21st Century Man: Abel Ferrara
In person, Abel Ferrara is a whirlwind of gestures and jokes, of quick smiles and vulgar asides, digressions piled upon digressions, even if he’s much sharper and in control of his staccato New Yorkese vernacular than he lets on. Ferrara, who will turn 60 this year, has had one of American indie cinema’s strangest and most fascinating careers, one which has taken the Bronx native from the old 42nd Street’s row of exploitation and porn cinemas to the Croissette in Cannes. Often we talk of middle-aged artists mellowing, but Ferrara maintains a manic, youthful energy that is both infectious and at times alittle maddening. While his face cannot hide the toll that years of what can be described as his legendary embrace of less than legal substances has taken, his quick wit, remarkable charm and insidious intelligence are likely to be among the first things that strike you.
Some films become emblematic of the times in which they were made. Other films become emblematic of the times in which you watched them. Few embody both. For this viewer, much of Ferrara’s body of work embraces both roles. His films, many of which are uneven and outlandish, will stay with you, serving as a bizarre but welcome reminder that a spiritually or intellectually engaged work can also be smutty and lurid. While his best known works, 1989’s King of New York and 1992’s Bad Lieutenant, are hard and unrelentingly grim crime films that double as tales of spiritual confusion and longing, and in Bad Lieutenant’s case, as embodying the desire for Christian love lost, his range as a director is broader than most give him credit for. He’s worked in sci-fi (Body Snatchers), corporate espionage (New Rose Hotel) TV (Miami Vice). His most recent narrative, 2007’s Go-Go Tales, which headlines Anthology Film Archives ongoing 11-day tribute to Ferrara’s recent work Abel Ferrara in the 21st Century, is a testament to a bygone New York in much the same way the films of his glory years are. Filmmaker caught up with him on the eve of his Anthology series to discuss his past and future ambitions, unorthodox methods and the myriad projects he is trudging forward with even as film financing as he knew it continues to collapse.
Filmmaker: It’s been tough to see your recent work here in the States, but it seems Anthology Film Archives has committed to screening your films for the past several years, with the one-offs of Ms. 45 and Driller Killer as well the run Mary had there in 2008. How did this series come about?
Ferrara: We’re close with these guys you know. What’s the guys name, the main man there…
Filmmaker: Jonas Mekas.
Ferrara: Yeah, Jonas has been my hero since before I was born. [laughs] He’s the heart and soul of fucking independent cinema. How he’s kept that building, what he’s achieved shows who the real independent producer is in town. Those guys keep the prints to all of my films. They’re a solid place through all the ups and downs and in’s and out’s of what film distribution has become in the last 30 years in New York.
We started off showing movies on 42nd Street in those giant fucking theatres that were like halfway houses from Rikers Island. [laughs] You remember those theaters from back in the day? A brothel on one side of the street and porn on the other. So that’s how what we tried to start it off with. It’s no different then the ‘net and streaming. We’re just trying to cover all our bases. As long as there’s prints of these movies… its a nice theater right? I mean they could use a marquee over there but…
Filmmaker: They could.
Ferrara: Yeah, right? But I ain’t paying for it so [laughs] I’ll take the women’s prison look. [laughs]
Ferrara: We were living and working in Italy for three or four years doing Mary and Go-Go Tales. Napoli is the city where my family comes from. So we got roots there. Have you ever been there?
Filmmaker: Never have.
Ferrara: Alright, well you would love this town, it’s like what the Lower East Side was in the ’90s complete with a murder a day and a very hot film culture. Naples has always been a cultural center going back hundreds of years so we’re hooked up with the independent scene or whatever you call it. Someone asked me to do a documentary about a women’s prison and it kind of grew out of that. We were doing Chelsea on the Rocks simultaneously. We were entertaining this style of incorporating fictional scenes into documentaries. Which is, you know, we’re working on that, so for all these brilliant critics, we’re working on that, we’ll get it right one of these days.
Filmmaker: So are each of the three episodes that make up the film based on actual events from the lives of some of the prisoners you met? Did you use the women you met while doing the interviews as characters in the film?
Ferrara: Not exactly. Look, whenever you put a camera in front of somebody, who knows what you’re getting, you know what I mean? What you think is a documentary may be the biggest storytelling you’ll ever see in your life. What is the truth and what is fiction? We had some strong writers. One of the guys that wrote Gomorrah, Maurizio Braucci, he wrote the main story, then another cat named Peppe Lanzetta, he wrote a pretty interesting piece. These guys are from the same world as the people in the film, you dig? So we used these stories, which weren’t exactly reenactments of what the women were saying per se, but they were spiritually of the same ilk, you dig what I mean? These are film writers, they write scripts, they know the deal.
