“To Rome With Love,” like many of Woody Allen’s movies, is about love and infidelity. The movie (which was filmed on location in Rome) weaves together several different storylines involving American and Italian characters. John (played by Alec Baldwin) is an architect who meets Jack (played by Jesse Eisenberg), who reminds John of his younger self. Jack has a girlfriend named Sally (played by Greta Gerwig), but he’s tempted to cheat on her with her close friend Monica (played by Ellen Page), who stays with the couple while she’s visiting in Rome.
Oscar winner Allen plays Jerry, a retired opera director, who travels with his wife, Phyllis (played by Judy Davis), to Rome to meet Michelangelo (played by Flavio Parenti), the fiancé of their daughter Hayley (played by Alison Pill). While in Rome, Jerry discovers that Michelangelo’s father, Giancarlo (played by Fabio Armiliato), is a brilliant opera singer — but only when he sings in the shower. Meanwhile, an ordinary Italian man named Leopoldo Pisanello (played by Oscar winner Roberto Benigni) wakes up one day and finds out that he is suddenly famous. He is married but tempted by many seductions that come with being a celebrity.
And then there are newlyweds Antonio (played by Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (played by Alessandra Mastronardi), who accidentally get separated for the day. When Antonio’s conservative relatives come to visit him, he tries to pass off a hooker named Anna (played by Oscar winner Penélope Cruz) as his new bride, while his real wife Milly ends up in the arms of movie star Luca Salta (played by Antonio Albanese). “To Rome With Love” is Allen’s return to acting after a six-year absence. (He was previously had a role in his 2006 movie “Scoop.”) At the New York City press conference for “To Rome With Love,” Allen sat down with Baldwin, Cruz, Gerwig, Page and Mastronardi to talk about the movie.
Mr. Allen, can you explain why you wanted to return to acting?
Allen: Well, I always like to act. And when I write a script, I look at it and if there’s a part I can play, then I play it. In the last half-dozen scripts I’ve written or so, there hasn’t really been anything that I felt I could do. So that was then. With this script I looked at it, and I could do it. I saw a part I would be able to play.
I’ve been performing for years. I made my first film in 1968. And I’ve always been open to acting in other people’s films, but over the years no one has ever asked me to be in a film over the years. When I say “no one,” two or three times I’ve been asked. And I’ve always said yes. But it’s been two or three times in 30 years or more than that.
So when John Turturro asked me if I would be in “Fading Gigolo,” a film that he was shooting in New York City, I said, “Sure,” because no one had ever asked me. I was happy to do it. I was fortunate that my script happened to have a part for me. But I’ve always enjoyed acting.
Are you playing the fading gigolo?
Allen: No, he [John Turturro] is.
“Midnight in Paris” is the biggest commercial hit of your career. Why do you think “Midnight in Paris” has been so popular? How do you feel about ‘To Rome With Love” being a follow-up to the movie?
Allen: It was my biggest financial success. To me, I make all the pictures, and I try and make a good picture each time. Either I make it or I don’t. It was a happy accident. I had no idea know why everyone embraced it so enthusiastically.
You make a movie. Some they like a little bit; some they like a lot; some they don’t like at all. It’s very capricious for the filmmaker. So I have no idea. No matter where it was, Sweden or Japan, it was the best attendance I ever had on a picture.
It’s a complete mystery to me. To me, it’s a no more appealing picture than “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Match Point” or “Annie Hall” or “Husbands and Wives.” To me, they all have the same appeal or lack of appeal, so I don’t know.
What’s the most idiotic question you’ve been asked by the press?
Allen: You’re asking me? I don’t think we have enough time to get into that. The times I’ve walked through those red carpet things, the amount of times I’ve been asked, “Is Scarlett Johansson your new muse? Is Penélope Cruz your new muse?” If I make one picture with somebody, they assume that I have a muse, or I want a muse, or that person wants to be my muse. So that’s one of millions of questions I could give you that are really, really stupid questions.
In terms of your editing process, do you have multiple variations cuts or edits of the film, or do you have something specific in mind from the beginning? And for the cast, do you have multiple variations or do you stick to the script?
Allen: In the editing of the film, for me, you start with very great ambitions. You want to make “Citizen Kane.” And then when you shoot the film, and when you get to the editing room, you realize that you screwed up so irredeemably that you just will 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, really.
And that’s been it for me since the start of my career, my first movie, “Take the Money and Run,” it was a fight for survival, the editing room. It’s not simply enough for me that you go into there and you got various themes and you’re going to edit it like it’s Potemkin. It doesn’t work that way for me. I am just in there selling out left and right every ounce of integrity I have and editing to survive.
