John Turturro hopes his personal film reaches its audienceJohn Turturro
By Douglas D. Keller
John Turturro's name may not be a household word, but he is one of the great young Hollywood actors. Film buffs will remember him as the neurotic writer in Barton Fink or the homosexual bookie in Miller's Crossing. But lack or recognition doesn't seem to bother Turturro, "Most of the movies that I haven't done have made a $100 million." While he would not elaborate on the projects that he has turned down he continued, "I'm not at all unhappy with what I've done. I wouldn't do something that I didn't know about or care about because it is too hard."
Turturro was in town last month to speak to the local press about his new film Mac, which won the Camera d'or at the Cannes film festival last year. "I was shocked," Turturro said of the award given to his movie, which opened last Friday at the Nickelodeon. Mac, a film about the construction business in New York City during the 50s, is a very personal work for Turturro because, as he admits, "There is a lot of my father's spirit in the movie. I spent many summers doing construction work since I was a little boy. The film is about construction, but it is also about constructive acts. It is a universal story in that it could be applied to any field."
Turturro received advice from directors like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee on various aspects of pre-production. "I didn't think that I was going to direct it initially. I had asked Scorsese to direct it but he had many projects at the time and I would have had to wait ten years. I had directed it as a play on stage, so I decided that there was no other choice but to direct it myself. I made a short to see how it would feel. It's hard to have power as a director. If you have people around you who support you it makes things much easier. If you compromise too much then they [cast and company] take over." When asked how he dealt with the pressures of directing his first movie, Turturro responded, "I stood up for myself."
"My whole idea of the movie was to say `Here I am in a boat, come aboard and we'll go somewhere.' The passing of these people (the craftsman of old) makes the world a little bit poorer. I realized that the person who was the artist in the movie was the craftsman. Now they don't go around saying that `I am an artist.' But in their purity of approach and who they are it is all over them. Any time the lower middle class is portrayed we either see the seedy side [of them] or we see them as buffoons. But I wanted to show the real side of the lower middle class."
When asked about the humor in the film Turturro said he felt it was a "very behavioral type of humor. I wanted to keep the humor coming from the human elements. It's like life in a way because it is funny and sad, but the absurdity is also an element that I was always attracted to. It is one of the few worlds [the construction business] that you can see people almost strangling each other or arguing over who is going to buy each other a cup of coffee. The humor comes from the interactions. It is not a type of skit humor like Saturday Night Live."
"You go with an instinct," Turturro answered when asked about the funeral scene in the beginning of the film when the deceased father turns and speaks to his three sons. "I felt that the whole thing about a funeral is that it is not very realistic. You have flashbacks at a funeral and you are just sitting there waiting for the person to talk. In the movie I realized that basically the spirit of the father will hover over them for the rest of the movie. The discussion of the quality of the casket was more realistic that people crying over the body." In the same vein, "I instinctively put the mother upstairs so that she could be in any scene. I didn't want to make the movie into a domestic thing with the mother in the kitchen cooking because people would say that they had seen that before. The only problem is that I never brought her back down again.
"The interesting thing is that if you do something personal, unless it is so insular, it has ramifications in the outside world that you can't even predict. I didn't make the movie to start out as a political type of film. But I realized when it was all over that it deals with the major questions in everyone's lives. Is making money the major aspect of your life? That is a question that everyone must deal with. This movie deals with asking that question."
John Turturro has worked on three of Spike Lee's movies, Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues, and Jungle Fever. In response to the negative reactions to the situations presented in Spike's films, Turturro said, "I wonder what world are they living in?" He also had the following thoughts on the public reaction to Lee in general, "Spike has this whole public persona, but that's not the Spike that I know. He has a lot of really good sides to him. He has given many people a lot of chances. Spike wanted to go commercial and wanted to be seen. If I was him I would just shut up. It would be better to say [regarding Malcolm X]`Here it is, judge it for yourself.' "
When asked about the peculiar release of Mac, which has been finished for over a year, Turturro responded, "By the time the distribution deal was in place it was too late. We had to wait for one of two windows for the film to come out. I hope that this will be a good window for the movie. The hard thing about this film is that the people that this film is all about have responded very strongly to the film. I can't do a wide release and so I have to hope that the film will grow from a small release so that more of these people [the lower middle class] can see it."