For a man who strikes one as never at a loss for words, Vincent Gagliostro is wondering what to say. In a few hours, he’ll be presenting his feature debut “After Louie” at the Theater at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles as part of Outfest to a thousand-plus crowd and in creating a film that rouses passions both political and personal, he’s unsure of just how much of either he wants to inject into a short introduction.
“It’s much harder than making the film, because I am such a behind-the-scenes person,” says Gagliostro, whose arrival as a filmmaker comes after a long, accomplished career in advertising and fine art. “To get up on the front of a stage and say anything to an audience is like…you should see how many drafts of four lines I have written for this.”
It isn’t surprising that when the time comes, this anxiety is imperceptible as Gagliostro finds just the right words, just as he and co-writer Anthony Johnston do so often in telling the story of Sam (Alan Cumming), a survivor of the AIDS crisis who tries desperately to put the past behind him after the death of his friend William, but its grip on him remains as he reckons with a lack of inspiration in his life and for his art that grew out of his activism in more urgent times. Though the film was inspired by a short story by William Wilson, it is clearly imbued with aspects of Gagliostro’s own life as one of the founding activists of ACT UP, the swashbuckling coalition of activists that lobbied for HIV research and treatment as the gay community was devastated by the disease.
But whereas the conflict in “After Louie” comes from a man who can’t let go, buttressed by men in his life from the generation before him (Everett Quinton) and after (Zachary Booth) who challenge him to see beyond himself, the director gives himself the freedom stylistically to provoke with bold visual flourishes to disarm audiences and blends the crisp, elegant imagery of the most modern of cameras with the most mundane of pre-21st century Mini DV to allow the film’s texture to reflect the gulf between Sam’s stasis and the present he sees himself in but doesn’t actually allow himself to be a part of.
While Sam’s past resentments may come to define him, alienating well-meaning longtime friends such as Maggie (Sarita Choudhury) in the process, “After Louie” never feels anything less than vibrant, radiating an authenticity that the filmmaker no doubt summoned from personal experience but filtered through a lens unique to him that leaves a mark. As the film continues to travel the festival circuit, playing this week at the Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival en route to the Hamptons and New Orleans Film Festivals in the coming weeks, Gagliostro spoke about making his feature debut, how he brought his background in visual art to bear on a narrative, and making peace with the past.
Did you want to direct a feature for a while?
Film has always been a big interest of mine, ever since I was a kid. I would take the bus in from Hackensack, New Jersey before I moved to art school in New York to go to the New York Film Festival and see every movie I could see. I became quite an aficionado of Jean-Luc Godard when I was 15, but oddly enough, [when] a lot of my friends thought that I was going to go to film school, I said, “No, I want to go to art school” [because] I was very interested in design. And I got involved in a lot of design work and then advertising and [through that] I started doing a lot of TV commercials. I was really young and [with] photographer friends of mine, we would start fooling around with video. This was the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, and it was all very low-tech then.
One thing led to another over the years and I started making short videos that went along with my drawings and paintings. Then I got used to making these very small, very short documentary portraits of people, like a facialist I had known for 25 years who was a survivor of a concentration camp and the costume designer who won the Oscar for her costumes for the John Schlesinger film “Darling” and The Beatles, who I had met through a friend in London.
I was also always very political, and I was always out. I marched in the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade at 15 – a lot happened at 15. I was one of the original members of ACT UP and I met one community and all of a sudden, it was this other community of activists. Obviously, it was something that had a lot of passion behind [it], but also a lot of anger and a lot of fear and as groups often do, ACT UP, in the late ‘90s, started to wain. Things were getting better — we had made things happen, so it started to dissipate and you see it in the film when Sam looks at this photo of Jeffrey and says, “I wonder what happened to him,” that was really a very real moment because I would think about someone and go, “God, I wonder what happened to them.” Once I got a phone call from my friend Peter Staley and found out what happened to him and we immediately started working on some project he had about addressing crystal meth addiction, which was very prominent at the time, especially by a number of people that we knew.
So the community had died in a way when we stopped talking to each other, and initially, it wasn’t just about my generation and the younger generation not talking to each other. What really struck me was how my own generation really was not talking to each other, so I really want to make a film about what happened to us. We know what happened to us. My friend William Wilson had left this little short story that was published in a collection of his and it was really about time — about now and then — and I did an installation project based on the writing, with Zach Booth [who plays Braeden] actually, and it was really through my working with Zach [where] we would have these conversations about what’s up with him and [ask questions like] what’s it like for a kid his age to procure sex? I know how we did it…amongst other things. [laughs] That wasn’t the primary conversation. But we did this piece and then I somehow got obsessed with making a narrative story.