In Napoli Napoli Napoli there are big-time actors in there, studied actors, but once you get into a prison and you start talking to women who were really doing time, things start to come from a real place. It’s a tradition of cinema, Italian cinema especially, [Roberto] Rossellini, [Pier Paolo] Pasolini, they’re out there finding guys on the street. Once you find that reality, to find that niche between the really good actors and the real people who can express themselves in front of the camera is a direction that I’m really exploring. We’ll get it fucking right one of these days.
Filmmaker: Is there a difference between how you communicate with the less experienced performers and the professionals?
Ferrara: That film, on top of being in Italian, is in a Neapolitan dialect. Even when they show movies in that dialect to other Italians, they’re subtitled. That’s how far that language is from normal Italian. So I ain’t doing much talking to these people. [laughs] George Lucas said it, once you’d cast it, you’re kind of locked in, after that, there’s not alot to talk about. Finding a person who’s on the same wavelength as you as far as the text, who gets it, who understands what it’s about and on the other side, people who also trust you, who are willing to expose themselves. Trust is the key.
Filmmaker: Were you able to get Italian state financing?
Ferrara: Yeah. See, in Italy, it’s socialized. You go to the hospital and it doesn’t matter if you’re Silvio Berlusconi or a street person, it’s a socialized deal, so alot of the filmmaking is subsidized by the government, which has its ups and downs, its pluses or its minuses, but it’s a go place a lot of times to at least start, to kick off raising private funds if you’re doing something that makes sense financially. [John] Turturro just did a nice film here. Did you see Passion and Dark Love?
Filmmaker: Not yet.
Ferrara:It’s a documentary about street music in Naples that John directed, it’s a very cool film. It was done the same way, with the same type of funding we had.
Filmmaker: Alex Grazioli’s Odyssey in Rome depicts your struggles to raise money for Mary. It’s surely the most entertaining doc on the subject of raising money for a film that exists.
Ferrara: You got to remember, that was before 2008, that was before the stock market crashed, if in fact it did crash, but it’s a good excuse for people not to put up dough. Look, financing films has never been easy and it’s never going to be easy. You can whine and cry about it or you can find a way.
Filmmaker: You’ve obviously had a very close working relationship with a number of different writers, be they Nicholas St. John or Zoe Lund. After 16 films, how has your method for developing stories with writers changed?
Ferrara: It’s even more from inside ourselves. It’s so hard to do a film on any level, you really got to believe in what the piece is. They way we make movies, it’s all from the group, from the inside circle. I still work with guys I worked with from 1977 and before. The circle gets tighter as time goes on. We got plenty of stories we’re looking to tell. We got a bunch of stuff that’s on the slate.
Filmmaker: What’s the status of the Jekyll and Hyde project? Is that permanently shelved?
Ferrara: Absolutely not, the thing is we’re trying to get it back. It was like a classic boneheaded move by us. We’re not the greatest businessmen in the world sometimes, but we’re on point, I’m going to make that film. I had wanted to make that film long before we announced it, like ten years before; I’ve been thinking about that film a long time. In the script I took it back to the original piece by [Robert Louis] Stevenson. Anytime they did a film from it, either because nobody reads or the ego of the actor, it’s always one actor, nobody ever uses the father-son metaphor. When you use one actor, which they’ve done 20 times or actors who ruin material, it becomes a werewolf thing. A guy changes into a whatever. But it’s not that. It’s more of a Frankenstein thing where a doctor creates another human being only it’s to better his own DNA. The story actually makes more sense now then it did at the time although it was always a knockout from the moment it was written. The idea of using Forrest [Whitaker] as Jekyll and 50 [Cent] as Mr. Hyde is playing on the father=son thing that Stevenson was going for but basically, and I don’t know the last time you read it, it’s the perfect story to adapt to a screenplay. No one ever bothered to do it that way, I don’t know why. I’m modernizing it, putting it present day, but I’m basically using his story beat by beat by beat.
Filmmaker: When you started making films almost 35 years ago, what was your notion of the career that you could or would have in independent cinema? How has experience and reality tempered that vision?
Ferrara: I came across a diary I wrote a long time ago. On one of the pages it said, “If I ever make a film for a hundred thousand dollars, I will never complain or be bitter.” If I got to make a film for a hundred thousand.
Filmmaker: What do you think about that now?
Ferrara: I think it made alot of sense and I should have stuck to that. [laughs] I shouldn’t have gotten so carried away with myself. There was that period in the late ’80s, early ’90s, you know about it, but those days are over, but that don’t mean filmmaking is over.
