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Roger Ebert

The whole truth from Vincent Gallo

August 29, 2004


Vincent Gallo and I have a history. In May 2003, I called his "The Brown Bunny" the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival. Then he put a hex on me to give me colon cancer. Now we're about to meet for the first time.

It was a little tense in the Lake Street Screening Room, following the screening recently of the re-edited, shorter version of "The Brown Bunny." I heard Gallo was in the elevator. I heard he was in the hallway. I heard he was around the corner. Then there he was. The atmosphere lightened after he explained he had never wished colon cancer on me in the first place. He was misquoted. He actually specified prostate cancer.

"You know how that happened?" he asked. "I have prostatitis. I go to this guy doctor in California. He doesn't want to put me on antibiotics or whatever. But I get these things called a prostate massage."

"Are you taking flaxseed?" I asked him.

And Vincent Gallo as himself ...
And Vincent Gallo as himself ...

Things you might not know about the director/actor:

  • Born in Buffalo, N.Y., of Sicilian immigrant parents, he has said "only real Italians are from Buffalo."

  • Cites George Stevens' "The Only Game in Town" ("Dice was his vice. Men hers.") as his favorite movie. The 1970 film starred Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty and was shot in Paris, at Taylor's insistence, even though the story takes place in Las Vegas.

  • He was going to play the role of serial killer Charles Manson, but dropped out of the movie after clashing with the film's producers.

  • He keeps a list of 500 films "that he's obsessed with"; he's tracking down DVD or VHS copies of these titles for his collection.

  • PJ Harvey dedicates the song "The End," on her latest disc, "to Vincent Gallo," and in the liner notes, adds a "very special thanks to Vincent Gallo."

  • Among his childhood idols: Chris Squire, bass player of Yes, and Danny Bonaduce, of "The Partridge Family" fame, "who made me want to become a performer."

  • He made headlines again recently when he pulled a three-page essay that he wrote from the Village Voice because its editors refused to place his self-portrait on the publication's cover. "They owe me a long apology and flowers," he said. "The Voice f------ me, plain and simple."

  • He performed in several rock bands -- The Plastics, Pork, Bohack, Gray and Prince Vince -- in the '80s. His latest band, Bunny, featured actor Lukas Haas. Gallo released a solo disc titled "When" in 2001.

  • Among his music associates: Johnny Ramone, Rick Rubin and John Frusciante. And in the art world, he consorted with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

  • He was a break dancer in the early '80s and appears on the film "Graffiti Rock."

  • An acclaimed painter, he stopped painting in 1990 "at the peak of my success just to deny people my beautiful paintings."

  • He once said: "I'm the happiest the saddest guy in the world can be."

    Sources:, ST wires

  • "I know all my nutritional things," he said. "I had been battling this prostatitis, and a reporter who I didn't know said 'I'm doing a story on Cannes and I want to know if you read what Roger Ebert said about your film.' I said, yeah, I read all about it. 'Well, do you have any comment?'

    "And I said something like, 'Tell him I curse his prostate.' I said it in a joking way. And then the reporter converted it into a curse on your colon. At that point, I had become the captain of black magic."

    "I don't believe in hexes," I said. "Besides, if I can't take it, I shouldn't dish it out."


    "Maybe by saying you made the worst film in Cannes history, I was asking for it."

    "But I thought your response was funny when you responded with the colonoscopy line."

    That was when I said the film of my colonoscopy was more entertaining than "The Brown Bunny."

    "I felt we were now on a humorous level," he said, "so I apologized. To tell you the weirdest story, I started getting these letters from cultist people criticizing me for going back on what they thought was like a genius thing I did. There was this guy in L.A. who approached me in a club and he was like, 'We're really disappointed in you.' And I asked why. And he said, 'Because we heard that you removed the curse from Roger Ebert.' I took one look at him and I thought, well, I did the right thing."

    "Anyway, your aim was bad," I said, "because I had salivary cancer."

    We had not yet actually discussed the Worst Film in the History of the Cannes Film Festival, so I broke the ice: "I've got to tell you, it's a different film now. I have to start over in the process of reviewing it, because it's not the film I saw at Cannes. I think it's a better film."

    "The Brown Bunny" (opening Friday at Landmark Century) involves several days in the life of a motorcycle racer named Bud Clay, who loses a race and drives his van cross-country while bugs collect on the windshield and he has sad, elusive encounters with lonely women. At the end of his odyssey, he seeks out his great former love Daisy (Chloe Sevigny) and, like Gatsby, discovers that the light is out at the end of Daisy's pier.

    "Did you know the lead-up to Cannes?" Gallo asked. "Did you know why it was shown at Cannes? Did you know what state it was in?"

