NEW YORK Early in John Turturro's film "Romance & Cigarettes," the main character, played by James Gandolfini, exits his ramshackle house after a drag-out fight with his wife.
The actor, evoking the indelible Tony Soprano, looks as though he's about to explode on-screen yet again. Instead, he gracefully descends the porch stairs, breaking wistfully into Engelbert Humperdinck's "Lonely Is a Man Without Love" as dancing garbagemen surround him.
It's at this moment that audiences realize they're in for something different with "Romance & Cigarettes."
"It takes a little while," says Gandolfini, imagining puzzled audience members. "They're all like dogs going, 'Huh?'"
Moviegoers almost didn't get the chance. Though Turturro's first two directing efforts (1992's "Mac" and 1998's "Illuminata") drew accolades, "Romance & Cigarettes" was the luckless orphan of corporate shuffling.
"Romance" was to have been released theatrically by United Artists, but when a group led by Sony Corp. acquired Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the films at UA (an MGM subsidiary) were re-evaluated. Without so much as a test screening, the $11 million "Romance & Cigarettes" was shelved despite a cast that also includes Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken, Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker and Elaine Stritch.
The "working class opera" as Turturro calls it isn't for everyone. But the surreal film has found positive reviews and kept audiences laughing in astonishment at the romance of its raw, lewd characters who express their inner dreams through songs like Tom Jones' "Delilah" and James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."
With the help of some friends, Turturro is now releasing the film himself, more than two years after it was finished. Joel and Ethan Coen (who have directed Turturro in numerous films, including "Barton Fink" and "The Big Lebowski") are executive producers. Adam Sandler, a friend and co-star in Sony's upcoming "You Don't Mess with the Zohan," helped persuade the studio to allow Turturro to release it himself.
After a successful opening run at New York's Film Forum, "Romance & Cigarettes" has expanded to cities including San Francisco and Washington. Turturro and his star, Gandolfini who acknowledges having had some trepidation about making the film recently sat down to discuss their movie.
AP: John, you began working on "Romance & Cigarettes" as part of simply getting into character for "Barton Fink" (1991), where you played a screenwriter. How long were you writing this?
Turturro: I had about 10 years worth of notes before I opened it up one year and thought, "Well, maybe there's something here." I did sketch out a few ideas actually a lot of ideas while I was doing "Barton Fink." I actually have it on my old typewriter. It says "By Barton Fink."
AP: Would you say this movie is best experienced theatrically?
Turturro: Absolutely. It gives people courage to go on. One of the reasons we got in this bad situation was the only thing I regret is that I didn't tell the people who inherited the film, "Listen, you can't see it unless you see it with an audience."
AP: Who's the audience for this?
Turturro: Just about everybody. Young kids, middle-aged, old people. A lot of old people really find it liberating.
AP: Why do you think that is?
Turturro: Because it's dirty in the right way. (Laughs) I don't know ask James.
Gandolfini: Everybody thinks like this, but no one admits it. A lot of people have a wild side to them. I don't know who said it: "All men lead lives of quiet desperation." As far as men go women I can't speak for.
Turturro: When you watch these movies, they have this consistent tone, and it always makes me laugh. I think, "Where's the tone in my life?" In the morning, I can't go to the bathroom because I have to get the kid up, I have to do this. You're trying to be responsible at the same time you're thinking all these other thoughts. It's like this big circus, and you're just juggling to get through the day. When you watch these things that are so-called "realistic," I look at them and go, "That has no relevance to me and my life."
AP: So when John approaches you and says he wants to do a working class musical where the first big number is you singing "Lonely Is a Man Without Love," how do you react?
Gandolfini: Before I got into this monstrosity of "The Sopranos," I watched him in a million movies. When he comes to me and says, "I'd like you to do this," I'm like, "Absolutely. Whatever you want me to do. You're John Turturro." Then I read the script and it was brilliant. What did I think? I didn't think enough about the singing and dancing part. (Laughs) I said, "This is a great script. I'm going to do it." And he was incredibly patient about many things because it became obvious from the very beginning that I didn't have certain tools. And I wish I could have gone further, but at the time I couldn't, and he adapted a lot of things around (me).
AP: What have the last two years been like for you, John?
Turturro: Not a lot of fun. Except when I got to see it in Europe and see how everybody enjoyed it over there. You know, things happen in life. I'm glad that we're finishing the film, we're getting it out there, it's on record. What can you do? That's what life is. You have these moments in life where you go, "Everything works, everything's great." Like James was acting for a long time before he was on that show. Then all of a sudden, there's this explosion. The thing is, what happens after the explosion? What kept me going was when I saw the film with people, how strongly people reacted to it.
AP: Does the long road to distribution for "Romance & Cigarettes" cause you some loss of faith in the business?
Gandolfini: I hope that theaters don't just end up showing "Spider-Man 3" and everything else has got to be in your house and have to build a 19-speaker system. I hope it doesn't come to that, maybe it will. I don't know if I have faith in movies' ability to change anything. But it's like he says, there's two kinds of movies: the Cary Grant movies that you'll never be and those are great and the movies like this that make you feel less alone. And if we get rid of those movies, then it's like looking at advertising: everything I want to be. I don't know, I should just shut up.