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Interview with VANQUISH writer/director George Gallo

April 14, 2021


Known primarily for combining humor and action in his screenplay for 1988’s “Midnight Run” with Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin, and in the story for “Bad Boys”, which catapulted Will Smith’s career, writer/director George Gallo has directed almost as many movies as he’s written, starting with 1991’s “29th Street” a dramedy with Anthony LaPaglia and Danny Aiello. His latest is the action crime thriller “Vanquish”, the second of three movies in which he directed Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman, along with the upcoming “The Comeback Trail”, which reunites Gallo with DeNiro.

Gallo wrote “Vanquish” (from a story by Samuel Bartlett) with Freeman in mind for the part of Damon, a decorated cop left in a wheelchair after surviving acts of heroism in the line of duty. His caretaker is Victoria, played by Ruby Rose, a former courier for the Russian mob who is now primarily concerned with raising her daughter Lily (Juju Journey Brener), who is dealing with a life-threatening medical condition. One night, Victoria learns Damon isn’t as reputable as she was led to believe when she learns of his ties to local corrupt cops. This revelation becomes personal for Victoria when Damon kidnaps Lily in order to get her mother to make five stops around town, picking up large sums of cash and bringing them back to Damon. Once that’s accomplished, Victoria gets her daughter back and Damon is then ready to close out his empire. Of course, things don’t play out that easy and both characters wind up making decisions that alter their plans and inevitably impact their lives.

Along with being a writer and director of movies, Gallo is also an accomplished, award-winning landscape painter. That came up briefly during my recent phone conversation with Gallo in promotion of “Vanquish”, as did where he likes to visit when he stops in Chicago and the ups-and-downs of rooting for the Cubs. Of course, we talked about working with Freeman and Rose, along with his aesthetic approach in this genre exercise. It was enjoyable experience talking with Gallo. Check it out below…



writer/director George Gallo (photo credit: Tom Caltabiano)



DAVID J. FOWLIE: Hullo, George. How you doing?

GEORGE GALLO: Hey, David. I’m doing good, buddy.

DJF: I’m coming to you from Chicago, where I write for my own site called Keeping It Reel.

GG: Mmmm, I do love Chicago.

DJF: Yeah? What’s your favorite thing about Chicago?

GG: Well, there’s an old school tobacco store there called Iwan Reis. I like to smoke a pipe on occasion and they have this Vanilla Burley tobacco and it’s probably the best smelling/tasting stuff in the world. Every once in a while…about twice a year, I treat myself. And of course, the pizzerias, and Taylor Street…I just love the place.

DJF: Yeah, there’s lots of great restaurants on Taylor Street and all over the place here really. I notice sometimes you incorporate Chicago into your screenplays, right?

GG: Yeah, “Midnight Run” I certainly did. I have a couple close friends who are from Chicago. I’m originally from New York, but two of my friends were Chicago Cubs fans and for twenty-some odd years they drew me into that nightmare of rooting for the Cubs (both laugh) and, you know, at the end of every season I was like, “Don’t do this to me. You drew me into your madness,” you know, I’m depressed at the end of every summer. So, I was like, “Knock it off!” (both laugh) And then finally, finally, finally, they won!

DJF: Well, it’s a precarious thing following any sports team.

GG: Yeah, you know and Joe Mantegna was like, “They’re not gonna win, George. Just get it out of your head. Just forget it! Forget it! (both laugh) It’s never going to happen!” So, he couldn’t believe it either.

DJF: I also noticed that you incorporate in your screenplays and in some of the movies you direct a good deal of humor, whether they’re straight-up comedies or action or drama. How important is that to you and how easy is that for you?

GG: Well, you know, there’s just something about me personally, you know every story we tell plays to their strengths, I suppose. I just see humor in stuff all the time. I just kinda can’t help it. You know, I was raised in a very working-class family and I think the only way my father and mother got through things was by seeing the humor in stuff. Financially they were always kind of behind the eight ball, but they would make jokes. It was like the lubricant to get people through like. So, I guess I adapted that philosophy. I don’t know if it’s genetic or if it’s learned, but whatever it was, it’s just…you know, whenever I see something terrible, the worse it is, the more I kind of get the giggles, which is kind of why my wife and I get along so well, because we both have that kind of propensity. You know, if somebody says something horrible, we’ll both just giggle. So, when I write something, I see a lot of the humor in it. There’s so much humor in humanity and in behavior, you know?

