Modern ‘Romance’

Queens doubles for Bensonhurst in Turturro's working-class tuner

It’s Good Friday, but there’s no time for a holiday during the weekday-only filming for “Romance & Cigarettes.” At least director John Turturro is close to home; the set is in a small rented house in the Rosedale section of Queens, which is just five blocks from where he grew up and where his mother still lives.

The little pink-sided house on a tree-lined street has been stripped of its furniture to make way for a film crew, but it’s hardly space enough to fit a big song-and-dance Hollywood musical like this, even one mostly lip-synced to rock standards like Bruce Springsteen’s “Red Headed Woman.”

The Oscar-nominated soundman, Tod A. Maitland (“Seabiscuit”), is cramped into a child’s bedroom that also serves as a film canister loading room, equipment storage, talent holding area and, on this day, a dog pen. Turturro directs from the corners of the rooms while cinematographer Tom Stern shoots from the doorways.

“A studio would have been easier,” Turturro says while grabbing chicken and ribs from the craft service cart during a break. But he decided, along with producers GreeneStreet, the Coen brothers, United Artists and Mel Gibson’s Icon Prods., that their $10 million was best spent shooting the film completely on location and then doing post-production at Greene Street’s offices in downtown Manhattan.

“The consideration was not if we could afford to shoot in New York, but where could we get the best actors,” says Greene Street’s John Penotti, standing on the curb out in front of the house, which in the spring weather has become the crew hangout.

The cast of this contemporary tuner, in which Queens doubles for Bensonhurst, includes James Gandolfini as a philanderer who has to choose between wife Susan Sarandon and mistress Kate Winslet, with a variety of others caught in the crossfire. Mary-Louise Parker and Mandy Moore play his daughters. “You can’t really re-create all of this,” he says, motioning around the neighborhood and then overhead as a plane swoops low on an approach to JFK Airport.

Back in the house, the periodic roar from the sky has so become part of the rhythm of the production that nobody notices. In today’s scene, Aida Turturro, John’s real-life cousin, is painting Moore’s and Parker’s toes as they lie on the bed and languidly watch “Now Voyager” on TV — at least on paper. There’s no room for a video monitor, so the director is acting out all the parts to set the mood, putting on a squeaky falsetto for Bette Davis. Then Gandolfini, playing the dad, bounds into the room carrying a puppy.

Getting footage from the ladies’ point of view takes them most of the morning, then they flip around the equipment to shoot from the other direction — which is really the dog’s point of view as he is carried over Gandolfini’s shoulder. Between takes, when the crew is moving around some furniture to cover a tape mark that was showing on the floor, Stern wonders if they should bring a TV set into the room. Turturro asks, “Do we have a TV set?” There’s scurrying to find one, but the only one available has been dismantled for another scene. And anyway, there’s no room.

“It’s ok, no TV set. The frame is prettier without it anyway,” Turturro says, settling in to play Bette Davis again.

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