John Turturro, Romance & Cigarettes
John Turturro has the distinction of being both a director’s actor and an actor’s director. A favorite of both Spike Lee and the Coen brothers, over the past 20 years Turturro has marked himself out as one of the most interesting and talented actors in film, and whether it is a blocked writer (Barton Fink), a socially-awkward chess master (The Luzhin Defense) or a grief-stricken widower (Fear X), he adds a depth and humanity to the characters he inhabits. In 1992, he directed his first film, Mac, about three Italian American brothers who band together to start a construction firm, a story which was inspired by Turturro’s own father’s experiences as a carpenter. He followed it up with, Illuminata (1998), a tragicomic farce about a Manhattan theater troupe in the early 20th Century. A true multihyphenate, Turturro also co-wrote both films with Brandon Cole, and played the principal lead in each.
Apart from a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance as a dancer, Turturro does not appear in his latest directorial effort, Romance & Cigarettes, the first film he has written on his own. A musical of the common man, it uses songs by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin and James Brown in the story of Nick Murder (James Gandolfini), a man torn between his earthy English mistress, Tula (Kate Winslet), and long-suffering wife, Kitty (Susan Sarandon). Alongside the leads, Turturro assembles a stellar supporting cast featuring Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken, Bobby Cannavale, Mary-Louise Parker, Eddie Izzard and Mandy Moore, who turn up to sing and dance with gusto. Like Illuminata, Romance & Cigarettes combines moments of broad comedy and bawdy humor with ones of soulful loneliness; as a musical, it breaks the mold by both embracing the surreal nature of the genre and adding a stark realism which is alien to the form. Though it premiered in Venice exactly two years ago, the movie has had a troubled time finding a distributor because of its unique take on the musical, however audiences who give it a chance will find it a sweet, entertaining and rewarding experience.
Filmmaker spoke to Turturro about the film’s difficulties, the influence of Charles Bukowski, Dennis Potter and Etta James, and working with non-driving actor Christopher Walken.
Filmmaker: You must be happy that Romance & Cigarettes is getting a U.S. release after it was in the wilderness for a few years.
Turturro: Yeah. I feel like I’ve been flying without an air traffic controller and I’ve finally been brought in. [laughs] Life is bizarre, so what else is new?
Filmmaker: I believe your problems began when Sony executives screened the film, and just didn’t get it.
Turturro: They didn’t see it with an audience, and for a movie like this, that’s an impossibility. If it had a brand name on it, like “A Pedro Almodovar Film,” they would have said O.K. But the truth of the situation with this movie is that when you put it in a room it plays like gangbusters. The whole idea is that it’s different, and that was the calling card to get people to see it. I’m not angry about [Sony’s reaction], but it does make you scratch your head a bit when people who buy films don’t think they need to see it with a group.
Filmmaker: Where did your inspiration came from for this film? It’s not what we expect from you as a director.
Turturro: To me, the film is very much me. [laughs] It’s probably more me than anything I’ve ever done. There’s a real nakedness to it, and I promised myself I’d be uninhibited as much as I possibly could be [laughs], and try to get everyone else to do that. There are things in life that you witness that can be painful or harsh, but when you digest them you say, “Wow, there’s something universal there.” My idea was to put that into a form that was entertaining. I think if you’re laughing at something, you’re open, and you could also be very moved.
Filmmaker: What was your musical background growing up?
Turturro: I grew up in a very small house which was bursting with music. My mother was a very good singer, and her brothers were jazz musicians and she sang with them for a while, and my older brother’s a big musician. We just had tons and tons of music in our house. To people of modest means, music is a powerful form of transportation to go to the realms of fantasy.
Filmmaker: What were your influences while you were conceiving the idea for the film?
Turturro: I was told about Dennis Potter, whose work I knew about but never had seen. I saw a little bit of his stuff, and I said, “Wow, he’s really onto something!” I didn’t want to do it exactly that way so I didn’t watch too much, but I read some interviews with him and was very touched by some of the things he said. Then someone gave me a Charles Bukowski book they wanted me to adapt called Women. I read that and I was laughing because it was the dirtiest…. It would be rated Triple X!
Filmmaker: I’ve read Women, and it would definitely be difficult to adapt.
Turturro: It would be problematic to do it, but it reminded me of people — like my father, who was a builder — and I liked that postman, garbageman poetry. It reminded me of popular music. So I sat on [those ideas] for about ten years, and then one day said, “There’s something here.” I took a year off, I wrote it, I took it to Joel and Ethan [Coen] and they really liked it. They really like the film and are proud of it, and so am I.
Filmmaker: In the film, you really embrace the surreal aspects of musicals, even more than the classic Hollywood model, and then juxtapose that with very realistic elements.
Turturro: Musicals are surreal, and they were popular during the Depression, when people were so poor. This movie is a love story, and music is how most people get through the day, even very successful people. I think it’s a great form. In early Greek plays, they used song and a chorus and dance, and they were serious plays.
Filmmaker: How did you bring together such a fantastic cast?
Turturro: I wanted people who were very grounded and not cerebral actors, and I didn’t want people who were so great musically. I wanted really earthy people, and the Coens recommended that I check out James [Gandolfini]. I thought he was a little young at first, but he did a reading with us and he was brilliant. I always thought of Kate [Winslet], because Kate is from a working class family and she was so uninhibited in that strange Jane Campion movie, Holy Smoke. I needed someone who could play this girl and show you her crude side but also her tender side. I don’t see how her performance could be better.
Filmmaker: How did the cast respond to the script?
