Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” debuted at the 2003 Cannes Festival fifteen years ago today. Months after Roger Ebert saw “Brown Bunny” there and declared it the worst film ever at the festival, Gallo drove cross-country with his personal 35mm print. The head of theatrical distribution for the distributor Wellspring, Ryan Werner, accompanied Gallo to the private screening room in Chicago, along with a local publicist, as well as a mere handful of critics and at least one news camera, which was likely Ebert’s. (At that time in 2004, Wellspring was owned by a company controlled by Stephen K. Bannon.) Everyone was introduced despite the public sparks between Roger and Vinnie, which Ebert described this way: “Vincent Gallo has put a curse on my colon and a hex on my prostate. He called me a ‘fat pig’ in the New York Post and told the New York Observer I have ‘the physique of a slave-trader.’ He is angry at me because I said ‘The Brown Bunny’ was the worst movie in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.” Gallo paced outside the screening, fidgety the way he was later in the evening when he and I talked during a Landmark Century preview.
After the screening, to Werner’s keen approval, Ebert and Gallo talked. And talked. The pair went back into the forty-nine-seat room, letting the doors shut behind them. What had been a planned half-hour conversation went on and on, over an hour. No cries of bloody murder from inside, only a warm, busy murmur of conversation. When Gallo and Ebert walked into the corridor, they each had small, satisfied smiles. The other reviewers and the camera were gone. Ebert declared he was wrong, and soon wrote that he considered “The Brown Bunny” to be a good movie, three stars even.
Here’s an edited version of what Gallo and I talked about a few hours later.
Fastidious and devoted to process, to what he calls “esthetics,” the loquacious, even charming painter-musician-actor-writer-director-editor-obsessive is a terrific talker.
With “The Brown Bunny”’s singular focus on failure, and a male rage so constrained, so constipated, you can’t help but admire its concentration even as you wonder what audience it might satisfy. Its powerful study of pathology is hardly cathartic. There’s cumulative languor in its ninety or so minutes that’s sure to aggravate whatever following it finds.
It’s an often gorgeous, minimalist road movie, an Ektachrome fugue about male pathologies and self-loathing that concludes with what appears to be a genuine feat of oral sex by costar Chloe Sevigny. It’s a movie that could only have been made by Gallo. “I’m making something that’s missing from the collection of films that I think should be in the library in my own mind. Y’know? You’re making a film that’s missing,” he told me.
Gallo’s story follows a motorcycle racer named Bud Clay on a drive across the United States. The cinematography is essential to the keen minimalism, shot in grainy yet not offhanded Super 16mm. Bud encounters a series of women with the names of flowers, and they seem almost fantasy projections of his brackish, enclosed worldview. Cheryl Tiegs, wordless, appears in the most memorable vignette, wounded, alone at a rest stop roundabout, her once-famous face now notable for sunburned nose, lack of makeup, ice-blue eyes in feline slits.
Gallo obsesses like landscape minimalist James Benning on horizons, but in Gallo’s case, the landscape is more often than not occluded by Bud’s mute, contorted features. To invoke a photographer, Gallo’s attention to his distinctive features resembles the work of John Coplans, who charted a blunt topography of his own nude flesh, with wattles encroaching as he approached mortality. (The comparison is most suggestive in a couple of shots of Bud’s palm held up in the frame to shield himself from the sun.)
Like Gallo’s character in “Buffalo ’66,” Bud is a stunted man, grievously self-punishing. (Unlike his debut, there’s little of Gallo’s loopy humor in “The Brown Bunny.”) Pathological narcissism? More like sociopathic nostalgia. The final scene is set at the Best Western on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles (which made me laugh; I have my own memories of an unpleasant breakup that smoldered there). But Gallo shows fervent observational skill even in shooting a plain motel room: When Sevigny appears, she doesn’t enter, she manifests. Poof! At the speed of life, there she is, like an unresolved memory, a beige girl in white-on-milk motel surroundings.
There’s a part of a quote in the early ads, from Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly, where she ventures that “No one in America will ever see a frame of this film.” So how’d you wind up with Wellspring instead of another distributor? They got the film because I wanted [Ryan Werner, their head of theatrical distribution] to work on the film. It was the smart move by me, very smart move.