There are some stunning pieces of visual art throughout the film, such as the scene where Sam paints Braeden or that wall of text that Sam creates – was there cross-pollination where you might’ve had ideas that you could build around for this film specifically or were they in the ether and you pulled them for this film?
They were kind of. It’s funny, the [body] painting scene came from this idea I had, remembering this young assistant of mine who was fooling around in the studio one day, just [with] photography and video [where] he started doing all these kind of funny things and I was videotaping everything. It just struck me how I was being very provocative with him, but when Anthony wrote that scene with me, we just thought it would be great moment for Sam to turn to Braeden, and say “I want to paint you.” Of course Braeden thinks he’s going to get his portrait done, but then what it was really there for is to expose a bit the predatory nature of the artist. That’s very much been a subject of my artwork. I like turning the mirror on myself and that’s very much what this film does, because my art used to be very abstract.
The plasticity of art is something has always been something I wanted my viewer to be very aware of. I like making people aware [that] you’re not going to get lost in this picture. It’s just something on a wall for some reason because for me [the idea is to] get them inside enough, but keep them outside enough for them to bring themselves to it in some way. In the French New Wave, it was very controversial when all of a sudden, someone like Jean-Luc Godard would make the director’s hand very evident. You’d be watching a scene and all of a sudden, there’d be this weird jump and you’d be aware you were watching something that could only happen on film. Just something as simple as Sam writing on the wall [where you’re seeing Sam from behind the wall], only film can let you see his face.
When I was working with my editor Maria [Cataldo], we came up with this idea that the transitions that we use actually be Sam’s film that he’s making, and all of that stuff was based on all of my experimental videos that I was doing. I had this footage that I had refilmed over old video of Muybridge’s birds and I brought them into Maria one day and we started playing with it. We did it, but [then I thought storywise] where the hell did Sam get the bird thing from? So I called David Drake [who plays William] up and said, “David, I need to shoot you on the beach with that old camera that we shot that footage with” and and then Maria’s going, “oh God, yeah, right, Sam took William to the beach one day,” so a lot of times things worked in reverse [where the story was built around the art]. In some ways, I think it takes people out of the very specific, linear pattern of the story and fucks with them a little bit.
How did you figure out what format you’d shoot this in? You have this beautiful wide, crisp framing contrasted with with contemporary footage shot on grainy, turn-of-the-century digital video?
My background as a designer really figures into that because designing is also problem solving and there was a problem of how do I differentiate [narrative threads because] originally I thought I was going to have the whole film in that frame ratio and then I thought this thing is potentially confusing enough. And I can’t say “1990” or something because it’s not a flashback. When I talked with my cinematographer Aaron [Kovalchik] — and it’s interesting because that old footage has a beauty to it, but the anamorphic is so fucking gorgeous and it takes your breath away — I liked that juxtaposition, [with] the footage of David as William because it was so harsh and what was going on in that footage was so harsh and sometimes look at. But the scenes where Alan does come back to the loft and write on the wall, it’s beautiful as much as it is horribly painful — his impulse was to make art with those names and the whole trajectory of the film is very layered. So I liked the beauty against the ugliness and the toughness of things, even the emotional toughness.
What was the collaboration like with Alan Cumming? It seems like you’re getting someone far more than to read lines in front of the camera.
The collaboration was a lot of trust — and I trusted him implicitly, but he probably had to work a little hard to trust me. [laughs] We met at his place for an afternoon and talked about stuff, not really so much about the film, but our activism and a bunch of different thoughts on different things. Eventually, this film would come up and we’d have lunch here and there. We knew we weren’t going to have any rehearsal and we didn’t want any because [as] Alan [says] — he was asked by one of our hosts at Frameline about his process and he said, “I’m not a cheese,” which I love and it’s so Alan. But I hope that he feels, and I think that he does, that I gave him and all those actors license to bring their biography into the film.
Alan and Sarita [Choudhury] never met before the day we shot their first scene together, and it was the scene with him showing her stuff [around the loft] and they sing that little song, “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” and I’ll never forget that moment because it was one of the first things that we shot, and I was standing there and my first AD was standing next to me and Alan and Sarita are at the piano. Alan’s got his hands around Sarita and they’re like [so close], and I was crying. Finally, my first AD had to yell cut and then Sarita comes running over to me and I said, I wondered why [you knew to] do that, and she said it’s because it’s the truth. The film goes meta on itself because the characters are the characters written, but then the actors are those characters. I was hellbent on having this New York community of actors. I didn’t know Alan or Sarita personally [before filming], but I knew everybody else – Joey [Arias] and David [Drake] and Justin [Bond] and Everett [Quinton], who I did know from way back in the early experimental theater days – and the film is so much about the loyalty and the collective force of a community and the betrayals that could happen within that and the feelings of abandonment.
