GEORGE GALLO - Interview
One of the most thrilling things you get to do when you’re in a position to see a film very, very early is knowing that whatever you are feeling about the experience of seeing that movie, is pure. Pure because you are not tainted by the pool of public opinion or subconsciously projecting someone’s off-handed comment onto your own. It’s devoid of judgment and expectation and watching a movie like Middle Men, with a crowd that only knew that it starred Luke Wilson, who hasn’t given such a dynamic performance since The Royal Tennenbaums, Giovanni Ribisi, a complete terror who delightfully and shamelessly steals every scene he’s in, and James Caan, who lets loose in one the more engaging roles in recent memory, you realize just how fun it is to go to the movies.
Middle Men is a production you never saw coming in a month usually reserved for the detrius of summer because it is just a rock solid film and one brimming with character. It is hilarious, dark, unnerving, and is the reason why talkies that don’t deal in superheroes or have budgets that swell into straospheric heights can still inspire that sense you’re in the presence of great filmmaking. To wit, a large part of that should be credited to writer and director George Gallo who many will remember as the writer behind Midnight Run and, still one of my personal favorites in the 90’s, Bad Boys.
To hear Gallo talk is to hear a man who really should be teaching how to make a movie from the ground up. Forget about the nascent ramblings of stuffy shirted old men who want to talk about making movies in a way that makes the process seem filled with pomposity, Gallo is chock full of stories that make you want to put down the voice recorder and just listen to a man who has navigated decades within a business that delights in chewing and spitting out talent like obese midwesterners at a Sizzler. He’s a joy, a fascinating player in a game he’s very much still a part of and, based on the film in question, still full of good ideas and is on point behind the lens. There’s no question he belongs in this business because he’s both a realist and man undeterred by the barriers that have stopped lesser creative types.
My only wish after talking with the man was wanting to be in the position to take the man out for a drink, to have him talk about what it means to be a survivor in Hollywood, to hear what it takes to be relevant for a market that seems so fragmented thanks to the multitude of entertainment options an audience has at its disposal. He’s one of a kind, a man capable of crafting a fine film about porn and commerce, and there wouldn’t be anyone else I’d rather listen to all day than this man. Here’s to hoping he’ll consider being a mentor to those who have logenevity on the brain, to someday be as accomplished as he is.
MIDDLE MEN opens today and tune in next week for Part 2 where George talks about his thoughts on a much ballyhooed Midnight Run sequel, what it took to get it made, and much more.
GEORGE GALLO: Hello.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Hello George.
GALLO: Christopher. What’s up, buddy?
CS: What’s happening?
GALLO: I’ve been trying to take it easy. I’ve been working so much and writing so much my brain is kind of mush.
So, I’m trying to take it easy which is something I don’t know how to do in general but I’m doing my best to try and sit still and get some exercise and that kind of thing and not think about this person talks to that person and this person reacts over that person and then they can say this and they can say that and they can go here and they can go there…I just don’t want to think about it right now if that’s OK.
CS: Well, are you are on any sort of schedule or regimen?
GALLO: Oh yeah. Generally I get up real early, like 6:00, 6:30, and then I start writing at about 7:00. Sometimes we go all day, literally all day. And that’s 5 days a week. I’m always writing something.
CS: How has that been? The last time I talked to you was for Local Color and now it’s for Middle Men. I look at your directorial filmography and compared to guys who want to knock out a film a year you’re very selective, yet you are intensely prolific with your writing. Do you write with the intent to make everything that you put to paper?
GALLO: No, I don’t. A lot of times I, because I started out as a writer and I still – I helped a lot of friends out. A lot of times I’ll write things to help friends that are directors out that I don’t even get credit on, you know? I am going to probably start something for Andy Davis now, you know. He’s a buddy and I’ll do about three weeks of a project for him. But I need a week off before I start it. To be honest with you some of it was by choice and some of it wasn’t by choice. I know I’m sort of a mainstream guy, but to be honest with you I never thought of perceived myself as that. There’s Hollywood movies that are the classic mainstream fast ball down the middle. Other than maybe Bad Boys, and even Midnight Run to me was sort of left handed. I never considered myself that mainstream down the middle. So a lot of those projects to me are kind of boring. They just sort of – not that I’m above making money – I’m not saying that – but I don’t know, they seem sort of boring to me and I just like something that has a little more teeth in it. And, like I say, I’ve written a few things that were commercial – not that I have a problem with it – it just takes so much time and energy to write a screen play and especially if you are directing the movie that when you are all done with it, hopefully, you won’t feel stupid that you spent that much time on it.
