A Wonderful LifeInterview by Christopher Stipp
As a writer of a book you have only yourself to depend on to get it made. You’re the one who has to come up with the words, you are the one who strings together the narrative and, ultimately, you are the only one who gets named in the reviews. With a movie, however, you are only as good as the relationships you develop with those who can take your written work and make it something fluid and real. George Gallo, writer and director of LOCAL COLOR, had to pull in a phalanx of relationships he’s developed with some of Hollywood’s elite in order to get his film made. Based on the portrait of an artist as a young man, George’s own evolution as someone who dabbled in paints rather than celluloid, the movie captures what it meant to be young and to have spent time with a master of his craft.
From getting EASTERN PROMISES’ Armin Mueller-Stahl to play the film’s acerbic painter to snagging GOODFELLAS’ Ray Liotta and even Samantha Mathis to lend her talents, all lending their talents far below market rate, a film that could have been one of many others had its profile lifted. While at its core, LOCAL COLOR is the tale of a boy learning how to paint beyond his realized potential, what seems deceptively simplistic is Gallo’s attention to the physical landscape, the colors and richness of the locations he chose to shoot in and the care he took in developing complex individuals who could be understood by their actions on the screen. This is where the film’s strengths lie. Eschewing some of the common elements of the Coming of Age tale, rejecting the idea that a sole defining act triggers maturity, George takes a more practiced approach. As well, when it was suggested Gallo change elements of the story to satisfy the more carnal interests for mass audience appeal he demurred to do so in order to retain the purity of the way the story went. All of these things and more beset the production of this little movie that could, and George was all to pleased to share his experiences now that the film has been garnering awards, shattering art house records and been warmly received by critics across the country. You can find LOCAL COLOR coming to a theater near you soon on December 5th.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: I think one of the reasons why I was so taken aback, and this is a compliment, is because this film is aesthetically unlike anything you have ever done before.
GEORGE GALLO: You know I’ve written a few other scripts like this. We get defined by our early work. The first ones were comedies. The first script that got made was WISE GUYS with Joe Piscopo, Danny DeVito. And then after that I wrote MIDNIGHT RUN and I became known as this comedy tough-guy – the guy that writes tough-guy kind of comedies. And obviously, it was very lucrative. But I’ve changed over the years. Not that I don’t enjoy that stuff or get a kick out of that stuff but that was an earlier me. I was in my late 20’s. I think I wrote MIDNIGHT RUN when I was 29 or early 30’s. 20 years ago we were shooting it right now. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Your tastes change. The things you want to write about are change. And I think when you get a little older you start to get more reflective you know? I think as a young writer you look ahead a lot and now that I’m 51 I think a little more about the present and the past. I don’t know if you know this or not, but this movie is loosely based on my life.
CS: Exactly. Researching, and finding our about your past, I was wondering if this was representational of your life.
GALLO: Yes. It is very much based on an event that happened to me at 18. I was an apprentice under a Russian master. I was a painter...I still am a painter. A lot of people in the film business don’t know that. I’ve never created self-promotion. There are some people that are just brilliant at it. I don’t know how they do it. They have this incredible drive to be everywhere and be on everyone’s lips and I’m just sitting here quietly doing my thing, but at the risk of sounding like I’m talking too much about myself, I do continue to paint and I’ve won national awards as a painter. It really is my first love. I’ve always joked to friends that I’m a painter and the movie business is my hobby. A lucrative hobby, but I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy to it. The painting is really my love. And when I get a nice check for writing a movie or something, sometimes I’ll take a year off and paint, and just paint a lot. Until my wife or my agent starts screaming at me to get back to work.
CS: That leads into my next question regarding source material. This movie is based on you as a young man... How did you decide, when you sat down to hammer this thing out to get it down to 115 pages or so, what you wanted to keep or what you wanted to distill into a full-length movie?
