For Downtown Director Vincent Gallo, Fame Is a License to ‘Trash Everybody’

Vincent Gallo stared furiously at his menu in the Art Deco stillness of Petrossian. “We are having a fancy moment here,” he said. “This is as fancy as it gets.” Mr. Gallo was looking pretty fancy himself, in a form-gripping custom-made brown leather suit. A gray T-shirt peeked out from under the partially unzipped coat. A brown silk scarf, tied rakishly around his neck, initially complemented the outfit, but Mr. Gallo had removed it upon entering the restaurant. His shaggy, shoulder-length hair and beard framed a Mephistophelean nose and chin. His skeptical blue eyes were the only bit of color on his person.

“I mean, if I never work with Sharon Stone again, it’s O.K. for me,” Mr. Gallo was saying. “I don’t like her and I mean, I have been waiting my whole life to say things that I wanted to say. I’ve been waiting my whole life for moments when people would actually listen.”

Ms. Stone (a “cunt,” Mr. Gallo called her) had conducted an interview with herself in a recent edition of Harper’s Bazaar . Several months earlier, Mr. Gallo had conducted his own self-interview for a ‘zine called Grand Royal , and he expressed the opinion that the actress had ripped him off. Now, in Petrossian, his remarks seemed particularly ballsy for two reasons. One, Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis happened to be lunching across the room. Two, Mr. Gallo, who acted in Palookaville and The House of the Spirits and recently directed his first film, Buffalo ’66 , was exhibiting behavior inappropriate to the Hollywood food chain. And Ms. Stone, who has so deftly transformed herself from pantyless arriviste to classy spokesman for the American Foundation for AIDS Research, is a predator of the first order.

“I can’t believe,” Mr. Gallo said, “that people become so happy that they got a little success, they become so petrified to lose it that they shut down.”

Mr. Gallo made an interesting point. The celebrity-making apparatus is essentially a great homogenizer. As an actor’s fame grows, his imperfections and idiosyncrasies tend to disappear, by airbrush or publicist. The hair and clothing become styled, the complexion gets creamy, the politics turn mainstream liberal.

Now the apparatus that empowered Ms. Stone to talk to herself and say nothing is lumbering around to Mr. Gallo: new, quotable meat with downtown associations. He was a member of artist Jean Michel Basquiat’s band, Gray, and his paintings showed (and sold) in major galleries in the 1980’s. His latest endeavor, the film Buffalo ’66 , is both a tragicomic tale of a young man’s coming of age in Buffalo, N.Y., and an esthetically challenging art film. It was accepted at the Sundance Film Festival, will likely go to Cannes, and has been given a prominent slot in the Museum of Modern Art’s “New Directors-New Films” series on April 3 and April 4.

Perhaps most significantly, he got an invite to the celebrity frenzy that is Vanity Fair ‘s Oscar party at Morton’s. So on Feb. 28, the director, who prefers the highway to the jet plane, left his apartment in Little Italy in a rented Lincoln Town Car and started driving west.

In Mr. Gallo, the fame machine will find a challenge. Not that he is determined to live on the fringes. “I like that girls recognize me from my work because it’s easier to talk them into fellatio,” he said.

It’s just that Mr. Gallo does not even remotely fit the template of a guy destined for the cover of Vanity Fair . He doesn’t employ a personal publicist or, for the moment, an agent. He has been a clotheshorse from an early age, but his fashion touchstones are Rolling Stone Brian Jones, designer Yves Saint Laurent and the Al Pacino’s look in the film Bobby Deerfield (1977). Mr. Gallo is of a time in New York when one’s look meant something. “If you saw somebody walk down the street and they were interesting-looking, they were interesting. If you see somebody now who … looks interesting, I’m not a betting man, but I would bet everything that I had against them being interesting.”

The Meaning of Buffalo ’66

Mr. Gallo’s taste in people was on display Feb. 17 when he screened Buffalo ’66 for an invitation-only audience at the Directors Guild of America Theater on West 57th Street. In the crowd were members of his crew; Alan Taylor, who directed Mr. Gallo in Palookaville ; fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg; media mogul Barry Diller; artist Francesco Clemente; actor Mickey Rourke; deejay-writer Anita Sarko; game-show magnate Chuck Barris; and Mr. Gallo’s mother, Jan Gallo, a friendly woman who had worn a Buffalo Bills sweatshirt for the occasion. Mr. Gallo was wearing a purely white outfit that included a knee-length cashmere frock coat and a fringed leather top.

