"I don't intend to be a provocateur": Vincent Gallo
by Caveh Zahedi
"It has nothing to do with ego."
Vincent Gallo’s directorial debut, Buffalo ’66, immediately established Gallo as one of the most talented directors of his generation. Gallo had been known previously for his tour-de-force performances as an actor—from his postmodern deconstruction of acting in the uncut version of Arizona Dream to his scene-stealing charm in the under-rated Palookaville.
But ever since the controversial reception of Gallo’s second feature, The Brown Bunny, at the 2003 Cannes film festival, Gallo has become a kind of lightning-rod of personal projection, engendering both virulent condemnation and lavish praise. Because of the highly personal nature of Gallo’s work, critics have had a hard time differentiating between Gallo-the-filmmaker and Gallo-the-person, and the criticisms of his new film have tended to devolve into criticisms of Gallo himself.
I spoke to Gallo in San Francisco while he was touring the country (by himself, in a car) to promote The Brown Bunny:
CZ: There were a lot of years between Buffalo ‘66 and The Brown Bunny. What were you doing all that time?
VG: I’ve been so busy. I did a bunch of short films, I advertised…
CZ: You made short films?
VG: Oh yeah, I did 15 short films for John Frusciante for his music. I recorded an album – actually, I recorded two albums. I toured. I acted in five films just for money. I restored a house. And I prepared for The Brown Bunny. It took two years just to prepare the camera package for Brown Bunny.
Buffalo ‘66 was finished in 1998, but I didn't finish all the press and all the work around the film -- the DVD, the posters, the trailers, the releases, and the prints - until the end of ‘98. So it was only two years - ’99 and 2000 - and then I started working on The Brown Bunny in 2001.
I was more busy from the end of Buffalo ‘66 to the beginning of The Brown Bunny than I had been in my entire life put together. I was working like a fiend, and unfortunately, that same rhythm followed me into The Brown Bunny. I sort of burnt myself out. I mean, I suffer the side effects of excessive stress and self-neglect.
CZ: Can you take a break now?
VG: I'm hoping to. After this last publicity tour, I have to play a show in New York, and then my plans are to take a break for the rest of my life. That's my dream anyway.
CZ: There was a rumor at Cannes that you were going to give up filmmaking…
VG: That's phony bullshit. That's some jerk from Screen International who sent a journalist in under a false name with false credentials because they knew that I didn't want Screen International there. And then out of revenge they pulled things out of context. I never apologized for the film and I never said I would never make a film again. What I said was: “This is my idea of a beautiful film. If people don't like it then I'm sorry for that.”
You know, when you finish a film, you're so exhausted that you think to yourself, ‘I'm never going to fucking make another movie again…’ So what I said was: “I'm not even finished with this film, but right now my feeling is I'm never going to make a fucking movie again.” That was how I felt at that moment. It wasn't to announce my retirement or anything.
I mean, Wes Anderson or Spike Jonze are sort of career people, doing the same thing over and over. So Wes checks in at the Chateau Marmont for a year and writes a screenplay—his workload is to casually have something to do all the time. For me, I put intensive pressure on myself.
My dream is not to care about anything ever again. That's my fantasy: not to love anyone, or care about anything, or want to change the world in any way. At the end of an extremely vigorous workload, I can't wait to retire or to die or to not care anymore.
CZ: I should say, I really, really loved your film.
CZ: Yeah. From the first shot, the way the camera was moving and the quality of the image was immediately mystical, and it just continued that way for the whole film. It was very beautiful.
VG: You know, it was booed within two minutes at Cannes. I mean, it was booed loudly from the first two minutes.
CZ: I heard that, but I couldn’t figure out why anyone would boo. All I could come up with was that maybe it had to do with the opening credits. What made you decide to start the film with a title card that read: “a film written, directed, edited and produced by Vincent Gallo”?
VG: I wanted to take it away from the marginal film world. I didn't want it to appear like an independent film or like an art film.
CZ: But why would that title card make it seem like it’s not an independent film?
VG: Because it was preceded by a title card that read: “Grey Daisy Films Presents.” It was a fake company, as if that meant something, as if I had establishment. But it was just a focus card - that's a focus cue in the center. The concept was to create an iconic opening, or a sort of historic opening. It was an aesthetic decision.
CZ: It seems like people misunderstand what you do, and it seems like a lot of things you do get misperceived. With the whole sex thing, people are so suspicious about your motivations.
