Midnight Express Making-Of: a Lesson in Filmmaking History
Brace yourself, the full making-of of controversial classic Midnight Express is available to watch, courtesy of the excellent Cinematographos. Whether you’ve seen the movie or not doesn’t actually matter, as long as you love filmmaking and the History that’s tide to the seventh art, you’re in for a treat.
Here are some of the highlights of the making-of, but I can’t recommend enough that you do take the time to watch it. (watch the first five minute of the first video and my guess is that you’ll be hook!)
MIDNIGHT EXPRESS MAKING-OF PART 1:
In this first segment, producers Peter Guber -who probably was an A-List storyteller by the fire 200,000 years ago- Alan Marshall and David Puttnam share it all: from the origin of the idea, to finding the right screenwriter and actor, to dealing with the Studio, to Cannes etc.
- AUDITIONING SCREENWRITERS: FINDING OLIVER STONE
After having read an article in the paper about a young American who had successfully escaped a Turkish prison, Guber decided to option the rights to the story and make a film. A lot of young screenwriters were auditioned and it’s Oliver Stone, who back then had no produced feature script under his belt, who got the job, after he gave Guber to read a war film, which will later on be produced: Platoon.
- CASTING AGAINST THE STUDIO’S WISH
Colombia was really keen on having Richard Gere, who just had a series of success, and so Gere was brought in to play Billy Hayes. But it quickly appeared that Gere had doubt about the role, and his doubts started eroding Alan Parker‘s confidence. Because of that, and because David Puttnam was determined on keeping Parker as a filmmaker as opposed to Gere as the actor, they went into a casting process and ended up hesitating between Dennis Quaid and Brad Davis, and Davis got the role.
- MANAGING THE STUDIO’S EXPECTATIONS
As Guber puts it: “Managing the expectations of the Studio wasn’t hard because they had no expectations! What we were trying to do was not to get shut down by the studio because they get frightened of the film.” Midnight Express was made on what was even then, considered a low budget: $1.7 million, and there were no stars in it. The Studio was thus not paying too much attention, but Guber and his acolytes were worried about the dailies reaching the Studio and scaring management and so, using his experience on previously controversial films such as Taxi Driver, he decided to keep the dailies as far away from management as possible
- ABOUT ALAN PARKER CUTTING THE LAST 8 PAGE OF THE SCRIPT
One of the “scariest moment” during the film’s production was when the producers realized that Parker had decided to cut 8 pages of the screenplay, finishing 4 days earlier than planned and cutting an action scene that had convinced the Studio to make the film in the first place. This anecdote is particularly telling of the personality producers in the 70s and 80s had in America, where producers were really about helping out the creatives make the best story possible and so, after Parker made his case and explained why he thought the movie would be better that way, the producers decided to take a leap of faith and Puttnam went on convincing the Studio that that was the right thing to do.
- ABOUT SCREENING AT CANNES, DEALING WITH CRITICISM & THEATRICAL RELEASE
Do not miss out the priceless Cannes screening told by Peter Guber, who admitted that the pressure got so high, and the odds were looking so low, that he left after the almost empty 10AM screening and got drunk with his wife and friends, only to come back few hours later and discover Midnight Express had become the buzz of the Festival. This early success didn’t prevent them from getting criticize heavily during the press conference and afterwards in Europe for the less than subtle portrayal of Turkish people (who are all bad, mean and evil). Interestingly enough, this representation manichean representation was never a problem for the American audience.
Watch the first segment:
MIDNIGHT EXPRESS MAKING-OF PART 2:
The second segment adds additional interviews with Alan Parker, the director, Bill Hayes, the man whose story Midnight Express is originally based on and who co-wrote the book, Oliver Stone, John Hurt etc. and talks about writing the screenplay, casting actors, finding locations,
- ABOUT OLIVER STONE MAINTAINING HIS SCREENWRITER CREDIT
So you might wonder how on Earth an unknown screenwriter with zero credit would get on having a commissioned screenplay and stay the sole writer on the film, especially when Alan Parker was known for writing his screenplays. And the answer is simple: the plan was to have Stone write a first draft, and then Parker take over and do the re-write. But Stone was so pumped up and hard at work, that he wrote his first draft in six weeks, in Parker’s back office in London, and gained everybody’s respect and confidence delivering a page turner. That didn’t mean there were no changes to it, but Stone proved his skills.