Because of his reaction to the movie? Or ideas about how to get it out there? Yeah. He’s just an authentic [guy] who’s smart. I designed five posters on the film. I designed five posters for the movie. Each night I would email him the designs, the logos, whatever, as if it was a real friend, someone who I… I would trust Ryan more than I would trust Rick Rubin, one of the people I hang out with. I consider him my confidant. He’s extremely bright. He’s an unusual person. He might wind up becoming one of the most important people in the movie business in a productive way. Meaning, one of the most progressive-thinking, important people to work in the movie business. That level. I think he’ll be really successful, too.
Visionary filmmakers need visionary distributors. And a visionary audience! The audience has changed. A lot of people perceive some of the work that I’ve done, um, they perceive me as a loser, for example, because I had bad reviews in Cannes and it was difficult for my film to get distributed. What they don’t understand is that I’m forty-two years old, I’m from the New York scene, I was in noise bands, No Wave bands in the 1970s. The first ten movies I appeared in, success meant one screening in a festival in Budapest. So, even to be on the national level-
A week at the Quad! That was impossible! But to be on the national level even as a loser, is so far beyond my perception of where my work would ever be. So, even having conversations with… When Roger Ebert reviewed “Stranger than Paradise” and [that] showed on TV, [this movie with] my friend John Lurie, who was my roommate, and my friend Jim Jarmusch, who was an assistant on the first film I was in, and Eszter Balint, my ex-girlfriend, and Danny Rosen, my best friend, and bandmates, and Richard Edson, who I was on tour with when my band, Gray, toured [in 1979-80 with a lineup that included Jean-Michel Basquiat], it was surreal. It was way more surreal than Madonna made it. Because I knew she was, she was an ambitious little slut from the start. She would sit around and go, [hag voice] “I’m gonna become the most famous person in the world!”
The other people, we were self-sustained. We were in our own heads. Success meant doing good work. It had nothing to do with people’s reaction to the work. Nothing! It had… Success or failure happened in your work. So to be on the national level is so far beyond my goals anyway. My goals are all in the work. Many people perceive me as a loser twenty-five years later, [but] when my first album sold 300 copies and Bleecker Bob was so proud of me! And now I go into the Main Competition at Cannes and I’m perceived as a loser because I get some harsh criticism from the mainstream press.
Which is sometimes a compliment. It’s the biggest compliment ever! That was my apprehension about meeting Roger today, because I wanted him to live the rest of his life calling me and my film the worst film ever made.
Some provocative movies, the reviews tell you about the apprehensions or the sexual fears and predilections of the reviewers. Autobiographies of fear. It’s a strong statement. That’s a very funny point of view.
There’s been advance stuff, journalists writing, “I’ve heard the film’s this, I’ve heard the film’s that.” It was surprising for me then to discover how passionately this movie is about grief, an inability to let go, about a crippling kind of mourning. Bud can’t go on with his life. He doesn’t. He’s really stuck. It’s not even grief.
It’s morbid, but what is it? It’s… Denial. Anger. Guilt. And grief. It’s a nasty cocktail and it has brewed extreme, pathological behavior. However, if we look at the rest of the world, there are people acting out in the way that he acts out, every day, everywhere, every place. It’s just [that] we’ve hyper-focused on this character and put him under the microscope and we’ve watched him from a two-dimensional level, we’ve watched him in profile and silhouette, repeating himself in sequence. But every night at a discotheque, there’s pathological behavior that’s manifest[ed] into sexualized behavior, intimacy, substance abuse, extreme compulsive-addictive behavior, every day.
Clearly the root of that is similar to the character in my film. Fear, resentment. Insecurity. Self-doubt. Anger. Judgment. Y’know, things like that. All the partners… The thing that was important for me, all the partners that he has in these outrageous proposals across the country are willing participants for this very compulsive, dramatic encounter. But it’s very ordinary behavior, it’s easy to meet people in those ways. What I tried to do was make nobody the prey and nobody the predator. It’s just, people act out.
