Ever so often, the stars align and bring two kindred spirits together. Such is the case with director George Gallo and retired NFL Tight End Vernon Davis, who entered each other’s orbits while making their latest film, ‘The Ritual Killer.’ While both are passionate when it comes to the art of movie-making, their bond was initially formed by their mutual love of putting brush to canvas. That initial connection would soon broaden their horizons and heighten their creative output.
‘The Ritual Killer’ is an extremely dark thriller that stars Cole Hauser (Yellowstone), Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby), Peter Stormare (Fargo), and the aforementioned Vernon Davis. This film marks new territory for George Gallo who has written and or directed numerous films that span many genres. From action comedies such as “Midnight Run” and “Bad Boys” to heartwarming tales such as “29th Street” and “Local Color,” has won several awards for both writing and directing. Over the course of his epic career, he has worked with Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, Meg Ryan, John Travolta, Antonio Banderas, Robert Forster, and James Caan, to name a few. Vernon Davis is clearly in great company here!
The film centers around Detective Boyd (Hauser), who, unable to process the death of his daughter, embarks on the hunt for a serial killer who murders according to a brutal tribal ritual: Muti. The only person who can help Boyd is Professor Mackles (Freeman), an anthropologist who hides an unspeakable secret. The line between sanity and madness thins as Boyd goes deeper into the killer’s world. As he continues to evolve as an actor, Davis delivers a truly menacing performance as the murderous Randoku in the new film.
Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with George Gallo and Vernon Davis to discuss the making of ‘The Ritual Killer,’ the creative bond they have formed, and much more!
Thanks so much for taking time out to speak with us today, guys. ‘The Ritual Killer’ is a terrific film that took me on quite a ride! Kudos to you both for all your hard work on this one.
George Gallo: Thank you very much!
Vernon Davis: Thank you!
I wanted to start with you, George. You’ve made quite a career for yourself in the entertainment industry. What drew you to the craft of storytelling?
George Gallo: I started out as a painter. I attended art school, and part of art school was learning how to tell a story cohesively in one image. You don’t have the benefit of lots of images. That is something that helped train my brain early on. I always liked stories and was a voracious reader as a kid. For me, telling a story and trying to move an audience is what it’s all about. I come from a background mostly of comedies and trying to make people laugh. That is very similar to trying to make people uncomfortable, which is what this movie does. So, to answer your question, I have always loved it and still do!
Vernon, you have had a much different career path than George but are now making a name for yourself in the movie business. What took you down this new path?
Vernon Davis: Much like George, I am a painter as well. When you’re an artist, art comes in all shapes and forms. You’ll find yourself interested in so many different things. At the start of my journey, football was my number one thing. It is what gave me a platform. As I was playing, I discovered that I was passionate about writing poetry, making music, and acting. When I finished playing ball, it all started to come together as it is now! It’s been three years since I’ve played the game, but I’m having so much fun! I love it! I genuinely love the craft and the work you must put in to be good at it. It’s just like anything else; you must put in the work if you want to go anywhere. It’s been a fantastic journey!
As artists, who are some of the creatives that have significantly impacted you?
George Gallo: It depends on the genre. As a painter, I was very drawn to the impressionists. I just loved the idea of being outdoors and trying to capture light touching objects. I also deeply appreciate nature, which ultimately makes you much more spiritual. Ya know, when you’re out in a field painting, you realize how mortal you really are. I think it brings you closer to God in a way. In terms of movies, I grew up in the 70s. In my formative years as a filmmaker, I loved William Friedkin, Sydney Lumet, and Arthur Hiller. Hiller made great comedies like “The Out-of-Towners” and “The In-Laws.” Sydney Pollack was another outstanding director. Then you have the obvious choices like Martin Scorsese and Steven Speilberg. Let’s not forget Francis Ford Coppola and “The Godfather.” The 1970s were a terrific time for movie-making. As a young man in that period, I was mesmerized by all the different filmmakers and what they were all up to. That certainly was a significant influence on me and one that impacted the trajectory of my career.
