“I wanted to make a movie about intimacy, about people’s unceasing, unending need for human connection,” said John Turturro of his new film “Fading Gigolo,” which he wrote and directed as well as starring in. Of course, the story concerns a reserved, gentlemanly florist who’s persuaded by his friend, a failed bookseller, to serve as a male escort—as the script puts it comically at one point, as the ho to his buddy’s pimp. And the pimp is played by Woody Allen.
“I wanted to do something with Woody,” Turturro explained in a recent Dallas interview. “I think we’re a good team. He’s always liked me, and I like him. I thought maybe we could actually have some chemistry between us. He liked the idea of us together. And I think what you see in the movie is our relationship in an imaginary circumstance. You see we have a real affection for each other.
“But he would never have done it if it wasn’t this film,” Turturro added. “Because he said, ‘I don’t want to do something silly.’ He said, “Ninety-seven percent of the movies that are made are silly.’ He likes the old movies, he likes Turner Classics.”
Turturro explained that Allen’s eventual character, Murray Schwartz, who lives with an African-American woman and her children, had a basis in fact. “A lot of it is based on my friend, who had a bookstore, who had a relationship with this woman and took care of all her kids,” he explained. “It’s not usual, but it’s not unusual. It’s based on something real. And I thought it would be interesting to see Woody with a black woman.”
Turturro explained that it was the barber they share who in effect brought them together on the project, mentioning the idea Turturro had talked about to Allen. “And Woody really liked the idea,” Turturro explained. “So I started writing it, and Woody would give me feedback. At first I didn’t know exactly how I wanted to do it—it was very broad—and Woody encouraged me to develop certain aspects of it.”
Turturro mentioned that his first notion was a story that would feature actress Elaine Stritch: “My original idea was to have an eighty-year old nun who was a virgin and who wanted to have sex before she died. And there was this man, and a whole sex scene. They talked about it, and then she went in the bathroom to wash her face and when she looked up—it was like a Bunuel thing—she was twenty-five years old, and she had the habit on. She went to the bed, cut to the guy in the bed, black out, cut to her smoking a cigarette. That was my idea. Of course, Woody was horrified. It didn’t sustain. But that feeling led me to Avigal.”
“I stumbled onto this character, this woman Avigal—she almost lives beyond the film for me,” Turturro continued. Avigal is a beautiful Hasidic widow who becomes one of the clients of Fioravante, Turturro’s character, in the process causing consternation among her very closed community.
Avigal is played by Vanessa Paradis, whom Turturro had been introduced to during planning for an earlier project that hadn’t been produced. One of his colleagues suggested her for the role in “Gigolo.” Turturro recalled that he had doubts about her suitability for the part but “I thought about it, watched [her] in another movie, sent her the script, and she loved it. And now I can’t imagine anyone else playing it. She has this delicacy to her. She’s very beautiful but interesting and strong and graceful, really graceful. She was a star at fourteen, but the most unspoiled person you could ever meet. Everybody on the crew loved her.
“She changed the movie, in a way. She raised the stakes for the movie.”
Turturro especially enthused about what Paradis brought to a scene toward the film’s end, when she intervenes in a hearing in which Schwartz is summoned before a Hasidic court. “That’s the whole movie,” he said of the sequence that joins her poignancy with Allen’s trademark humor. “I know there are people who don’t like two things together. But life doesn’t have a consistent color. You have a great moment, and then a ridiculous moment. And the people I like—I’ve done Chekov plays, and Beckett plays, I like Jean Renoir, I like Bunuel, I like Fellini—I love that. It’s a comedy, but it can also be tragic, and it can be dramatic, and it can be sensitive. Life is so much more absurd than movies. Most movies just have explosions—that’s what I think they try to do. This movie’s about that moment.”
How did Turturro insure that his portrait of the Hasidim would be accurate? “I talked to people, I talked to rabbis. Then I found this group of people who’s left various communities—the outcasts. I did a lot of research. I found people who had left, and I found people who were happy,” he said.
Turturro also discussed the decision to cast Sharon Stone as another of Fioravante’s clients, a successful dermatologist. “I could see there was something vulnerable about her, and I thought I could get that out of her,” he explained. “And she was responsive.”
Ultimately, Turturro said, the success of “Fading Gigolo,” at least as far as he’s concerned, stems from the fact that it’s about characters who are very much individuals, but whose story points to larger truths. “So many movies want to be universal, and they’re just general,” he said. “You can be universal and be specific. “The core of the film is this unlikely love story about a guy who doesn’t trust the longevity of romance but is actually comfortable with women. He’s a gentleman. He actually likes women. Lots of men have sex with women, but they don’t like women. It’s how he listens to them, how he’s comfortable with them.
“And it’s interesting that the response from the female audience is so strong.”