Damage finds its own level. These wounded people recognize each other, it’s not just the patterning of these encounters like the one with Cheryl Tiegs, that have some resemblance to gay cruising—No—
It’s two damaged people—Yeah, it’s not, it’s not Friedkin’s, it’s not Al Pacino in Friedkin’s scene in Central Park, it’s shot like that. Which is interesting, it is shot like a gay cruising scene. But people find each other.
The intimacy of their parting hug is very, icky’s not the right word, but I’ll settle for it. What’s going to happen? What are they getting from that? I mean, they are getting this morsel of human contact. They’re getting a lot. Unfortunately, he can’t follow through on whatever he’s getting and he moves on. Probably of any of the girls in the film, he connects the strongest with her and they have no dialogue together. Because there’s no shtick. Whatever the way he’s acting out and whatever it is that he needs, it’s in its most pure form in that scene with Cheryl.
Whatever he tried to get from the first girl, whatever he tried to get from the hooker, he got, he would have really connected with her. Probably in a destructive relationship. That’s sort of the insight into the film, is that level of compulsion. When water seeks its own level. The same level of damage finds the same level of damage. Both people either have to get better together, or they have to stay sick together. But if one of them moves out of that extreme, that kind of relationship falls apart. So usually the choice is, to stay sick together. And sometimes one person moves on. It’s very rare that both people recover in sync. Very unusual.
Minimalism in movies is something audiences can find confrontational. I think people react against the minimalist sensibility more than the avant-garde.
Who, what period, are we talking about? I think the avant-garde artists were trying to create historic context. There was a sense of doom… Even the Futurists, even Balla, there was something in historical context, the gloom to that work. But in the Minimalists, in the tradition of, especially the ones I like the most, Robert Ryman, for example.
When I was a small child there was a Ryman piece in Buffalo at the old Knox Gallery. And I remember my class going in and I remember the conversations that the class had about all the work in the show. But something about just a white painting! The interesting thing is that I was sensitive to his work at a very young age.
I saw the combination of intellectualized sensibility and extremely poetic sensibility. I had never seen both of them on that extreme, connected together. I was really an esthetic person. I really paid attention to texture and color at the time. So, it was easy for me to respond to his work. On this particular piece, there was one little unpainted corner. I remember that. It was a masterpiece, just a masterpiece. And no one else around me got it. But the way that they didn’t get it was more aggressive than the way they didn’t get any of the other work. And they diminished it by accusing it of having nothing to offer. Anyone could do that, what is that supposed to mean? I just remember even my most clever classmates who I shared all kinds of music sensibility with, were really reactive and offended and diminished the work.
But the same thing that I remember at the time was that we were on field trips a lot. And when you’re a younger person and you go on a field trip or you go with your family on vacation, where you’re going is more important than how you get there. Adulthood is the experience of how you get there more than where you’re going. When you’re a kid, you just want to get to the park, you don’t want to take the hour drive. When you’re a kid, you just want to be famous, you don’t want to rehearse, you don’t want to practice, you don’t want to learn, you just want to be that. The experience of being an adult, the part of that that’s interesting to me is the process, it’s getting there.
Watching the film, “The Brown Bunny,” and making the accusation that nothing happens until the last scene, is absurdist. It’s a minimal film, but it’s not that minimal. It’s not that conceptual. It’s not Andy Warhol-level of minimalism. There are so many subtle things happening, there are so many stories and complexes and subtext, and music sequences and just beautiful things, that that level of prejudice seems adolescent to me. And I think that audiences in general have moved toward an adolescent sensibility in how they want to be entertained. Adults now talk about films the way children talked about films when I was young. “I really liked when the bomb blew up!” Whatever, whatever it is.
That’s why, in a sense, I don’t… I’m not an artist, I’m not a marginal person. I don’t think—
“I’m not an artist.” Fill that out. In its most compelling form, artwork is done by people who made something without purpose. They don’t have a direct, clear purpose so they’re making something in a more abstract way. They’re not thinking about a show, about an audience, about a concert, about an album. They’re making something without a purpose.
