“Can’t Tell That to the Landlord”: Abel Ferrara on The Projectionist, Tommasso and Crack City Terminator
Abel Ferrara is a hurricane. And like a hurricane, it is close to impossible to anticipate where he’s going to go at any given time. More than that, any hope of influencing the outcome of either is well beyond the limits of human control. Admirers with the good fortune to spend some time with the man can attest that getting Ferrara to stick to the script is largely a fool’s errand. In my case, it was because he had two new movies (The Projectionist, Tommasso) playing at consecutive festivals (Doclisboa, the Viennale) I happened to attend. At a certain point you have to accept that what you will get will, at the very least, be freewheeling in the extreme.
One thing worth prefacing this latest such catch up with Ferrara is that for the last decade he has dappled extensively in documentary. The Projectionist, about the cigar smoking, hands-on proprietor of New York’s Cinema Village—a man whose very existence seems to be transplanted out of a past populated by porn theatres and early Ferrara movies—is merely the latest entry in that form. But more often than not what distinguishes these frequently slack and contingent, always ambulatory movies is the presence of Ferrara himself, guiding the movie’s trajectory and intruding in on the space of the frame.
The director himself is a subject of fascination in these films, and not merely in the Michael Moore-Werner Herzog tradition in which the director’s “narrator” role is cannily expanded to include a physical presence embedded in the film and indeed becomes an independent source of entertainment and identification for the viewer. Far to the contrary, Ferrara’s presence never comes off as stage-managed; seemingly his outsize personality cannot help but spill over into the frame itself. In these films, Ferrara is a street walking guide to real world locales and a universe of fellow hustlers who, like Ferrara himself, are out to turn a quick buck and demonstrate their skills and their savvy.
And it is always worth catching up with exploits of one of the great hustler filmmakers. The following conversation preserves the looseness of our discussion but was—perhaps inevitably—edited for clarity.
Filmmaker: Last time I saw you, you were doing a tour with Joe Delia and those guys. Showing your previous work and performing the soundtracks live—
Ferrara: Right, right. Did you see the movie we made?
Filmmaker: Alive in France?
Ferrara: Yeah, yeah. They showed it at the Museum of Modern Art. A retrospective of all the films.
Filmmaker: How do you relate to them these days?
Ferrara: I don’t know. I don’t really watch them, man. If I come in and I see the end of one, the beginning of another one—I don’t see much. For me, it’s like seeing ghosts. You know what I’m saying? People that are no longer alive. Situations that don’t even happen anymore, buildings that aren’t there. Streets that run a different way. I don’t know. I see things that I should have done, maybe I could’ve fixed this—whatever. When you’re making movies, you know, it later becomes a little tough to watch them. It’s constant—you’re understanding how you can make it better, or even just do it differently. You know what I mean? Sometimes you sit down for one and get in the groove. Sometimes I watch them as an audience member. But not on my own.
Filmmaker: These days, you seem to be making things smaller, adapting to the times. You have two movies out. One of them shot in your living room.
Ferrara: You’re going for freedom. You’re going for your own artistic freedom. You just want to be in the best circumstance to shoot, you know what I mean? You have the opportunity to film all kinds of different ways, in my life at least. What better way to make movies than to simply roll out of bed and shoot? You don’t have to get a shitload of people, get all these vans, argue with people. You just roll, you know? With people that you’re close with—this is if you’ve got the material for it. That’s the other thing. Where the idea for a film comes, it’s like Siberia: one minute we’re on top of the Alps, ya dig? Then we’re in the middle of the Mexican desert. That’s cool too. It’s cool, it’s cool. But for Tommasso—I mean, these kinds of films usually emerge from the last one. We did Pasolini, a film about a director in Rome—guess what, we’re living in Rome. We’re doing documentaries. At this point, the documentaries and the features blur. I don’t even see the difference between one or the other: still making shots, getting the right light, getting something interesting in front of the camera, putting it together so it makes some kind of soulful sense. Where’s the line, you know?
Filmmaker: How are you keeping any discipline? Waking up in the morning, getting everybody there, keeping things on track—
Ferrara: It’s the same thing, right? You shoot the scenes that are in the living room in the living room. Then you’re going to the kitchen. We have a script, we’re working from that, you know? Structured, all there. The beats are laid out. In the end it’s like a murder mystery—you gotta get to the end. It’s the same: less people, more focus. We had [Peter] Zeitlinger shooting. He works with Herzog, right? He shoots documentaries, he shoots features—he’s a great shooter. In the end, 95% of that film is him. I mean, we had other cameras—telephones, people shooting the usual circus of fucking iPhones, the Apple world going along. But 95% of it, like I said, was Peter and Willem [Dafoe], creating this synergy between the two. For me, that’s really the film. You could have a hundred technicians to create a shot [snaps fingers] You can’t do it, you know. These guys do it. For Tommasso, Peter was inventing equipment as he was going, making the camera smaller and lighter.
Filmmaker: Do you have everything that planned in advance?
