Abel Ferrara, Mary
After more than 30 years as a director, Abel Ferrara shows no sign of losing any of the raw intelligence, energy and vitality that have made him a continuing force in American cinema. The Italian American Bronx-born director, now 57, began directing shorts as a film student at SUNY Purchase in the early 1970s and made his feature debut in 1976 with the porn film 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy under the pseudonym Jimmy Laine. His debut proper was the legendary DIY grindhouse movie The Driller Killer (1979), written by his high school friend and regular collaborator Nicholas St. John, which he followed up with the female revenge movie Ms .45 (1981). The 1980s as a whole were not so successful for Ferrara as his bid for mainstream attention, Fear City (1984), flopped and he retreated to TV work, but in 1990 he broke though with the Christopher Walken-starring druglord saga King of New York. The brutal and depraved police drama Bad Lieutenant, arguably Ferrara’s greatest movie, appeared two years later, but two subsequent bids at commercial success, Dangerous Game starring Madonna and Body Snatchers (both 1993), fell short of expectations. He followed with two more career highlights, the thoughtful black-and-white vampire flick The Addiction (1995) and the period gangster film The Funeral (1996). The usually prolific Ferrara was on hiatus between 2001’s ‘R Xmas and 2005’s Mary, but returned in force with the burlesque drama Go-Go Tales (2007) and his first documentary, Chelsea on the Rocks (2008).
Mary, which finally gets a release more than three years after it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2005, is a dense, multi-layered and highly engaging movie in which Ferrara gets to tackle religion – one of his continuing preoccupations – more directly than ever before. Brilliantly weaving together several narrative strands, the movie follows brash actor-director Tony Childress (Matthew Modine), who has made a film about Jesus in which he plays the lead; Marie Palesi (Juliette Binoche), the actress who plays Mary Magdalene and flees to Jerusalem after losing herself in the role; and PBS-style talk show host Ted Younger (Forest Whitaker), who is having an affair though his wife Elizabeth (Heather Graham) is pregnant with their first child. Ferrara includes extended segments in which Whitaker’s character interviews real-life religious experts on his show as well as extracts from Childress’ film, using these elements to look at how religion is depicted in art and entertainment. Mary also draws on the Gnostic Gospels – apocryphal texts discovered in 1945 – to reposition Mary Magdalene as apostle rather than whore, asking questions about the place of religion and morality in modern society as the drama escalates towards its operatic climax.
Filmmaker spoke to Ferrara about religious films, Jesus as a revolutionary figure, and why Werner Herzog “can die in hell.”
Filmmaker: Where did the idea for this movie come from?
Ferrara: The movie started to be about an actor or an actress because I was wondering, especially working with Keitel, “How do these guys go from one movie to another like that when they’re deep into the role?” They really escape from the film, but I guess if you have the technique to do that… It’s about the effect of the film on the actor. I’m playing Abel all the time – the director – I don’t have to play someone else, but with a lot of these guys [it’s very different]. When [Keitel] did Dangerous Game, it proved to me the journey of the actor is the key to the film – all the light, all the power, all the energy is on the actor as the character on the screen. So how do they get out of that? And then, somehow, [it came together with] the idea of Mary Magdalene, which has always intrigued me. I grew up in a church and we shot in the church where I grew up as a child, where I went to school. There was a crucifix, human size, and in kindergarten you were right at the front. Imagine you’re five years old, and there’s blood-dripping crucifix [right in front of you]. And when we get to the church, they have a silver abstract crucifix up on the wall. I said, “What happened to the fuckin’ [big crucifix]?” “Oh, they’ve got it in the cellar.” But as a boy growing up with nuns, the idea of Mary Magdalene was always very fascinating, so it was a combination of those two that lead us into [making this film]. When you shoot something like Scorsese’s movie or the Mel Gibson, you’re dead on, so we just wanted to tell it from that way.
Filmmaker: What was your reaction to watching movies like The Last Temptation of Christ?
Ferrara: The Last Temptation of Christ blew me away. I’ve seen The Last Temptation of Christ thousands of times. I remember the first time I saw it, it changed my life. I read the book twice in my life and both times I read it – when I was 16 and 30 – it changed my life totally. Really. And that movie did the same thing. Marty [Scorsese] may have his personal films that mean the most, but that means the most to me. It had a visceral effect, an intellectual affect, an analytical effect – there’s an effect on every level when you watch that film. Or there is to me.
