Vice Squad: Director Abel Ferrara and Screenwriter Zoë Lund on Bad Lieutenant
Bad Lieutenant was the cover story for the Winter, 1993 edition of Filmmaker — this magazine’s second issue. This feature by Scott Macaulay, with quotes from director Abel Ferrara and screenwriter Zoë Lund, appears online for the first time.
“The title is so ironic, Bad Lieutenant. Because of course it doesn’t mean he’s bad. You have the semantic irony of the “baaad” lieutenant and the central irony of ‘Is he bad or is he not bad and perhaps one needs to be bad to be good?’ What is right and wrong and what is good and bad? Is good always right? Is bad always wrong?” —Zoë Lund.
Abel Ferrara’s new Bad Lieutenant, the story of a strung-out cop’s attempt to find salvation amidst a maze of addictions and vices, unfolds in a vividly grungy, contemporary New York. Addicted to sports betting, coke, crack, and smack, the film’s eponymous hero, played by Harvey Keitel, staggers through the city like there’s no tomorrow, visiting dope dens, techno-fueled nightclubs, and crime scenes with the same stoned gaze and shaky, aching walk. The crime of note: the rape of a nun—a real event that happened in Spanish Harlem in 1982, a crime so shocking that even the mob put up reward money for the rapists. Being a character in a cop story, Keitel’s nameless officer, whom we’ll dub LT, obsesses over the crime and uses it to achieve a salvation of sorts.
The themes may be familiar but Ferrara, Keitel and Zoë Lund, who wrote the screenplay with Ferrara, have done something different with them. Bad Lieutenant gains its shocking power by literalizing the “disgraced cop seeks personal salvation” narrative, creating a world of extreme actions, vividly personal moral choices, and absurdly logical plot twists that stand the urban crime genre on its head. “It’s like a morality play,” says Lund. “A medieval morality play [with] the same stark moral questions that were crystallized in the time of Christ.”
Ferrara puts it more bluntly: “We’re basically taking the last week of a guy’s life…The concept of yeah, a guy with that kind of attitude. He’s got every vice you could imagine plus a badge.”
All of this, the incessant drug use, obscene monologues, sleazy atmosphere, would be just a bit much if the film didn’t carry with it the sense that everyone involved has collectively walked out on a huge limb, that everyone is risking something—money, a career, reputation, sanity, whatever—here. Star Keitel, who gives a scorching performance, director Ferrara, producers Ed Pressman and Mary Kane, writer and actress Lund, and distributor Cohen—all bring an almost lunatic conviction to the film, injecting it with a rare emotional energy and honesty. Exciting and demanding, Bad Lieutenant is high-wire filmmaking; everyone here is working without a net.
Described by New York Times critic Janet Maslin as “a marginal figure with cautious American audiences,” Ferrara may be finally getting his due with Bad Lieutenant. The film will show at a retrospective of Ferrara’s work at the Rotterdam Film Festival, historically a prime venue for American independents, and already fest director Emile Fallaux is hearing both praise and criticism for his choice. Ferrara’s films have indeed polarized viewers, drawing batches of critical support along with slices of that cautious mainstream audience.
For example, Ferrara’s previous film, King of New York, drew its biggest cheers from both the New York Film Festival and in urban markets like Washington, D.C., where the film ran for weeks. But with Bad Lieutenant’s character study dominating the film’s nominal policier narrative, Ferrara’s interest in obsessional behavior, psychological torment, and moral quandary is brought to the forefront, making it harder for the usual critics to dismiss this one as just another B-movie.
In a challenge to the filmmaking establishment, Ferrara demanded the freedom to produce an NC-17 rated film and Pressman gave it to him. Distributor Paul Cohen and Aries Releasing is playing along, taking the commercially risky but attention-getting route of releasing the first independent pic to garner the dread rating since its inception two years ago. He’s already secured the commitment of theater chains like Landmark to the film but Variety has, somewhat amusingly, predicted controversy for when the film shares multiplexes with the likes of Aladdin. Cohen is taking pains to distinguish Bad Lieutenant as “a cerebral NC-17” and certainly the film’s poster, one of the year’s best, sets the pic apart from the pack. A nude, full-frontal shot of Harvey Keitel wearing a searching, out-of-it, expression, his crotch falling into shadow beneath block letters, the image captures the film’s eschewal of cop narrative in favor of an exploration of inner space. Cohen aptly calls the film “a cross between Taxi Driver and 2001.”
