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EXCLUSIVE: How Vincent Gallo Staged a Coup on the Set of His Next Film
There’s just one thing: they’re the same movie. How did this happen?
Let’s start from the beginning. In late 2007, Gallo and actress Allison Lohman (Drag Me to Hell) attached themselves to The Funeral Director, a pet project set up by Red Sky (who has one other feature credit to his name, the indie film The White Horse is Dead). Though Lohman fell out of the film shortly after, Gallo stayed aboard and even wrangled a producer credit. Under Gallo’s watch, the cast was filled out using non-actors, Sage Stallone, and European fashion models Delfine Bafort and Esther de Jong.
The Funeral Director may have been a small film almost wholly financed by Red Sky, but its premise was quirky enough to merit some attention when shooting commenced in January 2008:
“A broken-hearted man, Kevin, finds company in a pet cricket. After ditching a lucrative advertising job, he signs on as an apprentice in a funeral home and finds himself not only working for a sexually starved pre-menopausal funeral director, but also rooming with her free spirited nymphomaniac niece. In a strange way, Kevin becomes like one of the old Renaissance masters by taking the dead corpses to study and advance his art by photographing them. While the nymphomaniac becomes addicted to the idea of helping him win back his ex-girlfriend they find themselves exploring loss, death, and resurrection. In a dark romanticism, Kevin attempts to artistically reincarnate the dead people by dressing them up in elaborate costumes and makeup, trying to recapture the memory of their best human quality and to defy the tragedy of their death.”It’s a story that would require a firm hand to keep from tipping into absurdity, and according to those on the Los Angeles set, that’s where the problems began. The less-practiced Red Sky was a passive presence in the directorial chair, which frustrated his lead actor. “From day one, the director was showing signs of his inexperience on set and lack of confidence in handling a fiercely unpredictable talent like Gallo,” said one source. “Vincent would come to set and ask where his mark was, and the director would have to sit and think about it for ten minutes.”
After bringing production to a halt on a daily basis to give “film production 101” lectures to cast and crew members, Gallo finally called for a meeting with the producers and director halfway through the shoot. His ultimatum: he’d walk if he wasn’t made director.
“From that point on,” said the source, “Gallo took over and assumed all rights to the project. He was now the director of the film and treated like so by cast and crew.” Meanwhile, Red Sky — usurped of his passion project by the star he’d cast — was left with little to do but follow Gallo around on set. Unfortunately, letting Gallo have his way didn’t calm him. Screaming fits were common, and Gallo harangued the script coordinator so much that she quit before filming was completed.
Then again, that initial shoot was only the beginning. After filming finished on The Funeral Director that February, Gallo headed to Buenos Aires to shoot Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro. (By all accounts, those two had a much improved actor-director relationship.) When Gallo returned his attentions to the messy project he’d left behind, it wasn’t Pete Red Sky’s The Funeral Director anymore. Now, going forward, it would be Promises Written in Water, written and directed by Vincent Gallo.
Last year, as Tetro was released, Gallo began to talk about Promises, though he notably omitted its origins when The Independent synopsized the effort:
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.” […]
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.”Then again, if Gallo had no plans to release it, would he have included its presumed 2010 release in the biography he submitted to the Tetro press notes, or spent a sizable chunk of his own money on reshoots? Cannes announcements will be coming fast and furious over the next week and Promises has been rumored for a sidebar berth; we’ll see if the strange saga of this film will be revealing a new chapter soon.