Hardly content with his career as one of the most fascinating actors in the business today, John Turturro continues to make his mark as director of a growing catalog of boldly independent films. His searing debut, Mac, drew deeply from his experiences in a Brooklyn family cast adrift after their father’s death. Six years later, Turturro reveled in his love for theater with Illuminata, which Salon called “a heartbreakingly beautiful tragicomedy about art, love and artifice, with a script of rare humor and complexity.” Fast forward seven years to 2005, and, like clockwork, Turturro finished his most wildly imaginative project, Romance and Cigarettes, produced by the Coen brothers. Unfortunately, the Hollywood distribution system lacks Turturro’s regularity, and it’s taken another two years for this heartfelt and hilarious picture to appear in America. (A run at Film Forum begins tonight.) Gothamist recently spoke with Turturro about the film, the entertainment industry, and his hope to hatch a Big Lebowski spin-off with the Coens.
How long has the idea to make this movie musical been percolating? Well it wasn’t necessarily a musical; there were just some songs that were in my head that were very dear. I would say that it gestated in my head for… I don’t know; it’s been a long time. There was a conversation I had with my dad once about cigarettes, and then later on after he passed away I was working on Barton Fink. I really started typing it up when I was working on Barton Fink. I typed a whole bunch of stuff [on the set] and then I put it way. But I kind of thought maybe there’s something actually here - because I wanted to be actually working on something when they were filming me. And I just kept adding to the pile and about ten years later I sat down and organized all my notes. I was kind of talking through it with someone who is a producer and he said it sounded really interesting and encouraged me to take a shot at it. So after O Brother Where Art Thou? and four other movies that year I took a year off, did some more thinking about it, and then it just kind of wrote itself.
As the title indicates, cigarettes play an important role in the film. Is any of the smoking a reflection of a personal experience with smoking? Well my father died of lung cancer and I know a lot of people who have. But for a certain generation that was associated with romance. Certainly for people from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. That was the thing it was associated with, certainly in cinema. And Frank Sinatra used to sing and smoke. So it really comes from that generation.
Do you smoke? No.
Yeah, I used to smoke and I quit years ago. And now I can’t even stand the smell of cigarettes. Me either.
But it’s interesting to me that there’s still something beautiful about seeing someone smoke in film. Well, they always make fake fog and fake smoke in film to diffuse a situation. So it makes sense that it would have that effect; it’s smoke and mirrors. In film it doesn’t matter what they’re showing you; if they’re showing you war footage in film there’s no music in war. And then there’s the actual smell of bodies and garbage. And you don’t smell things in film. That’s one thing film can’t do.
Right. I think they experimented with that for a while, adding smells to movies. [Smell-o-Vision] Really?
Yeah, and it didn’t work. It didn’t work. Maybe people don’t want that.
Well, the title Romance and Cigarettes evokes a feeling of leisure and enjoyment. And the film is hilarious but the romance and the cigarettes are ultimately destructive. So did you intend audiences to walk away with a different impression of what romance and cigarettes could lead to? Well, I’m not a person who’s going to lecture about things. I think when you share experiences, if you can put it in a way that’s entertaining or surprising or whatever it can actually maybe “say something” and you’ll be entertaining someone. If I’m laughing I think I’m more open to having something serious come in. Because it’s hard to make a perfect comedy. The truth of the matter is there’s a real attempt in the film to be as honest as possible, just in a heightened way. Even the humor is coming out of the honesty of the situations, what people would like to do. You kind of wonder when Steve Buscemi’s character is saying all these things, “Did he really do this stuff or is he just fantasizing?” And I like things that have juxtaposition. When my father said something like that to me when he was sick I didn’t know whether it was a justification or whether it was something that just floated through his mind.
What was it? Just about how a man should be free to do these things. And I was like, “Wow. I don’t know why he said that to me.” But it just kind of lodged in my brain. And I always kind of saw the film as a big circus that pulls into town. There’s a big band and at the end there’s one voice, which is this a cappella voice. And life sometimes can be that way. It can be this expansive experience and also a very tricking one. And it can be very austere too. So anyway that was something that was kind of driving me.
