By Anna Merlan
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John Turturro may be best known as an actor, having appeared in such films as Do the Right Thing, Barton Fink, and Quiz Show, but the man speaks like a writer-director. He likes to talk about the themes of his films, and about the way one character's actions and personality mirror another's. He talks about the way his films look, mentioning such painters as Munch and Solberg when discussing the way he frames his shots and sets his scenes. The man is infatuated with the details that create the big picture -- in this case, his film Illuminata, which, on the surface, is a behind-the-scenes theater farce. But, in truth, Illuminata, is far more than a peek behind the velvet curtains: Turturro and co-writer Brandon Cole (who also penned the play on which the film is based) tell the story of an actress at the top of her profession (Rachel, portrayed by Turturro's wife Katherine Borowitz), a struggling playwright in the middle of his (Tuccio, played by Turturro), and the fragile parapet upon which hangs their relationship.
Oftentimes during the film, it's difficult to tell whether Rachel and Tuccio are speaking to each other or rehearsing lines from Tuccio's play -- which is, of course, titled Illuminata. Theirs is not an idyllic romance: He nearly succumbs to the wooing of an actress, played by Susan Sarandon, who wishes to make Tuccio her personal playwright in exchange for fame and romance. But ultimately, theirs is a real and recognizable relationship, full of the good and bad that separates lovers from partners. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Christopher Walken is in the film, offering comic relief as a bitchy critic with a fright wig for hair and a stiletto for a pen. He energizes each scene in which he appears -- no more so than when he collapses at the feet of an actor, begging for love.
Turturro is in currently filming O Brother, Where Are Thou, his fourth film with Joel and Ethan Coen, in which he co-stars with George Clooney. But Turturro the actor envisions a day when the writer-director gets more work. "I didn't want to finish making this movie," he says, laughing. "When you create, you're breathing." Turturro -- whose first film as writer-director-star, Mac, was well-received at Cannes in 1992 -- is a think-big kind of guy. Even when his movies are very small, very intimate, and very personal.
Dallas Observer: Much of what's been written about Illuminata deals with the more farcical aspects of the film -- the zany backstage life of the theater. But it seems the film is more about the relationship between Tuccio and Rachel, with the behind-the-scenes drama as more of a framing device than anything else.
John Turturro: The farce or the circus-like atmosphere is more of the dressing of the story. Most movies are about flirtation, falling in love, the first attraction. What I wanted to show was what really can occur after that, all these remarkable things that are possible and that we rarely ever see explored. I thought about what love is and about all these aspects of love and how do you keep something like that alive and breathing. You never see really what we go through as human beings and the juggling act that goes on between people. And then I put them in the same profession, which was in the original play. I thought, "Well, let's keep that, because that's going to be an added pressure."
DO: But at the same time, they have different stations in the same profession.
JT: That's exactly right. Let's face it, if your wife does one thing and you do another, someone has to give something up in order to support the structure of the relationship. Or, sometimes, neither one does, and there is very little time for each other. It is this juggling act that goes on. I don't think people are in equal positions in relationships.
DO: Since the film was based on the beginnings of an existing play, how difficult was it for you to maintain that balance of themes -- to keep the world of theater as a part of the story, but not let it overshadow what is in essence a love story?
JT: Well, it's not easy. Obviously, it would have been easier if we would have done it just about two people or three people, but I thought that world is a very small community -- a very incestuous community. It's histrionic, and everybody has their hopes and ambitions and desires. I thought maybe the other characters could reflect different aspects of a relationship -- whether it's with a person they love to hate, a relationship that's sort of in its initial stages, people who have been together for too long, or people who are very lonely and how they go about filling their loneliness in different ways.
DO: Yet it seems much of what's been written about Illuminata deals with the more absurd aspects of the play, with much attention paid to Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon's sort of over-the-top characters.
JT: Yeah, but Chris brought a real delicacy to this role, and even at the end, you see that this guy is a lonely man who has almost created a persona for himself. That's why his character says, "Listen, there are things I really do like. Everyone says I don't, but that's not true." There are different tones in the film, and I thought the delicate tone will be at the center and the circus will go around it. Then again, with Walken, his character's not in as many scenes, so obviously you have to...
DO: Paint his character in broader strokes?
JT: Yeah, that's right. Still, I think Chris brought a lot of insight and humor and delicacy and surprise to it. Someone said to me one day, "You seem to be interested in absurd comedy and very serious drama." Somehow, I don't know if that always works together, but I feel that there is a connection in life between that. This is not a comedy of one-liners. It's about the craziness, the absurdity, that goes on between people.
DO: No one is more overpowering in the film than Katherine. She really grounds the film.
JT: She's the center of the film. But I always saw the female characters as almost being the stronger characters than the men in some ways, and I would even include Chris in that...I just tried to keep the playing field somewhat level. I think in life that some of those things are true sometimes.
DO: To be in control like this -- from the way a film looks to the themes it deals with, then to be in it and to cast your family in it -- is that more rewarding than simply acting in someone else's film? Or is it just a different kind of rewarding?
JT: It is more rewarding. It's more rewarding by far.
DO: Is it hard not to want to do that all the time?
JT: Yeah, yeah. Because, to be honest, you are working fanatically -- you write. You are working on something, and you say, "Wow, this is something. There is no end to this." And I'm never bored by it. I'm working with people I really know and pushing them to really use themselves, and I'm working with other people who I really admire, so it's not a completely familiar surrounding. There are new dynamics within it aesthetically, visually, talentwise, scriptwise.
DO: You create everything.
JT: There is so much of you up there, for the good and the bad of it. It's tremendously surprising and a real education. You are looking at what you think you knew what you were doing, ya know, and all of a sudden, it's projected back to you, and you are saying, "Oh, my God, I never knew it would come together that way." In this film, I was surprised at many things.
DO: What surprised you the most?
JT:Once we saw the first rough cut, I was surprised at where the film went. I thought it would be maybe touching and have a delicacy to it, but I was surprised at how strong the ending was. Then I said, "Oh, that's probably what I was searching for," but I couldn't really put my finger on it. It is honestly optimistic in a world in which we are surrounded by so much of the opposite.
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