With an impressive body of work that spans everything from cult/arthouse indies to major studio releases, John Turturro has become a regular in the thought provoking films of Spike Lee and the offbeat comedies of Joel and Ethan Coen. Among his many landmark roles are the highly agitated “Pino” in Do the Right Thing, an intellectual playwright in Barton Fink, the quirky G-Man in Transformers, and a hapless runaway convict in O Brother, Where Art Thou? His recently completed works include Hands of Stone, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Rio, I Love You and God’s Pocket.
In Fading Gigalo, which Turturro wrote and directed, the man of many parts plays Fioravante, a florist and reluctant Don Juan. To help his cash-strapped friend, Murray (Woody Allen) make some extra money, Fioravante agrees to “entertain” women for a fee. Fioravante’s clients include Murray’s dermatologist (Sharon Stone) and the seductive Selima (Sofia Vergara). Fading Gigalo takes an unexpected turn when Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a Hasidic widow seeks Fioravante’s help to come out of mourning and re-awaken her on a deeper, romantic level. In this one-on-one interview, Turturro reveals how he created and developed this film, and the challenges he faced in writing and directing it.
Where did this story idea come from?
John Turturro: I thought Woody and I would make in interesting team, an unlikely duo in the sex trade. I discussed it with Woody, who loved the idea. The challenge was to make it entertaining and give it a “bottom.” Many people start out with crazy ideas but then something happens—a human cost that goes with it, or human ramifications that happen. Woody encouraged me to develop the film and make it deeper along those lines. It was a comedy, but a human comedy about the unceasing need for human contact. And that’s something that’s part of all of us. Sometimes you can wrap something in a comedy and have a surprise inside. That’s what we were after.
What were you going for in creating Fioravante? He seemed a curious mix of personalities.
JT: Woody would be the salesman doing more of the dialog and Fioravante was the quiet man, sort of like an old Samurai in a modern day world who was very competent physically. A guy who works in a flower shop and can fix and make things, do plumbing and electrical work. A guy who is very competent but not ambitious. A man who’s comfortable with women and likes women, but has never committed to anyone. There are people like that. I kind of drew on a few friends of mine and aspects of myself. Many times, people can be the perfect partner, but they never find the right person. In the course of this film, maybe Fioravante does but it’s not possible.
You chose an interesting cross section of women in Fioravante’s clients. What was the thought process behind that?
JT: I think the world is a complicated place, full of variety. Beauty comes in all sizes, shapes and levels of sexuality. If you’re dealing with any multicultural city, you’ll have that.
The introduction of Avigal threw the film into an unexpected direction. It altered the texture of the film. What were you going for with Avigal?
JT: That’s the heart of the movie. Here’s a woman who’s in an orthodox community, but she could be a metaphor for a woman in any number of religions, even just a woman who’s kind of oppressed and alone. Avigal had all these kids, but she’s a woman who’s never been really courted. In some ways, she has the experience of an 18-year old—even though she’s a mom—because she’s never had those experiences. So I thought she could represent a lot of different people as long as I could be very specific with it. And finding Vanessa to play that character was really a perfect meeting between actress and character. It’s what the movie is about. All the other stuff is the journey towards that.
Some say they wanted to see the relationship between Avigal and Fioravante move in a different direction.
JT: Everybody wanted it. So did I. But I think that when she speaks on her own behalf in front of all these men in this kind of courtroom or tribunal, she’s part of that community. If she didn’t have kids, maybe she would have gone a different way. But I thought it was very true to the story that there was this other guy who always loved her. She had feelings for him but he didn’t really know how to talk to a woman. She makes the decision to follow the direction she felt was right for her. What goes on between Avigal and Fioravante is something that’s really powerful. I did think about ending it differently; and when we tested it, people were split on the ending. But the best love stories are the ones that are impossible. The ending is satisfying, but in a truthful way. I tried to do it the other way, but it just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t honest. This ending is funny and life goes on.
You wrote, directed and starred in this film. What challenges did you face in making it?
JT: We did lots of different drafts, but once Woody approved the script and we raised the money, we didn’t have a huge amount of time. So you have to be very prepared—visually, with your shots, your design and the actors. I would like to have had another week. So some days, that was the challenge. But we had a great group of people, especially Woody and Vanessa who were so fast, which really helped me. I also wanted to make a film that was pleasing visually, like walking into a beautiful painting.
What was it like working with Woody Allen? What was the level of collaboration?
JT: Once I got over his merciless criticism of my early drafts and he saw that I was going in a different direction, he was really a prince. We were also working together in the theater, where I directed a couple of one-act plays, one that he wrote, another written by Ethan Cohen. So I got to know Woody quite well. By the time we shot the movie, he was very easy to work with and direct. He knew the material quite well. What you see in the movie is a little bit of our relationship. He’s someone I’d live to work with again.