George Gallo is a man of many creative talents, including screenwriting, filmmaking, producing and painting. Since writing his first feature film, Wise Guys (1986), he has been involved in a number of successful movies including Golden Globe nominated Midnight Run (1988), and Bad Boys (1995).
His most recent film, Vanquish (2021), follows a former drug courier (Ruby Rose) as she is forced back into a dangerous criminal underworld by a corrupt cop (Morgan Freeman) in order to save her daughter.
VANQUISH (2021) is out on VOD & Digital now!
In this fascinating interview with Richard Williams and Aiysha Jebali, director George Gallo discusses how the two worlds of filmmaking and painting intersect, what it’s like to work alongside Morgan Freeman, and how hurricanes halted the filming of Vanquish (2021)!
He also gives advice to aspiring filmmakers on the importance of having fun while making a film and allowing the film to exist without you.
FF [Richard]: Today we are joined by George Gallo, director, writer, producer, artist, and pretty much any other hat you can put on a creative, George appears to have done it!
So… I’ve just alluded it to it in that introduction, but our audience may not be aware that you’re an award-winning fine artist and you’ve sold paintings, as I understand it, to the likes of Robert De Niro and Mel Gibson?
GG: Yes, those people have my paintings, I’ve sold them, but those guys are actually art thieves. They come by and just take what they want! [laughs]
Channeling creativity into filmmaking and painting
FF [Richard]: Fair enough. If you were given the choice to make one final film, or paint one final piece, what would you choose and why?
GG: Wow, that’s a heavy question. One final painting or one final movie. Whether it’s a comedy or a drama or whatever you’re doing, writing is all about conflict. There’s no resolution till the end of the story. Painting is all about harmony, for me. So it serves a completely different purpose.
After I make a film, the last thing I want is conflict. I don’t want any conflict in life. I don’t want anybody to be fighting. I just want peace and harmony, so then I just go and disappear into a painting, like, ‘Oh, look at that colour next to that colour. Oh look at that line next to that shape’. And so, it’s just a completely different thing. I love it. I started out as a painter that really was, and is really, my first love.
Chasing Crush, a film about the dramas of the wine industry
You know, there’s a couple of movies I would really love to make, there’s one right now I hope I get a chance to make. It’s interesting because it sort of combines my love of nature and painting. I’ve got a film that I’m talking to Ruby Rose and Antonio Banderas about. It’s about the wine business and a three-generation war between families. The whole backstory to Sonoma and Napa Valley is very, very interesting and I wrote a movie called Chasing Crush about it, which I’m going to be directing. I hope it happens and the finances come together. Do you know the movie Giant (1956), with Rock Hudson, it’s about the oil business? Well, this is about the wine business. And like I say, it goes back three generations to an immigrant that starts a tiny little vineyard that eventually blossoms into the biggest vineyard in Napa, and all the different wars that go on between the various vineyards.
It’s a really beautiful story. It’s about healing and about love and people that are archenemies, their grandchildren fall in love. It’s a really wonderful story. And maybe I could quit after making that one. But I won’t quit. Listen, I always say, ‘This is it, I’ve had it. I’m not doing it. This is not a job for an adult’ [laughs]. And then you think to yourself, ‘Ah you know what would be a good story?’ And before you know it, you’re off onto another.
Where are you guys based?
FF [Richard]: I’m in the UK. So I’m in England, and Aiysha’s actually in Scotland.
GG: That’s great. The brushes that I use for painting are from Rosemary Brushes, which is a UK company, she’s a dear friend. And the guy that makes my paints, Michael Harding, he has a UK company that makes the best paint in the world. Beautiful.
FF [Richard]: I can’t pretend to know an enormous amount about art, but what I will say is I have a massive appreciation for it, more so the older I get. I’m in graphic design, but I can’t draw for anything. That skill is just another world.
GG: It’s all shapes, shapes, shapes. Anyone can learn to draw if you can measure. That’s what somebody said to me years ago.
