an interview with Abel Ferrara

Abel Ferrara

Meeting a great filmmaker is sometimes a jarring experience. There is often a dissonance between a filmmaker’s behaviour, ways of speaking and relating, and their cinematic work. Sometimes there is a sense that their cinema has exhausted their bodies, emptied them out; they are nowhere near as exciting or enlightening as their cinema because they have invested those qualities so unreservedly into their cinema, leaving nothing for themselves. But Abel Ferrara is one of those other, rarer cases: a filmmaker who seems to be the human embodiment of his cinema, as if he had somehow translated himself directly into another medium. Or perhaps it’s the other way around, as if he has become the embodiment of the films.

I first met Abel at the Lucca Film Festival in Italy in 2010, where he was the guest of honour. I had just arrived at the festival’s main venue; a film had already begun and the lobby of the theatre was empty. Abel emerged from the cinema by himself, evidently too restless to sit and watch the film, and immediately approached me, without introduction, enlisting me to talk him through the festival’s programme. Meeting with Abel in New York City last September (days before the premiere of his new film, 4.44: The Last Day on Earth, at the New York Film Festival), he explained the principle of location filming on projects such as Bad Lieutenant, in which “the world is the set“. This is how it feels spending time with Abel: everything around you is part of the set, and as a result is a potential actor in the scene. It is never just a conversation between two people: there is also the music on the radio, the stranger sitting at a nearby table, the image on the wall, the lighter in your hand. And all of these elements have the potential to change, interact or trigger something new. This idea seems to touch on the tension in his films between the fullness of the world and a sense of violent, narrative intervention-“there’s gotta be an event,” he always says, and he wants his characters to be “pushed“-that makes Ferrara a natural storyteller as well as a formal innovator. You see this in the way he speaks: he can weave tales out of anything, engaging stories that don’t seem to worry about hiding their implausibility, at the same time as he constantly veers off course, following tangents and dead ends, attention deficit disorder as an aesthetic principle. He starts a lot more sentences than he finishes, and never ignores a new element of the set. Sometimes he just walks off, making a phone call, getting some air, and the scene continues without him.

When I met up with Abel on the Saturday after our interview (to take him to the Occupy Wall Street camp, as he had suggested), I found him sitting on a stoop, serenading a father and two young children with a guitar that he had apparently borrowed from them moments ago (see the picture above). How did this scene happen? Of course there’s one kind of film in which these kinds of scenes happen all the time. Even more than Abel’s own films, it’s the cinema of Vincente Minnelli. And now the only real mystery is how we have yet to see a full-blown Abel Ferrara musical.


The interview begins at a restaurant next door to the Little Italy apartment building he has lived in for several years now (one of the many restaurants featured in Mulberry Street, his 2010 documentary on his life in Little Italy). Abel orders me a beer and has me eat a chocolate ice cream dessert that he had ordered but lost his appetite for. After introducing me to, and chatting with, everyone working in the restaurant, the interview begins.


Abel Ferrara: So are these people [at Occupy Wall Street] anti-Obama or…?

Donal Foreman: There’s a lot of anti-capitalists.

Abel: Ok, is an anti-capitalist a communist or a socialist or what?

Donal: Or an anarchist.

Abel: Yeah, but an anarchist… that doesn’t get you too far. I mean what’s the government of an anarchist?

Donal: The anarchist idea is you have groups organizing themselves collectively, without leaders, without a state.

Abel: Yeah-it’s what democracy is supposed to be about. As opposed to 2% of these scumbags fucking sticking it to the rest of us.

Donal: Well, that was one of the things I wanted to ask you about your films. You’ve had several characters over the years with very politicised perspectives. I’m thinking of Vincent Gallo in The Funeral, but also the preoccupation with the atrocities of war in The Addiction and, in the new film, the emphasis on environmental destruction.

Abel: You know what happened to us? We were so politically engaged, or trying, at least when we were in school. I studied political science and I was more interested in politics than film. Filmmaking was just going to be a tool to do it. The first thing that really stopped us was, after we did Driller Killer and Ms. 45, we were going to do a film called Birds of Prey which was about revolution in the United States. It was about the people versus the corporations, alright? And you know, everybody was going to get paid the same and it was going to be made in this communist fucking way. When the people that raised the money looked at the budget, they asked “How come the grip is getting paid the same as the director?” I said, “Well that’s how we work.” Anyway, we spent three years trying to get this film together and we never could do it. Plus, in the ‘70s, the whole point of the political movement… it just became something else. I became a filmmaker and it became such a struggle to make films. You know, this is the point: to be politically active you either have to be rich or you have to be desperately poor. I mean, anything in between… We were just trying to survive and trying to make movies. So I think a lot of it got subjugated, but our attitudes were always…

Across the restaurant, a loud young man with a Russian accent holds court with a group of diners. Abel watches him.