    I said I'd heard Gallo let it be shown though he wasn't finished with it.

    That was the tip of the iceberg. Gallo's explanation of the pre-Cannes adventures of "The Brown Bunny" ran to 1,487 words (I know because I transcribed the interview). The highlights include:

    *"I got involved in the film in a sacrificial way, beyond my normal self-abuse -- like not eating, not sleeping, freaking out about unimportant things. Like I had to use these Mitchell lenses, these Bausch & Lomb lenses, but I had to have them converted, and it took a year. I was bringing all my good and bad habits into this project."

    *"I had to postpone the racing sequences because I couldn't train in time and I was having problems with the motorcycles and I wasn't riding well."

    *"Chloe had to shift her schedule a month and a half, and I wanted to film her scene first because I wanted to sense the vibe of that scene and play off that vibe for the rest of the film. So the postponements cost me three months."

    *"Curtis Clayton, who edited 'Buffalo '66' with me, calls me every day -- 'It's the greatest, you've covered everything, the film looks great.' I just wanted him to look at the footage, tell me if anything was scratched or not usable, and then we would edit together. I finish shooting, and he works one day with me, and he makes an odd face and says, 'You know, I've told you if I ever get my film financed, I might not be able to finish this film.' I'm like, oh, yeah, no problem, we should be done anyway. He says, 'Well, Ed Pressman called me while you were at lunch and said my film is green-lit.'

    "Curtis is a beautiful person with a lot of integrity, but he has a sort of smugness. He went, 'So I can work 10 more days with you if you want, but that's it.' I said, 'Listen, if you felt you were even coming close, you should have brought me in on that. You cost me $150 grand just to look at my footage.' He goes, 'Well, I have the footage all arranged.' I said, 'You don't know the geography of America; I can't go by your things; I'm just gonna wipe the discs clean, and I'll reload myself and I'll have it batch-digitized and I'll arrange everything in my way because I don't know if you had a foolproof system where you batch-digitized every frame of the film; you made so many mistakes in 'Buffalo '66' -- not intentional, but those things happen. I'm a fanatic and I wanna be sure that I have every frame of my picture.

    "And we had a little tension but he's not the kind of person you really have ordinary tension with, so he just sort of left in a smug way. And I was freaked out because I could control everything else but I needed Curtis not even so much for his talent but for his voice of reason, his maturity and his ability to keep me balanced, you know, allowing me to have a point of view and to take radical chances but with balance, you know. He leaves and for about two weeks, I don't do anything; I'm nervous, very nervous. And I find an assistant who would be one of at least 10 assistants, each of them leaving on a bad note because I was extremely unpleasant to work with."

    What with one thing and another, it seemed destined to be finished in September 2003. But then Thierry Fremaux, artistic director of the Cannes Film Festival, asked to see it.

    "I hadn't even cut the motel scene at this point, so not only is the film in rough cut, I haven't even got to the Chloe scene."

    The Chloe scene. That would be the scene of graphic oral sex, which contrasts with the earlier scenes in the way pornography might contrast with a travelogue.

    "I showed Thierry everything up until the motel scene; he asks if I will I be able to finish the film in time for the festival. I say I don't know. I negotiate with the Japanese financiers that I'll rough through the motel scene -- which will be good for me, because I've been stuck on it -- and I'll make some fake ending because I was supposed to shoot the ending in April, which should have a motorcycle crash at the end."

    Where you die?

    "Yeah, where I die. A deliberate suicide. Not thinking clearly if I would use it because I had the same dilemma in 'Buffalo '66.' I always write the film with the suicide and then I find a way out of it. The guy was gonna have a negative fantasy for a second of the van crashing. There were some shots of bunnies, there was the shot of him on the side of the road. I sort of clipped it together with the song."

    The result was one of the most disastrous screenings in Cannes history. I refer to the press screening; at the public screening, reaction was more evenly divided between applause and boos, but the press hated the film.

    The impression got around that I led the boos, perhaps because the hex on my colon drew untoward attention toward me, but the British trade magazine Screen International, which convenes a panel of critics to score each entry, reported that "The Brown Bunny" got the lowest score in the history of their ratings.

    Did I sing "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on my Head" at one point during the screening? To my shame, I did, but softly and briefly, before my wife dug her elbow into my side. By that point the screening was out of control, anyway, with audience members hooting, whistling and honking at the screen.

    As it turns out, the French director Gaspar Noe was seated near me.

    "He's not a great pal," Gallo said, "but I do know him, and he sort of twerks me on all the time, he loves to wind me up. And he came out of the screening and left like six messages on my voice mail. And he pinned it all on you, because he was sitting close to you and he presented it to me that you were orchestrating ..."