If I look at your face, you’ve got two eyes, if I can figure out the scale of one eye then it’s another eye to the other eye, between the bridge of the nose. And then it’s about two and a half eyes down to your nose, and then another eye down to your mouth, and then your mouth is just a little wider than one of your eyes, so it’s just measuring. I don’t mean to put you to sleep!
Vanquish (2021): a darker side to Morgan Freeman
FF [Richard]: Can you tell us what your film Vanquish (2021) is about please?
GG: Yeah, Vanquish (2021) is all based on backstory. It takes place in one night. It’s a thriller, certainly in sort of the traditional sense, it all takes place in a very compressed amount of time.
And Morgan Freeman is a retired police commissioner who was a hero cop, but he’s in a wheelchair from being hurt on the job. And then we come to find out he’s not a hero at all. He’s a terrible, horrible guy, and just corrupt to the core. And we’re not sure if he’s really a vicious guy or if he’s having a moment of redemption, we’re never quite sure throughout a lot of the movie.
And Ruby Rose is his caretaker, who cooks for him and takes care of him. But he’s sort of been protecting her because she has a very dark past and there’s a lot of people that would love her out of the way. She used to be a courier and ran all kinds of horrible schemes, and may even be involved in murder. But she has vowed to never do anything like that again. She’s got a lovely daughter now and she just wants to be a mom and turn her back on that world.
The way the movie is set up, she has to go back for one night to save her daughter and pick up all of this money, go back into the world that she vowed never to be a part of and deal with a lot of the people that want her dead. And during the course of the night, you realise there’s really something else going on. She starts to put together that this is not quite what it appears to be.
FF [Richard]: Yeah, from the trailer, it seems to me that Morgan Freeman had some fun with this role, as dark as it is. Would that be fair to say?
GG: Yes, it’s absolutely fair. He’s an old friend now. We’ve done three movies together and we’re gonna do a fourth movie. He’s just a great guy and we’re buddies now. And once you get out of the way that he’s Morgan Freeman, ‘Oh my God, that’s Morgan Freeman, who am I to tell him what to do?’ But once you get that out of the way, you realise he’s just this really sweet guy, and he just wants to do the best performance he can do.
He’s fun to direct, because he’s my friend. So he’ll say, ‘How was that? What do you think? Can I try this?’
FF [Richard]: I saw him do an interview, I think it was at Cambridge or Oxford University. He had some students doing a question and answer session and he was so down to earth, no airs and graces, very generous with his time, very warm with his answers. And he had the audience in the palm of his hand, not just because he was Morgan Freeman, but because he was so gentle and warm and really elaborated on all his answers. You could have expected something different.
Collaboration is the key to filmmaking
GG: He’s just a sweetheart. And I think a lot of times with actors, or anybody who’s creative, you make a movie and you work with a lot of different kinds of personalities. I think a lot of it, at the very beginning, is everyone’s trying to figure out if the other one is okay. Is the other one there because they’re an egomaniac? Or are they just there to try to do something good, collaboratively, and have a good time?
I try to put everybody at ease from the very beginning. I’m like, ‘Look, we all know why we’re here. We’re here to make a movie. We’re here to make entertainment. We’re here to make people laugh, cringe, scream, whatever. And let’s figure out a way to do this, let’s just all join hands’.
Everyone’s got a voice. I’m like the captain of the ship but I’m also listening to everybody on the crew. A lot of times, I’ll turn to anybody who’s next to me and say, ‘What do you think you?’ I think it’s the only way to do it. You put 100 creative people together in a room and then to not listen to any of them just seems insane to me. So making a movie is a big collaborative thing.
Somebody said to me years ago, ‘Don’t get so wrapped up in the work. In a funny way, let the movie become a by-product of you having a good time’. And I think if you approach it that way, suddenly it’s off your back and you’re just swinging and having a good time, like a bunch of jazz musicians. If you hit a wrong note, you hit a wrong note.
