FILM- High infidelity: Why Turturro turned to music

Romance and Cigarettes is Turturro's third time directing. In 1992, he won the Golden Camera award at the Cannes Film Festival for his debut, Mac. He was also nominated for the Golden Palm, Cannes' top honor, for his second outing, 1998's Illuminata.

John Turturro has made a career out of playing supporting roles and making them so uniquely memorable that they nearly steal the entire movie from his more famous co-stars. 

As Pino, the tightly wound pizza slinger in Do the Right Thing, his war of words with Spike Lee's Mookie ingrained the movie's central conflict over race in moviegoers' minds in one swift exchange. As Pete, a Mississippi rube escaping from prison in O Brother Where Art Thou?, his constant second-guessing of George Clooney's more esoteric Everett as leader of their band of fugitives provided some of the film's biggest laughs.

His cameo as purple-jumpsuited, pony-tailed amateur bowling champion Jesus Quintana in The Big Lebowski is classic. No one who saw the movie has ever forgotten the image of Turturro licking a bowling ball and imploring John Goodman and Jeff Daniels, "Don't f*ck with the Jesus!"

 Now the veteran actor hopes to bring that flair for the strikingly absurd to the Virginia Film Festival as the writer and director of Romance and Cigarettes, a story about family and infidelity in working class New York– that's also a musical.

Starring James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken, and a host of other big names, and featuring songs popularized by everyone from Elvis Presley to Cyndi Lauper, Romance and Cigarettes is a labor of love long in the making. 

After casting the film, Turturro had to wait two years for Gandolfini to extricate himself from his commitment to the hit HBO mobster series, The Sopranos. Once the project was completed (in spite of Winslet twisting her ankle during a dance sequence), Turturro could not find an American distributor in time for its scheduled August 2005 release. Two years later, Turturro has decided to foot the cost of distributing the film himself. The Charlottesville screening will mark one of the first times the film has been seen stateside outside New York or Los Angeles.

He recently spoke with the Hook from his home in New York.

The Hook: What made you want to present Romance and Cigarettes as a musical?

John Turturro: I think that sometimes you run out of language, and the best way to express yourself is through pop songs. People use pop songs for emotional transportation, to fantasize, to articulate what they can't, to remember, to escape their circumstances. My dad was a builder, my mom made dresses, and I grew up in a house where everyone had their own personal soundtrack. It was a small house, and music could bring you privacy, too. People who don't have very much money use pop music in that way, so it seemed very organic to tell this love story about working class people using pop songs. 

Most movies about the working class don't look at it in a very imaginative way. Plays from ancient Greece have a chorus, they have music, they have dance, and sometimes I think movies don't use everything they have at their disposal. So, I said, if I'm going to do something personal, it'd be nice to do it in a way that's personal, that has a lightness to it, with serious undertones seeping out in a quiet way. I don't like dramas that are only dramas. Life's not like that. There are always body functions, there's always sex, but you watch movies sometimes and the characters are just neutered. I wanted to show the messiness of life. 

So, that's the long answer to your question.

The Hook: How did you go about choosing the songs?

John Turturro: I had a few of them lodged in my head. The Engelbert Humperdinck song "A Man Without Love" had been stuck in my head to use for the closing credits, but then when I was writing the script, it was perfect in a particular moment in the story, and so it grew from there. I wanted songs that would be lodged in the characters' subconscious, songs that were cheesy.  The cheesiest song can be the most meaningful, because it depends on who sang it to you and where you were when you heard it. Those things can cause you to hear the song in a completely different way. And some of the songs were inspiration for the writing: James Brown, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin– all of them have a visceral quality. 

Years ago I was offered the chance to adapt a Charles Bukowski novel for a script, and I really liked how visceral it was. But I couldn't figure out how to do it. So if Bukowski collaborated with Springsteen on a movie, this would be it.

The Hook: There's a ton of big names in this cast. How did you manage to get all of them to be in your movie?

John Turturro: Well, they know me, they know Joel and Ethan [Coen, the producers on the project], and everyone who read the script wanted to be in it. If people respect you, they'll read something of yours, and if they don't like it, they'll tell you nicely. But if they do, they'll do it. Plus, I did it in New York, so it was convenient for all these New Yorkers. I had to wait two years for James, but I waited for him because he just looks like a real man, a guy who repairs bridges.

