Sweet take on life

Sweet take on life

Actor-director John Turturro talks about the genesis of his new film, ‘Fading Gigolo’, in which he and Woody Allen play friends.

Ask John Turturro about his newest project, Fading Gigolo, and he will excitedly tell you about the streetwalker films, like The Life of Oharu or Midnight Cowboy, that helped inspire the idea; the Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories that helped him settle on a tone for the script; and the filmmakers, like Michael Cimino, Spike Lee and the Coen brothers, who helped him develop his own directorial style.

He’ll tell you it’s a comedy, sort of. And if pressed, Turturro — who wrote, directed and stars in Fading Gigolo — will acknowledge that yes, there was perhaps something funny in his decision to cast himself as the sexual dynamo of the title.

And that sure, casting Woody Allen as a pimp — a pimp who goes by the name Dan Bongo, no less — was, you might say, an unconventional choice.

And then there is the unavoidable fact that the film’s plot turns on a threesome, one that is proposed in the very first scene.

Behind the camera

Turturro, 57, ruefully described the kind of conversations he had while seeking financing for Fading Gigolo.

“They said, ‘Well, it’s about a ménage á trois.’ I said: ‘Well, that’s sort of the idea. That’s where it starts,’” Turturro recalled, laughing.

That is indeed where Fading Gigolo starts, but the film, his fifth directorial effort, is hardly pornographic.

Instead, it’s an off-kilter romantic comedy, farcical, nostalgic and even a bit innocent.

It’s about an odd couple — Turturro’s Fioravante, an underemployed florist turned paid companion, and Allen’s Murray (aka Bongo), a bookseller turned procurer — who join forces to provide (not inexpensive) comfort to lonely women.

Turturro deliberately cast actors in their 40s and 50s — Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, Liev Schreiber, Vanessa Paradis — and the film’s plot deals with the kind of adult concerns not often depicted on screen: loveless marriages, grieving widows, failing businesses.

It’s a modest film, the result of a rare occurrence: the coming together of a bunch of high-powered people to do a relatively low-powered, idiosyncratic thing.

For Allen, 78, Fading Gigolo presented the opportunity to act in a film not of his own making.

“I’ve gotten very, very, very few offers over all of the years I’ve been in the movie business,” he confessed. Could that possibly be true, a reporter wondered — that other directors never call?

“They do not,” Allen said. “They never have, at any point in my life. I’ve taken almost all the ones that I’ve been offered. But I don’t get offered things practically at all.”

He went on: “I have a limited range. I mean, I wouldn’t be believable as Al Pacino’s brother in The Godfather or something, but this character was a guy who had spent his life running a bookstore, which is completely believable for me, and had gotten involved in procuring for John. It seemed fine.”

(Allen spoke on the set before accusations — perhaps uncomfortably resonant now, given his role in the film — that he abused his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, resurfaced this year. He has emphatically denied the allegations.)

For Stone, who plays Dr Parker, a wealthy woman in an empty marriage whose request for Fioravante’s services sets the plot in motion, Fading Gigolo represented a rare opportunity to embody a woman who has lived as much as Stone has.

When Turturro brought her the script, “he would talk a lot about how he was so much more interested in the performance, the artistic expression of an older woman, than a 22-year-old actress who hadn’t lived anything in life yet,” she said.

“Not that it’s their fault that they’re vacuous, but that they have so much less to bring to roles than women who have experienced and loved.”

Varied inspirations

Stone said that there were difficult moments in her not-too-distant past “when I thought that’s it: My career is over, my life is over, my life’s upside down, everything is a disaster.”

Working on Fading Gigolo gave her a chance to reclaim those moments for herself and her character, she said. “Now when I’m at work I think: ‘Oh these are all wonderful things. That goes here, this goes there, this is like that, oh my God, this is amazing.”

Fading Gigolo, which Turturro made outside the studio system (he then sold the film’s distribution rights to Millennium Entertainment), began basically as a joke. Turturro and Allen share a barber, and one day Turturro idly suggested while getting his hair cut that he should write a movie, in which he played a prostitute and Allen played his pimp.

A few days later, Turturro received a phone call; his barber had relayed the idea. Allen liked it and wanted in.

And so, between other projects and with Allen’s encouragement, Turturro started writing Fading Gigolo.

The script that emerged was odd, and quickly got odder: What began as a broad comedy gradually grew more detailed and emotional.

At Allen’s suggestion, Turturro focused on a previously minor character, Avigal, a widowed Hasidic woman from Crown Heights played by Paradis.

“I kept thinking, ‘Well, if it’s a film about sex, it should have religion,’” Turturro said.

So there are comic sequences set in a Brooklyn Hasidic community — Schreiber plays a bumbling neighbourhood police officer who both loves Avigal and suspects her of breaking local religious laws — and, eventually, a tender interfaith, interborough romance between Avigal and Fioravante.

“I think, really, the film is about friendship, or the need for human connection,” Turturro said.

The result is a deeply personal off-kilter look at the city, shot in colours so warm and saturated that New York takes on a fairy tale aspect.

That impression only deepened on the set, where one day both Louis C K and Bobby Cannavale — who appeared in Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine — just happened to walk by as Turturro was filming on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

There are smoky jazz clubs with women singing in French, lusty close-ups of flower arrangements and shots of Allen casually pitching baseballs in the park.

And that threesome?

It’s not really a spoiler to say it kind of happens eventually.

(Vergara gamely provides the third partner.) Stone remembers watching Turturro try to play the scene and direct it at the same time.

“I don’t know what was funnier,” she recalled, “doing the scene, or him jumping out in his black bikini underwear, jumping on the camera and looking through the lens, going, ‘I’m directing!’”

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