GALLO: That’s a great question. Over the years, for what it’s worth, when we would have get-togethers or I would be sitting at a café drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, you just start talking about the events in your life and I would tell people this story. And a lot of my friends like Frank Renzulli who wrote for The Soprano’s, my wife who I’ve been with for 24 years and friends of mine said, “You know, you really should write this story down.” I made several attempts at it when I was younger. When in my 30’s I tried to write it a few times, but to be frank, it didn’t resonate. I don’t think I had enough gray hairs to truly get what the older painter was about. I still kind of thought he was a crazy old bastard. There is something about getting old, aged, that you start to realize there was a lot of truth in what the guy had to say. So a few years ago, I guess I was 48, I said, “You know what Julie,” who’s my wife, “I’m really going to take a shot and write LOCAL COLOR.” What ended up happening was that I then meet the wrath of various studios. We came close a couple of times of putting together deals. As an example, they send stupid notes. Like “The kid Trevor has to have sex with the girl” but I said, “Yeah, but I don’t think it was about that. It was more about baby steps, it was about beginnings, it wasn’t about closure.” “Yeah, but he has to fuck the girl.” Just a lot of stupid notes. When you are doing a mentor story or a story like this you are getting into very familiar water. It has been done well by other filmmakers. And I didn’t want to get into those other conventions that make others say, “Oh, bullshit.” I wanted to try and make it seem as real as possible. I didn’t want it to be THE KARATE KID with paint. I wanted to tell a real true mentorship story and keep a lot of gray areas.
Be that as it may, we started to put together some equity financing and put it together ourselves. Because I’ve made a lot of films, I am very lucky that all my friends are actors and editors. I got together with a guy named Bob Brown and we worked out a budget and we came to the conclusion that in order to make this movie the way we wanted to would cost about $6 to $8 million bucks. Then I thought there has to be a way to do this and we started calling in favors from everybody because there are some really terrific actors in this movie. And, long story short, Ray Liotta is a friend and Ray knew my father very well. He played with my dad in a movie. So I asked Ray if he would be in the movie and if he would work for scale and Ray was the first guy to come on board. He said he would and then I talked to Ron Perlman, he’s a dear friend and he said he would work for scale. We started putting together the favorite nations thing with all the actors and then Samantha Mathis came on board and Diana Scarwid and Charles Durning was a friend of a friend and he came on board and then I didn’t know who to cast for Nicoli. Originally there was another actor that was cast but he fell out. I was kinda depressed. The role of Nicoli – the role is pivotal – the entire movie is that character. And then we were watching television and that movie SHINE was on with Geoffrey Rush and Julie said, “How about Armin Muller-Stahl?” I said, “Yeah, that would be great but I don’t know Armin Muller-Stahl. How can I convince him to work for scale on quite a grueling part?” Lots of dialogue. But Julie says, “Oh just call him all he can say is ‘No’.” So I called William Morris Agency and they said Armin Muller-Stahl has retired from acting and he just wants to paint the rest of his life. So I said, “Well, that’s kind of interesting because the movie is about an artist. So he gave me his number in Germany. I called Armin up and he says, “You sound like a very nice man but I don’t want to leave my home in Germany and come to America and work for scale.” So I asked him if he would just read the script and he said, “Alright, shit, send it to me. I’ll read the script.” So I sent him the script and he called me back three days later and was very quiet. So I said, “What’s going on?” And he said, “When can we start?” That was it. And then what ended up happening was we put together some money through a bank in New Orleans and my wife and I and Jimmy Evangelatos (one of the producers) we raised about $7-8 hundred thousand dollars through family and friends with all the favors and everybody working for scale and the crew working really at bargain basement (we’re still a union picture), but really bargain basement wages and staying within the guidelines and with tax breaks and all this stuff, free camera packages and whatever deals we could swindle. We figured we could make the picture for under two million bucks. The look of the movie – it just had to look like a painting. It seemed absurd to me to try and make a film about the beauty of art and the beauty of being alive and not have the movie look exquisite, just seemed absurd to me. So we spent a lot of time on that. What actually ended up happening, though, was the money fell through. Literally, 3 to 4 days before we were to start filming. We flew everybody down to New Orleans we began to spend money and the money fell through. So we had no idea what to do. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get these people back again if I didn’t go forward so I ended up mortgaging my home to make the movie and Jimmy Evangelatos, the other producer mortgaged his house. So, the movie was self-financed in the end. Just because we believed in it so much. And, very few people can believe it, but we shot the movie in 18 days.
