This interview with Alan Parker was conducted in July 1978 by my friend and colleague David Brittain, who has given his permission for its publication. It was recorded at a time when the film was already causing considerable controversy. Aspects of this are reflected throughout the conversation in which Parker contradicts himself on the issue of the film’s anti-Turkish sentiments. The interview has been edited to improve clarity and readability.
DB: How did you first get interested in the story ?
AP: I was originally in New York talking with Universal about a musical ‘The Wiz’ and I happened to see the people from Columbia and they sent me Billy Hayes’ book and I read it [but] wasn't that impressed.
Then in a nice coincidence the producer who works with me all the time, David Putnam, went to the production company who owned the book.
So we ended up [with the project] for practical reasons. I was looking for something relevant I could shoot in Europe with my crew. I've worked with the same people for some time.
DB: What was the particular attraction to the story ?
AP: There were a lot of reasons. I was looking for something that was coming from a different direction from the thing I did before – the children’s musical ‘Bugsy Malone’. It seemed like the kind of thing I care about — people in prisons.
If one is very pretentious about it you say I care about the fact that drug sentences are different in different countries in the world .
I think it's very important that you do a film that people leave and start to talk about it.
DB: The film differs in many points of content and interpretation from the book.
AP: The film is a fiction. It isn't true. 80% of it is the autobiography and we've moved it 20% into fiction. The autobiography is probably 20% away from the real truth.
It reads like a cheap novelette because it was written by the boy with a ghost writer called William Hoffer. I think the guy was sitting at the typewriter and the boy would fictionalise the events in his memory - because we all fictionalise our memories. It read rather racy mainly because of the ghost writer.
DB: Was the script left entirely to Oliver Stone ?
AP: No. He was directed by me obviously. He wrote the screenplay here in my office. He was assigned to it during the period when I wasn't sure whether I wanted to do it or not. I normally write my own screenplay It was decided for me because they'd already employed him so I had to see what he'd do. He wrote a really good screenplay but then he and I talked and talked about certain things we had to change and we had to start [again] from scratch.
DB: Why was it decided to exclude the political factors affecting Billy Hayes' situation such as the US pressure on Turkey over prisoner repatriation?
AP: We hinted at it. That was our decision. Someone said at Cannes that because we were making a film for an American company [Columbia] asked us not to do this. We weren't. We just thought it was very boring actually. For me to make a film about Nixon being a crook seemed totally unnecessary at that point in time.
In no way did [Columbia] have anything to do with the screenplay. They took it and they took it on the chin as well. It!s not the kind of film they would normally want to do. I made the film I wanted to make and they stomached it. They had no control over the politics [or any] aspect of what I wanted to say.
DB: The film seems very xenophobic against the Turks.
AP: Certainly. Yes.
DB: Without mentioning the US, Turkey emerges as the villain. Was that intentional ?
AP: No. It's an error. The film is about injustice. A small minority of people say the film is anti-Turkish. It is anti Turkish without a doubt.
I wish that I'd put in - as one normally does - a couple of token Turks who are quite nice because I don't want people to get the wrong end of the stick. We decided originally that that would be a cop-out because, in the book, there aren't many nice Turks at all.
The film is about a very cruel judicial system and I'm quite happy to show it as such. If I made a film about the Gestapo I'd upset a lot of Germans or if I made a film about Russian labour camps I'd upset a lot of Russians. As a filmmaker I have to do that. But the film isn't anti-Turkish. I desperately hope it’s not anti-Turkish. It's also anti a lot of countries that actually have these kind of prisons.
DB: When people see it the main emotion will be anti- Turkish because they won't know it goes on anywhere else. Isn’t the film misleading people ?
AP: I might be. It is unfortunate. On the other hand you might argue that when people come out of the cinema, they'll be very angry at the fact that somebody can be given life imprisonment for having 2 kilos of hash on them [or] at cruelty in prisons.
DB: Have you been to Turkey?
AP : Yeah. I went in order to research the film. I didn't go inside the prison, I walked round it. That's as close as I got to it. I went up to the gate and walked away.
DB: Did you work with Billy Hayes at any time in the film ?
AP: Not at all. He was totally irrelevant for us making the film.
Brad [Davis] who plays the lead and I worked very closely with the book. Brad's inspiration for the part came from the book, more than from our screenplay to be honest with you.
I didn't want Brad to meet the real boy because I didn't want him to be disappointed [by] Billy. I was [also] concerned that [Billy] might be disapproving of how he was being portrayed. That could be a great strain on an actor in the middle of a film. But he turned up and he was alright. He's sufficiently opportunistic to not worry or shake the boat. [He was there] to have his photograph taken by American magazines
DB: Do you share Billy Hayes' convictions about the film that it will help other drug prisoners ?
AP: I don't know. I wrote a letter to the crew before we started, saying that I didn’t want the film to moralise about drugs. The film is about injustices or the inconsistencies of drug sentences. It's about the cruelties in particular prisons around the world.
I hope the film doesn't say everyone has a right to smuggle 2 kilos of hash. What I wanted to say was the fact that in California, a kid with a joint gets a parking ticket [but] when he's on holiday in Spain, that same joint will get him 15 years in gaol. That’s wrong. Either give him 15 years in both countries or give him parking tickets [in both]. I hope, in the end, that all countries will start to talk about it.
