NEW YORK — It’s a torrid summer day in New York, but the lobby of a well-appointed Park Avenue building has an immediate cooling effect, its hushed marble corridors keeping the heat at bay through the sheer force of good taste.
Down a side hall, a sign on a nondescript door reads “Manhattan Film Center,” and behind that door lies a room crowded with FedEx boxes, bursting file cabinets and the banal detritus of creativity’s business end. The only clues pointing to the identity of the occupant are a “Mighty Aphrodite” poster, a book about Fellini and a khaki bucket hat that sits on a bookshelf, waiting to be joined with a pair of equally iconic black eyeglasses.
And then, there they are — the glasses and the quiet, soft-spoken man behind them. Woody Allen beckons a visitor to join him in a big, sparsely furnished room painted chocolate brown. “I was looking for a screening room to screen movies for pleasure,” he explains, settling into one of the room’s green velvet club chairs. “I didn’t want it at my house because I figured people would never leave. So I put it here. And then I found that I could actually edit [in] a room next door. So it’s great — we edit the film in there, put it on screen, look at it, hate it, and bring it back in there and re-cut it. That’s the procedure.” The word “procedure” comes out as “pro-cee-djuh,” drawn out at the end in Allen’s familiar Brooklynese.
There’s something about Allen’s office — its jumble of clutter and luxury, set in an elegant but understated building just blocks from where Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese live — that embodies some of the very contradictions that animate his life and work. His movies are sophisticated but unpretentious, populated by big stars but produced on modest scales and budgets. Allen himself enjoys all the privileges his wealth and celebrity status accord but hews to a relatively unprofligate lifestyle, preferring sports events and his weekly clarinet gigs at the Carlyle hotel to the more soignee rituals of boldfaced New York.
Even the most notorious episode of Allen’s private life — the revelation in 1992 of his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, the then-20-year-old daughter of his former romantic partner Mia Farrow — has taken on the contours of a stubbornly unresolved paradox: a scandalous violation of societal and familial norms, but one that has resulted in a lasting marriage, two children and a comfortably stable, sedate home life.
At 76, Allen is relaxed and in good shape, dressed in uniform-like khakis and matching beige button-down shirt. A few hours from now, he will join stars Penelope Cruz, Alec Baldwin and Greta Gerwig for the New York premiere of “To Rome With Love.” The film — an omnibus of four intercut stories that take place at the same time in the title city — co-stars Jesse Eisenberg as a young architecture student, Roberto Benigni as a man who becomes an overnight reality TV star and, for the first time in six years, Allen himself. He plays a retired opera producer who, when he arrives in Rome to meet the fiance of his daughter (Alison Pill), discovers a gifted tenor who can sing only in the shower.
“I finished writing the script and saw that there was a part that I could play,” Allen says, explaining his return to the screen after so long. “I never force it. I never write something for myself. I’m trying to be faithful to the idea. . . . If I had made [this picture] in the United States, I could have played Roberto Benigni’s part. . . . If I was 50 years younger, I would have played Jesse’s part. Right now, I’m reduced to fathers of fiancees.”
That last line is delivered with the resigned inflection and flawless timing audiences have come to expect from Allen, who, from the moment he appears in “To Rome With Love,” delivers the nervous one-liners and sense of rumpled haplessness his fans have adored since his earliest films. “It’s effortless,” he says of slipping into his on-screen persona. “It’s the only thing I can do. I’m not an actor. I can’t play Chekhov, I can’t play Shakespeare or Strindberg. I can do that thing that I do.
“There’s a few different kinds of things I can act credibly,” he continues. “I can play an intellectual or a lowlife.”
The downside of developing such a strong alter ego, of course, is that when people meet Woody Allen, they expect to meet Woody Allen: an extension of his speech patterns and personality, to be sure, but also a character he has created over years on stage as a stand-up comic and as an actor in his movies. “I’m not as crazy as they think I am,” he says. “They think I’m a major neurotic and that I’m phobic and incompetent, and I’m not. I’m very average, middle class. I get up in the morning, I have a wife and kids, I work, I’ve been productive, I practice my horn, I go to ballgames, it’s a normal kind of thing. I have some quirks, but everybody has some quirks.”
