Interview: Vincent Gallo on the Controversial 'The Brown Bunny'

His Adults-Only Film Prompts an Adults Only Discussion

Vincent Gallo Chloe Sevigny Brown Bunny
Vincent Gallo and Chloe Sevigny in "The Brown Bunny". Photo © Wellspring Media

About.com was present at the 2004 press roundtable for filmmaker Vincent Gallo's controversial film, The Brown Bunny. Infamously, famed film critic Roger Ebert called the original version, which played at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, "the worst film in the history of Cannes." Gallo cut the film by 25 minutes, which was enough for Ebert to then give the re-edited version a positive review. The film stars Gallo and Chloe Sevigny, and features an unsimulated sex scene that drew outcry and was released unrated.

After verifying no one present at the press roundtable interview session with reporters was advertising themselves as working for one paper or media outlet while secretly working for another, Gallo got down to the business of discussing his latest film in a conversation that -- at times -- got heated.

Gallo spoke about taking the film to Cannes, changes that were made to the final cut, the sex scene, and The Brown Bunny billboard that he designed for Sunset Blvd., which was taken down less than a week after it went up because of the reaction by some to the advertisement’s graphic content.

Is this a different film from the one screened at Cannes?
No, the biggest differences of the movie are as follows: I put a six minute song at the end over black to sort of DJ the crowd out of the theater, to sort of control even the end of the film – meaning the exit of the film. I forgot that people stay and they do these things, but I wanted to control the mood after people digested the film with a song, with a piece of music.

And then I took off about a four minute credit off the beginning of the film, which was the sort of people involved – Kinetique, Wild Bunch, a couple more names. I was trying to sort of settle the audience. I felt that at festivals people – at the big festivals – they really pay attention to the beginning so I put [something] very provocative.

You know, the "University for the Development and Theory of So and So Presents" and I put a big focus thing and a gate thing, because I wanted to make sure everything was perfect, then the film starts.

You took all that down?
All that down. So that’s nine minutes of this 25 minute thing. So we’re talking about, really, another 15 minutes because I’ll tell you, it really was… I really cut about 15 minutes out of the actual movie. And here’s what the 15 minutes were: In March when I agreed to go to the Cannes Film Festival, the film was incomplete. It was even incomplete in its shooting. I hadn’t shot the last scene of the film, which needed to be shot in late April because the film wasn’t supposed to be delivered in January. I had to shoot the last scene in April because it involved a racing scene at Willow Springs Raceway where I was going to go to a race, meet a couple of girls at the racetrack, drive around the track in 1st place at the race, and then deliberately drive off the track into a wall and of course kill myself. Because in the Vincent Gallo world, you have to begin with suicide and then you find a way out of it later on. And that’s what I did with Buffalo 66. Same thing.

So I was planning on shooting the scene in April and I needed… To get more time to finish the film, which I needed for reasons I that won’t bore you with – they were technical reasons – to do the 16 mm blow up to 35 mm, I wanted to do it non-linear. Digitally but non-linear. The machine hadn’t been ever used before and it wasn’t ready. Fotokem said it would be ready in April, they changed their minds and said it would be ready in September. So to get that extra time from the Japanese financiers, which was an immediate “No.” I negotiated this thing where I would present the film to Cannes. Just by presenting the film to Cannes, they had to give me the six months. If Cannes took the film, I would show it. If they didn’t, no problem, I still got the six months.

For some bizarre reason, Thierry Fremaux accepted the film in this extremely – now, by the time it went to Cannes it was much closer to being finished, but the version that I showed Thierry didn’t even have the last 40 minutes.

I mean, it was just rough sketches of the film. When Thierry said that he was serious about putting the film in Cannes, could I show him at least those last 40 minutes – could I rough them in and show him… The film didn’t have to be finished, could I just show him a complete film, I immediately did something that turned out to be the greatest thing because I was stuck on how I would edit that last sequence. I’d been pounding away at the last sequence. And I just roughed through it and then I took sequences that were going to be used for flashbacks – a sort of tumbling van, a bunny in the road, different things that made this ending, this abstract ending of the film. I sent it to Thierry and he calls me up two weeks – three weeks before they were officially supposed to announce films that were being accepted because he knows that for me to complete it now to go to print, he has to tell me early. He leaves a message on my message, “This is Thierry Fremaux. Congratulations, you’ve been accepted into competition at Cannes.” Which is everything that I’ve dreamed about my whole life up until the day that they rejected Buffalo 66.

