‘Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey’: Deauville Review

Hollywood Reporter Review Sept.6 2016 by Jordan Mintzer


‘The Bottom Line: Fact vs. fiction in a cult prison film nobody can forget.’

The man behind the story of ‘Midnight Express’ returns to the country he escaped from and offers an apology to its people.

The term “Turkish prison” has become synonymous with torture, depravity, corruption and chewed-off human tongues — all of that thanks to Alan Parker’s 1978 drama Midnight Express, which told the “true story” of an American backpacker who was jailed for trying to sneak a few kilos of grade-A hashish back into the United States. With a screenplay by Oliver Stone (earning him his first Oscar), a haunting electro score by Giorgio Moroder (also scoring an Oscar) and a riveting performance from then newcomer Brad Davis, Midnight Express became a breakout hit that would forever be ingrained in the memories of many a viewer, though not always in the best sense.

Nearly four decades later, the man behind the movie has resurfaced in Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey, which is both a behind-the-scenes account of the original production and a feature-length mea culpa for a work that “misrepresented an entire country and group of people,” to quote one Turkish expert interviewed early on. After premiering in Cannes Classics and screening at Deauville, this debut documentary from TV writer Sally Sussman should appear on specialty networks and VOD outlets, providing an informative postscript to Parker’s explosive film.

Using an array of clips and sound bites, Sussman establishes two facts from the get-go. One: After shocking viewers at its world premiere in Cannes, Midnight Express became a box-office smash and pop culture phenomenon, its most famous scenes lampooned over the years by the likes of The Simpsons, Seinfeld and The Daily Show. Two: that cult status has clearly been a detriment to Turkey itself, which saw a major drop in tourism following the film’s release and has forever resented being deemed “a nation of pigs,” to cite one of the movie’s more damaging jibes at its people.

To hear Parker, Stone and Hayes discuss the project some 40 years after, it is clear they were less concerned with reality than with telling a harrowing story in the most intense way possible, leaving critics like Pauline Kael to dub Express a “mean-spirited, fake-visceral movie,” while Le Monde called it “racist.” By all accounts, fiction definitely won out over fact once the movie, which was very freely adapted by Stone from Hayes’ autobiographical account, was greenlit: The shoot wound up taking place in Malta (one of the only countries that wasn’t in cahoots with Turkey at the time), and, due to both artistic and budgetary concerns, a significant part of Hayes’ story was reworked — up to and including his miraculous escape from prison. (An escape so miraculous, in fact, that the Turkish pressed claimed the CIA had been involved.)

After detailing the film’s three-year voyage to the screen, Midnight Return then focuses on Hayes himself, showing how he became a national hero when he arrived home from prison and a media star upon the film’s release, trying a few years later to break into Hollywood as an actor (including a throwaway part in the Charles Bronson flick Assassination). A few choice tidbits of information, such as the fact that Hayes had already smuggled drugs several times before getting caught at the Istanbul airport, somewhat tarnish the image of a man who was mostly seen as an innocent victim at the time, his extended sentence the result of squabbles between the Turkish government and the Nixon administration.

The documentary’s final section — much of it shot on low-grade video back in 2007 — follows the 60-something Hayes on a return trip to Turkey. There, he tries to make amends with the locals, visiting the jail he was first brought to (it has since been upgraded into a Four Seasons Hotel) and choking up when remembering his darkest moments. Sussman ultimately portrays Hayes as a man with a good heart who did not necessarily realize how his own story would wreak collateral damage upon an entire people, while the filmmakers — especially Parker — are shown to be less remorseful about the whole experience. For them, Midnight Express is just a movie.

Production companies: Old Forest Hill Productions
Director: Sally Sussman
Producers: Anthony Morina, Sally Sussman
Executive producer: Anthony Morina
Directors of photography: David Mackie, William Kaufman
Editor: Sean H. Fanton
Composer: Anthony Marinelli
Sales: The Film Sales Company

No rating, 100 minutes


Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey

13256197_797068200393460_1724758330848517002_n.jpgRELIVING THE DREAM!! Merci beaucoup à Thierry Fremaux, Pierre Lescure, Gerald Duchaussoy , Jean- Marc Delcambre et toute l’équipe du Festival de Cannes Film 69!!



‘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

International sales: The Film Sales Company, andrew.herwitz@filmsalescorp.com and lucas.verga@filmsalescorp.com

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.”




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.


MidnightReturn_Cannes Poster_v1.jpg


April 23 Time:12:15 pm – 1:55 pm 

Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey

12:15 pm – 1:55 pm  The Triangle 1870 Harbor Blvd Costa Mesa, CA 92627




Midnight Return Documentary  April 23 Time:12:15 pm – 1:55 pm

The Triangle 1870 Harbor Blvd Costa Mesa, CA 92627

MidnightReturnPoster with Laurels.jpg




Follow Billy Hayes as he returns to Turkey 30 years after his daring escape from prison to face the country still haunted by the film, “Midnight Express”; a movie that turned him into an international celebrity and made him the enemy of Turkey.





2016 SBIFF Movie Spotlight:Midnight Return

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – “Midnight Return” promotional still


Midnight Return follows the tale of Billy Hayes and his strong desire to return to Turkey after being imprisoned 30 years ago and executing a daring escape that led to the creation of Midnight Express, the film that caused an international firestorm and made Hayes Public Enemy No. 1 in Turkey.