- ON SELLING BRAD DAVIS TO THE STUDIO
An anecdote that is pretty telling of the way things ran -and probably still do- in Studios, is that two decision makers in the Studio got obsessed with the idea that Brad Davis was cross-eyed and didn’t look attractive enough to be the ‘star’ of the movie. (Besides the fact that he was unknown). And David Puttnam had to take Davis to a doctor, have him tested and get a signed letter to convince the Studio that this was an imaginary issue. Yes, this happened.
- ON CASTING JOHN HURT
John Hurt, who played the unforgettable character of Max, agreed to play the part without reading the script, just knowing that Alan Parker was going to direct it. Hurt won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work on Midnight Express.
- ON SHOOTING ABOUT A HARD SUBJECT IN HARD CONDITIONS
Midnight Express shooting was a intense one, because of the schedule (53 days straight with max one day-off), in a heavy environment (very hot and humid) and about a dark subject. What made it possible was that Parker brought his own team he had been working on commercials for many years prior, from the DP, Production Designer and Editor, to almost the rest of the crew. John Hurt added that being on an island helped keeping the crew tight and united: “We worked like dogs and we played hard. It was a terrific experience.”
- ON RECEIVING UNDERCOOKED DAILIES FOR THE FIRST THREE DAYS OF SHOOTING
After three days, the producers realized the dailies were too dark. David Puttnam admitted falsifying reports to the Studio to make sure they wouldn’t know about it and keep the production going. Thanks to a huge crew effort, by the end of the second week they had caught up and the Studio never knew they had to reshoot three days of production. (Let’s remember that this was at a time when processing and shipping dailies took a loooong time.)
Watch the second segment here:
MIDNIGHT EXPRESS MAKING-OF PART 3:
The third segment focuses more on the creative process that went on during the shooting. Alan Parker is the main thread in this segment, talking about Brad Davis and his dedication as an actor, directing actors, shooting the film hand held, the editing, the music, true story vs fiction, Turkey’s representation in the film and how life changing for all the participants this movie has been.
- ON THE METHOD ACTING AND ITS REPERCUSSION ON BRAD DAVIS
Brad Davis was a method actor who gave his whole to the movie during the 53 days of the shooting, admitting -by the end of the shooting- that he felt he had been in jail for four years. Parker recognized having pushed Davis a lot (“maybe a little bit too much”) and that the overall experience affected Davis mentally and physically.
- ON ALAN PARKER ON DIRECTING ACTORS
John Hurt explained about how Parker adapted his way of dealing with each actors depending on what he wanted to get from them.
- ON USING MALTESE NON-ACTORS TO PLAY TURKISH OFFICERS
The “actors” cast to play Turkish officers were actually Maltese (the film was shot in Malta) and didn’t speak Turkish. The production decided that it didn’t matter, as they were not planning to put subtitles and wanted the audience to feel like Bill Hayes: lost and confused.
- ON FINDING THE RIGHT SCORE: PARKER vs GUBER
Both Parker and Guber had an idea of who they wanted to use to score the film, and of course, they both wanted a different music. Alan Parker was going for Vangelis who, to quote Guber “was not inexpensive, and the movie was inexpensive”, while Guber was rooting for Gorgio Moroder, who was trying to transition into film scoring but was coming from the electronic world. Finally Parker went for Moroder too, who won the Oscar on the way.
- THE “BASED ON A TRUE STORY” DILEMMA
One of the Studio non-negotiable point was that they wanted to state that it was ‘Based on a true story’, this magical sentence that then and now, soften the audience hearts and make them feel like they are -worse case scenario- ‘learning about something’. From Parker’s point of view though, if the story is inspired by a story that happened, the ‘truth’ was altered by so many filters, starting from Hayes and his memory, to his ghost writer, to Stone’s screenplay, everybody’s notes, the shooting and the editing. “In a way it’s a fictional film and it’s a disservice to the film to say it was based on a true story.”
Watch the third and last segment here:
And if you can’t get enough, watch the official behind the scenes released in 1977, “I’m Healthy, I’m Alive and I’m Free” thanks to Buzzati:
check the archives for a taste of it.