‘Romance’ is Turturro’s long-delayed labor of love

Special to The Times

While John Turturro recounts the “Kafkaesque nightmare” he’s been through over the last three years -- struggling to get his third film as a director, “Romance and Cigarettes,” into theaters -- there’s little hint of the desperadoes (“Miller’s Crossing”), hotheads (“Do the Right Thing”) and weirdos (“Barton Fink”) he’s played so well as a go-to character actor. Instead, he convincingly inhabits the role of resilient director.

“I hear people complaining, ‘Ooh, my movie didn’t do this. Or it didn’t do that.’ And I go, ‘Heh, you don’t know the worst of it,’ ” Turturro, 50, says with a foot kicked up on a table in his high-ceilinged loft office near Chinatown in New York City. “And I do. And that’s not so bad to know.”

Although “Romance and Cigarettes” was supposed to premiere in 2005, the film began crawling into theaters only this September, opening in the Los Angeles area Friday. That the unconventional musical is playing on the big screen is nothing short of “a miracle,” says Turturro, and it is one of his own making. When the movie’s original theatrical release was put on hold, Turturro doggedly pursued any avenue to get the film into theaters, eventually opting to handle the distribution himself.


“To do what he’s done is so incredibly rare. Some people would say it’s nuts and foolish, but it tells you so much about John Turturro the human being,” says Bingham Ray, who originally green-lighted “Romance and Cigarettes” when he was president of United Artists in 2003.

While Turturro is well-known for his uninhibited work as an actor, particularly in the films of Spike Lee and Ethan and Joel Coen, he has had a quiet career as a director of critically praised but commercially disappointing films. In his 1992 directorial debut, “Mac,” Turturro made a sort of sensitive eulogy to his own father, who had died four years before. In the film, Turturro stars as the overbearing brother in an Italian working-class family in Queens, New York, that tries to rebuild itself after the death of its patriarch.

“People still come up to me and thank me for that movie,” he says. “And they don’t even realize I directed it.”

Turturro says he was offered “big money” to be a pay-for-hire director, but he prefers to work on films that are close to his heart. “My films are, at their core, about love,” says the actor.

It’s a description that certainly applies to 1998’s esoteric “Illuminata,” about a failed turn-of-the-20th century playwright’s attempt to mount a production -- the film made less than $1 million in theaters.

It’s also an apt way to characterize “Romance and Cigarettes,” which Turturro describes as “a down-and-dirty love story with fantasy elements,” in which characters break into song, lip-syncing or singing along to popular tunes from Engelbert Humperdinck, James Brown and Bruce Springsteen.


Tapping his passion for filmmakers as diverse as Federico Fellini, Dennis Potter and Charlie Kaufman, Turturro fashioned a tale about a family torn apart by a father’s infidelity that could have taken shape “if Charles Bukowski collaborated with Bruce Springsteen.” It was bold material, powerful enough to draw in the Coen brothers as executive producers and a cast including James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Christopher Walken, Mandy Moore, Steve Buscemi, Mary-Louise Parker and Eddie Izzard.

The film was shot over nine weeks on an $11-million budget and was scheduled for release in the summer of 2005. Sarandon says there was incredible spontaneity on Turturro’s set. “When you make a film like this, you remember why you’re in the business, because it’s not about the business,” she says. “It’s about the collaboration.”

But when Sony bought a controlling interest in UA parent MGM, the film’s release date was pushed back indefinitely. With “Romance and Cigarettes” stuck in limbo, Turturro committed himself to acting in an eclectic mix of projects, including Robert De Niro’s CIA drama “The Good Shepherd” and Michael Bay’s shoot-’em-up blockbuster “Transformers.” He also appeared off-Broadway and directed his wife, actress Katherine Borowitz (with whom he has two sons), in a play.

All the while, “Romance and Cigarettes” languished -- until Turturro got a little help from a friend. His two-time costar Adam Sandler, who has a long working relationship with Sony, spoke with the company about letting Turturro distribute the film himself. The studio agreed, and “Romance and Cigarettes” was granted a three-week release at the Film Forum in New York City in September.

One positive review by the New York Times and a strong showing at the weekend box office later, and the film had new life. “I probably would have been happy with that,” Turturro says. “But then I got all these calls from movie theaters across the country. They all said, ‘We want to show your movie.’ And I said, ‘What are we going to do now?’ ”

Working out the rights with Sony and the various television and other ancillary players was “a mess,” but Turturro was granted another reprieve, so the film will be in theaters into January. “I figured I am making some money this year, “ says Turturro, who is costarring with Sandler in Sony’s upcoming comedy “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” in which he plays the Palestinian adversary to Sandler’s Mossad agent turned hairdresser. “I decided I’d put part of my salary in and continue.”

“Romance and Cigarettes” has made more than $400,000 in the U.S. so far; not a huge amount, but Turturro cites the impressive per-screen average. “We’ve beaten out movies with $20-million advertising budgets,” he says. “It’s been a nice vindication -- in a small, modest way.”

It’s particularly meaningful because the emotional foundation to his film is once again very personal. During the making of the movie, his mother, who served as the basis for Sarandon’s character, had a heart attack. She passed away while the film was still in limbo in 2005.

“A lot of this film has my mom’s indomitable spirit,” says Turturro.

The same could be said for Turturro: he now has three films in development to direct.