Someday Productions and Pillow Talking are proud to present this exclusive interview with film maverick and hyphenate, John Gallagher. John is an award-winning director, writer, producer, teacher, and author who has built a solid portfolio of significant films. More importantly to us, John is a long time colleague and friend. In this interview, John talks candidly about his work and experiences in the industry. A more detailed bio is included at the end of the interview.
John, thank you for granting us this interview.
PT: We go back a long way. You have a long and distinguished career as an independent director, writer, producer ,etc. To what do you attribute your longevity in the business?
JG: The ability to keep making product that entices angels to invest in new projects. I’ve directed one studio-financed movie, the other 21 features and 25 shorts on which I’ve served as writer, director and/or producer were all funded through private equity. My films The Deli and Blue Moon proved to be especially popular and continue to help me to this day raise money for new films. It’s also true that the more work you do, the more new work is generated, assuming that one can maintain a standard of quality – something I’ve always striven for, especially with performance. The digital revolution has also been a factor, lowering the amount needed to make a movie. Bottom line, the longer you kick around and people know you and your work, the more you can work.
PT: What attracts you to certain projects?
JG: I’ve written almost everything I’ve directed so my creative impulse is somewhat homegrown. Whether it’s my own script or something I’ve been offered, there must be a story that has something to say (in a subtle manner, not with a hammer over the audience’s head), and especially “actable” roles for excellent actors.
PT: How do you decide in what capacity you will be working on a project, for example, directing as opposed to producing, etc.?
JG: I consider myself first and foremost a writer-director. I initially became a producer to protect my work, much as writers become directors to protect their work. I have produced a number of films as a mentor to first-time filmmakers and, frankly, these were not pleasant experiences for me, primarily because the neophytes (often fresh out of film school) would not heed or take advantage of the veteran’s advice. In recent years, however, I have been blessed to produce or exec produce for several new directors, and these have been wonderful experiences: Gabriele Altobelli on Uncomfortable Silence and American Fango, Kelsey O’Brien on Enchantments, Marianne Hettinger on Mango Tango, and currently, Brian Vincent Kelly’s feature doc The Brezinski Project. I’m expecting another good experience as Executive Producer on Joe Benedetto’s upcoming Gumshoes.
PT: What role do you like best?
JG: Directing first; writing second; teaching third; producing last.
PT: We noticed you use a lot of the same actors from project to project. What are some of the advantages of working with the same actors? What are some of the disadvantages?
JG: There are many advantages in developing what amounts to a “stock” company; I was definitely inspired by the many great directors past and present who have done exactly that. It is a great benefit to intimately know what an actor can do, especially when I’m writing a role for a specific artist and know they will give me 1000% regardless of the part. If I say “Jump off the Brooklyn Bridge,” they will ask me, “Belly flop or on my back?” When you work repeatedly with the same actors, a family, a creative tribe is created, and you begin to share an almost telepathic communication. When new actors join the family, they are immediately embraced and feel the love, making them feel safe creatively. I have found no disadvantages to casting repeat actors.
JG: Since Martin Scorsese is the Cinema God of my generation, it would have to be people like DeNiro and Keitel for starters, though I have directed Marty’s mom in a movie and dozens of actors who’ve worked with him. As for others, how about some of my favorites – DiCaprio, Stefania Sandrelli, Christoph Waltz, Marisa Tomei, I could go on and on.
PT: What book is on your nightstand right now?
JG: Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris.
PT: Tell us about any influences on your work.
JG: John Ford, William Wellman, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Tay Garnett, King Vidor, Leo McCarey, Gregory LaCava, Victor Fleming, Henry Hathaway, William Wyler, Orson Welles, Elia Kazan, Billy Wilder, John Cassavetes, Sam Fuller, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Lina Wertmuller, Francois Truffaut, Jean Luc Godard, Sergio Leone, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Mel Brooks, John Sayles, John Milius, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, PT Anderson, Mark Carducci, Steve James, Sylvia Caminer, and my parents Vincent and Lee Gallagher.
PT: Tell us your five favorite films of all time.
JG: This is the toughest question of all! As of right now, and this will no doubt change tomorrow – the original King Kong (1933), Wellman’s Wings (1927), Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), Coppola’s The Godfather Part Two (1974). Can’t resist another five: Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967), Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961), Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970). Incidentally, I have been giving out my list of 100 essential films to my acting and directing classes for years…so now you know how hard this question is for me!
PT: Tell us about your background – education, training, etc.
JG: I was born and raised in New York. At age 13 my family relocated to suburban Philadelphia. Throughout my childhood I was a ravenous student of cinema, especially enamored of vintage Hollywood and Italian cinema (my ethnicity is half Sicilian, one-quarter Colliano Italian, one-quarter County Mayo Irish). At the age of seven I started tape-recording credits off of hundreds and hundreds of old movies on TV, writing them down and taking notes on the film on index cards, and continued this practice until I turned 14 or so, giving myself a massive education in our film heritage. I started making Super 8 mm films when I was eleven, first starring my kid brother Vinny, and eventually, the prettiest girls in high school!
