Abel Ferrara: The King of the End Times

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This interview was published on The Interrobang on March 27th, 2012.

Abel Ferrara is one of our independent filmmaking icons.  He’s made over 20 films and is probably best known for “Bad Lieutenant”, “The Funeral”, “King of New York” and “The Addiction”.  His films, which often deal with difficult subjects like addiction and  survival, are highly respected among audiences as well as other filmmakers.  In fact, Martin Scorsese named “Bad Lieutenant” as one of the ten best films of its decade.  Last week Abel stopped by the SiriusXM studios to talk with Ron Bennington about his newest film, “4:44 – Last Day on Earth”.  Excerpts of that interview appear below.

Ron Bennington: You love music just as much as film, right?

Abel Ferrara: Yeah, we started out as wanna be guitar players. The guys…with Nicky St. John who was my screenwriter.

Ron Bennington: I don’t know why that’s always surprising that people who write also can do music and film. We start to specialize as we get older.

Abel Ferrara: That’s the kind of thing about being a director. You’re a little bit of a writer, you’re a little bit of a photographer, a little bit of a musician.

Ron Bennington: We were talking about this film, and by the way, I just love the hell out of it. Willem Dafoe and Shanyn [Leigh] in it, are terrific. The way that these two can hold you throughout the film is terrific. What made you think of this concept?

Abel Ferrara: Where a creative idea comes from, who knows? But this isn’t the first time that by the time we get to the end zone there’s three or four other films similar. It happened with the gangster films, it happened with the vampire films. So obviously there’s something out there. Maybe it’s the 2012, or just getting older. You start seeing the end of something.

Ron Bennington: We were having the conversation of, ‘is it better to die alone, or to die when everybody goes out together…’

Abel Ferrara: I think what you’re saying really is what the point of the film is. Being together. First of all, can you keep that relationship together. You know it’s two people here, but they’re going through their things. And saying goodbye, and how you say goodbye and who you say goodbye to, and if you have to say goodbye.

Ron Bennington: And loving people for their imperfections as well. But is it fun keeping a small cast? Cause you had such a great place that you shot in the lower East Side.

Abel Ferrara: Right, Spence’s right.

Ron Bennington: Also I thought it was so interesting that you let the film come in at the place where acceptance has already taken place.   And I don’t want to give anything away but, he’s a guy in recovery who goes to see some old friends. And we’re kind of left to wonder, does he go to see them for his old friendship? Or does he go to cop.

Abel Ferrara: That’s really the point of the film. He’s a user, he’s in recovery. He has like two years– and then comes the point– if the world is going to end tonight, what’s the point of being sober? And that becomes a key event in the film; this discussion. With Paul Hipp who is also in the program with my girl…the star…Natasha Leone. She’s also in recovery so it’s kind of cool.

Ron Bennington: Well he was amazing because he reminded you of the kind of guy who can pull you out of those things when you’re in them. You know that he had to have that background to be able to sit there and just say the correct things.

Abel Ferrara: Well, when you’re an addict, you’re an addict. That’s just the way it is unfortunately. And that becomes a big deal. Even when cats like that have to have dental work done. And that’s how a lot of people get strung out. Oxycontin and these quote unquote miracle drugs; hillbilly heroin. You know they’re handing out Oxycontin like it’s aspirin.

Ron Bennington: Some of the great actors you’ve worked with– Walken, Dafoe, Keitel,– do you always need that person who can go the distance?

Abel Ferrara: Willem and I have done three films together. There’s a big difference between New Rose Hotel and where he and I are at [now]. The trust level and the working level– we know each others moves, we understand each other.

Ron Bennington: What about the next project…

Abel Ferrara: My man Strauss Kahn, to talk about addiction. And with Depardieu.

Ron Bennington: When he was busted I was down in Grand Jury. And when he showed up it was like the entire world’s press had showed up around the courthouse. It was a fucking madhouse. And then in the middle of it there were these maids, lined up, wearing their costumes and they were protesting.

