As Midnight Run hits 30, its writer, George Gallo, reflects upon writing a modern classic
Here come two words for you: writer George Gallo talks about the making of a modern classic.
THERE’S NO SUCH thing as a perfect film — well, maybe Paddington 2 — but Midnight Run comes pretty damn close. Martin Brest’s 1988 movie, about Jack Walsh, a bounty hunter (Robert De
Niro), transporting Jonathan ‘The Duke’ Mardukas, an absconded Mob accountant (Charles Grodin), across country under the nose of the Mafia and the Feds, is part road-trip, part-buddy comedy, part-action movie, and is utterly magnificent. It’s incredibly influential — many movies, including the Gerard Butler/jennifer Aniston comedy The Bounty Hunter, Reese Witherspoon’s Hot Pursuit and the Ryan Reynolds/samuel L. Jackson misfire The Hitman’s Bodyguard, have attempted to match its blend of character-based comedy, potty-mouthed humour and chaotic action, but none have come close. Its appeal lies in the incredibly quotable dialogue, the memorable, well-drawn supporting cast, and its lead duo, whose caustic, cantankerous chemistry never gets old. Those characters, and that dialogue, was written by George Gallo, who spoke to us about setting off on that midnight run.
Midnight Run was a hit on release, and gained even more traction over time. At what point did you notice that?
I don’t know. Here we are, years later, and I still hear it all the time. It hit a chord with people, some sweet spot, and I have to tell you, the most interesting thing to me is that Marty Brest and Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, everyone who worked on it, got the joke. Jack Walsh was quite an angry guy and every line in his script was, “Fuck you”, “Motherfucker, fuck you, I’ll stick your fucking head in the fucking toilet.” It’s very angry and there’s a lot of nasty talk, but there’s a warm centre to the movie. Walon Green, who wrote The Wild
Bunch, once said to me, “There are basically two kinds of movies. One is a candy-covered turd, and one is a turd with candy at the centre.” It was a turd with candy at the centre, Midnight Run.
How did you discover bounty hunting? Midnight Run came out of a discussion — the whole fear of flying thing. There’s a friend of mine who’s a cop, Stanley White, who was a highly decorated cop in the sheriff’s department in Los Angeles, and a friend of mine. He was my technical advisor when I was writing Bad Boys, which was originally called ‘Bulletproof Hearts’, for Paramount. We were having lunch and I said, “I have this thing, I don’t like to fly, and I got this thing about ❯
a criminal.” We started talking about how the guy won’t get on an airplane. He said, “Anybody with any police training knows you can’t force a criminal to fly. It’s against the criminal’s civil rights.” We started discussing it and somehow got onto bounty hunters. That was that.
How did you pitch it to Martin Brest? Marty had read Bad Boys but didn’t want to do another cop movie after Beverly Hills Cop. I ran into him and that was total fate. I was on the Paramount lot and forgot something and went back to get it. Coming back the second time I saw Marty coming, and I said, “I got this thing I’m working on about a bounty hunter.” He made a face and said, “Do they still have bounty hunters?” That really wasn’t in the lexicon in the 1980s. It is now. I said, “Don’t ask me how it ends, I have no idea.” He read some pages and said, “I want to do this.”
So The Duke’s fear of flying actually comes from you?
Absolutely. I don’t fly. I have a very legitimate fear of flying. When there was word Middle Men [a 2009 film Gallo wrote and directed] was going to be at Cannes, I was praying at night that it would not get into the Cannes Film Festival just so I wouldn’t have to fly there. A friend of mine, Chris Mallick, the producer, sent me to a place where you get over phobias. I went to it and got on the plane and then flew home, but I think that could be the end of me flying. I don’t like it. I just don’t like it.
Did you always want to incorporate that? How much of you is in Jack and The Duke? I almost did what The Duke did once. I was on a plane going to Florida to visit my parents, and I was like, “I’m over this shit.” They started to close the doors and I said, “Fuck this, I can’t do it.” I literally jumped out of my seat. I ran off the plane and my luggage went to Florida. I started to think that there’s something very funny about a guy who just refuses to fly. He just won’t do it, and that’s where it started in my head.
When did you come up with the notion that The Duke was faking it?
