‘Midnight Return’: Cannes Review
Dir: Sally Sussman. US-Turkey-UK. 2015. 99mins
Even with their penchant for dramatic license, movies based on true stories often prove less fascinating than the actual events. That axiom gets a twist with Midnight Return, a solidly engaging documentary that reveals how the Oscar-winning film Midnight Express has had a remarkably long and unexpected afterlife, and examines how its controversial depiction of the Turkish people affected its makers, an entire nation and the man whose imprisonment inspired the movie.
What makes this making of documentary so unique is that it’s something of a corrective to the original work
Screening in Cannes Classics, Midnight Return will chiefly be of note to fans of the 1978 drama, but movie buffs in general might be intrigued to hear from Midnight Express principals such as director Alan Parker and filmmaker Oliver Stone (who won an Oscar for his screenplay), as well as Billy Hayes, the real American who was incarcerated by the Turks in 1970 for trying to smuggle hashish. A modest, talking-head-driven documentary that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the big screen, Midnight Return should enjoy festival play with theatrical prospects only marginal.
Written and directed by Sally Sussman, who worked on the project for eight years, Midnight Return recounts how 23-year-old New Yorker Hayes was arrested in Istanbul, eventually escaping from an island prison five years later to avoid a lifetime sentence. Captivated by Hayes’ story of being brutalized while incarcerated, Hollywood transformed the ordeal into Midnight Express, which received rave reviews but also rampant accusations of racism. Midnight Return explains how those criticisms stung Hayes, who returned to Turkey in 2007 to mend fences with the country’s officials.
Many making-of documentaries focus on the preparations that go into a film and the response after its release. But what makes this one so unique is that it’s something of a corrective to the original work, which paints its Turkish characters in such an unflattering light as to cast a pall over the entire film. Neither Parker nor Stone flat-out apologize for that, but they’re both thoughtful while discussing the regrets they have about the negative messages of their movie. (For years after the film’s release Turkey reported a drop in tourism, certainly in part because of Midnight Express’s hyperbolic depiction of its prison system.)
Preferring a slick, accessible approach, Sussman includes some fun behind-the-scenes anecdotes, including the fact that Parker and Stone didn’t much like each other during the movie’s making. But Midnight Return is much more invested in the film’s long shadow, exploring how the storyline was parodied and referenced for decades, leaving a damaging lasting impression of Turkey as a scary, barbaric society.
Additionally, the movie portrays Hayes, a self-described ham, as someone who’s always been an attention-seeker and rebel, Midnight Express’s notoriety only fueling that element of his personality. On camera, Hayes is a sincere individual, deeply troubled that the infamous film’s invented sequences helped perpetuate negative Turkish stereotypes, but there remains a bit of showman to him that’s intriguing. Indeed, Midnight Return reveals that, for Hayes, his time in prison was both blessing and curse, helping him make a living to this day but also leaving permanent emotional scars. In a sense, he’s never really escaped that jail.
Production company: Old Forest Hill Productions
Producers: Anthony Morina, Sally Sussman
Screenplay: Sally Sussman
Cinematography: David Mackie, William Kaufman
Editor: Sean H. Fanton
Music: Anthony Marinelli
Features: Alan Parker, Oliver Stone, Billy Hayes
Sally Sussman and Billy Hayes CANNES PHOTOS 2016
Midnight Express: The cult film that had disastrous consequences for the Turkish film industry
Premiering in Cannes this week, Midnight Return, a new film by Sally Sussman, explores one of the most controversial movies of its era
Brad Davis in Midnight Express Rex Features
It was one of Alan Parker’s greatest movies – a gut-wrenching prison epic with an Oliver Stone script and pounding Giorgio Moroder music. Midnight Express (1978), produced by David Puttnam, won two Oscars and very quickly assumed cult status. What the filmmakers hadn’t anticipated was just how deeply they had offended the Turkish people or the disastrous consequences their film had on the country‘s film industry.
Now, Sally Sussman’s new film Midnight Return, which premieres in Cannes today, explores the legacy of one of the most controversial movies of its era.
In Midnight Express, a young American, Billy Hayes (played by the late Brad Davis), is arrested at Istanbul airport with some hash taped to his chest. He is thrown in prison and endures a traumatic time at the hands of sadistic prison guards before managing to escape. The film features some brutal scenes, most notoriously the sequence in which Billy, in huge slow motion close-up, is shown biting out the tongue of the Turkish guard. Parker later acknowledged that he got a little bit carried away with this scene which required the unfortunate Davis to spit out a pig’s tongue again and again.