Vernon Davis: My love of the arts started with painting. I was studying renaissance art and all of the sculptures and paintings in the Sistine Chapel that I learned about in school. I was learning to be creative, which is where it all started. Once I did that and discovered I was into the craft of acting, I started following people like Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and Will Smith. I wanted to emulate them and do what they were doing in terms of their pure talent.
What about the script for “The Ritual Killer” spoke to you and made you want to be a part of bringing it to life?
Vernon Davis: For me, like I tell everyone, it was the correlation of my backstory and some of the experiences I’ve had in life. I lost my mom and went through my childhood with my mom being on drugs as I watched guys serve her. I felt like they were taking her life and killing her. So, as I went through this script, I felt the character was spot-on for me. I felt like I had a lot to give this character to bring him to life. From there, I kept reading the script, breaking down the character, and coming up with the backstory. I thought, “This is very dark. I’ve never imagined myself doing anything like this.” The journey was truly amazing. Working with George and being in the presence of Morgan Freeman is something I wouldn’t trade for the world!
George Gallo: While I love these types of films, I never saw myself making one in the past. I come from a background of comedies. So, when I was first given the script by the producers, Morgan was interested in it. I’ve done four other movies with Morgan; this is my fifth. He asked if I would do it. When I read it, I said, “No, I don’t want to do this, man. This isn’t my thing.” Then I started thinking about the movies that I like. In this case, I’m going to reference William Friedkin’s work. If you look at “The French Connection” or “Cruising,” there is a lot of aberrant behavior in those films. If you look at Gene Hackman’s behavior in “The French Connection,” he’s beating up junkies and shooting a guy in the back. The guy does some really horrible things! It’s compelling in a way.
So, I reached out to Billy Friedkin, who I know very well. I said, “Billy, I’m going to direct a movie I think you should have done 35 years ago. Can you give me some pointers?” He told me how to look at the material in a very interesting and specific way. He said, “Don’t come up with a make-believe climax.” He said a great thing that really resonated with me — “The end of the movie doesn’t know it’s the end of the movie.” I went, “Okay, that’s interesting!” He said, “End big. Let scenes play out, and don’t judge what the people are doing in the movie. Just record what they are doing.” He also told me to look at a movie that Costa-Gavras did called “Z.” I don’t know if you are familiar with the movie. Still, it’s done in a very documentary kind of style. I said, “Ya know what? I’m gonna approach the movie that way. I’m going to make you feel like you’re not watching a movie. I’m just going to shoot what’s on the page in an almost dispassionate, non-judgmental way.” That’s the way I approached it!
You’ve both mentioned Morgan Freeman, an absolute legend who raises the bar on every project he is a part of. Vernon, you’ve faced off without many intense personalities throughout your career in the NFL. Tell us about getting in the proper mindset to share that space with him.
Vernon Davis: Yeah, it’s a beautiful space. I definitely see correlations to football. You always want to have a championship mindset, especially when you are in a scene with Morgan Freeman. You can’t fail. You only get one shot, so you have to get it right the first time because there is no second time. You want to get it right the first time, and that was my mentality. I want to respect his legacy and him as a person. I wanted to give this thing everything I have. There is no cutting corners, and there are no shortcuts. In a film, you always have to give your very best and put everything into it, just like in football. You have to give it all you’ve got. Put your life in it! That’s how I approached this role and the scene with Morgan.
You definitely held your own in the scene! The intensity you brought to this character can’t be understated.
Vernon Davis: Wow. Thank you!
George, you faced plenty of challenges throughout your career. What was your biggest obstacle in bringing “The Ritual Killer” from script to screen?
George Gallo: For me personally, I have to force myself to engage with some of the behavior in the movie. It’s not a place that I go to easily. There were a couple of nights where I thought, “Okay, I can’t wait for this night to be over, so I don’t have to think about this except for in a cutting room.” One thing about being an artist is that you’ve got to keep pushing yourself to get to new places. That kept me re-engaging in that this was new and fresh for me. I enjoyed stretching. What was it that Coppola said? “If you’re not insecure, you’re not doing it right.”
You are both at unique points in your careers. George is a seasoned veteran with decades of experience. Vernon is just cutting his teeth but already delivering intense performances. How do you view your creative evolution?
