Director's Cut: Abel Ferrara ('Ms. 45')

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Abel Ferrara’s cult classic “Ms 45” is currently making the rep rounds thanks to a new restoration by Drafthouse Films. To mark the occasion we caught up with Ferrara over Skype from his new home in Rome, where he’s in production on his latest film, “Pasolini” — a film based on the life and death of the famous director set in Italy starring Willem Dafoe. Ferrara seemed happy to open up about his life, his work, and his plans for the future, topics he pinballed between with his trademark velocity and candor. In lieu of the usual career-spanning introduction, then, we’ll let the interview that follows speak for itself.

FILM.COM: It’s gotta be, what, 11pm right now where you are? How’s Saturday night in Rome?

ABEL FERRARA: Yeah, it’s good, you know, it’s kind of quiet, it’s not that crazy a town. But you know, it’s interesting. It’s an interesting place. I’ve lived here for awhile — I lived here before. We made a couple of films here: “Go Go Tales”, “Mary”, and a documentary called “Napoli Napoli Napoli”. So you know we’re always back and forth.

I know you’re working on a new film, “Pasolini”, about the life of Pier Paolo. Have you started shooting it yet?

Nah, nah, we start in a couple of weeks.

And how is everything coming along? The story’s nailed down?

Well, you know, the story is never really nailed down. We’re working on the script, we’re working with Willem Dafoe, we’re working with the writing. A lot of it, you know, is based on his material — you know we’re shooting scenes from a screenplay he’d written but never made. We’re doing stuff from a novel he had written called “Petrolio” — this is, like, a very great novel that’s unpublished. Or I guess it’s published, but he was in the middle of it when he got killed, so. We’re gonna do scenes from that also. But you know, there’s a ton of interviews, there’s a lot of material on him. So we’re, like, culling it out.

I’ve read that you’re focusing primarily on his death.

Well, we’re not focusing on his death but we’re doing the last day of his life. It’s kind of like “4:44” in that it’s the last day on earth for this one guy, you know. But he had a pretty spectacular last day. But you know, he was a vital character: he was a director, he was a major journalist, he was writing editorials for like the main newspaper in Italy. He was writing a 1700 page novel. “Salo” was just finished, he was just releasing “Salo”. He had two other scripts that were both, just, phenomenal pieces of writing. I mean, this guy was just the real deal, you know what I mean?

I heard he lived a fairly sordid life, too.

Well, sordid how? I mean, he was a homosexual, I guess if you call that sordid. [Laughs] Let’s put it this way: the guy bored easily. You know, he was living an adventure — he was a journalist, he was living life, he was going for the primal thrill, you know? He was . . . you know what I mean, he had his intellectual life but he had his physical life. He had like a multi-layered life, you know?

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I know the nature of his death has long been the subject of controversy, and in fact nobody really knows precisely what happened. Is that something you hope to explore, or maybe solve in some sense?

Well, you know, we’re doing a lot of investigation, a lot of research, but I’m not an investigative reporter and I’m not a detective, you know? It’s very hard to get to the real truth of anything anywhere, especially in Italy and with an event that happened forty years ago. You know, we just did the Dominique Strauss-Kahn movie, and it was the same thing: we were trying to find out what happened in a hotel room nine months before, or eighteen months before. Well, you’re a journalist, you know the deal. You’re either there when it happens or you’re guessing.

Of course what inevitably happens with films based on true events, particularly controversial ones, is that people take the dramatic facts as part of the historical record, even if they’re aware it’s fiction. Were you conscious of having to contribute to that in some sense? 

Well, yeah, I mean, on the one hand people can take it as historical record, but on the other hand it’s just a movie no matter what you do. I mean, you take Oliver’s “JFK”, to me it was almost like a documentary, but it was considered fantastical just because it was a feature film, a narrative film, you know? I don’t know how much truth people are gonna see in a film even if it’s a documentary, ya dig? And if you say it’s not a documentary, then no way. I mean, I don’t go to the movies looking for an answer to who killed Jesse James, you know what I’m saying?