Director George Gallo brings something different to the thriller genre
FF [Aiysha]: So, how did you come to this point in your career? What was your journey to making this film?
GG: Oh you know, it’s funny. I don’t know. I was never particularly strategic in designing a career. It was kind of like Buster Keaton, I slipped on the stairs, and I just kept falling all the way down. And I landed wherever I landed.
I’ve always considered myself kind of a journeyman filmmaker in that I like all different genres. And I love movies. I’ve watched lots of movies. And I’ve always loved these sorts of thrillers. If they’re done right, they can be fun. A lot of times they can be by the numbers, if you’re not careful, because people make lots of them. And I said to myself, if I ever get a chance to make a thriller like this, I’m going to try to find a way to make it different, look different, feel different. And that was my way in on this one. I kept saying, ‘Look, there’s a version of this that you’ve seen a million times, and then there’s a version of this that could seem very fresh’.
I think part of it was casting Morgan and Ruby, they’re just not people that you would expect to find at the centre. Ruby possibly, because she comes from an action background. But Morgan, you wouldn’t think of necessarily as a corrupt, nasty, horrible human being because he’s so sweet and grandfatherly. And I think the combination of he and Ruby was very interesting because they’re very different people. And then thrusting them into this situation; a sort of a nail biter, and that has to get resolved in 12 hours.
In terms of the visuals, I kept thinking, ‘Alright, we’ve seen it this way, let’s try it differently. Where can we put the camera that’s different? What kind of lens can we use that’s different? What colour palette can we come up with that’s different?’
She makes five stops in the movie. So I’m like, ‘Ok, let’s have each place look just completely different from the last place. Have it populated by completely different people. And how do we do that? With wardrobe and visuals and colours. And how do we make the movie always seem fresh?’ Because a movie like this could get very redundant very quickly. You know, she goes and sees these gangsters and then these gangsters and these gangsters, I didn’t want to do that. So I said, ‘What can we do that’s different?’ And I think we pulled it off.
Shooting a feature film in less than 30 days
FF [Aiysha]: Awesome. So how long did it take you to actually shoot the whole film?
GG: It didn’t take us very long. You’d never know by looking at the movie. It all takes place on one night, so it was all night shoots. But originally, we had 30 days, and that started getting chipped away because we had to evacuate twice because of hurricanes.
We were shooting on the Gulf Coast. So we would shoot two or three days and then we had to evacuate because of a hurricane, so then we lost a couple of days. And we came back, we’d shoot some more, and then somebody tested positive for COVID. So then we had to shut down again. And then it turns out it was a false positive but then we lost another couple of days. And then we started shooting again for about 10/12 days and then another hurricane showed up and we had to evacuate again.
So I don’t know the exact amount of days, but in the end I probably lost about seven or eight days. But we managed because everybody on the crew was a spartan, we just muscled through and we got everything we needed.
FF [Aiysha]: Fantastic. It’s always interesting to find out how long it’s taken for a feature, because for some people, it can take quite a long time. And then other people, they just pound it out quite quickly. So it’s really interesting to hear how you actually make that happen.
Getting the shot: ‘There’s no point shooting 20 takes when you get it right the first time’
GG: Yeah, I’m not big on waiting, and I’m not big on shooting millions of takes.
I can tell you my Morgan Freeman story. The first time I worked with Morgan was several years ago on a movie, this is before I knew him, before we became friends. And the first day of shooting with Morgan, he goes, ‘Alright, where do you want me to stand?’ I said, ‘Can you stand over by the window because I want to get a silhouette of you. And then you turn, and you say your opening line’. And he said okay and went over to the window, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god that’s Morgan Freeman’.
And then we shot the scene, we shot the take. Then he looked at me and he said, ‘Anything?’ And I went, ‘Honestly, no. That was really it’. And he goes, ‘You and me are gonna get along just fine’. So after that, we became best buddies.
He’s Morgan Freeman, he gets it in one or two takes, that’s it. I don’t see any point shooting 20 more takes, you’re just gonna get 18 variations of the same great performance.
