Last Hustle: John Turturro on Fading Gigolo
John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo has a title that sounds both more elegiac and salacious than the movie ultimately is. The dynamic 57-year-old character actor’s fifth feature as a director features a rare Woody Allen performance outside of his own movies as beleaguered Murray, who’s been forced by the choppy economic winds to shutter his elegant little Manhattan bookshop. Turturro plays Fioravante, one of Murray’s employees and seemingly his best friend. When the store closes, Fioravante takes a job in a flower shop, while Murray spends most of his days looking after a gaggle of black children that are ostensibly the charges of his live-in partner. After learning that his dermatologist (Sharon Stone) and a racy friend (Sofia Vergara) are interested in finding a man for a ménage à trois, Murray concocts an idea to revive his collaboration with Fioravante: he’ll pimp the younger man out.
So begins this pleasurable throwback romp, adorned with faces that recall another era and shot with the economy and film stock of a movie 20 years older. The movie takes a mildly more serious turn once Liev Schreiber shows up as a Hasidic patrolman with a heart full of unrequited lust for a rabbi’s widow (Vanessa Paradis) and a tremendous amount of suspicion when he sees her with Fioravante, but Turturro deftly straddles the line between comic whimsy and social commentary. A New York movie about adjustment and survival and a series of remarkably unlikely relationships in a changing city, Fading Gigolo‘s charms are as sugary, sweet and gone before you know it.
Fading Gigolo opens today from Millennium Entertainment.
Filmmaker: Your film evokes a bygone New York through the music, the shooting, the locations, and especially the casting of Woody Allen. I’m curious where did the desire to make this kind of picture began?
Turturro: I have a lot of friends that age. I have friends Woody’s age. I’m a big fan of Woody’s. I have friend who had a bookstore, Herb White, he’s quite a character. He lost his store and I’ve seen a lot of people who’ve gone out of business, record stores, bookstores, little shops that have stationary, places that I actually liked to go to have an encounter or to play chess or smoke pot or whatever you want to do. As we become more technological and everyone buys things online, you do miss these interchanges that happen, and I saw how people were getting priced out.
I thought, “Wow, that could be something interesting.” I’m of a certain age where I have friends who are younger than me and then I have people who are older, too. It’s part of the world to just not think about that. I also think people were being forced because of the stock market to reinvent themselves and a lot of retro things become hip. I watch all of these guys who are these hipsters and they’re dressing in clothes that I used to buy in secondhand shops that maybe my parents wore. And I’m watching this—it just recycles. That’s all it does. All of a sudden you see all this folk music coming back. There’s this big movement for slow cooking and artisan crafts. So you go, OK, we’re losing things but then a lot of young people are interested in that too. So it all kind of made sense to me. I still like film better than digital. I’ll go on record with that. I think it’s still, especially when you’re not 18 or 25, it’s more—it’s a softer, more magical medium, so I was happy to shoot on film. We tested both and digital is very good, but it’s much more unforgiving.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting how you mentioned the idea of small business owners and small shops, bookstores especially, being squeezed out. You highlight that immediately by having the bookstore set next to a Staples.
Turturro: That just happened. You know, that was the bookstore that we found and we loved and it was right next door to Staples. Now Staples is going out of business. You used to go into a small shop like that bookstore and get lost. People could recommend things, you could have conversations. Where I live in Park Slope, I’m an investor in my neighborhood bookshop because I want it to be there. I like that, and I like that little diner that me and Woody are in. That’s a place that still makes egg creams and everybody knows each other. It’s a place where people go in a neighborhood. When the rents get too expensive, then people have to close down. I was thinking, “What would they do to have to reinvent themselves?” And I thought about the sex business, which is an old business, and I first had the idea of just Woody and me as a team. I thought that could be potentially interesting. I knew that he liked me and I liked him, and then during the course of the development of the script we worked in the theater together and we got to know each other. So by the time we did the movie, we had spent a lot of time together. I think you kind of see that in the movie hopefully.
Filmmaker: I’m curious how quickly you were able to put it together from the time you finished the script to the point that you were shooting.
Turturro: The script took a long time because Woody would give me his editorial feedback, merciless feedback, and I was still figuring out what I wanted to do with it. He encouraged me to be more sophisticated and to find more nuances so it wouldn’t run out of steam. He liked the whole religious aspect. He said, “I think that could be really potent.” So I did a lot of research on that. [The script] took maybe over a two-year period. Once the script was done, we were able to get our budget and financing pretty quickly. It wasn’t huge, but we had to shoot in New York, so that’s expensive. It was a modest budget. I was able to put together really a great team. Marco Pontecorvo was DP and Lester Cohen was the designer, Donna Zakowska was the costume designer. We all worked very, very hard together to create a world. We used a lot of those Saul Leiter photographs of people walking on the street, which he did with this dye transfer which he developed, and we used these Morandi paintings for the color scheme. We worked really, really hard. When you don’t have a huge schedule, if you have one bad day it really hurts.
Filmmaker: Had you worked with Liev Schreiber or Sharon Stone before? How did they come into the picture?
Turturro: I worked with Sharon a little bit and thought she was right. Liev went to Yale after me and I’ve known him on and off. I thought he was right. Vanessa was someone who my agent recommended. I’d met her for something else and I kind of fell in love with her. I thought, “Wow, she’s a lovely, interesting person.” I saw her work on film. Woody was completely convinced that she was a Hasidic Jew. He didn’t know that [she wasn’t]. And then having someone like Sofia who reminded me of a friend of mine who designs glasses, I thought “Wow, she’d be a good double for my friend.” When they read scripts a lot of women are interested that they’re good roles or better than that. They don’t always get those opportunities.
