Vincent Gallo has expressed himself in every medium and forum imaginable: as an actor in films such as Palookaville, The Funeral, and Trouble Every Day; as a Calvin Klein model; as a media personality; as a noted photographer and artist; and as a musician whose work ranges from garage to avant-garde to quiet solo ventures like 2001's When and 2002's Recordings Of Music For Film. But it was as the writer, director, and star of the auspicious 1998 debut feature Buffalo '66 that Gallo earned notoriety beyond independent circles, as well as an uncompromising reputation that has polarized moviegoers and collaborators alike.
The ill will toward Gallo spilled over when his film The Brown Bunny premièred at last year's Cannes Film Festival: Roger Ebert called it the worst film ever to play at Cannes, and it became infamous for a scene in which Chloë Sevigny performs fellatio on Gallo. But the brouhaha over the blow-job scene does no service to the tender road movie that precedes it. Now being released in the shorter, final cut that Gallo says he intended all along, The Brown Bunny seems ripe for critical resuscitation, but its reputation presents a major hurdle. After returning late from a book signing—the latest part of a publicity package that included a cross-country road trip and a short-lived, infamous billboard over Sunset Boulevard—Gallo spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his extreme aesthetic, the Brown Bunny billboard, his reconciliation with Roger Ebert, and the beauty of the American landscape.
Vincent Gallo: I'm so sorry. They just attacked me, hammered me at the book signing.
The Onion: What happened?
VG: If it's a situation where I'm discussing aesthetics or sensibility or point of view, I'm brutal, I'm confident, I'm thorough, I'm forceful. I have no apprehension, no shame. I'm not really sensitive about how my opinion makes other people feel, and I'm not that careful on how I get it across. But when it comes to fans, or drunk people, or a girl that likes me, or somebody who needs a favor, or somebody who just talks and talks and talks, I have no defense whatsoever. None. I have no mechanism to get out of it, because I spent my entire childhood making sure I didn't disrupt anybody or upset them in any way. So when I go to an opening and people are drinking and want attention, I can't cut anybody short, and I can't protect myself. First of all, these people always scream in your ear and they spit on your face, so they're spreading the germs and deafening your ear. Hearing is the most important thing to me, and I'm being attacked. I'll sit there with the drunkest, nastiest girl in the club, letting her abuse my ear and spit all over me for hours, while all the interesting people eventually leave. I just can't say, "Excuse me, miss, I really don't want to talk to you anymore."
O: So you'll indulge anyone?
VG: I'll indulge anyone. Not because I'm interested, and not because it feels good, but because I don't know how to get out of it. I have a friend, John Frusciante, who's one of the greatest guys in the world, but what John does is play music. That's what he thinks about all the time, that's what he does best, that's what he likes to do best. He doesn't know anything about accounting. He doesn't send his own letters. He doesn't scurry through his phone bill and make sure he wasn't overcharged. He doesn't negotiate on his own behalf. He just plays music.
Meanwhile, I'm out there micromanaging every detail of my life. If John feels that somebody is interfering with his good time or his music or the experience he wants to have, he's quite comfortable saying, "Excuse me, I don't want to talk to you," or "I don't want to sign that," or "Please leave me alone," or "I'm talking to my friend. You're interrupting me." And when I see him do it, it seems, for a brief moment, crude. But then I realize that what's crude is the way I treat myself, by indulging people for as long as they want to be indulged, even if they're totally incoherent, as if somehow to interrupt them or say anything that might hurt their feelings would be the worst thing in the world. I'm willing to sacrifice my good time, my self-respect, my work, my body, my eardrums, and several mucus membranes across my face from all the splatter. I can't get it in my head that my feelings are as important to take care of as some drunken broad or some guy who wants to attack me.
O: That seems a bit reminiscent of the scenes with your parents in Buffalo '66. Your character absorbs a lot of abuse, but he doesn't have any way to combat it.
VG: Buffalo '66 isn't autobiographical in any real way. Yes, the parents are based on my mother and father, but that's a conceptual gimmick. People often diminish the multitasking on that film by calling it autobiographical. The interesting thing about me is that I don't relate to Billy Brown in any way, because I don't take that abuse in any other form. I'm a completely unfuckable person. You can't cheat me. You can't own me. You can't disrespect me. You can't touch my girlfriend. You can't kick my dog. I'm the worst person in the world on that level. I'm the last person on the planet you want to fuck.
