, which is almost never, I have to have my wife put it on. I would never in a million years know what she was doing to put it on. There’s something I generally don’t like about it. It isn’t just that I can’t do it, which I can’t. If I liked it I couldn’t do it. But I also don’t like it. It may be because I can’t do it that I don’t like it, but it bothers me.
How do you decide who you want to appear in your films?
Some I know already, and I think, “Ellen Page would be great for this part.” Some I don’t have any idea of. Since I began [making movies], I have had the same casting director, Juliet Taylor, and she reads the script and generally what she does is give a whole lot of suggestions for each role. Some I’ve heard of, like Brad Pitt or something. Others I have never heard of. We talk about each one as a possibility. The ones I have never heard of she shows me on tape. And then we go back and forth and decide to go after that person. It could be a known person or an unknown person. And either we get them or we don’t.
It was recently reported that you had dinner with Lindsay Lohan. Are you thinking of casting her in a movie?
It was just a social meeting. I met her at a party and we got together for dinner, but I would not hesitate for a second to use her if I had a role that was good for her because she’s an extremely talented girl.
Owen Wilson, Drew Barrymore—you’ve worked with a lot of actors who had been struggling with personal issues. By design?
No. I feel that they are right for the roles. I don’t hesitate to cast people if they are right. I offered a part once to Tonya Harding. She couldn’t do it at that point in her life because the parole board would not let her leave her state.
What was the part?
It was years ago, but I needed a girl like that. She was just the right type for the thing we were going for. I was going to offer something at some point to Princess Diana. If people are right for the roles, nothing else matters to me.
So, if no other director will work with them because their behavior is terrible, you don’t care?
That doesn’t bother me. Not that it’s not difficult. If they are nasty or troublesome with other directors they are also that way with me. People think, “Oh, with you they will be very nice.” They are not.
How did you decide on Jesse Eisenberg for his role in “Rome”?
I did see “The Social Network” and I thought, “This is a young man who could play neurotic.” He’s kind of in a class by himself. I would have played that part if I was younger.
You appeared in front of the camera in “Rome” for the first time since “Scoop.” Why so rarely now?
I am too old now, is the problem. I like to get the girl. Now, I can’t play that part, so I am reduced to the father of the fiancée. So, when I write a story, if there’s a good part for me and I feel I can play it, I will play it. But usually when I write a story there’s a more romantic hero—and I can’t do this. I am too old for it. There’s nothing I can do. It’s a sad, terrible pill to swallow because I’d love to play all those parts, but I can’t be credible in them anymore.
In “Rome” your character is a former opera director with an uncomfortable relationship with his recent retirement. How do you feel about it?
I know people who have worked on my movies and then retired and have had a wonderful time. For me, it would be death. I would not like to not work. Fortunately being a writer I don’t have to worry about that. If all the funding dried up, I could always sit home on my bed and write. So, I will always work.
So, the second you’re done editing one movie, you’re on to the next script?
Yeah. I am putting out this Italian movie. I am casting the San Francisco movie, getting it ready, and I am now starting to think of the next project. I am planning it. It’s starting to germinate: Will I be making it in Buenos Aires? Should I do something in Berlin? I want to get those details settled so I can focus in my spare time, whether I am writing it in the elevator or when I can’t sleep nights, think about what might be a good story in Stockholm or wherever I go.
Stockholm would be an interesting choice, being that it’s where your hero Ingmar Bergman is from. Do you think it would be intimidating to make a movie there?
I would like to make a film there. And I wonder if it would be suddenly like I fell victim to the Swedish mystique and I wanted to make a film about the lack of communication between human beings or the absence of God. Or maybe I would just make a funny film.
Some say your view is that life is pointless, and others say you’re a romantic realist who believes in being true to yourself. Which is it?
