Sex, Drugs, Redemption and Filmmaking: A Candid Conversation With Abel Ferrara
“They’re gonna show the fucking Driller Killer at the fucking Museum of Modern Art, bro!” That’s one of the first things Abel Ferrara says when you meet him, standing in the lobby of the historical institution, flanked by a publicist and someone from the Italian consulate, surrounded by tour groups of young students ranging from middle-school to high-school age and who, it’s safe to assume, have never seen Ferrara violently drill a hole into another person’s head onscreen. (He also plays the title character.) Or, for that matter, watched Harvey Keitel masturbate against a car door, or Laurence Fishburne in a derby hat ask a dying man where his chicken is, or a mute Zoë Lund dressed as a nun and gunning down rapists. (Again, onscreen.)
Ferrara is probably best known for making take-no-prisoners movies — like Ms. 45, King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, The Funeral and Go-Go Tales — with one foot in the Forty-Deuce and the other in the uptown arthouse scene. Though he’s lived in Rome for a number of years, it’s New York, the good and the bad and the ugly of the city, where a lot of his work was born, nurtured, first screened. It’s where his legacy as a genuine hard-living, hard-partying maverick artist, someone who was intimately familiar with sleaze and hung out with Schooly D, was forged. And while Ferrara has been honored in Europe at places like the Louvre, the fact that a museum in midtown Manhattan, “next to all the De Koonings and the real shit, on 54th Street, motherfuckers,” is organizing a near-complete look back at his body of work — the exploitation stuff and the movie-star stuff and the documentaries — he’s beaming over all of it. “You can’t low-key this, man,” Ferrara says. “It’s an honor.”
The 67-year-old filmmaker is in the middle of a busy year. There’s this MoMA retro, “Abel Ferrara Unrated,” that’s happening through May 31st; Pasolini, his look at the last 24 hours of the Italian director/provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life (before being killed by a street hustler) and starring Willem Dafoe, is starting its theatrical run on May 10th; The Projectionist, a documentary about theater owner Nick Nicolau and the cinephile paradise that was New York in the Seventies, just had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival; and in addition to a few other docs he has on deck, he notes that he’s just finished shooting not one but two new movies, also with Dafoe.
And Ferrara, a man whose work — whether with his childhood friend/screenwriter Nicholas St. John or on his own — has often balanced the scuzzy and the spiritual, the cerebral and the carnal, has finally found a sense of peace. The passionate, angry, no-fuck-you guy is still there. But he’s married now, and a father; after decades of self-admitted substance-abuse problems, the director has been clean for seven years. He’s happy working on the margins, with the freedom to do what he wants. He’s happy just to still be upright and working, period. “The fact that we’re still making movies, it’s a fucking miracle,” Ferrara says. The films “played in a theater and people came. That’s a success to me.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Most of the profanity, however, has been retained.
Let’s start with Pasolini. What made you want to make a movie about him?
I grew up on him, y’know… There are just certain filmmakers that when you see their work at just the right time, at just the right age, they change the game for you. They raise the bar. That’s Pasolini for me — he’s one of ’em, anyway.
He said that you can learn all you need to know about being about being a director — about filmmaking — in 30 minutes. So when you hear that and then see his work, you can tell that this is not a guy who’s hung up on technique. He’s all about expression and what he’s committed to. He was a political activist, a Communist and an out gay man. Keep in mind, we’re talking Rome in the 1970s. It wasn’t really accepted, any of that. With him, it was about, “This is how I’m living it. Take it or leave it, but come 10 o’clock at night, I’m rolling with the bad boys. That’s what I like, and too fucking bad for you if you don’t.”
So was it partially the movies and partially that this guy just did whatever the hell he wanted that made him a hero to you?
Yeah, though at first, it was just the movies that got me. I remember the first time I saw his movie Decameron, we were going to film school up at SUNY Purchase — I mean, I went to a lot of different schools, you dig? I wouldn’t say I was great at going to class … at that moment in your life, you’re not really up for being educated in a classroom, if you know what I mean. We were more into just making movies and seeing movies. Not always in that order, either. [Laughs]
But yeah, when I saw what he was doing with this 14th-century book, how he made it feel alive and subversive, it was like, yeah, man. We drove down for the opening day of Salò [Pasolini’s notorious semi-adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s novel, relocated to WWII-era Italy]. We were there for the first show in New York, at this place on 57th Street. There were 15 people were there. By the time the movie was over, there was seven people left, including us. [Laughs] When I walked out, I didn’t even know what fucking city I was in. You’d see those kind of movies back then, and then it’s that or nothing.
