Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 19, 1999
Head: "Illuminata," a New York Comedy
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.
On today's FRESH AIR, we talk with John Turturro about his new film, "Illuminata," a comedy about actors a century ago in New York. He co-wrote, directed and stars in the film opposite his wife, actress Katherine Borowitz.
And we'll talk with William Bolcom, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who evokes the sounds of the turn of the century in his score for the new film.
Also actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes, best known for their respective roles in "The English Patient" and Shakespeare in Love," talk with us about their mother, novelist Jennifer Lash. The book she completed just before she died of breast cancer has been published in the States.
That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.
First the news.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, John Turturro, is best known for his roles in "Quiz Show," "Do the Right Thing," "The Big Lebowsky," "Miller's Crossing" and "Barton Fink." He co-wrote, directed and stars in the new film, "Illuminata." It's a comedy about actors in New York in the early 1900s. Turturro plays the resident playwright of a struggling repertory company. He's writing a play that will star the company's leader actress, who is also his wife. The role of the wife in the movie is played by Turturro's wife, Katherine Borowitz.
The film explores the combination of love and resentment in a long-term personal and professional relationship. Here's Turturro and Borowitz in a scene together.
(BEGIN CLIP - "Illuminata")
KATHERINE BOROWITZ: Tujo (ph), I love you.
JOHN TURTURRO: What?
BOROWITZ: I love you.
TURTURRO: You say that as if you had stopped and wanted to begin again.
BOROWITZ: I never stopped. I did nothing except to love you. Imperfectly. I spoke from my heart, and if I was wrong -- I've been wrong before. It means I'm imperfect, Tujo. Born imperfect, educated imperfectly, molded by imperfect hands. If you're looking for someone to love you imperfectly, look no further. I am she.
GROSS: I asked John Turturro what was happening off screen as he and his wife played out the ups and downs of a relationship in his film.
TURTURRO: Well, there's so many Pirandello-esque aspects to the film, but I think when I work with Katherine, we try to work together and off of each other. Certainly, she may say to me, you know, "I think that was better," or I may say to her, you know, "Go in this direction." We still try to keep the balance of me being the director and her being the actress. But when we're alone together in certain scenes, then we would be -- you know, we would be able to talk a little bit differently.
But I love working with Katherine because she's very responsive as a partner and intelligent. And in my mind, I wanted to build the film around her -- her sensibility, not just -- and the way she looks because I think she has a very strong but delicate persona, and there's an intelligence and irony to what she does. And she has -- she's powerful without being overtly aggressive, and it's -- I wanted her to be the sort of spiritual -- or soul anchor of the piece.
GROSS: Now, what did you learn about how to work together without -- in a good way? I mean, I think it's often difficult for real-life couples to collaborate in the arts because sometimes the real relationship can be intrusive into the collaboration...
TURTURRO: Uh-huh. Absolutely.
GROSS: ... and sometimes, like, all the, like, little neurotic things that express themselves in a relationship -- you don't want it to express itself...
GROSS: ... in the collaboration.
TURTURRO: That's right. Well, first of all, you have to separate. You have to say, "Well, I have to treat," you know, "her as I would treat Susan Sarandon" or Beverly DeAngelo, who are both in the film. And she has to treat me as if she would treat another director. So you do have to separate in certain ways. And there's a -- there's a respect factor, but you certainly are aware of people's tendencies, whether, you know, someone -- their body language right away can betray someone's neuroses or insecurities.
And I think you -- you have to realize that you're different people, but there's a real -- I have to say, a real joy and kind of an excitement to discovering different aspects of each other because you're really sharing something, and it's -- sometimes you're looking at this -- your partner, and you're saying, "Wow, this is -- I really like her," you know? She's -- because you're seeing these aspects that you don't see at home.
And you -- maybe not to stretch it, but you can sort of become attracted to each other in a new way, too. You know, even if you go through a disagreement or a struggle if something's not working...
GROSS: Now, there are several well-known actors in addition to yourself in this movie, including Christopher Walken, Susan Sarandon, Ben Gazzara. I don't think you probably had a really large budget...