But in this other way, in this social way, when people want something from me on a personal level—when they want my attention, when they want a little more of my time, when they want to tell me a boring story—I can relate to Billy Brown. I don't share Billy Brown's experiences in any way, either with girls or with his family. My family was like that, but my reaction to their abuse was quite contrary to his.
O: How did the six-city road trip you recently took with The Brown Bunny turn out? Did anything interesting happen along the way?
VG: I drive across the country all the time, and any road trip is interesting for me. There's always some geography I've never seen, or some weather that's unusual. But really, the only highlight of the trip for me was my encounter with Roger Ebert.
O: How did that go?
VG: It was a big surprise. He and I had sort of lashed out at one another publicly, but I had a sense that it was partly humorous for him, and I hope he understood that it was at least partly humorous for me. That said, he and [Richard] Roeper did give my film the most crude, aggressive review that I've ever seen of a film in my life. There was one comment where Ebert said, "I think Vincent Gallo should simply bill this as 'the worst movie ever made.' This way people might want to see it." And Roeper said, "Well, I understand your point. If you told me that over in the corner there was a hot, steaming pile of excrement, I'd want to go over and take a look, but I'd be glad I didn't make it." It was that kind of review.
[Ebert] is not as high-profile a critic as people might think, but somehow, he really made it to the national level in that stunt that he pulled on me at Cannes. In a sense, he became the most destructive person in my life, at least for any work that I've ever done. Still, in my mind, he was this interesting person, this funny icon to me. And when I met him in Chicago, I liked him immediately. More than liked him—I wasn't starstruck, exactly, but I was really taken by him. I loved his wife. I loved their relationship. He's a very intelligent person. He's a real film lover. He's a beautiful, interesting person. He's a real character. It was so nice to have shared time with him in that way. It was nice to put aside whatever thoughts I'd had about him in the past, and one of the ways that I was able to do it was to simply see him as a real person, which is something I forget sometimes. I was able to talk to him directly about how I felt about what he said, and what I felt was maybe inappropriate about what he said. At a certain point, I was sad, because I feel he was rushed to go. I would have stayed and chatted with him for hours.
O: Did you have the sense that he felt a little more warmly toward the film?
VG: Now I'm putting words in his mouth, so excuse me if I'm speaking on his behalf, but I felt that two things happened. One, I think he had a genuine reaction to my movie [at Cannes]. He genuinely didn't like it. In retrospect, I think he feels he may have overstated his reaction, or reacted without considering what type of filmmaker he was being destructive toward. In any case, I know that [the current cut] plays a little tighter, the print is better, it's mixed now, and the edit is a little sharper. But if you didn't like the movie at Cannes and you called it a piece of excrement… That's a very extreme statement. Like the rough cut of Buffalo '66 may not have been as popular as the finished film, but it wouldn't go from the worst movie ever made to "I like your movie."
I felt like, on a certain level, he wanted to remove himself from calling [The Brown Bunny] the worst film ever made. And the new version gave him an opportunity, because it was different from when he saw it. So he could say, "The film got a lot better. You made some really important changes." The truth is, those changes could not possibly take the film from that extreme to another extreme. It just couldn't. And to claim it did is suspect to me. I feel disappointed that he never took any responsibility for the change in his feelings, that he pinned it all completely on the change in the movie. I don't believe that. I believe that, on some level, either he didn't get it, he wasn't prepared for it, he saw it in the wrong environment, he wasn't adjusted to the continuity, he let his suspicions about why I made the film interfere… I don't know exactly. I just don't believe it was this adjustment, this final tweaking of the film, that warmed him up to it. But he did claim he liked the film a lot better. I don't know if that means I'm still getting a bad review, or what.
I'm very sensitive to two ideas: Either I changed the film in reaction to Cannes, which is 100 percent untrue, and/or the film changed so dramatically after Cannes that now it's gone from unwatchable to more watchable. I got some of the best reviews of my life at Cannes, and to acknowledge that he's right in that way would be insulting to the people who responded to the film at that stage. People forget that the film was booed in the opening credits. Sean Penn said to me that if I'd put "written and directed by Chloë Sevigny," there would have been a different reaction. What he meant by that is that people's suspicions were overwhelming their patience, or their reaction to the film. "Why did this person have to use sex? Why did this person put himself in the movie? Why does he get blown? Why doesn't she get blown? Why is he showing his dick? I heard he's a narcissist. I heard he's a Republican…" Whatever it is caused a negative reaction before the first frame of the picture started.