Abel: He’s an actor who makes believe he’s a Russian gangster. These people come here, he comes here everyday. I used to think he was for real. Anyway.

Abel’s phone rings, he wanders away from the table, talking to someone about the premiere of 4.44 this Saturday.

Abel: I’m gonna see you before but listen we gotta go down to Wall Street man. Why don’t we go down, why don’t we do this? Go down at least one day and shoot this. There was like ten thousand people there yesterday. Michael Moore is down there, you know what I mean? I want to go tomorrow.

Abel wraps up the phone conversation and returns to the table.

Donal: You want some of my beer?

Abel: I haven’t drank in a fucking year. Can you imagine that? So don’t get me started.

Donal: I don’t want that reputation.

Abel: Yeah right, when I start drinking… (playing with his phone) I just called Flava Flav. You know Flava Flav? I just accidentally called him. (laughs) He’s a good guy. He loves our films. He always says, “Abel, Abel’s bigger than Godzilla!”

Abel stands up and wanders off. I listen to the ‘Russian gangster’ across the room.

Russian gangster (to his group): There is something I need to tell you about the barmaid. She’s crooked. She needs lots of medication. She doesn’t take any of them. She’s like Snookie plus a really bad day plus really bad freckles. She is a mess, ok? She is freaking crazy. She has a scab collection. I’m serious. She plays connect the dots with them. I mean, she’s a nice girl but… I hope you have a bucket list and on your bucket list is the desire to get cut by a crazy lady from Jersey. Because she will cut you and turn you into a futon.

Abel returns.

Donal: So you were saying…

Abel: Yeah so we were politically active, or wanting to be.

Donal: But then, the struggle of making films.

Abel: The struggle of making films. Then you get hung up, you get married, you have kids. Our characters are all against the concept of authority. But the day that they elected Richard Nixon in 1972-I mean it was just too much… It was just too much to bear. At that point I just said forget it. I was all about using films for our political deal, but it became like… They beat it out of us, you know what I mean? They won in a big way. But it’s all there. And things are so bad, right? I know they’re bad for me, so imagine guys that are just starting out. I mean I have a reputation, I have 40 years of contacts-and I never in a million years would be in the film business if it was like this when I began. (to the Russian gangster, after his group leaves) Yo, that was a great performance!

Donal: I heard there was a film you were planning to make called Coup D’Etat, set in a world where independent filmmakers are literally fighting a revolution against Hollywood.

Abel: Yeah that was a great script, but it was going to be financed by this guy who was a real… He was one of these Eastern European guys, who started off owning a chain of drycleaners in Los Angeles. There’s no better business than a drycleaners in Beverly Hills, right? What happened was I had a pretty cool screenwriter, and we hit the jackpot on that script. I remember reading that script and I couldn’t believe we wrote it. It was really cool. We needed Sean Penn and Chris Penn to play the Miramax brothers, in this completely insane world. And we were gonna shoot it in- it’s a nightmare, it really would have been a great movie-we were gonna shoot it in Slovakia. And it didn’t get made. I don’t think it was because of the politics, it was just the battle that I had with this guy….

Donal: In the synopsis I read, it says that ‘a 24-year-old former indie actress-cum-underground war hero decides to join the studios to direct her first film‘. It’s this idea of doing whatever you have to to get a film made, even if it means collaborating with the enemy.

Abel: Yeah, right. When I’d been working in LA… I actually was a millionaire for about five minutes. But at the point I had a million dollars, I was spiritually a nightmare. I was an addict, I had drug, alcohol, sexual [problems]… One day I just grabbed a hold of myself and said this has gotta stop. I really got to the point where I was almost suicidal. LA can do it. It’s not the city of LA, it’s the business and it’s also taking something that you love… I came across these old notes I had and it said, “If I ever raised a hundred thousand dollars to make a film I would never ever complain.” And I’m thinking ok, where was I? I want to get back to that place. I want to get back to that Abel, who had the respect for money and the respect for putting a film together. I mean how do you make a film for 20 million dollars, like Bodysnatchers, when people are starving to death?


