Romance & Cigarettes: Making Turturro's Wild Musical

“Romance & Cigarettes” was inspired by the Queens, New York, neighborhoods where writer-director John Turturro spent his childhood, and the flights of imagination his friends and family used to escape them.

Diversions of Sport, Family and Fantasy

Turturro grew up with a deep sense of community, with all its supports and antagonisms. You knew everybody on the block, Turturro remembers. I only had a few good friends there, but you dont really grow up alone. Diversions were in sport, family, and fantasy. You didnt have a lot of money to go travel, he remembers, so you kind you were forced to use your imagination a lot. That was a major part of my life.

Heightened Things

The possibilities of popular entertainment suggested a multi-faceted, high-low imaginative universe to the young Turturro. I like things that are heightened, he says. You know, Im from the theater, so if you look at the Greek plays, they say youre supposed to have character, thought, poetry, spectacle, dance, and music. They had all those elements. Nowadays you dont see them coexist as much.

But that kind of stuff appeals to me, Turturro explains. I like imaginative work. Its interesting to me because sometimes when you heighten something, it winds up being truer than when you try to be completely realistic. When people dont have a lot, he continues, they escape through the movies or popular song. Theres a reason why people are big pop stars. Theres a reason why Bruce Springsteen speaks to a lot of people; he puts his finger on the pulse of how they feel, and tells stories about them.

Where It Started

There is a nice symmetry in how this imaginative film made it film: Turturro started writing it while on the set of a movie, Joel and Ethan Coens Barton Fink, in which he played a writer. Turturros character was a playwright working on a Hollywood screenplay. In this case, Turturro decided to take a literal approach to the actors craft. I had experienced writing something, remembers Turturro, and I realized its a lot different than the way it looks in the movies. Not only did he go to secretarial school to improve his typinghe had to work an Underwood period machinebut when the cameras started rolling Turturro actually began writing something of his own. I thought that would be a good exercise, he says.

Joe Orton's Black Humor

Some of the first words he committed to paper were the title and first few scenes of Romance & Cigarettes. I loved the title and the story, he recalls, and Id seen lots of people go through these kinds of experiences. Some things I had observed, some things I imagined. My initial thing was that Joe Orton black humor, with the toe and cigarette. I wrote the scene and I said, Oh wow, thats good!

But it would be many years before the project finally came to fruition. It was really a fertile time for me, he recalls. My wife was pregnant so a lot of things were going on in my life. You cant do everything so you write it down and put it away.

Breakthrough

It wasnt until Turturro was working on his second film, as directorIlluminatathat he returned in earnest to his musical black comedy. While in the editing room, Turturro was struggling to solve a problem involving the score, when suddenly what he describes as a little door opened in his imagination. He could see just how the music of 'Romance & Cigarettes' would be incorporated into the drama: as an expression of the unspoken feelings and hopes that popular music played in the lives of his family and neighbors as a child.

I liked the idea of using my unconscious when I was writing it, he recalls. I started plotting it out but then left a huge section open. I wanted to see where that would take me. A large part of that opening left to be filled was the music that would eventually give the film such nerve and style. I basically knew where the plot was going, he says, but I was also trying to listen to songs. I had The Man Without Love, which was a song I grew up with. And I knew The Girl That I Marry. After that, I made a list of thousands, and listened to them. I tried to select what was right for the plot, not just my favorite songs. But theres certainly a connection to some of the singers, theyre like these guy-guy singers: James Brown, Tom Jones.

Impressing Sidney Lumet

Turturro enjoyed a rare advantage while working with his cast: his own background as an actor. Its pretty easy for me because I know how to have a rehearsal with them, he explains. I made them do silly games and exercises, which they never do. They were mortified but you want to get them to be free. Sidney Lumet saw the film, and he couldnt believe how free everybody was. He said What did you do, give them drugs or something I said No. I didnt have that kind of budget.

Turturros uncommon approach to rehearsal built up a high level of trust and produced a positive rhythm for the production. I can demonstrate things and make a fool of myself, he explains, and that kind of sets a good precedent. I know what it means to be up there and how hard it is. So sometimes you do a bunch of takes in a row without saying, Cut. Once theyre relaxed, they can go further. If theyre not relaxed, theres only so far you can go.

The presence of music in the film also presented some interesting challenges and possibilities. As Turturro explains, in movies you see people trained to sing, and they sing pretty well, but they dont really sing. The result is that theyre not that expressive and its really not that moving. When Turturro realized his actors were willing to actually sing along to the soundtrack, he felt it was almost perfect. It was like they were singing to their own private soundtrack, like a shower musical.
The performances that resulted were, even for the director, revelatory. James did musicals in high school, Turturro explains.

But I didnt even know he could sing. He actually has a nice voice. He was nervous; who wouldnt be In my opinion he gives a multidimensional, humorous, tender performance. Hes an interesting actor, James; this big guy, but hes very sensitive. Hes one of the best actors Ive ever seen, if not the best, acting opposite of a woman.

The Inspiration

The inspiration for Romance & Cigarettes and its realization are the result of a passion that has been building for a long time. I try to give a lot of myself in everything I do, Turturro says, but even when you believe in something its easy to get waylaid, to lose your impulses and say, Im going to do what I really want later. And by that time, whatever you really wanted is gone, its lost, you havent cultivated it. Passion, says the filmmaker, has got to be like an itch you want to scratch. I think about that all the time. Maybe thats enough, but the nature of being alive is, after a couple of years go by, somethings itching me and I want to scratch it.