“I just gotta do this.” Yeah. “I just gotta do this.” That’s on its pedestrian level. On its most sophisticated level, they have that same motivation, I just gotta do this, but there’s an intensified level of thought, concept, esthetic and point-of-view, but still maintained: “I gotta do this.” That’s not what I’m doing in cinema. That’s not what I do with music, and that’s not what I do as an actor. I may use the same level of creativity, I may use more creativity, I may use the same level of technique, I may use more technique, I may use the same levels of design and planning, whatever it is. I may collaborate in similar ways. But I’m not making art. I’m simply making film. When I make a film? I’m making two things. One, I’m making something that’s missing from the collection of films that I think should be in the library in my own mind. Y’know? You’re making a film that’s missing. It’s been checked out of the library and never returned and I’m making it so it exists again. And the second thing is, I’m making merely what I would have an idea in my mind, a film that I would want to see. Unfortunately, two things happen. One is, I never then get to see it in that way. I never get to be—
—The virgin audience— Right. Never. Ever. It’s just psychological reasons, it becomes an impossibility. The second thing is, I’m basically a custodian. I’m there just making the film that I think is missing, then in a sense, I’m, I’m not the creator but instead the custodian, y’know. It may be related to ego that I think I can be the custodian, that I can choose what’s missing.
But it has nothing to do with narcissism. Instead, it has to do with sacrifice. And that sacrifice, the personality that I have, is no different in cinema to the incredible amount of sacrifice that I’ve made to preserve architecture, to preserve rare musical instruments, to collect certain things, to fix certain things. To design… I’ve spent more time on my 300-square-foot apartment, which is as big as this room [a theater manager’s office], that I’ve lived in for twenty-five years, I’ve spent more time renovating it, fixing it, redesigning it, re-cleaning it, re-forming it, resurfacing it than everything else that I’ve done in my life put together.
I don’t separate what I’ve done in that interior space from the film work that I’ve done or the music work that I’ve done. I don’t create a pretension to that. They’re not any more vital. The apartment actually is more vital because I have more personal contact with it. I take it in a more life-or-death situation. I’ve lived in a bed that looks good. It’s a very thin, low-profile bed with an Amish quilt on it. I don’t have a comforter on it, I don’t have a down, puffy thing. Because it looks perfect.
When I make it and tuck it in, in a military way, it just looks brilliant. It’s incredibly uncomfortable and it’s incredibly uninviting but the look of the bed is that compelling to me, it’s that important. There’s not even an issue that I would get a puffy-buffy thing in my house.
Okay. That is not narcissism. That’s sacrifice. The esthetic, or the sensibility, or the concept of that, the attraction, the beauty of that is far more important than my personal comfort, which has never been important. It’s far more important than my personal glorification, which is a non-issue. A non-issue. When it comes to esthetics.
The most painful thing that’s ever happened to me in my life is that I made a three-and-a-half-year dramatic sacrifice, physically, emotionally, in my relationships, financially, in my career, even in the perception of me in the public to make this. So the accusations of narcissism are just revolting me. I’ve never been more offended in my life by any criticism, and I’ve been called, I mean, people have called me more names, I mean, go online, than anyone.
The only other thing that I can remember is when a gossip columnist said once that I went to a restaurant and said, “Don’t you know who the fuck I am?” and stormed out when they didn’t give me a table or something. Another thing that I would never do. I don’t have that sort of, uh, self-love or ego like that, y’know.
I have the ego that thinks I know better. What color’s better? I mean, when it comes to that, I have absolute confidence. I say, “This white is better than that white,” I can tell you why, I can tell you exactly why, and I have a lot of experience with studying it. At that point I feel good about that, “You should go with that white.”
I can’t tell you that I think I’m good-looking, because I know that I’m not. Because I have good taste. And if I designed me, I would look different. So when some people say, “Oh I think you’re interesting-looking, it’s… uncomfortable. When people call me ugly, it hurts bad, but somehow… Somehow, I believe it, you know what I mean? Even though it hurts bad, I don’t second-guess them. But when someone tells me, “Oh I think this white is fine, I think it’s great,” and I know this white is better, I think they’re an Ass. Hole. I think they’re stupid. I think they’re unevolved. I think their level of commitment is low. I think they’re disinterested, and I don’t think they’ve given it any thought and I have no respect for them.
