"I think people who make movies start out with kind of lofty ideals," said director Martin Brest, whose "Midnight Run" opens today. "But it's work that conspires to put you into a cold, clinical professional mode very quickly. What I keep telling myself is that in making any movie, I've got to reflect and convey to the people I work with the reasons why I wanted to get into the business in the first place."
The bespectacled and faintly academic Brest makes giant candy-store movies that combine the best elements of fun and craftsmanship. He turned George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg into geriatric bank robbers in "Going in Style" and delivered the definitive screen Eddie Murphy with "Beverly Hills Cop."
"Midnight Run" is a cross-country romp about a skip tracer (Robert De Niro) working for a bail bondsman who agrees, for a steep commission, to escort a former mob accountant (Charles Grodin) from New York to Los Angeles. But the seemingly simple task is complicated by the accountant's fear of flying and a series of roadblocks provided by pursuing FBI agents, mob henchmen and a rival bounty hunter along the circuitous route.
Sitting in Patrick's Road House, a funky roadside restaurant off the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica, Brest orchestrated his speech with animated gestures, talking about a film he completed less than two weeks ago.
"(Writer) George Gallo had come to me with another idea which I wasn't keen on," Brest said, recalling the beginning of his involvement with "Midnight Run." "But then he told me an anecdote about an L.A. sheriff (deputy) who was assigned to transport a prisoner from New York and discovered this guy had a deathly fear of taking planes. I thought that was the beginning of something very interesting."
The incident served as the catalyst for the screen adventures of De Niro's and Grodin's characters. On the other side of the camera, it evolved into a complex, 10-city shoot that Brest said was easily the most difficult emotional and physical challenge he has faced as a director.
Five weeks into the four-month filming, his camera crew, assistant director and several other key technical and production staff quit. A source who worked on the film said a combination of the rigorous pace and a lack of personal chemistry between Brest and those crew members quietly came to a head. The source insisted that "there was no smoking gun."
"My job is to create an environment where people can do their best work," Brest said. "Therefore, it's essential you share a common attitude with your collaborators. Generally, my instincts about who I'm compatible with are pretty good. This time, I made a mistake."
Actor Charles Grodin said the director had a "fiendish dedication" to the film that included working cast and crew members on Sundays, through lunch hours, even on Thanksgiving.
"Marty wants you to work harder, and because he's giving his all you want to do your best," Grodin said. "I can think of times when I was gasping and freezing and he'd ask (De Niro) and I, 'Have you got one more (take) in you?' It isn't in my ethic to say no, but I also really want to do another because I know he's looking for something better."
Grodin had an agreement with Brest that he wouldn't be asked to do anything physical that the director wouldn't do himself. Before filming scenes in fierce white-water rapids, Grodin said he asked Brest for assurance that he wouldn't be bashed against a rock and Brest explained the safety precautions being taken.
Finally, Brest told Grodin that he couldn't give him an absolute guarantee he wouldn't be hurt, but offered to jump in to show him how it would work. Grodin said he didn't want to win his point the hard way, but Brest unexpectedly dived into the raging waters.
Emerging several minutes later, soaked and bedraggled, he thrust his hands into the air and gasped triumphantly, "See, nothing to it."
"I feel in a peculiar way like an astronaut when I'm making a film," Brest said. "I shed all my humanistic characteristics when I'm working. I don't eat a lot, don't sleep much and, other than what I'm addressing in the film, don't carry on too many conversations. I'd like to be able to do other things, to contemplate what I'll do next, after we've finished shooting for the day, but I can't."
For the moment, Brest is content to watch his film open and enjoy time with his wife, producer Lisa Weinstein, and their 14-month-old son, Isaac.
A graduate of New York University Film School, Brest arrived in Hollywood as an American Film Institute Fellow in the mid-'70s. He said he cut classes at the institute to work on his first feature. When he was caught, he said he was put on probation and told that the institute "makes film makers not films."
"I pursued film because I thought this was the coolest job," he said. "I loved the idea of working with writers and musicians and photographers and actors at the same time. It sounds corny but the opportunity to work with De Niro was a dream come true for me. I truly am happiest in a working environment where I can encourage and create surprises."