By “they,” Allen is referring to his fans, who tend to be rabid, able to quote lines from every Allen film going back to “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” with impeccable accuracy. They’re the filmgoers who have stuck by Allen throughout his one-movie-a-year production pattern (despite the ups and downs such consistent output inevitably entails), who kept coming even at the height of romantic controversy and who made last year’s “Midnight in Paris” the biggest commercial hit of Allen’s 47-year career.
Allen won his fourth Oscar for “Midnight in Paris,” for best original screenplay (his films have won 11 in all). As always, he declined to accept the accolade in person. “They always have it on Sunday night,” he says of the Academy Awards ceremony. “And it’s always — you can look this up — it’s always opposite a good basketball game. And I’m a big basketball fan. So it’s a great pleasure for me to come home and get into bed and watch a basketball game. And that’s exactly where I was, watching the game.”
Did he at least flip? “No, I wasn’t flipping. I had no idea of anything that happened. When the game was over I was exhausted and I went to sleep.”
Allen’s career has been so workmanlike and regularized, his references to his past films so offhanded, that it’s easy to forget: This is the man who made “Bananas” and “Sleeper” and “Love and Death” and “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” and “Hannah and Her Sisters,” whose career phases include a musical (“Everyone Says I Love You”), austere dramas (“Interiors,” “Another Woman”) and, most recently, city symphonies paying homage to London (“Match Point,” “Scoop,” “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”), Barcelona (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), Paris (“Midnight in Paris”) and now Rome.
The rhetoric of his films — both verbal and visual — has become so woven into the American vernacular that it’s just as difficult to remember how much of an outsider he still is within the Hollywood system, a culture and industrial practice he never embraced.
Even all those Oscars — the highest tokens of show business esteem — never meant anything, he insists. “That, or anything I ever won, has never changed my life one iota,” he says forcefully. “And the fact that ‘Midnight in Paris’ made $160 million meant zero in terms of anyone — and by anyone I mean no one — stepping forward and saying, ‘We’d like to bankroll your next film.’ ” The reason he’s been working so much in Europe isn’t only because the film commissions in those countries have financed the films, he says. They also don’t dabble in the creative meddling endemic to the Hollywood system.
“They don’t like to work the way I like to work,” Allen says of American financiers. “They like to read the script and have some input. They want to say, ‘Well, we’ll let you cast who you want, but if you can get Brad Pitt, we’d much prefer you got him.’ . . . We don’t do that, though. We don’t let them see the script or have anything to say. So I have a lot of trouble raising money in this country.”
The result has been a career that, while respected in the United States and revered in Europe, has been uneven in terms of box office and critical reception. Whereas most of Allen’s films hover between budgets of $15 million and $20 million, several have earned far less. (“To Rome With Love” opened strongly in New York and Los Angeles last weekend to warm, if not rapturous, reviews.)
But Allen doesn’t define success in those terms. “For me, success is, I’m in my bedroom at home and get an idea and I think it’s a great idea and then I write it, and I look at the script and I say, ‘My God, I’ve written a good script here.’ And then I execute it. And if I execute the thing properly, then I feel great. If people come, it’s a delightful bonus.”
In “To Rome With Love,” Allen revisits some of the ideas he has explored throughout his career. In one story line, Baldwin plays a middle-aged architect who encounters a younger version of himself, played by Eisenberg. Baldwin’s character haunts the young man like a benevolent ghost, warning him off a disastrous love affair and speaking of “Ozymandias melancholia,” a term for the sense of inevitable decline — inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” — that Allen first coined in 1980’s “Stardust Memories.”