Ferrara first hit the scene in 1980 with Driller Killer, noted for being one of England’s first “video nasties”—films banned for their violent content. Next, Ferrara and regular screenwriter Nicolas St. John created Ms. 45, a grindhouse rape-revenge flick as reimagined by Roman Polanski. Emotionally intense, the film introduced Lund (then Zoë Tamerlaine) as an actress; her haunting portrayal of a beautiful, disturbed mute avenger gives the film much of its power. After working on other films with St. John (Fear City and China Girl), Ferrara hooked up with Michael Mann, directed a few Miami Vice’s, and helmed the pilot episode of Mann’s Crime Story. Then in 1990 came the aforementioned Ferrara-St. John film, the Christopher Walken-starrer King of New York.
At first viewing, it was hard to get past the din surrounding the work at the New York Film Festival. Asserting that the slick film glorified drug use and violence, outraged journalists at a raucous press conference demanded that fest head Richard Pena account for its inclusion. On second viewing, the film’s ambiguous, melancholy take on crime, urban mythmaking, and municipal gridlock seems more unsettling that condoning. Continuing Ferrara’s tradition of confounding genre audiences, the film, which contains chases and shoot-outs to rival any other urban actioner, ends with a long, elegant, and nearly wordless anti-climax.
When asked about the dialogue between art and genre films contained within his work, Ferrara shrugs off the question: “It’s more how they distribute them. For me, all these films are coming from the same sensitivity. But then one film is going to be in 96 theaters with a 30-second shootout on television the night before it comes out as an ad and then a film like [Bad Lieutenant], we gotta go traipsing around to every film festival in the country screening it and it’s going to be in one or two theaters in New York.”
Art film or not, Bad Lieutenant returns Ferrara to the luridly downscale Gotham pictured in Ms. 45, his previous collaboration with Lund. Financed by LIVE, and aided by IATSE’s East Coast Council rules, which provide lower crew rates (in addition to deferments tied to box-office performance), the film exemplifies a new type of down-and-dirty New York moviemaking.
“It was great,” says Ferrara of the shoot. It was IA, Teamsters, SAG. So, if anybody tells you you can’t do shit in New York, then they’re obviously full of shit. The thing with the film, other than the subject matter, is that it can be done at all levels at all cost. It’s what I like about [Nick Gomez’s] Laws of Gravity. This whole anti-New York thing is pretty much a drag. The New York filmmaking community has got it pull it together and pull it back.”
Shot in just 20 days, the film is Ferrara’s most concise and controlled work. The film’s almost clinical take on its degraded protagonist is particularly impressive given some of the chances taken during the shooting. The film’s final shot, for example, was reportedly filmed with a hidden camera. That shocked crowd is for real, prompted only by a couple of well-placed extras.
Despite the raunchy New York feel, both Ferrara and Lund insist that this is a film that could have taken place anywhere. “New York is in both fact and in fantasy a place where just about any sort of destiny can be played out,” Lund says, “a place where whatever you need can be found, a place of infinite possibilities. You could say that the whole film and story are very New York but I think that the character will appeal, at least metaphorically, to a very broad audience.”
That broad audience, however, is going to have to take LT on his own terms. “The guy’s basically rocking out,” Ferrara says. “He’s drinking, smoking pot, whatever the hell he’s doing. To him, that’s no big deal. This is not the kind of guy who’s going to run to AA because he’s drinking before twelve o’clock. This is his lifestyle which is not bothering him in the least. When we first begin the movie this is like, ‘Hey, party time in the Big Apple.’ This isn’t a guy who perceives that he has a problem until it is almost too late.”
Drugs, mounting bookie debts, and escalating religious obsession—not police procedural—advance both Bad Lieutenant’s characters and storyline. Lund explains: “The script is divided into days—there are six or seven of them. I titled each day in the script, something like ‘Day Three, $30,000 owed.’ Harvey continually provokes his situation within the narrowing tunnel of sports obsession and sports debts. That’s the daily game causing this tunnel to narrow, this pit to get deeper, causing the vocabulary to get more extreme. [Harvey] has that wire around his neck and he’s constantly pulling it tighter and tighter. The only way he can make the world offer him a choice, a redemption, is through auto-surgery. He’s his own canvas, he’s his own clay, he uses his own language and he works at himself, cuts and himself…I’ve known people who, for example, would get in a car with no brakes heading towards and cliff and then throw the key out the window so they couldn’t stop the car—and not just so that they would die. If they were to become weak, they couldn’t do anything about it. [LT] is searching constantly for ways to make his situation suitably provocative and get to the point where he has no choice but to go ahead because of the situation he’s created. Or, to create a set of two choices so that he can make the right one.”