That’s partially what your doc The Projectionist is about — that period of moviegoing in New York in the 1970s when you could go from seeing exploitation movies on 42nd street to foreign films up on 68th street.
Yeah, right! A bunch of us knuckleheads would drive into New York and go see stuff all day. Back then, I was just some 19- or 20-year-old-kid who already thought he was some hotshot filmmaker. But I didn’t know shit. I didn’t know who half the directors were. This one day, we got into the city around noon, and I’m thinking, well, what should I see? Then this guy goes, well, maybe check out these two movies. You might learn something. Awright, fine, I’ll go. Why not?
What were they?
The first one was Mean Streets. This was at noon. Then I go out, I’m already kinda dazed and I go across the street and I see The Conformist.
That’s a great day.
You’re goddamn right that’s a great day! I mean, holy shit, bro! I just drove home after that, thinking, “Who the fuck are these guys?! And how the fuck can we do that?” Again, it was: This raises the bar. This is what you gotta aim for now.
Back to Pasolini for a second. The idea was always to focus on the last 24 hours of his life, right?
Yeah, we locked it down on that, but you take any part of this guy’s life, you got a fucking movie. Any part of it. His life was as dramatic, if not more dramatic, than the movies he made. But we had the family with us, we had [Pasolini’s boyfriend] Ninetto Davoli, we interviewed a shitload of people. We talked to everybody. All of those cats.
And I knew Willem could do it. It’s not that he looks like him — that wasn’t why I cast him. But when you have the right energy, those things come to you. We’d been trying to design the clothes for Willem, looking at old pictures and trying to recreate them. Then we talked to Ninetto, and he opens his closet and there’s all of Pasolini’s shit.
Wait, his actual clothes?
Yeah, and they fit Willem like a fucking glove! That’s his real stuff. The first day of the shoot, Ninetto shows up, and I’m all worried because Willem is all Pasolini-ed out. I thought, this guy is gonna freak. And he comes up, sees Willem looking like Paolo, and just starts laughing. He gave him Pasolini’s old chain, put it around his neck. That’s how these guys are.
There are a lot of theories about his death — for example, that the kid who confessed to the crime may not have really been the one responsible for his murder …
Well, he’s not just making movies, either. He’s writing novels, he’s writing manifestos, he’s writing for the fucking weekly paper. It could be another reason he’s dead. Pasolini started talking about events that people wanted covered up. He had that political commitment, he didn’t care who pissed off. I mean, this guy lived through World War II. You wanna talk about documentaries, let’s talk about Salò.
Salò is a documentary?
You think he didn’t see a lot of that shit firsthand? What do you think those guys in power were doing? And he witnessed it. In the end, it’s a documentary.
But you don’t subscribe to the theory that he was murdered because of his beliefs, do you?
I mean, I think what happened, happened. He wasn’t going to universities to pick up the piano students; he was looking for the baddest, most primal thing. That’s what he needed. Pasolini was a tough dude, an alpha dog, a rough guy. I wouldn’t say he was addicted to that rush, but he kept chasing it. And he found it. He also found himself in a situation where the danger of it caught up with him. You keep rolling that dice, it could come up snake eyes, bro.
Let’s go back to your earlier stuff. How’d you meet Nicholas St. John?
I met him when I was 14. I was just a knucklehead suburban kid — I was born in the Bronx, but I grew up in Peekskill, which was like the edge of suburbia meets country-and-western. He was from that part of town, too. He was writing, he was painting, he was a beautiful guitar player. He turned us all on to the fact that you could be a creative person if you were in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t have to be all driving around in cars and trying to pick up girls.
When did you guys start making films together?
That started in high school. It was us and one other guy. In the beginning, we’d trade off: He’d act and I’d direct, he’d direct and I’d write, and so on. Then it became like he was the writer, I was the director, the rest of the guys were the crew, and we were rolling.