Of course, but in the case of “Welcome to New York”, the story is not only based on fact, but it’s based on recent news — people are obviously going to approach it wondering how much is fact and how much is fiction. Do you think you have a responsibility to the truth in that case?

Well you gotta tell the truth no matter what we’re doing, you know. But if you don’t know what the truth is, then you gotta reach for it. I mean, what is the truth? That’s a good question, yeah. We have a responsibility to truth — now find it. I have a responsibility to searching for the truth. Now, whether I find it or not, that’s a little bit of a draw.

So “Welcome to New York” is totally done now?

Yeah.

What’s the plan for a release?

I think it’s gonna be in Cannes, but you know, don’t hold me to it.

Ha, fine, but can I quote you on it?

Yeah. I mean, it’s coming out now, it’ll definitely coming out now. They’re looking for the right way to do it, because, you know, like you say, it’s a very explosive topic. No matter how you look at it, when Strauss-Kahn was arraigned, that was a headline in every newspaper in the world. I mean, like, that’s a heavy thing to say: a guy born in Morocco, basically a banker for the World Bank, or the IMF or whatever, not yet a president. And that story was for some reason huge — it’s what motivated, I guess, even the making of the film. What is it about him and that specific event that captures the imagination of the world, you know? Especially with Gerard Depardieu, and his sitaution, who he is and what he is, what his political allegiance has been to France lately. . . you know, they’re just trying to find the best venue for this.

I remember when the film was first announced, the big story for a lot of cinephiles was that you’ve got Abel Ferrara and Gerard Depardieu together at last — it was a match made in heaven. 

Yeah, yeah! It was that way. Gerard was really wonderful, yeah.

Not to draw too belaboured a connection here, but over the last several years you’ve been largely working on documentaries, and now your two most recent projects are based on true stories. Do you find yourself turning away from fiction in some way, or is it simply a coincidence?

Well I don’t think it’s a coincidence. The documentary came up as something to do, you know: “Chelsea on the Rocks”, and then I made “Napoli Napoli”.

And “Mulberry St”. 

Yeah, “Mulberry St”. And you know, there’s a very fine line between a documentary film and . . . I mean I don’t even know what that line is anymore, I mean the line’s been crossed so many times. You know, material that is based in fact or semi-based in fact or a documentary which is theoretically the truth. I mean, just because you put a microphone in somebody’s face and ask them a question doesn’t mean you’re hearing . . .  I mean, you’re hearing a better story than you can write sometimes. And then it gets to down to, like, what is the truth, and what is the point? You know, we’re trying to make movies that are going to mean something to us first, and second to whoever’s watching ‘em. You know? You could say we’re genre filmmakers, we’re kind of genre filmmakers, and I would say documentary is a genre. But you know, I think we tended to go that way with the actors we chose and the way we shot. I mean, even a movie like “The Driller Killer” was a documentary on our life at the time. You know, “4:44” was very much a documentary on the life Willem and I were leading with Shanyn. I mean, it’s . . . you know, it gets blurry. That’s what I think. I think though we’re far from having perfected the form. But maybe this what the Pasolini film and the Strauss-Kahn film are trying to, you know, to capture, a lot of that.

And today, of course, we can appreciate a film like “Ms. 45” for its documentary qualities — the way it captures the city and the time and place. Even your most fictional films have documentary qualities.

Well you know that’s the payoff for not having a lot of money, when you cannot manipulate the background. We barely could create and fictionalize the foreground. The background was gonna be the background. You dig what I mean? When you’re making a low budget movie, whatever’s out there is out there. And your film better fit into it. I mean, we couldn’t have shot “Ms 45” or “Driller Killer” or “Bad Lieutenant” as period pieces. “Pasolini” we’re shooting in 1975, ya dig? I can’t just stick the camera out the window and start shooting. Well, maybe a little bit because we’re in Rome. But you can’t even find the kids with the short hair because all the young dudes now have all these short funky haircuts, you know? But with those old films, that was the benefit of having smaller budgets. And thank God we got some big shots, because we were constantly doing it. And because we could: the subject matter fit right into the nature of the piece. Looking back on them, they become like a sociological relic.

