Q: You directed a staging of Gianni Schicchi for the LA Opera in 2008. Is that where the inspiration for the opera plotline in the movie came from?
A: Directing the opera for me was kind of an accident. I really didn’t want to do it at first. I was kind of pressured into it by Placido Domingo, who I know, and Mark Stern, who is the head of the opera there. I told them yes, and then I kept putting off for a couple of years, until I couldn’t put it off any longer. I was hoping I’d be dead before I really had to do it!
Q: You got great reviews for it, though.
A:It turned out to be a very pleasant experience. Everyone in the company was helpful, and it was very successful, and now they’re doing it again in Italy. And when I was thinking of a character to play in this movie, I thought of a crazy opera director, because now I knew what the concerns and terminology of that world are.
Q: The cast of To Rome with Love includes many famous Italian actors, but the biggest name of all is Roberto Benigni. He plays an ordinary man who suddenly becomes famous and must deal with the loss of privacy. The role feels like it was written specifically for him.
A: I actually didn’t have much hope he would be in the movie. Roberto wasn’t interested in films any longer. He was doing a one-man show of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. When I finished the script, I thought he’d be the perfect actor for this role, so I sent it to him in the hopes he would consider it. And he said yes! I was completely thrilled, because it gave another chance to work with another icon of Italian cinema.
Q: You also cast Ellen Page as a seductive and predatory actress who comes to Rome and immediately steals her best friend’s boyfriend [played by Jesse Eisenberg]. That was imaginative casting. I had never thought of her in that way before.
A; I wanted someone who was not sexual in a heavy-handed way. If I wanted an overtly sexual actress, I would cast someone like Scarlett Johansson. There are many actresses who blind you by how sexy they are. Ellen is a very sweet girl, but she can project something complicated and mysterious. You don’t know too much about her — she gives you this neurotic feeling — but you know that sex with her would be an interesting experience. I didn’t have to direct her: All I did was cast her. She took these monologues I gave her and did wonderful things with them. It was a treat to watch her in the dailies.
Q: You won your fourth Oscar this year for Midnight in Paris. The movie also became the biggest hit of your career. You often say that you don’t really care how your movies are received by the public. But it must feel pretty good when one of them connects with the mass audience.
A: Yeah, sure, it makes you feel good. But I have to admit it is a happy accident. It’s not something that I can control. I try to make each picture the best I can. Audiences like some of them a little bit, some they like an awful lot and some they don’t like at all. Midnight in Paris, they loved. They turned out to see it en masse. I was delighted. And then I just move on to the next one. I’m lucky. It’s a very nice way to spend your life.