Abel Ferrara: Yeah, we’re going to shoot that. That’s definitely going to be in the film.

Ron Bennington: And it was just…

Abel Ferrara: Surreal right? As if she was a maid.

Ron Bennington: So the madness of that entire thing. Here’s a guy that we hadn’t even heard of in the States, and suddenly, in one day, he’s easily the most talked about guy on the planet.

Abel Ferrara: Yeah, and sitting in the tombs. You know going from the head of IMF, going to be the next president of France, and the next minute, handcuffed and thrown in jail like a common criminal.

Ron Bennington: So is Depardieu going to do this in French? Is he going to do it in English?

Abel Ferrara: We’re going to do it the way….you know…Dominique speaks. When he’s with his boys he’s speaking French. When he has to speak English, he speaks English.

Ron Bennington: So what attracts you to a story like that is just the extremes of it?

Abel Ferrara: It started off…when it first happened…the event happened in the room that we shot New Rose Hotel in. Those opening scenes…a lot of the movie was in those rooms.

Ron Bennington: When you write do you write fast?

Abel Ferrara: The stuff that jumps fast comes fast. It comes when it comes. It really depends. I started off with my childhood soul brother Nicky St. John and in those days the script would come from him. The Funeral, would come completely written. The Addiction. Totally written. I didn’t even know he was writing them, and I would get the script and we would work from that. And then when he’d just had enough of the business and the people in it, then, I worked with Zoe [Tamerlis] on Bad Lieutenant.

Ron Bennington: Zoe was so unbelievably talented too.

Abel Ferrara: That’s another shame. That was a drug casualty. It’s really sad because she really had the gift and she had so much more to give. But she made that choice and that’s what happens.

Ron Bennington: There also seems to be, with Zoe, almost an Edie Sedgwick like cult on the internet. She’s this…this image that she has…is so attractive to young men…

Abel Ferrara: Attractive to young women, you know attractive to everyone. She backed it up with talent. Talent as an actress, talent as a musician. When I first met her, she was a teenager going to Columbia on a music scholarship. Clean as a whistle, man. Okay so there’s a long way from the girl we saw in Bad Lieutenant. But then we lost her, and I started working with Chris — who is a writer, a great writer, a psychiatrist who writes books. He’s a novelist. So he’s working with me on Strauss Kahn. But then 4:44 I kind of did it…I worked with the same guys I’ve always worked with. Kenny Kelsch is DP, Frank DeCurtis is the designer, and Tony is the editor. So when I start writing, I don’t want to get too far past Willem. So I kind of say, hey are you interested in doing this. Cause if you don’t have him, you’re not going to do the movie. Well, I mean there could have been other actors but, at this point…

Ron Bennington: …you want to go in with the whole project…

Abel Ferrara: …I want to know he’s there for it. And then I get his feedback and his input, and then I start taking it to the next step of the project, all the while talking with Frankie the designer and the DP. So we’re kind of designing it and thinking how we’ll shoot it so it evolves. I don’t want to get too far ahead of…I don’t want to go some place that maybe they’re not willing to go. So it’s kind of a group thing.

Ron Bennington: Well sexually they go pretty far in this, but not only that, emotionally, they go to some places that I guess…there’s a scene where Shanyn just loses her shit and I’m like, I don’t know if this was improvised on the spot or whether she always knew she was going there. That’s a tough scene. There’s another scene with Willem where he’s out front, standing next to a ledge yelling down at people that’s so chillingly real.

Abel Ferrara: Yeah, telling his landlord, how’s your 2 ½ % increase a year feel now?

Ron Bennington: That was amazing stuff.

Abel Ferrara: It’s like I say, the ideas are down, we start working on them, we start developing them, we start going a little bit further with them. It’s something that’s done together. This film’s a group trip in terms of even the financing and the ownership. We all own the film with Wild Bunch.