He was a deep, deep Christian, didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs. But when we started making money in the 1980s, I started spinning out of control. It got even worse in the 1990s, when we were in L.A. Meanwhile, he’s married and living in his mother’s house. We were making bread, we were making movies, and then he just said basta, man. No more. He walked away when he was the height of his earning power, but I mean, it was never about money for him. It was never really about money for me, either. But this business just had nothing to offer him. Its a dangerous game, man.
I mean, something like The Funeral … it’s a gangster movie but it’s a different gangster movie than what you’re used to. Those stories come from his family’s folklore. These are Italians from upstate New York, not from downtown. It’s mafioso in the suburbs. A lot of that came from he and I watching as much different stuff as we could in New York growing up and then trying to apply those stories to things we knew.
So you could make something like The Driller Killer, which is both a slasher film and a weird movie about the downtown art scene.
Exactly. Or Ms. 45, which is a 42nd Street revenge movie and a weird movie about a lot of other things. We opened that movie on something like 96 screens and we had to carry the fucking cans to theaters. But with The Driller Killer, I knew that audience before I knew what kind of movie I could make for that audience, you dig? Hollywood wasn’t making those kinds of films. So when something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre came out, it was like: These guys raised $50,000 or $100,000, whatever, and make $30 million? I could take that Variety page around to my uncle, or my uncle’s friend who has money, and you could get investors.
The big producer on Ms. 45, he’d made Debbie Does Dallas right before that. They made it for $35,000, it grossed $35 million and they owned 70 percent of the theaters it played in. Warner Brothers couldn’t say that. None of those guys could say that. But the minute that they saw that movies like The Driller Killer and Halloween started making money, guess who’s trying to take Friday night back? We weren’t the only game in town any more. And they made sure they’ve got the upper hand.
What do you mean, exactly?
What I mean is, why was The Driller Killer rated X, and Friday the 13th, a studio film which was just as violent, rated R?
I see your point.
You beat ’em or join ’em.
Was that your mentality doing King of New York as well? Beat them or join them?
Nah, we were still thinking like independents when we did that. That was the first time we started dealing with the Italians for financing. It’s why I am in Italy now — you get the financing and they leave you the fuck alone. When we finished that movie, nobody wanted it. Nobody. You gotta remember that this was six months before New Jack City came out. Everyone kept saying, “People are gonna tear up the theater, there will be riots in Los Angeles if we play it there, bah-bah-bah.” We weren’t trying to get on the New Jack City bandwagon — there was no bandwagon yet. We just knew we had a good story. It eventually found an audience.
I probably know a half-dozen people who can quote that entire film from start to finish at a moment’s notice.
Where the fuck were they opening weekend? [Laughs] Yeah, people discovered it on video. It’s not like these movies you have now where it’s fucking 80 million dollar opening weekends. But look, it played in a theater and people came. That’s a success to me. The fact that anybody showed up — fuck it, everything else is gravy after that. The fact that we’re still making movies is a fucking miracle.
So Christopher Walken was originally supposed to do Bad Lieutenant? What happened?
Yeah. We rehearsed for a few days, and we really worked on a couple scenes, really tore into them. And then, in front of me and [producer Ed] Pressman, just a couple of weeks before we started shooting, he said, “I know what Abel wants … and I can’t give it to him.” Pretty cool thing to say. [Pause] I mean, I didn’t think it was cool at the time, y’know, but now … [Laughs]
Better he says that now instead of a month into your shoot.
Right. I believe he said, “I think Jesus Christ is ….” Shit, what was the phrase he used? “He’s an overused literary device.” I mean, imagine saying that to a guy who was raised as a Catholic! He wasn’t feeling it. Then we got the script to Harvey, and he read it and threw it away. It was Victor Argo, who was an actor and a friend of his, that convinced him to do it.
It started as a song, right?
