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Abel Ferrara on Finding Light in the Darkness, NYC Post-9/11, and the Realities of the Film Industry

Written by on May 2, 2019 

There exists a devoted, vocal cinephilia around Abel Ferrara, treating every film that invariably misses U.S. distribution–barely earning an ounce of critical attention all the while–as an event: a finely tuned expression, a spurning of standard sensibilities, his latest chapter in an ongoing examination of the very stuff of man. Watch them–bear witness to their full-throated independence–and you might see where they’re coming from. Mileage always varies. Just look through an interview with him, though, and the perspective can’t help but clarify. Only the dullest sensibility would hear his expletive-laced philosophy-of-the-world lingo and not fall under this spell at least a bit.

So it was when talking to Ferrara about his new film, The Projectionist, a selection of this year’s Tribeca. It continues his line of wonderfully generous documentaries, ones clearly interested in communities with distinct interests and universal desires–here it’s movie theaters, owner Nick Nicolaou, and the need for entertainment. Now happens to feel like a watershed moment: as it premieres, the Museum of Modern Art kicks off a massive retrospective, the Willem Dafoe-led Tommaso comes to Cannes, 2014’s Pasolini finally gets a U.S. release, and another Dafoe-led picture, Siberia, which could mark a distinct point in a sui generis career, is in post-production.

All of which is covered in a pretty wide-ranging interview, which kicked off with a note about the Roxy Hotel’s insistence on musical accompaniment:

Abel Ferrara: New York City is nonstop music every-fucking-where you go. Like you’re in a disco. You want to buy a t-shirt, you’re assaulted by fucking dance music.

The Film Stage: You’ve talked about the cultural difference in New York post-9/11, which played a part in your leaving. But you’re here for a while, at least with the retro running, and I find it interesting that we’re talking close to Mulberry St. and, really, the location for many of your films.

I mean, I lived in this town since 1975, so every block has a story—every corner, every person. I’m a real New Yorker. We lived out on the streets; we weren’t hidden away. I mean, there’s a lot of good memories, but there’s a lot of dark and bad memories from here. It’s mixed, you know? It’s good, some—a lot— not-good. But the conversation about 9/11 was… were you here when it happened?

I grew up a bit north.

Yeah, that’s where I’m from. I’m from Peekskill.

I’m from Poughkeepsie.

All right, so we’re soul brothers. So you have a different feeling about here. When you’re from Peekskill, it’s “the city.” “The city,” to me, was White Plains. I was born in the Bronx, but I left at a young age.

And we both went to SUNY Purchase.

Oh, really? In that period, you’re going to Purchase, New York is still the Emerald City, you’re not coming in, you’re getting your shit together—putting your game together—but at a certain point you’ve got to come to New York and go for it. That, for me, was 1974, 1975. It was a violent, crazy city. You know what I mean? I miss a lot about New York; getting mugged isn’t one thing I miss.

I love The Projectionist’s before-and-after between archival material and what you recently shot. Some locations really shift, while others just don’t.

The fact that they’re there. These movie theaters were there. They’re present, like churches. You walk around Rome, the churches are all there. You walk around here, there are none. There’s a movie theater disguised as a hotel here; you wouldn’t even see it. With those shots of 42nd, they were movie theaters after another. He’s still holding out; there are movie theaters. Those kids we were talking to in the movie, they’re going to movies. For them, it hasn’t changed from when I was a kid in the Bronx. We’d go to see The Blob, House on Haunted Hill—we waited for those movies. We waited all summer long for some of those fucking movies. It’s not like it’s a gone experience. There are kids that want to get out of the house, be with their friends, rumble it up in the theaters.

When I was talking about the 9/11 thing… one of the greatest moments of being in New York, because I was just here with De Niro talking at the lunch he gave, they had that festival because of what happened, and it was like a desire, a need. Robert stepped up and did that. I mean, this city really came together. The tragedy was a shock, but people came together as natives, as, “Okay, we’ve got to get shit straight.” There was a great feeling about that and that feeling went away quick. Then it became, I don’t know, an excuse for a land grab. I don’t know why it changed so drastically. I also had opportunities to shoot in Europe because most of our films, one way or another, were financed partially, completely, by foreign entities. Our films play in other countries.

It’s obvious that you have a strong connection to this material. I love how your documentaries make you a presence; you’re on-camera so much. Some filmmakers have hesitations. What’s the inclination?