“It’s a phenomenon that I think everybody gets afflicted with, certainly the poet did, but I get afflicted with it,” Allen explains. “And you feel it really very much in Rome because you see those ancient ruins and you’re hyper-aware of the fact that thousands of yeas ago, there was a civilization that was mighty, the most dominant civilization in the world, and how glorious it must have been. And now it’s a couple of bricks here and a couple of bricks there, and someone’s sitting on the bricks eating their sandwich.”
“To Rome With Love” also addresses some of Allen’s other cardinal themes — the vagaries of celebrity, art at its most sublime and absurd, and the joys of a good old-fashioned sex farce. But it’s also suffused with an idea of time — zigging, zagging, collapsing in on itself — that Allen explored through the supernatural conceit of time travel of “Midnight in Paris.”
“It isn’t just psychological when you’re getting closer to death that time passes faster,” Allen says. “I think something happens physiologically so that you experience time in a very different way.” When a visitor notes that it’s a strange phenomenon, and one Allen has managed to find a unique cinematic language to express, he cuts in. “It’s also scary, as you’ll see when you get older. It doesn’t get better. You don’t mellow, you don’t gain wisdom and insight. You start to experience joint pain.”
Still, despite being “depressed on a low flame,” as he describes his usual psychic state, he speaks eagerly about life’s joys: the clarinet he practices every day (“to keep up my level of badness”), his 12- and 13-year-old daughters, and his 15-year marriage to Soon-Yi. A few days earlier, Ronan Farrow, the son he fathered with Mia Farrow, went on Twitter with a stinging message: “Happy father’s day — or as they call it in my family, happy brother-in-law’s day.” Allen declined to comment, saying he hadn’t seen the message firsthand (he doesn’t own a computer). “I probably wouldn’t anyhow,” he added. “I’m not a dramatic person.”
Still, he seems unfazed by his son’s obviously still-raw anger. “My own feeling was always [that] I was totally uninterested in what anyone thought,” he says. “I loved Soon-Yi, and it was a serious thing, not frivolous. We’ve been together for years, and it’s been, on a personal basis, the best years of my life, really. And certainly the best of hers — not because of my scintillating personality, but it really brought her out of herself. She really had a chance to get into the world.”
He’s never shown his movies to his daughters. “I’ve shown the older one, Bechet, a number of Alfred Hitchcock movies, and I’ve shown them both a couple of Marx Brothers movies. But they’re not that interested. . . . I try to encourage them musically and guide them cinematically, but my opinion . . . ” he shakes his head ruefully. “I represent the Old World, the Europe from which they took boats to escape.”
This summer, Allen will begin to direct his 44th feature — an untitled movie set in New York and San Francisco. He will soon adapt the “Bullets Over Broadway” screenplay he co-wrote with Douglas McGrath for a Broadway musical by “Producers” director Susan Stroman. And he will continue to pursue the same work ethic that, in addition to resulting in one of the most enduring and influential careers in American film, has staved off simmering existential panic for almost half a century.
“I have a very pessimistic view of everything,” Allen says matter-of-factly. “Obviously, I’m not a religious person, and I don’t have any respect for the religious point of view. I tolerate it, but I find it a mindless grasp of life. [It’s] the same thing with the philosophers who tell you that the meaning of life consists of what meaning you give it. I don’t buy that, either. It’s very unsatisfying.
“What you’re left with, in the end, are very grisly, unpleasant facts,” he continues. “You can’t avoid them, you can’t escape them. The best you can do, as far as I see it at the moment — maybe I’ll get some other insight someday — is distract. I work all the time, I plunge myself into trivial problems, problems that are not life-threatening: How I’m going to work my third act, or can I get this actress to be in the movie, or am I over budget? These are my problems that obsess me, so I don’t sit home and think about the fact that the universe is flying apart at breakneck speed as we’re sitting here.”
With that, Allen peers from behind the glasses and smiles self-consciously. At this very moment at least, even he seems aware that he sounds just like Woody Allen.
“To Rome With Love” opens Friday in Washington.