Review/Interview by Bears Fonte
The story behind Julian Fort’s THE MIDNIGHTERS and his star Leon Russom is similar to the one inside the film. “It was almost like a movie father and son because he’s worked in business for so long,” says the writer-director, who crossed paths with Russom time and time again at a coffee shop. You may not know Russom’s name, but you’ve seen his work. With over 100 credits, including Prison Break, The Big Lebowski and the 2010 True Grit, Julian’s star has been in the business a long time. “Someone pointed out to me that I’ve been an actor for maybe 55 years or more and I’ve never played a lead like this,” says the actor, “and [the film] is the perfect metaphor for your situation.”
Russom plays Victor, a former safe-cracker fresh out of prison after thirty-five years. With the shadow of Shawshank’s Brooks Hatlen hanging over Victor’s situation, he even tells his old friend that he’d rather be back inside than try to adjust to this new world. Everything changes when he connects with the son he never met, Danny, who offers him a safe-cracking job for 10 million dollars. “The movie for me is really about my escape and my trying to break into Hollywood,” says writer-director Fort, “it’s something that I’ve been trying to do my whole life and I don’t come from a big money background so it’s been very difficult. And Leon’s been trying to be a leading man for his whole career, he’s had an amazing career playing, you know, the fourth man.”
I had a chance to speak with both Fort and Russom after THE MIDNIGHTERS world premiered at Dances With Films – one of my favorite festivals for discovering bold indie filmmakers, and Fort’s film has stuck with me as one of the strongest of the year. It’s a family drama, with a heist backdrop, or a heist thriller with a family drama backdrop – either way, the combination lifts the film into rare territory, and add to that the seldom seen focus on an older actor, and the film truly stands out. “For about a year we just kept bumping into each other,” says Russom, “and finally we would call and go ‘are you on your way to Starbucks’ and we would close the place and then stand outside shivering and talk.”
Out of those talks came Fort’s idea that he would write something for Russom. “If I wrote something tailor-made for you and we kept it really small what sort of story would you be into,” he asked him during one of their long chats. “He didn’t think about it for more than 30 seconds,” Fort remembers, “it was just sort of off-the-cuff and he said ‘I’d love to play someone whose child is in trouble and they come to me for help’ and I said ‘can I set in the crime genre’ and he said ‘why not’ and that was it.”
At the start of the film Victor is listless. After 30 years of hanging on in the joint, his parole officer barely acknowledges him as a human, he feels unqualified to do anything but be a greeter at Walmart, and the money he felt was waiting for him, buried since his last job, was stolen in 1995 and no one bothered to tell him. The only thing he is good at is criminal and out of step with modern technology. “If I’m really honest with myself, I think I picked up on this sadness from both him and I about where we were professionally and creatively in our lives,” says Fort, “I just saw something in his face… there’s this innate melancholy there and I think that has a lot to do with how I saw his character and where the role itself materialized from.”
Russom calls the script a ‘gift,’ and easily compares the moment to Victor’s own, confessing “Somewhere out of the blue, like Danny, there is the script, after 50 years of playing two and three scene parts.” Victor is an incredibly nuanced part, a man that finds himself in a situation completely out of his control and spiraling into further chaos. After years of a regimented existence in a tiny cell and little choice, Victor steps into a whole mess of emotion and conflict. “It starts out like one of these Italian neo-realistic films like Pasolini,” muses Russom, “These films about abject poverty or loneliness, old age, people just not coping with life very well in the aftermath of World War II. For a good chunk of this film you get the feeling that that’s all that’s going to be going on, this is just going to be about the misery of getting out of prison when you have no concept of the world your entering. But then when it segues into a heist and it was a surprise to me.”
Although this was always the plan, Fort admits it was also a necessity. “People’s attention spans are a lot shorter these days,” says the director, “it’s hard to get people to watch a movie about an old man biding time.” Instead, drawing from seventies crime films like Straight Time or The Taking of Pelham 123, Fort weaves a story of anxiety and desperation around a character that has nowhere to go but death. For Russom, “in the first half it’s like staring at a blank wall and going ‘something will move sooner or later if I can just hold out long enough,’” and then Danny shows up with the ultimate opportunity. Of course the money is only part of the heist, Victor’s need to feel a part of something is quickly overshadowed by his desire to protect his son from the gambling debt he rung up to a couple Russian mobsters.
“He has learned how to endure,” explains Russom, “thirty-five years in prison for a relatively nonviolent person is quite an education I think he sort of learned to take things as they are. He’s a survivor. And then a gift arrives out of the blue of his son and he gives him purpose. Not the heist itself – but to protect his son. That gives him a source of anxiety but it also gives him a reason to live.” If the film starts with defeated Victor, but not bitter, instead a resigned Victor, he now has a drive that he hasn’t felt for thirty-five years. The film, like Victor, accelerates quickly, leaving the slowburn drama of the first half behind.
“The PR person told me to call it ‘brooding’ not a slowburn,” confesses Fort, but the film speaks for itself. All the cavernous character work of the first 45 minutes really pays off in the second half as Victor and Danny try to survive working with a team of morally destitute Russians straining the relationship. “I spent a lot of time playing psychological games with myself as I was writing the script,” the director says, “talking back and forth with the characters trying to figure out exactly how much I could reveal.” Which is my signal to say, like most heist films, not everything is as it seems.
THE MIDNIGHTERS succeeds at every level, but more than likely because its foundation lies in a very real relationship between a writer and an actor, both wanting to do something bigger than they feel the world has given the opportunity to pursue. “A first-time filmmaker doesn’t know anything about what it’s like to get thrown into the fire,” says Fort, “but above all else Leon was such a fantastic collaborator – he had never starred in a picture before and I’d never made a feature film before – and the thing that was so amazing about Leon is that he approached it like a 25-year-old… he had the energy and enthusiasm, there were no airs about him on the set, he was sort of everyone’s favorite, he got along with everyone, it was like a kid in the candy shop. He’s in practically every shot.”
THE MIDNIGHTERS continues its festival run this Friday at the Twin Cities Film Festival (http://twincitiesfilmfest.org/films/the-midnighters/) and arrives in Florida at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in November. Check out a clip from the film below. It’s a real sad and sweet moment,” says Fort, “where this man, after 35 years in prison, is sitting down with a beautiful woman, a prostitute, and just completely lost… It is the moment that the character realizes his life is just over.”