CS: 18 days?
GALLO: Yes. Eighteen working days. We shot all the interiors. It was a true exercise in working just on instinct. We rehearsed it very much like a play. For three days before the shooting we really rehearsed everything and we read the script through with all the actors many, many times and figured out what we were going to do in advance and every last shot was complete – we did a storyboard and shot list and it was very specific as to what we were going to do and once we had a take, we moved on. We were kind of flying by the seat of our pants but by the second or third day we realized we were getting great film. The performances were great. The actors were all there for the right reasons. No one was there to make money. They were there to really do the best work they could, and the thing about making a movie like this is literally, and I’ve never had this happen before, we were in our trailers for actors to go in their trailer and if we were shooting in the house the other actors would be in the house watching. Or they would be upstairs watching. We were all very much a part of it. And one time we had a storm kick up and Ron Perlman and Ray Liotta were moving equipment. You just don’t see things like that happen that often. It was really a big wonderful family experience that I’m never going to forget.
CS: Was that intimidating for you? I mean you called in all these favors and they are all hinging on you being as good as your work is, your directing is. Did you feel any sort of pressure that they gave up so much and that “I really have to make sure that this is THE one?”
GALLO: I actually did feel that kind of pressure. I would have no soul if I didn’t. I think it forces you to do your best. The other thing that was great about it was, and I hope I’m answering your question, is there is no one there in a suit and tie driving me nuts. They just drive you absolutely insane. They put you in charge and then they screw it all up. I never felt more like a filmmaker. Every decision I made was for the good of the film. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about appeasing some executive. It was all about the good of the work. Trying to make the film the best possible film you could make. And frankly, I haven’t felt that kind of energy and joy since I was a kid. Because I used to make Super 8 movies when I was a kid. I had this GAF 805 which had a little sound stripe on the side and I would make these movies with my friends and there was a kind of energy and joy in what I was doing. Now it is so much about commerce and it’s so much about all this stuff that has nothing to do with the film. Sometimes you feel like the film is just an annoying by-product for these studio cats. It’s more about their political agendas. It’s not a lot of fun to create under those circumstances. CS: Tell me about the art, as it plays a pivotal role in the film – the landscape artistry and these really important ideas about romanticism and landscape portraiture. When I think about modern landscape artwork, and I’m not comparing your work to anything, but what pops in my head is Thomas Kinkaid. Something in that commercial vein. Is there a contemporary landscape artistry that isn’t being sold out of the malls in America?
GALLO: There really is. This is what is sort of sad. In 1974 when this movie took place, representational art in the United States was probably at it lowest point and the abstract movement was at its highest. The colleges were already probably on their second generation of art students that had absolutely no classical art training. The notion of the art school was that if you in any way shape or form knew how to draw or model form or did anything vaguely representational, was somehow giving away your freedom of expression. I think that idea works in theory but it’s a nice sort of romantic, artistic notion, but a cameraman who doesn’t know anything about film or light doesn’t seem like anything particularly useful to me. It’s the equivalent of hitting a grand piano with a sledgehammer. I guess it would be a form of expression – could be music I guess – but not something that could move you. You would hit some chords together but you wouldn’t know why you did it. You could probably replicate. Is there any of it going on today? Yes, there are definitely pockets of it. There is some real good work being done but by and large I think most of it is pretty commercial. I’d say 90% of it is pure clap-trap. But there are 10% of painters out there in America that are doing it for all the right reasons. I mean they are trying to express those first steps that were taken 100 years ago. They are picking up on it and starting to run with it. One guy is Richard Schmid, another guy is Clyde Aspevig who is a brilliant, brilliant painter who paints a lot of things in Montana. And there is a whole movement of trying to bring back that sense of classic training and romanticism and training back. I don’t want to be misinterpreted. There is a lot of truth in the abstract movement but I think it’s wrong that it’s the only accepted art form. I just think it’s a little nervy.