Now the concept of the film festival, I had a whole different perception. The last thing that I wanted was the sickest moment in my life because I was… This is what I said: I’m editing in my house and I checked my messages because the phone had rang a couple times on my cell phone. And I checked my messages and, “Hello, this is Thierry Fremaux. Congratulations…” And I go, “F**k, f**k,” and I had an immediate nervous breakdown because I had made this deal with the Japanese and I knew… And I wasn’t nervous about showing the film, I was nervous about the amount of work – not being creatively nervous – about the amount of work that I would have to now put towards now creating an unfinished film. I had to do a fake mix off the edit, I had to finish these final editing tweaks, I had to generate credits, I had to put music down, I had to generate a print, I had to color correct the print.

It really took me about three weeks, and it took me out of my place.

The good news was I was able to get the financiers to pay for that, and I was able to do some experimentations that would later aid me to complete the film. Things with the mix, I knew for sure the difference between linear and non-linear was a big difference, and now I’d done this blow up from digi-beta and it just looked awful. I hated it. And I was able to see how certain dissolves would play out and I was able to see my six reels put together for the first time.

When you make a film, you can’t sit there and watch your film from beginning to end because the phone rings, you want to change something, you take notes – you can’t do it. The only way to do it is to organize a screening somewhere for anybody. And you watch it and because there’s other people there, you stay quiet. You don’t do anything and you feel any doubts you have enhance themselves, anything you like enhances itself. You don’t really care what people think. People hated the first screening of Buffalo 66, or they loved one time a screening when I thought there was still problems with the film. But whatever it does, it brings it out of you. It really does… Most filmmakers do that 100 times. With Buffalo 66, I went from the rough-cut to the finished film in a few days of editing. I did the same thing with Brown Bunny. Just a few days of seeing exactly what was wrong.

To answer the question, finally, I cut out a sequence between Utah and Colorado that was about another 7 minutes longer of driving. So from when he gets up in that motel and drives, till he gets into the night and into Bonneville in the morning, there was about 7 more minutes of just landscape and pulling over and putting his sweater on, and washing the car. And when you saw it in the reel on its own, it played beautifully. I will release that reel as a film, as a methodical film of somebody on a journey. It’s just beautiful, it just feels so real. In the film, I felt that it distracted from the film’s continuity. The film’s continuity sort of stalled there for a moment, so I cut that 7 minutes out.

The racing scene used to be another three or four laps longer and I physically couldn’t make it shorter for Cannes because I needed this digital technique later on. I needed a higher resolution scan because one of my cameras – if you notice at the opening of the race, there’s edge fogging. There’s flaring on the edge of the film, sort of distorted film. Then when the bike comes around the first curve, the camera switches to another angle and it stays on that angle the whole time. That’s because my camera broke. The side camera broke, that’s why it’s flaring like that in the first shot of the movie. So I had to use one camera for that whole race. And the way that I made the 15 lap race into an 8 lap race for Cannes, then eventually to a 4 lap race for the final movie, was by high-res scanning and moving in and doing a sort of seamless jump cut. So the race was 4 minutes longer. The Utah scene was 7 minutes, and then there was… I cut one other thing. Oh, the end. I cut off the end. I cut out the fake, ridiculous end.

Do you think it’s a better movie?
There’s one cut of Buffalo 66 that’s 18 seconds longer. I almost locked picture, then I just made one more pass through the film and took out 18 seconds. I can’t bear the 18 second longer version of the film. I can’t bear it. It’s gloomy, it kills me. It’s like a million pins poking me. However, if you saw the 20 minute longer version of Buffalo 66, you would have basically the same reaction to the movie. Some people might argue that there was more there that you’d have missed. If you saw the released version, there would be things that you’d miss. I think that the finished version of Brown Bunny is exactly what I wanted it to be. If I go back and look at the rough cut, it would seem… It would irritate me on some level. Unfortunately, once people get to see it that way, they always tell you what they missed.