VG: I know. “Suspicion” is a good word. You're the first person that used that word and I think that word says it all: “suspicion.” There was a Belgium filmmaker who insulted me about the opening credits and at one point I just said to him, "You know what man? You live in a fucking country where you show up at your own pace, at your own time. A country where there's no real chaos and no real risk. Try to make a fucking movie in America and see what it's like, fucking asshole."
That opening credit was an aesthetic choice -- it has nothing to do with ego or anything like that. It was to break the protocol or the status quo of a typical opening of a movie. It's like to do a poster or a billboard without a billing block. I chose to do it without a billing block, not just because no one worked on this film, but because it's visually fresh.
CZ: What's a billing block?
VG: It's that list of names on the bottom where 800 people have to get their credit on a film poster. I mean, how could you possibly design a film poster if there're so many pre-existing requirements? If a name looks good, put it in. If it doesn't look good, don't put it in, right? Ok, so that's it. That's how I make a poster.
In the billboard it didn't say 'Written and Directed by Vincent Gallo.' It didn't say 'Produced by Vincent Gallo,' it just said: “Vincent Gallo and Chloe Sevigny. The Brown Bunny. In color. Rated X. Adults only.”
CZ: It's rated X?
VG: No, I self-rated it X because I felt X meant adult cinema, not pornography. XXX or NC-17, I felt that was more suggestive of pornography or exploitation or scandal but X meant, you know, that it was in the tradition of Midnight Cowboy or Last Tango.
CZ: It seems that people were kind of gunning for you at Cannes. I'm surprised because Buffalo ‘66 was so well received.
VG: No, you're wrong. They were gunning for me on Buffalo ’66 too. I was booed out of Sundance. I never won a prize there. I never was supported by the Spirit Awards. I never got invited to any other festivals. No one ever gave me an offer to make another movie after Buffalo ’66. No young filmmakers ever cast me. And Paul Schrader and a group of other individuals had a mantra against me at the Sundance Film Festival. Linda Cholodenko, who did High Art, was quoted as having my photo in her production office and throwing darts at it every day.
VG: I have no idea. But don't fool yourself. Buffalo ’66 was the only film at Sundance that was in the main competition that didn't get distribution.
CZ: But it did get distribution.
VG: No. Lion’s Gate, who owned the film, when they couldn't sell it decided to become a distribution company themselves. Cinepix was not a distribution company before. Cinepix financed the film. They became Lions Gate after Sundance and only then released the film.
CZ: Buffalo ‘66 was booed at Sundance?
VG: Booed. I was ridiculed and heckled. I was the laughing stock of Sundance. And wait. Do you know how many prizes they give at Sundance? Can you imagine in the mix of Smoke Signals, Slam, Four by Four -- just a bunch of hack films, the only one in the mix that didn't win was Buffalo '66.
And what Spirit Awards have I been nominated for? Which have I won? I've been in 34 movies, you know. I mean, you would be hard-pressed to find an independent actor - as they call them, I mean I don't see myself as that - who wasn't at least nominated at some point by one of those clown agencies who call themselves the Spirit Awards or the IFC Awards.
CZ: You obviously rub some people the wrong way, which might be a good thing, really.
VG: Not for me because I don't intend to be a provocateur, I'd rather not rub people the wrong way. But I'm just not willing to do anything differently to avoid that.
CZ: The thing that was really amazing about your Q&A last night was how refreshingly honest you were.
VG: I don't have the mechanisms to protect myself. If I'm in a bar and a girl's drunk and she talks to me, I don't have the mechanisms to excuse myself because, well, I just don’t have that mechanism. However, if it's an aesthetic thing that I feel strongly about, then I don't have a mechanism to compromise. So I'm two people, the one that can't protect myself personally, the one that can't feel confident in myself personally, the one that can't be seen nude personally, the one that doesn't feel loveable personally, and then the one that stands behind these aesthetics or these things that I'm a custodian of and drive beyond anything else.
So I'm crude and ruthless when it comes to protecting an idea, a philosophical concept, an aesthetic sensibility, a point of view, or a political ideal at the risk of becoming the most unpopular person in the world. However, when it comes to myself, I have no mechanism to take care of myself, nurture myself, protect myself.
When I painted the motorcycles in the film, I used a type of paint that’s horribly toxic -- it's illegal paint. I sprayed them in my bedroom because I was focused on getting the bikes beautiful. The thing on my mind was that I was giving myself a tumor, you know? At the same time that I feel strongly about my belief in the aesthetic, it is sad that I'm not able to protect myself on some level, you know?