Sports and religion are the two metaphors for transcendence offered by the film and much of the movie’s tension is generated by the question of which one will provide LT with his final fix. The film takes place during a seven-game playoff series between the Dodgers and the Mets and every car radio or tv monitor blares a moment-by-moment exegesis of the conflict. In a world without clearcut heroes or villains, the film’s one truly bad guy could very well be Daryl Strawberry, the star outfielder who deserted New York for L.A. and, like a collapsed Jesus, continually fails to deliver that game-winning home run or sacrifice fly. At one point, the film’s loose Strawberry-Jesus connection was to have been made explicit: “There were times when [LT] was going to make some slips where he mistakes Strawberry for Jesus or Jesus for Strawberry. Direct cuts from Strawberry’s face to Jesus’ face, this kind of thing,” says Lund.
In general, however, the film avoids flashy cinematography and edits. Indeed, Ken Kelsch’s smart camerawork and Ferrara’s direction are impressively restrained. Taking a dispassionate look at LT, Kelsch frequently employs wide-angle lenses to portray him as lonely and isolated in even the most claustrophobic of Korean salad bars or basement crack dens. Dispensing with the visual sheen of King of New York, Bad Lieutenant has a gritty, doc-like feel at times; one scene, shot backstage at the Limelight (appropriately, a desanctified church) takes place in almost total darkness. It’s only on second viewing that one notes the subtle camera inflections which slip us into the viewpoint of the character: the camera’s lingering stare at the blood-stained blouse of an attractive murder victim, its quick peek at a pubescent schoolgirl or its nervous, darting glances upon exiting a drug dealer’s apartment.
Ferrara mostly favors long takes and a stationary camera—an approach that makes Keitel’s riveting performance all the more powerful and accentuates the disturbing realism of the film’s material—particularly, for the squeamish audiences at the two press screenings I attended, the shooting-up scene.
“People find so controversial the needle scene,” says Lund. “There’s something about breaking that barrier of the skin, whether it’s the entry of a cock or the entry of a needle and then staying a moment longer than you are supposed to…There are retractable needles we could have bought, but Harvey and I did it for real with saline solution. We were holding some shots longer than one normally would in sort of a Warholesque fashion, and it disturbs people. These moments are very conscious, a sort of transgression where things become too real.”
One scene, however, is shot in a more stylized way, with the skewed angels, gelled lighting, and quick edits of a music video: the graphic gang rape of the nun. Noting that Keitel is in practically every scene in the movie, Ferrara says: “Keitel wasn’t in that scene so it changes the take on it. Because it’s not through his eyes, how clear could it be?”
Lund elaborates, noting that the rape is bracketed by the scene of LT nodding off after smoking heroin with her character and a scene of him waking up at home to the chirpy tv theme of a Saturday morning cartoon show.
“There’s an ambivalence in [the rape scene],” she says. “One makes a tacit leap of faith that perhaps [the junky character played by Lund] is sort of channeling things into his dreams, whether through some psychic process or through [her] monologues—that she is in some way a seer. You really find out five or six scenes later that indeed [the rape] occurred. I think that there’s the distinct implication that it was his nod, his dream, his reverie—the influence of his smoking heroin…[LT’s] fantasies are already running along that vein. That’s why [the scene] appears in a dreamlike way.”
LT’s moral crisis is propelled by the nun’s refusal to identify her rapists; she preaches forgiveness, not retribution, and her insistence on defying the criminal justice system (and genre narrative expectations) intensifies LT’s anguish and forces him to search for a different sort of catharsis. And while the nun isn’t given the screen time offered to LT, her crisis is no less troubling.