It takes a long time. I still really care about this stuff. I have friends who make a lot more money than I do and they don’t care nearly as much as I do. I think some people just resign themselves to the fact that it’s a business and they see it more as a business than I do.
CS: It’s funny you mention that. I have been at events, press lines, what have you, in L.A. and what have you, but here in Phoenix when Middle Men was closing out the Phoenix Film Festival you had this dichotomy of these straitlaced, suburban couples with those in your entourage. It seemed to be the epitome of people who look very nice, very tan, very beautiful – there were dozens of them. It struck me that this business seems to be built on this cavalcade which includes showy, flamboyant, “Let’s go where the party is” kind of attitude. Is this ritual of the entourages, the hangers on, all that, just second nature to you, is it background noise at this point in your career?
GALLO: I’ll be honest with you, it’s funny that what you saw was a rare occurrence for me because I don’t – people who see me do this say I do it very well but I’m a true couch potato.
And my wife and I don’t like to go anywhere – which in some ways has gotten in the way of me making other films or making bigger films or whatever but I like to come home – she cooks, we eat dinner, we watch TV and shout at the television quite a bit. We rarely go out. This last year has been different because I don’t even like to fly. We flew to Cannes the year before, for Middle Men, that’s where it premiered, world premiere, and it was received really well. I’m happy that the movie has a very positive buzz and, yes, I’ve been going to a lot more of those types of things. But in general, I have to tell you, dude, my friends on the technical side of filmmaking, like editors and directors and stuff like that, cameramen – I like to hit golf balls at the driving range. I’m just not big on the circuit thing. I’ve never been that great at it.
CS: Let’s talk about the film a little bit. When I watched it I really know what to expect but I was surprised that I haven’t heard more about a movie made as well as this one.
GALLO: I’m so proud of this movie.
CS: To even look at it – I think your cinematographer, Lukas Ettlin, did an amazing job. I’m curious to know – it was based on the life and times of Chris Mell with Andy Weiss helping you write it.
GALLO: Yes, Andy was a friend of Chris’s. Andy introduced me to Chris and Chris started telling his story one night and I was on the edge of my seat and that’s how it happened.
CS: When you co-write a film like that, how does the process go? From him telling you this crazy story to you saying, “Alright, let’s make this a screen play.” How does that process start for you?
GALLO: For me I just started – Andy had known Chris longer and Andy knew the facts more than I did and oddly I was more interested in the tone of it, rather than the facts – at least from jump street. I just started sketching out what the movie could be and stuff like that. I guess my accuracy was off in the time line of events that happened. A lot of the stuff, about 80% of this actually happened. Maybe more, like 80 to 90% did happen. It didn’t necessarily happen in the order that we said it happened. So I sort of sketched out this outline. Andy and I did it together.
It was very much an interesting process. I can’t actually say who did what. It was a lot of talking back and forth. A lot of disagreeing, Andy and I both – we agreed on a lot of stuff but the one thing that we agreed on from the beginning was that it should not be linear. The story seemed the most interesting when it was told the way Chris told us the story. And when Chris told us the story, he had a tendency…he had a stream of conscious kind of way to jump all over the place, especially in the beginning. He was talking about one event, then he would talk about how he worked here and then this and then that. The way one tells a story and we both thought that was the most interesting way to lay the story out because it would seem the most honest. So we structured it that way and I wrote some scenes, Andy wrote some scenes, he rewrote my scenes, I rewrote his scenes. It was a tumultuous and fairly bloody process but at the same time we had a great time doing it and had sometimes very different ideas on how to present things and where to place things but in general you couldn’t have two guys who were more passionate about what we were doing. And, sometimes I would cave if I thought he was right and he would cave, that kind of thing.
CS: One of the things that holds a lot of great stories back is financing and I was impressed that you got as much as you did in order to make it. I think every penny is up on screen. Is that ever a process for you or has that ever impeded you from getting a film like this made?