I’d written this song called “The Bad Lieutenant,” but it was just these crazy scenes I had in my head. The writer Menno Meyjes — he did the screenplay for The Color Purple — he was working the Hollywood factory out in L.A. and I’d be there, trying to film something or get something going. And at night, he and I would just sit around and think up the craziest shit. Not to make as a movie or anything; I don’t even think we wrote most of them down. It was just us brainstorming and not worrying about having to think of a character that could actually be in a movie, you see what I’m saying? OK, this guy is not repressed on any level whatsoever. What would he do? He’s a gambler, he’s gonna gamble everything he’s got. He wants sex? He’s gonna fuck everybody, Pasolini-style. Drugs? Bring ‘em on. Alcohol? He’s not waiting until five o’clock to have a cocktail. He’s sucking Russian vodka out of the bottle. It’s not like he’s got one vice. He had them all.
And then it was: Let’s give him a badge and a gun. He’s a protector of the people. But look, that’s a reality. And there’s a cop in the movie — Bo Dietl, he’s an ex-police officer but y’know, no fucking way is this his story — he actually went after these guys who were suspects when two nuns had been raped in the Bronx, I think. It was one of those stories that went viral before “going viral” was a thing. So that worked its way into it as well. I didn’t wanna make a police procedural, although it kinda is that in a way.
Anyway, so Harvey comes in, he knows Dietl, he knows the tabloid story, he knows the scene — but he doesn’t know us from fucking Adam. We don’t know him, either. No idea what we’re going to get. And then he comes in with this whole mess of stuff he’s bringing. I mean, pulling shit from outta nowhere. It’s unbelievable.
If you read the script of Bad Lieutenant that’s floating around online, it’s only a dozen pages…
Something like that. Maybe 20 pages at the most.
… It’s all bare-bones descriptions: “He walks into the church.” Or, “He pulls two girls over in a car.” And then to see the difference between what’s on the page and what’s on the screen …
Harvey, man. It’s all Harvey.
Look, here’s the thing: I’d love to tell you I have these great collaborative relationships with actors like Keitel, Walken, Lily Taylor, Juliette Binoche. But they bring a lot to the table coming in. Harvey has so much too give. He’s a smart, hip powerhouse. What’s that Raging Bull line? The rhyme De Niro says in the mirror?
“So give me a stage where this bull here can rage”?
Yeah, right, so my job? It’s to give them that space so they can rage. I’m there to give them confidence so they can be secure, so they know everybody is behind them, they know what the film is about and that they trust us to get what they’re doing when they do it. Give them that trust. But let’s not bullshit each other. All of those guys were great before I met them, right? I didn’t open any doors for them. [Laughs] I just put them in the right roles. Most of the time, just turn the fucking camera on and and let them succeed.
Look, I know they’re movie stars, and people bow down to them and they get a lot of money. But come crunch time, they gotta work. And look, the camera is on them, bro. Everybody who’s created this energy, the writers, the directors, the cameraman, the guys lighting it — we’re all behind the fucking camera. This ain’t playtime. You know, come to work. That’s why we hired you. And Harvey did that. You watch that movie, it’s like an exorcism.
Did you feel like you had things you needed to get out of your system when you made this? Like you’d hit some sort of rock bottom and felt like you needed a feeling of redemption?
People talk about this being a movie about redemption a lot — personally, I don’t get the redemption part. I do get the rock-bottom part, but … [Laughs] I mean, look, again, you want to talk about documentaries, look at that movie. I’m not saying that we were doing those kinds of things on set, but we were living that kind of go-for-broke life. We were using. We were alcoholics and drug addicts, some of us. It’s just the tip of the fucked-up thing we got going on. I mean, where’s the redemption? The fact that a cracked-out cop thinks he see Jesus? That’s not redemption.
But the strength of Harvey in that performance, and just as person … I think that’s what’s powering the sense of redemption in that film. It’s his heart and his soul that’s bringing it to the screen. Because if you just look at the story — I mean, you can tell he’s gonna be “redeemed” in five minutes. And listen, redemption is not something that happens because you think you see Jesus once, bro. It’s a day-to-day thing. It requires work. “Oh, cool, I’m redeemed. Thanks. So that’s done.” It don’t work like that. What’s the man say? “You gotta prove it all night.” That’s the fucking truth.
There is the sense that he’s looking for some sort of salvation by helping these kids …
But where’s that place him: in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s like Pasolini. Although I’m a Buddhist, so I’m not so sure there is a “wrong place, wrong time.” You make your own situations.
