Although the movie is based on a true story, it has been indicated by Billy Hayes himself twenty years after its release, that what is presented in the movie is a very exaggerated version of what happened to him in the prison in Istanbul, Turkey.
In a scene at the airport, the middle-aged Turkish customs officer (played by Joe Zammit Cordina) supposedly speaks Turkish to Billy. However, in reality, he is speaking Maltese after he forgot his lines in Turkish, and he decided to use his native Maltese at the spur of the moment. The only Turkish words he speaks are "pasaport" (passport) and "canta" (bag).
The scene in which (Billy Hayes) Brad Davis bit the tongue out of a fellow inmate upset the crew so much, that they all walked off the set, leaving Alan Parker to shoot it with his two actors. For the scene, Davis carried a pig's tongue around in his mouth.
Billy Hayes' speech in the courtroom scene in the film, went far longer than it did in real-life. In it, Hayes gives a long, dramatic soliloquy against the Turkish penal system. This part of the scene is made up.
Producer David Puttnam has mixed feelings about this project. He was happy with the finished cut, but when he saw the film with a paying audience at a late night showing in New York City, he was deeply disturbed by the audience's reaction to some scenes. They were cheering and clapping, instead of the desired effect of being repulsed by the characters' actions.
Prior to principal photography, Director Alan Parker wrote a letter to the cast and crew. Publicity for the picture reproduced it. It said: "Firstly, to say something before we start. Secondly, to warn you about a very difficult film, and thirdly, because I heard Ingmar Bergman always did it! As you have gathered from the script, it is my intention to make a very violent, uncompromisingly brutal film, the subject matter of which will no doubt take its toll on us all. This is not just a boring prison story set in claustrophobic cells and corridors. It's much, much more than that, a prison no one's ever seen before. It's difficult to put into words, but I would like the audience to be shaken and shocked that such things happen, almost to the point of disbelief, but never to lose them."
Oliver Stone was a new, largely untested screenwriter at the time, so when he was commissioned by Alan Parker and Producers Alan Marshall and David Puttnam, they fully expected his first draft to be just a starting point. Parker, indeed, expected to take over and write the screenplay after Stone had completed his first attempt. The screenplay that Stone duly delivered blew all three away. They all had to admit that it was a superb first draft.
The large group of Turkish police and soldiers at the Istanbul airport, which are on-hand to search each passenger before they board the jet, was another attempt by the filmmakers to portray Turkey as an authoritarian police state, but in reality, this real-life event that Billy Hayes encountered, of a thorough search of each passenger, was in reaction to the P.L.O. hijacking, and subsequent destruction, of four passenger jets in Europe, occurring just four weeks prior to the event portrayed at the beginning of the film on October 6, 1970. There are two somewhat oblique references to this event early in the film: (1) A headline on the paper that Susan is reading on the bus that takes them to the plane ("Nixon Outraged at Palestinian Hijackers") and (2) In the car after Billy Hayes' arrest when Tex says, "You decided to fly at a bad time . . . guerrillas all over the place, blowing up planes . . . four planes in four days."
Billy Hayes visited the Maltese filming locations during principal photography two years to the date he had escaped. Hayes said: "It was so true to life, that I started to sweat. It was obvious to me that everyone concerned wanted to make a film that says something, and there's a lot to be said. Hopefully, we can shake people up, and move them to do something for all those others who are still locked up in stinking hellholes around the world."
Columbia was pushing hard for Richard Gere to take the lead role, but Alan Parker was very unhappy with this decision, especially as Gere refused to audition for the role. Parker persisted in screentesting other actors, and had three very strong auditions from Sam Bottoms, Dennis Quaid, and Brad Davis. These helped make the studio see that Gere wasn't the best choice. (The casting of Dennis Quaid would have been very interesting as his elder brother Randy had already been cast.)
The film was released a year after its source book of the same name by Billy Hayes was published, but the story told by Hayes in his book is very different from the movie. Nearly all of the villains and most dramatic events in the film, are made up.
Billy Hayes visited Turkey in 2007, and in a widely publicized press conference, stated that the movie was a gross exaggeration, and a one-sided misrepresentation of his experience in Turkey: He expressed his regret and accepted responsibility for the damage the film inflicted on Turkey's image worldwide for decades. Reportedly, even today, a quarter century after its release, people cite the film as a reason not to visit Turkey. It has been loathed by Turks as a misrepresentation of Turkey since its first screening in 1978. According to Hayes, both Stone and Parker misrepresented his experiences during his incarceration, and included gross exaggerations of his treatment in jail and of his encounters with Turks during that time. Hayes told reporters in Istanbul that he has been trying for years to correct these misperceptions in the media, but that his voice was drowned by the powerful images created by the film and its makers. Underlining that he had made friendships with many Turks, before and after he was incarcerated, he noted that the movie's storyline did not depict even one such "good Turk". During his visit to Istanbul, Hayes also gave an interview to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, where he issued apologies to Turks for all the problems the film created, and reiterated that many brutal scenes of mistreatment depicted in the movie did, in fact, not happen. His remarks last week in Istanbul are not the first time that Hayes publicly regretted Midnight Express. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, published on January 10, 2004, Hayes stated that "he feels awful that the film gave a brutal reputation to the entire nation of Turkey," and that it also bothers him that it depicts all Turks as monsters. In Hayes' words: "The message of 'Midnight Express' isn't 'Don't go to Turkey. It's 'Don't be an idiot like I was, and try to smuggle drugs.'" (July 2, 2007)
The first director that Oliver Stone approached with his script was Michael Cimino. Cimino has said that, though he loved the script, he had to pass, as he was about to begin shooting his passion project, The Deer Hunter (1978). Both films wound up being nominated for Best Director and Best Picture at the 51st Academy Awards in 1979. Cimino wound up winning in both categories. Regardless, Cimino developed a good relationship with Stone, and the pair later worked on Year of the Dragon (1985) together.