The Hook: For those who know James Gandolfini only as Tony Soprano, how different is this performance?

John Turturro: His background is not 1,000 miles away from Tony Soprano, but he's an honest, sweet guy who makes a mistake and then tries to do the right thing. It's a beautiful performance, and it's probably much closer to who James really is. He's very funny.

The Hook: How long has this been in the making?

John Turturro: I typed up the original idea when I was working on Barton Fink [in 1990], and then I did a first reading with the cast a month after September 11. 

The Hook: Did the fact that this is a New York movie give your script more resonance in that reading?

John Turturro: No, we were all just trying to do the best we could do. It takes on something because everyone's together, and you're trying to do something constructive rather than destructive. Some of us had lost friends, a lot of us were involved. Steve Buscemi had been a volunteer firefighter and was down there helping with the rescue effort, Susan Sarandon was down there helping out, I was on the food lines. So it affected us because we're all New Yorkers, and this was where we lived.

None of that matters, though. What matters is, "Is it good?" Nobody gives a flying sh*t about what you went through. Am I laughing? Am I entertained? That's our job. A lot of people pontificate about what went into their movie, but your job is to keep people awake.


The Hook: With all those big names in the cast, why didn't American distributors want to put this out?

John Turturro: There's no rhyme or reason to it. United Aritsts loved the film, it tested well, and they were preparing to give it a 500-theater release. It worked with regular audiences and people just coming in off the streets. United Artists understood that, and they understood this film. But when the merger [with MGM] happened, it went down much faster than we had thought it would. If I had known that, I would have finished the movie sooner. 

My only regret is that Joel, Ethan, and I weren't more adamant about making the executives watch the movie with an audience. When they watched it, they said, "We don't get this," but if they had seen it with an audience, they would have seen people laughing within the first 30 seconds. It's nothing against them, they just didn't understand it, and they said, "We don't think it works for us." So we shopped it around, and the asking price was high, and a lot of people didn't want to pay it. When one company gets scared, everyone else gets scared, because it's run by nobody who knows anything. But now, Sony [part owner of MGM] has seen the movie, they get it now, and they've been helpful. 

The Hook: Still, you're footing a lot of the distribution cost yourself. How much is this setting you back?

John Turturro: I'm not going to tell you or anyone else that number, but whatever it is, I'm going to be the first to earn it back. Even if the movie breaks even, I'm way ahead. People love this movie, they're delighted when they see it. What am I supposed to do, walk away from it? I would not have hung in there if people didn't like it. I'd be a crazy egomaniac if I saw nobody liked the movie and did that. 

The Hook: So what's your feeling now that American audiences are finally getting to see it?

John Turturro: My job is to hold someone's attention. If I see it's making people choke from laughter, or really moving people, then I know I've done my job. That's not an opinion that people are laughing and being moved; that's a fact. So I'm a little tired of having to do all this stuff, but I'm delighted people are enjoying it. I feel blessed to have made this film without having it diluted by anyone's outside interference. 

The Hook: This is hardly the first time you've worked with the Coen brothers. What's made you so loyal to them?

John Turturro: Well, we've been friends for 20 years. There's a million things: preparation, humility, their sense of humor, the specificity in their writing and in their design. But they're my good friends, and I'd be good friends with them if they were half as good as they are. 

On this movie, they made great casting suggestions, and they helped raise the money. But where they were really valuable was in the editing room. They would tell me, "I don't think you need this" or "This could be tighter," and they did it in such a gentle way. They're real craftsmen. I don't call many people artists, but they're in that percentage. They can do it all, except maybe act, and that's where I come in.

The Hook: One last question: which of your lines is most often quoted back to you?

John Turturro: It used to be "Look in your heart!" [from Miller's Crossing], but now it's definitely "Don't f*ck with the Jesus." Who knows? He may come back. But I'm not going to get into that right now.

John Turturro will appear at the Paramount Theater to screen Romance & Cigarettes Saturday, November 3, at 6:30pm. The movie is tentatively scheduled to open in wider release on Friday, November 9.