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