I graduated film school from Boston’s Emerson College, where I edited a cinema journal called Grand Illusions, featuring my interviews with Francois Truffaut, Elia Kazan, Tay Garnett, Steven Spielberg, John Milius, Rouben Mamoulian, John Ford’s cinematographer Winton C. Hoch (The Quiet Man, The Searchers) among others. Upon graduating, I heeded the advice of Milius, who told me to jump start a directing career by making my own movie. At that time (1980), an aspiring indie filmmaker generally made a horror movie or a teen sex comedy. I chose the latter, and with my schoolmate Marino Amoruso, fashioned Down the Shore, a PG-13 rock ‘n’ roll comedy with beer, bikinis and a Romeo and Juliet plotline (such as it was), following a group of Italian-American kids from Brooklyn and preppies from Main Line Philadelphia (milieus I was intimately familiar with from my own upbringing) on summer holiday in Ocean City, New Jersey. Marino and I wrote it, he produced, I directed, and two months before we had alerted our friends to be ready, Sid Abusch, an accountant on Long Island, committed to financing of $250,000. He didn’t bother to read the script, he just told me, “Kid, I like your chutzpah.” Classic. In our naivete, we cast only friends and family, but we were smart enough to hire five professionals on the crew. New Line Cinema bought the movie, re-titled it Beach House, released it as one of the last of the drive-in movies, and I had a directing career at 24.
Many ups and downs followed of course, the same kind of downs that haunt most filmmakers: broken promises from fake investors, monies dropping out of a project at the 11th hour, etc. It seemed however that for every down there was an up: I directed my college chum Denis Leary in two shorts; he and I were brought to Israel to write a screenplay (unproduced) for Rafi Shauli and Arnon Milchan; I did time in Hollywood, where I adapted Or I’ll Dress You in Mourning for Ridley Scott and Richard Gere (unproduced, I mean, come on, did they really think American audiences would go for a movie about bullfighting?); eventually came back to New York to direct the action flick Street Hunter (1990), which I wrote with the star, the late great Steve James. It was John Leguizamo’s first starring role. Other features as writer-director are Men Lie (1994), The Deli (1997), Blue Moon (2000), and Cupidity (2004) – all of which won many awards on the international festival circuit, and as a producer, Animal Room (1995), The Insurgents (2006), Mother’s Day Massacre (2006) and Mango Tango (2007), in which I also acted. I developed a reputation for discovering or giving significant early roles to such talent as Leguizamo, Leary, Amanda Peet, Gretchen Mol, Zach Braff, Vincent Pastore, Matthew Lillard and others, all except Leary introduced to me by my go-to casting director Judy Henderson. I also had a TV show on Manhattan Cable called The Directors Series, syndicated to film schools, interviewing hundreds of filmmakers and actors, most notably Dennis Hopper and Lee Marvin; many of these interviews are available on YouTube, and formed the basis of my book Film Directors on Directing. I started teaching acting for the camera and on-camera improv at One on One NYC 20 years ago and continue to hold classes there; taught at the Neighborhood Playhouse for six years; at Shetler Studios for three years; and am a frequent guest at Susan Batson Studios, all in New York. I have also been on the directing faculty at School of Visual Arts, and next year my book Nothing Sacred: The Cinema of William Wellman, co-authored with Frank T. Thompson, an epic study of the great director, will be published in 2016. I have also been on the board of several film festivals, and have been the NYC programmer for Internationales Filmfest Oldenburg (which the trades call “the German Sundance”) for the past 20 years, in my opinion the best filmfest on the planet, thanks to its director Torsten Neumann.
PT: Tell us about your recent work – what should we look out for?
JG: I currently have three features and two shorts on the festival circuit. Features: I directed The Networker, starring Steve Stanulis, William Forsythe, Sean Young, and Stephen Baldwin, a comedy/drama that will be selling internationally at the American Film Market in Santa Monica, with a release in first quarter 2016 (www.thenetworkermovie.com). I am Executive Producer on Kelsey O’Brien’s terrific lesbian wiccan rom-com Enchantments, booming on the circuit with eight festivals to date; and co-writer and co-producer on the switch comedy Sam, executive produced by the great Mel Brooks, directed by his son Nick.
Shorts: I recently directed the drama We Remember starring Kohl Beck and Artie Pasquale, and directed, co-wrote, and co-produced the faux docu-comedy Act, Naturally starring Samantha Scaffidi (remember that name), Mia Pinchoff, Jeffrey Gurian, Sean Kleier, Bradley Stryker, Andreas Schaap and Gabriele Altobelli. Both Scaffidi and Pinchoff came out of my One on One classes. I have, in fact, cast over 400 actors out of my classes during the past two decades … much better than auditions.
PT: Tell us about your future – what is your agenda?