Prior to debuting his film, he introduced his mother by saying that he hadn’t seen her much in the 20 years “since she kicked me out of the house.” He added: “She’s gained a few pounds since the last time I saw her.” Mrs. Gallo giggled nervously in her seat. The crowd let out a collective “Ohhhh,” followed by a round of booing. Mr. Gallo’s smile widened. “Well, you don’t know yet because you haven’t seen the film, but there’s a very strong reference to my mother in the film. And after you’ve seen the film, I want you all to stay away from her.”

The lights went down, and Mrs. Gallo saw her son’s opus for the first time. Filmed on location, Buffalo ’66 is a deadpan tale of Billy Brown, a tormented young man, played by Mr. Gallo. Released from prison, Billy immediately kidnaps a voluptuous young tap-dance student named Layla (Christina Ricci) and forces her to impersonate his wife as part of a lame attempt to convince his parents that he has simply been tending a career and a marriage out of state all these years. The thing is that Billy’s parents don’t really seem to care a whole lot about their son. His mother (Anjelica Huston) is more concerned with watching sports programs, and his father (Ben Gazzara), if he speaks at all, expresses only rage.

Over lunch at Petrossian, as he scraped the crème fraîche off the blini that he had just permitted a waiter to prepare for him, Mr. Gallo explained that his film “is a love story about a person who is driven by the grievances he’s had in his relationship with his mother and father, and they’ve made him act out in all these aggressive, resentful, fearful, vindictive ways, and at a certain point in his life he chooses to take responsibility for his own life and his own behavior.”

Mr. Gallo is not a Democrat (“left-wing commies” is a favorite phrase of his, as is the term “faggot”), and the message of Buffalo ’66 dovetails with his conservative political views. “I don’t believe that adults are victims,” he said. He added that there’s a tendency in filmmaking to romanticize “the fucked-up person. You know … the kid who shows up and does his homework, he’s not interesting to us. We don’t care about him. Well, I care,” said Mr. Gallo. “He’s the interesting person to me.”

The plot of the movie is fictional, but Mr. Gallo, after finishing his caviar and ordering a foie gras salad, explained that there are autobiographical elements. Part of the film was shot in one of the houses where Mr. Gallo grew up. The parents depicted by Ms. Huston and Mr. Gazzara were pretty close to home, according to the director. “I had a very violent and abandoned and complex relationship with my mother and father,” said Mr. Gallo. But that was in the past. “I know, deep down, that they did the best that they could,” he said. “And I don’t enjoy putting them down anymore like I did.”

Mr. Gallo, who was briefly married in the 1980’s, enjoys depicting his love life as ill-fated melodrama, albeit melodrama that involves abundant sex. (“Him being tragic is part of the beauty of Vincent,” said his longtime friend, artist Kenny Scharf.) So it is not surprising that he equated the making of Buffalo ’66 -the need to absolutely control it-with a love affair.

“There was no way that this chick was going to fuck my best friend. There was no way that this chick was going to tell everybody what my pecker looked like,” Mr. Gallo explained. “None of those things were going to happen. She was not going to take my apartment in a palimony suit. She was not going to have my baby and raise him with some left-wing commie in another state. It was not going to happen.” Notwithstanding his ample confidence, there are some memorable and visually bold scenes in Buffalo ’66 , including a tap dance in a bowling alley that Ms. Ricci does to King Crimson’s “Moonchild” (Mr. Gallo scored the film, too), a shooting scene that involves some trippy 3-D stop-action effects, and a deadpan bit in a photo booth where Mr. Gallo manages to look uniformly tragic while Ms. Ricci tries to be genuinely affectionate. Seen through the esthetic sensibilities that Mr. Gallo has cultivated, Buffalo becomes a much more interesting town than it must have been during his childhood.

After the final credits rolled in the Directors Guild screening room and the audience gave Mr. Gallo a healthy helping of applause, the director was still in a jokily aggressive mood. A question about the fate of a puppy that angers the Ben Gazzara character prompted Mr. Gallo to tell a story about his real dad. It involved him destroying a piece of his son’s cherished stereo equipment because a friend of Vincent’s happened to glimpse Mrs. Gallo in her nightgown.

“It was a typical night of him destroying something to punish me,” said Mr. Gallo. The room got quiet. The director continued. “The father kills the puppy. He chokes him to death. But he’s a good guy if you get to know him. He’s a funny guy. Now he’s a little older, so he can’t attack with the same vigor,” Mr. Gallo bared his teeth and choked the air with his hands. He looked out at his mother. “Right, Mom? You don’t even know how good it is. You make a film and you trash everybody.”