DJF: For sure. I just think of the way the guys in “Midnight Run” behave and how hilarious it is.

GG: Yeah. You know and on paper there’s nothing terribly funny about their situation, but the way the people keep reacting to them, that’s it. Because that road trip is totally coming apart. You know, one guy’s taking another guy into certain death, but yeah, there’s something funny in the way those characters all interact and I also think it’s when they kind of start to fall in love with each other.




DJF: Oh, for sure. There’s definitely less humor in “Vanquish”, but there’s subtleties there. I know that casting is everything, which is why “Midnight Run” which wouldn’t have taken off without that cast, but…

GG: …absolutely true.

DJF: …so, what was it about Morgan Freeman and Ruby Rose that did it for you. While you were coming up with these characters, did you have them in mind? Did they bring something special to these characters?

GG: Well, every actor always brings something special. I love actors because they bring life to it. No matter how clever a writer you are, it’s still a work in progress until the actors become those people and breathe life into everything. I did write Morgan’s part with him in mind. This is the third time in a row I’ve worked with him and he’s become a very very dear friend. So, I did write this with him in mind. He knew I was going to do this with him, but for Ruby’s character, I didn’t really have a complete fix on her. In my mind, I wanted her to be very very tough and at the same time I wanted her to be vulnerable and that was sort of an interesting mix. I didn’t want the movie to ever get ridiculous. It’s sort of in a slightly alternate universe, in that you never know what city you’re in and one cop has a New York accent and the other has a Southern accent…I kept it very vague as to what city it is. It’s just a city somewhere in America. We never know where we really are. I made certain creative choices, like I had no extras anywhere on the streets or any of the locations, because I just wanted the whole thing to feel very very isolated and closed off from the way the real world is. But, with Ruby’s character, I didn’t couldn’t quite see her clearly until I met Ruby and within a couple of minutes of talking with her I could just tell that she could really nail it, because she’s got both of those things, you know. I believe that she could walk around with a gun and shoot all those guys without blinking and she also has something vulnerable about her at the same time. So, I didn’t want her to be a cartoon, I wanted her to be pretty real as a person and then the second you put her and Morgan in a room together, you could tell they like each other very much, which is always very very helpful. I mean, obviously, Ruby respects Morgan immensely and he took to her instantly and they became good buddies. I think you could tell in the performances that they were really having a good time and they cared about each other about making the other person look good.

DJF: You mentioned this feeling of isolation, what kind of decisions had to be made in the production design and art direction of the movie, you know, as far as the colors you use here, in order to emulate that vision? Obviously, putting one character in a sit-down position for the whole movie is in a way isolation and while the other person is moving around a lot, but then you have this aesthetic that conveys isolation. What factors did you have to consider when approaching that?

GG: Well, that’s a great question. The first thing we talked about is no extras, as I said. This is really a world a part. We didn’t even have any other cars on the street. It’s just empty streets, kind of an alternate universe. The other thing we talked about was a color palette for each of the characters because there are different stories – you know, similar to “Midnight Run”, in that there are other stories going on against the main story. I wanted to establish that we were in this separate universe. So, for instance in Morgan’s world, it was a very icy blue and in the past world is was almost like night vision, kind of this green mist with no pretty aesthetic whatsoever. Each one of the stops that she made, we were always mindful how repetitious this could get if we weren’t careful. So, we came up with a color palette for each one of the stops, one favored red like when she stops at the drug den where she shoots the place up with the cocaine. We tried to make it very garish with the bar and the glowing lights in it. We were always trying to figure out ways to make it a little off. I used a lot of wide-angle lenses, where you see the ceiling and the floor, which helped because I tried to put them in empty spaces more to play up that idea of isolation.

DJF: It’s definitely like its own subculture or its own time-zone or a separate world…

GG: …yeah, exactly right.




DJF: Now, I had read that you were very influenced by certain Korean films. Can you talk about certain attributes that you wanted to incorporate into this story from those films?