In the end, even when we’re getting into the theatrical thing, I tell actors, “Just talk to us. Just talk to the other actor. That’s where it’s at. Don’t think about nothing else. Just talk to us like you’re really talking to somebody.” That’s really the key: you’ve got to talk to somebody. You’re asking people a fucking question. I mean, it’s almost ridiculous if you’re not there, right? I mean, who’s asking the question? What’s the thing where… when you study something and the tool of the research… the phenomenon which you discovered is more about the tool you used to examine it than the phenomenon itself. How could you not really do that? Once you bring the camera in—as cool, natural, credible, how astute people are—the camera’s there. They’re talking to somebody. Not always me—especially in Italy. A lot of these interviews are done by people who can speak better Italian than me, but that interchange is… I mean, listen, there’s a million different ways to make any kind of film, but I think, for me, you want to hear the question sometimes.

The Projectionist

You have a pretty outstanding screen presence. Could that at all relate to some of your past as an actor? Even though it’s limited.

Yeah, to one role.

Driller Killer and, I guess, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy.

Well, Ms. 45. Yeah, no, we can play a rapist. We just try to get a good vibe going. When I’m talking, it kind of breaks down like, “I’m the director listening to you. We’re going to have a formalized question, you’re going to give some kind of opinion.” We’re just trying to capture life. In the films, too; not just the documentaries. Like here: we’re talking now. Sure, we could just film me. We could just film the questions. That’s another way of doing it—not hear the answers. [Laughs] That might be better. I don’t want to go through the whole rigamarole of when we shoot a movie: you can’t see the equipment, we’ve got this whole space. We’re doing these things to chill out, in an alternate universe. It’s easy, it’s simple, we can see the equipment, who wants to talk talks. If somebody doesn’t have anything they want to say, that’s fine — whatever’s going’s going. We just shoot a lot of stuff.

We don’t know what we’re doing, absolutely don’t. In this day and age, they want scripts for documentaries; I wouldn’t waste my time doing it. I didn’t know Nic. I didn’t know Nic owned any of these theaters. I didn’t know his story at all. I just knew this was an interesting guy and he played our movies. It just sounded cool, we got the financing, we’ve got a cool producer who’s his friend and my friend. Then we just went out and found the fucking story—which is what we’re trying to get with the theatrical features, but it’s hard to tell producers, even when I produce myself, “We’re just going to go out and wing the fucking thing.” We’ve got them scripts short. Just flying by the seat of our pants? That we haven’t done.

There’s a lightness and happiness in your docs that isn’t always characteristic of your narrative features. Earlier this year, battling a fever, I wanted to put on something that I thought would be good while prone and a bit out of it, so I tried Mulberry St.

[Laughs]

I’m not joking when I say it was so mood-lifting it might have helped cure my fever.

That’s the best compliment we ever got.

Meanwhile, as much as I love your narrative features, there aren’t many I’d put on while sick.

Yeah, right. They’d just make you worse. Definitely.

Is there something to be said for trying to capture life in the moment that, for you, is incompatible with the darkness of the other films?

Well, it’s not the darkness. It’s the form of it, the form and style. We’re trying to bridge that gap, because what is the difference when we’re shooting? The moment that you shoot, that moment exists one time. No matter how much you rehearse, that’s a documentary you’re shooting, and you might as well accept it, however much you think you can manipulate it. Mulberry St., Piazza Vittorio—I’m just filming my neighborhood. Then we find out there might be another theme to it.

You have this film premiering, the retro, Pasolini, and Cannes all within a month. How do you feel about U.S. distribution at the moment? Were you happy when Pasolini was picked up, years later?

Willem was so happy. Listen: it’s all changing. It is what it is. Ms. 45 opened in 96 theaters in this city, and we had to hand-carry every fucking print to those theaters. Okay? That’s what it was. I’m not going to compare Ms. 45 to Pasolini, who am I, how does that change what I’m doing, what’s my next film. That’s the reality. Pasolini means anything whether it came out today, tomorrow, 20 years from now. What does it really matter? It does get played. I mean, the film was shot in Italy—it’s an Italian movie—and how many Italian movies are in theaters here? Sure, it’s in English and we’re “Americans,” but in Italy it played. It played in France. It was in competition at Venice. What more do you want?