Ms. Von Furstenberg raised her hand. “If you wanted people to like you after this movie, you’ve succeeded,” she said.

A Vengeful Vincent

Trashing people is something that Mr. Gallo does particularly well and often. “I acted in 10 TV commercials done by the great commercial photographer Richard Avedon, one of which was pulled for a print ad,” he said, referring to his association with Calvin Klein Inc. Woe to the hacks who described him as a “model.” “If that’s a ‘model,’ then those cunts and faggots, those assholes who write that I’m a model, are they poets?”

Mr. Gallo often seems to be enjoying himself very much while issuing these epithets. “He’s got the longest ability to retain a revenge list. Twelve years, that’s nothing,” said Chris Hanley, a producer of Buffalo ’66 and a longtime acquaintance of the director. “His karma thing is very organized. It’s better than the Library of Congress.”

“Most of the people that I’ve said bad things about in the press, I would say a large majority of them have, in a very subversive, dishonest, evil way, character-assassinated me and hurt my life,” Mr. Gallo responded. “I mean, if I insult somebody, I put my name on it.”

But earlier in the interview, Mr. Gallo allowed that, “if one uses humor and subtext to make comments, bold comments, one can invent a language of communication that’s different than a passive point of view. So if I’m ranting and rambling, there actually come-out of that smoke screen comes a lot of insights and a lot of honesty. Is it dangerous? I’m sure. I’m sure.”

On the Phone From Waco

A tractor-trailer engine rumbled in the background. Mr. Gallo was on the phone from Waco, Tex., halfway across the country in his Lincoln Town Car. His destination was Los Angeles, in particular his house designed by modernist architect John Lautner. (Mr. Gallo said a mock-up of the place was destroyed in Lethal Weapon 2 .) Mr. Gallo was using the trip to resume his search for “esthetic perfection.” He has long been a collector of rare and antique guitars and hi-fi and sound-recording equipment.

He tends to share his inner life only with fellow enthusiasts in those fields. “Vince is the guy I call when I have a question,” said his good pal and fellow Republican Johnny Ramone. “Whether I want to refinish my floors or fix my car.” On the road, Mr. Gallo travels alone, and when he calls from the road, he sounds calmer, sweeter, more like the “shy fawn” that performance artist Joey Arias said that he met when Mr. Gallo first came to the city.

Mr. Gallo begins to sound agitated when talk turns to Sundance. His film had garnered good notices but no awards, and Mr. Gallo claimed to have inside information that the director Paul Schrader, who was a judge at the festival, had campaigned against the first-time auteur. “He was very offended by my Q.&A.,” said Mr. Gallo. “He was running around like a bitter queen,” saying “that he didn’t like me and that there was no way he was going to vote for me.” Mr. Schrader replied that Buffalo ’66 was a “bold and smart film” but added: “Mr. Gallo, whom I do not know, seems to be the sort who hides behind conspiracy theories.”

The Observer then told Mr. Gallo that an anonymous Sundance source had said of the director: “He came on in such an abrasive and immature manner that he was his own worst enemy. Keep him away from the microphone, he’s going for the Abel Ferrara award.”

“The Abel Ferrara award,” Mr. Gallo shot back over the truck noise. “That’s better than the Oscar to me. A statue of Abel slumped over in sterling silver. It’s the only trophy I would put out.”

Two days later, Mr. Gallo called again on his cellular. This time he was in a snowstorm near the Grand Canyon. The purpose of this communication was a conference call with his mother, which he had been promising for some time. Mr. Gallo gave out his parents’ number only after extracting a promise from his interviewer that it would be used only in his presence. When Mrs. Gallo got on the phone, her son said: “Remember, Ma, anything you don’t want to say, you don’t have to answer. And don’t blame everything on Dad.”

“Oh, isn’t he a sweetheart. He’s my sweetheart,” replied Mrs. Gallo.

When the line of questioning turned to what Mr. Gallo’s childhood was like, the director interrupted. “Ha ha ha. Typical, yeah. Tell me one typical thing about that family,” said Mr. Gallo. Then, to his mother: “Tell him how good I could take a punch.”

“Very good,” laughed Mrs. Gallo nervously.

What did that mean?

“It means that no matter how many times my father beat me, I never cried once,” Mr. Gallo said over the static.

“Never,” said Mrs. Gallo.

For Downtown Director Vincent Gallo, Fame Is a License to ‘Trash Everybody’