Even having interviewed Abel Ferrara a decade ago on the occasion of Ms. 45‘s re-release, an opportunity to speak with the legend still felt exciting, and borderline nerve-wracking.
As something of a fanboy, I didn’t bring up trailing him around a TIFF party hosted by my former place of work years ago, but it was still an enlivening chat. Done in accordance with the release of his new film Padre Pio, which has brought much controversy for casting Shia LaBeouf (who’s made public the spiritual film and role as an act of redemption), I saw it fit to ask a number of questions, be it moral or political, that arise from the film, which cross-cuts the saint’s spiritual battle with a fascist uprising in Italy. The opinionated, lively Ferrara naturally had much to say during our brief Zoom chat.
The Film Stage: Nicholas St. John, your former writing partner, was very much a spiritual man. In this early working relationship, was Padre Pio a frequent topic of conversation?
Abel Ferrara: Not really. I mean, we knew who he was because he was living in South Italy and I would visit him during the actual period right after he had died. But I don’t remember any major conversations.
Can you talk about your own spiritual journey––how you started as a Catholic and ended up a Buddhist?
I was a Catholic. But you know, when you’re not leading the righteous life, it doesn’t really matter what you are. I was just in a bad place, you know? I was in a non-spiritual place. And it just got worse and worse and worse. I was getting further. We might have made movies about it, shot it, but the idea of living a life of compassion and empathy and embracing what spirituality really is was not my lifestyle. I was living the opposite lifestyle.
So around 2005 I met a girl who was a Buddhist, and I started reading and doing that, ya dig? I studied it, and I found that I connected to it. Same time, I was meditating and doing all that––but you know, you can’t meditate high. You can’t be doing drugs and thinking you’re doing a “boost meditation.” It’s impossible. So that wasn’t happening, but I was getting the literature of it. Then I went to make a film called Mary, which was in Jerusalem. And it was about Mary Magdalene. We actually went, theoretically, to the place he was crucified. Have you ever been to Jerusalem?
Well, it’s an outrageous place, and I had some kind of revelation about Jesus as a man, his political struggle. The Bible is a political tract. It was a whole [thing]. But I was still drinking and drugging. So 2012, I got sober. And then when I got sober, it all kind of came together for me very quickly. You know: the meditation, my teaching, my life experience. And the practice of Buddhism, but… my Buddhist teachers, they would say, call me “Christian.” What does it matter? You know, it’s other than the concept of the creation. The things that practically get me through life, which is thinking about someone other than myself, expressing compassion, not doing any harm, doing the right thing: that’s all the same for any religion.
I wonder about the political climate in your home of Italy. You made a documentary a few years ago, Piazza Vittorio, which kind of provided a snapshot of this. But in the time since, how have things changed? There’s a new Prime Minister that was elected last year, Meloni, who certainly has amassed a lot of publicity in North America for being another far-right populist. I’m curious: what do you think were the conditions that led to her election?
I think the same conditions that led to the elections in the United States, whatever they are. Here, it’s a little bit more: they try one side, and then if that ain’t working, they go the other way and they try that. I don’t know. Rome has been here for 3,000 years. It’s the same thing with our country. I mean, my political focus is on my country. It’s just I don’t know the language well enough. I’m a guest in this country; I’m not, politically, that man. I think it’s the whole feeling around the globe. I mean, what’s happening? I think it’s getting much more in our country where there is no democratic process; you’re either on one side or another and you’re gonna defend that position for whatever reason. So, you know, the rise of nationalism always is not good.
I remember talking to you ten years ago and asking you about the state of New York City. You were very down on it. You referred to it as the millionaires’ playground. I know you’ve returned to the city a few times since for retrospectives and such. Has your opinion of New York City changed, or do you feel even worse about it now? At least based on what you’ve seen?
Now I’m not really there long enough to get the vibe. I know COVID turned that city upside-down. And New York is constantly changing. But once real-estate value goes up and then goes down, and once real-estate value goes through the roof then it’s like throwing a rock into the water and everybody’s drowning. Because everybody’s working around the clock just to pay fucking rent. And to me, that’s not a fucking… I don’t know about that. So what is New York offering everybody there? I don’t know, man. I’m not there.