The other side of it, too, is that things I loved, that have meant anything to me, we had to search them out. I’m not comparing myself to Sonny Boy Williamson, but he’s not playing on a.m. radio. You want to hear Mississippi John Hurt, you got to go find it. When we went to see those movies that we loved, it wasn’t just seeing Seventh Seal or Touch of Evil. You know? Touch of Evil: is that any less of a film because it came out as a third film on a triple-bill? The greatest American film ever made, arguably. So I see the perspective. I’m not in it for that; we’re in it for making movies. We get these movies made, they’re already a fucking big hit in the family. It’s a struggle just to get them made, so when we get them done, we put them up. Yeah, sure, we’re following. What can I tell you? I wish we did a billion dollars internationally the first weekend. It sounds ludicrous even discussing something like that.

I work in independent film distribution. We’ve played movies at the Cinema Village and the Roxy, so I have a connection to the movie past appreciation.

You’ve got to pay $10,000 to get your movie in the movie theater. That’s where his theater is at, and he’s very honest in the movie: he’s saying the reason why. Because you’re not getting enough play to pay for the fucking lights in the theaters, nevermind making a fucking movie. So what are you going to do, not make the movie? No, you’re going to make the movie, anyway. You got to figure out how the fuck to do it, and if you’re going to pay 10 grand to fucking put it in a theater, you better fucking figure out where you’re getting that fucking 10 g from—if you want to play it in a movie theater.

You have to be pragmatic about so many things.

And people aren’t so crazy about going to the movie theaters to see something like that. That’s the reality. So what are you going to do? Yeah, “pragmatic” is the right word: this is the way it is. You want to live in the world the way it is or live in a world the way you want it to be? I’d rather live in the real world or just try to understand the world as it really is.

And ones that don’t get past festivals, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned, we’ll just download.

Yeah, right.

Because we want to see it and the option isn’t otherwise presented. Then a small conversation springs up around the movie.

If they’re any good. If they’re no good, nobody’s going to download them or talk about them. It’s up to the quality of the movie—if the film is viable, has any value to it, then someone’s going to find it.

We’d probably watch them no matter what, though.

Thank you. What can I tell you? Thank you.

The Projectionist is now. Tommaso is at Cannes. Siberia

We just shot.

Is that still Isabelle Huppert and Nicolas Cage with Willem Dafoe?

No, just Dafoe. [Laughs] Dafoe is playing three or four parts in the movie. We’re getting very interior. We’ll look for another actor to have Willem play.

When did you begin practicing Buddhism?

About five, ten years ago. I was a big practitioner, meditation, going on retreats—but I was using drugs and alcohol. You can’t do a line of heroin and think you’re doing great meditation. That’s not how it works. So when I became sober, like, six-and-a-half years ago, then I had my first real meditation. And I knew it, I felt it, I understood it. But the philosophy of it, I think I started… so I would be a Buddhist, I know exactly, from the day I became sober. I think what got me, when we shot the film about Mary Magdalene and Jesus, when we went to Jerusalem. Have you ever been there?

I haven’t.

That’s a real… that’s a place to go. When you’re actually there, where he got crucified, when you’re seeing the Arabs and Jews, when you’re seeing the world as it really is—which is nothing like what you hear about or what is taught about. You can physically feel the presence of… you see the Bible, the New Testament, as a revolutionary doctrine, almost. And you sense Jesus as a man against an oppressive society and realize that he came 800 years after the Buddha. Sermon on the Mount is basically a Buddhist tract. Jesus was there. Medicine was being taught; Buddhism was being taught.

If you know how to cure somebody’s cataract with medicine that the Egyptians had, are you just a good doctor or are you bringing eyesight to the blind and now you’re a messiah? You’re in a coma and I can bring you out of it using medicine that’s taught to you by the Egyptians, are they going to nail you to a cross, create a church around you, or are you just a good doctor? When you preach a philosophy that’s 800 years old, what’s the real difference between any of these when you talk about compassion and turning that egotistical thing out? You’re part of every person on this planet. That’s where it’s at. And if you think you’re any different or any better or there’s some dividing line between you and other human beings, I think you’re misguided.

I can sense this worldview in the docs: it’s being interested in the people and giving them this forum to speak. Do the benefits of Buddhism — whatever clarity or balance it brings you — play a part in how prolific you’ve been lately?

You know, the meditation, being sober—all that—yeah, it brings you focus. I don’t know how prolific we’ve been. What’s happening now is the end result of five years, so it’s not like we kicked back for three, four years, now, all of a sudden—no. We finished Pasolini, we finished Welcome to New York. Two films back-to-back. I don’t know what prolific means. You know what I’m saying? Then we begin putting together the documentaries, and we’re not getting financing. These documentaries are also research projects. The documentary we did on Padre Pio was important for us because we want to do a feature now. I should’ve shot the documentary, our research, on Pasolini. That was a big mistake because we interviewed a lot of people; it would’ve been so simple and I let it go, and I’m not going to make that mistake again. As we do it, we’re putting the films together, and the financing on these can be complicated. Sometimes they’re not. Something like Tommaso—bang. I had an idea, we had the money, we took our documentary game, and we shot it. Now we’ve got that film, and we’ve got the money for Siberia.