And I imagine those qualities weren’t on your mind since it’s the background to your daily life.

Yeah, but I mean, that’s stuff you’re not going to get if you’re shooting on a Hollywood sound stage.

Right, yeah. Or I suppose even with a film like “The Funeral” — I don’t know how much was shot on sets versus how much of the world was dressed up to look like the period, but. . . 

Well we had to create every period. It was 1934. We went to a bar in Harlem and took out all the videogames, and that was pretty close. But that film was shot pretty close to the vest, you know what I’m saying? And in a lot of vests. [Laughs]

What does the idea of the ‘city as character’ mean to you? New York as a character. Rome as a character.

Well yeah, they’re a character through the eyes of the characters in your story. Pasolini went through like the real Rome, you know, he had the restaurants, he had the station that he’d cruise, he had the house that he lived in which was in a very bourgeois neighborhood. He went to a very particular place when he went out partying, or whatever. He was a Roman. He was from the North, so he was really an outsider in Rome, but you know, all roads lead to Rome and he was right in the middle of it.

And you’re feeling that way now, living there for a while?

I’m a Roman. I feel comfortable in Rome, really good in Rome. I really appreciate it. Yeah, I gotta say, it’s quite a spectacular place. I’m Italian-American, so, like, you know, it’s my culture. I’m from a little bit further south but I can make it here.

And Willem lives in Rome too, yeah?

Willem is a Roman, man. For a Wisconsin guy, anyway. He’s married to an Italian director and he’s been living in Rome for seven or eight years. He speaks the language pretty damn good, you know? And he’s got the food down pat, he’s got it. He’s got it, he gets it, and it’s pretty cool.

This might be an obvious question or a stupid question, but is the film being shot in Italian?

That’s a good question — that’s the best question anyone could ask. It’s one of those things, man, you’re gonna have to see it. It’s like the last film: we shot it in French, we shot it in English, you know? In this day and age there are no subtitles. Alright, so if you see a film in France, you’re gonna see it French. And if you see a film in Ireland, you’re . . . wait, no, not Ireland, that’s gonna be in English. But you see it Spain, in Russia, in Germany. In Korea, I don’t know, I don’t even know if they speak dialects, probably. In China they probably have to, ya dig? But I feel that we are committed to really deliver an Italian version of the film and an English version of the film. Let’s put it this way, I got a game plan.

Did you see Godard’s last film, “Film Socialisme”?

Yep.

They released that with what they called ‘Navajo subtitles’. So what would happen is like someone would speak a few sentences but the subtitles would just say, like, “Car. Communism. Boat.” or whatever. 

Well yeah he was a big fan of “F Troop”, you know. You know? You know what “F Troop” was?

I’ve never seen it.

Yeah you have, come on, it was this TV comedy based on like a Ford Apache sorta thing.

Yeah, yeah, I know it. 

And like the Indians were just really, like, it was a gag, you know. And a guy like Godard would fixate or lock into something like that and take it all the way. And actually that’s a piece of like Americana or pure culture and he really put a spin on it. But we’re not quite gonna take it to a Godardian level.

Very few people do.

We’ll leave that mountain to him.

I was watching “New Rose Hotel” the other day — I’ve been rewatching all of your movies.

Yeah? What did you think?

Oh, I thought it was great. I loved it. It reminded me of Godard actually, late Godard.

Do you know the story it’s based on?

Yeah, it’s a William Gibson story. 

Yeah yeah “New Rose Hotel”. It’s like seven or eight pages, it’s pretty cool.