I’m also a landscape painter. And part of being a painter outdoors, is that the sun is moving constantly and rapidly. And if the sun is moving, you don’t have time to dawdle. You just have to get it down and get it down and get it down. Monet’s best paintings, he painted them in an afternoon. Van Gogh did the same thing, he painted those paintings in a night, some of them.
And I think once you start to say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m not going to give myself a million variations. I’m just going to live and die by the sword. I’m going to make this movie and stick to the essentials, the same way you paint a picture outside’. Then you start to make very strong decisions, and then you live and die by them. And you start to move very quickly.
And I gotta tell you, the crew loves it. The actors especially love it because you’re not killing them. There’s an interesting thing about acting, a real pro actor will know right away if you’re going to shoot a lot of takes or not. And if you shoot two or three takes and move, they know they have to bring it in two or three takes. If you’re going to shoot 30 takes, they won’t try hard until take 18. Because why should they give you their absolute best at the beginning, if you’re going to keep going anyway? So I always tell everybody I say, ‘Look, I’m not big on killing everyone’.
Plus, a lot all these people come from theatre backgrounds. If you’ve come from theatre, you’ve got to get it right the very first time, so they’re ready to go. I think they appreciate it, and I like working that way. I shoot and I move, and I shoot and I move.
Advice for aspiring filmmakers: ‘let the movie live without you’
FF [Richard]: What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers that perhaps you wish you’d been given when you started out?
GG: Two things. Take the work very, very seriously. But at the same time, don’t take it so seriously that you’re not having fun. Okay, the point of doing this is to have a good time. Two things were taught to me over the years. One person said to me, let the movie become a by-product of you having fun.
And the second thing was said to me by Sydney Pollack, a brilliant director and a very dear friend. When I was getting ready to write my first movie I said, ‘Sydney, do you have any advice?’ He said, ‘Yes. Let the movie tell you what it wants to be’. So while you’re making it, really watch what’s going on. You may have a preconceived idea. But if it’s starting to get comedic, because the actors are so funny together, he said, ‘Don’t stop them, let them go. There’s nothing wrong with a little comedy. There’s nothing wrong with a little warmth. If that’s the place, and it’s organically going, let it go that way. Don’t pull it back and fight where the movie’s naturally going’.
Look, you have a preconceived idea of what you want a piece of art to be, but then it becomes its own thing. It lives without you. At some point, you have to let it go and let it be what it wants to be. That’s the advice I would give any filmmaker.
Casting Ruby Rose and making a believable action sequence
FF [Aiysha]: So I just wanted to ask about your casting process. How did you approach that?
GG: Well, you know, it’s interesting. With Morgan, he’s my buddy, so when we were writing the script, I was writing it with him in mind. And I’ve got another couple things I want to be doing with him.
With Ruby, I didn’t know who was gonna play that part. I just had this sort of badass in my head, this badass woman. But the thing that’s so interesting about Ruby, is she’s very, very tough, but she’s also vulnerable. She’s always got those two things going on at the same time that I find interesting. So we just got lucky, to be honest with you. She was on a list of people and I talked to her and after being on the phone with her for a couple of minutes, I just knew she got it. She’s tough.
Because what I didn’t want to do is I didn’t want to make it unbelievable. Sometimes these movies are so absurd. And it’s not a male/female thing, but it’s like anyone who weighs 90 pounds beating up guys that are 400 pounds and they’re on steroids, it always looks a little ridiculous to me. So I said to Ruby, ‘Look, male/female doesn’t matter. I want to believe that you are just not afraid of anybody, and that you can really kick their ass, and you’re not afraid to take a knife or a gun. If you feel threatened, you’re going to do what you need to do’. And she’s doing it to save her daughter in the movie, so she’s also got that added thing. It’s like, ‘I’m doing this to save my child’.
