As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
congratulates BOMB Gala honorees
James Keith Brown
and Eric G. Diefenbach
12 midnight, July 27, 1995. Deadly serious, dead on target, with a keen nose for the perversity of human nature, Abel Ferrara’s films plunge right into the most extreme forms, the icy rivers of anti-social behavior. No feet of clay there. Rape in Ms. 45 (1981). Drug trafficking in King of New York (1990). Gang warfare in China Girl (1987). Serial killings in Fear City (1984). Yet his often delirious portrayals of murder and mayhem are tempered with irony and a sense of balance—not so much the scales of justice as the law of the jungle. Violent crime breeding the violence of retribution. In the past Ferrara’s films have had a tantalizing ambiguity—they’ve come on as powerful moral parables while conveying the seductiveness of evil—the devil gets an awful lot of good lines.
Ferrara’s latest film, The Addiction, opening in New York this October, and written, like almost all the others, by Nick St. John, seems to mark a turning point. Structured as a vampire movie, with Lili Taylor in the lead, it brilliantly portrays the pure horror, the wasting torments of addiction per se.
This interview was done late at night over the phone while Ferrara was deep in the throes of pre-production on The Funeral, a gangster film set in 1935. Casting was still in progress while we talked.
Abel Ferrara Don’t make these questions too hard.
Liza Béar I’ll try not to.
AF Had you seen the movies before or did you just rent them all?
LB I’d seen Bad Lieutenant. And The Addiction.
AF ‘Cause that’s a little much, if you have to sit and watch them all at once.
LB I did it over a period of time. The Funeral is your eleventh feature. Does preparing for the shoot get easier or harder?
AF This one’s a nightmare. I’m dealing with a bunch of psychotic actors and their neurotic agents. And lunatic managers.
LB How do you get yourself to relax?
AF (laughter) How do I get myself to relax? I try not to relax.
LB How do you get your actors to relax?
AF Ah. That’s my secret. I’ll never give that one up.
LB So what’s your main challenge as a director at this point?
AF What’s my main talent as a director?
LB Challenge. At this stage, not during the shoot.
AF To come to terms with the script. So I understand it now, not when you’re watching it in the movie theater. To try to figure it out before I release it.
LB A lot of actors have stayed with you film after film.
AF We’re the only ones who offer them work.
LB Who’s in the new film who’s been in your previous films?
AF Annabella Sciorra, theoretically, otherwise we’re going with a lot of new actors. Isabella Rossellini. Um. Let me see. Valerie Golina, Chris Penn and Benicio del Toro.
LB Your films range from fairly small ones to really big budget—$20 million?
AF Yeah, Body Snatchers. The Funeral is in the middle. It’s not too big, it’s not too small.
LB Nine to ten million.
AF What does it matter, man? Why does everybody always talk about the bread? I can make $20 million look like $200. Or I can make $500,000 look like $10 million. And you can make $10 million look like 50 cents. So who cares. I don’t even know how much this film costs. It’s a gangster film set in the ’30—that’s the scale of the production.
LB Black and white?
AF We’ve got to get people in hats. No, fuck black and white. We did our black and white…
LB …with The Addiction. Who wrote the script for The Funeral?
AF Nicky St. John wrote it when he wrote The Addiction. He had this very creative period.
LB The only film which you co-wrote was Bad Lieutenant, with Zoe Lund. Otherwise, Nick St. John has always been your screenwriter. You’ve worked with him for a very long time. Do you generate the story idea and Nick…
AF No no no no. We work all kinds of ways. Like The Addiction, I didn’t even know he was writing it. He gave me the whole script just the way you saw the film.
LB But do you guys have such a close relationship that you know what’s going on in each other’s heads, or in each other’s lives?
AF No. I hope not.
LB How often do you talk? Every day?
AF There are times we talk all the time, and there are times we don’t talk for a long time. He lives upstate. We’ve been together since we’re 15 but the guy’s always surprising me. He’s always coming up with shit.
LB How much do you rehearse?
AF We’ve been rehearsing a lot lately ‘cause we find it’s a better way to go. You take the script, and then you work on it. The writer’s on the set.
LB Although at first Ms. 45 seems very different from Bad Lieutenant — it’s a revenge film — it’s also about the abuse of power, because Zoe Lund’s character takes revenge to an extreme and becomes a feminist vigilante.
AF Yeah. Falls in love with the power of that gun.
