Billy Hayes spent most of the seventies in a Turkish prison after trying to smuggle hash out of the country. His experiences were made into the film Midnight Express, which starred the late Brad Davis, and he is now a happily married film maker living and working in LA.
His 2002 directorial debut was with the film Cock and Bull Story, a violent but earnest tale about a sexually confused boxer and his friendship with a guy from the wrong side of the tracks.
Billy spoke with Mark Adnum in March 2003.
MARK ADNUM: Billy, my first love was Brad Davis as yourself in the 1976 film Midnight Express. It’s a performance that’s had an impact on a lot of people. What response have you had to it, at the time of the film’s release, and over time in the almost thirty year’s since?
BILLY HAYES: I loved what Brad did because his heart was into it. He touched people, like yourself, for example, and that’s what I still want to do—affect people and change the world in whatever small or large way I can.
MA: Most people, when they think of “Billy Hayes”, imagine Davis, the sexily suicidal movie star who doesn’t resemble you physically or otherwise. Apart from your book, your profile is limited, and the film didn’t stay true to all the facts you detailed in your memoir. What’s it like to have a partly-fictionalised reputation, personified by someone else?
BH: My reputation, like all of us, is a Rashomon-like portrait. All I can do is try and stay true to my heart, which guides me. The fictionalized part is due to the film’s liberties, the book’s inability to say everything I wanted, although it’s a fairly accurate rendition of who I am, or rather, who I was. Hopefully one is constantly growing and changing…
MA: One notorious discrepancy between the film and your biography was the slashing of the male-male romantic plotline. In the film, “Billy Hayes” rejects the sexual advances of a fellow inmate. In reality, you didn’t reject these advances - and you’ve openly and matter-of-factly talked about that relationship. Now you’ve made a film about repressed homosexuality - is there a connection here? Do you feel sexually misrepresented by Midnight Express?
BH: No, I don’t feel sexually misrepresented by the film Midnight Express. I’m very comfortable with my own sexuality and it isn’t an issue for me. I guess that’s why I find I can deal creatively with issue about sexuality. They’ve figured in a lot of the theatre I’ve directed, as well as Cock and Bull Story, the play and the film.
I’m married now for 23 years to the woman I met at Cannes when the film premiered there. But if the press asks about my sex life I tell them all the same thing—-I do what I like. Don’t you? And if you don’t do what you like, why not? What’s stopping you? Morality? Legality? Ability? Availability? Mostly l think everyone should do what they like (with a consenting adult of course) and leave everyone else the fuck alone.
MA: Could you tell me about your in-prison relationship with that other man?
BH: Read my book.
MA: You’ve never been back to Turkey - is there still an arrest waiting for you there?
BH: There was an Interpol warrant out for my arrest for the first 15 years, but then the Turkish government dropped it. Which made my wife and Mom real happy. I’d actually like to go back it was a fascinating country and I speak the language way better than any tourist. But I think not…
MA: Are you in any contact with anyone else you met or knew during your time in prison?
BH: I had been, with the Jimmy/Harvey Bell character. Wendy and I saw him a few times after he got returned under the prisoner/exchange treaty. But he’s disappeared a few years back and we lost touch. I hope he’s well…
MA: What brings you to making films, and telling somebody else’s story?
BH: I’ve always been a storyteller and a great bullshitter. And each person’s story should somehow touch and connect with others, offering a glimpse of ourselves, of our wondrous many-facetted selves.
As for making openly gay films, it never really was an issue. I just loved the characters in the play when I first read it. I’m an emotion junky and it was just charged with emotional energy. I loved the dramatic dichotomy that Travis faces since the thing he most fears is also the thing he most needs to get what he most wants.
Clinching another fighter in the ring brings him feelings that are anathema in his homophobic world so he turns them into anger at his opponent and wins his fights, allowing him to reach for his dream. His anger is allowed within the confines of the ring, whereby Jacko’s violent reactions to his own repressed emotions are not allowed and lead to his destruction.
MA: What’s your view on the “gay panic defence”?
BH: An idiotic notion advanced to the point of legal absurdity.
MA: You’ve been working with this script in various media since 1992 - Cock and Bull Story is clearly a labour of love for you. Are you completely happy with the finished film?
BH: No, not at all. It was a low budget shoot, which mostly translates into having very little time. I could shoot the whole thing in 18 days, but I
found out I couldn’t re-shoot anything. It was so frustrating to realize
something didn’t work and not be able to fix it or go back and try again, because THERE WAS NO TIME!!! I was happy with the A plot, but the B plots suffered. Live and learn. But I’m thrilled we got it made and can’t wait to direct my next film.
MA: What’s up next for you - any films or theatre work slated for the near future?
BH: I want to direct a film called Mine set in 1941 England, a brilliant script about valour and family and courage under pressure.
MA: I wonder if you’ve remade Midnight Express in your mind, and what that film looks like?
BH: I haven’t remade Midnight Express in my mind but it was interesting upon first seeing the movie to be caught between the images in front of me and the images in my memory. Then writing the first book and doing all the interviews and talking about it ad nauseam, then writing “Midnight Return”, it all became jumbled into something that seems to be me…
MA: Would you ever want to remake Midnight Express, write and direct it yourself?
BH: No, it’s been done.
MA: The incidence of “bare backing” and “bug chasing” - is increasing among young gay men. As someone who survived a big mistake in your youth yourself, what’s your message to these young guys?
BH: My message has been the same for the past thirty years—-Do what you like and know what you’re doing. Meaning, take responsibility for your actions…
MA: Do you still smoke hash?
BH: No good hash in CA anymore. I like to smoke pot. Mostly I do daily yoga and appreciate the fact that I’m healthy, free, my wife loves me, and nobody’s beating my feet…