So she got into a mindset that I think was terrific. It’s not the silly version of that character, it’s a very believable version that this woman will just dismember you and then go out and have a sandwich, she doesn’t give a shit. That’s the thing I wanted to get to. I didn’t want to make the movie self-aware and ridiculous. It just is what it is. And she’s just tough. She’s just tough because she doesn’t care. She’s going to get this thing solved.
The worst thing about being a director? Telling people they didn’t get the part
FF [Aiysha]: If you were to give an actor a piece of advice for auditioning in front of you, what would it be?
GG: Oh, it’s very funny. I’m not your standard director, I just love actors. Years ago, I was doing a movie, and we were seeing actor, after actor, after actor and it just wasn’t connecting. And I don’t know why, it just wasn’t. It was a comedy and I think people were trying to be funny.
And this one guy came in – he’s no longer with us – and he got the part in the movie. He came in and he sat down, and I could almost tell by his posture and whatever he was carrying in the door with him. I was like, ‘I think this is the guy’. I could just tell already. He just had something about him.
The opening line in the audition was, ‘That smell is the wave of the future’. And so the casting director said, ‘What’s that smell?’ And he said, ‘That smell is the wave of the future’. And I just said, ‘Stop. You got the part’. I just knew. I said, ‘I’m not going to put you through the other four pages’. I just knew. You could just tell.
A lot of times what’s sad about being an actor is they don’t get a part, not because they gave a rotten audition, they just weren’t exactly what you needed, what the movie needed. And that’s the part about directing I don’t like. I don’t like telling people they can’t get a part.
But if you’re painting a painting, going back to a painting analogy, if you need yellow, you need yellow. Orange is close to yellow, but it’s not yellow. So if yellow comes through the door, that’s what I need, that’s what the movie needs. You are putting together this big mosaic of pieces.
If you don’t get a part, don’t take it too hard. It probably had little to do with you.
FF [Aiysha]: Yeah, it’s something that we’re hearing again and again, actually. It can be something small.
GG: Sometimes a not very good actor will get a part and you go, ‘Why?’ He goes, ‘Believe it or not, that’s what that movie needed’. Not that it needed a bad performance, but sometimes a one note actor is exactly what you need. This guy’s a block of cement, there’s nothing funny about him, there’s nothing interesting about him. He’s perfect! [laughs] That’s what you need there. You know?
Was filmmaking harder in the ‘80s and ‘90s?
FF [Richard]: So my final question is, do you think it’s easier or harder to make it as a filmmaker now, compared to the late 80s/early 90s, when you started out?
GG: I think it’s easier to some degree in that you can make movies on iPhones. If I were a kid, I’d be running around with iPhones making movies with my friends, none of that stuff existed, you can cut them on your computer.
There was no way to do anything like that, you had to figure out a way to get your hands on $100,000, and shoot in 16 millimetre. I didn’t have any of those resources. I shot a lot of movies in Super 8, just to entertain myself. But you can do really terrific quality stuff today and show the world what you’ve got. Whereas like, when I was starting out, those options did not exist.
And you just get better the more you do it. You think you know what you’re doing until you’re on the set. And it’s the same, whether you’re making a movie on an iPhone, or you’re making it with an 8k camera with a giant film crew, it’s still an image. It’s an image looking at something, and you’re telling the story using images. That’s all it really is. So whether you’ve got a million people behind you, or it’s just you and the iPhone, it’s just an image. It’s got a frame, you can’t go beyond the frame, and you’re telling the story using images.
So yeah, I would say, probably a little easier. Plus, there’s all these great film festivals now. That stuff didn’t exist 150 years ago when I started, when dinosaurs ruled the earth!
Transcribed & Edited by: Keren Davies
Presenters: Richard Williams & Aiysha Jebali
Video Editor: Millie Hayward
Audio Podcast Editor: Juana Rubio
Visual Effects & Artwork: Richard Williams
Images & Trailer courtesy of: Lionsgate / Katrina Wan PR
Film lover. Coffee hater. Raising a newborn during a global pandemic and interviewing indie filmmakers in between nappy changes.