CS: I’m thinking about the movie MY KID COULD PAINT THAT. I wonder sometimes, if I were to stand in front of an abstract piece, whether I’m the only one that is just not getting it when there is no context.
GALLO: Listen, Chris, I screwed up. A lot of it became the Emperor’s New Clothes. And a lot of it I think was an enormous colossal scam where the painting became less important than the viewers dialogue about the painting. Like if you and I could look at the same painting and have a screaming match about is it or is it not art…that became the sport rather than the piece’s relevance on its own. It’s fairly inarguable that Andrew Wyeth is a good painter. Look at Christina’s World, you look at the Helga series, you look at the iconic classic images of them and it’s done. It’s just not a debatable thing. You can’t say he doesn’t know what he is doing. It is very clear that man is in complete control of his medium. His thoughts, his heart, his hand in what he is trying to do. These other situations are debatable and that I think became the sport.
CS: Thinking about the artwork itself, what was it like to carry it from your head, to the paper to the screen? Surely there must have been some nervousness on your part that some it might become lost in translation along the way?
GALLO: The entire situation for me was very bizarre. The only way I could describe it was that I was always fascinated when I read early novels by a lot of great authors that their first works were their best and then they go through a period of being lost and a lot of times as they get older and they keep writing, their later works can be amazing too, you know? You come back around and get in touch with something that was youthful in your work. LOCAL COLOR, to me, was like writing my first novel because I think most first novels are written by people about things that they know – draw from the well, people that you know, things that have happened to you, obviously you change things around because you’re a writer and stuff. But in general, that’s what LOCAL COLOR was like for me. I was writing about something that was incredibly near and dear to my heart. I was writing about people that shaped my life. And the one fear I had about it was that nobody on the planet was going to give a shit other than me. And I did the last thing I wanted to do was a vanity project – like look at my life. I didn’t want to do one of those things. I just wanted to share an experience that changed me. And hopefully what I was gambling on was that it was universal enough. It’s the most personal stories to me are always the most universal. Everyone is so unique but if something moved me so deeply, I had to make a leap of faith that others would be moved by the same thing. Sorry I talk so much. I get on a subject and I can’t shut up.
CS: TYou said you wanted to make this film look like a painting... How hard was it for you to take real life and frame it like that?
GALLO: A lot of what we did, the cameraman is Michael Negrin, is a very, very dear friend and I think he’s a genius. Not only does them movie look so beautiful but the speed that we moved and to make this movie look as good as it looks is largely because of him. What he and I did a lot was, you can only do that if you have 100 days so what we did could only be done by lots of pre-planning. We looked at tons of books on painting, a lot of Andrew Wyeth books, because I wanted to get a sense of beauty and loneliness and kind of a sense of isolation. In the farmhouse section of the movie, in the middle two-thirds of it, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to do it scope. We wanted a wide screen format we wanted to do two-thirds sky and one-third land and the compositions, which is an old John Ford trick in those old Westerns, you know, the idea that nature was bigger than man so we did a lot of framing like that, did a lot of deep shadows, didn’t try to make anything look artificial, make it look like things were lit from the outside. The first decision, we looked at a lot of painting books and photographs and the first thing you start to notice is that each image has to be very strong. Obviously there is no camera movement – paintings don’t move. Let’s just shoot the entire movie in tableaus. Let’s not movie the camera hardly at all. Let’s stay true to the subject matter and if that’s the case we can’t trick the movie out at all. We can’t have any big dolly moves – no fancy moves or anything fancy because that will get in the way of the story. But that’s a bit of a gamble too because that means the movie is going to take more time. And the audience is going to be engaged by the situations of the characters and the beauty of each image or we’re going to loose them right away because movies move at a much different pace. And I was like, “Well, that’s too bad. I can’t think out of fear. I can’t make decisions for you out of fear. I have to make them out of what’s right for the piece, and the story is a very simple story about a kid with a dream who wants to be an artist and he looks up to this old man and in his mind and his heart he sees the world in a different way and I have to get the audience to get to see and feel the world the way the kid sees the world.” But we did.