That wasn’t especially well-received, though. Is there any one of your films that wasn’t well received critically that you wish people would give another chance?

You know, in this day and age, movies are given a chance every day, they’re out there on the internet and on DVD and coming out twelve years after it’s released in a foreign country, you know. It’s like you, you’re gonna write this article on me, I’m in your life now. You’re gonna check these movies out and “New Rose Hotel” is there for you. I’m in it for the long haul, you know what I’m saying? These movies are there. They’re there. It’s been a long time since I actually worried. When a movie comes out, you get worried about how it’s gonna do. It’s part of the release of the film. But once you make a film, it’s there, it’s gonna be there. They’re gonna be there for a lot longer than I am. So I’m not worried about it. I know enough to know that each individual who sees that film is going to bring themselves to it. For better or worse. It’s not like I expect some blanket reaction, like this was some B+ movie or whatever.

It is strange, though, how a sense of a critical reaction emerges — people can say that a film was well-received or not. 

Yeah but like for five weeks after it comes out! I mean, do you know “Live and Die in L.A.”?

The Friedkin? Yeah. 

Well what do you think the reaction was to that? In fact what do you think the reaction was to “Ms 45”? That movie was a big hit, critics were f**king big-time into that. I don’t even wanna get into it. Like Friedkin, you could go through the list, saying this was good, that wasn’t good. Hey man, you pick up a film, you slam it into your computer, or your watch it a retrospective or you put it on your phone, whatever, you’re gonna relate to that film, as an individual. Ya dig what I mean? The movies can be shown anywhere, whenever, on another planet or whatever. You know, when we used to do these movies for the studios, there was always a clause in the contract saying, ‘Warners own the film for territories yet to be discovered and on mediums yet to be invented.’

Seriously?

Oh yeah absolutely, it’s in every contract every motherfucker signs from day one, from 1910, from Charlie Chaplin to George Clooney, man. And I used to say, that’s cool bro, I buy that, these movies are for mediums yet to be invented. I got my movie right now in my pants. [Shuffles through his pockets.] No nevermind I changed pants, but whatever, it’s on a harddrive like this f**king big man [holds fingers out the size of a USB stick]. I used to carry around films on cans so big that I used to break my f**king back, man. Who would ever think you could watch movies on the subway on your phone or whatever? And that’s just the beginning, man. So you can’t get hung up on all that. You gotta make sure that the story is rockin’, and that the actors are getting it on and that the thing is f**king working, you know? And if you could look at it in the editing room without throwing up, it’s a miracle.

Do you care about reviews?

Yeah I f**king care about ‘em! But when you go back it’s like the worst reviews are the funniest ones. I mean, a review’s gonna reflect the person who wrote it. There are a few great ones, whatever. The writing of cinema is always gonna be, man. The movie begins in the written form, it starts as scripts and it’s written words. Of course it’s gonna come back as writing, ya dig? It’s gonna come back in a written way. Writing criticism of films always counts. But it’s the same thing for the movie, man, if you don’t dig the movie leave. You can’t expect it’s gonna be the same for everybody. If you’re gonna write — I mean, talking about Godard, man, these guys were my first exposure to like serious cinema writing, critical writing, and those guys only wrote about films they loved. None of this ‘this is too long, this is too short’, all that bullshit. They wrote about the things they loved. That criticism survives. The other stuff is so colloquial, so colonial almost, so brokered and so minor. American film journalism back in the day . . . well, I mean, you can read Molly Haskell or you can read, you know, Manohla Dargis. I don’t wanna name names but maybe you too, I don’t know, I’ll read some of your stuff. But the point is there are some enlightened cats. Write about what you love, write the s**t out of it.

Okay, well, I’m going to read you a quote from a critic I like named Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. It’s about your movies, specifically “Dangerous Game”. And you tell me what you think. 

Well, okay, God, how much do I get if I get the right answer?

There’s no right answer. 

Alright alright, let’s do it.