I’m always startled by opening credits where a director lets a movie go out with an ugly or inappropriate typeface. They didn’t say to the designer, “Try again.” I’m more blown away by the lack of commitment most filmmakers have to all the details of the film. I mean, I do my own trailers, I do my own posters, I do my own title treatments, I do my own optical prints, I do my own printing. I do my own color correction. Not that everybody has to multitask, but at least pay attention! You don’t have to cut your own trailer, but how could you let a film company design your poster? And the battle they put up with has to do with ego things, it never has to do with esthetics.
I mean, Wes Anderson wouldn’t know esthetic if it bopped him in the head. So when he makes a problem to the producers, it’s not even related to his vision in the way you would think. It’s related to some idea he has about himself or his place in history or what he’s seen before that he likes that he wants in his project, too. He saw in somebody’s movie that they used white background with black credits in their title sequence, like I did in “Buffalo ’66,” now he wants it for “Rushmore” or whatever. That’s not really getting involved, either.
Making lists. Record collecting. Collage artists. The only good collage… I mean, Quentin Tarantino is a collage artist. Period. He may be a clever collage artist, he may be a successful collage artist, in the public’s eye. But he’s a collage artist, and collage, although it does have its own language and sensibility, it never has soul. Collage is an interesting art form, and it’s an interesting observation. But when it’s done in something with a purpose, it loses its soul.
The cinematographer Christopher Doyle says, “The images are there, our job is to find them.” Yeah. Yeah. That kind of thinking will allow that person to create work that will be more interesting than them. So the work can go through them. When you feel you’re in control of it, from its inception, when you feel you’ve created it from nothing? And you control it completely? And that you understand it? Objectively? You’re finished. That’s when too many people tell you how genius you are, or when you start repeating what you know worked. Or where you start being aware of your audience and what you’re teaching them and where you’re taking them? You’re finished. Man, you’re finished.
I’d rather… I’d rather figure it out for the first time every time, even though it puts an incredible amount of stress on me. And fear in me. But still, when I have a breakthrough, which is sometimes, when I know I’ve pushed myself into a corner, when I fight my way out, it feels real good. Really good. Y’know. I’m addicted to that battle.
Even in “Brown Bunny,” what I did, I didn’t use a continuity person, so the editing of the film was basically impossible. Thirty percent of the film was flashed, camera-flashed, unusable. Ten percent of the film had scratches in it, because we were using Super 16 and we hadn’t got all the mags tweaked right, they were scratching film. So I edited the movie that had no continuity, not really, no planned continuity-
So you started by throwing out that footage— What’s left, yeah… the edit of the film was nearly impossible. When I solved the problems, looking at hundreds of feet of film that was uncuttable. When I finally cut them together, that breakthrough of figuring it out, was a billion times better than the easy cut of “Buffalo ’66.” I felt I was creating an editorial language for the first time for myself in a real way. Not just using editing to just sort of execute what I had already thought of or already planned on. The edit was controlling me and the film. The edit had its own life, it was like another human being telling us when it was working and when it wasn’t.
This was all because no one was charting the coverage? I mean, you were shooting what you thought worked— And, and, because I was looking for new kinds of breakthroughs. In “Buffalo ’66,” there’s a scene where I coerce Christina Ricci into a bathtub. At a certain point, we do a long monologue together and I finally get her into the bathtub. I looked at it several times, and I tried something new. I said, you’re never going to go in this bathtub. I cut outside simply to a car driving by and I came back in, and she was in the bathtub. That was just an example of problem solving. Or making things work in a different way.
If you multiply that times a billion, that’s what I had to do every day to cut “The Brown Bunny.” Because I created footage that needed to be cut in a problem-solved way. That the film really would be made in editing in a way where it could be a million different films. I knew the film I wanted to make. The way I shot it, it could have been a million different films. “Buffalo ’66” could have only become a hundred different films based on the edit. It could have been a hundred different levels of edit of that film but it would have been the film. “Brown Bunny” could have been a million different films. I knew which one I wanted, but finding it was not easy.