CS: The idea of keeping sentiment -- some of the film deals with the idea of sentiment and having a place in art, whether it does or does not – I don’t know if I have an understanding if sentiment does have a place in art – whether it should or whether there’s too much in a piece – where do you come down on it?
GALLO: Well, it’s definitely a balance. I think that there is a difference. I think it’s a word that got misused over the years. I think what used to pass – there’s a great line in the movie NETWORK, where William Holden says to Faye Dunaway, “Your generation regards sentimentality, my generation regards simple human decency.“ And I think we have hardened up to some degree. It’s sad. I don’t understand that if you err on the side of sentimentality, that you can err on it sometimes, that you can go too far. That’s a little gooey there. Directing, if anything, is just about making choices and trying to keep a balance of some kind. It’s sad and a comment about the state of affairs that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of problems with certain segments of the audience, especially film criticism. If you err on the side of too cynical or too bombastically violent – cynicism seems to be OK. Cynicism a lot of times to me gets misread as just being genius. Cynicism mixed with a certain kind of wit is incredibly entertaining. I bust out laughing at a lot of it because there is a certain degree of truth to it. But in the end, cynicism is a disengaged way of looking at the world because you are not really a part of it if you’re cynical. You are a commentator. You are someone sitting on the sidelines commentating on what’s going on. When you are stuck in the middle of it, real love is messy. It’s wonderful. It’s hugging, it’s kissing. It’s violence. It’s hatred. It’s sex. It’s joy. Real life is messy. And if you’re immature in life, you’re going to get bruised. You’re going to get bloody. You’re going to go through all these wonderful moments, these horrible moments. So sentimentality is an aspect. I think you can go too far as you can with any color. But to disregard it as something viable and to divorce yourself of a certain kind of humanity or when you’re working – as you get older you see older people – if you ever take the time to talk to someone who is in their 80s sometimes you can write them off but the truth is they have seen more of life than we have and I think there is a certain kind of truth that hits you when you really are close to the end and you start to re-evaluate everything and you basically know what’s important and what isn’t important. Because you are down to very basic thinking. The same thing if you are trying to shoot a movie in 18 days. The basics man. There’s no time for stupid over analysis and things that plague if you have an inordinate amount of time. When you have 18 days to make a movie, you are down to basics man. I feel like I’m going all over the place.
CS: And it seems like it has been like that – all over the board – through all the processes – from beginning to finish. What’s your mind like now?
GALLO: On this movie?
GALLO: I’m very proud of this film. In the end I’m just... Look, if I can speak frankly, I’m just glad I didn’t fuck this thing all up. (Laughs) Do you know what I mean? Not only because I put my house up but I convinced my best friend to put his house up, I’m glad I delivered. I’m actually, in all honesty, I’m very surprised that that many people from different backgrounds respond to this movie. I’m quite surprised. I’ve talked to 13-14 year old girls who just kept the disenfranchised family thing you know. I’ve talked to 18-19 year old college kids who understand the idea that they want to do something to do with their lives but not sure they have the talent whatever that is, they have some sort of urge some sort of drive but they haven’t connected all the dots yet in their head. I’ve talked to older people who completely get Armin and his whole personal struggle, was it worth it all after all or not. Anyway, I am quite astonished at that. The other thing that I’m astonished at is all the wonderful press that it’s gotten. And some of the amazing reviews that we’ve gotten. Really some pretty glowing reviews like maybe your mom wrote. (Laughs) We broke a house record at Harkins Theatre [in Arizona]. We jumped 58% in our third week. That just doesn’t happen. No advertising. Completely on word of mouth. There is such a disconnect, such a disconnect in Hollywood in what they think you want to see and what an audience really wants to see. They are so fucking out there.
CS: What’s the problem? Have you had any people flirt with it by saying this is something we might be interested in?