Ron Bennington: So you just feel that everyone who is on that set is kind of partners in this.

Abel Ferrara: Well, any film. The camera is going to reflect every heartbeat on the floor. And if everybody is not pulling in the same direction…the camera picks it up. The lenses get it. Digital or celluloid, you’re going to feel. That’s what you’re seeing when you see a movie. You’re seeing the group. You’re seeing as much behind the camera as you’re seeing in front of the camera.

Ron Bennington: The way you’ve worked– so independent over the years– would you have rather worked that way? Or do you wish there was some studio who just said ‘dude we trust you.’

And right now it’s changing big time for everybody. From the head of the biggest studio to the most independent kid coming out of school.

Abel Ferrara: Well, we’ve got guys now who are kind of like that. We work with Wild Bunch and we’ve been with them for three, four, five films now. It’s always been very rapidly changing– anybody in the business really knows it. And right now it’s changing big time for everybody. From the head of the biggest studio to the most independent kid coming out of school. You know…what are they going to do? How are they going to do it? Where are you going to get financing in economically trying times? What is the internet really going to give you? Is it going to be a corporate rip off? Is it going to be total destruction of the artist? Or is it going to be the great gift that we’re all looking for, that’s going to put the artist in touch with his audience without anything in between?

Ron Bennington: It’s amazing that with your experience, you still have to be on the hustle like that.

Abel Ferrara: Everybody is. I mean maybe a Spielberg…but the idea of somebody just picking up a phone and saying – ‘you know what I’m doing next, just send the money down’ – that doesn’t happen. Maybe just a handful of people. You have to convince the guys you’re with that it’s worth doing. I’m surrounded – not by yes men. You know what I mean? I wish I had some yes men. I’m with guys who, you’ve got to prove to them, ‘why are we doing this’, and ‘why are we not doing that’. And you’ve got to sell your position. And then you’ve got to deal with the financing and I think that’s for everybody. There’s no easy way to do this. It’s not like I’m here and someone else is somewhere wonderful.

Ron Bennington: I love some of the documentary work that you’ve done like with Mulberry Street and The Chelsea Hotel piece, which, now more than ever is going to sit as a piece of history. In a lot of ways, more than any of your other films. Because so many stories were told in there that will never be told again. 

I have Dennis Hopper talking for over an hour. There’s a movie right there.

Abel Ferrara: Yeah, you know we’ve got forty hours of….there’s a perfect example of where the internet can really play… I mean Francesca has shown a lot of that on film annex… [filmannex.com] the outs, the stuff that we didn’t put. I mean you only have ninety minutes and you try to create something. But when you have thirty hours, I mean I have Dennis Hopper talking for over an hour. There’s a movie right there. And we barely used it for whatever ridiculous reason. And I have final cut. But it was really interesting. Jen Gatien, the producer, she did her homework, you know? We moved in there, and everyday she’d send us to another room and we’d knock on the door, and you wouldn’t know if it was going to be some old woman who is in like a closet who hasn’t left in a couple a months….or you’re doing to open up to an eight room, spacious, house and garden type off the hook…

Ron Bennington: …with fine art all over the walls…

Abel Ferrara: ..yeah. It was unbelievable. You can’t believe what’s behind every door in that place. And the people and the stories and the music, and what’s happened.

Ron Bennington: 4:44: Last Day on Earth. How are you releasing this one?

Abel Ferrara: IFC Man. We’ve got the lawyers every day on top of YouTube. It’s like criminal man, really criminal. You know guys, in the end you’re gonna face a judgement. Stealing is stealing. You download shit that you don’t buy– it’s robbing someone, man. The bullshit that aww, there’s some rich motherfucker and all that– that’s a lot of crap. It’s straight up thievery. And if you’re film lovers, you’re killing me. If you’re music lovers, you’re not giving the guys a chance to play– to do it. I don’t get it.