Filmmaker: With this film you’re extending some of those same ideas into new territory.
Ferrara: We shot that film in Jerusalem – we went places that no one ever went to. It was like taking it back to the real root and reading the Bible as a revolutionary doctrine, which Marty was getting at. These guys are like Fidel and Che, you know what I mean? These guys were fighting the Romans. The Jews don’t believe Jesus was anything more [than a prophet] because they said, “Hey, Jerusalem is filled with nuts like you guys.” They thought Jesus was just another fuckin’ nut, [laughs] the Romans thought he was just another crazy guy in a world of crazy Jews battling for their lives against a fascist dictatorship, which was the Roman Empire. So you see it that way and then you start to understand Jesus as a real man. Jesus was a rabbi, man. A rabbi has a wife. There’s this idea of trying to turn Mary Magdalene – who could have been his wife – [into a prostitute]. That’s a historical change, because for Jesus there wasn’t eleven guys at the fuckin’ Last Supper. There were women, there were men, there was a group of people. And that’s what Da Vinci saw. I looked at The Last Supper a million times, but like a fool [I never saw it properly]. Like Da Vinci said, “For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear…” He’s showing us right there: that’s a woman sitting there right next to him. I’ve looked at that painting eight million times and I never thought [like that] because I was so conditioned to think by the Roman Catholic Church – which was set up by a bunch of Jews anyway.
Filmmaker: I believe Juliette Binoche was very interested in this subject also.
Ferrara: Binoche was trying to make a film about Mary Magdalene for five years. The first time I met her, I was meeting with her thinking, “I’m gonna cast her” – but she was interviewing me to see if I was up to the job. She’d read the script she had more notes on that script than there were pages.
Filmmaker: How much of a creative input did she have on the film?
Ferrara: You know, she was happy that we were going down the same track, that there was actually going to be a film. She was asked to do something that she was trying to herself get off the ground, and I don’t know if she would have got it done. The guy that she was working with was one of the experts in the movie, that French guy. In 1945 in Nag Hammadi they found a jar and inside it were all the five gospels that we’re aware of plus the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas – the gospels that they didn’t get. Now, I’m sure that underneath the Vatican – that’s the documentary that I want to make – you can imagine what they’ve got. If they’ve got the body of Peter, you can rest assured they’ve got these fuckin’ gospels. But this is neither here nor there, the bottom line is that in 1945 the Gnostic Gospels were found, and we just quote right out of them.
Filmmaker: How steeped are you in the minutiae of religious history?
Ferrara: I knew very little. I mean, I’d read the Gnostic Gospels but that’s the great thing about making films is that you get down to the subject. It’s not a course in fuckin’ required credit at university, you just get into it, it’s your job to really understand it. The Da Vinci Code was the biggest selling book in the world, the Gibson movie was the biggest movie ever made and he had to make that with his own money. He distributed that with his own money. Whatever you think of that movie, the motherfucker rocked the world. He rocked the fuckin’ world.
Filmmaker: You name-check Gibson and Scorsese’s movie in the film, so was there a conscious attempt to be part of that tradition of films?
Ferrara: Yeah, you gotta reference every one of these films. You know, I went to Matera, the [Italian] town where they shot the Pasolini film [The Gospel According to St. Matthew] and where they shot The Passion of the Christ. I could see where Pasolini put the cross, and where Gibson [put his cross]. It’s genre filmmaking, whether it’s a vampire film or a gangster film or a documentary or a religious movie. It’s like haiku poetry, man. We’re working in a 90-minute format and trying to not put people to sleep. Although this movie definitely [laughs] will put you to sleep if you’re not up for it.
Filmmaker: In the segments of the film where Forest Whitaker interviews real-life religious experts on his TV show, you’re basically incorporating documentary elements into the film in a PBS-style format.