“I’d never seen a movie, ever, that stuck with me the way that movie did,” Californian-based Sussman recalls of when she first saw Parker’s film as a student at the University of Southern California in the late 1970s. “I just remember leaving that film shaking.”
Sussman went to carve out a career as a writer and producer of soap operas such as The Young And The Restless. By coincidence, her husband Tony Morina, knew Hayes, who became a family friend. “The character of Billy Hayes in the film was passive, much more of victim. The real Billy, in prison for the five years, was a very wily character, always plotting, always planning, always hoping he could escape, which he eventually did.”
There was a reason for the casting of Davis. The studio had originally wanted Richard Gere for the role but the filmmakers realised Gere was too much the hero. For the movie really to work, audiences, had to believe that Billy wasn’t going to make it. That’s why they went for a sensitive actor like Davis.
In the documentary, Parker, producer Puttnam and many others involved in the original production appear on screen as does the real Hayes and two fellow prisoners held with him during his nightmare time in a Turkish jail. Sussman explores the impact of Midnight Express on Turkey and on the life of Hayes. “It [Midnight Express] became a huge part of pop culture and it also had political ramifications,” the director says. “It was probably the most hated film ever in Turkey.”
The prison warders are portrayed as sadistic, lazy and corrupt. The Turkish legal system likewise comes out of the film very badly. Even the warder’s children are shown as being overweight and grotesque.
After interviewing all the protagonists behind the film, Sussman has concluded that Midnight Express was made with “no malice” or no intention to offend the Turks. “I can’t believe for one moment that was Alan’s motive,” she says of director Parker. “I think that was what you call an unintended consequence. I think they were creating what they thought was a somewhat loosely based story on Hayes’s life.”
When Midnight Express was released, it was credited with destroying the Turkish tourism industry almost single-handed and of poisoning relations between Turkey and the West. In the documentary, Parker stands by his work, but Stone expresses his regret at the misunderstanding that arose from the film.
In the documentary, Sussman, her husband and Hayes visit Turkey. Hayes discovers that he is still persona non grata. “He was very emotional being back in Turkey because he really loved Turkey and he always felt bad about its portrayal in the film,” Sussman says. “When he was back there, it was a chance for him to reassure Turkish people that ‘no. I don’t hate you’ …even if they hated him.”
When Hayes visited the places where he had been incarcerated, he had to be accompanied by plain clothes Turkish policemen for his own protection. He didn’t publicise his visit.
Midnight Return is screening in Cannes, just as Midnight Express did all those years ago, when Hayes attended the premiere – and met his future wife Wendy.
Did Hayes hide any marijuana in his socks when he was leaving Istanbul this time round? “He might have … but he didn’t tell me!” Sussman bursts into laughter at the question.
‘Midnight Return’ screens in Cannes this week
Film Sales Company to sell ‘Midnight Return’
EXCLUSIVE: Andrew Herwitz has picked up worldwide sales rights to Cannes Classics selection Midnight Return: The Story Of Billy Hayes And Turkey.
Sally Sussman’s film explores the backstory and aftermath of Alan Parker’s 1978 Cannes Film Festival premiere Midnight Express, which earned a best screenplay Oscar for then little-known Oliver Stone, drew the wrath of the Turkish government and became an overnight sensation.
Stone, Parker and producers David Puttnam and Peter Guber discuss their involvement, while the film’s real-life inspiration Billy Hayes attempts to return to Turkey in an effort to rebuild bridges.
“This film proves the maxim that fact is stranger than fiction and is a must see for any cinephile,” said Herwitz.
Sussman said: “Very few films stay in the zeitgeist for decades after their release but Midnight Express is one of them.
“Everyone remembers that movie but what they don’t know is the true story, which is much more layered than the Midnight Express presents, nor what happened after the film’s release.”
WORLD PREMIERE CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2016!
Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey by Sally Sussman (2016, 1h39, USA)
The story of the film Midnight Express by Alan Parker (1978) as told by those who made it: director Alan Parker, screenwriter Oliver Stone and producer David Puttnam. In parallel the real protagonist Billy Hayes discusses his personal journey and how his life has changed. Turkey, the image and the diplomatic relations of which were affected by the film, gives its point of view, as Billy Hayes tries to go back there to rebuild broken links.
Presented and produced by Midnight Return LLC, in association with Old Forest Hill Productions, Inc.
April 23 Time:12:15 pm – 1:55 pm
Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey