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by Emmanuel Lee
Although Vincent Gargiulo is a puppeteer and musician as well as filmmaker, he is 100% quirky. photo: E. Lee
has been making quite a splash around the Bay. The filmmaker, who is also a musician, composer and a puppeteer, disregards mainstream demands and steers his films towards a passionate pursuit of fun, discovery of the bizarre and a child-like perspective.
After completing just two short films, “I Am Jesus Christ” and “Mondo Penguin” (rather self-descriptive in their titles), Gargiulo (pronounced gar—joo—low) decided to tackle a feature. Using friends and associates, he made a musical comedy mocumentary, “Chickens in the Shadows” [www.fandor.com] , about a fictional pop band, Toasters 'N' Moose, going to a series of successively worse gigs. It turned into an Internet hit.
"The big thing about that film," said Gargiulo, who is originally from Stockton, California, "Was 'Taste the Biscuit,' the hit of the movie—if you will—went viral with 130,000 hits. That propelled DVD sales and we were featured on George Lopez's "Lopez Tonight". He used the clip without even asking me."
"I called him and his financial recompense was fair. Then he showed it a few times; it was covered by Billy Ray Cyrus; and now it has a life of its own on YouTube. It has been embraced by the world; people tweet about it and have made their own fan videos. It even played on the radio in certain cities around the country."
Since then Gargiulo has done “The Houseplant’s Picnic” , about three plants who go out to a picnic (2 min) which has shown in the SNOB, Barbary Coast, and an Indian Film Festival, and “The Muppetless Movie”. With live actors playing 30 Muppet characters, it is a parody homage (Gargiulo plays Kermit), which has made the rounds on the Internet and was featured on the Washington Post site for a day.
What do you say we meet the 6', 1", Gargiulo and find out how he works and what he’s been working on?
Where do these unique concepts for your films originate?
That’s a tough question. They kind of come from everywhere really—mostly life because life is pretty ridiculous. It’s pretty bizarre. So its sort of finding what is visually unique about a certain thing, or the thinking behind something.
For instance there’s an oven mitt right there with cats on it [he points across the room where we are sitting]. I could look at that and say, 'What’s funny about that? What could I do about that?'
Gargiulo, left, filming his movie 'KNFR'. photo: A. A. Witala
Well, you could come up with anything like this artist who makes oven mitt cat thingy and that’s all he loves and he’s really excited about it. But ultimately it’s a little sad because that’s all he cares about. Maybe he doesn’t have a girlfriend or something. [laughs] You could go anywhere with that.
I usually come up with a small idea and then just build on it with layers. Sometimes, I adhere to more absurdist comedy. So I come up with bizarre things like take two completely different concepts, smash them together and see what happens.
For your latest two films, could you talk about how they originated?
Yeah, the last finished thing I made was ‘Chickens in the Shadows’ which is a rockumentary following an elderly pop-duo from the 70’s called Toasters-N-Moose. They are very loosely based on the Captain & Tennille, which is a 70’s band that made "Love Will Keep Us Together".
More is based on some of my own experiences being in a band, especially a two-man band that hasn’t really gone anywhere.
What do you play?
I play mostly keyboards but I also do guitar. I write. I sing. And most of that movie are influences from my band experiences, going to open mikes. How nobody really gives a crap about your music [chuckles] and I try to focus in on the sadness of that but also the persevering spirit of – We’re going to do it anyway. Trying to tap into that childhood and it’s all about nostalgia.
When did you start filmmaking?
Seriously, I didn’t start until film school. I wrote before that. I wrote scripts and screenplays, since my teenage years.
What about 'KNFR'?
‘KNFR 7:00 7:30’ is the movie I’m working on right now. Its almost finished, probably got a few more months before its completely done, but that is a thirty minute film as if you are watching local channel KNFR on a Saturday morning in 1986.
Gargiulo shooting ‘Taste the Biscuit’ being performed by his actors; it was later covered by Billy Ray Cyrus. photo: C. Pride
So what do you see?
You see this weird kid’s show mixed in with some commercials. It’s very autobiographically of my own childhood watching a lot of crappy kid shows growing up and somehow those things have stuck with me my entire life.
Watching them now as an adult they’re really funny, and they are really interesting because you watch them now and see the adult jokes they have. Or you say - This is really psychedelic or weird or something. It’s interesting.
That’s what ‘KFNR 7:00 7:30’ is about. Trying to tap into that childhood and it’s all about nostalgia…all about trying to go back to a more whimsical kid-like place.
Billy Ray Cyrus sang your ‘Taste the Biscuit’ song, how did that happen?
The movie was done in December of 2010. I submitted it to some festivals. It wasn’t doing that much. I posted a clip from the film, the ‘Taste the Biscuit’ song, on the Internet. Not thinking much, just for the actors to share with their friends. Well this thing caught on. Amazingly, in forty-eight hours it had gone more-or-less viral.
On Youtube right now I think its like a 130,000, but that's not entirely true, because it was stolen within the first twenty-four hours by this other website, called WorldStarHipHop, believe it or not. They posted it on their front page, not crediting me, not saying where the clip came from, not anything and giving it a different title.
Well that video, before I called them up and had it taken down the next day, had garnered a hundred thousand views within less than twenty-four hours. Just on WorldStarHipHop. So I took it down because it’s not legal. I love the views but it wasn’t pointing to me. So the views on Youtube aren’t entirely accurate of how many people have seen it.
Anyway, so this thing caught on and people were sharing it, tweeting about it, making fan videos referencing it, remixes. I was sitting at home one day and I got an email from one of the actors saying, 'Hey, I was watching George Lopez and they showed ‘Taste the Biscuit.’ And they the house band played the song!'
Gargiulo at home in San Francisco's Laurel Heights District. photo: E. Lee
I was like 'Wow!' That’s crazy. I don’t know what to think about that. I’m also not sure that’s legal. So anyway, I got in touch with George Lopez’s people. And asked for two hundred dollars. [chuckles]
Two hundred dollars?
Just for, you know, for some sort of …
Yeah. They did give it to me. They actually gave me more, slightly more. Then somebody tweeted George Lopez, 'Hey, I really love that ‘Taste the Biscuit.’' So, they contacted me again. They wanted to put the song on the show again and show the clip.
I agreed, of course, but on the show they wanted to make a joke that every time they play Taste the Biscuit, I get paid. They played the song I think like twenty times throughout the entire hour-long telecast and had a little tally. Every time the song was played they had this little ‘cha-ching,’ which is my fake money that I was going to get for all this. They paid me, but not as much as they said on the show.
Okay, so they wanted to exaggerate how much you were getting paid?
Yes, which I agreed to. I agreed. I thought it was a funny concept so I agreed to that. You play a song about twenty times on a nationally televised cable show, that millions of people watch, it's going to catch on even more.
But they were saying Vincent Gargiulo?
Well they didn’t say my name in the thing. No, they used the band, Toasters-N-Moose. We’re the same thing, they are just the public image. People were writing in – I love the ‘Taste the Biscuit’ song. People were actually thinking it came from George Lopez.
So not only did "Achy Breaky Heart" singer Billy Ray Cyrus sing…
That’s the third time. We haven’t gotten to that part yet.
How many times did they play it on George Lopez’s show?
Three episodes—then he got cancelled! [chuckles] I may’ve maxed him out of money. It’s entirely possible I’m the reason he’s not on the air.
But yeah, the song became so popular he wanted to do it again. Then they said Billy Ray Cyrus [of " Achy Breaky Heart" fame] was going to sing the song. Okay, that’s hilarious.
What is it you want your audience to feel or do?
Oh boy. Well it depends on what it is and what the scene is, but generally I just want to entertain. It’s really just that simple. Maybe make them laugh, make them think about life and its many mysteries.
Usually my stuff is pretty whimsical, very absurdist. Those kinds of notions can make one feel, if they are not comfortable with those things, awkward. Which I kind of like. Or they’ll ultimately get it or feel like they are a part of a cult, the cult of Guargiulo or something. I do a lot of bizarre-type things. So its not really meant for everybody. But those who get it, I feel really embrace it.
What makes you say cult?
My stuff has been labeled that. Yes, which I guess means that I’m not that mainstream. I don’t know what’s not mainstream about penguins making experimental films or Jesus taking a job at Christmas. Is that not mainstream?
What influences are apparent in your work?
Probably the biggest influence—the people I unconsciously steal from the most—is Monty Python. Before they came along I had a big interest in animation and cartoons. That still remains a very big influence on me, just classic animation, like Looney Tunes.
That led me to discovering animation on Monty Python, where I could be an adult, do live action stuff and still do very silly things. That opened the door. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do. Which was to initially write sketch comedy, weird movies and funny movies.
Then I went to film school and got a lot of film influences, experimental cinema, foreign films and the Muppets, as well.
What kinds of themes do your films explore?
Usually on the surface, strange. But I try to employ a certain sadness. That could be an internal sadness or bleakness on screen. I like to have things, some of it is budgetary, but I also go for a less than polished look for certain things because I think it adds a sort of realism or overall sadness about the piece.
A lot of my films feature characters who are trying to do something unordinary, trying everything they can. They are very passionate about it, but ultimately don’t make it in the end.
For example, ‘Mondo Penguin’ is about Dr. Charles Heathrow, and he’s got this great idea for penguin experimental film but nobody really cares. In ‘I Am Jesus Christ’, Jesus comes back to Earth to give his message of Christianity at Christmas and nobody cares.
I feel for those people because I feel like I am one of those people. Consistently persevering to do what I want to do, still haven’t made the big time but still trying anyway.
What are your experiences with film festivals?
I’ve been in quite a few, certainly not Sundance or Cannes or anything like that. The biggest thing I’ve been in so far is the San Francisco Independent Film Festival for 'Mondo Penguin'. But I’ve been in many.
I go to the more local ones. The furthest I’ve been is Portland, Oregon for the Faux Film Festival, which specializes in mockumentary films. I’ve been there three times actually.
Audiences there have remembered me, and to my surprise mentioned my films they saw there. When somebody in the audience started singing a song from my film, ‘I Am Jesus Christ’, in front of me…I’m like, whoa! What is going on here? I wasn’t expecting that.
Yeah, that’s very cool.
So how did it come about that they sang the song? You were on a panel or something?
Q & A, after the film is shown I just go up there and talk, people will ask me questions.
Which project was the most fun to complete and why?
I would say this current one but it’s not complete just yet, because it has the most parts to it.
Even more than the feature?
Well, the feature was fun but an extreme amount of work. The feature was filmed in six days over a week. There was one break in there. What was fun about it is it was an actual trip. So me, the crew and the cast went around Northern California, got hotel rooms, ate together. That part of it was fun, but it was a tremendous amount of stress and work.
So the actual set was the inside of the car?
Well yeah, we had a few cars. I rented a minivan for a week that acted as the film vehicle. The minivan is the only vehicle in the film, but there were a lot of us and we couldn’t all fit in the minivan.
I did see a request for location in Los Banos on the web.
That was for this film, ‘Chickens in the Shadows’. I got a thrift store in Los Banos. Which is where the ‘Taste the Biscuit’ thing ended up getting filmed. In the film, Toasters-N-Moose are going to Los Banos to play at a record store but they find that the record store has closed down. So they needed somewhere else to play.
I went on a Los Banos forum and asked the residents, 'Do you work in a weird place? Let me know if you do, our band would be interested in playing there.' Then one woman, Susan, got in touch with me and I really liked the pictures she sent. I thought it would be really funny to have this band play at a thrift store. So that’s where they played.
The people of Los Banos were very excited about us coming to town. I was told it was the first movie that’s ever been filmed in Los Banos.
How would you describe your work if we were at a real cool party?
I always just say I make weird artsy-fartsy comedy musical stuff. That’s essentially what it is.
Like this film 'KFNR', it stars a wizard, a raisin, a polar bear and a chicken. Just saying that, people don’t know what to think about that kind of thing. They’re like – You said a raisin, I’m confused.
Who works with you?
Everybody I’ve ever known, for the most part.
Who is your audience?
Ultimately, and its not very commercial, the audience is just me. It has to please me first. After that, I’m under the assumption that if I like it other people will like it too. I think that’s true from what I’ve witnessed from the success I’ve gotten.