TURTURRO: No, we didn't.
GROSS: ... to pay Susan Sarandon-kind of fees. How did you get them to work in the movie for what I imagine is the pretty modest fees that you could afford?
TURTURRO: Well, everyone really liked the -- the script and the idea of, you know, love and work in your life. And the response from all the actors were always terrific, and I think people felt, "Well, we could get a chance to do something that we normally don't get to do that often," and yet do something that related to the world that they knew, even if it was far away from them.
For example, you know, Susan doesn't usually get to play a theatrical diva, and Chris, you know, a lascivious critic. And I tried to put people in different positions that they would not normally be in. And I think many people were attracted to the idea of the women in the film being the central power of the film and the men act -- trying to act powerful, and the men acting as if they had power, and they really don't. And I think that's sort of closer to real life.
You know, in films we always see the man coming in, and the woman is basically the victim, and I thought, "Well, in this world" -- which actually does have some truth because actresses did have a certain power. It'd be interesting to explore that theme and show all different kinds of women.
GROSS: Now, we've been talking about your new movie, "Illuminata," which you co-wrote, you directed and star in. But as we speak, you're in the middle of working on a film that hasn't yet been released, one that's still in production, with the Coen brothers. And they also directed you in "Miller's Crossing" and "Barton Fink." What's the new movie called? And tell us something about it.
TURTURRO: It's called "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" or "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" (ph) And it's sort of a comic hillbilly version of "The Odyssey," and it's with myself and George Clooney, Tim Nelson (ph), Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman and Holly Hunter and Charles Durning.
TURTURRO: And we play three convicts who escape from a chain gang down South and go on this journey. And so there's parallels to "The Odyssey."
GROSS: Now, if I'm not mistaken, "Brother, Where Art Thou?" is also the name of a movie within the movie, in the Preston Sturges film "Sullivan's Travels"?
TURTURRO: Correct. Joel and Ethan are basically just, you know, criminals. They -- they steal everything, so...
GROSS: Now, in that movie, in "Sullivan's Travels," it's about a film director...
GROSS: ... who's, like, tired of all this, like, you know, Hollywood-like comedy. He wants to do something serious that will really be meaningful...
GROSS: ... about the plight of the working man and the common man.
GROSS: So he goes out and does research, you know, in the bread lines to do this serious movie. And he realizes that what really helps the public through their lives are wonderful, light comedies. So...
GROSS: ... how does -- how does the film you're making now connect with that message in "Sullivan's Travels," if at all?
TURTURRO: Well, you definitely see, you know -- there's a lot of poor people in the film, in that respect, but I think, basically, it's entertaining. Or hopefully, it'll be entertaining. But it has -- it has a very lovely quality to it, so, you know, I think they probably took the message of doing something that -- that has humor in it to -- to entertain people for a couple hours.
GROSS: John Turturro co-wrote, directed and stars in the new film "Illuminata." In a moment, we'll be joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom, who wrote the film's score.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: John Turturro's new movie, "Illuminata," is set in turn-of-the-century New York. It's a period that composer and pianist William Bolcom is very familiar with. He's recorded rags composed by himself and others, and along with his wife, singer Joan Morris, has made several recordings of turn-of-the-century songs. Bolcom has also written many orchestral and chamber pieces and won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize. His opera adaptation of Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge" opens in Chicago in October.
GROSS: Bill Bolcom, I'd like you to introduce for us the opening music that you wrote for the movie "Illuminata," and tell us a little bit about what period aspects you put into this piece. The movie's set in 1905 in New York.
WILLIAM BOLCOM, COMPOSER: It's set in 1905, but there are elements that sound as if, and feels like -- the whole movie -- what I found was very interesting -- it was and it wasn't about any particular place, and there were things about it that reminded me very much of a much earlier period. And the first thing that I suddenly thought was "My gosh, this is like Rossini," only Rossini as if Rossini was around in 1905, which is kind of the atmosphere of the overture.
