Cutting on the Bias: Abel Ferrara Collaborator Frank DeCurtis
With a storied, diverse career, Frank DeCurtis has been a journeyman in the arts for over four decades. His background in performance, casting, fashion, props, set decoration and production design led him to collaborate with Abel Ferrara as a producing and creative partner for a dozen projects spanning more than 18 years. While much has been made of their sojourn abroad in the wake of 9/11, DeCurtis’s perspective has rarely been articulated in print. Filmmaker spoke to DeCurtis in downtown Manhattan about his trajectory, how an artist can effect an impact in many fields, and the inherent challenges to creating a vast portfolio of work.
Frank DeCurtis will be introducing the screening of Mary on Thursday, May 30, as part of MoMA’s Abel Ferrara: Unrated series.
Filmmaker: You’re from down here?
DeCurtis: From the Village.
Filmmaker: At what point did you start in the art department?
DeCurtis: My brother was doing set dressing. I got into props, decorating, because I knew about that type of thing — that was my field, so to speak.
Filmmaker: Were there certain films that were important to you in terms of your aesthetic formation?
DeCurtis: I liked Kubrick, Anthony Mann, Hitchcock, film noir, westerns. Those are the big ones.
Filmmaker: What’s the trajectory that got you into the arts?
DeCurtis: I came from a totally different place. The first couple things I did, I did with this wild man, king of the independents guy, Jack Smith. If you want to call Abel the maverick of downtown, this guy really had the crown. I did two films with Jack in the ’60s. I knew this guy who was his cameraman, and I was in this store called Limbo — you know, in those days, clothing stores were also hangouts, so this store was a place to be. He didn’t speak much. There was no script. He didn’t want to use a film camera, he wanted to shoot like a million 35mm stills. I only saw one screening, one time. It wasn’t very long. He liked to do a lot of tableaus where he would have you standing atop something you couldn’t see from the camera, and then he’d stack people around you. Build a pyramid out of people. He had people on leashes. Some really strange stuff. I had been doing casting. I was an actor for a while, but wasn’t getting many parts. I wasn’t working. But you know, wheels are always turning. So I figured I would get a job in a casting office.
Filmmaker: As a reader?
DeCurtis: No, as an assistant casting agent. If they needed someone to go out, take like 500 polaroids…
Filmmaker: So street casting type stuff.
DeCurtis: But this was before that was even done. That hardly existed. We kind of invented that style. I worked with Louis DiGiamo (casting director for The Godfather, The Exorcist, Rain Man), who later did ‘R Xmas with us.
Filmmaker: So your history was always independent. Were you designing clothes in the garment district?
DeCurtis: No, completely outside that. See, I was always an outsider. That’s always been my thing. It was something I always wanted to do. I opened two shops and kept them going for a few years, I had a store in the Village, and then we moved up to the Upper East Side. Between the two places, I learned, as an independent designer, you can’t get everyone to come to one spot. You’ve gotta wholesale distribute your stuff to many places, make it so they don’t have to come to you. So I closed up and opened a little factory. I had that for a couple years. The first label was called Climax, and the second one was Something Invisible. I bought one machine at a time. I had a single-mindedness. You need that. Filmmaking is like opening a business that’s going to close in a year or two. But you’re still gonna open, hire the right people, identify what you’re gonna make.
Filmmaker: And it was a tactile thing. You weren’t just designing.
DeCurtis: No, no, no. It was me in Max’s [Kansas City] every night, and then cutting fabric all day. I did everything. By the time I closed I might have had eight or ten people working for me. But originally, I tried to hire contractors and they would tell me I wasn’t doing things right, that I had to pay them double. So I decided, fine, I’ll do it myself.
Filmmaker: Did you go to school or apprentice?
DeCurtis: I went to school a little bit for pattern making. This was some funky, funky immigrant school in Brooklyn with the L passing by the windows, and for like 10 minutes every half hour the teachers couldn’t talk to you. It was designed to look and feel like a factory, long tables, so that when you got a job in a factory, you’d feel comfortable. I was the only person who spoke English. And I was having hard time paying it, and I’ll never forget, they sent me a letter that said, “If you continue to not pay your tuition, we will start proceedings to have you deported.” (laughs) I was like, do I get to pick which country you have me deported to? Can I pick Italy?
Filmmaker: Did you take anything from that experience?
DeCurtis: Well, I learned really fast. Me, I was always a go-getter. If I wanted to do something, I learned how. I wanted to design a jacket for myself, I went out and learned how to do that. That’s the time we came from. When you want to learn something, you learn really fast. If you want to jerk off for six years and not learn something, you can do that to. But if you wanna learn? You don’t even need six months. I’m not talking about open heart surgery, I’m talking about a skill, a trade. Technical stuff.
Filmmaker: How did you first come to work with Abel?
DeCurtis: I worked on this show called Law & Order for years, and I had a parting of ways.
