Abel Ferrara is debuting his newest film with longtime collaborator Willem Dafoe, Tommaso, as a virtual cinema release due to the ongoing conditions COVID-19 unleashed on moviegoing. It’s the closest thing the prolific director has come to a slowdown in recent years. Last year, his long-delayed 2014 film Pasolini received distribution, Tommaso debuted at Cannes, and The Projectionist, about New York City’s Nicolas Nicolaou premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. After his other new project, Siberia, played for thousands of people at Berlinale in February, Ferrara’s globetrotting hit a pause.
Tommaso stars Dafoe as a movie director living with his young wife Nikki (Cristina Chiriac) and Dee Dee (Anna Ferrara) in Rome. Tommaso is in recovery after a long, unbridled addiction. If you know anything about Ferrara—including that Dafoe is his real-life next-door neighbor—it’s clear Tommaso is even more than his amalgamation, it’s his mirror. Tommaso tries to keep his act together, he fights the spiritual-artistic visions inspiring his work and reflecting his spiritual destiny.
We spoke with Ferrara about making Sportin’ Life, a documentary he’s crafting in quarantine about debuting Siberia earlier this year at Berlinale and shooting a chase scene with his then three-year-old daughter Anna. Ferrara discusses Tommaso’s spirituality with the understanding of someone who personally fought for that spiritual gnosis. This part of the conversation involves major plot points that would best be gleaned after seeing the movie.
The Film Stage: What have you been doing during quarantine?
Abel Ferrara: I just finished shooting a documentary so I’ve been remote editing and trying to figure out a way to shoot… I’m writing something so we’re figuring out how we’re going to shoot. Basically the documentary didn’t have anything to do with the pandemic, but shit happened, so [I] incorporated it.
What’s the documentary about?
It’s about us taking Siberia to the Berlin Film Festival, which happened right before this nightmare began. So it’s kind of like the last party, the last gathering. Siberia played in a theater with 2,000 people and now we’re cutting this documentary and I’m saying Jesus fucking Christ. I also play music so we’ve got the band playing. You’ll see it. It’s called Sportin’ Life.
What was it like to direct Cristina (Ferrara’s wife) and your daughter Anna in Tommaso?
Christina is an actress. So to me it’s not any different than whatever, we’re closer, we have the trust thing going on. So it’s, you know, it’s cool. It’s very positive. It’s positive for the work, it’s positive for the relationship. It’s good, everybody’s part of the process of the work thing, the life thing. Anna has got the gift. She’s just herself. She was three in Tommaso. She’s in Siberia and she’s in the documentary. She’s like every other actor, in a sense: you got to know what her limitations are, when she’s at her best, and avoid anything that makes her not at her best.
At the end of Tommaso when Anna’s dancing, is it intercut with footage of Sophia Loren?
What movie is that?
That’s a good one… I don’t remember it. One of those films she’s in. Mmhmm.
Did Anna have to be prepared for the final scene where Tommaso is chasing her and Nikki (Chiriac)?
Well, she’s really freaked out. So we would like to do it once, but we couldn’t do it once. We weren’t gonna do it more than twice because she wasn’t gonna go for that. We didn’t prepare her. She’s just reacting to what’s going on. Because she’s still young it’s very real for her. Plus, the situation is real. So that makes it intense and then once she realized what was going on, she definitely did not want to do it again. [Laughs.] She gave us at least two takes but that was about it though.
I read you live next door to Willem. How did you prepare for him to play this character that’s kind of like you, but not exactly you?
We don’t really talk about it, you know I’m saying? He was involved in the planning and once we decided to do it we started reading the scenes I put together he knew what the deal was… We don’t have those kinds of discussions.
What does Tommaso get out of A.A. and the 12 Steps?
This is a guy who has no life unless he’s in active recovery. He wouldn’t even be alive for the film if he wasn’t in that program. So what he gets out of it is everything. His family, his work, his spirituality, his being. That’s what he’s getting. He’s a hardcore addict so there are no alternatives for a guy like him.
Why are the 12 Steps the program for him?
For him, he has a different relationship to drugs and alcohol than other people. It’s a disease so if he doesn’t confront that and understand that and deal with it. Drugs and alcohol aren’t an option. For him to get out from under the obsession and then to live without it and then to deal with the damage. In the film he’s six years sober so obviously it looks like he’s been using for a long fucking time. He’s got a lot of damage control he’s gotta deal with to be human.
I was at the MoMA retrospective King of New York screening, where you and the Safdie brothers had a conversation afterward. What do you think of their work?
Yeah, Uncut Gems is dynamite. I like that a lot. I thought Adam Sandler was great. I was in one of their movies and I was trying to help them get Uncut Gems made ten years ago. I was trying to help them put it together and do it. We basically have the same kind of mindset of what cinema is.
Why does Tommaso look into the camera while hanging on the cross in your allusion to The Last Temptation of Christ?
I was thinking in the very beginning that we might see if Marty would let us use that footage from The Last Temptation because Tommaso could be an actor, as well as a director. Willem was in the movie so we could use that but I wouldn’t want to pass up a chance to shoot the crucifixion ourselves. It’s his fascination with that moment in Gethsemane to the trial in front of Pontius Pilate and then the crucifixion itself. Whether it’s a film he already made or a film he’s thinking about making, it’s just a dream of an artist.
There’s an interesting interplay with Christianity and Buddhism in the film. And Bill W.’s contributions to the 12 Steps were motivated by the Christian Oxford Group. Tommaso isn’t a religious film but there’s so much religion in it.
It’s the nature of his character. He’s on a spiritual quest. He’s trying to change his life around and life is to kick his addiction with a spiritual life. His meditations are Western religion, his practices Eastern and the program is a combination of both.
With Tommaso killing Nikki’s lover and imagining himself on the cross, what are we to make of his spiritual destination?
Well, death is inevitable, but he’s a Buddhist so he believes in reincarnation. I shouldn’t say that because I’m not so sure if Tomaso believes in reincarnation. But just say he did… death is inevitable, but death is not a spiritual destination. It’s how you live your life. It’s his quest, spiritual quest, with the knowledge that death is the end game. We’re either gonna pass through to another round… maybe Tommaso found enlightenment on the cross! But I got a feeling Tommaso needs another few passes through life before he gets to that stage.
What’s the status of The Projectionists and Siberia? Will they have digital releases or wait for theaters?
It depends on what’s up. Who knows how long we’re gonna have to be in quarantine. This is like a serious situation. My feelings are we should get them out. Siberia is opening in a movie theater in Germany next week. I’m really not the one that’s in control of where the movies play. It could come out digitally then play in theaters when everything is back to quote-unquote normal. I just can’t imagine normal again, but people are gonna watch movies. It’s obvious now movies are keeping people sane in a way. The people that I’m talking to. Everybody’s really hunkering down with the films, which is good. But there’s real life and real connection, the human connection. You’re meditating with a group of people.
Tommaso opens in Virtual Cinemas on Friday, June 5.
Photos by Alessandro Penso