I would drive to North Dakota to fix a vintage guitar, to have it repaired, but when I got slammed into by a taxi and broke six ribs and my sternum, I walked to the hospital rather than take the ambulance because I knew it would cost $300 for the ambulance. I have some stupid martyrdom thing that's so sick, you know? So when I'm doing a Q&A, I'm not thinking about honesty. I'm just not thinking of protecting myself because I don't feel that I have anything to lose.
CZ: Your film to me seems unusually philosophical - kind of existential and metaphysical. I'm just wondering if you could talk about the film in those terms.
VG: Well, I'm really interested in philosophical concepts because in a sense, socially and politically, I'm an elitist. I'm not an elitist as an artist because I'm not an artist. I use creativity and techniques and poetry in my work, but I'm not an artist.
CZ: What do you mean by that?
VG: I mean that everything I do has a purpose.
CZ: So, you’re defining art as purposeless?
VG: Yes, which is genius. It's a very esoteric thing to do something without any purpose. That's very, very deep. When people do things like that effectively, it's quite impressive. But I have more of a purpose because I'm a small-minded person. I don't feel like I have broad objectivity, so in a sense, my best work would be more interesting than me or my reasons for doing it. But I do get hung up, caught up in philosophical concepts, especially in a socio-political way. They're usually the inspiration for screenplays, as was the case for Buffalo '66 and The Brown Bunny.
In Buffalo '66, the idea was of this extremely misguided victim who saw himself as a victim in the most unreasonable, unrealistic ways. That his life transforms the minute he takes responsibility for his own life is a direct political statement -- a very uncomfortable one for many people because socialists feel quite opposed to that.
In The Brown Bunny it was more complex because in The Brown Bunny there would be pathological behavior seen in silhouette and repeated in loop form that would seem like the behavior of a maniac but that would actually be reflections of ordinary behavior. The metaphysical points were ways of articulating the parts that were inside his head. By using metaphysical concepts in film format, I was able to tell stories of things in his head.
But in the case of abortion, for example, people have misled groups of people into believing that there was an unrealistic chance of legislation being overturned or changing dramatically. They've misled people into thinking it so much that people who feel like they have less power than the political leaders are busy fighting phantoms. And their preoccupation with these phantoms have desensitized them to the idea of the tragedy of an unwanted pregnancy.
One cannot blame anyone for the results of behavior because it's not about blame but one can't help feeling that certain things are avoidable. And in noticing things that are avoidable -- without judgment, completely without judgment -- I wanted to create scenarios that felt like they could have been avoidable without any judgment as to how they could have been avoided. So I wanted to show something that was unfortunate without any judgment and that's pretty subtle. That's a pretty difficult thing to do.
CZ: But you do it.
VG: I think so. I think that there's no victims or victimizers in the film.
CZ: Or bad people.
VG: Or bad people, yeah.
CZ: So you think of the film politically?
VG: Always. People when they find out that I'm a conservative person politically, or that I'm a republican, for example, I think they miss the point. I'm a radical person. I have radical vision and I have incredible tolerance and nothing makes me uncomfortable. I'm not judgmental, but I don't believe in pedestrian-level philosophies. I believe that profound vision is when a leader takes you somewhere where you don't want to go because it's an unknown place, it's an unknown ideal. If the Beatles knew what they would do in 1969 in 1964, they would have done it in 1964. They could never have imagined that. And a profound visionary is someone who can, not completely imagine that, but whose thoughts lead to that. And you can never communicate profound vision to the mainstream, so I'm an elitist on that level.
CZ: Are you really a republican?
VG: I am a republican. Really.
CZ: Do you then vote for George W. Bush and that kind of thing?
VG: I do, but not because he has any particular appeal to me. It's just that there isn't anybody outside of his office who is a profound visionary. I only see the President as a figurehead, as the person who poses for the photos and delegates power. And I'm not as offended by his cabinet as other people are. But it would be easy to narrow that conversation down and say, "But what do you think about this? And what do you think about war and all those things?” You're not going to get an argument from me. I'm sure we agree … Clearly, you’ve seen my work, at least you believe that I’m a sensitive person, right?
VG: Ok. I'm only talking conceptually and in a very broad way, but I believe that socialism is regressive and therefore I contradict socialism in every way, even if it means, in a monochromatic way, how I vote politically, you know?
CZ: To me, you sound kind of libertarian.
VG: Yes, but that's too complex for me. All the things that we are micromanaging daily and making decisions about will not be events that change the world. If you go back to twentieth century history, none of the things that were debated were the things that really transformed mankind's history, and all the things that are misunderstood and forgotten about … for example, to show you mankind's resiliency, the single biggest devastation to a nation was the Unite State's fire bombing of Japan before we dropped the atomic bombs. I mean, we annihilated 80 percent of their 10 biggest cities and industrial regions and then we dropped the atomic bomb. Ten years later, Elvis Presley has a No. 1 recording in that country. So humans are quite interesting in that way.
