Like Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara is an artist who’s never been afraid to let it all hang out. In fact, I can think of few filmmakers more ready, willing and capable of cinematically exorcising personal demons in such an unflinching, captivatingly bold manner.
Never one to shy away from the ugliness of New York street life at its grimiest, Ferrara is equally probing of the psychological darkness inherent in his own troubled soul. As an unabashed drug addict for the lion’s share of his career, Ferrara's filmography grapples with the tribulations of being good in an evil world.
These days, I’m very happy to report that Abel has found something of a new lease on life. Since leaving the monkey on his back behind seven years ago, Ferrara has moved to Italy and discovered a late-in-life joie de vivre in the form of a lovely wife and infant daughter in a soulfully inspiring community village called Piazza Vittorio.
One might think such a shift in disposition could possibly have negative repercussions on the aesthetic voice he’s spent his life cultivating, but as many recovering addicts come to find, this creative wariness couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only has sober Abel proven capable of producing cinematic works of art in droves - having made no less than four films since since his profound wake up call - but relative happiness hasn’t blinded him from his dark muse one iota.
Take his latest, and possibly most personal work to date, Tommaso, which recently premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Tommaso, which features his friend and collaborator Willem Dafoe as a similarly recovering drug-addled artist living in Piazza Vittorio with his young wife and infant daughter (played by Ferrara’s real life wife and daughter), may concern a portrait of an artist as an old maverick coming to terms with health and domestic happiness, but it is no less flinching in its exploration of the darkness lurking beyond the rainbow.
With a newfound lucidity, Ferrara deconstructs the trappings of the supposed happily-ever-after, staring down the tribulations of keeping it together with an impressive self-awareness and shocking confidence that isn’t impervious to the insecurity that accompanies jealousy and suspicion… potent influences in their own right. Consequently, Tommaso is one of the most fascinating double-edged “self-portraits” in recent years.
I’ve been attempting to get Ferrara on the phone since the Vancouver Film Festival, when I first caught his doc about his newfound community, Piazza Vittorio, and after much emailing, I came close. That was only six months ago and in that short time I’ve seen two additional Ferrara films, with another, Siberia, floating on the verge of release.
The Projectionist, which premiered at Tribeca, documents immigrant NY theater owner, Nicolas Nicolaou, whose slice of the American Dream came in the form of offering movie goers priceless theatrical experiences since the 70s. In an era with the Nick’s of the world and all they represent facing extinction, “lost in time, like tears in rain“, The Projectionist makes for sentimental viewing.
Finally, at Cannes, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the filmmaking legend in the days after Tonmaso’s premiere. With so many great films to discuss, boiling down the conversation to a single subject was a challenge, but I did my best.
So yeah, three films. I don't know where to start, I love them all.
Yeah, for real. Absolutely. I wanted to talk to you about the Piazza Vittorio film back in October and at the time you seemed kinda baffled by that.
Tommaso is like Piazza Vittorio, right?
Absolutely. So, when did you first decide that TOMMASO was a film you wanted to make? When did the ideas start germinating to make a film about your current life?
I don't know, man. It's like, we did Pasolini, which is kind of about a director. Then I was working on Siberia, and at the same time, I was thinking, because it was such a big plan, raising the big money, I wanted to do something more like using our documentary game, the way we shoot the documentaries. So we thought about something more close to home.
Yeah! I was shooting my own bed - couldn't get any closer than that.
I mean, how do you do press for a film like this? I feel like you get a lot of pretty personal questions.
Yeah. Everybody's thinking that, it's the movies though. You know what I mean? The question is Willem and your old lady and all that.
I mean they're working actors, you know? They're creating scenes, you know what I mean. Willem's done a lot worse than that, on stage and in the movies.
How did you convince your immediate family to take this dive with you into this semi-autobiographical journey? How'd you convince your wife to be in your film? Did you need to?
How I did I? Christina, I tell her she was going to be the star of a movie with Willem Dafoe. She didn't take a lot of convincing. She still wanted to get paid, but it didn’t take much convincing.
Did she enjoy the experience, do you think? Does she dig the film?