It was daunting, but every day, you’re saying— Daunting to the point where I had breakdowns. I had a nervous breakdown. I yelled and screamed and put bumps on my vocal chords. I had to have surgery. I went through eleven assistants. I changed as a person. I had a bald spot on the back of my head. This big. One day, I woke up and I had a bald spot, and it was like this, and the next day, it was like this. And it stopped growing when it got this big. This big. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen what that looks like, but it looked like a cartoon where I had a hole in my head or something. Just ridiculous.
I really put more pressure on myself with that cut than anything I’ve ever done in my life. And then once I got comfortable with that level of pressure on myself, I maintained that level of pressure on myself for everything else I’ve done with the film. The print. The interneg. The conversion. The mix. The posters. Everything. I haven’t gotten off that horse. I’m so excited this is toward the end of this because I don’t think I’ll be naturally in that level of self-pressure on the next thing I work on. I’ll find a new emotional level to work at.
This process was wonderful, but… I sold my camera package—
On eBay, I saw that— On eBay. I sold it because I had organized it so methodically, so precisely, that I created a sort of maniac camera package. Maniac. I couldn’t let anyone touch it. I couldn’t scratch it. I couldn’t break it up. I just had to get it out of my life. And I sold it to Sage Stallone, Sylvester Stallone’s son, who’s one of my favorite people in the whole world, one of the smartest, young, goofy kids I’ve ever known in my whole life. So it went to like my hero. But I really needed it out of my life. I needed to not love that.
I looked at that page, and I said, now that’s a package. Oh! I had those cameras modified even by the companies that made the camera just to bring the dB levels down five dB each. They were the quietest, most lubricated, precise… The lens kit. The lens kit! The lens kit, a thousand cinematographers together hadn’t put that much energy into the lens kit. A thousand cinematographers in motion pictures together haven’t put that much energy into a lens kit. Just to get somebody to figure out how I can convert those Bausch & Lombs with the Mitchell mounts into a PL mount where you can use them on modern cameras, those old Mitchell lenses?
I mean, every cinematographer looked at those lenses and wished that they could do it. And many people tried. But I did it. And I did it in a way that wasn’t easy. It took me a year of energy to get those right.
It wasn’t the only thing you were working on, but still, an integral part of the process—Yes. You know what it was? It was part of the process in two ways. One, meaning I needed it for an esthetic thing. But it was a part of the process emotionally. I needed to over-organize in an obsessive way all the details of the film so that I could have this seventeen-day period where I went out and shot then. But I had to prepare. When I recorded my last album, the “When” album (2001), I organized the studio for two-and-a-half years and that was every day. That wasn’t doing other things. For two-and-a-half years, I built a recording studio. The last detail was, I was using this special cable, special type of vintage Mogami cable from Japan, and I was short twenty-two feet. So I used this one twenty-two-foot roll of Belden Brilliance, another kind of cable. So let’s say, it has this finish and I had to use one cable that had this finish. In this giant harness of wires all over the place there was one twenty-two foot cable buried somewhere behind someplace, in this color.
I couldn’t take it. So I waited another three weeks until I found someone with some old Mogami of that color and texture. I bought it off him, ripped it out of his studio, I paid a crazy price for it, got it, put it in my system, and then recorded the album in three days. In three days.
It’s just, whatever it is that I do to make it okay for myself, that’s what I do, but, uh, does it have to be done that way? No. And is it an achievement to do it that way? No. It’s just my way. That’s all.
Wagner’s wife kept these massive daily journals and I think I remember an entry that went, I’m probably improving it, “Today, Richard could not find his favorite pencil. He went to the top of the hill and cried out, if I do not find my pencil, I will kill the children.” I understand! But I understand that. In my art background, I used the same brush, from the beginning to the end, still, to now, to do this one thing, this one area of painting that requires a brush of a certain size. I have one that I’ve got used to. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. But it’s certainly a personality defect, it’s certainly neurotic, but I’ve taken it to a level.
Find a pen you like, buy twenty. Absolutely.