My movie doesn't have the tricks and the gimmicks that suck people in, in spite of their prejudice or suspicion about the movie. You may go into Spider-Man thinking, "This is a stupid film. Why am I going to see this stupid film?" But in the end, the film has enough gimmicks in it that even the most cynical person is going to sit through it and have some entertainment. My film doesn't work like that. It doesn't work with cause and effect like that. You're either interested in the piece and responsive to what it's doing, or you're not. I don't have devices that take you out of apprehension or prejudice or suspicion.
O: The uproar over the film seems to have worked against it, in the sense that the film is so quiet and delicate.
VG: There's a great recording of Julie London singing. Beautiful voice. Sweet, girly, romantic, luscious voice. But she would do things like sing "Cry Me A River," and then suddenly she makes a mistake, and she'd go, "Oh, fuck!" [Laughs.] I'm really that person. I'm not a fragile, completely subtle, sensitive, poetic person. I'm many people. I don't make fragile work because I'm only a fragile person. There's a part of me that's extremely fragile, and there's a part of me that isn't. The part of me that isn't can handle and protect the part of me that is. However, I am a real person, and though I don't do things to make friends and I don't do things to be popular—in fact, sometimes quite the opposite—it still isn't nice to have people antagonize me like that, or degrade me like that. It wasn't the most fun I've ever had.
O: Was there something you wanted to capture about America in The Brown Bunny that distinguishes it from other road pictures?
VG: Yes. First of all, I wanted to distinguish it from Europe, because when you leave the cities… Paris is nice, but this whole idea of the charming countryside… [Affects dainty accent.] "You drive two hours outside of Paris and the wine is so blue and the vegetables are so great…" Every part of Europe looks pretty much the same once you leave the big cities. It's all that stupid tiled roof and that same landscape, and it just depresses me. There's nothing more depressing in the world than driving across European landscape.
There is something about America, with its geography and evolution… The country evolved quickly. People settled in the Northeast and they migrated and they pioneered west, through unlivable terrain. There's desert in the world, but there isn't desert in the world as randomly as there is in the United States. It doesn't go from Kansas to Monument Valley like that. It doesn't go from Motel 6 to an extremely unlivable climate. There's something incredible about it, and it's very melodramatic. I wanted to photograph the United States in its most basic, plain, everyday sense. I wanted things to change geographically in a subtler, less monumental way. I remember watching Thelma & Louise, where suddenly they're in this overbeautiful, postcard scene. I didn't want to do anything like that, because most of the icons of the American landscape are not the most beautiful places anyway. I like the more understated, more extreme, more minimal parts of the country. I just wanted to photograph a very conventional trip across the country, without too many national parks, you know?
O: It seems like the film's arid look reflects your character's internal life.
VG: It does. People mislabel the film as a road movie, though I understand it. I guess I get thrown off when people mention other movies, most of which I've never seen. I've never seen Easy Rider or Vanishing Point, though I have seen Two-Lane Blacktop. In any case, when you're thinking about specific ideas and thoughts, you don't relate to how people perceive your work. Just because I used a car and drove cross-country, people say, "Oh, you must have loved Two-Lane Blacktop." Well, yeah, I liked it, but it wasn't an inspirational film for me, and it didn't make me want to be a filmmaker, and it didn't inspire me to make a film about a landscape.
The Brown Bunny is the most particular piece of work that I've ever done in my life to my sensibility and my point of view—aesthetically, conceptually, and emotionally. If you knew me well, if you understood my work, if you had a relationship with all my work, it's the most clear description of what it is I've been trying to express in every way—in relationships, in love, in pathology, in mannerisms, in geography, in composition, in sound, in nature, in light, in mood and texture and color saturation. Everything in that film is part of an evolution of my work, and most of that work is unrelated to film, too. All of my film work is an expression of my non-film work. They're directly linked. I don't develop my sensibility or my ideas or my grammar and place them in cinema. I develop them in other places and use cinema to express it. That's why when somebody asks me if I was influenced by something and they mention a film, it's like speaking Chinese to me. I don't know what the hell they're talking about.