Abel feels like moving. We go for a walk while he makes some more phone calls. He takes us into a pizza place where he knows the owner, introducing me and encouraging me to order whatever I like-then says he has to take care of something and wanders off, leaving me with the boss, sitting at a laptop watching football videos.

Ten or fifteen minutes later, Abel returns and we go to a nearby bar where he also knows everyone-or seems to. He orders me another beer, and a glass of water for himself. We continue the conversation.

Donal: One of the things I loved in the new movie was the way the characters keep creating-Shanyn [Leigh, Abel’s partner] is painting, Willem [Dafoe] is writing. It seems so absurd when the world’s about to end. And yet, it’s not really more absurd than doing it under normal circumstances.

Abel: Exactly. Right. You’re gonna die anyway, you’re writing this thing, you don’t know who’s going to see it. We’re making that movie and our last few movies didn’t come out. What are you really doing this thing for? You’re doing it mostly for therapy, you know what I mean? Half the stuff you fucking do is just to make sure you don’t fucking kill somebody, or kill yourself.

Donal: Do you really feel better after making a film? You feel improved in some way?

Abel: Absolutely. And that’s why the films have gotta be righteous and they’ve gotta be right on. So this is the point I was saying… When I started making films in LA I didn’t have a purpose for making movies. We had a clear-cut purpose as kids: we were going to make revolutionary, political films. And now I’m making Miami Vice. I’m making a lot of money and I’m spending it on drugs and alcohol. So far from friends and family, living your life in some hotel… It’s like what people think is the high life and it’s the fucking worst life you can imagine. But you don’t know how you get yourself there. That was not our goal. Our goal was the opposite of that. We never wanted that, but you get sucked into it. And the ‘suck-into-it’ is, you wanna shoot. When you shoot on 16mm, you want to shoot on 35mm. You’re shooting color, you’re shooting sound… You dig what I mean? But that’s what’s cool now, because with the digital stuff, we can have an access [that we didn’t have before]. I mean we could never make a film like 4.44 in 1975, or 1985, even if we had the talent to.

Donal: So you totally welcome working digitally?

Abel: Listen, I miss the film. I miss the negative. I really miss it. I know how to use it, I have a sense of it that’s instinctive. I just like the look of it. And it’s 180 degrees different, it’s a total different thing. It has a different look to it, a different sense; I mean it’s a different movie.

Donal: So when you were a millionaire in Hollywood…

Abel: Well I was a millionaire for a day, but go ahead.

Donal: Did that lifestyle affect the films? Were they weaker?

Abel: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think anything’s going to change the films. I made this last film not drinking, I don’t think that made it any better or worse. It makes me a better person, because I was addicted. I can’t have a drink. I have to have fifty. We were addicts, so we gotta deal with life a different way, and it takes a while to accept and understand that. [The industry] doesn’t affect our mood, our way of making films, but they definitely effect what you’re filming and how you look at life. Even if you think you’re above and beyond it, you’re not. You’re part of it and you’re in it. Anything from censorship, when you’re thinking about R ratings and X ratings… Even if you say ‘I don’t give a fuck, I’m going to shoot whatever I want‘, doing that is still a reaction to a system and a way of working. But once you accept the fact that you’re a filmmaker, you have accepted that you are a part of it. It’s like working on Wall Street. We’re working on Wall Street. You know what I mean?

Donal: You mean working in Hollywood is like working on Wall Street?

Abel: No, even making films, on any level of us making films: we need equipment, we need other people… Even if it’s an actor, unless you can figure a way to film yourself in the mirror. It’s a communal and it’s a financial deal: there’s no getting around it. You need money and you need to do it. You don’t need money to write the screenplay per se, but you need money to take the next step.

Donal: Have you ever had to compromise creatively on your projects to get the funding?

Abel: It’s not so much about compromise. There are films I totally compromised. But even on the films I didn’t think I compromised, I’m compromising. Because filmmaking is a life. You live the life. You’re filming your life no matter what. And even if you wanted to deny that it’s a New York film, it doesn’t matter how slick or how Hollywood-we’re still New York filmmakers. We’re still blue collar filmmakers because that’s how we grew up. You’re not going to get out of that. The point is to find the place where you can work with the people you love to work with. As long as you’re committed to the fact that the film is a group thing… But we have a reputation now that I have final cut-and you can’t say that about a lot of directors. We gave up a lot for that; we gave up a million dollars for that. I could not have kept making films in LA like that. You can’t, especially now: they don’t even know what final cut even means.

