What Is Summer in New York Without Woody Allen?

Lee Dallas

Woody (and Penelope, and Alec, and Ellen, and Greta) on Woody: The director and cast of To Rome With Love talk fame, fans, and Fellini.

To Rome with Love

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Antonio Albanese, Fabio Armiliato, Alessandra Mastronardi
Rated: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-06-22 (Limited release)

Can you imagine a summer in New York City without a new Woody Allen movie? Really, can you? At this point, some 40-odd years into his career, Allen remains the season's most consistent (and, at times, the only) cineplex alternative to the requisite flurry of big booms and bigger budgets. Reliably hilarious, well-plotted and paced, and beautifully shot, Allen's output—even now, in his fifth decade of making movies—is among cinema's most effortlessly pleasurable. And after scoring his biggest box office hit ever last summer with Midnight in Paris, it's hardly hyperbole to call Allen's annual new releases the urbanite's answer to new installments of a beloved superhero franchise.

That was my frame of mind when I walked into To Rome with Love, anyway. The promise of Allen's signature nebbish wit spouted by favorite actors old (welcome back, Judy Davis!) and new (keep killing it, Ellen Page!) in the sun-dappled titular city felt like premium comfort food long before I entered the theatre. And yes, let's make no mistake about it, To Rome with Love is light by any standard—its four independent narrative threads are all premised on gentle, gag-based absurdism, and its characters' stakes are familiar ones of love versus lust, work versus play, fame versus family. But the sharp, open-hearted energy Allen and his actors emanate makes the experience feel like a warm afternoon block party—it's the perfect date movie for anyone whose idea of romantic banter includes barbed asides about Miss Julie.

The New York press conference for the film, featuring Allen enveloped by members of Rome's winning troupe—Penelope Cruz, an ebullient Alec Baldwin, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, and fresh-faced Italian charmer Alessandra Mastronardi—further extended that feeling of a luxurious block party. Everyone in the room, superstars included, seemed happiest when just picking Allen's mind. Everyone was quick to gush about the opportunity to work with him—Cruz, collaborating with him for the second time after her Oscar-winning turn in 2008's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, confessed to still feeling the flush of a fangirl on occasion, saying, "I always try to look at him and forget all the admiration and beautiful moments I've experienced watching his work, because if I didn't try to put that aside, and do what I have to do, I would be starstruck the whole time!” Page piped up to concur, noting that “I think I felt really similar to Penelope. When this opportunity arose, I felt very nervous, probably the most nervous and intimidated I've ever been to go and shoot a film: 'Am I not going to be able to pull it off?' But the experience with Woody was wonderful and liberating.”

Baldwin went even further in his praise, proclaiming that Allen was someone “responsible for more memorable moments, on every level—writing, producing, directing, and acting—than any other person who's ever lived in film, really. I've always said that even Woody Allen's less successful efforts are better than most other films you see, and then when you see the greatest films he's made, they're some of the greatest films ever made! So when he calls you and asks you to come and do this with him, if you're available, you go.” (This comment was immediately followed by a deadpan “You've succeeded in embarrassing me” from Allen himself a few feet away.) Greta Gerwig, for her part, summed up the Woody Allen viewing experience as perfectly and succinctly as anyone could—“I wouldn't live in New York if it wasn't for his movies,” she said with a smile, and despite only living in the city at a time when Allen himself has relocated his films to various foreign locales, I couldn't help but nod in agreement.

For his part, Allen exuded affability and grounded-ness throughout the press conference, far more so than I would've expected form the man whose onscreen doppelgangers, including Manhattan's Isaac and Annie Hall's Alvy Singer, are paragons of neurosis. Part of this, he admits, has to do with a simple awareness of the world around him: “I'm not an intellectual at all, but I find intellectuals amusing,” he noted when asked about his films' name-dropping tendencies, and suddenly the bevy of literary character sketches in Midnight in Paris came into sharper focus for me. “When I write, I write about [intellectuals] in comic dilemmas and comic situations. If I was pressed as an intellectual, I'd be dead, but as a writer, making jokes about them, I can do that. For whatever reason I find that part of the social milieu amusing, and it seems to come out inadvertently in everything I do.”

Nonetheless, Allen's superior knowledge of film and film history certainly helps in crafting pictures like To Rome with Love, which often feels like a miniature paean to the Italian master filmmakers of yore. Allen is quick to mention Fellini as a constant inspiration for his work, mentioning the latter's early work The White Sheik as something of a companion piece to Mastronardi's storyline in To Rome with Love, and further adding that, “I just love Italian cinema so much that that stuff creeps into your pores and you do it without even knowing—I don't sit down and [draw influence from them] consciously, but when I sit back and look, I can see it clear as a bell.”

Baldwin, too, cited the classics of Italian cinema as a source of inspiration for his acting in this film and beyond. “I think Italy has more of a sense of humor than a lot of other places I've been,” he explained. “It's very loose, relaxing place; it's just not very self-conscious. And when you look at Italian films, there is a kind of an openness; there's not a lot of pretense. When you look at [Marcello] Mastroianni and even [Roberto] Benigni [who appears in To Rome with Love] and so forth, they're very open to the camera and very available, there's not a lot of hide-and-go-seek. You can see right into them, and I try to keep that in mind.”

One of the central thematic tropes of To Rome with Love is fame—its ups, its downs, and first and foremost its total arbitrarity—which meant it was a natural topic for discussion among the group, as well. When one brave reporter asked Allen to cite some of the stupidest questions he had ever been asked by members of the press, he followed up his initial quip (“I don't think we have enough time...”) with a comment on the public's general insatiability for big stars, big stories, and big name-dropping: “When I walk through those red carpet things, the amount of times that I get asked, 'Is Scarlett Johansson your new muse? Is Penelope Cruz your new muse?' If I make one picture with somebody, they assume that I have a muse, and that I want a muse, and that person wants to be my muse! So that's one of the boundless questions I've been asked that are really, really stupid.” The room chuckled as one, but no doubt one or two of the reporters mentally crossed a similar question off their list.

Of course, it's this candid and jovial approach to dealing with the moviemaking machine that keeps Allen willing and able to make a new film just about every year, even as he nears his 80th birthday. Fame might be an exhausting game to play, but if it helps to get films like To Rome with Love produced and packing theatres worldwide, we should all be thankful Allen continues to put up with it. And as indicated by the energy this living legend exudes—on the page, alongside his actors on the screen, and even on the press circuit—To Rome with Love is anything but a swansong for Allen. He and his retinue of talented actors and producers clearly remain committed to providing moviegoers with witty, humane, and effortlessly entertaining alternatives to traditional summer blockbuster fare.

His next production might end up on any corner of the globe—Allen himself expressed a willingness to write for any locale, which led to more than a few daydreams on my part (Woody Goes Bollywood? Allen Down Under?)—but I'm thankful I can count on spending at least one afternoon every New York summer going on a new adventure somewhere with him.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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