Ferrara: Well, I’m working too. With the documentaries we begin without any idea where we were going—The Projectionist this year, Piazza Vittorio, Padre Pio. We just have a subject and hit the ground running. Then for the shooting—the nature of the way we do that, we can shoot over, say, a few months. Which is cool. The film is being edited while we’re shooting. So then the film becomes a real exercise in pure cinema, one where we don’t know where we’re going. We haven’t done that in a theatrical piece, a feature film, yet, but which I’m definitely going to do. Well, hopefully. With the documentaries, we just start shooting and let the shooting take us to where we want to go.
Filmmaker: How does that work from a funding perspective?
Ferrara: It doesn’t [laughs]. Haven’t found anybody yet. The funding for Tommasso came from friends of mine who have a lot of confidence in, you know—
Filmmaker: They know it will be seen.
Ferrara: But they got confidence in the script. They got that script, even if it’s thirty pages, they got it. They know we’re going to do it. We’ll at least finish it. We’re gonna finish the fucker. We ain’t going over budget. And that’s the script. If you read it with the right imagination and you know our films, you can read the script for Tommasso and you’re going to see that film. That film is right there. Siberia is less scripted. Bigger budget, way less script. Maybe not less but it’s not the same. Listen to this: I remember I was hired to do a remake of Yojimbo.
Filmmaker: Wow, OK.
Ferrara: Right? OK, man, this was a great gig. This was back in the Hollywood days, you know? I got paid $40,000 by New Line [Cinema]. [Robert] Shaye, all these guys. Somehow they had the rights for Yojimbo and they wanted to do all these different things.
Filmmaker: Like what?
Ferrara: Yojimbo and the Alaskan Pipeline. They ended up doing one called Last Man Standing. And, like, Yojimbo in Texas During the—I don’t know, who the fuck knows. They had Yojimbo on the Moon. Whatever. It was a $40,000 gig. Guess they wanted to put Yojimbo in the Ghetto in New York with [Lawrence] Fishburne. Anyway, I got the $40,000 and I just sat there and ran Yojimbo. And wrote it. And what, it’s one of [Martin] Scorsese’s favourite films? Definitely one of, you know, inarguably the most fucking awesome movies. Kurosawa’s one of my favourite directors, you know? I just wrote exactly what was said in every shot. Very clearly. So in one shot, the dialogue would say “Sake” and I’d put “Budweiser”, you know? I just modernised it to the ghetto. It was easy. It took a day and a half. I’m thinking, “Wow, what a gig, man. 40,000 bucks to do this.” When I was done, it didn’t make a lot of sense. In those days, you didn’t have a computer. You’d send all this shit to this one company in New York that would take all the typed notes, all these handwritten notes, and they had this ability to turn it into a script. With a cover too. It was beautiful. Gave these people boxes of shit and they’d send you back a perfectly typed script. You could pick the color of the cover.
Filmmaker: What did you pick?
Ferrara: It was nice—we always had the black with the gold lettering. The movie was going to be called Crack City Terminator. And when this came back, it was 28 pages long. OK? A real shot-by-shot, line-by-line version of one of the greatest films ever made, was a 30-page script. That kind of sticks in my mind.
Filmmaker: When I read about the sets of your movies, they seem like chaos—
Ferrara: Which one?
Filmmaker: Any of them!
Ferrara: Pick one! [laughs]
Filmmaker: Well, like, The Addiction, say—
Ferrara: Ah, yeah, right.
Filmmaker: Seems to me that filmmaking for you is all about these personal relationships. That’s how these movies can be so lucid even though the working environments were anything but.
Ferrara: I mean, The Addiction was the first time we’d done a film since coming back from Hollywood. We got paid a lot of money for—I forget what it was. Whatever we did before that. Uh, Dangerous Game, Body Snatchers. Forget it. We got a big pay day. No one wanted to make The Addiction. Russell Simmons came up with, like, a half a million dollars. Which, to make a union—quasi-union—movie in New York City, is… I mean, for us, we could just go out there and really just shoot. We basically just fucking did it. The crew got their money in the end and all that. But we had [Nicholas] St. John. Nicky was precise, he was brilliant. Right on the money. We had that, we had him. We had Lili [Taylor], she was locked into the screenplay. And [Ken] Kelsch. And me. At the end of the game, you know these are long, long relationships where we’re shooting together. As for the chaos… the chaos was maybe the chaos in our lives, you know? ‘Cos we were drinking and drugging. So that kind of—you know what I mean? We were under the illusion that we had to be high to be making these films. We had to wait for the drug dealers. Fighting these guys, extraneous bullshit. But Nicky wasn’t doing drugs. Kelsch might have been sober at that time. Yeah, he definitely was, for sure. So, you know, it was a mix of sobriety and insanity. But the script was right there. Our ability to shoot—that crew had been together for twenty years at that point.
Filmmaker: And now you have unlimited freedom, less cash, but you’re sober. Yet it’s still on the money in the same way.
