Celebrated artist Darren Le Gallo has made a substantial new leap, writing and directing his first movie at age 47.
To get a movie made, especially one focussed on the intricate push and pull of human relationships, can be akin to the plight of Sisyphus, perpetually pushing the rock up the hill, for it to once more roll down. But with ‘Sam & Kate’, Darren has delivered a moving and very real story that touches on the heart of who we all are, and the way we attempt to navigate our fascinating, often complicated lives. He’s also managed, first time out, to keep his cool, and direct two of cinema’s most iconic alumni, Dustin Hoffman and Sissy Spacek, and to add to the fun, their respective biological son and daughter.
I first met Darren — husband to one of our generation’s finest actors, Amy Adams — in the late summer of 2021, when we invited him, along with a group of other Los Angeles creatives, to be photographed and interviewed for a Mr Feelgood fall style feature. Darren arrived on time, his beloved sketchbook attached to his side like an extra limb, and proved to be a keen collaborator, a genuine pleasure to work with. We spoke of his art, his family, and he explained with an infectious joy his awe at having written a script that Dustin Hoffman was eager to support.
Then about six weeks ago, myself and a friend attended the premier of ‘Sam & Kate’ and along with everyone present were enthralled and touched by its subtle brilliance. I felt such a warm sense of affection, verging on pride, for witnessing the manifestation of a project that Darren had mentioned to us months previously, coming to fruition.
So I was delighted to catch up again with Darren this week to learn more about the project and his story, as we discussed family, art, and changing careers midway through life.
Born in Germany where his father was stationed serving in the military, Darren, his elder sister, and parents laid down roots in Antonio, Texas, when he was four years old. He shined in the arts, winning awards for his work, and although his high school art teacher had written a letter of recommendation to the Chicago Art Institute, he chose to attend a local university in Abilene, in the heart of the Bible Belt. Graduating at 20 years old, with a BA in Art, one of his roommates, who were all anxious about their next moves, commented, “It’s funny, because Darren is the one that has the least idea of where he’s going, and yet is the most calm out of all of us.” This seemed a disposition that continued to guide him as he took the steps to move up the ladder of life.
Hearing that a friend had a sister who worked at the production company Amblin, and a brother who was a pyrotechnic in the industry, Darren joined his pal and made the two-day drive west to LA where he managed to get on the set of ‘ER’, meet George Clooney, and get a first-hand taste for the magical world of film. “I started to realize, ‘Oh gosh, this is your job. I could come out here and have a job doing this,'” he recalls.
“Deep down, I wanted to act. But I’m an artist, so thought that maybe I’ll come out here and animate, which could marry those two kinds of passions.” With his friends’ encouragement, and a generous offer to let him live with them rent free until he sorted himself out, Darren interviewed for the newly-formed DreamWorks, securing a position as a PA in the story, editorial and art department. During this time he was called upon to read with actors auditioning for voice over roles in the animation department. When one of them suggested he should pursue becoming an actor, he gathered his courage, left the security of DreamWorks, which provided health benefits and free lunches, and decided to give it a go.
Following the established trajectory, he began waiting tables, attending acting classes and joining a small agency, dipping his toe into the audition circuit. Like many, he at times got disenchanted with the process, burnt out, and remembers, “I was in my early 20s, and would walk into an audition room and there were 15 other guys who were better looking versions of me. I was simply one of many.” On the verge of giving up, a friend suggested he attend the highly respected Warner Loughlin Studios acting school to master his craft, a move that was to impact his life to this day. Warner is where he met his future wife, ‘The Master’ and ‘Nocturnal Animals’ star Amy.
He recalls, “I thought, ‘Oh my God, who is this girl? She’s incredible. She kind of scared me though, she was the girl in the front of the class who was really opinionated, but with tons of talent. I was at the tail end of my 20s when we started dating, and I didn’t know if I would ever find someone. I think in my own mind I was so driven by my own ambitions. But there was just something about Amy when we first started hanging out together. I was very aware that my life was so much better with her, just because of the person she is.”
The couple made a short film together, began dating, and the rest is history. It was 20 years ago, and Amy’s career was just taking off. Darren continued to pick up acting work, supplementing his income doing storyboards for commercials and music videos. At times, his actor friends would ask him how he handled his partner being so successful. He remembers advice given by Warner Loughlin that burned into his mind, “‘When one of us rises, we all rise.’ I thought about that as a great way to approach the relationship. Amy’s a very patient woman and has been super-supportive. She really took care in wanting to support me and my creative endeavors. And she doesn’t mince words nor suffer fools. I have a very wise wife who’s able to call me out, she’s not going to sugarcoat stuff. So I think selfishly I’ve benefited from that as a person, because I get called out. And when you’re called out by someone that you really love, especially when you have kids, it makes you reevaluate yourself. And of course, I’m always there, wanting to support and protect her. Anyone who can find someone that really sees them for who they are, and they see the same in you, are the lucky ones.” The couple, now with a 12-year-old daughter, have a rule, to this day, that they will only be away from each other for two weeks, however busy their schedules become.