You know, she's very opinionated, Christina. She's an expert on movies. You saw her in the film. She’s got more opinions than you and me combined.
She had no reservations about airing dirty laundry, even if it wasn't literal?
This girl's up for anything. She's from beyond here. She's from behind the iron curtain, you know? She's another immigrant (like Nick of The Projectionist). You know, these girls come to fucking take over the world.
Would you say of all your films, Willem's character is the biggest surrogate for you? Or do you think there have been others that have been kind of close? Are they all surrogates to some extent?
I think the more they start close to me, the farther they get.
Is that right?
Yeah. You know, I mean, it's like I saw the movie last night, I don't see me... I see Tommaso. Willem's able to do this, man. You know, he's able to create something outside of himself, outside of the source material.
Right. I mean, he's a good friend of yours.
Yeah, definitely. You know, the more we know the terrain, the more we're comfortable. It's like our neighborhood. You know, this is from the beginning. From Driller Killer on...
I mean, hey, it's good to go out like it's Siberia and all the sudden we're in a Mexican desert. You know, we're on top of a fucking mountain freezing our ass off. That's a thing to do also.
You know, it just felt good. It's just right. We're in touch with the people, working with non-actors doing it in the documentary style, combining this thing. We were doing that from the beginning with the documentaries, like Chelsea on the Rocks. Successfully or not successfully, we were trying to combine the theatrical with the reality.
I caught Willem at a panel at The American Pavillion two days ago, and he was discussing how when he takes on a real life character, like Pasolini or Van Gogh, he does a lot of research to get in the head, but here he is playing a version of his good friend. How do you approach that? How do you collaborate on something like that?
We collaborate ... You know, we're bros. He's the godfather of the baby, you know what I'm saying? I know him, we've been working together for six films.
Do you think it brought you closer together? You think he learned more about you?
What, doing the movie? I mean we learn every day, every minute. We learn doing interviews together.
You know, we're close, but at the same time, he's working all over the fucking world, you know what I mean? The rest of us are back in Rome. He comes back, he tells us about these far-off exotic places like Hollywood and Beijing and wherever the fuck he goes, you know what I mean? There's a world outside of our little group in Piazza Vittorio.
So do you mind if I ask, what happened five years ago that caused such a change in your life? You moved to Rome. Why'd you move? Why the big change of pace? If that's not too personal...
Are you talking about sobriety?
I suppose I am, because I didn't actually realize until your introduction to the film that you had been sober for five years...
Thank you. You know, I've been working, we've been getting financing from Europe probably from the beginning without even knowing it. So, a lot of these movies had strong - definitely Fear City - all those movies, there was always this element to them. The '90s were kind of a magical period of shooting in New York, because we were financed by certain banks.
Actually, one bank was bankrolling all those kind of platforms in an easier way. So again, it wasn't so much that everybody was that much more prolific, it was a financial source that would back those kind of films. Then that ended and 9/11 happened, and the opportunity to come here, we were going to shoot Mary.
First we were going to shoot Go-Go Tales, but then that kind of fell through and then we kind of set up shop here. And I'm Italian American so it's not that foreign to me, the whole lifestyle. And I dig the lifestyle.
And so we were going back and forth. Until Pasolini and then when I met Christina… you know the old story, you fall in love with somebody and that's where you end up.
So, I mean, obviously life has changed in the last seven years. How has your filmmaking changed? Does the craft feel different? Does it feel better?
No, not really.
It's the same thing for me. For a guy like me, who's an addict, when you take the drugs and the alcohol out of the equation, life becomes so much simpler, so much clearer. You know what I mean?
Once that’s gone... you know, these substances were giving me something I didn't have, you know?
Yeah. That's the word, bro. So, when you're deluded like that, you're in a lot of trouble. And it's not easy to break that delusion, especially when you're under the influence. So what makes somebody go from using to being sober is always, to me, some kind of miracle. I'm a Buddhist, so I don't believe in miracles, but there's some kind of line up in the stars, you know what I mean? I wish it for happened for me a lot sooner, but it happened.
Well, thank God, man.
Yeah, fuck... I don't want to make the mistake of taking your film too literally, you know? But...