The film will be seen by millions of people and, hopefully, it will affect the attitudes [of] not just kids who are walking across the border with a joint in their pocket but also people in governments who are putting them in jail.
DB: You have a conviction then?
AP: Oh I hope so. You don't spend two years of your life in those conditions just to do interviews like this. I'd be a right schmuck if I didn't have some kind of conviction, otherwise I'd be doing James Bond films.
DB: How did you arrive at the ending ?
AP: It's fiction. In the real story, the boy goes to an island prison and [escapes by swimming] to a rowing boat and rowing to the shore. That had to be changed [for dramatic reasons].
The moment you get to the island you would almost feel the sun on his face and you would feel a loss of tension. Also the moment he moved to another prison, people like the John Hurt character or the main villain in the piece, would be lost.
Also in the book he goes from Sagmalcilar to the lunatic asylum at Bakirkoy [then back] to Sagmalcilar [before] he goes to Imrali.
For very selfish dramatic reasons I wanted him to go from bad to worse. [So in the film], he went from Sagmalcilar into the lunatic asylum [which I made] part of the prison. So you're in an Agatha Christie situation where you've got to evolve an ending where he had to get away from the prison.
I wanted him to take his destiny into his own hands. He needed to make the decision. He had a chance to shoot the guard but I didn't want him to kill because I didn't want him to resort to [being] the kind of human being that the guard had become. I wanted [there] to be a little bit of luck so that it didn't happen. These were fictionalised dramatic permutations of events.
DB: There was some talk in the press that ‘Midnight Express’ was deliberately ignored at Cannes. What's your opinion ?
AP: It had the best reception of any film for years and years and years and it was reviewed in most of the world's press — particularly in the United States - where we had unanimous rave reviews.
It was badly criticised by the left-wing French press who called it racist and it was badly criticised by certain elements in the British Press and ignored by the other half of the British Press — that is true. The reason is, to tell you the truth, because most of the British Press can only afford to go [to Cannes] for the last week. We were in the first week and most of them missed it.
NOTES FROM THE GENERALIST ARCHIVE:
1. According to the Hollywood Reporter (1st Sept 1978) one of the violent jail scenes in the film was deleted from the version to be shown in Dutch cinemas due to protests from Holland’s 100,000=member Turkish community.
2. According to the Hollywood Reporter (26th Feb 1979) the film had only just opened as, for six months, the Israeli censor had refused the film a permit at the request of the Israeli Foreign Ministry ‘who felt it would be an affront to Turkey, the only country in the area with which Israel has friendly regulations. The Israeli press protested against what it termed ‘the intervention of political censorship.’
3. According to Variety (27 December 1978) the film was praised by two major law enforcement agencies.
The International Narcotic Enforcement Officers Association awarded Executive Producer Peter Guber and Columbia Pictures the organisation’s annual Award of Honour for "’offering an unusual opportunity to warn Americans of the danger of breaking the laws of Foreign nations.’
The International Conference of Police Associations invited Guber to be a special guest at their 1978 convention to receive a special award for bringing home the dangers of drug smuggling.
4. The same issue of Variety reported that The Hoyt Entertainment Center in Sydney, Australia had received three bomb threats in a week (all hoaxes) associated with the screening of the film ‘which has enraged members of the Turkish community.’ It also reports that ‘Conversely, an Armenian student society is putting out handbills urging people to see the film.’
5. According to the Irish Times (23rd August 1978) the film was denounced by the Turkish Ambassador in Dublin who wrote that his country’s reaction to the film was ‘an intense feeling of chagrin, shock and disappointment. It is my sincere hope that Ireland will not have the misfortune of having to go through such an ugly experience and will not be made the target of unmitigated prejudice and hatred.’ The release of the film in Ireland was defended by Dermot Breen, the official censor, who passed it without cuts.
6. The US Catholic Conference slapped a “condemned” rating on the film, reported Variety (8th Nov 1978)’ In their judgement: ‘[Parker’s] pictorial style wallows in violence, as soft focus and close-ups detail tortures and murders, bloody brawls and horrid mutilations. All this gore seems hardly justified by the human rights plea of ‘Midnight Express’, a plea for which is seriously weakened by its slurs on the Turkish nation.’
The Turkish Reception of Midnight Express (1978) by Laurence Raw
Two decades later Turkish critics still found the film offensive. In a 1990 article Haluk Şahin called it “a Hollywood lie,” which made no small contribution to adverse images of the country in Western Europe and North America.
Billy Hayes was interviewed at the Cannes Film Festival, and admitted that he had been very disappointed by the adaptation, which he believed depicted “all Turks as monsters.”
The film was at last released in the Republic of Turkey, in the cinema and subsequently on DVD. Oliver Stone visited the country in 2004 and made an apology for the way in which he had portrayed the Turkish people and tampered with the truth. Six years later Alan Parker, Stone and Hayes received a formal invitation to a screening of the film with prisoners in a Turkish jail, as part of the 47th Golden Orange Film Festival in Antalya in the south of the country. The film had at last been rehabilitated; currently is available on general release at mainstream DVD stores as well as online in Turkey.