GALLO: No. Chris produced the movie and it was his personal money to help make the film. He is the best partner I ever had in terms of a person that has skin in the game. I think he respected me because he knew I made Local Color with my own money and now here I was turning around and making a film using his money but I knew what it was like to be spending your own money every day. I’m always very respectful of other people’s dough. I know some filmmakers just don’t give a shit. I’m a working class kid. I watched my father go to work every morning and come home. I have an appreciation of what a dollar actually means to someone. Just flagrantly round around spending someone else’s money is just not who I am. I convinced Chris, certainly, that to make the movie look enormous without wasting money I do know how to make a movie and look, this was a fairly expensive movie, but I think that the picture looks twice as expensive as it is.
We shot all over the place. We shot a lot of it in Phoenix and we shot in LA and shot in Vegas. I don’t know. I just have been sorta smart about where to put a camera, how to tell a story. From Local Color I started out as a painter. I tend to see things in paintings to begin with and I know you can’t paint beyond the edges of the canvass so I’m usually pretty clear about where I want to look or where I want to point the camera. I don’t like setting up 3 blocks away and then shoot a close-up. I’ve always been very cognizant about how to tell stories through I wouldn’t say minimally, but certainly economically.
CS: One of the questions about that, on the same subject, are there workshops for directors to help keep up with new techniques you can use in future films? Kind of like doctors where they have continuing education, is there anything you do to stay fresh as a director?
GALLO: Yes. I watch everything. I watch a lot of movies and even TV commercials. I just watch stuff and I’m always asking, “How was that done?” In terms of style, I think the rules of filmmaking are changing, certainly, and I think the way stories are being told is changing. I think people retain more information now, very quickly, and how many shots and cuts you can do inside of a minute. I think the whole language of film is changing. It’s always evolving. I’m always watching that stuff and trying to learn and don’t want to do the same tricks I did in the last one.
The great thing about Middle Men was that it really afforded me an opportunity to stretch and do a lot of those things because I’ve never done a film that like at the core was chaotic. Some of the comedies were just out and out comedies. You can’t really reach or pushing the bounds of cinema – you are trying to tell jokes and do visual sight gags. To be honest with you, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplain they did it with minimal means and it’s hard to top what they did anyway. So with comedy you don’t need a lot in terms of goofing around with the cameras and stuff. It’s more like what goes on inside of the frame as opposed to deliciously wacky angles and stuff. With Middle Men because it was such a chaotic drug induced sexual universe where everybody was so paranoid and acting so crazy, I could make the camera crazy. I could make the colors louder. I could be more voyeuristic or perverse. We do a lot of both shoulders and opposites and just stuff like that. It was a lot of fun. I got to stretch and just had a blast doing it.
CS: I think the casting deserves equal credit as well. Someone who really steals the show is Giovanni Ribisi. They guy is just talented beyond a lot of his peers and I think – I don’t want to say he gets overlooked - but I wish I could see that guy in more movies. He is just phenomenally crazy in this movie.
GALLO: He’s terrific and really a good guy. I think he’s so good because he’s humble. And I think the second ego creeps into your work, you are finished. He’s just so humble and so without ego and so “How can I make it better”, “What can I do to make it better?” Almost to the point where you think he’s kidding. He’s that humble and gracious about the work. And I’m that way because to me it’s just an honor to get a chance to do this stuff. I still paint every chance I get. I paint a few days a week. But to paint on a canvass as large as a movie screen and all the money and all the equipment and all the talent that goes along with it to make a film, considering I did not come from a showbiz family – I did this because I wanted to. I came out to LA and went through the trials and tribulations to get to where I got and I consider it an honor whenever you are on a movie set and you are working you should thank your lucky stars and thank God that you are there. I have the same feeling of humility about it so that’s why we got along so well. We would just sit around and talk about how to make it better. How can we make it better? How can we express this idea? That sort of thing.
CS: To that point, one of the things about filmmaking is actually visualizing your initial thoughts on the page. Did you have any happy surprises that you had on paper that you didn’t realize were there as you filmed? Any moments when the words weren’t working?
GALLO: I would say, yeah. Almost everyday was a surprise. The script was solid structurally. And a lot of the dialogue that was written is still in the movie but I think a fair amount isn’t and the one thing I do as a director that I think you have to do as a director is that you have to keep your writer hat on when you’re writing and throw that hat away when you are directing. There may be other directors that may tell you differently – Tarantino might have a different view on it – but I’m not as into the sanctity of the word but what I am into is absolutely believing everything that I’m seeing in front of me.