If people are only focused on the controversial issues surrounding this movie, especially on the graphic sexual issues, what are they missing?
They’re missing what children miss when they’re in a car traveling to a place they want to go. They’re missing the experience of getting there. They’re missing all the beautiful things that are happening on their way there, and they’re missing the continuity of what the entire trip as a whole means to them. So they’re missing things the way adolescents miss things. If you look at that film without prejudice or hearsay or, even worse, suspicion about why it was made and what my intentions were to make it, then you become unaware of the multi-complex innuendos, narrations, aesthetics, and sensibilities, and concepts, and nuances, and melodramas that happen along the way.

I’m more attracted to the first part of the film than I am the last part of the film. The last part of the film works juxtaposed against the first part of the film, but it’s a more conventional… It becomes slightly more conventional. The part of the film that really engages me, the most beautiful scene in the movie to me is the scene between Cheryl Tiegs and I. I think what people miss if they put focus on the part of the film that they deem exploitive or titillating, they miss the film as a whole. And they certainly misinterpret the scene that encompasses them.

You had that scene blown up on a billboard on Sunset Blvd. That’s a conscious choice in marketing the film and the marketing campaign of ‘the most controversial American film ever made,’ it’s going to define the movie. People can’t help but go into the movie thinking about that.
Well, I’ll respond to that simply by saying I’ve made six posters for the movie. I’ve done all the synopsis, all the trailers, everything. And the line "controversy" had nothing to do with the sex, it had to do with Lisa Schwarzbaum and people saying it was the worst movie ever made. It wasn’t an address to sexuality.

All the other pamphlets and formatting and imagery and text that I presented about the movie is highly intellectualized, highly conceptual, extremely discreet, and extremely conceptual in its aesthetics - in direct relationship to the film itself. The billboard on Sunset Blvd. was a much more broad concept for me. I designed it, I choose it, I paid for it. Okay. It happens in these ways: First of all, it’s the dream of my life since I’m a teenager to have a billboard on Sunset Blvd. because when I’m in LA I don’t watch TV, I don’t read the newspaper, I don’t listen to the radio. I only know about contemporary culture by broad advertisements. But I felt, first of all just as a person, it was a dream sort of to be able to have a billboard and to be able to pick what it was. That said, the billboard itself whatever boldness it has, whatever appeal it had, the intentions were that the appeal would be aesthetic and intellectual. I mean, the only people who would respond to that billboard in a way where they really understood the sensibility of that billboard would be people who were evolved on some level. That was not a mainstream provocateur. I mean, across the street you’d have a Calvin Klein ad where the girl is fisting the boy and her boob is out, and she’s dripping. Mine is in black and white – you can’t really see anything. There’s no boobs, there’s no nipples, there’s nothing. It’s done in a blown out half-tone. The whole billboard has no corporate names, it has no quotes from festivals. It has nothing. It’s done in a style or a tradition of classic adult cinema and the reference is that this film is an event – that those actors are substantial. And the purpose was to take away the marginal perception of the film. If people think that this is an art film, it’s offensive to me. They think it’s a self-indulgent, narcissistic film with a sex act. It’s offensive to me.

I was trying to give imagery that would relate to the other corporate advertisements to suggest that the film had a corporate element, or that it was… Certainly that it was not marginal and it was not "artistic" in the classic sense. It was bigger than that. It transcended the Sundance Film Festival, or just the American film with the European ending – or something like that. I didn’t want anything like that and I didn’t want the hearsay to continue without addressing it. I wanted to show that the film was provocative, that it was in this tradition of adult cinema – Last Tango, Midnight Cowboy, whatever. But I wanted to do it on my own terms. I wanted to use provocative images that were beautiful, dramatic, aesthetic, clearly outside of mainstream eroticism.

