In his idiosyncratic but knowledgeable Bibliographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes that John Turturro “has demonstrated enough quirky brilliance for us to hunt down his performances as once we did those of Peter Lorre or Warren Oates” and “reminds us of how great character actors are time and again the way to more adventurous movies.” But Turturro is also a director, and he came to Dallas recently to introduce the opening-night screenings of his third movie, “Romance & Cigarettes.” It’s a period tale of a working stiff (James Gandolfini) whose affair with a sultry redhead (Kate Winslet) threatens his marriage to his long-suffering wife (Susan Sarandon) in which the characters periodically use popular song as a way to express their emotions, somewhat in the style of Dennis Potter’s “Pennies from Heaven.”

Turturro began writing the script more than fifteen years ago, when he was playing the peculiar playwright hammering away at his typewriter in the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink” (1991). “I had written a little bit, and I thought, you know what, it would be a good thing to be really writing and not just smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. I had some ideas I’d been working on, and I thought maybe I’ll be working on something while they’re filming me.”

At first, though, Turturro envisaged the story as a straightforward narrative into which the musical element gradually insinuated itself. “Originally, as I was typing [an early scene about the man fighting with his wife] up, I just put in [the title of the song ‘Lonely is a Man Without Love’] in as a credit. I thought it was funny, because it set the tone. It was a song I grew up with, the [Engelbert] Humperdinck song, because he was very popular at one point when I was a kid—he had a TV show and my grandmother liked him. And then I did a little musical sequence in my second film, ‘Illuminata,’ where the guy thinks everybody’s singing his name…and I thought, wow, everybody does that—everybody uses music [that way]. A friend thought I should look at Dennis Potter and I did, and I really thought it was excellent. It seemed like the next step, because people use popular music to escape. And once I decided to go into that, I just played around with it, and I said, well, it’s second nature that someone who’d just had a fight would turn the radio on or sing a song, even if you just did it in your mind

“I grew up in a house where the music was tremendously varied, from opera to jazz to country music, to soul music. Everyone had their own kind of soundtrack going. I thought maybe [the actors] will lip synch it, maybe they’ll sing along—that’s what people do, to escape or to fantasize or to remember or to help them express how they feel, they use the potency of popular music, because each one of us has our own private soundtrack. Even songs that aren’t great, they mean something to you because something happened to you at the time [you heard them]. And I thought it would be interesting if I could take the poetry of pulp and mix it with the lyrics of popular songs.”

And that’s how the script emerged as a mixture of story about struggling middle-class people—“the people who keep the country going,” Turturro explained, “it’s an interesting milieu that’s not often explored in an imaginative way—there’s a lot of stories to tell about people from that background”—with pop music. He’d read Charles Bukowski—whose language he originally thought “too racy” for what he had in mind—“but then I kept thinking, well, what if he kind of collaborated with Bruce Springsteen—because they both write about working-class people?”

And it was with that combination in his mind that Turturro’s script for “Romance & Cigarettes” gradually took shape. “You think about things for a long time, and the more you think about it, the more distance you get. The more you look at it, the more you can mine it for the humor and gravitas,” he said. Eventually he shared it with Joel and Ethan Coen, in several of whose pictures he’d appeared, and they offered to become executive producers for the picture. “Once I got the money and had a rough cut,” he said, “they really helped me in the editing room. They’ve been really supportive—they’re lovely guys. They’re terrific filmmakers, but they’re even better people.”

Unfortunately, the release of the movie has been delayed by a succession of studio sales and shakeups. “It came out a year and a half ago in Europe, and that’s when it could have come out here,” Turturro said. Finally he was able to arrange a gradual rollout for it in selected cities. And he’s pleased that it’s finally made it to theatres.

“It’s an audience movie,” he said. “That’s the way it was designed. You want to make something to share with people.”