Ferrara: Yeah, well, that’s good editing [laughs]. Again, we’re cutting it—with The Projectionist we started off doing something more about my life. I didn’t really know Nick [Nicoloau] that well. OK, let’s do a thing about us. Parallels with Nick and, bang, whoop. The editor was there. Kenny was there. We were telling a lot of stories about all this shit—what I’ve just been talking about. But in the end we didn’t make the cut. It became focused on Nick and his really interesting story. Coming to America as an immigrant. Like Piazza Vittorio. The reverse immigrant. You know? Not the reverse, actually. The future. A lot of these young guys on the Piazza Vittorio. I think you come back in wt years, some of these guys are going to be really successful, you know? They have the background of, God knows, fighting through war, surviving in Africa, coming to a country that they actually dig, you know? The freedom that a lot of people take for granted, for these guys—they ain’t taking for granted. Just sitting in the park is cool. They’re not like “Oh, what am I going to do today?” No. It’s like: “OK, I’m not getting shot at. Somebody ain’t putting a gun in my hand, or a machete, and telling me to chop somebody up. I can just sit here, play music, hang out. Figure out what I’m going to do with my life.” That’s not bad. Freedom. It comes to that, man. That’s the common denominator. No matter where you go. It’s the human condition, you know? Anything else is not. I know it’s not.
Filmmaker: I love the scene in The Projectionist where Nick is talking to those kids in his theatre, chatting to them about movies like it’s 1979 or something. Yet in the background you can see posters for all the same shitty movies that we see everyday in every multiplex. It’s the same stuff, personalised. It’s a hands-on relationship.
Ferrara: Yeah, he hasn’t changed one bit. He’s got that beautiful house in Cyprus, which is like a palace. But he spends his time in a basement in New Jersey, with Skype, with his friend who is 89 years old—that guy’s in the movie. He’s there on the front line of the cinema. He’s taking the money for the film. He’s choosing which film plays. Anything beyond whatever happened at eleven o’clock in the morning in Queens versus what happens at two o’clock in Brooklyn, you know what I mean? Every movie, good, bad—if the people come, that’s his gig. Cinema Village right now, if you want to play a movie in Cinema Village, like mine, you gotta pay him $10,000. OK? A movie like It or It 2—believe me, it’s raking it the fuck in. Raking it in, bro. People are coming. Don’t believe the bullshit that people don’t wanna go to see movies. They’re going to that fucking movie. A movie like The Projectionist—you gotta pay $10,000 to show it. But, if you wanna see your movie playing in a movie theater, you better figure out where you’re going to find that $10,000. And play it, if that’s what you want.
Filmmaker: Don’t you think that’s horrifying?
Ferrara: There’s no illusion, you know what I mean? He’s the projectionist, he’s not the illusionist. There’s no dream, there’s no illusion. I’m selling dreams. I don’t even know what I’m fucking talking about because I’m not on the front lines of being at those theaters, selling those movies, you know? I’m selling the dream. I’m selling it to myself to begin with.
Filmmaker: Where are you at with Siberia?
Ferrara: It’s done. We’re mixing it next week. Well, it’s not done. We gotta do the sound mix. It’s gonna be a nightmare, another disaster.
Filmmaker: What state is it in?
Ferrara: It’s done, it’s cut, man. You go into the mix and you’re convinced that you gotta at least stop cutting. Right? So we stopped cutting. Just to give the guys a chance to mix it properly. I’m sure in the mix we’re going to be making picture changes but… we’re pretty much done.
Filmmaker: You do make changes?
Ferrara: In the mix? Sure. I make picture changes, bro. I remember I was at some festival with—I don’t remember what it was, The Addiction? No, it was China Girl. They were showing the movie. And there was this one scene at the end that we had argued about. We really fucking argued. I’m watching the film; this might have been Cannes, I think it was Cannes. The audience was there. It was early afternoon, a festival projection. I’m watching the beginning of this movie and I said “Fuck.” I could feel it in that audience—that scene’s gotta go. I ran to the projection booth. We had to go round the corner. I went to that projection booth and it’s a good thing that guy knew who I was or he wouldn’t have let me in. I says, “We gotta take the last reel and make this cut.” This guy thought I’d lost my mind. We ran the last reel down and we just, like, you know, clipped it. You know?
Filmmaker: Right there?
Ferrara: Yeah. I made a cut at the projection, OK? So, yeah, if we feel like something is wrong, we’re gonna change it. Especially now with the digital stuff. I mean, a “locked” film is almost, like, a ’30s expression. At a certain point though, you say, “OK, that film is done.” Then you never want to change it. You don’t want anybody else to change it. Like I say, when you look at some of these films you say, “Oh man, that’s weak.” You know what I mean? It’s so obvious we could’ve done better with the material we had, you know? Made choices that were not good. You learn from it. That’s the point of the next film. What does Godard say, “The only valid criticism of a film is another film”? That’s it—you’re not going to sit and work on the same film for the rest of your life. Which you could do. A lifetime isn’t long enough. Who said that? Kubrick? While we’re quoting people. George Harrison said, “Lifetime isn’t long enough to play the Sitar.” Kubrick said, “A film needs, more than anything, everything anybody could possibly give it.” But you gotta try, man. The rent has gotta be paid at the end of the month, right? [laughs] Can’t tell that to the landlord: “A lifetime isn’t long enough to finish editing this film.”