Filmmaker: That was in props?
DeCurtis: Yeah that was my position, I was in on-set props. I did over a hundred episodes. Almost five years. I was on set the whole time, morning till night. And it came time to leave and I took it and ran with it.
Filmmaker: Why did you leave?
DeCurtis: Everyone on that show was getting little promotions. And there’s another prop man, he’s leaving to go do a Woody Allen movie. He wants me to go with him. And it was right around the time, at the height of the Woody Allen scandal, right when this thing exploded, so I’m thinking, do I want to go and hook up with a guy who’s on the crest of the biggest scandal in his life? The offer’s there. But I’d rather stay where I am. Maybe take over the whole department. But the producer’s got other ideas. He wants some other guy, he’s gonna give him my gig.
Filmmaker: So you could stay in the same position, or move on.
DeCurtis: I think they said, “You can stay… If you want.” I was like, “Stay if I want? Seriously?” I was out of there the next day. Not for nothing, but I’m here four years, morning till night, eighteen-hour days. Maybe the guy had connections I didn’t. It doesn’t matter really. Honestly, I’m not resentful. Because when I do have the inside track, I take advantage of it too. Sometimes you don’t have the inside track and you’ve gotta run faster, or you’ve gotta lose. It’s that kind of race, and it’s really that simple. You move on. Develop a positive outlook about these things, even if on that day you’re like “What the fuck? Are you kidding me?” And that’s how I started working with Abel.
Filmmaker: So after Law & Order, what happens?
DeCurtis: Well honestly, I didn’t want to do that again. I liked the prop job, but really, I liked what I was doing before that. Working with Jack Smith, these crazy productions, designing clothes, that kind of thing. It’s just, I like to make money too. And working in the casting office, doing props on features and TV, it pays. Good money. You know, that’s the thing: You give up your life, but you make as much as if you have two jobs.
Filmmaker: But you hadn’t been doing features.
DeCurtis: I did features before I did TV. I was a decorator, I was doing props. I moved around a lot. I did a lot of different jobs. Earlier I was in casting. I did casting for a long time. And before that I was designing clothes. Anything to keep the fires going. It’s the curse of an inventive mind. Once I get good at something, I split and do something else I don’t know anything about. It’s a lot of trials, a lot of tears, a lot of fucking heartache, but once I get past all that, I leave.
Filmmaker: And you end up doing The Funeral, and that’s your first feature in a while.
DeCurtis: After Law & Order, I wasn’t really doing anything. I thought maybe it was a good time to leave this business. The hours were too long and it wasn’t worth it. My brother Guido was the lead man on The Funeral, he called me and said, “Don’t be like that…” But I wasn’t sure. You know they offered me a pretty good severance package from Law & Order, and foolishly I told them “Forget it!” So I had no gig. My brother offers me this job, and the only difference from my old job was with set dressing, you had to carry shit. You know, for a long time, my only job was to say to the actors [on Law & Order], “Here’s your badge, here’s your gun, here’s your badge, here’s your pen, here’s your gun…” Now we’re talking about putting the camera where that 1,000-lb sofa is, that’s a scary proposition to me. I’m a little guy. I don’t want to get involved. So I asked how many people there would be besides me, my brother says, “None, just you.” I said, “Fuck that, I’m not going from the frying pan into the fire, forget it bro.” And he says, “Rent Bad Lieutenant, see how you feel. So I do. And the next day I call him up and say, “Okay, I’ll do it.” That’s what convinced me.
Filmmaker: What was your introduction to Abel like?
DeCurtis: We were downtown near Canal St, in some building, setting up for prep. This guy comes swaggering in, swaggering out, ripped-up jacket, going into the fridge, taking a beer, going into the fridge, taking a beer, this goes on all morning, all day. So finally I said to my brother, you know, “Who’s that guy? Does he work here?” He says, “That’s the director, man.”
Filmmaker: And how did it progress? You guys became really close.
DeCurtis: Well throughout the shoot, Abel would always be looking for someone, you know, like, “Where’s the prop master?” I’d say, “He’s busy, he’s prepping the cars for the next scene, what do you need?” And it would always be “Where’s this guy, where’s that guy?” and they were never there. They were always busy. And finally he just looks at me and says, “How come every time I ask for something or I’m looking for somebody, you say, ‘What do you need?’” And he told me, “I bet I could make a movie just me and you and Kelsch, maybe a couple other people. That’s my dream, a small crew, we don’t need all these people.” So, really, it was just because I was always there. That was my job. There was a scene on the bridge, where they’re robbing the truck. And we had an accident with one of the actors. But when somebody’s injured, we can’t just close down for the night. We gotta finish. This was a big set-up. I had a shotgun license for New York state from Law & Order, so I was qualified to handle those weapons, and I’m loading up the guns for the next sequence while the prop master is off doing something else, and to Abel it looks like this guy’s a one-man-band. Really, I was just stepping in to help. I just happened to be there at the right time. They made this shoot sound like it was all craziness, but it wasn’t. We all worked together to support each other. It was a very organized thing. Abel saw me holding the shotgun, saw that I was the same size as the actor, and said to me, “Frankie. You’re gonna finish the scene.” That’s how I cemented the deal. There was a guy, ready, willing, and able to just jump in. And when I want to do something, I do it all the way. I don’t half ass. There’s a passion. A sense of urgency is good, but you have to have a tremendous passion. Especially if you don’t have money. If you have that passion, you might even make a better film than if you had more money. It’s that important.