“In the beginning, Ferrara thought that he could prove that exploitation could be ‘art’, or at least arty, but then he realized that art itself was exploitation.” 

[Long silence]

Well?

Yeah, yeah, that’s such a cool statement — I don’t get it but I think it’s great. I think it’s terrific, yeah. Wait did I say that or did this guy say that?

Yeah this guy said that about your work.

Yeah okay great, I’m glad he said, I don’t know. Let me think about that for a couple of weeks. I’m glad he said that, I’m glad I inspired a statement like that. Or maybe I didn’t, maybe Madonna inspired that.

Madonna is pretty great in that movie, but there’s a lot of you in that performance obviously.

There’s a bit of me, yeah, I got paid enough.

Do you feel positive about all of your films? 

What, the films? Yeah, I think so. Well, hey, some of them were f**king butchered, we couldn’t get them past the producers and we didn’t have final cut. That was a heartbreak, you know? But all in all, we’re just rocking in the free world, man. I don’t got regrets. I’m too old for that.

Which films were compromised, for example?

“Cat Chaser”. We didn’t get a cut of that version, which sucks. We had a real good version of that.

What about “The Blackout”? I know there were some complications with the financing there.

“Blackout” unfortunately was our cut.

Hey, man, I f**king love “The Blackout”! It’s great. 

I should try to blame that on somebody else.

No need, man. It’s really good.

Yeah well, that one was ours, that was something special right there. That was an Italian production, there was no anything there. That was right out of the house.

Okay, “Body Snatchers”.

“Body Snatchers” was kind of borderline. We didn’t have final cut with Warners but we battled them. After “Cat Chaser” I realized that a director can’t walk out of the editing room. Or I mean, you can, I walked out a hundred times throwing shit and cursing and threatening to kill people. But you gotta protect the film to the end. “Cat Chaser” I just said, I’m gonna kill somebody here. I didn’t have control of my temper and I didn’t get it. “Body Snatchers” was a nightmare, but because of Nicky St John’s patience, you know, and the editor, who was really good generally but should have stayed way the hell away from my film. And it tested so badly that they didn’t give a shit what we did, really. If it had tested good they would have really destroyed it.

Not that you can trust a test audience.

Yeah, well, every film that you see outta there is being tested by a 14 year old kid. Believe me, the night they showed that to a test audience, these kids had a stack of answers, man, and we sat with the executives of Warner Bros — the bosses, ya dig? These guys get paid millions of dollars and they’re reading these things like they came down like Moses brought them into the room, ya dig? Every film they make is edited around the choices of a 16 year old kid. Every film, believe me, and if you don’t think so, you’re out of your mind. They kept saying, ‘aren’t you learning anything from this’? And I said, yeah: I’m learning that there’s 25 different ways to spell ‘suspense’. They should be teaching these f**king kids how to read.

So what did the kids not like about it?

Well, you show a film to 98 knuckleheads from Orange County, they liked it or they didn’t for dumb reasons, same reasons the executives would have. But when you get 100 kids together and start asking them specific questions you get the worst s**t. You get some 17 year old kid who probably has a 67 average in high school and he’s saying, ‘well, I think the writers should. . .’ You know? It’s like, dude, you don’t think they’re not doing that now? Tell me. Tell me.

They’re doing that. They’re testing.

Yeah, they’re testing every single film. It’s all about them. None of those guys have anything close to final cut now. They abolished that.

There’s this quote, I don’t know who said it, but they said that the only movies Hollywood makes are the ones they can’t get out of not making.

Yeah yeah it’s always been like that, it’s not like this is any different from when it was the original studios. They’re guessing. They’re guessing with all this stuff now. Hey dude, when they start bringing 3D out, you know these guys are desperate. Whenever the box office goes south, they start with the 3D. Whenever they’re starting with that s**t, you know they’re grasping at straws.

Abel Ferrara’s “Ms 45” is making its way around North America. It opens in Toronto at the Royal cinema beginning January 10th.