Anyone that has seen Midnight Express will instantly be taken back to relieve the story that started it all, and for those that have never seen or heard of the film, well, get ready to hold on to your seats. Turkey condemned Midnight Express for defaming their nation and Turks worldwide, and for straining international relations particularly with America. But decades later, can Hayes salvage relations with a country torn over one film, and in the process, finally come to find peace and redemption within himself? There’s only one problem, he’s banned from ever showing his face in Turkey.

Filmmaker and writer of the film, Sally Sussman kindly answered a few questions about the film to give us a more in-depth look into what audiences can expect when the film premieres on Friday.

How did you first get connected to Billy Hayes and at what point did you realize there was a different story to tell here?

Billy and my husband, Tony Morina (Producer/Executive Producer Midnight Return) had been old friends from an acting class in the 70’s. Through him I knew Billy casually and would run into him from time to time. One night he was at our house and mentioned he’d always wanted to go back to Turkey. My first thought was why? Why would you want to go back to the country where you were imprisoned for 5 years? But the more I thought about it, the more I thought there was an interesting and ironic story that could make an interesting documentary. That was the genesis. However, the film had many stops and starts along the way as numerous obstacles were thrown into Billy’s quest to return to Turkey. Ultimately, it was the irony of Billy’s story in relation to Turkey and the movie, Midnight Express that attracted me to it.

What do you feel is still the biggest misconception Americans have of Turkey?

Interestingly, when Turkish people meet Americans, they ask them the reverse of that question. What do Americans know about Turkey? And always the answer is “Midnight Express.” I’d say the misconceptions Americans have about Turkey are much less now than they were when the original movie came out. Back then, Turkey was a place you definitely did not want to visit. But that has changed dramatically today and Istanbul is now one of the world’s best cities to visit.

The film makes excellent use of archival footage and the hard work and dedication of those involved in the project shows. Can you talk about what the process of making this film was like from beginning to end?

Once I started to delve into this story, it became apparent that the impact the original movie, Midnight Express had on Turkish Americans in particular was much deeper and more visceral than I ever imagined. I did tons of research to fill out the story, covering Nixon’s War on Drugs to how that impacted Billy’s sentence to reaching out to former prisoners who were in jail with Billy at that time.

We could not have made this film without the support and co-operation of the Turkish-American community who were anxious to share their stories with us. As far as archival goes, again lots of research. I knew Billy had appeared on many talk shows when he returned and promoted the movie so I could show how quickly things happened for him when he returned home. He was everywhere. But I always knew I needed to frame his story in a bigger context so using archival news stories was essential to fill out the context of how and why he got a life sentence. I was able to find two former State Department officials who were stationed at the American consulate in Istanbul and who both knew Billy during his stay in prison.

All these elements contributed to the scope of this story which was also very important to cover as the story spans the time from 1975 until the present. But in many ways this film had a life of its own. When we had put it aside and said we can’t make this happen, suddenly, I’d learn there was going to be a Midnight Express ballet performed in London in 2013. That’s when we realized we had to find a way to finish it. So from 2013-2015 I finished shooting all the material, all the interviews and then began the process of putting it together with my editor and Co-Producer, Sean Fanton.

Along the way I interviewed people in New York, Washington, Virginia, Colorado, London, Portugal and Turkey. I always believed that in order to capture the scope of this story, the more varied voices we had would convey that.

What were the biggest challenges you and your crew faced in the making of this film?

Like with any documentary, money is always the biggest challenge. But once Tony and I decided we would finance this ourselves, I was able to use my 30 years of writing/producing experience to enable me to get this done for a reasonable amount. Once I knew the story I wanted to tell and how I would structure it, my editor Sean Fanton and I could really shape and add elements that would make this movie pop for an audience. Then we hired Anthony Marinelli to write the music and he did a score that really enhances the film and elevates the film.

There’s a lot to take away from this film, but if there is one thing you really want audiences to take away from the movie, what would that be? What do you set out to accomplish with “Midnight Return?”

First and foremost, I wanted to make an entertaining film. I wanted the audience who remembered Midnight Express to be taken back in time to experience that fear again especially when Billy returns to Turkey and visits the insane asylum. Midnight Express impacted a generation and scared them to death and it also became a big part of pop culture so in order to combine those levels, I had to set the tone of the film which is ironic because everything about this story is true but also completely unexpected.

What does it mean to you to have this film screen at the 31st Santa Barbara International Film Festival?

Being selected for the SB festival is amazing! To hold our U.S. Premiere at this excellent and well attended festival is exactly what we were hoping for when we finished the film. The audiences here are so knowledgeable and devoted cineophiles, we couldn’t ask for a better representation for our first public showing of the film. Spending the first 5 days here was a great opportunity to meet so many pass holders and tell them about the film. I’m thrilled so many of the festival goers here in SB remember the original film. I’m also happy to have Billy Hayes here to participate in the Q&As with me.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

My hope is that the audience will enjoy the film and tell their friends. We are hoping for international distribution for this documentary and coming out of this classy festival with good buzz would help us make that happen.

Midnight Return makes its U.S. Premiere at the Metro 4 Theater on Friday, February 12 at 8:20 p.m. and will screen again on Saturday, February 13 also at the Metro 4 Theater.

Moviegoers will be treated with a Q&A with Director Sally Sussman and Billy Hayes himself after each of the two screenings at the film festival.

For a complete schedule and ticket information, go to http://sbiff.org.