GROSS: And this is composed by Bill Bolcom for the new movie, "Illuminata."
(CLIP OF MUSIC FROM "ILLUMINATA")
GROSS: That's the opening music for the new movie "Illuminata." And the movie was co-written, directed and also stars John Turturro.
The turn of the century is nothing new for you. You have recorded rags from the turn of the century, pop songs, parlor songs...
BOLCOM: Oh, sure.
GROSS: ... from the turn of the century. How did you first get interested in what is in many ways a very neglected period?
BOLCOM: What happened some years ago, when Joan and I began to perform together -- we had been asked by the then head of the Institute of Studies in American Music to put together a program of '20s and '30s songs, which, of course, is essentially what we have found ourselves doing principally throughout the United States and Europe in our 20 -- almost 27 years of performing now.
And it was partly because people asked for it, and one thing led to another. Our recording, "After the Ball," was really as a request from the then head of Nonesuch Records, Tracy Stern. She said, "Well, I would love to do those songs of Cole Porter and so on, but Nonesuch is a label that can't afford to play -- pay all the rights to these things. So how about doing things from the turn of the century, the songs," as she put it, "that people sing when the ship goes down." And they included things like "After the Ball."
So we began to do this. Joan actually had been in a production of "The Drunkard," which had a musical director named Barry Manilow. And she was at that point -- she said that she liked his accompaniment. I mean, he was able to transpose everywhere, and that's very helpful for a signer. When you have a bad day, you could knock it down a third -- you know, that sort of thing, which I learned to do and not a lot of people, I guess (INAUDIBLE) see me do it now, but...
In any event, so she had to learn not to send it up, as she had done in "The Drunkard," and that was a big change for her. Out of this came a whole kind of attitude about this material, and which we have essentially continued doing, rather than try to put a sort of special sort of -- well, how shall I put it? Rather than try to put a special English on it that is always going to be the same with whatever song you do, Joan has always striven to try to find a sense of what it must have been like to hear it the first time.
So many of our recordings have sounded and felt as if they were from the time. People sometimes think that we're dead because they sound so authentic to the time.
GROSS: Let's go back to the 1970s and hear your recording of "After the Ball" with your wife, Joan Morris, singing. William Bolcom at the piano.
JOAN MORRIS (singing): A little maiden climbed an old man's knee, begged for a story, "Do, Uncle, please. Why are you single? Why live alone? Have you no babies? Have you no home?"
"I had a sweetheart years, years ago. Where she is now, pet, you will soon know. List' to the story. I'll tell it all. I believed her faithless after the ball.
"After the ball is over, after the break of dawn, after the dance is (INAUDIBLE) after the stars are gone, many a heart is aching, if you could read them all. Many the hopes that have vanished after the ball."
GROSS: That's William Bolcom and Joan Morris, one of their early recordings together.
A lot of the songs from the turn of the century were meant to be parlor songs. They were sold as sheet music. It was before radio. It was before records. And I think the understanding was that in order for people to buy the sheet music, the songs had to be simple enough for the average person to sing in the parlor.
Do you think that that affected the style the songs were written in?
BOLCOM: To a certain extent, yes. But I think that the other part was that there were venues for songs like "After the Ball" to be done in those days. What you often found yourself doing -- there's an interesting book called "They All Sang," which tells how this all was done -- by, actually, the founder of my own publishing company, Edward B. Marks -- in which he describes how songs were sold and plugged in places like beer gardens and variety shows and pleasure palaces and things like that.
Yes, they had to be simple, but they had to also have a theatrical immediacy. A lot of people -- in fact, this would happen all the way through the '20s, you know, on Broadway -- had enough piano skills, and they all had pianos, again, before, you know, people sold them to buy phonographs -- where you...
GROSS: Before they played air guitar!