‘Sam & Kate’ was the second script that Darren wrote, the process beginning seven years ago whilst he accompanied Amy as she shot the movie ‘Arrival’ in Montreal, Canada. His first, a scary movie which is now his current project, was proof to his wife that he could actually write. He says, “So Amy read the script and looked at me and said, ‘Oh my gosh, what have you been doing? You can actually write. Why haven’t you been writing these last 11 years?’” That was enough to empower his confidence and he got to work. Understanding that he had already done concept drawings, storyboarding his first screenwriting attempt, he decided he would like to take the reins to both write and direct. ”I think that was when I realized that I could convey my ideas like I was doing a painting. When I paint, I have an idea and put it on canvas. It kind of felt similar with writing.” And so Darren got to work on ‘Sam & Kate’ and had a few friends, integral in the movie business, read it and compare it to the early work of ‘Jerry Maguire’ writer Cameron Crowe, which he acknowledges was probably unconsciously what he was trying to do.
One thing led to another, and Dustin Hoffman’s agent read the script and said she’d like it for ‘The Graduate’ star. Pitching himself as a first-time director, his confidence bolstered from knowing he had written the script, he met with Dustin who had a lot of poignant questions. Dustin made suggestions that Darren hadn’t considered but welcomed. Darren recalls, “Dustin was candid, and would start talking about stories about he and his father, and I would do the same.” And soon thereafter, Dustin read the role of Bill at a table reading at Darren’s house. “There was something electric about it,” Darren says. “Something was there and it was great.” By the fourth time the two met, Dustin said. “I really want to help you get this film made.” Darren replied, “Well, you’ve got to be in it Dustin. If you want to help me make it then you’ve got to play Bill.”
It was by no means smooth sailing as then the pandemic hit, the original finance company dropped out, and the cast got booked on other gigs. But Dustin remained committed, and then one of the film’s producers, Orian Williams, suggested Dustin’s son Jake could play his celluloid son. Both Dustin and Jake were keen to work together and then quite serendipitously, Sissy Spacek, who Dustin had never worked with, and her daughter Skylar were attached to star alongside them.
One of the advantages of lockdown was that the real-life father and son, and mother and daughter, relationships had undergone much development and discussion at home before they arrived on set. “So I’ve got this built in history, which is great for me as a first-time director, there’s already this embedded history between them.” The rehearsals were typically done on the day. Darren says, “I think all that time leading up to it was definitely of benefit, discussing the characters and such privately between them.”
Asked if he was intimidated as a first-time director, dealing with such iconic talents, Darren responds, “I don’t let myself go to places that would hinder me. Once we were on location, I knew I was confident in the story, that I knew these characters. I could see it visually, I had drawn out a lot of boards that remained in my mind and I knew how I wanted the shots to look. I was also very open to suggestions and had the great director of photography Frankie DeMarco, who had worked with Robert Redford on the 2013 drama ‘All is Lost’. “Frankie had vast experience and offered up great suggestions that we took on board. I didn’t have time to be panicked, and I had to get creative with the solutions. I remained constantly open with the cast, with anyone who came to me, because I don’t think there are any bad ideas. I believe there are only ideas that get closer to the truth. This is what I’d say when the cast would show up. And it was funny because Sissy sort of smiled at me when I’d say, ‘There are no mistakes.’ She’d be like, ‘Okay Darren, I’ve been doing this for six decades!’ But they were all very sweet and, importantly, they knew that I knew the story. And being an actor myself and being privy to Amy, at the level that she was at, watching her navigate between Meryl Streep and Philip Hoffman, was a factor. Understanding what the actors were going through. I know how hard this is. I know the energy it takes.”
‘Sam & Kate’ is a beautiful film, one that at times punches you in the heart. All the performances are invisible because we are drawn into the characters’ circumstances and relate. As Darren concludes, “It’s hit people in true places and I think that’s the win, to make people feel something. It’s just human things we relate to because we’re all going through it. We’re all on this weird ride where we don’t fully understand what everything is, but we never stop learning. Dustin’s 85, and he is still able to access this vulnerability — this love, pain, hurt, regret, and shame we all carry — which all makes up our human condition.”
Check out the ‘Sam & Kate’ trailer here.