There’s a nice quote in Abel Ferrara’s 2014 film Pasolini: “The meaning of this parable is precisely the relationship of an author to the form he creates.” It’s an idea I’ve been quite taken with in the years since, and unsurprisingly Ferrara has only expanded upon it in his most recent two feature films, Tommaso and Siberia. I’ve been lucky enough to ask Mr. Ferrara about this, and while the films themselves offer a clarity that only art can provide, there are still things—not loose ends, but rather tangents and streams—one can gain a little perspective on through the nature of correspondence itself. Mr. Ferrara—a congenial, gentle, and kindly man—gives us a little insight on this relationship between art and the artist, how it’s informed what he’s doing now as opposed to what he used to do, and where he’s going next.
This week, New York’s Cinema Village reopens with the appropriately titled retrospective “Abel Ferrara’s Cinema Village,” a nine-title mix of the director’s works (ranging from his feature debut The Driller Killer to this year’s Siberia) and “films that Ferrara holds close to his heart” from days visiting the theater—Rocky Horror and El Topo among them. Tickets are only $5, about which Abel Ferrara provided a special message:
“As a further celebration of the independent spirit of Nick, his theatres and vision Siberia and all shows will be $5, that’s five dollars and your ticket gets you into any other show that day that is not Sold out, so no excuse not to get out from behind a screen and out of your house and come share a movie in one of the great old school theatres 12th street between 5th Ave and University Pl.
Live music, special guests and surprise screenings all week, hang out with the filmmakers and friends and if you don’t have 5 bucks, come Tuesday night opening screening of my documentary The Projectionist, free admission, that means free, showtime 7:30 pm and we will be playing in the streets before and after the show. Love to everyone and so glad something like this is finally possible again.”
The Film Stage: How’s your visit to New York been?
Abel Ferrara: So far… you know. Hectic but good.
That’s good. At least it’s going well! So first: watching Siberia and Tommaso consecutively is incredibly interesting—it opens the viewer up to your own creative process, or something that resembles it. I get the impression Siberia was conceived prior to Tommaso, yet they were worked on simultaneously, with Siberia finally entering production following the completion of Tommaso. I’m curious as to how the production process of Tommaso might have informed decisions you might have made in the eventual production of Siberia, and what might have changed in the film compared to what it was prior to Tommaso’s production.
Anything you do is going to inform the next thing—you know what I’m saying? When you’re writing something in 2015… and I made like 3 or 4 movies after that. I made Piazza Vittorio, we did the Padre Pio thing, we did Alive in France, we went on fuckin’ tour. And then I’m thinking, this fuckin’ movie is not going to happen. I didn’t give up hope, but it’s a complicated thing when you’re looking to raise that kind of money. You’re dealing with governments, you’re dealing with all money from the Ministries—which means there’s a lot of fuckin’ paperwork, so then we just put our street gang together to do Tommaso, you know?
I’m thinking, “Well, I gotta shoot something now, cause this might not happen.” I didn’t want to jinx it, but I figured… fuck. So then we just, you know, we’re shooting in our house, we just went total guerilla with that. And, like I say, everything you do is going to change the perspective of what you’re going after next. The script didn’t change, though, you know. It was only like 20 pages, maybe a bit more. It was kind of a “vision” thing, and we worked on scenes throughout, but the actual “what would happen” didn’t really change. And then we’re working The Red Book, by Jung.
You’ve made quite a few documentaries at this point, particularly through the last decade. There’s one in particular, Searching for Padre Pio, which if I recall correctly was a sort-of filmic version of the research process for a planned feature film on Padre Pio. This more recent documentarian approach has clearly affected your bigger projects with actors and the like.
We’re closing in on that one next. We were going to do that back then, in 2016. What happens is, we did the research on Pasolini—because you know these films are basically documentaries themselves, like Welcome to New York was just a documentary, we did the research etc. I did the research, Zois, the writer. He’s more into writing; he doesn’t want to hear about the research. Depardieu could’a gave a shit about this guy, you know what I mean? He’s from there—he knows who the guy is, he knows the chicks, they fucked, he knows the pimps—so to him none of that was very interesting at all.
But it was very interesting for me, to get down to the whole story between the cops and the DA; it was an incredible exposé on it. And we didn’t even get to one-tenth of what happened with the DA, the DA’s office; the women there fucked that chick bad. Then when we went to Pasolini—which is basically a documentary, too, because it’s like the last day of his life and now we’re researching that. But Braucci, my writer, he was doing most of the interviews because they were all Italian—but I was right there with my phone, I could have shot it, we talked to people knew him, we talked to Pelosi, the guy who killed him, and I kick myself that I wasn’t shooting these things because we would have had a great little movie there.
So then with Padre Pio I said, “Listen, I’m going to film the research,” so that documentary was that. Piazza Vittorio was just like Mulberry St.—basically just going out in the neighborhood I was living in, because there was that whole immigration thing, and just trying to figure out what the fuck was going on.
Braucci—I think I recognize the name. He did Napoli Napoli Napoli as well, back in 2009?