BOLCOM: That's right, before they played air guitar, you could play air piano, but -- and also sometimes those covers on those old sheet music pieces were so pretty that the fun thing would be to buy the thing, put it on your upright piano and people coming over say, "Oh, you have the new copy of" X. And it was a pretty cover and so on. But I don't think anybody tried to market "After the Ball" as a beautiful cover. In fact, the other law about that whole period of sheet music was that the more elegant the cover, the less interesting the music. The plainer the cover, it was probably something that was going to sell anyway.
And "After the Ball" was a runaway hit. Sousa even did it when -- at the Paris Exposition. So in fact, it was the biggest, first real hit over the decade it came out, 1892. Over the decade, I think it sold something like five million copies, which was just astronomical for the time. Stephen Foster was lucky if there was 100,000 sales. People didn't promote as they learned to promote after that.
GROSS: Well, as we speak, you are putting the finishing touches, I think, on an opera adaptation that you've written of Arthur Miller's play "A View From the Bridge." And it's set to open, I think, in early October in Chicago?
BOLCOM: That's right, at the Lyric Opera in -- on October 9th. It will run through the 5th of November.
GROSS: Was this your idea to adapt it into opera form?
BOLCOM: No. In fact, there's a series of happenstances. Arnold Weinstein (ph), being a friend of Arthur Miller's for many years, had been approached, as sometimes Arthur would do, with yet another person who decided to set one of his plays to an opera setting. And he would ask Arnold what he thought of this or that setting, and so on and so forth. Arnold was very able to critique them, the various things that Arthur would show him.
And somebody had just done a "Death of a Salesman," and there were problems with it, which I think are probably endemic to the play, that you probably would, in the end, have problems with. As Arnold puts it, "How do you sing about the business about stealing the fountain pen?" which is one of the key scenes in "Death of a Salesman."
But the point was, then comes Arnold to Arthur and says, "You know, I think `View From the Bridge' would be a very natural opera." Meantime, the Lyric Opera people had asked me for another opera. "McTeague" (ph) had been perceived as a success, and they wanted to have another one from me, and we were trying to cast about for something.
The very same day, I got two calls, one of them from Arnold, who says, "Arthur and I want you to do `View From the Bridge.'" I got a call also from Artis Kranich (ph), who was then still alive, and said, "I just talked to Bruno Bartoletti (ph)," who was up until recently the music director there at Lyric Opera, who said he had just come back from Italy, and he says, "Well, why doesn't Bill do `Un Squardo dal Ponte'?" which, of course, is "View From the Bridge" in Italian. So with two people coming at me saying I better do it, well, I thought, well, maybe I should at least look at the thing.
The biggest problem with setting a play as successful as "View From the Bridge" is why set it? What can I add to it? Why should we even bother to do it? Well, it turns out there are many elements that are very operatic throughout the play itself, plus the fact that in an opera, in a way you can't even do in a play, the chorus's role can be enormously expanded.
And there's a wonderful choral director there, Donald Palumbo, and I knew with the virtuoso work that he had done with the "McTeague" production that he would be able to end up with this terrific presence, because I think the chorus is very important in "View From the Bridge." It's really the whole townspeople, the whole neighborhood of Red Hook, where he is, that converges on Eddie at the end. And it's good to have their presence really articulated.
So that was one of the major changes in it. The other thing which is kind of fun is that I needed an aria for the older brother of the young man, who in the end is the agency of Eddie Carbone, the main character's, death. And so I called up Arnold. I said I needed an aria for this guy. And he said, "Well, will you allow me to talk to Arthur Miller about it?" I said, "Will I allow you?"
The next few days, over the fax machine comes this aria, not to be found in any version of the play, that Arthur had written just for this one character.
GROSS: William Bolcom's opera, "A View From the Bridge," opens in October in Chicago.
Here's more music from his score for the new film "Illuminata."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(CLIP OF MUSIC FROM "ILLUMINATA")
TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: John Turturro, William Bolcom
High: Actor/director John Turturro and composer William Bolcom discuss their new film, "Illuminata." The film is based on a stage play by Brandon Cole (who also wrote the screenplay with Turturro).
Spec: "Illuminata"; Movie Industry; John Turturro; William Bolcom
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "Illuminata," a New York Comedy
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