LB Right. Anyone can. I tried to look at The Addiction in relation to the other films. In a way it felt the cleanest—the simplest storyline. Addiction is the root cause of the evil in many of your films.
AF Say that again? I’m sorry, that was a good point you were making, I just forget. Addiction…just repeat what you said.
LB I know that people look at The Addiction as a vampire movie, but to me it was more about the horror of addiction. Harvey Keitel’s character in Bad Lieutenant is addicted to drugs.
AF He’s addicted to everything, not just drugs. Hold on, hold on… He’s addicted to alcohol, to gambling, to casual sex. Power. The power of the badge.
LB Kathleen in The Addiction is a philosophy student. All of your films have this moral infrastructure that stems from Catholicism, even if you’re critical of it at times.
AF We’re not critical of Catholicism in The Addiction. That’s an expression from a devout Catholic, Nicky St. John. And that’s the reason he didn’t work on Bad Lieutenant.
LB What I was getting at was Kathleen is a philosophy student and typically philosophers are at odds with religion…
AF Not all of them.
LB No, not all. But the philosophic turn of mind makes you question, rather than accept things on authority. What you’re taught is to question everything.
AF There are some great philosophers who were devout Catholics. (talking to someone in the production office) What? Could I call him back in two minutes? Where is he? He’s at home? But he’s going to stay there?) Hold on one second.
LB She’s studying Nietzsche.
AF One of many things, again.
LB But the reference to Nietzsche is Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche really despised Christian morality.
AF Exactly. And she was getting to the point where she was asking, what is the intellect without the soul? Where are you at? That alone isn’t going to get you anywhere. Your mind is not enough. And your body’s not enough. You have to find the soul. You dig what I mean? Or you’re not going to make it. Intellect alone in this world is just going to leave you…
LB Cold and dead.
LB Addicted to filmmaking, right? When you started out, you picked up a camera rather than a paintbrush or a pen.
AF I couldn’t really play the guitar as good. I tried it. I didn’t grow up in the 19th century. Everyone in my generation had the option of making films, the way you had the option of painting or playing the guitar. It was the only way I could express myself the way I wanted to express myself.
LB Do you still play the guitar?
AF Yeah, Bad Lieutenant was a song.
LB I noticed you wrote some of the lyrics for China Girl too. So in the beginning, did you use films to control—to take a hold of your life?
AF Wait. Hold on.
LB What’s going on in the production office right now?
AF We’re trying to replace someone in the cast of the film.
LB Oh, that’s really nerve-wracking isn’t it? At the last minute.
AF Very nerve-wracking.
LB So do you have some options?
AF I hope so. Wait, hold on one second.
(another longish pause)
LB Some things in your life, your filmmaking life, have been very stable. For instance, you’ve been in the same place since ‘76. You’ve worked with a lot of the same people, Mary Kane, Joe Delia…
AF Well, in this town you can’t afford not to. Rent control.
LB That space on East 18th was what gave rise to your first commercial film in ’79.
AF Driller Killer. The guy who lived here before was a painter.
LB That was your only acting role? You didn’t like acting?
AF I couldn’t do it as good as…
LB You were a better director.
AF Yeah. The best actor wins.
LB When did you first work with Christopher Walken?
AF King of New York. After I saw him in Deer Hunter.
LB It seems like he’s made for you.
AF I wouldn’t say he was made for me, but I’m glad he was made.
LB You spent a year in England, right?
AF Yeah, I lived in England. London, Oxfordshire. Cotswolds. I shot my first 35mm there, with a BBC crew. A short. It was kind of nice ’cause I was a kid, 18, 19.
LB You haven’t ever made films in Europe since?
AF No. We’re trying to. We have a project with Walken and Giancarlo Giannini actually.
LB (quotes from Bad Lieutenant) “Vampires are lucky. They can feed on others but we can feed on ourselves. We’ve got to come, so we can go, we’ve got to suck ourselves off…”
AF (laughter) Where did you get that? You memorized it?
LB Well, I wrote it down. “And we’ve got to eat away at ourselves until there’s nothing but appetite.” They’re Zoe’s lines. Was that the premise for The Addiction?
AF No. Zoe and I wrote one script and Nick wrote the other, but what’s that saying? “Great minds work in the same way…”
LB “Think alike.” Since The Addiction is coming out we should probably say quite a bit about it, or rather you should, not me.
AF Let’s not feel obligated.
LB Quite. What’s the most important thing about that film for you?