Donal: Do you think directing requires a certain amount of manipulation of the people you work with?

Abel: Never. No.

Donal: Not a certain amount of dishonesty?

Abel: No way, absolutely not. At that point you gotta get rid of the person. Everybody’s gotta be straight up and going at it. (pauses) Are you talking about getting a performance out of an actor, or telling somebody they’re gonna get paid when they’re not?

Donal: Anything to get what you need.

Abel: Anything like that, anytime you have to do that, you’re cheapening the film and the film is going to reflect all that, because the great thing about film is, even if it’s digital, it accepts all the energy that went into making it. I don’t care if you’re the craft service, your imprint is on that film. You know that. Anybody on that set, their energy is going to determine the end product of the movie.

Donal: What about honesty in dealing with investors?

Abel: Well the thing is when you’re making a film, you believe in what you’re gonna be doing. When you’re knocking on heads, you don’t want to say that 99 out of a 100 films don’t return their investment. You dig? But now we’re working in a world where we’re investing ourselves too. 4.44 was done with me and the main guys-the designer, editor, DP, actor-they’re invested in the film, they’re owners of the film too.

Donal: And the audience?

Abel: It’s everything. But the audience is me. I can’t ever assume… I love when these people, first of all, undercut the audience. They say you can’t underestimate the intelligence of an American audience. But who are you to judge somebody’s intelligence? What they want and what they are? And in the end, the audience is me, and if it’s true to me… That doesn’t mean I don’t care. Every one of these reviews I’m reading for 4.44-and a lot of them are nasty, vicious motherfucking reviews, really-they all hurt, man. Willem, the actors, they don’t read’em. I read’em, and they hurt.

Donal: What do you think about this trend in independent film towards DIY marketing? There’s a lot of talk going around about filmmakers having to ‘brand’ themselves even before they make their film.

Abel: [It doesn’t make sense because] it’s a constant discovery. I mean I’m discovering you, and you’re changing anyway. And I’m counting on that. If I see your film, then I know your next film ain’t gonna be that film. Because you’re gonna be growing and going in another direction. And you don’t know what your film is going to be. We didn’t know what this film was going to be. Nobody knows what any film is going to be. That’s why I love when they try to get down to storyboards and all these things… They’re trying to define so much, to the point that they want to get rid of the director.

Donal: (holding up Nicole Brenez’s Abel Ferrara book) Have you seen this book about you?

Abel: Which one? (sees cover) Yeah yeah yeah.

Donal: Have you read it? She does a whole chapter about Zoe Lund and Edouard de Laurot.

Abel: (looking at a picture of Zoe Lund, star of Ms.45 and writer of Bad Lieutenant, in the book) Look at this poor chick. Skinny… Look at the legs on her, her legs are like toothpicks for Christ’s sake. So what does she say about Zoe and who?

Donal: Edouard de Laurot, her boyfriend, this political filmmaker.

Abel: Yeah, so what does he have to do with me?

Donal: She makes this connection between his political militancy and your work.

Abel: Zoe was always trying to hype her guys… She started off, when she first became a junky, her boyfriend was supposedly Gillo Pontecorvo’s brother, who was a 70 year old guy. She met him in Italy, she was with the Red Brigade and she couldn’t say what she was doing, you know, guns, kidnapping-and she got shot. The chick is awesome. Anyway, I had totally exiled her because she really ripped us off on Ms. 45. She stole her contract back and then blackmailed us when we made the sale on the movie. So I didn’t talk to her for 15 years, from 1980 till finally we buried the hatchet on Bad Lieutenant. But you know that chick was… Forget it, you know: Spiderwoman. Back when Ms. 45 finally came out to these great reviews, they took a copy of Ms 45, got a school bus and now she’s riding around the United States, showing this movie, hitting people up for money. She put a different ending on it, her ending on it, gets this guy who’s like 65 years old-who looks like me now, right?-and introduces him as Abel Ferrara. She goes everywhere, showing the movie, raising money for her next film. She even went to LA and met all these people and then later on, when I finally got to LA, people would say, “Wait… are you Abel Ferrara?” It was really hysterical.

Donal: Sounds like some manipulation went on there.