For the sake of the interview, go ahead…
The story Tommaso tells in group therapy, about Miami... If that happened, did that go down on CAT CHASER?
No, that was The Blackout
Ah, THE BLACKOUT... that seems like a pretty rock bottom kind of film. Is there truth to that?
Truth to what? That event?
Well, just that… that film, more than the others, did feel like you confronting something…
Yeah, I mean, I was using big time, you know what I mean? Almost got killed, you know?
I was into some kind of alcoholic, fucking coked up behavior. And yeah, like I said, anybody with any brains would've quit right there. But, you know, I don't have any brains.
Well, the brains got scrambled.
Yeah. The brains were scrambled…
Let's talk about the 70s and 80s a little bit and why you wanted to make The Projectionist, and the golden era of New York theatres. I love that you quote Blade Runner. What is it, "All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain". It's a pretty beautiful way of phrasing why I think you wanted to make that film. Why would you say you wanted to make THE PROJECTIONIST?
I met Nick, you know when I mean? We were doing documentaries and I said, "Wow." I said, "It'd be cool because his life is basically parallel to ours." So we started shooting it and we're shooting ourselves too. Unfortunately we didn't make the cut. But it's the same story. He was talking about what really New York was like in 1975.
I don't know a better way than to put those images up there and have somebody who could really speak about it eloquently in his own New York way from an immigrant standpoint. From somebody who's sightless, who's seeing it as like an enchanted forest. You know, because I'm born in New York, it's not the same place as somebody like him.
Yeah, the outsider.
He's seeing it, and it's like a dream and a dream come true. I love that other side of the immigration story - it's like Piazza Vittorio. Refugees on the run and I think he came for something, and he got what he was looking for. It was all there for him. Like he said, this couldn't happen anywhere but New York. He's probably right.
Does that period strike you as kind of funny in retrospect? Just like the porn boom. How like every other theater was showing skin flicks...
The bottom line is there was nothing at home. For anything you wanted you had to leave your house.
This kind of isolation and everybody getting further and further away from each other into their own telephone.
Yeah. I guess you kind of fit right in with that world with THE DRILLER KILLER and MS. 45. Surely, you would have played at those theaters?
Yeah, sure. We played all those theatres - Cinema Village, forget it.
The Cinema Village is the one Nick’s kept alive, isn't it?
Yeah, that’s right.
So what was the vibe of it at first?
Cinema Village, you know that's where those European films played. It wasn't so much a change in movies every day - that was the failure of theatres uptown. It was dead. In the Village it was played on and off. When we saw One Plus One, or The Foreman, you weren't going to see those kind of films in geeksville. You weren't going to see them in a regular movie theater. But people came to see them. It was a business for these folks.
What instigated you starting to make these Abel-on-the-street kind of documentaries - man of the community vibes?
Well I don’t know how else to do it, you know what I mean? It's like if you're filming this thing and you want to see who's asking the questions. It's so hard not to, and then it's just looser, we just shoot. Whatever's in the frame is in the frame. I'm not trying to create some kind of polished thing, you know? You've got the cameras going, you gotta shoot the questions.
Oh, I couldn't agree more. I dig it.
Somebody's got to ask them, you know. A guy was joking around, “maybe we can do one where we just ask the questions. A reverse documentary. Do one where you just hear the questions and we don't bother with the answers."
So does your village now expect this of you? ‘There's Abel, walking around with a camera…’ Are you kind of right at home in Piazza Vittorio as the resident filmmaker?
Yeah. In Europe, the community of local filmmakers - Willem, me, you know and there's other guys - it's a community. Remoni lives there, Sorrentino... There's a film school, there's young kids.
It's accepted, being a filmmaker, being an artist, in Europe. That's a gig. Being out of work is a gig. You don't have to feel like you've got some sort of cross on you. Like you're a fucking leper because you're out of work, like cancer. Like in the United States, you know what I mean? That kind of thing. And that's important for me.
Sounds nice. I’m glad to hear it. All right, man, well thanks for the interview. I appreciate your career.
Okay, thank you. Good luck with the article.