I don’t think the film would’ve ever worked any other way. Sam was very much influenced by my autobiography. Not only did I have to give that away to Alan, but I had to give my entire biography away and kind of stand back and let it happen. And I will forever be indebted to [Alan] and what he did for my first film. It was very moving.
In telling this intergenerational story, was one more difficult to write for than the other?
No, it’s funny. There were a lot of drafts of the script. The script, at one point, was an opera — it was 190 pages and it went back to ’68 and was all over the place. Maybe it will be an opera one day! But interestingly enough because Anthony [Johnston, the co-writer], who’s half my age, didn’t really know so much the history that I came from, and what started to happen was I would just give him information, but try to avoid telling war stories. The way I would do that is I’d pretty much sit home at night and actually write a bunch of stuff out and send it to him as opposed to sitting there and “oh, you had to be there…” because the only thing I’m nostalgic for, probably, [were] the nights of sitting up and planning some crazy demonstration. But I don’t have a nostalgic thread in my body for that shit. Who would have a nostalgia for a time where every time you turned around a friend was dead?
So I didn’t want it to be misconstrued that I was nostalgic for it and what really started to happen was Anthony had a lot more insight into creating Sam than I did. [laughs] In my studio, I always had young people around and I remember I had one assistant who was HIV positive and very, very young, like 22 or 23 and we got into some argument about what it was like then and here I am arguing with someone who is HIV positive and I’m like “You don’t know” and he goes, “Oh, I know exactly what it was like. I work for you.” So I knew where Sam was when we started to approach the generational conversation in the film, and he says that, “You could read all the books, but you’ll never know what it’s like,” but by the end of the film, I don’t think that’s true anymore because it’s unavoidable. I talk to some young kid and that generation is really navigating their life on a landscape that they don’t even know has been forever changed. The only evidence of that is their predecessors – me – so it’s really interesting. Sometimes I like to think of the film as almost a coming of age story for both of them in so many ways.
And what’s wonderful about [the oldest character] Julian is that’s the kids’ favorite character in the film. All these kids that talk to me who have seen the film, they love Julian and I know exactly why. Julian represents to them, as he represents to Sam, that it’s all actually going to turn out okay.
What’s it been like traveling the festival circuit?
It’s always a controversial kind of topic when somebody says, “Well, is it a gay movie?” Larry Kramer always says, “Is it a gay movie? Yes. Is it a gay movie? No, it’s a movie about love,” and that’s very much my politic. And this whole film festival thing, like you’ve been accepted into this and you don’t get into that and we need to play some mainstream film festivals because there are buyers and distributors [there], I get it. I just started to think when we would get accepted to some and not others that surprised me, but I just don’t think this is the gay movie people expect.
My hope is that the film reaches beyond [the gay community], and I have no problem if it doesn’t, but I’m very proud that it’s a film about this man who happens to be gay and was an activist and is an artist. I guess that had a lot to do with going to art school because I was so exposed to everything and really as much as I was very politically active as a gay activist all those years, I truly believed that if we all can’t do this together then we can’t do it at all.
I think the sign was when I first moved to New York to go to art school, I said I’m going to go to a gay bar by myself. I think the sign was when I first moved to New York to go to art school, I said I’m going to go to a gay bar by myself. I moved to the apartment on Grove Street and I wander out and I go to this bar called Kelly’s Village West right off of Sheraton Square and before I could even get where I was, this woman came up to me and said, “Sweetheart, you’re in the wrong bar.” There were all these women in the bar. [laughs] I truly believed that if we all can’t do this together then we can’t do it at all. Like I’m not going to go somewhere where a woman isn’t allowed or vice versa, it just didn’t interest me. When Studio 54 happened and all of that, it was a hell of a lot more fun to twirl around the dance floor with my girlfriends and their crazy dresses and pick up men for them and I hope that’s reflected in some way in the film in terms of the friendship that Sam has with Maggie [because] we find out so much about Sam through Maggie.
Was this what you thought it would be as far as making your first feature?
My first instinct is yes I made the film I wanted to make and I’d probably do it differently if I remade it.
But everybody does.
Everybody does. “I never would’ve done this or I probably would’ve done that, da da da da da.” But I’m a romantic and I think all my work, no matter how tough a subject matter is, will always be seen through that kind of an eye because I love my friends and I love the community that I stepped into so many years ago. This film stands so much on the shoulders of that community and hopefully it gives the newer generation some shoulders to stand on as well. If you just think about today, watching these demonstrators who were at the Senate over the health care bill, some of them I knew and I remember Larry Kramer saying, “Wake up every morning and know that nothing ever changes and it’s always back to zero.” And it’s important for my generation to give themselves permission to dream again. I understand why when I talk to so many younger people that they’re almost afraid to dream, and sometimes fear is okay, but I hope that they walk away from the film not too afraid because as Julian says, “It’s all an illusion anyway.”