Old warrior Abel Ferrara is a ronin of the cinema, and clearly loving it. Speaking over Zoom, the 70-year-old director in a snug black turtleneck stays literally on his feet for the duration of our interview, rocking restlessly back and forth and periodically massaging his temples as he considers (but never filters) the answer to a question. Living in Rome and continuing to put out feature films with collaborators like Willem Dafoe roughly once a year––often more than once––Ferrara seems to relish the freedom that comes with his elder statesman-rebel image, bouncing between subjects and genres with the same manically meditative energy he exudes from his swaying body and New York-accented croon.
His latest film, Zeros and Ones, is a prize baffler that follows no rules save for his own. Ostensibly, it is a Covid-topical war thriller about US Special Forces man Ethan Hawke pursuing a shadowy bioterrorist threat throughout the streets, tunnels and seedy basements of the Italian capital. In actuality, it is something of an avant-garde free-for-all, in which Hawke’s whispered Catholic-flavored eschatological musings play over montages of eerie depopulated city centers, digitally fuzzy handheld footage of criminal activity, and never-quite-coherent political melodrama––some kind of psychedelically enhanced low-budget fusion between Terrence Malick, Hideo Kojima, and Ferrara’s own New Rose Hotel.
We asked Ferrara about the film’s creative genesis, its connections with the 1998 William Gibson adaptation, his attitude towards genre and audience expectations, the meaning behind some of the film’s more cryptic story points, and the homemade video messages from Hawke which bookend the film.
The Film Stage: I saw you a couple years ago at the Metrograph with Willem Dafoe, screening Pasolini. Since then, the world has changed so much-–
Abel Ferrara: [Laughs] Considerably!
The world’s changed a lot, and Zeros and Ones reflects and refracts that suddenly changed reality back at us through the screen. When did you first conceive of the project, and did you always know it would be a pandemic film?
Well, I was playing around with some of these ideas in my mind, about terrorism, espionage and counter-espionage. It was one of these things where I was thinking about it, but could never really put it together. Then when the pandemic came, we were in lockdown, and I was editing a movie called Sportin’ Life––so to get from my apartment to the editing room, alone, took me [gestures arm] that far. And yet, obviously the town [Rome] was incredibly changed. It was like the whole world, right? Everybody in quarantine, no one on the streets. So that feeling of being out there, alone, you know… military vehicles going by in the streets… the fear of what it is, especially in the beginning, you didn’t know whether touching an elevator button or what would kill you. Everybody was walking around with gloves on and masks on. It was scary, bro. Everybody knows what I’m talking about. So then it really started coming to me. It was after the quarantine, there was this break in the summer and I just really wanted to shoot. I really wanted to do it late in the summer, I knew there was going to be like this one space to do it. But we didn’t do it then, and we ended up doing it at the last moment we could, from November into December. There was actually a quarantine in Rome and, y’know, silver lining on a really dark event, we got the city to look like that.
I was actually a little unclear on this: is the film supposed to be set during the Covid-19 pandemic, or is it supposed to be more of a generalized setting?
Yeah, it’s more of a general [thing]. It’s a war situation, so it could be poison gas like in World War I. It’s a weapon––not that that’s that far from the fucking truth––but in the film itself, we’re not saying specifically what it is. It could be anything, and it could be something that hasn’t arrived yet! Everybody’s waiting for the event, for the attack, for something. They’re not sure what’s gonna happen.
The film’s marketing materials seem to suggest it’s a kind of political thriller, and individual scenes and aspects of the film kind of go along with that, but at the same time the screenplay seems almost hostile to conventional expectations about exposition, plot, action, resolution, anything like that. Was it your intent to subvert audience expectations––to prime them for one thing and deliver another? If so, what was the message you were looking to communicate?
I’m like, beyond the expectations of the audience, you know what I mean? Because what audience and what expectation of what kind of film? I’ve been watching films for my whole life. How films are made and what expectations of what’s going to happen in them have changed constantly. So to understand the expectations are from, what, a Hollywood film, a “this kind of film”… I see films from all over the world; there are all kinds of crazy films out there. After watching movies my whole life, I’ve seen all kinds of movies. In my work, when I approach a film, I’m coming from the complete spectrum of watching experimental films from 1972 which are just flash frames. You know what I mean? We just smoke some joints and watch that movie five times. That’s part of my DNA. I’m not coming out there trying to make a… I mean, I’m not trying to go against it, I’m not trying to, y’know… I’m trying to follow the vision of a film I have, of a film that maybe I’ve seen this film before––especially with a film like Zeros and Ones where there’s kind of a genre deal to it, like soldiers and GIs and a dark fucking rainy space… you know what I’m saying?