But I remember living in the apartments now that are going for $10—$12,000 dollars a month in rent. I was squatting in them. They raised our rent from $400 to $500 for 1,800 square feet on Fifth Avenue and we almost burned the building down, okay? The guys living out of apartments paying $12,000, that’s not inflation––it’s a whole reinvention of the economy. And when that happens, that’s when you have an international financial, rich paradise called New York. Or at least Manhattan, once you get out to East New York or… but even that, I’ve read the rents in Newark are the highest rents. So it is what it is.
In general, do you kind of feel despair or optimism about the state of the world? Your film from a few years ago, Zeros and Ones, has those bookends with Ethan Hawke where he talks about that dichotomy of living with equal amounts of despair and optimism about the state of the world. How do you feel at the current moment?
You know, we were just in Ukraine––we shot in Kiev––so I see what’s going on there and you got these guys talking nuclear weapons and I’m seeing a war right before my eyes. I could see the shit blowing up in a minute, you know? You don’t make weapons not to use them, okay? So they might have been backing off on those fucking things for the last 75 years, but they’re still there. And you’ve got mad men around, and the potential of that. Am I living in fear of it? I try not to. I’m a positive person; I’m living a positive world, you know? 95% of the people I meet are positive. So I don’t know why there’s so much negative shit going on. I accept my people are creating some fucked-up shit. [Laughs]
There’s this famous anecdote from you on the commentary track for King of New York where you’re watching the film and saying you could never do this kind of film today, that it’s fascist filmmaking. Could you elaborate on what “fascist filmmaking” is to you, and how you feel you’ve distanced yourself from it with your recent work?
I mean that’s a little bit over… it was just this, kind of. I mean, to tell you the truth, I don’t even know what I was talking about. There’s, like, a kind of a hardcore of “what is right” and “what’s not right.” It’s very: the rules are the rules and the streets are red and we only used black and blue and every shot has to be this and everything is that, and the script is this and this is that. You know, to make a film like King of New York, we made that for five, six million bucks in 1990. That’d be like a $30,000,000 movie, okay? We had hundreds of people working on that film. We’re doing the same thing, Zeros and Ones, where, like, the entire camera, lighting, and electrical department was one person as opposed to 50.
The downside is: King of New York put 50 kids through college. How much in health insurance was bought? You know what I mean? But I don’t know. It’s like I’ve moved away from that kind of filmmaking––like very elaborate, organized. You know, you bring on a hundred people you’re not just gonna decide in the middle of the night, “Oh, let’s shoot in Brooklyn instead of Queens.” You gotta get a hundred fucking people, 50 trucks. You know what I mean? It’s like you’re moving an army around. It’s a different thing. I’m glad I did it; I enjoyed it at the time. King of New York is a very special movie for me, but I don’t see myself repeating it.
So do you think of yourself as kind of a freer filmmaker now?
Sure. I mean, the equipment allows it. It’s just the shit we got. I mean some of these films we’re shooting on the telephones, bro.
I’m curious in the years since you’ve made Padre Pio, have you kept in touch with its star Shia LaBeouf? He’s been going on a very kind of public journey of redemption. Is he doing well?
Yeah, yeah. He’s doing real good, man. He’s doing real good. He went off and he did a Coppola movie. I mean Padre Pio was 15 days or 20 days and he was in for four so he wasn’t there a long time. [Laughs] But anyway, it was good and he’s working. And we’re working on a film together––he’s writing something about Auschwitz that we’re thinking about doing.
On that tip, are there any narrative films you’re working on at the moment? I know you’ve got the documentary about Ukraine.
Yeah, I got the documentary about Ukraine and I’m working on something about Patti Smith, but I don’t wanna jinx it.
And I kinda just wanted to ask this as a last question: do you get a kick out of 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy being remastered and put out on Blu-ray? Did you ever think something like that would happen?
You know I got an eight-year-old daughter, so I don’t know what kind of kick I get outta it. But it’s crazy, right? I did so many other films I have. But I don’t know––that’s another situation. We did it; the memory of it is sacred to me. I can talk a lot about it. It is what it is, you know? It’s one of the things we did, and it worked. So great.
Padre Pio arrives in limited theaters and on VOD on Friday, June 2.