Filmmaker Interview: Roundtable with writer / actor John Turturro on his latest film “Fading Gigolo” (spoiler alert))

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Written by: Gordon K. Smith

FADING GIGOLO, written, directed by and starring John Turturro, is a funny and touching middle-age MIDNIGHT COWBOY, with a dash of LAST TANGO IN PARIS thrown in. Turturro stars as Fioravante, New York florist and plumber (wink, wink) who, despite being a quiet and gentle man, agrees to a sideline as a gigolo to help out his friend Murray, a struggling bookstore owner who becomes his pimp, wonderfully played by Woody Allen (you read that right).   The women in his life are played by Sharon Stone (her best role in years) as his first customer, Sofia Vegara as her uninhibited girlfriend, and Vanessa Paradis (a revelation) as Avigal, a Hasidic widow. Liev Schrieber is the shy Hasidic security cop who eyes her every move. Turturro discussed the film, which is beautifully shot on film by Marco Pontecorvo, and his two years of script research, at an April roundtable.

I wanted to do something with Woody. He liked me, I liked him. Thought there was some chemistry between us…sometimes you see movies and there’s no chemistry between people, and other times you go ‘Wow, that unbelievable!”…Woody loved the idea and encouraged me to develop certain aspects of it. The more nuanced it is, the more it can have “legs”…I wanted to make a movie about intimacy, really. About people’s unceasing, unending need for human connection, and sometimes people pay for it. The street walkers I talked to, I wasn’t interested in the exploitative part. I wanted to know if they had situations where they felt they helped people relieve tension, taught them something. When you think about it, lots of women have played streetwalkers. A lot have played streetwalkers and nuns.”

Like Shirley MacLaine?

“Right. In the films of Bunuel you get both…my original idea was to have Elaine Stritch, who grew up Catholic like me, be an 80 year old nun who was a virgin who wanted to have sex before she died…Woody was horrified with the idea. ‘Oh my God! Too much for me!’

That led me to the religious aspect of Avigal, a Hasidic Jew. All these religions require a woman to cover her head. Rules made up by men, that serve men. I chose the Hasidic Jews (to write about)…I talked those who had left, and those who were happy in that world. I wanted Sharon’s character to balance that, as she was a free woman, but also a prisoner in her little balcony. She has everything and she’s empty… she does something crazy and decides she doesn’t want to know the guy’s name or get attached — and she gets attached. That’s what happens to people in that business, people get attached to them. Sofia’s character is the one free person That came later as Woody was encouraging me – ‘If we’re going to get this (budget) money, it’s better if the women aren’t too old.’ And I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now if I didn’t get the money.

The core of the film is this unlikely love story about a guy who doesn’t trust the longevity of romance, but he’s comfortable around women…it’s implied that he’s a gentleman, not a cocky guy, but he’s confident, he’s good with his hands. He can build things, cooks, works in a flower shop. Unlikely guy to be in the situation, but he loves women. There are lots of men who are attracted to women, but they don’t like women…people’s desire for intimacy and sex never stops…I wanted to make a comedy that gets deeper as you go along. I stumbled on this character, Avigal, who lives beyond the film, for me. What’s going to happen with this woman? (SPOILER ALERT!) Our financiers wanted us to be together and go off into the sunset. I kept telling them, ‘The guy’s got one rule, and she’s got six kids…’

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The response of the female audience to the movie is overwhelmingly strong.

I never thought that it would be with Sharon Stone and Sofia Vegara, but I wanted somone in their ’40s, in their ’50s. Even Liev doesn’t get to play those (kind of) roles. He’s this sensitive guy who doesn’t know how to talk to a woman because he didn’t grow up that way. And Vanessa (as Avigal) has never been courted by any man, because in that religion you’re just given in arranged marriage. This is how women are treated in much of the world. Here, we see the other side of that coin – it’s so free that anything I do is an expression of who I am.

In a movie about intimacy, you could have comedy and you could have a little delicacy – you have to earn that in a way that’s not sentimental. There’s nothing worse than sentimentality in my opinion, it’s the other side of violence. I earned it with the scene when (Avigal) comes and gets the massage from me. That’s a big moment in the movie…normally when someone does a tour de force performance, it’s like everything is ‘Look at me!’ Her performance is like seamless. Woody himself said, ‘ Is she a Hasidic Jew?’ I said I don’t think she’s even Jewish. Just goes to show you, people are people.”

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