Publicity for this picture told of the start of the letter that Billy Hayes wrote to his parents in 1970. It read: "Dear Mum and Dad, This is the hardest letter I've ever had to write. I know the confusion and the pain it will cause you, and the disappointment. I was arrested at Istanbul Airport yesterday, attempting to board an airplane with a small amount of hashish." This letter was written in 1970 by Billy Hayes, a clean-cut American kid who had only twenty-three hours to go before he would graduate from Marquette University. It revealed the start of a chain of bizarre events, which brought Hayes close to being sentenced to life imprisonment in Turkey.
To find a suitable prison for filming, location scouts were conducted in Crete, Cyprus, France, Israel, Italy, Sicily, Spain, and Malta, the latter country being successful with Fort St. Elmo, which doubled for Istanbul, Turkey's Sagmalcilar Prison. The fort was the site of the legendary Great Siege of Malta in 1565. The original Turkish prison could not be used for self-explanatory reasons.
Alan Parker never officially apologized for the gross misrepresentations, and the anti-Turkish tendency in his film, but he said at a 2003 Berlinale press conference, that he would do things "differently" today.
Costume Designer Milena Canonero went to Turkey and surreptitiously sketched clothing of prison guards and the local populace for the picture. The film's press kit states Canonero "displays a very different side of her fashion talent with Midnight Express."
The picture's production notes stated: "There is no doubt that Midnight Express will provoke national and international controversy, not only because of what actually happened to Billy (Hayes), but also because it continues to happen to others today. There are thousands of young people who, while travelling in foreign countries, make an error in judgment, disobey an obscure or non-existent law, and, due to inexperience and unknown foreign customs, are sentenced to long years in sordid prisons, cut off from outside contact, and to all appearances, abandoned by their governments."
Alan Parker once said that this film was "The first story which could be made in Europe with a British crew, and had a chance of making it in the States. It's an American story; it doesn't compromise; and it's the opposite to what I've done before."
The pulsating score was composed by Giorgio Moroder, whose work as a solo musician had brought him international acclaim. This movie was the first time he had scored the music for a theatrical feature film.
Closing credits: This picture is based upon a true story and the characters of Billy Hayes and his family are based upon living persons.The other characters depicted in the picture are fictional, and no other persons are, or are intended to be, portrayed in the picture, and any similarity to the name, character or history of any persons is entirely coincidental and unintentional.
Mary Lee Settle says in her book "Turkish Reflections" (1991) that "The Turks I saw in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Midnight Express (1978) were like cartoon caricatures, compared to the people I had known, and lived among, for three of the happiest years of my life."
The film was also entered and selected to screen in competition at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival where it competed for the prestigious La Paume d'Or (The Golden Palm) award. The international audience responded with instantaneous acclaim.
The film's opening prologue states: "The following is based on a true story. It began October 6, 1970 in Istanbul, Turkey". In fact, most of the events shown in the movie, either didn't happen, or didn't happen in such a dramatic way. Most of the villains are fictitious, and for example, the brutal showdown is a complete invention by the filmmakers. The story told by Billy Hayes' in his book, is very different and far less dramatic. It might even be considered "boring" after seeing the sensationalist film first.
Oliver Stone apologized in 2004 for offending Turkey with this movie. "Visiting Turkey for the first time since the movie was released in 1978, Stone admitted "over-dramatizing" the screenplay, which he wrote. 'It's true, I over-dramatized the script.' Stone told reporters in Istanbul, before holding talks with Turkey's Culture and Tourism Minister, Erkan Mumcu. Stone said that the country had improved greatly since 1974." (The Guardian, December 16, 2004)
Executive Producer Peter Guber said of this film: "We knew when we chose to make 'Midnight Express', that we were tackling an explosive and controversial subject, but we were determined to do it as honestly as was humanly possible."
Filming this movie, in the real Sagmalcilar Prison in Istanbul, Turkey, was out of the question. It was only after an intensive location search was conducted in Spain, Italy, France, Sicily, Cyprus, Crete, and Israel, that Alan Parker and his producers agreed on shooting the film in Malta.
At the end of the movie, Billy Hayes killed the head guard, Hamidou, by pushing him into a clothing rack and impaling him. In real-life, it wasn't Billy Hayes that killed the head guard, but a recently paroled prisoner, when he spotted Hamidou drinking tea at a café outside, and shot him eight times, killing him.
Oliver Stone's screenplay ended with a detailed account of Billy Hayes' escape attempt, traversing through other countries to safety. During filming, Alan Parker felt that all of this was completely unnecessary, as the emotional resonance of Hayes leaving the prison was sufficient. Turning the movie into an action adventure was a big mistake in his opinion.