Is death beautiful? No. Is suffering beautiful? No. Is it a beautiful concept that some should have more and some should have less? No. But am I part of nature or a bystander of nature? As a person who is part of nature, I can't judge those things. But a person who is a bystander of nature, that's the kind of personality who judges those things.
CZ: You have a reputation as someone with a quick temper. I wonder how you feel about anger because from what you just said about being a person who is part of nature, I wonder if anger is something you just accept and embrace or if it’s something you try to control and work on?
VG: Do I have a temper? Yes. Am I always one inch away from laughing? Yes. So, my temper is only as offensive, as real or as dangerous as the person allows it to be. I mean, I have resiliency, I come back immediately. Nothing anyone could do to me could really upset me other than excuses and lies. Outside of excuses and lies, I have no temper. I've never had a temper outside of excuses and lies, ever.
CZ: So that's your ethical code, basically?
VG: Yeah. I find excuses the worst type of lie, and unproductive. The most unproductive type of behavior for me would be someone who uses intelligence, their will, their cunning to create excuses. I don't get it.
CZ: Hence the republican thing?
VG: Yeah, in a sense. Yeah.
CZ: Let's get back to the movie. How many minutes did you cut out after the Cannes screening?
VG: Not as many as people think. The film plays about 26 minutes shorter now as a finished film, but that's a bit misleading because it used to have a 6-minute credit sequence at the end. The concept was to just have a song play over in blackness for a long time. So that's 20 minutes. Also, it used to have a 3-minute opening credit sequence with all the distribution and business people in the beginning, so that's 17 minutes. And it had a false ending that was only put there because I hadn't shot the real ending. To create this false ending there was a 5-minute scene.
CZ: You hadn't shot the ending yet?
VG: No. I was scheduled to shoot the ending in April.
CZ: The ending being the driving scene?
VG: No, I hadn't shot what would have been the ending, which was this motorcycle crash at the end. In the script, he goes to a racetrack and crashes the motorcycle. I hadn't shot that scene yet.
CZ: That wasn't in the film that I saw…
VG: No, it got cut out. But I hadn't shot the ending yet so I concocted
an ending for the film because I was still waiting to shoot the actual ending. But that was a 5-minute scene – a beautiful scene. So there you're down to 9 minutes. Where did the other 9 minutes go? It was one sequence from Colorado to Utah. That long drive from Colorado to Utah was 5 minutes longer.
And the racing scene in the beginning was a little bit longer because I needed to use a machine to be able to cut it shorter because it's one camera angle and I needed to do a sort of jump cut. When I tried to do it for Cannes, the avid machine blew it out so much that it looked ridiculous, so I just let the race go 2 1/2 extra laps, which was 3 1/2 minutes. So a chunk at the beginning of the race, and a chunk of the Colorado scene - that's the only thing that's different.
And let me tell you something: if you liked the film at Cannes, you would still like it now. And if you didn't like the film at Cannes, you wouldn't like it now. And if you didn't like the film at Cannes, how would you even know if you were booing and heckling during the opening credits, 2 minutes into the movie, 5 minutes into the movie, 10 minutes into the movie and throughout to the end?
CZ: I thought your mise-en-scene in the film was an unusual and interesting mix of classical and non-classical elements. Can you talk a little about your approach to mise-en-scene?
VG: Yeah. The concept of this film was to photograph, direct, improvise, capture, lure, write and perform in synch. So the devices used to set up shots were to accommodate that always.
CZ: What do you mean by “in synch”?
VG: I mean at the same time, in the same time -- all happening alongside one another.
CZ: So it wasn't storyboarded?
VG: It wasn't storyboarded at all, no. But it's methodically true to the screenplay. There was no way that I could storyboard it because I was looking at monitors, moving the cameras to where the light -- at that moment -- was right, the wind -- in that moment – was right, the person's face -- in that moment, who I had just met and cast in that moment -- was right, and that the angle was what it needed to be based on how much work I felt that that non-performer needed from me.
So in other words, if that non-performer was completely going to work in a two-shot I'd do it in a two-shot. If it was a part in a scene where I needed to repeat to them something over and over, then I would shoot it as an over-the- shoulder. So, the visual style of the film came from the present moment. The less mechanical, the better. In other words, having anything fail because of the photography would be unacceptable, so the safest strategy to capture what I was doing was far more of a priority than some sort of superficial visual agenda…
CZ: Hence the classicism.