I think that’s the best you can do, but the true situation is a hopeless one because nothing does last. If we reduce it absurdly for a moment, you know the sun will burn out. You know the universe is falling apart at a fantastically accelerating rate and that at some point there won’t be anything at all. So whether you are Shakespeare or Beethoven or Michelangelo, your stuff’s not going to last. So, given that, even if you were immortal, that time is going to come. Of course, you have to deal with a much more critical problem, which is that you’re not going to last microscopically close to that. So, nothing does last. You do your things. One day some guy wakes up and gets the Times and says, “Hey, Woody Allen died. He keeled over in the shower singing. So, where do you want to have lunch today?”
So, what do you do to distract yourself from these depressing thoughts? Knicks games? Or is that depressing, too?
The Knicks are one kind of distraction. For the two hours you’re at the Garden you’re only focused on that. I follow them. I go. I have been a season-ticket holder for many years. They have not been very exciting. It was a nice little flurry for a while but then [Jeremy Lin] got hurt, so we’ll see what happens next year. I am a big sports fan, baseball and basketball, everything. People will say to me, “Does it really matter if the Knicks beat the Celtics?” And I think to myself, “Well, it’s just as important as human existence.”
Really. It may not seem so, but if you step back and look they are equivalent. I’ve often thought that there’s a movie in two film directors. One makes these confrontational films that deal with these problems. The other one makes strictly escapist material. Which one is making the bigger contribution? You are living this terrible life. It’s hot. It’s sunny. The summertime is awful. Life is miserable. You duck into the movie house. It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s pleasurable. You watch Fred Astaire dance for an hour and a half. And it’s great. You can go out and face life, based on the refreshment factor. If you see the confrontational film, you have a different experience and it seems more substantive but I am not sure it does as much for you as the refreshment. A couple of laughs, a couple of dance numbers, and you forget all that garbage for an hour and a half. I hope I am not depressing you.
No, not at all. But given all that, you must be thrilled that “Rome” is a summer movie.
You know, I like them in the summer but for other reasons, more crass reasons. I like them in the summertime because I feel that in the summertime everybody comes out with these god-awful movies and grown-ups never have a chance to just go to the movies. There’s almost nothing to see. So I like to put my movies out in the summer because I feel like people like to have an option to see something that isn’t car chases, toilet jokes, special effects.
Is there more pressure opening this film, because “Midnight in Paris” was such an unprecedented hit?
No, but I do feel that whenever you have a very successful movie, invariably when you follow it people have to say, “Well, it’s not ‘Midnight in Paris.’ ” After I did “Annie Hall,” people said, “Well, it’s not ‘Annie Hall.’ ” They’re right and they’re wrong. Usually they’re right. It’s a cliché they use whether it’s right or wrong.
And you don’t worry about the response?
I haven’t in 35, 40 years. I never read a review. I never hear a review. I never hear what the box office is. When it’s something like “Midnight in Paris” it comes back to me. But I never see the movie again. I never hear about it. I don’t have photos of the cast in my office. I have moved on.
So, you’re not living in the past.
Turner Broadcasting wanted to fly me out to California. They were closing one of their symposiums with “Annie Hall.” They wanted me to talk about the movie. I said to them, “I am not one of those people that likes to dwell on the past.” They got Tony Roberts to go out there and he spoke about it. When it’s over for me, it’s really over. I don’t want to see it or hear about it. I just want to focus on the new thing. It’s not healthy to either regret or luxuriate in stuff that’s in the past.
Sounds like the theme of “Midnight in Paris.”
If you had to watch one of your movies again, what would it be?
There are a few of my films that I thought were better than others. “Purple Rose [of Cairo]” came out better than some of the others. “Husbands and Wives.” There are a couple. But I’d just as soon not see any.
Jeff Daniels, who starred in “Purple Rose,” is going to be in Aaron Sorkin’s new show, “The Newsroom,” with a lot of other actors you’ve worked with. Are you planning on watching it?
I don’t watch much television, just sports. We go out to eat and I come back at 10:30 or 10:15 and watch the last few innings of the ballgame. I’m asleep by 11:59.