How has the advancement of modern technology affected the quality of relationships?
Allen: It’s making it electronically quicker to break up, but it’s not really affecting the real content of it, just the cosmetics. You can meet people quicker, you can lose people quicker, but it doesn’t really affect anything significant. You’re still going to have trouble. It’s a sad situation for everybody and the electronics just facilitate the anxiety.
What about Rome or the Italian character makes the greatest imprint on the finished film?
Allen: Rome is a captivating city to shoot in. It’s visually arresting. And there’s a great Italian film tradition, and there are certain things in the Italian sensibility that make you want to tell certain different stories. And those certain stories that occurred to me that I thought were, if not exclusively indigenous to Rome, they were certainly suggested by the fact that I was filming in Rome. Something with the opera, something with paparazzi, a young couple that are newlyweds come to town, and they get split up — these are all things that are very, very Roman.
The story Alec, Ellen and Greta were in, I couldn’t have done that in New York, but it worked very well in Rome because it had the added element of somebody coming to live at their house. And if they were all in New York, they would have been New Yorkers, and that factor would have been a problem slightly.
But the fact that they were in a different city, Rome is as good as any of them for that. But I could have done that story in New York, or San Francisco, or Los Angeles, or something. The others were all more Roman-rooted.
“Midnight in Paris” and “To Rome With Love” both name-dropped a lot of famous writers. Do you feel a personal responsibility to inundate the masses with these tidbits of culture, or do you simply continuing to share what interests you?
Allen: I just find that stuff funny. I’m not an intellectual at all, but I find intellectuals amusing. So when I write, I write about them in comic dilemmas and comic situations, and I can. If I was pressed as an intellectual, I would be dead.
But as a writer and someone making jokes about them, I can do that. And it’s something that interests me because whatever reason, whatever accident I happen to find that part of the social milieu amusing. So it always seems to come out inadvertently in everything I do.
For “To Rome With Love,” what was the order in which you came up with these stories? And what were the casting decisions?
Allen: Rome is such a vital city. There are so many funny characters, and the activity of Rome takes place in the streets of Rome, and it’s got such an amusing and vibrant city. As opposed to making a film in Brussels or Berlin, it would have a totally different sensibility. Rome, it’s all up and fun, everything has a built in comic life-enjoying feeling, so I couldn’t settle on one story.
I started to write one, but I thought a funny story about a guy that could only sing in the shower. But then I thought, “No, it’s a guy who wakes up and he’s suddenly famous and he doesn’t know why.” Then I thought why don’t I do them all in a cavalcade of stories? Just put them out there, and the audience will follow.
I was confident the audience would follow them. I don’t think they’re difficult to follow, so I did them. I edited them logically so when you left one story, you weren’t disappointed coming in on a new on. You were caught up sufficiently in the new story to forget the old one for five minutes and go with the new one. We worked it out as logically as we could.
For the cast, how do you divorce yourselves from that feeling of being a fan of Woody Allen and your working relationship with him? And Mr. Baldwin, are you still involved with that Warren Beatty project about Howard Hughes?
Baldwin: I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. We’re still trying to do that. I just want to say that the last time I had an opportunity to embarrass someone this way was at an event with Sidney Lumet, in which I talked about Sidney Lumet’s work, and I talked about the variety of the different kinds of films, many of them were sp successful.
And the phenomenon here is that you have a man that surely there are screen actors that have starred in films and actors on screen that have created so many dozens and dozens and scores of memorable moments on screen. Nicholson comes to mind as someone who the force of their performances have made their films great films. But you add to that another layer here, where that man who is acting those roles also wrote and directed the films himself.
And here with Woody Allen, you have someone responsible for more memorable moments on every level — writing, producing, directing, acting — than anybody else that is in film. When you think of the countless dozens of films — and I’ve always said that even Woody Allen’s less successful efforts are better than most of the films you see.
And when you see the greatest films he has made, they’re some of the greatest films you’ve ever seen. So when he calls you and asks you to be a part of this, if you’re available, you go. You want to hitch a ride on that and be a part of that because this is a guy who’s on an island of his own in terms of filmmaking.
Allen: You’ve succeeded in embarrassing me.
Cruz: I’ve been very lucky to work with him twice. The first time, I was terrified because you hear all these stories about him and because my first meeting with him was so peculiar because I went into his office and immediately you feel like you’re in Woody’s world because everything is so unique. The meeting was 30 seconds long and he told me, “It was nice to meet you. I think you’d be great in this role, I’ll see you on the set.”