Sometimes you can write half a page of dialogue and an actor can get that moment across with just a look or a wink or a nod or something and I think you can throw that half a page away. And a lot of Giovanni and Gabriel sometimes would go off on these improvs that were frankly better than what was written and I would just tell the cameraman just keep shooting…keep shooting…keep shooting. When that delicious stuff starts to happen, it’s not just people hitting marks and saying lines but it starts getting into that other place and a lot of that happened everyday. It just started – people just became those people and you’re witnessing it and you know that what you are seeing is just special because it doesn’t happen that often. It happened on Local Color with Armin Mueller-Stahl and Trevor Morgan, Samantha Mathis and everybody. We had great moments but it was a different kind of storytelling. It was a very internal, deliberately paced film where this film, Middle Men, is just craziness and people doing massive amounts of cocaine were not acting in their best interest at any time. To me the whole movie was like driving across a bridge – the bridge is out – but they just keep driving. Me personally, that stuff just makes me laugh. Sort of like he was being his best and worst all at once. I hope I am answering your question.
CS: Yes, you are.
GALLO: Everyday was a surprise. Jimmy Caan, who I think is terrific in the movie. I think he really reached. He said he didn’t want to do what we call a safe performance. Because a guy with a movie persona like that can always lean on the 100 or so movies that he’s done and he didn’t want to do that on this one. He really wanted to reach. He wanted to create a character that was legitimately creepy, not creepy in a movie sense. We had a lot of discussions about things that never ended up in the movie – things that wouldn’t end up in the movie but we created a whole backstory for him. Like things he has been doing for the last 20 years of his life that led to this type of behavior and I said not one shred of it is in the movie but it is in the movie because of some of the bizarre choices he made. Creepy choices he made as an actor. I really respect that he reached the way he did because he could have just said “I’ll be James Caan, tough guy” as opposed to doing what he did.
CS: And I was just going to pop in with that before you did. He made me feel uneasy. The whole time I saw him on the screen, it was a great performance because it wasn’t bombastic, it wasn’t over the top, it was just enough to make you feel that whatever this guy is selling, don’t buy it.
GALLO: Yeah. He said to me at one point he based it on a couple people he knew. He wouldn’t tell me who they were but he said they were guys he met in his life that after you shook hands with them you literally wanted to boil your hand. Sleazy business types, lawyers and I think he just took some of those creeps that we all meet in our lives and he put them all in a blender and he became that person. It’s a terrific performance. It’s almost like he’s sexually ambiguous. There was a kind of rage in him that was very interesting. He’s also very charming at times but you know that everything that’s coming out of his mouth is an out and out lie and that it’s all self-serving. If he says the words good morning, he’s already angling. There’s an agenda to everything with this guy. It’s out and out creepy and at the same time he had the ability to make it fun. Because, let’s face it, he’s as creepy as hell and we know he’s probably capable of murder but somehow we keep laughing at that.
And a lot of times when we were making the movie, we were laughing a lot and saying why are we laughing? But we were laughing all day long and said, there’s something good going on here.
CS: I think something else too – I can’t let an interview go by but Rade Serbedzija – he could read the bible and I think I would buy that DVD.
GALLO: He’s terrific. He’s absolutely terrific. With him for instance, I kept saying I don’t want to do the standard Russian mob guy that’s always posing and you’ve seen it in a million movies. My personal problem with a lot of the films today I think it’s because some of the directors are so self-conscious in the choices that they are making they don’t feel comfortable – it might be ego or insecurities – but they don’t feel comfortable just telling the story. They have to let you know every 5 seconds that they were also there behind the camera. I find it quite annoying. You look at Hitchcock and you look at Frank Capra and look at William Wilder and look at even some of the later guys – John Frankenheimer, certainly Sidney Lumet, you got to look at their films several times before you start to realize the tricks an chicanery they were doing. It is so well hidden. I’m a real student of this stuff. I really watch films but those guys were storytellers first. And they would say “What’s the story, what’s the story about, what’s the subtext about, what are these people feeling, what do their homes look like?”