CZ: You shot "Buffalo '66" using reversal stock, right? But not this one?
VG: I shot "Buffalo '66" using reversal stock because it was part of the concept of the mood of the film. It would have nothing to do with this film at all. For this film, I used generic, re-canned film stock.
CZ: They have a similar look…
VG: They have a similar look because of my post-production finesse. They have a similar look unless you hold them up side by side, then they don't at all. They only have a similar tone because my tone is consistent – which says a lot about photography, which I learned from Pasolini, which is that it didn’t matter who the fuck my cinematographer was on "Buffalo '66," my film was going to look just like that. Lance Acord [Gallo’s director of photography on Buffalo ‘66] couldn't survive in the jungle. In a banana tree he couldn't find a banana. This guy had no ideas, no conceptual ideas, no aesthetic point of view.
Him and Spike Jonze are great together [Lance Accord also shot Being John Malkovich and Adaptation] because they're both meaningless artists, meaningless. But if he goes to Japan and he has a bunch of Japanese crew, who are phenomenally adept at doing what they're doing, then things can move through Lance. Lance is a good person to move through, he doesn't interfere with your process at all. So in that sense, he was good to work with.
But it wouldn't matter who I used. I don't think of photographers like that at all. I might one day if the film that I was making meant that the photographer could work on their own and I could choose somebody who I felt had a certain visual sensibility, like for example, Albert Maysles. If I felt after watching his films that the way that he shot documentary would work in this completely un-documentary-like film and I felt that the juxtaposition of my sensibility against Albert's work meant something, then I would hire him in an overt way. Other than that, it's a button pusher. I'm not interested in anything about them that doesn't relate to exactly what I'm trying to do in this particular film, which was predetermined before I ever heard of them.
Watching young filmmakers sift through videotapes of editors, and cinematographers, and art directors and going through casting things -- no one's ever read for me, that's ridiculous. I mean, I could take any fucking actor in the world and get out of them what I want -- with some of them it's easier, with some it's harder, with some it's surprising, with some it's grueling, but does it really matter?
CZ: What are some of your favorite films that you've acted in?
VG: Palookaville because I had a good experience….
CZ: I love that film.
VG: The Funeral because Abel was challenging. I've never seen it though, so I don't know…
CZ: You’ve never seen it?
VG: I've never seen it but I was interested in Abel. Arizona Dream because it took so long to film that it became part of the memory of my life, almost like remembering school. And a film by Claire Denis called U.S. Go Home because I felt like I was focusing really good.
CZ: Is that a recent one?
VG: No, I did that in ‘95.
CZ: Good title.
VG: Yeah, good film.
CZ: You kind of imply that you don't like Spike Jonze’s or Wes Anderson's films very much. Which filmmakers do you like?
VG: Well, the reason I bring up those people is because I'm not offended by the mainstream, I'm more offended by the mainstream posturing as something else. In other words, I can watch a Jennifer Aniston film and enjoy it, but somehow when I get to Spike, it's like there's nothing in it for me. It's not soulful and it's not easy. Not that I hate it as the enemy; there's just nothing in it for me. It's not easy to watch in the way that if I’m stuck on a plane I can watch a Sandy Bullock film and enjoy it completely -- cry, laugh, all those things.
I like very much Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo. I remember once I was flying back and forth from Japan and I watched it four times and I loved it. But there's something about that other level that there's just nothing in it for me. It doesn't even come close to the honesty or the soul or the impressions that I got from so many other films.
CZ: You talked about having purpose in everything you do, and I'm wondering how you think about your life purpose?
VG: I'm just a custodian. I haven't given any purpose to my life unfortunately.
CZ: A custodian of your life?
VG: Not of my life in the sense of me, the person, or of my myth. No, nothing
to do with that.
CZ: I mean, what are you trying to do in life? What's your goal in life?
VG: To do as many things as I possibly can, as good as I can possibly do them. In some compulsive way, it’s as if there's this incredible urgency to do as many things as possible because if I don't no one else will do them, which is sick, you know. I don't know what the shrinks would say, but I'm sure it's not good. It's not narcissistic though.
CZ: Is it political?
VG: It is political. It's both aesthetic and political -- always, those two
things. It’s three things actually, the conceptual, the aesthetic and the political. And unfortunately, it's quite often at the expense of me experiencing things in the moment, or for myself, or for pleasure…
CZ: Right, that's the trade off. And you make that trade off willingly?
VG: Like a fool. Yeah, like a fool.