Filmmaker: Was there an aspect of the film that during pre-production you weren’t sure of that turned out really well during the shoot? And vice versa, were there things that changed during the shoot in terms of you responding how the material was working?
Turturro: I think Vanessa’s performance changed the movie, because it really deepened it. It became much more of a love story and when you saw the fertility that she brought to it and the specificity you could just feel it. What I was worried about was her wig. When I found a wig she wasn’t there. I wanted the wig to be attractive, and also maybe for people who didn’t know that people wore wigs to think it was her hair. It reminded me of Julie Christie’s hair in Shampoo, which is a film that was an influence on me. But Vanessa wasn’t there and I loved it. When I put that wig on Vanessa’s head, I was like, oh man, now she looks like Joan of Arc a little bit. And I thought, “Now we could have a film.” Because a bad wig can sink a whole film. It can.
Filmmaker: Sure, sure. I’ve seen very big films where that’s the case.
Turturro: Very big films, it sinks it. It looks like real hair. It’s also very flattering for her. We shot a lot of that stuff earlier on and she had been involved with doing the research and doing all that. Then Sofia and Sharon came in later. I kind of knew what we already had. I was worried about everything. I was worried about the lighting, I was worried about the schedule, and also how it would be to direct Woody even though we were comfortable. But within like a half an hour, it was completely comfortable. He was so easy to work with, so professional. Him and Vanessa made the film incredibly easy. When you have a film and you’re shooting six-plus weeks you can’t afford to make a mistake. We had kids and so there are things that are difficult, but I’m very happy with the film. I’ve seen it with so many audiences and people. People really respond to the movie in a big way. They respond to the humor but also the humanity of it. I’m glad that Woody encouraged me to go in that direction, because that felt very right.
Filmmaker: You do see these patrol services that are simply for the Hasidic community, and I’ve never seen someone really delve into one of those individuals.
Turturro: Yeah, because we’re trying not to dismiss that, because there are people who are happy in that community, but there are people who have left that community and who are not. So I wanted to be able to poke fun at things, but also to not do a disservice to it and give it a fair hearing that way. That whole character that Liev played, he agreed with me: here’s a guy who’s grown up with all boys so he doesn’t know how to approach a woman. He has this one woman that he’s loved, but he never got her, because this other guy, the big rabbi got her and he just doesn’t know how to go about it. He’s learned a few things in the course of the film. Whether or not he’ll be happy, I can’t address that in this film. A lot of times, people when they see the movie they want Fioravante and Avigal [together], but she has six kids and she doesn’t want to leave the community. She just wants to stand up for herself and she’s never had the experience of being courted.
So I thought that would be an interesting triangle between the three of us in a way. Liev, this was before he did Ray Donovan, obviously. People associate him with that, but he’s a wonderful actor and he just brings a dimension to it, that’s all.
Filmmaker: Do you show your cuts to people while you’re in post?
Turturro: Yeah sure. We have screenings. We’ve showed it lots of people. I had a lot of screenings, a lot of them.
Filmmaker: Did that help you shape the cut?
Turturro: [Editor’s note: this paragraph contains spoilers] It helps. It helps and hurts, because sometimes there’s just too many opinions. A lot of people say, “Well, they should wind up together.” They shouldn’t be together. When Woody saw it, he really liked it a lot and I was worried about that obviously. He gave me a few little notes here and there, but they were very helpful. Sometimes you just need distance in the editing room, you just need to go away from it for a few weeks and then come back and see it with an audience, which I did do, and then I saw exactly what I wanted to do. I said, “OK, here’s what I need to address,” because sometimes you get too involved in one section of the film.
It always played well, by the way. That was the problem. The problem was it always played well. So we’re trying to figure out, what can be the best version of this? Sometimes you have to be a little merciless. One thing in a movie like this is where does the movie turn? Sometimes actors have a tendency, they want to make every scene to be the scene where everything stops instead of moving the plot going ahead, and [making that happen is] part of the director’s job. But sometimes, depending upon the actor, depending upon how they know the material, they can kind of stop a movie. A movie like this needs to turn at the correct moment, and I think the correct moment is when she gets the massage. I think eventually we got it. It’s a very delicate film, so it was not easy to find the right balance to go back and forth between the comedy and the tensions without being soupy.
Filmmaker: Is it difficult to supervise an edit of your own performance? You’ve obviously directed a number of films that you’ve been in at this point.
Turturro: Not really. If a shot doesn’t look good and you look really unattractive, I say “well, that’s a horrible shot. I don’t like how that looks.” So I let them know right away. But from early on I think maybe I had taken [the character in] too much of a taciturn direction. And then I said “OK, let him lighten up a little bit here and there if he’s a quiet guy. He can smile, he can have fun, blah blah blah.” But no, I’m pretty good that way. I’m very civil: he’s no good there, he’s good there. I’m used to it. And if something doesn’t look good for any of the actors I’m aware of that. And I think it’s lit really beautifully, this film. We shot it on film, we designed the look of the film, and Marco, he knows I like things with lots of shadow. I hate pop light. I hate cold lighting unless it’s really appropriate to the subject matter. The only thing I had to be encouraged to do was maybe to have a couple of lighter moments here or there.