And I left and I never saw him again until we were on set. I was terrified of being fired. I was really, really nervous. I was trying to look at him and forget all the admiration and all the respect and beautiful moments I’ve experienced through his work, because if you don’t try to put that aside and try to focus on what you have to do, I would be star-struck the whole time. It still happens to me sometimes when I’m with him.
I find him so fascinating that it goes beyond. I saw him last night playing at the Carlyle. Oh my God! He’s just so unique. It goes beyond.
OK, I’m lucky that I get to be directed by somebody I admire so much, but I’m lucky that I get to hang out with him, that I get to spend time with him, that I get to hear him speak. He makes me laugh all day long. I feel really lucky that I get this time with him.
Gerwig: I’m just going to keep adding to this. I love his films more than I love any films. I grew up watching his films over and over again. I spent a lot of time imitating characters from his movies. I learned what books to reads by what references he makes — like “Death in Venice,” I read that because it was mentioned.
I wouldn’t live in New York if it weren’t for his movies and I wouldn’t have wanted to be an actor if it weren’t for his movies. I was very nervous, I still am very nervous, I can’t believe this moment is happening.
Page: I think everyone is expressing it well. I felt really similar to Penélope when this opportunity arose. I felt very, very nervous — probably more nervous and intimidated than I ever been to shoot a film. It’s also because the role itself was a bit of a departure for me and what I’m used to doing.
Having that opportunity was wonderful, but also intimidating. I felt like, “I’m going to get there and not be able to pull it off.” But the experience of working with Woody was wonderful and was liberating in this way because I felt able to explore. You’re working with such wonderful material that has such fluidity to it, and it’s about creating something natural, real and organic. And as an actor, that’s a really beautiful thing — and to work with people like Alec and Jesse and Greta.
Mastronardi: I was in shock, and I think I’m still in shock, honestly. Everything was really new and weird for me because I’m an Italian actress, and it was unbelievable that Woody Allen was in Rome shooting a movie with Italian actors. So it was a pleasure to be there with all of them.
The first day I was so in shock, I didn’t say anything. I was looking at the floor. I was so insecure. [She says to Allen] And you did the same. We didn’t speak to each other the first day.
Allen: I never speak to anyone.
Mastronardi: Exactly! I was really nervous, but after the first day it was just beautiful. You really feel that he trusts you, and you really feel that you are free to act everything you want to do. I can speak in Italian, so he puts in subtitles, so I really can say everything. But it’s just unbelievable. I’m really lucky to be here. He’s the best director in the world. And “Annie Hall” is my favorite movie … I’m feel very lucky. Thank you.
Allen: I’m thinking, “Are they sincere?”
Ellen, you play a seductress in “To Rome With Love,” which is a very different type of role for you. Sid you find it comfortable going outside your normal range?
Page: I think that’s where nervousness and intimidation can come into play, I suppose. I felt it was hard for me to see myself in the way Monica was being described, but I think for any actor to have the opportunity to feel scared and work through that and to feel challenged and go in as open as possible and hopefully pull it off (and maybe you will, maybe you won’t), but I think it’s more exciting to push one’s self than not, or I guess things could get a little dull. It’s always a pleasure to do things a little different. And even work can be a lovely pleasure, as an actor, let alone to be able to go to different worlds.
Were you thinking of any particular Italian cinema while making “To Rome with Love”?
Allen: I did think of Italian films when I was making the movie. One of the films that I was thinking of is one of my favorite Fellini films: “The White Sheik,” which I can see as an influence on me for the story Alessandra was in. I just love Italian cinema so much, that that stuff creeps into your pores, and you do it without even knowing you’re doing it. I don’t sit down and do it consciously. But when I sit back and look, I can see it as clear as a bell.
Gerwig: I was thinking of the Commedia dell’Arte style of acting and different types, the way the actors would play out these types and they would train in types. There was some reflection of that when I saw when I thought of that.
Baldwin: I’ve haven’t shot in a lot of countries, but I’ve visited a lot of them, and I think Italy and Rome have more of a sense of humor than a lot of other places I’ve been. It’s very loose, a very relaxing place. It’s not very self-conscious.
Everyone there is very warm. Every cliché I’d heard about when you spend too much time in Rome was true. It’s so pleasant and so relaxed to shoot there. The people were so low-key. When you look at Italian films, there’s a kind of openness to Italian acting and to Italian filmmaking.
The people who become stars themselves, all the way back to [Pier Paolo] Pasolini’s times, to New Wave filmmaking, even now to [Roberto] Benigni, you can see right into them. There’s not a lot of pretense there. They’re very direct to the camera. [Marcello] Mastroianni and so forth, they’re very open to the camera, and very available. There’s not a lot of “hide and go seek” with the camera, which is you see film actors do It’s very direct. I try to keep that in mind. We were here to say the words, and not make a big deal of it.