If you watch a lot of Hitchcock films, those people didn’t know they were in a thriller. They were just normal people that got caught up in a situation and they just happened to be in a Hitchcock movie. They weren’t doing a lot of posing. I find in a lot of the movies today the director says “I’m making a thriller so I’m going to have people in a pose-y, kind of thriller way”…and I’m like, “What?” That’s bullshit. Am I making any sense?
GALLO: And with Middle Men these people don’t know they are in this movie I’m making. They are just trying to get through their day. Obviously they have a whole lot of issues and problems and stuff like that but I’m going to shot them in a certain way but they don’t know they are in this movie. I wanted to make it as natural as I could in terms of their performances and then try to catch the soul of what they were doing using cameras and lenses and lights. Those are my tools. Same things like paint brushes and paint.
CS: You choose to shoot a lot of it here in Phoenix. What drew you here instead of shooting it down in So Cal where porn is king.
GALLO: To be completely honest, that was a choice of the producers because of the tax credit. You get 30 or 25% back. Whatever it was, it was very enticing for the filmmakers – for the producers. For Chris. Because you can throw that money back in post production which is what we did. That’s how we got all the Stones music and all that stuff – soundtrack is loaded.
GALLO: Yeah. That was one of my big things when I was cutting the movie. I cut the movie with a lot of those tunes because I’m a big music buff too. I love music. I play saxophone and guitar. I just love music and to me music was a character in the movie. It had to drive the movie. It is a movie certainly about a sub-culture in the United States yet it is something that most people, fairly intimately familiar with it whether they want to talk to it or not but at the same time when you think of a porn star or your think of a Russian mob guy you don’t necessarily thing that they go home and listen to the Rolling Stones.
But the truth is they probably do or they listen to something that we’ve all heard so I wanted to constantly make it accessible and remind you that these are all very – they have different lives but they certainly are our neighbors or certainly live in the same city that we do. I wanted to keep driving that idea home. These are not alien space creatures. These are very normal people who some of them went to school with you and they spun out and led the lives that they did. I always wanted to have that reminder be at the center of the movie all the time. That’s why we made the music choices that we made.
CS: One of the other subtle things that happens with this movie is it never feels judgmental in any way about the subject matter.
GALLO: I went out of my way to not be pro or con. It just is. It’s here. This is what’s going on. I met some people and interviewed them and I was very surprised that you can’t make assumptions about anybody. I was shocked. Especially with the porn stars. I don’t deal much with the porn stars in the movie other than Laura Ramsey, her character. Some of the women I talked to, and again I don’t want to make an assumption that a porn star is stupid, but sometimes you could just say oh the bimbo and put them in a box instantly but I found that to be more not the case. I found most of the women – yeah, there was certainly that like central casting bimbo – but at the same time there are some people I would say are crass capitalists. I’m talking about the women. I found the whole world to be very fascinating. Once you get over your initial discomfort dealing with it, it does, certainly in the early stages of researching this and talking to people, I would catch myself being uncomfortable or embarrassed because you are dropping a lot of those layers or boundaries. At first I was very uncomfortable with it and that sort of went away because I had to deal with and I had to deal with my own feelings about it.
CS: You work your way through it. Luke Wilson’s character had to work through it in a way – he’s not doing anything but it’s a business. It’s commerce. That’s basically what it is.
GALLO: I think at the same time his character does have something knocking. Something in his subconscious that is knocking constantly and in the end he just doesn’t feel right about it and without giving too much away but it does eat at him. An interesting thing – we had a test preview with the cards and stuff which is sort of useful process to make movies and I think people misuse the information a lot of times. They don’t understand how to really use that process properly. But with 300 people in the audience and 280 get confused in a scene you should certainly listen to that. But, the movie – we screened it and it tested insanely high and we were shocked that all four quadrants scored into the 90’s. I literally was shocked. How the hell? I mean Tom Sherak, who was the head of distribution at Fox and Revolution, his son William is one of the producers he laughed and said how the hell did you make a movie about the porn business that ends up being a date movie and I said, “I don’t know.”
But it scored the highest with older women.
GALLO: And we were shocked at that. Like mid-high 90’s with older women. And I was like why? I think ultimately it was because I don’t think any of the women were portrayed badly and I think Luke just wants to go home. He wants to go back to his wife and kids and doesn’t know how to do it anymore. He gets exposed to something that effects him and he just wants to go back. I think that made it so powerful for everyone.
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