John Turturro may be the most versatile actor in films. Who else has worked so often with such a wide range of directors, from the Coen brothers (“The Big Lebowski,” “Barton Fink,” “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and “Miller’s Crossing”) and Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever,” “He Got Game”) to Woody Allen (“Hannah and Her Sisters”), Adam Sandler, and the Transformer movies?
Turturro wrote, directed, and stars in “Fading Gigolo,” the story of a gentle florist named Fioravante who works part-time in a rare book store that is closing down. The owner, played by Woody Allen, tells Fioravante he can sell his services as a sexual partner. Soon Fioravante is being paid to have sex with a beautiful doctor (Sharon Stone) and other highly desirable ladies. But his most intriguing customer is a young widow from the ultra-Orthodox Satmar community, played by Vanessa Paradis.
I spoke to Turturro about his music choices, his inspirations and influences, and the advice he got from Woody Allen.
I thought the music was so well chosen. Where did it come from?
When I was writing it, I wrote to this one album, Boss Tenor, with Gene Ammons playing, which I grew with and that’s the Canadian Sunset, the opening and closing song. So I wrote a lot of it to that and also to this album of this woman Dalida, she sings La Violetera which is a song that was used, I think in a Charlie Chaplin movie, “City Lights,” the one with the blind girl. it’s the Spanish song La Villa.
It’s an old famous Spanish song but she was born in Egypt and she was Italian but she sang mostly in French. She was a real popular singer. I didn’t know who she was and she’s an amazing singer and I fell in love with a lot of the songs while I was writing and I didn’t know always what songs, what they meant but once I liked the melody then I would look up the translation and the song I chose it was like all about, like a woman’s independence. And I played it over that. I had no idea and I would play it on the set, when Vanessa was walking down the street or when she wasn’t talking and because I wanted the crew and everybody to get in the spirit of it and people just loved it.
And it took me a long time to get it right too because it’s one thing getting the performance, it’s another thing to getting the rights, very complicated. But then once that became the template for the film I experimented with really Sephardic and Hassidic type of music but I just felt in the melting pot city it was just too didactic.
I did this musical documentary, Passione, about Naples and when they were releasing the album they gave me all this music in LA, all different kinds of music, and they gave me this big Dean Martin album, and I kept listening. I always loved Dean Martin but there’s a really Spanish influence in it somewhere in their version of it, of sway, and it just seemed to work really well over all this melting pot stuff with the Hassids and the people in my neighborhood.
So I like music that kind of invites you in and brings you into a world and kind of put into a certain mood but is not didactic or saccharine or tells you how to feel. And most movie music is like that. I have a couple of tiny cues. There’s one Neapolitan song Tesino Casagrande that you hear a couple of the strands in the park scene and then when we’re on the phone. And then Vanessa learned the song, Neapolitan, and it’s a beautiful love song, “you know do you realize what a great thing you are,” and it says “just one time tell me once that you feel the way that I feel” and all that stuff. And so that was a song I didn’t use and I loved it and Vanessa liked it and then she wound up doing it a cappella and then she did her own version for her album which has come out in France called Love Songs. So it was a combination but those things are part of the DNA of the film, completely.
Do you listen to different kinds of music as you work on different projects?
Yes, absolutely, I tried classical things, I tried things that were right on. There’s Trombone Shorty who is really cool group. When I played that I thought, “Wow, this would be a really great one!” You know he goes to Williamsburg because it’s a collection of cultures anyway and New York and most big cities are a collision of cultures. You ride around the park and you see the world and sometimes the world doesn’t interact and sometimes it does and I thought it be nice to see how, usually there’s certain things in movies but there’s either movies of the white world and the black world or Hassidic world and it’s nice to see the secular and religious and all that stuff togethr. Just as far as the setting goes, as a setting, if you’re gonna sit it there than that’s what you could take advantage of.
The costumes are also very well chosen to help us understand these characters, especially the Satmar policeman.
The costume designer is Donna Zakowska. I used to be roommates with her at Yale and also we shared a workspace together. And my mom used to make dresses all the time and so I grew up with a dressmaker and I used to help her cut the patterns, I use to model the dresses for her and I was really skinny and I was really tall and my father didn’t like that so much. But that’s all specific like there’s a lot of stripes in the Hasidic community and so then we decided that I would wear stripes too. You know in the flower shop.
One of the reasons I chose the Satmar was because I like their aesthetic. I like their hats better than the Lubavitcher which are the Borsalino. And then I spent a couple of years doing research about all their police forces. I met with people not from the Satmar community more from the Lubavitcher community but I met people from the Satmar community that had left. I went to a place called, I forgot the name, it’s a dish that you make. And that’s what it’s called, it’s like a potluck thing, it’s a lot of different elements. There are all these people who had left and they all come together and they share and they talk. So I met people that had left. I try to be respectful because there are people in the community who are happy and there are people aren’t so I just thought in a movie about sex you have to have religion.