Abel: Well when you’re a junky, that’s part of what you call day-to-day survival.


Donal: Is addiction an important idea for you?

Abel: People say that, but I don’t understand it…

Donal: It comes up in 4.44 in an interesting way, with Willem’s friend arguing to stay clean even at the end of the world.

Abel: For that guy, his choice was the commitment he made to himself about not drinking and not drugging. And he wasn’t going to change it on the last day on earth. With Cisco [Willem Dafoe], his commitment is about being with her. It’s not like Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg: it’s not like she’s getting high, he’s getting high. That’s not what’s happening there. He’s making a commitment to her that he’s straight. She’s not going to live with him if he’s not straight. So what he’s doing there is making a choice between her and himself, her and the drugs. So that’s a different choice.

Donal: But you don’t think it’s a big preoccupation for you?

Abel: Yeah, it’s an issue. Obviously, you got Bad Lieutenant, you got a film called The Addiction. But you know, our films are pushing people, we’re pushing people. What does Polanski say? Three guys in a boat is not a movie. Three guys in a boat, one falls in the water, one wants to save him and one doesn’t. Now you got a movie. There’s gotta be an event. There’s gotta be people pushed… at least, with us. Even with this movie, which seems pretty normal. But I don’t know if we could really make a movie about normality. I don’t think it interests us.

Donal: What would be normal?

Abel: That’s another one. There’s addiction and there’s some kind of… what’s the word for it… some kind of idiosyncratic…

Donal: Another way of being in the world, or….?

Abel: Yeah, exactly. But it’s either you’re living for yourself or your living for the group. Do you want another beer? (to the bartender) Yeah, give him another beer.

Donal: No, just water.

Abel: Just water. I talked him into it. I talked him out of his addiction. An Irishman not taking a beer. What is this world coming to? I mean (singing along with the radio) “take a walk on the wild side…” But now we want do another film about addiction, about this event that happened to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, you know the French guy, who was running for president in France, and he allegedly tried to rape the maid in the hotel?

Donal: You’re gonna make it?

Abel: I hope so. You know that actually happened in the room that New Rose Hotel was shot in. Is that unbelievable? The same hotel suite at the Sofitel New York. Unbelievable, right?

Donal: So you get Christopher Walken and Asia Argento…

Abel: We could probably just re-edit what we have. Or I should play the guy! No, the plan is to make it with Gerard Depardieu and Isabella Adjani, but that’s all I’m going to say for now…


Donal: Buddhism is a big part of the new movie. Is that a new discovery for you?

Abel: I’m a born again Buddhist. Through Shanyn. If Shanyn’s a fascist, I’ll be wearing a moustache. She’s a Buddhist, she really believes. Willem is a yogi, he does yoga. But he didn’t want to do it in the film. They could have done some amazing things together, but he wouldn’t do it, he said it’s like showing off. I said, “Isn’t that what filmmaking is about anyway?”

Donal: But it was always Christianity in your work before this: the iconography, the sin and redemption…

Abel: It’s all the same, man. Do unto others… Give up the ego… Live the life… I mean Christ, all those years where was he from the time he was 16 till he was 33? Was he in the East? I mean Buddha was already… I mean that was already down, right?

Abel wanders off and chats to the bartender about Steve Jobs.

Abel: Did you read that, did you see that Stanford University speech? Check it out. I listen to it all the time. The graduation speech. But let me finish this.

Abel returns.

Abel: It’s sad about Steve Jobs, right?

Donal: I don’t know.

Abel: You don’t like Steve Jobs?

Donal: I don’t like corporations.

Abel: Well, I mean, it’s the ‘anti-corporation’ but yeah… But how do you avoid a corporation? I mean he’s got something that people want, he’s got to give it to’em, he’s not gonna make it by himself, right? Although, yeah, you know, these guys make these computers… (to the bartenders) How much does it cost – guys? Let me ask you this. Guys! How much do you think it costs to make a normal Apple computer?

Bartender: Just to physically actually make it? I bet it’s about a hundred bucks.

Abel: Well how wealthy is a company like Apple? I mean how much liquid cash to these guys have?

Donal: Billions.

Abel: So if he’s such a good guy, why’s he charging so much for the computers? ‘Cause he’s charging what the market can bear, right?

Donal: That’s how corporations function: make as much money as you can.

Abel: So why do I feel bad that the guy’s dead? Fuck him.


Originally published in Experimental Conversations #8, Winter 2011.



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