Citing dialogue, some of which didn’t make the film’s final cut, Lund describes the nun’s feelings of moral failure: “There happens to be one great line which is cut at the end which says, ‘Two young men who threw themselves upon the altar and took me with then and I did nothing for them. I can only hope someone will.’ She says, ‘Father, what would you do if you had only one day to use your arms to serve God? I had one day to use another part of my body for the first time and the only time. I’ll never use it again…It’s not the loss of my virginity that will remain on my ledger of sins, it’s that I did nothing, I gave nothing, I did not change those boys. I was surprised. The boys got no surprise at all. They could have raped anyone. I was not as a Bride of Christ ought have been. I just cried out in pain. I took the route of the material world.’ Basically, she also has this acute moral consciousness and it’s particularly poignant and sad for her…She’ll never meet two young men whose pain and anguish is more poignant and more legible. Of course she forgives but that is even banal…She herself feels she’s sinned because she did not even try to change [the boys]. They looked and her and only saw fear in her eyes. They did not see love.”
The film’s cinematic, cathartic sequence, is a tour de force for Keitel, whose methodologically-calibrated performance—a haunting, affecting, even sardonically funny barrage of Tourette’s-like outbursts, withdrawn gazes, and off-kilter weeping jags—represents a sort of emotional archaeological expedition. There’s an absurdity to the film’s climax yet, within the inner logic of the film, it makes perfect sense. “A gratuitous act that involves mortality is the ultimate transgressive act,” Lund says. “[His action] is entirely absurd and yet it is quite good, or whatever you wish to call it and again, it is entirely in a void. That is what the vampire speech [contained during the shooting-up scene] is about. ‘Vampires have it easy. They feed on others. We have to feed on ourselves…’ That’s what I meant about him using his body as a canvass, his offering. When nothing’s left, that’s all you have and that is what he uses and what he gives.”
Despite Bad Lieutenant’s seriousness of intent, there are bound to be those who will reject the film by virtue of the milieu it’s set in. Ferrara has heard the arguments before, framed in a different way, regarding his earlier work. I ask him if he’s worked out a reply to those who attack his films for the images they contain: “Don’t go and leave me the fuck alone…I don’t see [those images] as negative. A negative image to me is the last movie I saw on an airplane. Goldie Hawn moves into Steve Martin’s house. That was about two hours of negative imagery.”
Lund, who has been hitting the festival trail with Ferrara, Keitel, and Pressman, has heard the inevitable criticisms too: “There are always a couple of stupid people who don’t understand, who think [the film] is depressing,” she says. Not surprisingly, she’s worked out an answer: “I say, ‘If you think it’s depressing or ugly, I think it’s because you’re actually intimidated by the metaphor offered by LT. You’re actually frightened by its personal implications towards you and your own life. As much as you know deeply that you cannot live up to what that character did, you have to denigrate that character, you have to say that his challenge has no validity. But you know that from the time of Christ not to mention the dawn of man, of course it had and will always have validity and you are frightened of that challenge. The challenge does not make you high. The challenge makes you scarred…’”
“That usually shuts people up,” she continues. “People expect some political speech about anti-censorship. Of course I’m anti-censorship. Anybody with half a brain is. The point of the [film] is that it uses a very harsh, very controversial, very shocking to some people vocabulary, and yet the thing itself is extremely moral. [The film has] a moral code that is so demanding that if they could fully understand it, all the right-wing censorship people would cower because they could not live up to it.” As for the decision to place this contemporary “morality play” within the dark, to some thematically exhausted, world of urban drug culture, Lund has a quick response: “For God’s sake, the first miracle Christ performed was to turn water into wine. He might turn the salt to drugs nowadays. For a god-damned party. Really!”
For Ferrara, who followed Bad Lieutenant with a gig directing a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the film’s intense vibe is seeping into his current projects: “In the end [Body Snatchers] started getting more Bad Lieutenant than I had hoped it would. You know, the concept of self, who’s who and what’s what. That’s the whole point of the Seigel movie.”
Lund, meanwhile, has recently completed the first novel in a trilogy entitled 490 and is at work on the second installment. She’s also written a screenplay based on the life of porn star John Holmes for, someday, Ferrara to direct and Christopher Walken to star.
Long range, Ferrara reportedly plans to film a biopic focusing on the last days of Passolini’s life. And, it’s become announced, Ferrara’s next pic will be executive produced by Maverick Pictures—Madonna’s new production company. With her Sex book failing to incite middle-brow critics, perhaps Ferrara’s $10 million film, due to star Keitel again, will. Entitled Snake Eyes, it’s the story of a tormented director and it could co-star Madonna. Says Ferrara, “It’s a Nicky St. John special. Impossible to describe. It’s like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf without the neighbors.
Bad Lieutenant opens in New York at Thanksgiving, in L.A. on December 30, and across the country in early 1993.