Friday the 13th: On the Staten Island, N.Y., set of John Turturro’s first feature, Mac, the day is living up to its reputation. Freezing rain is hammering down, and Helen the cow is refusing to cooperate. The bovine’s lack of…creative energy is stressing the first-time director. ”It’s an emergency!” he bellows. ”We need more s—!” Brandon Cole, Mac‘s cowriter and Turturro’s right arm, runs into the woods and returns with handfuls of stand-in mud balls. ”One lump? Then dump it!” screams Turturro. ”Action!”
The scene — in which the film’s main characters decide to buy a plot of land despite its locational hazards, including the neighboring cow farm’s pungency — may have been scraped together, but so was the entire less-than-$3 million drama, which opened in New York on Feb. 19 and is currently playing in 30 cities. If winning the Camera D’Or at Cannes (which Mac took home in ’92) and the approval of directors like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Jonathan Demme (whose accolades fill the movie’s newspaper ads), mean anything, all the mess on the set was worth it.
Mac tells the story of the Vitelli brothers (played by Turturro and newcomers Michael Badalucco and Carl Capotorto), who try and make a go of a construction company in Queens, N.Y., during the 1950s. Inspired by and dedicated to Turturro’s late father, a first-generation Italian-American carpenter, the script was written and rewritten by Turturro and Cole over the past 12 years. Meanwhile, Turturro was making a name for himself as an actor, turning in acclaimed performances for the Coen brothers (Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink) and Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues), who encouraged the actor to make this movie himself. ”They said it’s personal and you know it well, so they put the idea in my mind,” says Turturro.
Getting a studio to finance the project wasn’t so easy. ”When we were first trying to get the money, John Turturro wasn’t a household name,” says coproducer Nancy Tenenbaum, ”and John wanted to do it with unknowns.” Tenenbaum raised $60,000 from MTV for Turturro to make an 18-minute short based on the script. The footage, and the addition of actress Ellen Barkin to the cast, earned the project backing from Columbia TriStar Home Video.
The finished film is both a labor of love and a love of labor, a sentiment summed up in one of the movie’s more resonant lines: ”You know what I think happiness is?” says Turturro as the title character. ”To love your job.” It’s a credo reflected in the atmosphere on the set. ”There are things before the camera that mirror what’s behind the camera,” says Capotorto, who plays Mac’s artsy brother Bruno. ”Sometimes, when things aren’t working out, John will start raging. He’ll be screaming, ‘We gotta get this shot!’ Then it will be Mac screaming, ‘I gotta get this two-by-four!”’ As for Barkin, she says she benefited from being directed by an actor. ”John’s take on things is very odd,” she says. ”He was very much like that as a director. If we did a scene eight times, he had some key to four other interpretations.”
On the set, a soaked Turturro, who has been scrutinizing the fake cow patties through the camera’s video monitor, finally calls ”Cut,” as the cast and crew slide down the muddy hill. Battling the elements is a subject with which the director and his characters can empathize. ”Everything is stacked against them,” says Turturro, describing the plight of the Vitelli brothers. ”But they are still saying it’s an opportunity, we should try to do something.” For Turturro, Mac was his opportunity to do ”something immensely personal.” As his character says, ”If you hate your work, you hate your life. I like my work. I do the job for me.”