And it wasn’t we were more prolific in the ‘90s, except, in the ‘90s—the independent thing in New York—it was like all the planets lined up. Including the banks. A handshake from Wild Bunch—somebody saying, “Yeah, we can do it”—and a bank would bankroll. Now, forget it. You’re not going to get one penny from anybody to finance a truly independent film. Yeah, you can. In the states, it’s a fucking uphill fucking battle, man. In Europe, there’s all these things: the ministry, tax money. It’s helping the artistic community, which doesn’t happen here. We’re basically going to the government in these countries to help support my group, who are all Italians and French guys. In Siberia, it’s Germany and Italy and Mexico. You dig? It’s not like we’re raising investment money, Wall Street capital. They’re investing in the children of their country to work. But they believe in art. They believe in film, man. Here, to think that I would call Obama or Trump and ask him for money to make a film, ha! I wouldn’t ever think, coming up as an American, “Call the government and ask them to put money into a film.” It took me a while living in Europe to come around to that.

To go back to The Projectionist: some documentaries establish a rhythm that’s clip-heavy. But when you have a clip from Putney Swope or Ken Russell’s The Devils, it’s kind of a surprise. How do you lean towards them of the many that get mentioned?

Those are films I fucking adored. When we saw them, it’s the feeling you have right here. And when I saw them last night, I was like, “Whoa.” Although The Devils is not in the final cut, unfortunately, because Warner Bros. is not giving us that clip, and that was heartbreaking.

Is something replacing it?

How are you going to replace that film? [Laughs] I mean, you can’t replace that fucking film. Oliver Reed in that film is an irreplaceable performance. Vanessa in that film… I mean, that film is a film that rocks. So as a young film student, in Purchase, coming from suburban America, I’m watching those films. They’re mind-blowing. But at the same time I was watching Stan Brakhage. I love Stan Brakhage. Forman. Those guys. Whose the guy who just died? The one in Anthology?

Jonas Mekas.

Not only those films. You’re watching flash frames. You’re watching crazy, off-the-hook shit, but that was, to me, the cinema. So when I see these kind of films, they’re mostly the films that meant the most to us at the period we were watching them. Some were mirroring his story. And then just the images from those porno films, you realize how freewheeling and off-the-hook when you see Behind the Green Door. Right? That’s some fucking cool shit, that crazy film with the guy with the bird’s head on.

It’s still shocking. You see it in the film and there’s this flash of “oh my God.”

Yeah, I know, because it is shocking. Especially now, it’s even more shocking. What are these fucking guys up to?

Do you still have ambitions to make Jekyll & Hyde?

I wanted to do it. I wanted to do it with Forest Whitaker and 50 Cent, and if it ever came up I would do it, but… I would do it. I think it’s such an amazing story, and it’s right in the groove of what we’re doing. Stevenson, when they asked him why it was such a short book, he said, “Because my wife woke me up.” You dig? That was, like, one dream he had. It was a short book because his wife woke him up — that’s such a fucking killer line. But it’s such a dream thing. It’s written like the perfect script, and it’s been made a hundred times and no one ever made it, because it’s not one guy turning into the other. Jekyll turning into Hyde, that’s the Wolf Man. Okay? He don’t turn into Hyde; Hyde is another person.

It’s a father-son story, really. He’s younger, he’s just a different guy than the distinguished doctor. He’s not a 52-year-old distinguished doctor. He’s a 30-year-old maniac kid who’s going out to rock-n-roll and fucking hurt people. These are two different people. You dig? You can’t do this with the same actor, and no one’s ever done it with two different actors. But that’s not the only reason I want to do it: I love the beauty of it, I love the father-son thing of it, I love the fact that he wrote it out of a dream. I just love the precision of the fucking book. I would do it line-by-fucking-line.

I would love it.

I would too, but don’t hold your breath. [Laughs] Read the book. Imagine my movie.


The Projectionist premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, Ferrara’s MoMA retrospective is now underway, Pasolini opens on May 10 at Metrograph, and Tommaso will premiere at Cannes.


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