Turturro: Everyone read it, and everyone liked it. We rehearsed it like a play: we did acting exercises, we did all kinds of things to make people feel foolish and relax with each other, because you can’t achieve that by being professionals — you’ve got to get into the realm of the amateur.
Filmmaker: How easy was it to get the cast to sing?
Turturro: Well, Kate sings. I sent them all to singing lessons, and I figured that they would all sing along, like you would sing along with the radio. James was a little nervous, but James actually has a very nice voice. Everyone just embraced it. We had two choreographers and then I would come in and rechoreograph it because I wanted it to be more like regular movements and not Broadway choreography. I looked at that one big song that Ann-Margret had in Tommy, and that was an inspiration. Ann-Margret was an inspiration for Kate’s whole look — and she was someone I had a thing for when I was a kid.
Filmmaker: What was it like working with Christopher Walken? He’s not only a great actor, but also a very talented dancer.
Turturro: Chris is a huge talent. Now we think of him in a more eccentric way, but he’s also done tremendous stage work, where he’s moving and emotional in things. I told him I would love to make a movie with him about a clown, and he goes, “Oh, yeah. Clowns are scary.” He’s a lovely guy and I love working with him. He would say, “I don’t want the choreographer to tell me things.” I said, “OK, do you want to try stuff?” He said, “No, you do it and then I’ll watch you. If I like what you do, I’ll steal it from you.” He made me dance, and he’d be “Oh, I like that, I’ll do that.” We get along very well, but he has the things that he needs. He doesn’t like to drive and act anymore, I don’t know why. “You got to be parked, that’s the only thing.” He likes the old rear-projection system.
Filmmaker: The two previous films you directed you co-wrote with Brandon Cole, so what was it like writing this screenplay on your own?
Turturro: It was a daunting thing, but I had so much great material. To be honest, my mother was a real big source of stories and she can be really irreverent and really funny. I would listen to a lot of things that she said and write them down. When I was a little kid, my mother would talk to all her friends and I would always be eavesdropping, crawling up the hallway to listen to them. When I was writing, I would read Bukowski’s poems to charge me up, listen to Etta James, and get in there!
Filmmaker: One of the aspects of the film that might surprise people is the dialogue, which is colorful and sexual in a wonderfully inventive way.
Turturro: I asked the Bukowski estate if I could use a few quotes. My father was a builder, and when he got angry he had a wonderfully expressive foul mouth, but he never talked that way sexually. I have an appreciation of that. Shakespeare has all these bawdy things, and there’s something about it that can be really liberating.
Filmmaker: You also wrote some great roles for women in this film.
Turturro: I have to say, I like women, any age. I think women are very powerful, wonderful, complicated, and in movies you don’t see almost any of that. You see young girls and it’s all about falling in love. But what happens when you’re in it? What happens when it goes on for a while? What happens with a guy when you’re caught between? I do like putting women in situations I don’t see them in and I know that they have in them. When you look at great plays and great literature and old movies, the women got to do things. And in this movie, they’re pretty active.
Filmmaker: What were the films that made you love cinema when you were young?
Turturro: When I was a kid, I grew up on Warner Brothers films, but I went through all different phases. Angels With Dirty Faces, On the Waterfront, The Sweet Smell of Success, Spartacus when I was a kid, but then when I saw European cinema when I was a teenager, I was blown away. The neo-realists, Bergman, Kurosawa, Buñuel — I like different people for different things. When I was young, there were a lot of things to inspire me: the movies of the ’70s, movies way before that from the ’50s, American films, European films. Those are the films that made me want to do this. Today, when I watch films, I don’t see that as much. You don’t see people like Bergman, struggling with their problems in a movie. To me, there’s nothing more exciting, because it makes me feel less lonely, and included in life. When someone does that, it can be liberating — and also civilising. I’m very appreciative of it, even when it’s not perfect; other movies, I have to be in the mood for.
Filmmaker: Which director that you’ve worked for has influenced you most?
Turturro: Certainly the Coen brothers in terms of preparation and everything, and not being afraid of doing something that they think no one is going to get. That gave me the courage to do something that I get, and they got it, which was good for me. I’ve worked with so many good directors: them, Spike [Lee], Francesco Rosi, who’s a great compositional guy, Peter Weir, who plays music on his sets. I played music on the set all the time, even when [the scene] wasn’t musical, just to get people in the mood, as something to respond to. I do a lot of things off-camera, because I know how actors are treated. If you do a little extra for an actor, they can do amazing things, so I tried to create an atmosphere that was fun and relaxed. It was serious and prepared, but irreverent. You take from different directors, say, “I like what that guy does” — but, at the end of the day, it’s you.
Filmmaker: Do you have other things in the pipeline as a director?
Turturro: I have a couple of projects that I’ve worked on and that are done that would be very interesting to do. One based on a book by a very good writer, Roland Merullo, who now is being published more and more. It’s a beautiful story, but I’m too old to be in it so I’d have to find the right actor. There’s another script that I’ve developed with Scorsese and Spike Lee about a corrupt athlete, called Prince Jack, by Michael Di Jiacomo, who’s another wonderful screenwriter. He’s only directed one movie, but he’s a major talent and that’s a wonderful script that I’d like to do.
Filmmaker: Do you have to take on a role in a big movie if you’re going direct one of your films?
Turturro: I do it afterwards. But I’ve made a certain amount of money and I’ve put it away. If you’re a little short, you put in a little extra to know [a movie] is going to happen. Whether or not you get that back, you get it back in other ways. After I made my first film, I got a lot of offers to direct, but I wasn’t really interested in anything they sent my way. For me, I’ve really gotta be in love with something.