Yet you don’t think it’s a movie that deals with redemption?
I think the movie is out of my control in a way, so what do I know? Listen, I watch that film now and I know I was part of the making of it. I still feel like it’s something completely separate from me. But I’m not kidding, I hear this whole redemption thing about this movie so much, from so many people, that I kind of wonder if somehow I was making a movie about that and didn’t even know it. I’m not saying it’s not about it — if somebody feels it from watching the movie, who am I to say that’s wrong? I just didn’t go into it thinking like that. Shit, now I gotta watch it again.
It’s not like, say, The Addiction. I mean, no matter how dark things get for this woman who becomes a vampire, she accepts the body of Christ. She is capable of changing — that’s the difference between the script that Nicky writes and the script that I write. I had no idea that you could change, or that it was even an option. Especially at that point. But she takes the light. Again, this whole Christ as a literary device thing… Nicky is a Christian. This notion is very real to him. For me, it was hard to see the light when I was mired in the darkness, you know what I’m saying?
Did getting sober and kicking the drug habits help with that?
Yeah, that was what was causing the darkness, so…
How long have you been clean now?
Seven years. In a Buddhist way, it’s like: I gave this power to these drugs, you dig? I gave power to cocaine. I gave power to alcohol. I gave power to heroin. My thing was, I couldn’t do things without them. “Oh, I can’t direct unless I have a line. Oh, we’re gonna score the movie now? OK, give me two of those, and three of those.” Bullshit. It got to the point where I thought I couldn’t make art or do anything without those things, which was a fallacy. I bought into that ideal.
The ideal of drugs as your fuel for creativity?
The ideal that the counterculture fueled, which was that you took drugs if you were an artist. You know, I went to Woodstock as a 17-year-old — you wanna talk about an eye-opener, try being a dopey teenage suburban knucklehead and seeing Jimi Hendrix walking along the side of the road, carrying his guitar. We didn’t see him play … we couldn’t get within 10 miles of the stage. But we saw that motherfucker walking there with his Telecaster slung across his shoulder. I thought I saw God. And nobody ever talks about how a lot of kids bought into the myth that the Sixties, and especially Woodstock, and got fucked up because of that. I dunno, maybe I shouldn’t be saying this to Rolling Stone … [Laughs] Look, I’m not going to blame my addiction on fucking Keith Richards or somebody. It was my deal. The stuff was killing me. It took me a long, long fucking time to get off of it.
What finally turned you around?
I don’t know, man … A lot of my guys were working the program and got straight, but … it was never like I had one of the moments where I saw the shining light or anything. I’d be going to A.A. meetings to kick the booze — but I’d be going to meetings on drugs, so it’s not like that’s helping. I’d been a practicing Buddhist for years and would go on these retreats, but c’mon: You can’t be a great meditator when you’re on smack. You just can’t, man. For an interview like this, to get though an hour of talking, I’d be drinking three beers and then going to the bathroom to do blow. “I gotta do an interview, I can’t do that straight!” Of course I can. I just didn’t wanna think I could.
Anyway, at one point, I go to this rehab place in Italy, and I think it’s gonna be some Hollywood bullshit: You stay for a week and then I detox and whatever. I’d been off the alcohol for two years, so they started taking me down with methadone treatments. But this was going to be longer and more concentrated, it turned out. It’s got to be 40 days from the last bit of anything you have. I mean, that’s why when I hear Jesus walked in the desert for 40 days, I gotta wonder. Lotta good dope around in those days.
So back to you kicking drugs ….
Right, so it’s 40 days, no methadone, no drugs, nothing. I couldn’t sleep for more than five minutes. I’d been using since I was 16, so it’s a lot to get out of my system. Then after 40 days, the sun goes down, I’m finally able to get some sleep — not like passing out or crashing hard, but like real sleep — and I woke up nine hours later. We were on a farm, so I could hear the birds chirping and the sound of nature of the early morning. And I felt so fucking good it scared the shit out of me. I woke up not fucking hungover, not fucking detoxing, not fucking dopesick. I meditated that day and I swear to God, I felt like I was 15 years old again. I felt clean.
You finally kicked all of your addictions.
All of ’em except the filmmaking, bro. I can’t quit that one.