I know a recording engineer who talks about old microphones the way you’re talking about cable, the way a chef talks about an artichoke. It becomes a kind of experiential poetry. My main, my main collection is microphones, that’s what I collect more than anything else. Hi-fi gear, but microphones? I’ve spent more time playing around with microphones since I was twelve, when I bought my first good mic, than any of my other friends who are in the music business. So a lot of people come to me with a lot of microphone questions. It’s when I’m my happiest.
John Frusciante called me up a couple of months ago, he was recording a record, he wanted to know how I would mic a drum kit. He’s worked with [Rick] Rubin for years, who does it in exactly the opposite way I’d ever do it. I explained to him what mics I felt he should use in the room he was recording in, where he should put them, how few he should use and how he should arrange them. Y’know, he’s a person who trusts me in that way, so he actually did it. He’s called me like twenty times since then to tell me how he’s making the greatest recordings of his life.
That’s the problem with movies. There’s too many things.
You’re not done after you choose the mics. I know a lot about cinema now. Look, I’m a guy who’s made only two films, you go to a laboratory with me, there’s no filmmaker that knows the lab, the soup, I know about the soup, the soup is the formula that film’s processed in, I know more about the soup than most people who work in a lab because if you understand, if you’re really interested in every single thing, there are things to know. There’s the mainstream’s hearsay perception of what is good or what they’ve heard is best and then there are the fanatics who know different.
You could either ask a fanatic, if you’re clever, and you have good perception, you can find someone who can give you that information, but even better, you could become that person and make your own choices.
You could wish that Kubrick made more than three films in the last twenty years of his life, but when you read now about how he spent his days and long nights, largely on the phone asking questions of experts, it’s what you’re describing. What makes the thing the thing, he wanted to know. My life is filled with things to do and things to learn. So my work in cinema sort of takes me away from them. It puts my life, my life which has a broader curiosity, on hold, and then my only curiosity revolves around making the film. But there’s a lot there and there’s a lot to learn. There’s a real [motorcycle] race, I had to train again, there’s the bike, the camera package, the sound recording, how do you shoot scenes, time code, I know Aaton timecode now, film stock, the new machine I used to generate the internegative, the nonlinear digital scanning, I’m the first person to do that. I was the guinea pig for that process.
But my interests are broader than that. I’m good in business so I can make that work. I like business, I like financing, I like distribution, I like trailers, I like advertising, I like all design. But most of my interests are outside of cinema.
But ideally there’s a conversation underneath, all those pieces are talking to each other. Oh man. Oh yeah. Because you can understand… Insight is the greatest thing. You gain from your level of interest in something. You’re interested in something, you gain new insight. When you look at your early insight into things, they’re so naive, your earliest instinct before you really understand them. That’s what the general public operates with daily. Daily.
People accuse me, y’know, they are sort of down on me politically all the time because they know I’m not a liberal. But what I really am is an elitist. I just like the discussion on the highest level, whatever it is. I like conflict. I just like the dialogue of conflict on the highest level. The most reasonable men and women talking about things in the most profound, complex ways, not having to talk about them on a pedestrian level all the time.
It’s probably my strongest criticism of Michael Moore, that he creates the false illusion that people in political office have way more power than they actually have, so that in a sense, the pedestrian level people are fighting phantoms. Because they feel like they have less power and they feel this [other] person has this unreasonable, unrealistic level of power, and since they have less power, then they feel like they’re fighting these phantoms. So he’s enticing, he’s enticing a below-par level of dialogue to be the representation of the debate, of a discussion that’s on another level.
I’m into really sophisticated, committed people who’ve thought through things and who, when they’re in debate with other people who are on the same level of commitment to what they’re doing, they have very gentle, reasonable, progressive things [to say] even in disagreement, not that other kind of thing. It’s not productive, that other kind of thing, and it’s not progressive.
No bogeymen. Chaos is more interesting. Chaos is the most interesting thing of all.
We’ve run past our time, even though Gallo wants to keep going. He’s dragged to the post-screening Q&A down the hall, suddenly realizing that he needs to dart to the men’s room.
“It’s the opening of ‘Buffalo ’66’ all over again,” I joke. He laughs and offers a big, unexpected hug.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.