That billboard was taken from a still from the only version of the film that was censored for the Japanese market only. And that particular still was used in a film that could play to 12 year-old children and up. So what was suggestive and provocative about that billboard was the boldness of the black and white, the gigantic white space, the huge font, and the huge area that said “In Color – X Adults Only.” It was done clearly to up the ante on a creative level, not up the ante on a provocative level.

Why did you make the second half of the movie, if it’s the first half that’s more where you were going?
I didn’t say that I was going for the first half. You said that. I said that the second half and the first half work together well. The first half is more reflective of my…a stronger reflection of my sensibility. But the film as a whole works juxtaposed together. That’s what I said.

I guess the question is why does it have to go there?
Why don’t you just get to the point and just say why did I use sex in the movie? Why ask it in a vague way? Why don’t you just ask me the same dumb question? You saw the film.

I was trying to ask it in the artistic context.
I’m not an artist. I mean, why ask me in the artistic context? I’m not an artist. I have never said once here today that I was an artist. I’ve not given you the impression that I feel entitled as an artist, or that I’m doing things purposely to be avant-garde or to be marginal.

I’m moving toward love and hope and beauty. I’m always doing things that I’m assuming are beautiful and that a lot of people will find beautiful. I’m disappointed and surprised when people don’t find my idea of beauty beautiful. I’m surprised, basically surprised.

I’m not shooting for marginal levels. I’m not shooting to do marginal work. And I’m not motivated by provocative reactions. I mean, to make a movie takes years. I don’t know what you do with your time and how hard you work on your work, but I don’t think you’d sit there and write for three and a half years and give up your house and your career and your money and you’d go bald and go gray and have your prostate blow up, just to provoke people. I think you’d have to be motivated by things that were really part of your interest, what you found beautiful. And to respond to the sex scene to somebody who’s seen the movie in that way, just blows my mind.

I’m using traditional iconic images. Pornography is the ability for somebody to have enhanced sexual pleasure or sexual fantasy free from responsibility, guilt, insecurity, consequence, etc. etc. What I’ve done is taken those icons of pornography and juxtaposed them against responsibility, insecurity, resentment, hate, greed, mourning - together. There’s no way to separate them in my film. There’s no way to look at that scene and be titillated or sexually aroused. People who get off on pornography are revolted just by the kissing scenes because they can’t take the level of intimacy and complex issues surrounding intimacy in that film. The graphic images are used to enhance those sequences.

It’s like none of the things that I’ve ever done in my life have been self-glorifying – ever. Everything that I do is for personal sacrifice. I sleep on a miserably uncomfortable horrible bed because it looks good. For 25 f***ing years I sleep on that horrible bed with that Amish quilt because it looks good. I do everything in my life because I believe… I don’t give a f*** about my body, about myself, about my face, about my reputation, about anything to do with my career. I put the focus on things that I think are important and beautiful. And they transcend me. And my work is much more interesting than me.

To call that film narcissistic or self-indulgent because I multi-task? Do you think it’s fun to work without an assistant? Do you think it’s fun to work without support, a production office? To sit there in a f***ing van with three guys, driving through the desert? A van packed with camera equipment that I have to unload every day, that I have to fix every day, that I have to reload into the van because God forbid one of them should lift one f***ing case on the film? Do you think that was self-indulgent?

Matthew McConaughey does 600 pushups before he does his shirtless scene. I haven’t even worked with a f***ing make-up person in films. You think I made myself look great? Do you think it’s fun to show your c*** in a film for ten billion to scrutinize for eternity? Do you think I get off on that? I was interested in the film for the purpose of the film, and I moved past my insecurities, my self-doubt, my self-hate, my incredible privacy that I value. I pushed that aside to achieve the goals that I had in the movie. And I think they’re very clear in the film. I think if you see that film, it’s clear that my intentions were to create disturbing effects around intimacies – both metaphysical and personal intimacies with this character’s life.