Ron Bennington: When I’m walking through Chinatown, that stuff is all out in the home. How come those guys never get busted for that?

Someone steals a five million dollar movie, or a one million dollar movie I made, and no one gives a shit.

Abel Ferrara: Why don’t they get busted? You tell me. I mean I live downtown. I live in Chinatown and Little Italy. It’s yuppie central. It’s not 1975 in New York. Someone gets their apartment robbed, the cops are there in a half hour. And believe me, between the cameras on every corner, and when these guys with a different point of view, they get results. Somebody steals my car, I got a great chance of getting it back. Someone steals a five million dollar movie, or a one million dollar movie I made, and no one gives a shit.Come on. I don’t buy it. This goes for Steven Spielberg and Disney as much for the kids out there in school, out of school, not even affording school. I mean, they’re working. If they’re getting hits on the thing, somebody’s got to hit them off. You’ve got to support everybody including me. What I mean, support is– I’m not saying the government should fund movies– I mean I wish they did but I can’t imagine the United States [doing it]. I mean in Europe, the government created Fassbender, Herzog, Wenders. They didn’t just come out of the woodwork, they came out of a government sponsored world. Okay, I understand, fine. But man at least– you’ve got to get paid for what you people take. If somebody doesn’t want to see my film, fine, then I’ll starve in the gutter. But if people are watching it man, I mean come on.

Ron Bennington: Particularly for a guy like you. I mean, you’re collecting the money to bring it into it, you’re shooting it, you’re editing it…

Abel Ferrara: Well sure but everybody does that. I’m not somebody special because I shoot it and edit it right.

Ron Bennington: So you think the way you’re doing it would be just as rough if you played the Hollywood game years ago.

I’ve had my films completely butchered before I realized that final cut is sacrosanct. You cannot make a film if you do not have final cut as a director.

Abel Ferrara: I played the Hollywood game. I was a millionaire for five minutes. I ended up in a very bad space. That’s another story. The thing about the Hollywood game with the films I make is– final cut is sacrosanct. We work out of New York. We could have gone west to LA, which we did. And we did good work, I thought. It was a lot of money, more money than we needed and we suffered because of it. And our morals got switched around, and what was important got switched around. But then we went east to Europe. I lived in Rome for four five years. Willem lives in Rome. He’s married to a very cool Italian director. But he went to Europe and I want to Europe and all of a sudden, wow, where was this place all this time? Aren’t I stupid not to realize a place where the director is…respected. The idea of someone cutting your film– it’s against the law.  A producer really wouldn’t think of it. That idea is totally an American west coast deal. Just because you buy the Mona Lisa doesn’t give you the right to put a mustache on it. You dig what I’m saying? Could you sell out? There’s no selling out when you make films because you have to have the final cut, you dig? Whatever it takes to make a really great movie, you give me three hours and an editing room and I’ll destroy Citizen Kane. And I’ve had my films completely butchered before I realized that final cut is sacrosanct. You cannot make a film if you do not have final cut as a director.

Ron Bennington: What keeps you going?

Abel Ferrara: Paying the rent. Pay the rent man. It’s part of it. You gotta eat right? I’m not independently wealthy. It’s what drove us right from the get. Whatever it is. We have a talent and that’s our talent. Our talent is to make films so thank god we’ve gotten this far with it.

Ron Bennington: The film is 4:44: Last Day on Earth. Go to On Demand and pick it up. Don’t download this shit off torrent…

Abel Ferrara: No…

Ron Bennington: …don’t buy it from Chinatown guys..

Abel Ferrara: …I’m going to find torrent, wherever you are boys, we’re gonna come busting in.

Ron Bennington: Jesus Christ what could be scarier than you and your boys coming in. Go to IFC Films.com. On Demand, and in some theaters in urban areas.

Abel Ferrara: Get it on demand. Make some popcorn, hang out roll a few…no.(laughs)

Ron Bennington: See you next time through.

Abel Ferrara: Ciao, baby.

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