It does seem to tip the hat to Hollywood.
Yeah, sure, and it has all those elements of spies, espionage, counter-espionage, European [politics]… not The Third Man, it’s more like Casablanca, but not even that; the Melville films, of the Partisans and the Nazis and the war being over, and the being in siege… it’s all of that.
But it seems to suggest that sort of thing and then go much more interior and experimental, which I found an interesting contrast.
Thanks. [Laughs] I agree with you.
For a film like this, is there a clear story in your head that you want the audience to piece together for themselves, or is it something you discover for yourself scene by scene? Like, how many drafts did the screenplay go through?
We’re always working on the script, you know what I mean? I have a flow; I knew where we were going with it. In the editing we did move a few things around, we worked certain images different than others, but… I’m constantly trying to find the movie, you know? When I’m writing the screenplay, I’m trying to give us the potential to do something there, because the script is a step in the development of the movie. You’re writing the screenplay when you’re in the editing room. There’s a certain point when I feel like I’ve got the flow of that movie and I know where scenes belong, and that’s when we start shooting.
The final product in this case does seem to have sort of a free-associative, almost jazzy feel to it where it’s matching mood over plot from one scene to the next.
I agree with you. [laughs] No, I agree with that too. That’s a good way of putting it.
The film feels highly reminiscent of New Rose Hotel in its visual motifs, like technological interference and digital distortion, and in its loose structure. Do you see the two as companion pieces, and do you view them both as science fiction?
Well, I’d say New Rose Hotel was futuristic; you approach it as a futuristic film. New Rose Hotel was like a love story, with a lot of emotion. Here, I don’t think we had that at all. This was more of a war movie. There’s the enemy––although you don’t really know where the enemy is or who they are––and “when?” is the catchphrase. That’s what everybody wants to know: when is it happening, and where? [William] Gibson’s a big influence. Shooting [New Rose Hotel] and coming to terms with his short story [of the same name] was a big influence on my work.
How much contact did you have with Gibson in shooting that film?
I spoke with him; y’know, I spoke with him. He’s a pretty funny dude, though: he said, “Hey, dude, if you need my help writing the script you’re in trouble.” [laughs] But yeah, I talked to him.
That’s cool! So, with Zeros and Ones, what made you decide to include the video messages from Ethan Hawke in the final cut?
Again, it’s like you’re saying, it’s kind of a jazzy piece. These are elements that we have and we open ourselves to all of it. The use of his camera, everything that we can use, I’m ready if it’s going to help the movie. And we had that in the beginning because he was kind enough to do that video to try to get [financiers]. Because that’s the kind of guy he is, you know? At the end, I don’t know where the idea came from to put it in.
It does make it feel a little more personal than your typical Hollywood production.
Well, it’s not a Hollywood production! We made it in Rome, although ironically Lionsgate’s putting it out, and it’s those guys that financed it. It’s an international movie, man. New York director, the whole thing done in Rome, California money. [Chuckles] It’s got a nice balance to it.
Wrapping up, one question I think a lot of people may have about this movie is… what’s going in the ending? Do you have a specific idea of that?
What, you mean when the dawn comes? When the light comes?
Yeah, like the transition of the guns to the sunrise.
Yeah, I mean, like, what are you pointing at? Where’s the enemy? What’s out there? Is there an enemy? What is out in the dark? What is the future going to bring? What is the hope? The hope is you can bring your kids to the park and play. You can have espresso in the cafe. All the things you take for granted that, when you’re locked up in your house in quarantine, you’d give anything for. The simplest deal. Just going for a walk… you don’t take it for granted anymore.
That’s certainly true. Are you eager to make more genre films in future?
When we start making a movie, I just try to go wherever it takes us. Wherever the piece goes, I’m for it. No matter what you’re doing, you’re creating your own genre, anyway: no matter how much you might wanna make it “like that,” it’s not gonna be like that. We just want to shoot free and not be afraid of anything. We just don’t want any expectations. I don’t want any expectations in the work, or even any expectations in the people watching. Watch the film freely. There’s no expectation there. There’s no story to “get.”
So you’d say it’s something you want people to feel more than think.
Well, you know, man, you don’t have to connect the dots. The dots are there! Enjoy it! Enjoy where they are. Experience the film, that’s all. There’s enough paid critics. [Laughs]
Zeros and Ones is now in theaters and on VOD.