Do I have a big ego? Yes, because I think I know what’s the most beautiful. Am I difficult to work with? Yes, I’m an a**hole. I’m screaming at everybody all the time. Am I controlling? Yes. Am I a narcissist? Please, I don’t even have a f***ing mirror in my house. Give me a break, give me a break. Narcissist?

I didn’t call you a narcissist.
No, but that’s what is said all the time and that’s what’s meant when people ask me why I need the sex scene. I don’t need the sex scene in the film, because I didn’t need to make the film. But that film includes that sex scene. That film as a whole includes that sex scene. It’s not a separate part. It’s not a choice. Does Robert Redford wear the mustache in Butch Cassidy, or doesn’t he? That’s a choice. This film exists as a whole. I don’t compartmentalize the movie like that.

The whole scene involves hyper-intimacy, hyper-focus. You can barely hear them talk sometimes. They’re barely whispering. You’re constantly left feeling that you’re left watching something that you shouldn’t be watching, because you’re not supposed to watch sexuality, really, in a sense. Because you’re supposed to fill your mind with sexuality when you’re having sex. My character in The Brown Bunny cannot fill his mind with sexuality. He cannot because he’s filled with fear, grief, anger, and resentment, and that’s a very unusual portrayal of male sexuality. I’ve never seen it before. It’s not influenced by Two-Lane Blacktop or some other stupid movie because it had a car in it. It’s insight that I felt that I had into pathological behavior that I think is common now.

People are extremely compulsive-addictive in the way that they get together. They act out in these ways in grief that I think are extreme. My character seems like a sociopath in this film but he’s very ordinary, and his experience is very ordinary. And I’m sorry that there’s so much focus at arriving at this scene. It was not my intention. I didn’t think that people would go see the movie and be so enthusiastic to see a bl*wjob that they would ignore a whole film. I didn’t want the film ever to be presented that way because I thought we would just release it in another quieter way. Once it blew up…

I made that billboard on Sunset Blvd. I thought that billboard was the most beautiful billboard I’d ever seen in my life. I thought it was unique billboard in the fact that it wasn’t done in the conventional protocol of advertising where a whole bunch of people come in and put their name, and you have to make everybody happy in the film. It was just nice to see something where one person was able to create a more stark, bold billboard. I’m disappointed that I never actually got to see it in person. Very disappointed because they f***ing took it down before I got here.

You never saw it?
No. I was in New York when the billboard went up.

Who took it down?
Regency. The people at Regency, without saying anything. And the publicist had said to me that the controversy had started coming around the billboard. I thought people would freak out at the billboard – I didn’t see it as a smut thing – I thought they would freak out by the style. I’m always in my own…I’m thinking, “Wow, this is so beautiful. I mean, look it. No company names, just this big thing. I hope other actors and directors get off this billing block and this crap. It’s so great to see graphic design without all these things that you have to pander to.”

And then, you know, the publicist calls me, “The New York Times saw the billboard and they want to talk to you about it.” I’m like, “Oh no.” And I said to her, I said, “Listen. Let’s not talk to anybody because they’re going to wind up taking it down.” “Oh no, they can’t take it down because you have a contract.” I said, “I’m just afraid they’re going to take it down. Please, I want to get to LA. I want to see my billboard. I want to see my billboard before it gets taken down.” Then when I was in Chicago, going from Chicago to Minneapolis, somebody calls me and says, “Your billboard’s down.” I found out the billboard had been taken down without any explanation. There [were] no riots. You couldn’t see anything.

Look at advertisements now. Look at CK, look at Gucci, I mean, please! People like porn and eroticism. They don’t like black and white duotones. They want to see clean, healthy, young flesh. Do you think if you were a porno connoisseur that billboard would have turned you on? There wasn’t enough there. It looked like a romance novel cover more than anything else. There was clear hints of sexuality. The postures were clearly dramatic and clearly intimate. It was suggestive that the film was sophisticated in another way. And that’s all. That was the point.

The people who responded to it the most, the people who called me up who have the most evolved taste of my friends, liked that more than anything that I’ve ever done. But they didn’t like it in that way. They liked the boldness of it. They liked the whole odd nature.

Edited by Christopher McKittrick