Mr. Allen, what was the idea behind having some of the film in Italian? How did you know that the actors were doing what you wanted? And for Penélope Cruz, what was it like doing your role in Italian?
Allen: Some of those stories could only be told in Italian. Obviously, Alec and Ellen and Greta were Americans abroad, and I was an American abroad with my family, but Alessandra’s story, they were Italian people, and Benigni’s family were Italians, so they spoke Italian. It was automatic. I wouldn’t have thought of it any other way.
I don’t speak any Italian, myself or Spanish. I made a film in Spain, and a smattering of French from a French film, but you don’t have to know the language. Just as when you go to a film and see an Italian film or French film, when you’re watching Mastroianni act, you see an actor, you know they’re great, and somebody else in the scene might not be as good or effective.
I can tell, no more acutely than you can tell. You just see them acting, and they’re clearly convincing, and their body language and everything about them is just correct. It’s not hard to direct someone in a different language.
I mentioned this before, but when I did “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Javier Bardem and Penélope were ad-libbing all over the place. I didn’t understand anything of they were saying. To this day, I have no idea what they were saying in certain scenes in the picture. But it didn’t matter to me. I could see they got it right. They were acting in the correct fashion for that moment. It was academic to what the actual words were; the emotions were correct.
Baldwin: [He says to Cruz] And then after all that ad-libbing with him, you got married to him [Javier Bardem], correct?
Cruz: Right after.
Baldwin: So it’s a strange power, that ad-libbing.
Allen: I did three films in a row with a Chinese cameraman who didn’t speak any English. And the photography was beautiful!
Cruz: You asked me about working in Italian. I did a movie about four years in Italy, where I had to play an Italian woman. The movie was “Don’t Move” with Sergio Castellitto. So I had to learn the language for that and completely lose the accent. So I killed myself for that one. I learned it, and I was happy that I did it. Now I’m able to work there. I just made another movie with Castellitto, and I was able to make this movie with Woody, because I could shoot in Italian.
But I love working there. I’m a huge fan of Italian cinema. I love Pasolini and Fellini. There were things about “Mama Roma” that were back in my head for [“To Rome With Love”], even though the character is a completely different tone. But, for me, she’s also a character who has no filter in her brain and the way she feels. It’s so liberating and refreshing to be able to play somebody like that. It was beautiful to be with Woody doing this kind of homage to Italian cinema.
Mr. Allen, when do you think of your next film? Do you keep up your creative pace?
Allen: It’s not as grueling as you think. In the course of a year, you make a film, and things happen. You read the newspapers, you live your life, and things occur to you as potentially interesting stories. You hear stories about other stories, and you read stories.
I usually make notes or pencil it down, throw it in a drawer, and at the end of the year I look at all these scraps of paper and look at them. Many of them are meaningless, I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote it, but once in a while I’ll pull out a scrap of paper and it will say, “A man who can only sing in the shower,” and it occurs to me there’s something there for a story. Other times, a full story will happen, and I’ll think of it spontaneously.
Now if I don’t have anything, I’m good at forcing the issue, because I used to be a television writer years and years ago. It was live television. We’d come in on a Monday morning and there’d be a show for Saturday night, and you had to have a show ready for rehearsal by Thursday.
You couldn’t wait for your muse to visit you. You had to sit there and come up with something. I can do that if I have to, I don’t like to, it’s painful, but I can do that. I can sit in a room and think and think and think and drum up something. It’s the only thing I can do. I can’t do anything else, but that I can do. It’s an accident of birth that I can come up with stories
In recent years, you’ve been shooting more of your movie outside the United States. Is that a conscious decision or more of a natural progression?
Allen: Because that’s where the money comes from. I have trouble getting funded all the time. After every picture, it’s a scramble. I make the movies for very little money, really very little. Everybody is nice enough to work for very little money, but I still have trouble raising that very little money.
But in Europe and other places, Asia or South America, people call up and say, “If you make a picture here, we’ll pay for it.” So that’s how it started with “Match Point,” and Barcelona called, and France called, and Italy called. And a number of other countries asked if I would make pictures there. And I can’t afford not to make pictures there because they fund the pictures.
I was able, through a very clever system of con men, to raise enough money to make my next picture in the United States, but I really had to tap-dance some lie. I’m going to make a little in New York and a little in San Francisco. But it was tough to raise that money; it was not easy for me. It’d be much easier if I said yes to one of the foreign countries and worked there.
For more info: “To Rome With Love” website