Filmmaker: And Abel recognized that in you. That drive and passion.
DeCurtis: Well obviously if we worked together for 18 years, he recognized something in me and I realized something in him. I guess he saw that once I committed to something, it didn’t stop until I was finished with the project. And it didn’t go away. Even when we finished I had that sense of urgency for the next thing. After The Funeral I was committed to this other gig, I think Donnie Brasco or Addicted to Love, some big job, but right after that we did New Rose Hotel. And eventually it became, over the years, you could tell, the way you get these films going, is you learn how to keep all these balls up in the air. You’re developing this idea, working on this script. Prepping one, designing another. Whichever one catches fire first, you go with that one. If you’re pitching something and they don’t like it, you take a beat, be measured, and you say, “Well, we’ve got this other thing…” Can you really learn how to make a movie? Not without making them. You’d have to be taught how to make phone calls. How to raise money. How to deal with actors.
Filmmaker: You get a glimpse of that process in Odyssey in Rome.
DeCurtis: Well that project was dishonest. We didn’t really have those actors [attached]. The guy had a script, and we needed a couple of bucks. If the guy who made that had had his way, he would have preferred we never made the movie [Mary]. But we did. He thought he had another Lost in LaMancha on his hands. Well, not with us man. We make movies, bro. We don’t give up for nothing. We don’t fuck up. I don’t care if it rains all day for 40 fucking days, I don’t care what happens. We’re gonna make that movie, and the only time we’re not gonna make that movie is if we decide it’s not the right idea for us. And that happened. A lot. I mean, we spent 18 years together, working constantly. And you’re doing that every day.
Filmmaker: But the mentality is that the script becomes a raw material that you’re adapting as you go along. You’re adapting your approach, your vision, as you go.
DeCurtis: Well that’s a better way to put it than to say we improvised. We never improvised. And I say “we,” I have to take that liberty when I’m referring to the films I did with Abel. Because there is, was, a “we” involved.
Filmmaker: It’s a partnership.
DeCurtis: For a long time, it was me, Abel and the money. But the money took a backseat to the creative team.
Filmmaker: As a journeyman, you’re constantly dealing with the cost of work.
DeCurtis: Well it’s like they used to say about the atom bomb. It’s not a secret. It’s an industry. You don’t steal an industry. The secret is you build a big enough place,and hire the right people. It looks like a secret, but it’s not. It’s industry. You need raw materials and work. Any person of note, they’ll tell you that. Making movies is no different. It’s on the job. The thing with Abel is, there’s people who think he’s got the keys to the kingdom and if they hang around long enough, he’s gonna give them that mystical key. But there is no key. It’s so simple. The way you make a movie is you do it every day until you make it. You raise the money every day, you get the actors every day, and you keep everybody interested. You’ve got to keep rallying the troops. It comes off as a little aggressive. But you’ve got to keep pushing. When someone says, I’ll call you in two weeks, you say “What do you mean, two weeks? Call me tomorrow. If you can’t call me tomorrow, I’ll call you.” And if you can’t get an answer, you call somebody else. They come back to you in two weeks asking what happened, you let them know: “I’m looking for a partner, bro. You want to be my partner on this project? Cool. This is what I need. You want to tell me you’ll call me in two weeks? Goodbye.”
Filmmaker: Were you used to people being more straightforward in other industries?
DeCurtis: How do you mean?
Filmmaker: In textile design or art department work or props, were you accustomed to less runaround?
DeCurtis: Look, I think people are pretty straightforward. I just don’t think they always understand where you’re coming from. When I was opening my store, people always told me, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that, you can’t hang a flag from here, you can’t cut fabric on the bias, if you do, it won’t fall right.” Well, what if I want it to fall that way? I’m talking about 35, 40 years having conversations like that, and it still gives me chills. Because if you want to be original, you want to do your own thing, people will always stand in your way, until you can’t do it. Only problem is, you say that to me? You’re talking to the guy who everybody in my life, practically, they stood in my way. You got to make your own mistakes, if you’re working something you’ve self-started. People might even be trying to protect you when they advise against taking a risk, doing something unconventional. But if you’re single-minded enough, if you’re passionate enough, you keep going. And you might be right, you might be wrong. But there’s only one way you’re gonna learn. By going out and never stopping. Seeing it through.