Is what your father said that line about ‘a man should be free to smoke his brains out.’? Yeah, he said something like that. And he obviously knew he wasn’t going to last long. And he wanted to live. But a lot of people do that. And obviously that had a big effect; we lost our dad, my mother lost her husband. But there was also something about what he said that was kind of funny in a weird way.
What he said was funny? It was interesting. I was just like, “Why’s he saying that?” You know? And sometimes the way someone says something like that they know it’s stupid but that’s what they’re thinking. It just kind of floated out of him. That’s how he was; he was very unconscious when he talked.
And did you deliberately use a made-up brand of cigarette in the film? I think we had to.
Why is that? I don’t know, there’s all kinds of things. At one time I wanted to show all these different kinds of cigarettes and stuff but I think we kind of had to. And now there’s more rules about smoking and cigarettes - after I got my rating. My film would probably be rated even more “Don’t Go See It.” Because it’s cigarettes. But obviously it’s not a pro-smoking film, so I think that’s good.
The script calls for a lot of extroverted behavior, let’s say, on the part of your cast. Heightened.
Okay, was there any heightened behavior that one of the actors was uncomfortable with? They all liked the script but they were all kind of nervous about it, I think probably Kate [Winslet] the least so But even she had lots of concerns. So I knew I was always going to do theater games with them and make them dance and send them to a singing coach. Because I realized to get people to do this they’ve got to feel really free, like you are in your bedroom. And that’s really hard even if you’re a professional actor.
Did anything in the film arise out of something the actors improvised? I never told people how to do things; I was always curious how they were going to make it. Certainly Kate and I had a lot conversations. When we shot that sex scene I wrote a paragraph for her and I said, “You know what you’ve been doing the whole film, you know the tenor of the whole film, so if you run out of material keep going.” And I let her improvise and I kept some of what she did in there. It was really, really good. It was right in the vernacular and the right kind of tone of what we were going for.
What did she improvise? Some of the sex scene. You know; when she was actually having sex. I’m not going to say the exact line. But some of it.
Were Buscemi and Gandolfini really up on the Williamsburg Bridge for the scenes set there? They were.
Were you up there too? Yep.
Doesn’t anyone have a fear of heights? I do. Steve was really good at it. James seemed to be pretty relaxed.
And how were you? I had to walk up on the outside of the bridge and, you know, I had to get used to it. But I’m crazy about bridges, and the stories about how bridges are made. I’ve read a lot of books about them. I’d love to make a movie about the building of a bridge sometime.
I love the ending too, the way Susan Sarandon is sitting in the empty room and you insert shots of the backyard that evoke their lives in a really immediate way. After all the surreal comedy that preceded it, the ending is very sober and striking. Did you face any resistance from people on that? Sure. You know, in the original cut of the film it was a little bit long in that last sequence. And maybe it was longer than it needed to be. And after laughing so much some people liked it and some people didn’t have the patience for it. It was a really big turn. But Joel and Ethan [Coen] helped me shave a few minutes off and they were saying they really liked it but it’s just a matter of how long you’re there. You want to get the effect, but it’s how long you’re there. And there’s still humor in the hospital scene when she surprises him and stuff. For me I think if you’re laughing, laughing, laughing it’s nice to be reminded that all the feelings in the film are very real. Even though it’s funny they come out of real things; it’s that kind of humor.
You're paying to release the film yourself in the U.S. correct? They’re giving me a little bit of money for advertising.
Was your choice to appear in Transformers motivated by the need for the money to release Romance and Cigarettes? Me being in all kinds of movies is I have to pay the bills. With Romance and Cigarettes we didn’t have a huge budget so I sunk a lot of money into it when I was doing it because I had a distributor that really liked the film. And I was thinking, “Whether I make my money back or not they’re really behind it, they tested it, it’s going to be in 500 theaters, it’s going to help me do other things.” So I put in money and turned down all these big jobs and then wound up in a situation where I was the recipient or victim or whatever of a merger [between MGM and Sony Pictures.] And a film like this needs people to be on board from the beginning to understand what you’re going for, to see it play for an audience, to have confidence. Even straightforward films that are in a merger will sometimes be told, “Hey, it’s not ours. We don’t want it, we don’t care about it.” Sony didn’t even have worldwide rights on it because we shared that with Icon.
