Midnight Run: Interview with writer George Gallo

Middle Men. Credit: Rico Torres. © 2010 Middle Pictures, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Middle Men. Credit: Rico Torres. © 2010 Middle Pictures, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

George Gallo is a highly accomplished writer and filmmaker, best known for his work on major box office hits and fan favourites like Wise Guys, Midnight Run and Bad Boys. Beginning as a successful screenwriter, he also transitioned into filmmaking when he wrote and directed 29th Street which kicked off a new chapter in his career. He has since produced and directed a number of prolific projects, while also pursuing art and music.

As a writer, Gallo’s scripts are sharp, punchy and, for anyone who has seen the films listed above, he clearly relishes the genre of comedy. It appears to provide him a platform to write real, relatable characters in hilarious or darkly comic situations, battling the odds as underdogs with the audience on their side. Meanwhile, his stories offer well-placed action and enough drama and character development for audiences to remain truly invested. It's an interesting balance rarely achieved to such a high level.

To coincide with the Blu-ray release of the 1988 classic road comedy, Midnight Run (which also remains one of my all-time favourites), George was kind enough to answer a few questions on his experiences making the movie and discuss his career as a whole.

George, could you explain how you first became interested in writing and filmmaking? What do you cite as your biggest influences?

I always loved movies. My father loved Humphrey Bogart films and westerns. I didn't think of making movies as a vocation until I was in my teens. My father's love of cinema was probably my earliest influence. He loved any movie that was rich with characters. He especially loved The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which has become one of my favorites. When I was in high school I saw several films that made me want to write and direct. Those included Mean Streets, Jeremiah Johnson and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

Did anything about writing Wise Guys prepare or condition you for the process of making Midnight Run?

They were both buddy films and to some point road pictures. Midnight Run was certainly much broader in scope than Wise Guys but they were essentially stories of two men who got caught up in a bad situation that only they could think their way out of. The oddest thing about writing a screenplay, especially with a comedy, is that when you write it you're the only one in the world who thinks it's funny until it is shared with others. Hearing audiences laugh at something you've written certainly helps validate what you think may or may not be funny.

Midnight Run has become a cult favourite and is still loved by fans. What do you think stood out about the film upon first release and what do audiences enjoy about it today?

I think what audiences like about Midnight Run is the relationship between Jack and The Duke. In many ways it is a love story, although it is one that is short lived. They meet each other, take an instant dislike to one another and over time grow to respect each other which leads to deeper feelings. Both men realize, despite their differences, that they share core beliefs of what is right and wrong. Audiences also think that the road trip angle to the story rings true. Everyone who has ever gone on a long road trip knows that things can go wrong and, as a result, adults can be reduced to behaving like children. No matter how well a script is written, it has to be fully realized by the director and actors. Every last person working on the film did a terrific job.

Could you describe collaborating with Martin Brest and how you found the experience as a young writer?

Marty was highly focused, where I was a bit more all over the place. I'm not a person who suffers from not having ideas. If anything, I have too many ideas. Marty helped rein me in to stay focused on the main story. This has helped me a great deal since my collaboration with him. Whenever I am writing, I try to keep in mind the overall theme of the story so that I don't go sailing into too many side stories.

Do you have any personal favourite scenes from Midnight Run?

I don't know if I have a favourite. Much of the relationship between Jack and The Duke is based on my mother and father. I don't think they ever realized how funny they were when they were arguing about something. My father was very emotional where as my mother was far more calculating. She would let him talk and lead him down alleys and then strike like a cat, so any of the scenes where Jack and The Duke argue are my favorites because they remind me so much of my parents.

I hear you are also a keen painter and musician. You have made an interesting comment that "composition in painting is the same as structure in storytelling; that characters are the same as colors; that colors are the same as chords in music." Can you explain your thoughts behind this and in what way these are intertwined?

I believe that all of the arts are intertwined. If anything, I believe that all of that arts have their basis in music. Musicians deal with rhythms, chords and notes. These are the same expressions that painters use, along with storytellers. No matter what the art form, you're dealing with rhythms. A movie, along with a painting, is like a symphony. It has loud passages, quiet passages, parts that move slowly and parts that move rapidly. Some of it is harmonious and some of it is discordant. Studying this and being a musician has helped me be a better painter, screenwriter and director.

Which of the actors or directors you've collaborated with have made the strongest impression on you?

If you're smart, whenever you meet accomplished people it is wise to do more listening than talking. I'm sure I've picked up something positive from nearly every creative person I've ever met. This includes my high school music teacher Bert Hughes, George Cherepov (an artist I studied landscape painting with for 3 years), certainly Marty Brest and Robert De Niro. A lot of what these men showed me, whether they were aware of it or not, was to be completely prepared. At the same time, you have to be willing to be completely open and spontaneous. You shouldn't prepare to the point where you're no longer listening to anyone else but yourself. It's essential to have a strong point of view, but at the same time, you have to be open to other thoughts and new ideas.

Do you generally prefer writing and then letting a director you work well with interpret your vision, or do you prefer directing your own work?

It depends. There are some things I want to do myself. And there are other things I'd be happy to pass onto other people to direct.

Looking back throughout your early career, which work are you most proud of, and why?

Looking back on my early work the two things I'm the most proud of are Midnight Run and 29th Street which was the first film I directed. It's tough to pinpoint the reason why, other than I think they're both good movies that have stood the test of time. People tell me often that they've seen Midnight Run dozens of times and watched 29th Street (which is a Christmas film) at Christmas time with their family.

What advice would you give to new or aspiring writers and filmmakers?

Stay true to yourself. The Hollywood system can really chew you up and spit you out. There are many people out there, even those who are well meaning, who will tell you why a specific story will never work. If you're sure that it will work, you have to stick to your guns. When I completed the screenplay for Midnight Run there were a lot of people who didn't get it. I got a lot of dumb notes about how to make it better. Some of the things people talked about were the scenes that are now considered classics. Stick to your guns and follow your heart and you'll always come out on top!

Midnight Run is available on Blu-ray from 20 April from Second Sight. Check out my full article and review on the re-release here.