Many woman, great actresses or actresses throughout the years have made a name playing a prostitute from 1930s. This is the role they get. Or a nun.
I’ve always liked movies about religion because it’s all the about suppression and it’s actually quite alike sometimes Originally I wanted to have a nun also in there. Like “Black Narcissus,” from Powell and Pressburger. I just saw their The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the best movie I saw all year, by far.
So those are just influences. And when I first was writing it Woody said, “That’s interesting, you should really look into that and read Isaac Bashevis Singer?” And I said, “I’ll read some of those.” They’re fantastic! I have a friend who has a rare bookstore, who that was the inspiration and he was the one owned that business and he was Woody’s age. And so turned me on and he was actually a lot more pointed. That scene was much longer but I cut it down to where he said, “You know, my grandfather opened it, my father ran it, now I close it.”
That says it all.
And life goes on. You know it’s very touching and you know those things are going away. So I try to set it in these places that have a sense of something real, something that’s gonna have like a human comedy is gonna to come out of it. But I just got interested in it and I found it to be a really potent exploration. A lot of times there are wonderful films made about that world what they don’t intermingle with the secular world. And this girl that I met she actually looked like Vanessa and they really bonded, I don’t know they just bonded.
That first scene with Sharon Stone — it would be so easy to make that awkward and to make fun of either one of them, but it was really respectful of them and when they danced together, really sweet, tender.
I think the idea is that these people in our age range, okay, you put them in a movie, and usually it is a situation where they are the mother or the father or whatever. But here is a situation there are men like the guy I played who never had kids, they had never married, maybe they lived with someone for a year or whatever. I know plenty of people like that or people who are divorced or people who have lost someone and so you start again. And so with that situation is, they are in a high school situation. She doesn’t know how to do it, he doesn’t really know how to do it
You have to start again. People do that all the time. Now you put the metaphor of them paying for it. Some people do that because they think, “I don’t want to get involved. I just want to go and have the massage, get it over with and I’ll feel better.” Or, “I want to do something without having to go through all the machinations of that.”
And so I would try to do that again and with the Satmar girl. She has never been in that situation you know, she won’t shake hands and yet she lies on the massage table. I thought it would be interesting to put the characters in that situation because once you hit 50 or approaching 50 or before or over, you’re starting to look at your life in different ways and a lot of times you have to reinvent yourself. I could have written like 10 hours on this subject really because I did all kinds of drafts of different things, and trying to figure it out and get Woody to be comfortable with it and for me to become comfortable with it. But I realized it was very rich because people, you are always in that state to stay alive; well what are you going to do, say it is over?
So this whole thing about this oldest profession, I know there is a real exploitative dark side. I really wasn’t that interested in that for this particular film but I did say there is a transaction that goes, that happens and I talked to a bunch of sex workers and they say, “Hey, sometimes you feel like you are going to help somebody. I am like a therapist and I have to perform but then people get dependent on you or whatever, there are good things that happen too.”
You have been an actor directed by Woody Allen and now you are directing him as an actor. What was that like?
Woody helped me. He said, “don’t go for the broad humor.” Because my initial script was much broader and more sexual and he said, “I think the more sophisticated you could be, the stronger I think it could be.” And first I thought about maybe they were in the business, they were trying to get out and then he suggested, “why don’t you start from the beginning? Try that and see.” And he gave me some very good, brutal but strong, very direct criticism and I would listen to it and I would say even if I didn’t like it I would think about it and then I would go back; let me try this and let me try that. And he encouraged me to develop the woman character and so did my son when he read the first draft. That’s something that we haven’t really seen in a movie that straddles both worlds. When I sold the movie, I just said listen, the Satmar woman is a metaphor for any woman because you know, women are always surrounded by restrictions. Maybe because I have a good relationship with my wife, or maybe because I had a good relationship with my mother, I like listening and I find it really interesting because that shaped my life. And I know there is all these men walking around saying well, “I’m in charge” and this and that so that interest me but to make a movie like this, you know I had to protect that in a way.
I was holding my breath hoping that it was not going to be disrespectful of the religious community. And it’s quite the contrary.
It’s a metaphor, it has to work like a metaphor for other communities, other religions or people. When you have a woman with all these men deciding for and about her her, once we actually saw that, you realize that, wow. Then we took a lot of comedy things because we saw that we have to have a balance and that’s the point of the movie: Everybody’s lonely, everyone needs a gentle touch or someone to listen to them or see them or whatever and you know to me that’s worth doing the whole movie for.
To me it was really a movie about touch.
That’s what the movie’s about; it’s about the need for touch.