Vernon Davis: I look at myself as a creator. As I said, football gave me a platform to be in front of people and share space with people like George and Morgan. Art is my passion and my life. It’s part of who I am and something I will take with me for the rest of my life. That’s how I see it — The evolution of going from a boy to a young man, getting drafted into the NFL, growing as a person and a player, and becoming a leader. Now, I’m taking all of that and putting it into everything else I am doing. It’s been beautiful!
George Gallo: Like all of us, I am aging, but physically and mentally, in many ways, I feel more sound than I did when I was first starting out. When I started, I was very unsure of what I was doing. You have that youthful ego and arrogance that only a young man can have. You feel fearless and impervious to anything, but as you get older, you settle in and become more focused. I have the luxury of knowing that I have done this many, many times, so I don’t have the same amount of fear. Each time you take on a new project, you get excited because you’re getting to do something new and fresh. Every story that comes your way is new, and you get to play again. It keeps the child in you very much alive. I think the greatest part about being an artist is that I feel as fresh and excited about this as I did when I was a kid. It’s playtime with your friends! You get to do cool stuff. There is nothing cooler than making a movie! You’ve got cameras, actors, crew people, and equipment, and you get to make something special with your friends. It’s a gift! It’s a real gift!
What do you look for in the material you take on these days?
Vernon Davis: For me, I am always looking for unique characters. The more you do this, the more you can see it, and I’m sure George can attest to this. Whenever he is writing, he’s always looking to create unique characters.
George Gallo: Yeah, the trap is that you get comfortable, and you start to do the same thing over and over again. There is a comfort level in that, but there is also some creative death in that. You can become stale. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to do a lot of different things. I’ve done big crazy comedies, and then I’ve done more action-y things that still have a comedic wink to them. “The Ritual Killer” is my first foray into doing something I would call relentlessly, unapologetically dark. There is no happy ending or moment of humanity. It’s just a dark story; for me, it was fresh because I couldn’t lean on all the things I was comfortable leaning on. For example, “I could do a great joke here.” or “I could relieve some tension here with this or that.” It was just boom, boom, boom with every scene. I said, “Alright, I’m going to surrender to that. I’m going to experience this and see what it’s like.” So, this film was about doing something fresh for me.
Man, that is so inspiring to hear. Our time is short, but I wanted to follow up on that sentiment. What is the best lesson we can take from your creative journeys?
George Gallo: Keep experimenting. Keep trying. It’s very, very difficult to be an artist in a hostile environment. A lot of times, trying to put together a movie is very, very difficult. Many roadblocks get in your way, but you keep trying to make it to the best of your ability. You try to stay as honest as you can, and then you get to the end; you can catch a lot of slings and arrows with how people respond to it. If you are sensitive, and to be an artist, you have to be; you have to find some way to protect yourself from all of this because you don’t want to become bitter inside. It comes down to keeping the child inside of you alive. There is a great quote from a painter named Robert Henri, and I always thought this was a great way to live. He said, “I never set out to do good work, but I instead lived a life where good work might become inevitable.” For him, art was just a way to live your life, and that’s the life that I’ve tried to lead.
Vernon Davis: For me, the lesson is simple. Don’t be afraid to fail. You’ll always criticize yourself no matter how high up you get or how successful you become. Put everything you’ve got into it. Always do your best, and never give up!
Wow. That’s so important to hear! But, before I let you go, I have one more question. This film seems to be the starting point for a beautiful friendship. Any chance we will see you both join forces again on future projects?
George Gallo: Yes! Absolutely! The answer is yes! I’m finishing a script that I wrote with Nick Vallelonga, who wrote “The Green Book.” It’s a big, big, absurd comedy, and I wrote a part for Vernon!
It doesn’t get much better than that! Of course, we’ve only scratched the surface, but I can’t wait to see where the next chapters of your stories take you both!
Vernon Davis: Thank you, sir!
George Gallo: Thank you so much!
‘The Ritual Killer’ hits On Demand and Select Theaters on March 10th, 2023 via Screen Media.
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