Sometimes you’re in a very fortunate situation where all the stars align and sometimes you’re not. And after that we showed it to different people and there was a certain price on the film because it wasn’t a tiny-size film, it was a medium-size film. In this business people are nervous; some people didn’t even come to see it in Venice because they said, “Why doesn’t Sony want it?” It’s a business of perception and fear. And a lot of movies were bought in those places that did nothing. And when you put my film in a room of people it plays like gangbusters. It does. And I know that sounds self-serving but I wouldn’t be talking to you if that wasn’t the case.
I really loved it. And you’re not in the minority. That’s very nice for me to hear so I thank you.
Regardless of what happens with theatrical distribution, I think it has the potential to become a real cult-classic over time, once it gets out there. Right. I think if you played it on the college circuit, or targeted it even to older people, middle age people, yeah. So, I hope from your lips to God’s ears. But I have a real solid amount of confidence in the film.
I’m just wondering that given all the frustration of having your labor of love kept in the dark by the Hollywood machine - It was a very dark time in my life, I have to tell you. Because I raised a lot of money for this film. There were illnesses in my family. And to just have the film go up in smoke when you have it It’s almost like I’ve been a plane flying around and I had no air traffic controllers to bring me in. It’s been a big price to pay. But I really love the film, Joel and Ethan are really proud of it, so is the cast, and I know people will see it. I believe in the film from what I’ve seen and how people have responded to it. In our business, there’s the middle people who are the people who either give you access to that or block that. In my case I had that and then I lost it. We’ll see. At the end of the day we’ll see.
Would you think twice about directing another film? No. I was for a while but if you do a film and you’ve got to sell it that’s one thing. I’d rather have someone with me from the beginning. If I knew going into it that things were up in the air I would have just edited a lot faster and it would have come out. It would have been a little bit longer probably, it’s probably better it had more time. But people will see it. They’ll see it in the theater. Who knows, maybe they’ll give me a couple more theaters, I don’t know. But I’m happy to have a hearing and get on record with it. I’m sure there’ll be champions of it and there’ll be people who go, “What the hell is this?” But if you put 100 people in a room, 80 people will really dig it. And that’s been the case in other places.
On the topic of acting, are there any roles you regret turning down? I’ve turned down a lot of big films that would’ve been huge box office films. I have lost an occasional role here or there because I was up against someone who had a bigger profile than me and sometimes you go, “Well, maybe if I would have done one of those other things maybe that would have helped me get this part.” But over all I think I’ve gotten a chance to do a wide variety of things and I still do. I just did that film The Bronx is Burning and that was a really challenging role and I really enjoyed doing it.
Is there a film performance you feel the best about? Not “best” but there are a handful of things I feel really good about. I feel really good about what I just did in The Bronx is Burning. I was hitting the ball, you know. I was hitting it deep. But there are a bunch of films I feel good about. Some maybe so-so. Sometimes you like your performance but you don’t like the movie, sometimes you think your performance could be better. I think the movie The Truce is one I’m very proud of. Grace of My Heart; I really enjoyed doing that. There are a lot of things. Like I said, I enjoyed doing the Howard Cosell thing [Monday Night Mayhem] on television. So I’ve gotten to do a lot of great things and hopefully I’ll continue to do that.
Back on the subject of cult classics, The Big Lebowski has gone on to become one. Yeah, look at that. Didn’t do great here originally but now it has.
Were you surprised by the lukewarm response the film received when it came out? No, wasn’t surprised; I didn’t realize how funny it was.
When I first saw it in the theater I thought, “That was interesting.” But then over repeated viewings it’s just gotten better and better for me. One of my favorite films. It’s really, really, really - It’s really, really good. It’s really, really good! It’s hilarious. Maybe someday we’ll do a little spin-off of it. We’ve talked about it. But we’ll see.