JG: We have several projects in active development; what gets made first depends on what gets financed first. I’ve written and will direct the gangster comedy All Mobbed Up, starring Kohl Beck, Samantha Scaffidi, Joe D’Onofrio, Brian Kelly, Steve Stanulis and a lot of my pals from The Sopranos. Men of Violence is an action movie written by Jeff Gurian that I will direct and co-produce with the film’s star, Steve Stanulis. William Forsythe, Cathy Moriarty, Vinny Pastore and Mike Starr, among others, are attached.
Stanulis and I have optioned a hilarious comedy called The Move, written by one of my favorite actors, Brian Kelly, with whom I’ve done 11 movies since 1995, and Chris Russel. Also in the directing pipeline for me is a contemporary adaptation of Euripides’ The Medea, and the film version of Lucie Pohl’s brilliant one-person show Hi, Hitler! to be shot in NYC and Berlin.
There is also a mob revenge movie, Payback’s a Bitch, produced and starring Johnny “Cha Cha” Ciarcia (the unofficial Mayor of Little Italy) and a cast of familiar character actors, for which I directed a product reel; and Walter, a serial killer movie with a hopefully fresh take on the genre.
Last summer I produced (with Charles Randolph and Sibyl Santiago) and acted in Gabriele Altobelli’s feature directorial debut American Fango, and I am currently an Executive Producer on Brian Kelly’s directorial debut The Brezinski Project, about the life and times of forgotten 80s Lower East Side artist Edward Brezinski.
PT: What is the best advice you can give to young filmmakers just starting out?
JG: It is imperative that young filmmakers know their film legacy, imperative they see as many films as possible. You can learn as much, sometimes more, from a bad movie as you can from a good one. I wrote a line for Lauren Bacall when she was presenting Robert Osborne with an award – if you haven’t seen a movie from 1932, it’s not an old movie, it’s a new movie – a line I’ve heard Osborne use on Turner Classic Movies. Speaking of TCM, this network is a gift from God; it used to be very difficult to see vintage cinema … now it’s there 24/7. I would highly advise all young directors to take acting classes, something I never did; consequently it took me a long time to figure out how to work with actors, something that only happened for me after I directed some theatre. A thick skin and tenacity are also mandatory, and the ability to trust your instincts. As in any business one must be careful about who you work with, the users and abusers, the liars and the bullshit artists; I’ve unfortunately encountered more than my share. There’s a great line in Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) when Cesare Danova says to Harvey Keitel, “Honorable men go with honorable men” – true in any business, especially the film business. That goes for women too, of course! Finally, an alternate way of making money is most desirable. In my case it’s been teaching and writing.
PT: Apart from the film business, tell us some of your other hobbies and interests.
JG: I love history, reading, travel, friends, cooking…and especially watching all kinds of movies.
PT: What is on your bucket list?
JG: My bucket list these days is very simple – stay alive and create as much as possible. On November 30, 2013 I was almost killed in an apartment fire, spent six weeks in a coma, three months in a burn center ICU, then three months in a nursing home learning to walk again. The doctors gave me only a 15% chance of survival … I am alive. If I did survive, they said, I would have to be on oxygen the rest of my life…I breathe on my own and I walk on my own. They said not to expect to work for a couple years. While still wheelchair-bound, I received the offer from Steve Stanulis, to whom I will be eternally grateful, to direct The Networker. It’s the story of a second chance so it really hit home. It has been my second chance. I am unbelievably blessed to be alive, unbelievably thankful for my extraordinary legion of friends and my amazing family who brought me through this ordeal. Frank Capra said it in It’s a Wonderful Life, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives.” I found that out the hard way, and I am eternally grateful to still be here making movies, and making the most out of my life. I beat the devil and got back up on the horse. That’s plenty for me!
Award-winning filmmaker/author/educator John Gallagher is well-known for his eye for talent – John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Amanda Peet, Michael Imperioli, Matthew Lillard, Vincent Pastore, Gretchen Mol, and Zach Braff are among the actors John has cast in debut or significant early roles. His movies, including the indie cult comedy The Deli, have been licensed by HBO, New Line, MGM, Warners/Ryko, ABC, Columbia, Tri-Star and Showtime. Other features as writer/director include Blue Moon (Ben Gazzara, Rita Moreno), Men Lie (Frank Vincent), Cupidity (Steve Stanulis), and Street Hunter (Steve James). He directed the feature comedy/drama The Networker starring Steve Stanulis, William Forsythe, Sean Young and Stephen Baldwin, was a screenwriter and producer on the feature switch comedy Sam, executive produced by Mel Brooks, and executive producer on Kelsey O’Brien’s rom-com Enchantments; all three movies played the festival circuit in 2015. Since 2008 John’s company 305 Media Group has been involved in 10 features and 20 short films; he also is a respected film historian and the author of Film Directors on Directing, with his definitive book about William Wellman set for publication in late 2016. He has taught at School of Visual Arts and The Neighborhood Playhouse, and continues at One on One NYC and Susan Batson Studios. www.jgmovie.com.