O: That may have to do with the film's look and sensibility. The Brown Bunny doesn't feel contemporary; it's more reminiscent of something from, say, the '70s.
VG: Quentin Tarantino is a film stylist. He studies film and he finds people to reproduce or re-create things that he's cut-and-pasted in his book of collage. If people relate my film to the '70s—which is odd, because it's not my favorite period of cinema—it's only because I'm using equipment that has a broader latitude of error. In other words, I'm not using lenses that are color-corrected or flare-corrected. I'm not using film stock that's overfine and glossy to compete with digital photography. I'm using color fields that are a bit more sophisticated. But I'm not wearing '70s clothes. I don't have '70s hair. I don't use old, broken-down hotel rooms and interesting, charming restaurants. I don't play into things like that. The van is new. The bike is new. The leathers are new. The motel room is a brand-new Super 8. I don't try to romanticize charm in that way. Any time you do an independent movie, the stylist always brings you thrift-shop clothes, the art director is always putting stupid little tchotchkes all over the place… I don't do anything like that. In Buffalo '66, everything was fairy-tale. Christina Ricci's clothing was out of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. It was out of a children's book.
I don't relate to that '70s thing, because I'm a modernist. Don't people understand that I'm into the future? That I'm trying to break through and understand where we're going to go from here and how we're going to get there? I'm not interested in the lifestyles and the sensibilities of the '70s, because to me, that was a broken-down period in American life. That's when people went from a very traditional, classical, conservative idea of socialized behavior to a period of gluttony, self-indulgence, and destructive behavior. The '70s were the end of the world for me. I hated the cars then. I hated technology then. I hated the mood of the American economy then. Those are the worst memories of my life. If there's anything I romanticize, it's those very modern things from the '20s and '30s. I like that early-minimalist, early-modern sensibility.
O: As a filmmaker, you've talked about the importance of a singular vision. Does that become difficult in a medium that's generally considered collaborative?
VG: It becomes difficult in that the singular vision is important to a particular film. That said, some of my favorite films were extremely collaborative, and some of the most phenomenal films happened because the collaborations were random and accidental. Say they wanted a certain actor who wasn't available, so the director was forced to use somebody else. Or they got a cameraman who had never shot a feature, but he was doing animal documentaries, and he brought a certain weird sensibility to a film. But if you want to make a film that has a really pure, singular point of view, then that collaboration is interference. It certainly is in my process, but I can't speak for anyone else's. I don't think many other filmmakers have the energy to focus all around themselves like I do. For me, working with other people has been mostly interference.
Even this press period of time. I never work with press people, because I have no personal press agent, no manager, no agent, no lawyer, no assistant, or anything like that. So here I am, working with a distribution company on the release of the film. I'm designing what I think is the most beautiful billboard in the world, but I have a publicist who's thinking of it as a marketing tool and a gimmick. [The short-lived Brown Bunny billboard over Sunset Boulevard depicted Gallo and Sevigny in flagrante. No nudity was visible, but the ad made national news. —ed.] And suddenly, the billboard is taken down, because the publicist thinks it's more interesting for it to be taken down. I put it up because I thought it was beautiful, not because I thought it was a gimmick. I had real reasons why I thought it was beautiful. In a sense, I feel like I'd rather be left alone sometimes.
O: Didn't the billboard company itself…
VG: The billboard company took it down, but only because the publicist engaged the press to take notice of it, thinking that somehow the billboard becoming notorious would bring a lot of attention to the film. Well, all I wanted was the billboard to be up. I didn't want it to become a publicity stunt. By allowing it to become a publicity stunt, it brought attention to itself and brought attention to the owners of the space, and they pulled it. Had it not gotten national press, which was instigated by the publicist, it certainly would have stayed up longer.
O: So the film being labeled as "notorious" is the wrong way for people to see it?
VG: The only thing notorious about it is how much hearsay about self-indulgence and narcissism has swirled around the film without people having seen it. The notorious nature of the film happened because of the spectacle at Cannes, and the hearsay from people who have never seen the film. The film itself doesn't play notoriously.
O: During a recent post-screening Q&A, you talked about your character taking a "pathological" journey. Do you think it's a mistake when people associate the characters you play too closely with yourself?
