Interview: A Midnight Clear writer-director Keith Gordon
In Top 10 Films’ two-part feature actor, writer and director Keith Gordon, whose recent television credits include House and Dexter, talks about his 1992 film A Midnight Clear.
Sometimes I have to slap my own wrists. It is a necessity when a comparably modern film (certainly one within my own viewing lifetime) is happened across in passing as if it never existed before. It happens from time to time. However, while the self-ticking off is momentary the gratification in finding a truly captivating piece of cinema is something that lasts a lifetime. In this case, it was Keith Gordon’s 1992 World War II drama A Midnight Clear that walked with stoutly gait into my life.
I missed it on its original release and never caught up with it in the proceeding years. The result is a treat sadly missed but gladly received twenty years after its initial theatrical run. Now released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray, the second film as writer-director of Dressed To Kill and Christine actor Keith Gordon takes the less-than commercial Hollywood route through the character-defining (and breaking) destructiveness of the latter stages of World War II. This intricate character study, based faithfully on the anti-war novel by William Wharton, follows a group of American soldiers located in the Ardennes during 1944. When the Americans locate a group of German soldiers wishing to surrender rather than die in their country’s final offensive, they spend Christmas together before the madness of war rears its ugly head once again.Gordon tells Top 10 Films he was drawn to the story because of its ability to show the insanity of war despite the righteous cause. “I was used to seeing World War II portrayed as ‘good’ by Hollywood. To me, there is no such thing as a ‘good’ war. There may be an unavoidable war, but that’s a different concept. There was no way World War II could have been avoided once Hitler was in power, but that still doesn’t mean there weren’t hundreds of thousands of innocent very young men out on the battlefields murdering each other over politics and policy they had no hand in forming. That’s a great tragedy, despite the ‘rightness’ of the cause.”
There’s a definite sense of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory in A Midnight Clear of which Gordon says was a key influence. “It is one of my favourite films of all time and this seemed like a chance to do something in that anti-war vein. Especially with the U.S. becoming increasingly bellicose internationally at the time (the first Gulf War broke out as we started shooting) I liked the idea of making a film about the inherent insanity of war.”
William Wharton’s novel was based on the author’s own experiences during the conflict. Wharton was originally assigned to serve in an engineering unit before being dispatched to the infantry where he was severely wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. Gordon managed to speak briefly with Wharton, who shied away from the spotlight despite three of his novels becoming films, and it was he who explained everything in the film was based on his own experiences serving in France.
“Wharton’s book was terrific. It had the ring of truth about it, despite the almost surreal story. It had everything you look for in a good film. A powerful story, great characters, a visual sense of place, wonderful dialogue. I almost functioned more as an editor than as a screenwriter. Writing the script was more about paring down and focusing than doing much in the way of wholesale invention,” admits Gordon.
However, getting backing for a film that consciously turned its back on crowd-pleasing Hollywoodism – from grandiose action sequences to big name actors – meant the production was initially met with a number of road blocks. “It took about four years between finishing the script and having the money to make the film,” acknowledges Gordon. “Lots of U.S. companies were scared by the film’s politics and its lack of action sequences for a war film. And most wanted us to cast based on fame, not on talent, which was a deal-breaker for me.”
Yet part of the protracted pre-production stage was down to Gordon’s dedication to making the best film he could. “I knew if I didn’t have terrific actors, people you could really believe, I’d have nothing. So we held out to try and do it the right way. If we’d cast flavour of the week actors, and stuck on a happy ending, we would have gotten the film made much faster, but we also would have negated the whole reason to make it!”
Indeed, casting took a very long time. Gordon’s career as an actor could partly explain his patience in trying to find the best actors for the film’s diverse and often demanding roles. “To me A Midnight Clear was always a ‘performance’ film. In other words, if the actors were good and ‘right’, I could maybe get away with a lapse in another area. But if the performances weren’t strong, even if it looked great, I had nothing. So casting took forever. I saw literally hundreds of young actors.”
In a film that demands the actors spend a lot of time together as a group, the dynamic of the ensemble was also crucial. “It wasn’t just about getting the best actors, but getting actors that would work together,” says Gordon. “There were some actors who gave amazing auditions, but whose energy wasn’t right when I imagined them next to some of the other actors I wanted. And until I set Will (Ethan Hawke) I couldn’t set anyone else, since everything had to sort of hinge off Will’s look, age, and energy. Everyone else had to compliment that character’s presence.”
Once finances were in place, the cast was hired and the locations had been chosen, Gordon spent two weeks rehearsing with the actors before production. He recalls this was a real luxury given the budgetary constraints, especially because it was important that the group bonded. As well as intensive rehearsal, the cast also went through military-style boot camp training to aid not only their camaraderie but also their believability as soldiers. The director was also keen to show how soldiers can make mistakes out in the field. He says it was vital the actors knew how to do something right before they could authentically portray it wrong. It also meant girlfriends and wives were discouraged from set to ensure the “squad” remained together all day, every day. “That really paid off when we shot the film,” says the director.
Gary Sinise leads the cast in A Midnight Clear promotional image
Of course, the financial constraints meant the production designers were stretched to the limit in bringing the film to life. Gordon took his cast and crew to Utah to shoot the film where World War II in France was recreated. The director praises the work of D.P. Tom Richmond (who has shot all Gordon’s features), and the “mad genius”, as the director calls him, production designer David Nichols. It was about working as efficiently and effectively within the financial constraints as possible.
“Ultimately, we built the exterior of the chateau (which is really just a three-sided cascade) in an empty field, and David created the world around it; the statues, the gates, the cemetery, etc. It was all just a big empty field before he started.
“For our interiors we took over an abandoned High School, and made that our ‘studio’. The gymnasium became the ‘great room’ where so much of the story takes place. We were even able to use the elevated indoor running track as a place to hang lights! While we still had to build a lot, having a space to work in, and at least some usable architecture to build off of allowed us to create that world on our limited budget.”
Part 2 of our interview with Keith Gordon continues our look back at the production of A Midnight Clear while we also take a look at the writer-director’s early years as a young actor working with the likes of Brian De Palma and John Carpenter on films such as Dressed To Kill and Christine. We also ask him if the shark behaved itself in his debut feature film Jaws 2, and find out what’s in store for Keith next…
A Midnight Clear can be bought on DVD and Blu-ray now. Order the Blu-ray through Amazon.co.uk here.