Is there any chance of that? I want to make a Jesus film but Joel and Ethan We’ve got to sit down. Maybe next year I’ll get them to write it. We’ll see.
Was that your idea to lick the bowling ball? A lot of those ideas were mine, yeah. But Joel and Ethan and I kind of share the same sensibility. And that’s why they were so helpful on my film, editing it. Because I don’t have to explain things to them. They understand. And they know how to make it better.
I read somewhere that your performance in Miller's Crossing was inspired in part by Barry Sonnenfeld. Is that true? People say that. Maybe a little bit. But more other people.
Have any of your other performances been influenced by people you know? Yeah, I based certain things on people I know. They could be the most honest person in the world and I’m playing someone who’s not. But there are certain things they have in common I can use. So you’re like Dr. Frankenstein sometimes.
Can you name a role that was really influenced by someone you know? Yeah, in Miller’s Crossing I used someone I know. A lot. Not morally but his personality.
And it wasn’t Barry Sonnenfeld. It wasn’t Barry Sonnenfeld. There were elements of Barry maybe, but he likes to take credit for those things. [Laughs.] But yeah, someone who I’m actually really good friends with. The person helped me just because they had certain things in common.
Did the person not know until he saw the film or did he know beforehand? Yeah, absolutely. I had him read all my lines in Yiddish for me very quietly. And I would say my lines over them. I just used a lot of parts of his personality.
You reside in Park Slope, right? Yes, I do.
Is it ever uncomfortable trying to go about your daily life on the streets of Park Slope now that you’re - In Transformers and things like that? Over the years it always depends on what I have out. But I try to go on the subway and read my paper. Some days are harder than others. Most of the time people are very respectful.
What is the most memorable encounter you've had in public with a fan of your work? Memorable? I’ve had a lot of wonderful moments where people are very touched by things. Like, a lot of people love Mac. They come up to me and a lot of people say it’s their family film because it’s about builders and stuff. But I’ve had kids sometimes yell at me. If someone’s rude then I don’t acknowledge them. This one kid kept yelling in a store. I always try to go out of my way to be as polite as possible but I didn’t respond to him because he was being very rude. And he called me a nasty name when I went out to the street with my son. And my son said, “Well that’s what you get when you do a certain kind of movie, Dad!” [Laughs]
This was after Transformers? No. That one was after a big comedy sort of thing.
Do your sons try to influence your career choices in that kind of way? My older son has read lots of things for me. Sometimes he tells me to turn down some really big money jobs because he says it’s a piece of garbage. He’s quite picky. But he doesn’t have to pay the bills.
Do you have a favorite restaurant these days? I really love Al di la.
Do you have a favorite New Yorker? A favorite New Yorker
Either current or in history. That’s a hard question I’d have to think about that. There’s so many people I like so I don’t want to say one is my favorite.
It doesn’t have to be to the exclusion of any others. There’s a lot of them, you know? Musicans, literary people, dancers There’s a lot of them.
What about a favorite New York writer? I’m a big Philip Roth fan. Though he’s from Newark.
But his stories have such New York flavor. Yeah, I’m a huge Philip Roth fan.
If for some reason you couldn't live in New York where would you reside? In Italy.
What part? Somewhere in southern Italy. Maybe on the Amalfi coast or something I’m still trying to think of my favorite New Yorker for you. You really threw me for a loop there. Oh, I know, there’s a guy I know who runs a bookstore, his name is Herb Weitz. He is one of the great storytellers, rebels and he ran a rare bookstore for a long time. For me he’s an ultimate New Yorker.
Where was the bookstore? It was on Lexington I think between 91st and 92nd. Rare books. Now he’s working in one of those big stores near Union Square.
The Barnes and Noble? Not Barnes and Noble. I forget where he is now. He’s given me lots of great dialogue, lots of great stories. He’s what you’d call a real New Yorker; he plays softball, he has a big dog, he doesn’t take shit from anyone, he’s really funny. He’s kind of confrontational. Walking into his store is kind of like walking into a Charles Dickens novel but New York-style.