Let’s just start with the protagonist’s name in John Turturro‘s newest film, Romance & Cigarettes. Sure, the character, played by James Gandolfini (maybe you’ve seen him on TV), is a married New York City maintenance worker with taste for women on the side, and that’s all well and good, but let’s take a closer look at his name.
In Romance & Cigarettes, Tula (pictured), played by Kate Winslet, is Nick Murder’s girlfriend. Murder’s wife Kitty is played by Susan Sarandon. You see where this is going.
Nick Murder. Nick. M-U-R-D-E-R.
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Not exactly subtle, and definitely not the kind of character name you’d expect to find in a movie with characters who suddenly break into ’70s pop songs and firemen who perform a choreographed dance scene. Such is Turturro’s film, which he wrote and directed. Romance will get its first stateside screening outside of New York City November 3 at this year’s Virginia Film Festival.
But back to that name.
"Well…" Turturro says a little sheepishly, "It was nickname for somebody I knew as a kid. I was almost a kind of pulp name. Like a Bukowski kind of name. It was a name I heard when I was a kid. Joel and Ethan and I, we had a lot of discussions. Joel was for it, Ethan was like, ‘I don’t know, maybe it’s too pulpy.’ There’s a kind of poetry of pulp. And I would read a lot of these Bukowski poems when I was writing."
The Joel and Ethan that Turturro speaks of share a last name—Coen—and helped Turturro get the necessary traction to make and distribute Romance. The latter hasn’t been easy. When United Artists merged with Sony, the company’s moderate-sized release for Turturro’s film was shelved. Sony, quite frankly, didn’t know what to make of Romance.
"It’s a very unusual film," says Turturro. "When Sony bought it, they kind of inherited it. And if I could have done anything different, I would have said, ‘I really don’t want to show this film without an audience.’ And that was the biggest problem. If you have an executive see this movie alone, I don’t care who it is, they’re going to go, ‘What is this?’ If you watch it with an audience, they start laughing within the first 20 seconds."
The film follows Murder after his wife Kitty (played by Susan Sarandon) catches him cheating with Tula (Kate Winslet), a foul-mouthed lingerie clerk. As everyone tries to make sense of this and their lives, they erupt into songs like Ute Lemper’s "Little Water Song" and Engelbert Humperdinck’s "A Man Without Love." It’s just that kind of movie. Half pulp, half opera.
"I think in opera people have these grand passions, much bigger passions than you have in a lot of musicals," Turturro says. "People’s relationship with popular music is a really potent one. It helps most people get through the day. It can help you escape, especially people who have less money. Music is a really emotional transportation."
Along with Bukowski, Turturro turned to another source of heartbreak and the weirdly contradictory beauty that comes out of it: Etta James.
"Etta James sings about all these men who aren’t faithful, broken hearts, all these things," he says. "Once you get into that venue, there’s so many songs. Even though there’s no songs of hers in the movie, she’s kind of an emotional bed."
The cast of Romance is impressive enough to list: Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Mary-Louise Parker, Bobby Cannavale, Mandy Moore and Aida Turturro (also seen in that TV show with Gandolfini). Even Eddie Izzard shows up on screen, leading a church choir while pounding out Bach on an organ.
The range and caliber of actors that Turturro found for Romance is a little staggering. So how did he snag such a cast?
"People know the Coen brothers, they know me," says Turturro, who’s acted in more than 70 films (see the Spike Lee and Coen brothers oeuvre) and directed three. "Everyone loved the script. They were intrigued by it. When we did a reading everybody wanted to be in it."
After acting in more than 70 films, and directing three, including his newest, Romance & Cigarettes, featured at this year’s Virginia Film Festival, John Turturro still gets a charge out of challenging audiences.
Turturro says he set out to make a modern musical that could thrill an audience with power that most new musicals seem to lack. While careful not to criticize movies like Chicago with its jump cuts and overly glossy musical numbers, Turturro says he wanted to use longer shots and avoid over-choreographing dance scenes.
"Some modern musicals are O.K., but they don’t thrill a modern audience in the way an old musical can thrill them," he says. "This, when people see it, they kind of get delighted by it. Regular people do sing along with their own soundtracks.
"When things got overly choreographed, we would change it, so you could keep the moments people would have in their privacy. When you see people do that, it’s very liberating."