Interview with John Turturro about Passione Documentary

Photo Credit: Photo by George Pimentel – ©
March 27th, 2012

This week I had the unbelievable opportunity to talk with one of my favorite actors, John Turturro. You may know him from his roles in Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Transformers films, and many others. John and I discussed his latest documentary called Passione where he explores the wonderful music of Naples, Italy and it's influence on the world. The film is is now available on iTunes ( via

1. Hey John, I just finished watching Passione and I have to say I was blown away.  This documentary is filled with such great music and you found some great artists to perform in it.  How did you go about choosing the musicians and songs for this film?

- Thanks Nick, I’m glad you enjoyed it.  I had a similar reaction to the one you had when I met the artists for the first time.  I was blown away.  I had listened to literally thousands of songs, with the help of musicologist Federico Vacalebre, who guided me in terms of the significance of particular songs, and also turned me on to the great musicians currently working in Naples.  I chose the songs and the voices that I responded to.  But I didn’t meet the musicians until after I had chosen them based on the music, and was happily surprised to find they were all such interesting, beautiful people.

2.The film is based around the music in Naples, Italy and how it has inspired generations of people.  Did you choose this location because your family’s origin is from Italy?

- I am not Neapolitan, but my family is from southern Italy and Sicily, so I have a kinship.  I did a play in Naples called “Questi Fantasmi!” by the city’s most beloved playwright, Eduardo De Filippo, and became more familiar then.  But I was actually approached by other people to make this film, in part because my previous film, Romance & Cigarettes, did so well in Italy.  It ran for the better part of a year in theaters.  And it was a musical, so they figured to ask me to direct a documentary about Neapolitan music.  In the end it became also a fantasia; we’ve dubbed it “A Musical Adventure.”

3.  In the film, you found some beautiful places to capture the musicians performing.  What do you think was your favorite location in the film?  I really liked the church where Fausto Cigliano played guitar on “Catari” and the cavern where Daniela, Fiorenza, and Lorena were singing “Canto delle Lavandaie del Vomero.”  Where were these unbelievable scenes shot at?

-The painting Fausto plays in front of is a Caravaggio, “The Seven Works of Mercy.”  This world-famous painting by one of the great artists hangs in the chapel with no particular attention drawn to it.  The subject of the painting is religious, but when I looked at it in person I thought, this is a street scene, straight out of the streets of Napoli.  We chose not to title it or attribute it in the movie, just to show it as it is.

The Piscina Mirabilis is an ancient cistern and gave us the right ambience for that song, “Canto delle Lavandie del Vomero,” which is the oldest song in Neapolitan history.  The tune itself has had many different lyrics throughout the years, so we chose just to let the voices echoing in the ancient cavern make the experience rather than subtitling.

4.  Throughout the film you do several flashbacks to what looks like WWII era Italy.  What is the significance of these scenes?

-Naples has been invaded by so many cultures, the French, Spanish, North-Africans, etc… and the last to invade were the Americans in WWII.  That’s the only invasion for which there is any footage, and you can catch a glimpse of how Neapolitan culture has been forged throughout the ages, from the ground up: Allied forces bombed, and Mt. Vesuvius erupted.  Neapolitan children were born of foreign soldiers, like James Senese, who never met his father, but grew up to become a great Neapolitan saxophonist and jazz composer.  From early on I knew his part of the film would be the middle.

5.  James Senese gives a great performance the title song “Passione.”  What made you choose this as the title of the film?

It was a working title for a while, but it stuck.  We had a few titles that sounded more like documentary film titles, but when the time came, “Passione” just captured the film much better.

6.  What are the major differences on working on a film like this compared to big blockbuster like “Transformers”?

-Those films can be fun, but it’s chaotic.  Working on those movies allows me to do these other projects, not just make a film like Passione, which we made for very little money, but to have gone an done the play in Naples, where I’d gotten to know the place better.

7.  Your mother was a professional singer so I am sure you were around music your whole life.  Was she the one that gave you such an appreciation for this music? Do you yourself play any musical instruments?

-My mother had a beautiful voice.  There was music all around my house growing up, it’s how people expressed themselves, through great songs, and ultimately how they survived a lot of the hardships in life.  Neapolitans seem to understand that every day power.  You start singing on the street there and before you know it you have a chorus behind you.  I don’t play any musical instruments.  I dance.  My son is learning the guitar, so maybe it will skip a generation.

Interview by Nick Leyland from Movie Room Reviews 3/26/2012