Ferrara: Yeah, he’s playing Charlie Rose. It’s basically a film about [people like] Charlie Rose and what their lives are like, how he’s so involved and meanwhile these guys come to the studio, get in their limousines, go to their house, come back – and never set one foot out on the fuckin’ street. People say, “How come you shot New York like this?” Well, that’s how these people see New York. They’re not in the subway, they’re not hustling on the street, these guys are going from there to there and back. It’s from a rich person’s perspective, it’s from inside a limousine. Until a rick comes through the window. Or the stock market crashes. Or your wife fuckin’ aborts the baby. At some point, you’ve got to step out of the limousine and then you see who’s got heart and who don’t.
Filmmaker: Before I started recording, we were talking about the advent of digital filmmaking and how that’s changed that’s democratized cinema and will help directors with passion get their visions out there.
Ferrara: I hope so. Well find out, you know what I mean? Just because everybody can write doesn’t mean they’re William Gibson or T.S. Eliot, but I just knew too many creative people, too many talented people who just could not go through the fuckin’ agony of having to raise so much capital to do their art. The thing about film is that it’s the great place where business and art meet and it becomes a democratic artform, but I’ve seen too many butterflies ground up on the wheel, man. I wish they had an opportunity to do their vision without having to fuckin’ go through what I know it takes to raise the money. We did a documentary on the two years it took to raise the money for Mary. It wasn’t a lot of money, but forget about it. [In the end], we found one guy who wanted to make the movie in a small town in Italy. I mean, it was a miracle we found this guy – but then that’s what makes movies: miracles. But it shouldn’t be a “miracle” every time a guy has an idea and he wants to visualize it. And it shouldn’t be that the best shooting I see is on some commercial. I just think it’s going the right way; it’s better than having six guys named Jack Warner and fuckin’ Louis B. Mayer deciding what the whole world is going to fuckin’ see. I mean, gimme a break. That went out with Mao Tse Tung and Stalin.
Filmmaker: What was it like directing the film within a film? Do you go into a different mode when you’re directing those segments?
Ferrara: You say you are, you think you are, you decide to do it, but when you’re on the set you’re flying by the seat of your pants with this stuff. You go instinctively. It’s not like Matty was directing it, but he was directing it by being the lead actor. By being Jesus Christ with these guys around him, and they’re all good actors. It’s like Walken said to the actors on King of New York right before [we started shooting], “I can’t play a king. The king is a king in the way that people respond to him, look at him. So if I’m playing the king, you’ve gotta play it, you’ve got to make me the king. I can’t play a king.” But Matty has that. It’s hard to talk about, but I had the actors I wanted, everything I needed, we shot in New York, we shot in Rome, we shot in Jerusalem. We had everything we needed. There are no excuses. If you don’t like this film, you don’t like us.
Filmmaker: What are your feelings about Werner Herzog doing his version of Bad Lieutenant?
Ferrara: He can die in hell. I hate these people – they suck. A, he don’t know me, couldn’t pick me out of a line-up. B, I’m chasing windmills. Well, I’d rather chase windmills than steal other people’s ideas. It’s lame. I can’t believe Nic Cage is trying to play that part. I mean, if the kid needed the money… It’s like Harvey Keitel said, “If the guy needed the money, if he came to us and said, ‘My career’s on the rocks,’ I’d cut him a break.” But to take $2 million – I mean, our film didn’t cost half of $2 million. That film was made on blood and guts, man. So I really wish it didn’t upset me as much as it does.
Filmmaker: You’re going to be doing the prequel to King of New York soon.
Ferrara: So I’m ripping off Abel just like that too. [laughs] If I did King of New York, I’m not doing the prequel to Aguirre: the Wrath of God, OK? Let me put it that way.
Filmmaker: So they’re making the film against your will?
Ferrara: Absolutely. Nobody asked us to do it. Nobody approached us and said, “Would you do it?” Give us $8 million, we’ll come up with something. They give me twenty grand and say, “Go fuck yourself.” Gimme a break! They aren’t paying Harvey anything, they aren’t paying him two cents. Ed Pressman sucks cock in hell, period. You can print that.
Filmmaker: What was your dream job as a kid?
Ferrara: Washing dishes in a hospital full of hot nurses. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Is Hollywood going in the right direction?
Ferrara: Yeah. Far away from us. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Finally, when did you last do it for the money and not the love?
Ferrara: Every time. I never turned down a job in my life.