GALLO: I did have a lot of flirting and finally now have some interest and it’s now all based on numbers. I literally had a head of a studio tell me, and you can print this, this is a very well known guy…that said my soul was too uplifting for American audiences. Now, I’m not making that line up but I’m telling you, I looked at him and said, “Dude, it’s very funny. What you are saying is exactly what the movie is about.” At Tribeca we sold out four screenings and had to go to seven. This film has won awards at film festivals and I’ve seen how people respond to it all over the country. It’s hard when there is a certain kind of mindset out there that if a movie doesn’t have tons of violence or sex or some kind of discernible perversion of some kind then distributors don’t know how to sell it. So I say “How about if you sell it because it’s really good?” and you hear crickets. But we are getting lots of interest now from theatre chains. We’ve gotten calls from Seattle, Harkins is going to take it out wider and we got a call from the Drexel chain in Columbus, Ohio and Pennsylvania and I’ve gotten calls from New York and Florida. So the world will end up seeing this movie. We’ve gotten thousands and thousands of hits on our website from every artists group in the world that has been following this so that’s very interesting. When you get calls from artist organizations in Japan asking when the picture is coming to Tokyo, I’m sure we’ll end up doing OK in the end.
CS: As you look at what you have, a finished film and looking back at where you started out decades ago in Hollywood, does it surprise you that you are running into this distributor issue after seeing what you’ve seen in your time?
GALLO: I guess I shouldn’t be. I’m sure it will work out. We all have to believe in happy endings. The work that I did, the work that I do, I wouldn’t have put so much of me into this if I didn’t think there would be some sort of good conclusion but I don’t know what that good conclusion is. It might be a completely different conclusion than what I had in mind. But I know the movie will do well in the world and what I mean by that is that I know it will be an inspiration to people and as a result, part of the reward really…part of the reward is watching people respond to it. Most of the reward is watching people get very moved by this – that something that happened to me can actually move others. I wouldn’t mind coming out of this even. (Laughs) I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t like carrying a note around this big every month but I went into this with my eyes open. I just think the success of the film will take a little longer than I anticipated. Everything about it seemed to work in its favor. When things were going when we were making it, I think it’s all going to lead to something good.
CS: The orchestration was genuinely impressive, seeing how so many independent movies have wretched soundtracks. LOCAL COLOR is a step above. When you saw the movie in its final form, like a novelist seeing his book all finished, what kind of reaction did you have towards it?
GALLO: I felt very happy. A movie is a bizarre thing. [It’s a] painting you have some control over to some degree. I paint very rapidly. If you’re painting an impressionist painting in a field somewhere you want to finish two thirds of the painting in 90 minutes. The sun moves rapidly so you work at the speed of thought – you react, react, react. A movie is a whole different animal because a lot of time goes by from whatever that first thought is, that original thought that goes through you head you get hit with a rush of emotions that you can’t even describe. Whatever those little nerve endings are feeling, you try to somehow bottle that and keep that as the key. You hope that will be the end result three years from then when you are finally done with it. That’s a hard thing to keep together. But overall, yes, I’m very pleased with it. It pretty much lives up to what I was hoping it would be and in some ways it’s better than what I had hoped it would be. To answer quickly, what you said about the score, Chris Boardman who wrote the score did an absolutely fantastic job and that was another example of people coming together helping out and doing stuff for nothing. We recorded that score at Sony when John Williams was about to record the soundtrack for Spielberg’s MUNICH. That was just all freebies and people helping out and me talking to the musicians union explaining what we were doing. A lot of people just came and helped out because they had a long relationship with Chris Boardman who wrote the score. It was just a lot of people giving their time – it was pretty amazing.
CS: That had mean something when people said, “Yeah, I believe in you, I believe in this.”
GALLO: It’s hard not to believe in people especially when people do such horrible things to each other but, like at the end of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, when everybody came running in to help Jimmy Stewart, it still gets me choked up. It’s a very similar situation. I’ve been very good to people over the years. My wife and I and my house – a lot of people have crashed here when things weren’t going well for them and I didn’t do it because I wanted to bank the karma like it would all come back if I did good stuff. I did it because they are my friends and I always take care of people if I can. And it was amazing when I started calling people up and asking if they could help me or give me some time, I can’t believe how many people said yes and came running. A lot of that goodwill is in the film, too.