Certainly different things appeal to different people. The ‘Taste the Biscuit’ video is really popular with people in Middle America, what I presume to be poor citizens. Which is great because that’s actually where I’m from. I’m from a very poor neighborhood in Stockton, California.
So I’m reaching the people I would’ve been growing up with, which is interesting. I think about had I been born in a more affluent community would I have made the same type of stuff. I probably wouldn’t have.
My audience are people who like weird movies. People who watch old VHS tapes that they find at thrift stores. Also, definitely people who are movie buffs. I try to put a lot of cinematic jokes or film references in my stuff.
You mentioned one of your films being shown in India.
Yes, the ‘Houseplant’s Picnic’ which is a very short one-and-a-half minute stop-motion thing I did. It was part of KNFR but it’s also a separate movie as well. I submitted it to this thing in India, Laughs in the Dark. This company, they go to schools in India and show kids films from around the world. I think on some of the films they ask the kids questions and come up with activities.
What kinds of locations have you shot in?
Well I’ve shot just about everywhere. Locations are really important to me and I try to always look for very unique, usually a little retro-type places. Probably the biggest thing that I’ve shot at was the BART station, like actually getting permission to shoot at the BART station, which you need lots of insurance to do. It was pretty cool having control over…
San Francisco or East Bay?
Oh, even tougher.
It was pretty cool having the full control over the Montgomery BART station for a Saturday afternoon.
That’s probably the biggest place, but I always shoot everywhere. I definitely don’t like to shoot in San Francisco that much, only because San Francisco looks so much like San Francisco.
So I like to shoot out in the suburbs more. That looks like everywhere America, which for my stuff it makes the surreal aspects stronger because they are in a normal setting that people are used to seeing. I always look for unique places that, may not last much longer.
There’s so many places were you look at them and you wonder how they stay open. Like the worst motels or hotels. Last year, I shot at this amusement park near Salem, Oregon.
What film was that?
It’s the 'KNFR' film, forthcoming. It’s this really unique place. This guy built up his own Disneyland out in the middle of nowhere Oregon. It’s all handmade. It’s impressive. That kind of thing I wanted to get on camera because not everyone gets to see that.
When you were touring in that minivan, what route did you take?
We didn’t do the exact tour as it appears in the movie. We started off from Redwood City, San Francisco, to Sacramento, to Rancho Cordova, then there was a day in the middle back to San Francisco, then to San Jose, Cupertino and the last day was Los Banos.
How many actors did you take with you?
There’s definitely two, Toasters-N-Moose, who were there for everything.
Wow, and they’re like in their fifties!
Yeah, and there were other actors who were there for some of the time. Another one was in their early sixties and another one who was nine years old, and my crew [a sound guy]. We bonded into a nice little family.
Any good or funny stories from your filmmaking experience?
There are many times when I’m filming things that I come to the realization of what I’m actually doing. So I do remember for the film ‘I Am Jesus Christ’ I was laying on the asphalt in the Mission District next to a man dressed up as Jesus Christ, in his underpants. Sitting next to him this other guy is beating him up.
I came to the realization of how bizarre this is, that this is a truly unique experience, for me. First of all I created this scenario and now I’m actually doing this. To me it’s very funny, in my mind I’m laughing because this is so bizarre.
Almost all my films are kind of like that. There’s that moment as I’m shooting it were I realize what it is I’m actually shooting. I’m sort of pleased with myself. It almost warms my heart in a way because its just about having fun and these people have, usually for very little money, joined my team to be silly and have fun. It’s nice.
What’s the biggest honor you’ve had?
Probably the success of ‘Taste the Biscuit’ has been the biggest thing that happened so far. When people are making their own videos based off of something that I’ve made, or send me something with them singing the song, its just wonderful because in my own little way I’ve done something for these people. I’ve inspired them to create artwork, and that’s pretty rewarding.
What’s your favorite meal?
Well, I love sushi. I could probably eat that many, many times.
Emmanuel Lee is a writer, actor and architect. November 2012 he’ll perform in the stage play "Superior Donuts" at the Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco. Email him
Posted on Aug 13, 2012 - 07:09 AM