VG: Yes. On some level, everyone's a little bit like the characters they play. But the two characters in the films I've directed are so much more of a stretch to me—to my character, to my emotional life, to my physical life—than any other characters I've ever played in a movie. I think when you're able to control a film as a filmmaker and as a performer, you're really able to authenticate the performance in a seamless way. When I work with other directors, they're not as thorough in the way they carefully photograph and piece together my performance, because they're preoccupied with filmmaking in a different way. When I'm in the role of a filmmaker and I'm in charge of photographing myself and cutting my performance together, I can make my performance seamless. I can protect it from obvious flaws. Perhaps the character is so complete that you mistake it for the performer. Billy Brown and Bud Clay are nothing alike, so how could I be playing myself in Buffalo '66 and playing myself in The Brown Bunny? I'm not a schizophrenic. I'm a moody person, but I don't have multiple personalities.
O: One thing that's curious about the charges of narcissism directed at this movie is how exposed you are at the end of the film. A true narcissist wouldn't allow himself to be viewed in that way.
VG: A narcissist only relates to being viewed as a winner. And there's nothing in that exposé that relates to a winner. My character is not righteous. He doesn't have full integrity. He doesn't have any of the qualities of a winner. He doesn't even win the motorcycle race [at the beginning of the film]. I don't know what people think, but even on a crude level, there's nothing fun about having your cock shown onscreen for thousands of people to criticize, ridicule, mock, and insult. There's nothing self-gratifying about knowing you've played a performance where people may easily dislike the character and associate it with you. There's nothing fun about having people suspicious about why you're making work. I'm clearly not networking or making a bid for popularity. I'm following another motivation, and it's not as a provocateur. It's because I'm blinded, like an idiot, by wanting to preserve and express an insight that I have, or an aesthetic that I believe in. I forget that people react to me personally as the representative of that. Did you see a credit for hair and makeup? How can I be a fucking narcissist? I've never even had hair and makeup done for me on a film. I don't even know what I look like as I'm filming.
O: What are you expecting when the film opens? What would constitute a success in your mind?
VG: Success happens in the work. It doesn't happen because the mainstream public validates it in some way. There's a thing that happens sometimes in my work. I can do two projects; both of them can be successful on the same level as far as sophistication, or they can please me in the same way. One of those works, for reasons that are unexplainable, can appeal to people in a more pedestrian way, a more ordinary way. Why that happens, I don't know. I don't know why Buffalo '66 was very popular, while other things I've done which I think are better are less popular. Let's say it has appealed to people who are not cinephiles, who don't like offbeat films, who generally don't like what are regarded as less conventional films. There's something in that film that reaches those people anyway. When that happens, it's nice. It's nice that a lot of people like the film. But until I got the print of Buffalo '66 made, I was worried that something would go wrong—that something would be destroyed or burned or lost. The minute it was officially archived, I was relieved. Having more and more people like it didn't make me any more relieved, didn't make me feel better, didn't give me satisfaction. I just took it as an opportunity to demand more freedom on my next film.
The only expectations I have are put on myself, and are to show up and do the best that I can. I punish myself. I pound on myself. I drill-sergeant myself to show up and have breakthroughs every day, and get them as perfect as I can in my own mind. That's my only expectation. Is it nice to have people say they like your work? Of course it's nice. Is it not nice when people say they hate your work? Of course it's not nice. Does it change what I'm thinking? No. Does it change my motivation? No. The only thing it changes—which is the strangest, freakiest thing in the world—is the opportunities that come by. But because I'm always playing my last bullet, because I'm always thinking "This is my last chance," I'm not plotting three moves ahead. By luck, Buffalo '66 was successful, so people were silly enough to let me do whatever I wanted one more time. So I'm going to do it one more time in complete disregard to anything that's going to give me another such opportunity. I'm thinking, now, "This is my last film." Somebody will probably trick me into making another film one day. If it does horribly, fewer outside forces will encourage me to continue. But if I feel like making another film, I'll do it in my own way, in my time, on my own terms, with my own budget, in whatever way I can do it. The only thing that you get out of public praise is fewer people who are resisting you and more people looking to see what you did. That's great, but it's nothing to compromise your work for. It's nothing to play to. I leave that job to Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze. They can play to their audience.