Somewhere during the writing process I thought to myself, “He’s full of shit, he can fly.” Part of the writing for me is the surprise, to see where it’s going to go. You have these ideas as you’re working. With Midnight Run I made it up. I just started writing. The whole third act, I had painted myself into a corner where Dorfler [John Ashton’s rival bounty hunter] has The Duke handcuffed to the sink in
Vegas and he takes the picture of The Duke and walks away. I was stuck there for weeks. A friend of mine kept saying, “Let’s go to Las Vegas.” He handed me a brochure of Caesars Palace and I was flicking through and in the bathroom there were all these towels that said “Caesars”. I went, “Fuck! That’s what Dorfler did! He took a picture of the towel!” And that’s how I came up with that. That was weeks of pulling my hair out.
Was Martin Brest worried that you were taking so long?
I almost got fired at one point. Originally Dorfler died in the script, and he got shot in that parking lot scene. It was a little darker, the way it was originally written. I brought that up. “I don’t think we can
kill Dorfler.” In a funny way I knew I was asking for trouble. Then Marty said to me, “I’m thinking the same thing. Go figure it out.” So I started working on it and never liked what I was coming up with. Over the Christmas holiday, we still didn’t have the ending. I knew they had other writers they were talking to, to try to come up with an ending. Then it hit me over the holidays — Dorfler shows up at the airport because he wants to go home. That’s when the whole thing came in my head. I wrote it and drove over to Marty’s house in Pacific Palisades. I gave it to him and went to wait outside. That was back when I used to chainsmoke, I was chainsmoking outside. He came through the door and said, “This is fucking great.” I said, “Thanks, man.” He said, “Do you know how close you came?” I said, “I can just imagine.”
It’s such a quotable film. One of the great lines is, “Here come two words for you: shut the fuck up.”
That was a total accident in the writing. I write very quickly, the dialogue. I don’t think about it, I just pour it out. And I remember when I got to it, I was going to say, “Fuck you,” but I went, “No, he’s so mad that he can’t get his brain straight.” That was a total accident. It also has one of the great last lines. “Looks like I’m walking?” It just came to me. I have the second-to-last line in the movie. The cab driver who says, “What are you, a comedian? Get out of here!” That’s my voice. I looped that line. To me, “Looks like I’m walking,” was the whole movie, but Jack was walking in a different way in the end. He was walking with pride, he was getting a 10-year monkey off his back with Serrano [Dennis
Farina], he was walking with money in his pocket for the first time in a long time, he had his dream.
Did you write Jack Walsh with De Niro in mind?
No, I didn’t. To tell you the truth, I wrote about my father, who was a very wound-up sort of guy. He had an incredibly short fuse. I kinda wrote my dad. In a way, The Duke was me as a kid because I could set my father off better than anybody. [llaughs] My father and I, we almost had a Wile E. Coyote-road Runner relationship.
It’s such an amazing relationship, with The Duke constantly needling Jack despite their circumstances. He can’t help himself. I’m both sides of that guy too, as people will tell you who know me. I can be Jack Walsh and I can be The Duke. I’ve gotten more mellow with age. I don’t have an evil bone in my body, but if I can find some soft underbelly, which I was pretty good at figuring out, I would do it just to start needling you. I would do it for the sheer fucking entertainment value of doing it.
Grodin seems gregarious. Was there a certain amount of improv?
I could never tell where Chuck ended and The Duke began, or vice versa. He used to break my balls really bad. Talk about a guy finding your underbelly and going after you — he did that to me constantly. De Niro and I were going out to dinner all the time, so I said, “Hey Chuck, you wanna go out to dinner?” He said, “Call me, I’ll be in my room, call me at eight.” I called him at eight. “Hey Chuck, it’s George, you wanna go out to dinner?” He said, “Ah, George… no. I was just thinking, we don’t have a lot in common.” I was fucking crushed. Then he was, “George, I’m joking.” [Laughs] He would let it go to the point where you were really starting to get hurt and then he would let you know. To think, the studio wanted Cher and Robin Williams.
It would have been a very different film. Kudos to Marty Brest for having the guts to say, “No, we’re making the movie the way I want to make it.” He deserves all the credit for that. It was his guts and his vision and his stubbornness.
I tip my hat to him.
MIDNIGHT RUN IS OUT NOW ON DVD AND BLU-RAY
Bounty hunter Jack Walsh (De Niro) has a hold of his prize: blue collar criminal Jonathan ‘The Duke’ Mardukas (Charles Grodin).
Clockwise from top left: A coffee break with a view for criminal Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina); Gun club: Bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton), Jack Walsh and Jonathan Mardukas; Screenwriter George Gallo on set; Walsh didn’t get the ‘sunglasses mandatory’ memo; No cars were hurt in the making of this movie...; Director Martin Brest chats to Yaphet Kotto, who plays Special Agent Alonzo Mosely.