    "There were 3,000 seats in the theater," I said. "It got very demonstrative."

    "Well," said Gallo, "because you asked and it needs to be answered clearly: Did I feel the film was finished at Cannes? No, of course not."

    The next day at a press conference, I said, there was the impression you apologized for the film.

    "Screen International falsely said I apologized for the film. What I said was this: Film has a purpose. It's not art. Real art is an esoteric thing done by somebody without purpose in mind. I've done that in my life and I'm not doing that making movies. I'm an entertainer. I love all movies. I don't divide them up into art films, indie films.

    "'The Brown Bunny' was my idea of what a good movie would be. I'm not a marginal person. I don't pretend to be a cult figure. I'm just making a movie and I think the film is beautiful and I think, wow, everybody's gonna see how beautiful it is, and when they don't agree with me, then in a sense I failed. I didn't fail myself because I made what I think is beautiful and I stand behind thinking that it's beautiful. I've only failed in this commercial way because I haven't entertained the crowd. If people don't like my movie, then I'm sorry they didn't like my movie. But I wasn't apologizing for it."

    This new version, I said, is a lot shorter, and in my opinion, a lot better. It has a rhythm and tone that the Cannes version lacked.

    "Seeing my film for the first time at Cannes," he said, "I was able to see what was wrong. It was clear that the Colorado and Utah piece was too long. There was also a dissolve where the film turned black for a minute. That was a mistake in the lab. Now if that mistake happened in a hundred other movies at Cannes, the audience would have been prepared to look past it. But because the film was so extreme and so untightened at that time, it really stood out."

    What did you take out?

    "What changed was the opening sequence. I shortened the race, which was a good four and a half minutes longer. The whole film at Cannes was exactly 26 minutes longer. The credits were longer at the end, and longer in the beginning. So that's about 9-10 minutes there. There's 16 more minutes of changes, and here's where the biggest chunk came. When he comes out of the Kansas motel, he does not wash the car, he does not change his sweater, and he does not go on that sequence through Colorado and Utah. Eight minutes and 30 seconds came out of that driving sequence.

    "The other cuts were in the motel scene ... I rambled on maybe another two or three minutes. And those road shots at the end were about another minute leading up to the closing sequence, and then I cut out the end, which was three and a half or four minutes. That's what I cut. There's no tightening or tweaking anywhere else."

    Now about the motel scene. That's where the hero imagines a reunion with his onetime lover, and she performs oral sex in a graphic scene that gained even greater notoriety after a soft-focus shot of it appeared on a Sunset Strip billboard for a few days before it was abruptly removed.

    "I wanted to show what people do every day all over the world," Gallo said. "In sexualized behavior, your mind fills up with the intimacy of sexual thoughts, but in my character, it stays locked in resentment, fear, anger, guilt. When you juxtapose that against images you're used to seeing for the purpose of enhancing pleasure, I felt it could create a disturbing effect. It's metaphysical. You're seeing how he visualizes his own sexuality. Never in my life have I had sexual or violent images as components in any of my work and this was not the inspiration of a provocateur; that was not the goal. Some people respond to it deeply in the way that it was intended."

    I know what he means. But to explain why the scene works that way, you have to know something it would be unfair to reveal at this point -- something about how the scene enters the realm of the character's disturbed mind.

    We talked a lot longer. Gallo grew confessional: "When I modeled for some ads, people started saying, oh, you've done modeling. I mean, I know what I look like. My mother knows what I look like and when you call a person like me a model, I'm aware of people sort of snickering at that comment, so it embarrasses me."

    Apart from the news that he is a Republican, that was the most astonishing revelation he made: He doesn't like the way he looks. I disagree; I find him a striking screen presence. His comment provided me with an insight into his character in "The Brown Bunny," a lonely wanderer whose life traverses a great emptiness punctuated by unsuccessful, incomplete or imaginary respites with women.

    That's related to something else he said:

    "The inspiration for the film was, I was at a discotheque once and I noticed a pretty gal, but it was during a period in my life where I could never talk to a girl that I thought was smart or pretty or interesting in any way. I would just stare at them. And I stared at her and at 11 p.m., she was having fun, she was drinking a little. Three in the morning she was hammered. She was on the floor and the guys in the room were sort of moving around her. They noticed this sort of broken-winged bird or wounded animal.

    "They were like hyena. It was one of the ugliest things I've ever seen. I saw them eventually leave with her. And it upset me conceptually. I felt the ugliness of mankind's basic nature can be avoided. That's what 'The Brown Bunny' is about."

    Ebert's review of "The Brown Bunny" will run Friday in WeekendPlus.

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