Braucci, he’s like a Nicky St. John. He’s a very brilliant dude. Really laid back writer, he writes real books, you know. But he did work on Gomorrah, he wrote the script for Martin Eden. He’s another Buddhist, but he’s from Napoli, which is a special brand of lunacy. He’s a very cool dude, and I’m working with him now on Padre Pio. But what happened with Napoli Napoli Napoli is that we started by doing a very simple documentary about women in a prison in Pozzuoli, but once we got in there—even though it was a women’s prison which is just crazy in itself—you just couldn’t stand going through prison everyday. After three days I’m like, “Enough of this.”
But I also didn’t really trust our documentary game at the time, so I’m thinking, “Let’s shoot some recreations.” But the recreations weren’t really documentary, they were fiction from some of these writers in Napoli, and Braucci’s was one. Braucci’s was crazy—that one actually happened, though. We tried something similar with Chelsea on the Rocks.
One other thing about this kind of interplay between your documentaries and your narratives is that they seem to inform your practice on the bigger, more narrative films with actors and so on.
You know, we started working with non-actors and then started working with actors, and then when we started with the documentaries, you start to see the different kind of performances you get out of people who aren’t, like, “actors.” So then once we start using them in “real” movies again—I don’t know how to describe it, but it works well, especially with Willem, because he gets along better with non-actors. A movie like Tommaso, there’s not a fuckin’ actor in it but Willem. Or what I’d rather say: these aren’t actors who make a living at it. Everyone in the picture is an actor, even the bum, and all these people are just outrageous. That kind of freedom is great.
The great thing about the documentaries is that you just start shooting them. We have no idea what it’s going to be about, like The Projectionist. I met Nick [Nicolaou] in Cyprus, through a friend of a friend, a mutual friend who put up the money, and I had no idea what the fuck he was. That’s why we called it The Projectionist. I thought he was a projectionist! I didn’t realize he owns half the fuckin’ city. But you know, you’re shooting and what you shoot dictates what you’re going to shoot next—I keep saying, “Let’s do a feature film like this,” and maybe I will, or maybe you can’t do a feature film like that. But it would be nice, just starting with goodwill and money, and people and interesting shit, and just let the thing dictate itself.
I see. I think that’s very beautiful. The next thing I’m wondering is in reference to 2014’s Pasolini—you have this wonderful quotation which ends with, “The meaning of this parable is precisely the relationship of an author to the form he creates,” which is a lovely dictum that I think you achieve in that film as well as expand upon with the combination of Tommaso and Siberia. Is this approach of artistic self-inquiry one you intend on continuing, or perhaps sublimating into other works, or moving on from altogether?
It’s the mantra, you know? It reminds me, there were these two things Kubrick told Spielberg, right? One thing he said to him was about Schindler’s List, he says “The holocaust is about 6 million people dying, not 150 of them being saved.” And the other thing was, “When you make a film, you’ve got to reinvent the movies.” I’m not saying we always pull it off; I’m just saying that’s the mantra. When Kubrick approaches a movie, he’s reinventing the form. Then he’s worrying about what the movie’s about. You know? You take Welles with Citizen Kane, or even from Barry Lyndon: they’re inventing the lenses, man. The guy is coming up with shots where the DP’s got to invent equipment.
I’m not comparing myself to these guys, but on Tommaso it’s the same thing: they’re building a new camera rig just to shoot a bit more freely, or figuring out how to mic somebody so people aren’t looking at you when you’re in the street. Of course it’s a little more… but with Kubrick, the fact that he was going to shoot with natural light and candlelight, he basically invented independent cinema, because you could never really shoot in New York—or anywhere at night, really. The street lights didn’t give you enough to shoot. So everybody was stuck no matter the big crews and the big finance. But once he invented those 1.3 Zeiss lenses, and going through a Kodachrome process on a Kodak to push the stop like, two stops, and he had these Zeiss wide open lenses to shoot Barry Lyndon—and that was 1975, and that was the explosion, and now you could really shoot. You could shoot with just enough light that the street lights would give you the images.
And then he does it in reverse, when everybody’s going crazy with Dolby Stereo. When we went to see Full Metal Jacket for the first time… well, he also basically invented Dolby Stereo with 2001: A Space Odyssey. And then the first hour-and-a-half of the film is one guy screaming the fuck at you from the middle of the screen. It was outrageous. The whole concept was outrageous, nevermind what the fuck the film was about.
Back to Siberia, I think it’s a film that accomplishes a very realistic demonstration of dream logic—which of course tends to be completely illogical. It really stands out, especially in comparison to how dreams are represented in both mainstream and non-mainstream work, so I’m curious if this was something that was intentional or something that kind of just came with the territory.
Yes, it was intentional. The lesson in Siberia is that films themselves are like a dream; even the shittiest film. You’re sitting in the dark, you’re watching some crazy shit. It’s edited, so it’s not real life anyways. Even if it’s edited well it’s all fucked-up anyways, right? That juxtaposition of time, it’s so dreamlike that you have to almost kill yourself to make it not dreamlike. The nature of the medium is: you’re in the dark, you’re half-asleep, or you’re in some other kind of hypnotic state, watching these images, telling a story—it’s the nature of a dream. It’s hard, because when you really think about the dreams you have, to try to film them you have to be a master. You’ve got to be as good as Welles or Jean Vigo. We’ll keep working at it, you know what I mean?
