To sceptics, there's a mismatch between the attention Vincent Gallo has attracted over the years and his actual achievements. He has directed a couple of films, worked as a character actor in a number of independent movies and released a handful of albums without becoming a major star in any of the fields in which he has been active. However, critics who try to dismiss or cariciature Gallo are frequently wrong-footed by his humour and his flair for philosophical one-liners. He can even occasionally be mildly self-deprecating.
"I came to New York to be a legend, and within five minutes of realising I was an interesting kid and other people thought so, I had given myself a nervous breakdown. I was 26-years-old before I knew what it was like to have an ordinary day," he once remarked of the journey that took him from his home town of Buffalo to New York City where he became a male model, dancer, hustler and eventually a respected musician and painter.
He gives interviews very rarely, but has agreed to talk to promote the new dystopian sci-fi cartoon feature Metropia, directed by little-known Swede Tarik Saleh, in which he voices the lead character, Roger – a Josef K-like everyman adrift in a grim futuristic world. The film screens this month/week in the London Film Festival where it has been shortlisted for The Sutherland Trophy, the festival's award for "most original and imaginative first feature".
If you are a British journalist, Gallo is likely to eye you with particular suspicion. He remembers vividly just how "mean" the British press have been to him over the years. This reached a nadir with the release of Gallo's 2003 road movie, The Brown Bunny, which was booed during its press preview in Cannes and earned instant notoriety for a graphic scene of Chloe Sevigny's ghost performing fellatio on Gallo.
He re-edited the film after Cannes and received respectful notices from critics who had hated it in its first incarnation. Even so, the filmmaker is still smarting at the British journalists who (he says) twisted and wilfully misinterpreted his words after interviewing him in Cannes – and he makes it clear from the outset that he doesn't have high hopes of how I will treat him in print. "He'll say he will [be friendly] but then he'll turn it around even deeper against me, in the British tradition," Gallo whispers to the publicist as the interview begins. "I don't mean to sound arrogant but [talking to the press] is sort of beneath me now. I am operating in a different frequency now. I am trying to grow in a different way," he declares.
With his lean features, beard and shock of hair, Gallo looks a little like a hunger striker or a martyr from some old Renaissance painting. (It's no surprise, either, that he was once in the running to play Charles Manson.) His old persecution complex hasn't gone away altogether but he is mellower than his reputation suggests.
"A lot of people think I am a lot darker than I really am. I am not a depressive person. I am a little nervous and a little easy to throw into unbalance but I am basically a happy person."
Born in 1961 in Buffalo, New York, Gallo came to prominence in the 1980s. His work philosophy is straightforward – prospective patrons or employers should give him complete creative control or pay him lots of money.
"If you want me to work 20 hours a day, seven days a week for free for you, all you have to do is give me 100 per cent control ... but if you fucking tell me [to do] one thing, you had better fucking pay me up the wazoo, because otherwise there's nothing in it for me! If you pay me up the wazoo, I'll do anything."
One of Gallo's most recent roles is as the star of Francis Ford Coppola's new feature Tetro, a drama about the fraught relationship between two brothers. He doesn't reveal whether or not he was paid up the wazoo for his services but clearly relished working with Coppola.
"If I could wave a wand and have gotten to work with Francis Ford Coppola at any period in his career – it would have been at any period in his career!" Gallo reflects. "I just wanted him to know me. I wanted him to be around me and give me some attention. If I could say I could have been in any Coppola film, I would have probably wanted to star in The Rain People. If I could say the period when I would really have liked to see what he was like, it would have loved to have seen him in his biggest, most powerful Cotton Club, Dracula period."
He suggests that he is even more "stubborn" as a filmmaker than Coppola. He won't make a movie unless he gets his own way. Three features (one as yet unreleased) in 10 years doesn't seem like much of a haul for a director who has been acclaimed as one of the most distinctive independent filmmakers in the US. Yet he seems unbothered by his low productivity.
When he is not discussing his work, Gallo talks in sometimes baffling fashion about transcendence, consciousness and good vibrations. He attributes his new-found openness to his experiences in analysis. "I went for many years to a very classical psychiatrist. Together in that relationship, I had some growth ... not a lot because it's a very slow process, 20th century psychoanalysis. After 12 years, there was some insight, some consciousness, some reflection and some growth."
The psychiatrist died around the time of the premiere of Buffalo '66 (1998), At this point, Gallo's behaviour changed. "I felt I was disconnected again. I didn't have one day a week when I was checking in and reflecting on myself – so I developed a lot of unconsciousness. A lot of that was reflected in my behaviour in the press, socially and with girls."
Unpick the gobbledegook and what Gallo seems to be saying is that this was when he was at his most erratic. He calmed down after beginning to visit another psychiatrist. "He was not so caught up in psychoanalysis. He was connecting in another way. I told him the story of my past. He seemed to have a real compassion."
Six years after The Brown Bunny, Gallo is now close to completing a new film, Promises Written in Water. The work is self-financed. "It's only a few hundred thousand dollars. It's not a lot of money ... it's a lot but it's not unbearable," he says.
The film is about a beautiful young girl who is terminally ill. She decides not to go to the hospital or have treatment but to wait until the pain becomes unbearable – and then to end her life. Her one fear is what is going to happen to her body when she is dead. She wants to be cremated. She reaches out to a photographer she meets, asking him to make sure that her wish is fulfilled. He takes a job in a funeral home so that he has the experience to perform the cremation. It sounds morbid in the extreme. "What I have tried to do in this movie is to make choices as if this was the first movie ever made and not to buy into the story of what cinema should be," explains Gallo. This means making the film on the hoof, without much in the way of preparation.
"I shoot a bunch of stuff – improvs, things when people don't know they're being filmed. I look at the footage and separate it into filters. The first category is anything that is beautiful, photographically ... beautiful could be out of focus, it could be a mistake. Beautiful can be intentional. It can be just luck, it can be because the film is processed a little funnily ... Now, I take the film and start to look at the people in the film and I want them to be beautiful. Again, beauty is relative. Beauty can be beautiful ugly. It can be the back of their heads ... "
Continuity editing is deliberately askance. Characters don't wear the same costumes from scene to scene. The director wanted the film to be "honest". He didn't want his cast to "perform" but instead demanded that they behaved naturally on camera. They are mainly unknowns, although Sylvester Stallone's son, Sage, appears.
"He was awful!" Gallo gasps. "I was off camera, screaming at him at the top of my lungs. Then afterward, I just cut out my voice and what was left was him answering these screaming questions – pick the phone up, put it down! – and what is left is this performance that is number one in cinema history. It opens the movie. It's four minutes long – it's just a miracle I have this scene."
Whether we'll ever get the chance to see Promises Written in Water is a moot point. Gallo made it for himself, not for the world at large. "I have no intention of expecting anyone to see it. I am so tuned into it that I can't imagine if it will have the same impact for someone else who doesn't know all the things I know."
As long as Gallo is satisfied with the film himself, he says that will be enough. "Don't take this the wrong way if you're going to write about it. I am giving zero attention to what the audience thinks. It's not that I resent them or don't care about them. I feel that if I am going to make my best work, I have to take that attitude ... I don't care if it ever gets released, I don't care if anyone ever likes it."
'Metropia' is showing at the London Film Festival on 21, 23 and 24 October