GG: Yeah, the Korean gangster movies. I was not that familiar with them, but I started watching them when the editor (Yvan Gauthier), who’s like an action movie geek, he said to me, “You really have to start watching these Korean gangster movies”. So, I really started to fall in love with them. I must have watched like twenty-five of them (both laugh) and what I loved about them is that they were so earnest in the way they made them. It was like when a bunch of young filmmakers get together and they make a movie and they’re so damn excited about everything they’re doing and it’s not by-the-numbers, because some of the more B-gangster movies that are made by Americans, I always feel like they’re not trying that hard, that they’ve done them a hundred times and they’re not thinking about how to make them different. But, those Korean movies were really thinking out of the box. They really trying. I started to look at that and I thought there has to be a new way in, there’s gotta be a different way to shoot this stuff, because in the end they are genre movies and what happens in genre movies is that, you know, they’re all very similar in that…a mother’s daughter gets kidnapped and you’re doing things under duress and you’re going around town and you’re whacking a bunch of gangsters…but, there’s got to be some what to not make it all smack of the familiar too much. Seeing what those guys were doing, it inspired me and kind of lit a fire under me think out of the box and make it different, unique, and special. I tried not to think the same way in terms of cutting and I tried to think differently in terms of colors. So, that’s the approach we had.

DJF: On that note, in terms of colors…I know you’re also a visual artist. How does that inform you’re approach to writing and directing?

GG: Well, being a painter, I could look at a blank canvas – you know, I’ve been painting my whole life, I never stopped – I have the ability, because I’ve done it a million times, I could look at a blank canvas and I start to see the shapes and the colors and where things are gonna land. So, as a director, it’s very helpful that I can express these things or I can take out a piece of paper and put big shape here and a small shape there, you know, like a hard blast of light from one side to the other or from the front or the back or the top. I really live for this stuff, the psychology of lighting…you know, if you have an overheard light, you don’t see people’s eyes, so all of these things, they visually add up to something. So, I can express myself to the cinematographer pretty clearly, at least the direction I’d like to go on. The cinematographer, Anastas Michos, this guy was fantastic and his son was the operator, so those two guys were like a well-oiled machine. So, I would just throw out a few ideas and they would just run with it like crazy.

DJF: Are you working off of storyboards at all?

GG: I did with some of the action sequences, but I’ll tell ya, one thing about storyboards…when I’m on a location, I don’t like getting locked down too quickly, because I find that sometimes that if you get too locked into your thinking, you’re not paying attention to a whole bunch of happy accidents that can happen. You know what I mean? So, a lot of times I’ll just say, “This is the light pattern” and “This is the lens pattern” and I want the actors rehearsed and if an actor wants to move or if they say, “Can I cross on this line?”, you know, then if you’re using storyboards, they all go out the window. So, over time I’ve learned that storyboards are only helpful if you’re doing a big visual effects scene or an action sequence where you really can’t have anything happen by chance.



DJF: Gotcha. When can we expect to see “The Comeback Trail”?

GG: Well, it’s supposed to come out some time in June. That’s the rumor. It’s supposed to get a big release.

DJF: Okay, was that the original date or was it delayed?

GG: Oh, it’s been pushed back many times because of COVID. It was supposed to come out last November and then it was supposed to come out Christmas, then March and now they’re saying June.

DJF: Well, I’m looking forward to seeing that.

GG: That movie is a lot of fun and it performed very well so far and it’s going to be at a film festival here in L.A. in a few weeks…it’s just a big, fun, silly movie. I’m very proud of it.

DJF: Sounds like it must have been a hoot to make. I’d love to talk to you about it when it comes out.

GG: Please do. Yeah, I’d love to talk about it and yes, it was a hoot to make and it was quite the opposite of this movie, which was very very tense and very driven. This was just, we were just having a blast and couldn’t stop laughing all the time (laughs).

DJF: That’s cool. Hey, I appreciate your time, George. You have a good day.

GG: Thank you very very much.

DJF: Take care.

GG: You too.


“Vanquish” will be available in select theaters on April 16th and on Apple TV, and everywhere you rent movies on April 20th. 



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