It’s still always too real, but we’re talking about the unconscious and crossing this because it was based so much on Jung. The guy’s sitting in the cellar of his house, young guy, wife and kids, he’s got his practice. He’s a doctor, you know? He’s dealing with schizophrenics, but he’s got office hours, all this bullshit. But then at night he goes into the cellar of his house and tries to conjure up all sorts of shit—and he did with his crazy drawings and crazy stories. Just all-around crazy shit. And it’s more that he’s talking about the unconscious and how to write without the rules, you know? So I think that’s it. So anyways, there’s the dream, there’s memory, and film is just giving this all to you.
It’s funny: everybody just goes the other way, especially now. It’s all so fucking story-focused. It’s horrible after a while, when you think about how many movies are made and every one of them is trying to tell you some fucking story with a beginning, middle, and end, an agreed-upon concept of a narrative which I don’t even agree with. What’s that thing Willem says—he says “You’re lying to yourself that there’s a safety or an order to a chaotic universe.” But that’s besides the point. We were just trying to just get to the primal thing, you know, just an approach. We’re not worried about what the film makes, but it’s really not that far out there. It’s like Alice in Wonderland—you know? She drops through the rabbit hole and at the end she comes back. Or The Wizard of Oz, or like Ulysses too. You know? The guy is there, he’s trippin’ out, he’s on a journey, and then he comes home.
I was going to say, it’s a very sweet film, too, at times. I’m thinking about when Willem’s dancing around in the park. Lots of very openly sweet and actually kind of sentimental moments in this one that I haven’t seen in your work before.
Well, I’m gettin’ old.
Anyway, more than any filmmaker in recent memory—to my eyes at least—your personal style and sensibilities and interests have grown and shifted over the years, which is very inspiring to watch artistically. Outside of being brought up in interviews, do you ever look back at your older work or get inspiration from them?
Sometimes these films play a bit more often now. Not during the pandemic, I mean, but otherwise you’re always going places that are always playing your old shit, you know? Gets you out of the house in a way. But I don’t know—it’s like, every time you see one you feel a little differently… but I don’t sit and watch these films from beginning to end. But I’m always moving towards something that’s in the future, you know what I mean? Everything that we’ve done, it all seems… not wrong, but for me not exactly right. You know what I’m saying?
When I look back it’s more because I made a lot of good films with a lot of great people, DPs—even the same ones, Kenny [Kelsch] from Driller Killer to watching Kenny shoot Dangerous Game. It’s not that I can’t watch my shit, and it’s not that I don’t get anything out of it—I do. But I don’t know, it’s hard to explain.
So before we run out of time, one last quick question: it appears that modern technology has benefited you in a number of ways, from more pared-down production methods to the way awareness and discussion of your work has steadily heightened via the Internet. How do you feel, generally speaking, about modern technology?
Well, I’m a Buddhist, and if you use it right and use it righteously, it’s fucking awesome. You can sit around gambling all your money away on fucking card apps and porn sites, but you can also build bombs and download how-to stuff for that. It depends on how you use it. For me, it’s great. I’m happy to have my phone, I’m happy we can talk like this. I’m happy I can send e-mails, and so on. Before, we had four guys sitting on bicycles outside, you know, running any information you want to send someplace. You need ten guys on bicycles going back-and-forth all day. And we’ve been using Skype in the movies for a while, we use it all, right from the beginning.
And it’s a big change. We’re going from actual film, the shadow of silver—because at the end of the day, man, you don’t know if you’re getting the same “whammy” watching a digital image as you do when you watch 35mm. Pick some kind of movie that tons of people have seen—something like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, just for argument’s sake. Everybody has some lock in that movie and it’s deep in some people, and maybe you can’t get that in digital. When you watch a 35mm print in the movie theatre, it’s stopping for 1/24th of a second. It’s not going smooth. It’s stopping and its going “click, click, click.” That’s why it’s making that sound. But at the end of the day, the space between those images, when you watch a 35mm movie in a dark cinema, the audience in a 90-minute or 2-hour film, the audience is actually only sitting in the dark for maybe ten minutes of that. Because of the space in-between those frames. That’s not happening in a digital movie. You’re being assaulted by a constant stream of zeroes and ones—that’s where the title for the new one came from.
So maybe in that dark is where the movie is really playing, when you get back to the dream state. You get what I mean? And you’ve got a group of people accepting that. So can you ever get that if you’ve got, like, Treasure of the Sierra Madre sitting in a 300-seat house in 1935 or whenever the fuck? That negative is loaded with silver—you’re seeing the shadow of precious metal. You’re going to get that now? Who knows? I hope so.
Siberia is now in theaters and on Blu-ray/VOD, while a Ferrara retrospective is underway at NYC’s Cinema Village from June 30-July 8. Learn more here.