Filmmaker: Have the financial constraints of the current age caused you to reconsider the scope of your projects?
Ferrara: Well, Jekyll for instance is going to take some cash, but the ideas come first, the imagination comes first and then you figure out how to work it. We’re doing two films now. One’s called Last Day on Earth with Ethan Hawke. It’s going to be two people, Ethan plays a successful actor, he’s basically playing himself. Shanyn [Leigh], my old lady, is playing his lover, who’s a painter. The movie takes place in one day, with the premise being that at exactly 4:44am the world is coming to end. It’s like Al Gore’s worst nightmare [laughs]. The ozone or whatever everybody’s talking about.
Filmmaker: Sounds like Don McKellar’s Last Night.
Ferrara: Yeah, alright, so it’s basically centered about these two people and the loft they’re living in in Manhattan. I mean we’re going to open it up by creating our own CNN or whatever and he’s going to be surfing the ‘net. We’re going to bring in some of the outside world. That’s one we could do for reasonably little, but it wasn’t like I was thinking, “We have X amount of money now what are we going to come up with?” You start with your imagination and that’s basically it.
Filmmaker: Making documentaries has been one way to keep working while trying to finance bigger-budgeted projects as well.
Ferrara: Well, A) it’s easy to work in, B) it’s a search for a film as you go along, you’re working without a script, it’s filmmaking as an act of discovery, it’s happening before your eyes. I’ve dug Michael Moore’s films, what they were, what they were saying, I like Oliver [Stone] and Spike [Lee]’s documentaries, I like the genre and the form, you know what I mean?
Filmmaker: You recently increased your web presence a bit with the unveiling of your new website. Is that a form that interests you at all, filmmaking for the web? Do you have any plans to release some of the earlier films that are unavailable yourself on the web?
Ferrara: Which ones?
Filmmaker: Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy Cat, Ms. 45…
Ferrara: Well, I don’t know about Nine Lives, but, uh, I think they’re already on the fucking ‘net to tell you the truth. I don’t know how happy I am about that. I don’t know who torrented [them]….
Filmmaker: I downloaded a pirated copy of Ms. 45, ripped from a VHS, from a torrent. There’s no DVD!
Ferrara: Whatever man, that’s cool, fine you know, I just, I don’t get the philosophy. It’s a formula for running out of films. If films aren’t being made and people are just watching movies that… there aren’t that many films that have been made, especially for how voracious some people’s appetite is for watching movies. You can only go so far watching movies that were made 20 years ago. There is a dynamic to watching movies in the period in which they were made. I remember watching alot of these movies from the ’70s people fawn over [now] when those prints were fresh. I remember going to see Mean Streets when it first came out. There’s a dynamic and a experience that you really don’t get watching the same shit on the web. If everybody just keeps watching all this shit for nothing, I don’t know man, piracy is a perfect word for this shit. Pirates aren’t all like Johnny Depp and they’re not exactly my favorite fucking people, you dig? I’ll pay five cents but I ain’t going to pay nothing for this shit.
Like okay, I just came back from Rome where we’re working on film about Pasolini. It’s about the last day of his life. It’s a narrative. It’s about the murder. It’s kind of a Rashomon meets All That Jazz sort of thing.
Filmmaker: Do you posit any new theories about his death?
Ferrara: I don’t think that guy he was with in the park was capable of killing him. Pasolini was a tough dude, you know what I mean?
Filmmaker: Sounds like some JFK-esque revisionism.
Ferrara: Yeah, although Oliver [Stone] was just playing one theory, we’re going after the Rashomon approach where will show that version, but then there’s the version where it’s a political assassination, and then there’s the version of the bad director, where the guy got alittle bit out of control. You play with fire, you get burned.
Filmmaker: What do you think the truth is?
Ferrara: I don’t know, we’re doing it and that’s the great thing about making films. Here’s my education, you know? These films are researched. Regardless of what we end up with, we’re going after the truth. So are the actors and designers and the DP. There’s alot of people still alive. In Italy though, investigation is a funny word. [laughs] Here’s a guy who was a journalist, a beautiful poet, a muckraking journalist, a troublemaking motherfucker, who was basically writing for the Italian version of the New York Times and named names, all during a heavy period. You know this is around when Allende was killed and the CIA was all over everything, Vietnam was winding down, at the same time he’s making Salo, and you got people who are stealing the negative. And at the same time he’s cruising the fucking train stations looking for sexual satisfaction. This was one serious motherfucker.
I remember seeing the premiere of Salo. It was the North American premiere up on 57th Street, there were like 15 people there when the movie started, there were about 8 when it was over, but you walked out of that film and you didn’t call yourself a filmmaker so fast, you know what I mean?