AF I think that no matter where you’re at, or how far down you think you are, that your life force, your basic human spirit can overcome any situation you might have gotten yourself into or have been thrown into.
LB You mean, you have the key within yourself?
LB To get out of it.
AF To persevere.
LB To transcend it?
AF Yeah, transcend it. That’s a good word. A beautiful one.
LB Well, I like persevere. That’s a nice word too.
AF And not to despair.
LB So do you find that making films is less of a struggle than life?
AF There’s no difference. It is my life. There’s no separation. For as long as I can remember. Or care to.
LB Every other year or so you seem to make another film. Is it a struggle to convince people to get behind you?
LB So that doesn’t really change?
AF No. Even tonight. Whether they do well or not. It’s an ongoing trip. That’s where it’s at. And that’s the work. You’re either into it or you’re not. You’ve got to believe in it. In the process. In the act of filmmaking. The act of reaching out. Communicating. That I’m not just here alone, spinning through this… you know what I mean? Through this flicking universe. Or Manhattan. That people sitting in a room can feel what I feel, desire what I desire.
LB There’s something I really liked about Bad Lieutenant. One strand of the plot has him gambling on those seven Mets/Dodgers games throughout the film. What he’s doing there, is what he’s doing with the rest of his life.
AF Say that again?
LB Am I being too technical?
AF No, no. Seven games is the championship, not the World Series.
LB The TV screen and the game come up in all kinds of odd places, like when he’s arresting the two guys who raped the nun, handcuffing them, they’re watching the game. You hear the game on the radio when he’s driving, in the background…
AF In the foreground.
LB It makes you super aware—that all of his life is a gamble. He’s taking so many risks. When you do drugs, you’re gambling with your life, you’re taking risks, don’t you think?
LB You’re gambling with your health.
AF Well, certain drugs might save your life.
LB Yes, but I meant narcotics…how do you mean, save your life? Antibiotics?
AF I don’t know. You’re saying, when you use drugs, you gamble with your life?
LB Well, when you take alcohol you gamble with your life. Alcohol destroys your brain eventually
AF Well, I’m not a doctor, so…
LB Everything I’ve read says addiction is physiological, it’s not weakness of will. It’s how your system works. Or maybe you don’t accept that?
AF Well, alcohol isn’t the best thing in the world for you.
LB In Ms. 45, because Zoe Lund’s character is mute, the plot points have to be made visually, so you can watch what she looks at, and guess what she’s thinking. It’s very hard in a film, usually, to show how people think. There’s a point of view shot of her at work looking at a green garbage bag, and then later you see what she uses the green garbage bag for.
AF Well, it’s the movie as mind control.
LB When she’s shopping in the supermarket, she doesn’t buy fish or chicken, she buys a chop. So you make that same link, when she cuts up the body of her assailant. Chop chop.
AF Yeah, she’s into red meat.
LB I was wondering, did you decide that as a director, or was that in the script?
AF I don’t know. I think… We went out there with Zoe, and who knows why she was in the meat counter.
LB It happened again with the iron. She used the iron to kill the guy and then she burns the clothes at work with the iron because she’s so distracted the day after.
AF Well, in a way it’s a silent movie. That’s what’s great about it. People think we made her mute because the actress couldn’t talk. Meanwhile Zoe—did you ever, meet Zoe?—she’s eloquent. She has the most beautiful voice. Well, you heard her do that speech you liked so much.
LB Which of your movies do you like the best?
AF In which way?
LB As a director. In which you did all the things you wanted to do.
AF Well, I like China Girl, personally. I like the situation, I like the characters. It’s a shot by shot of Romeo and Juliet.
LB Do you make a living from your films?
AF Yep. We keep the show on the road. Wait a minute. Hold on.
LB You were born in the Bronx and brought up a Catholic. So do you consider yourself a lapsed Catholic?
AF A what?
LB Do you still consider yourself a Catholic?
AF Well, you either believe or you don’t.
LB You consider yourself a filmmaker. That’s what you believe in.
AF Well, they’re two different things. I’m dealing with my belief in God. I’m trying to come to terms with it.
LB Sara Chiang, the lead in China Girl, is also in King of New York.
AF How do you like the Chinese actors? Joey Chin, he’s in King of New York as well. It’s an interesting dynamic down there.
LB Between the Chinese and the Italians. And you kept the love story really sweet and simple.
AF I’m telling you, it was a scene by scene remake of Romeo and Juliet. That’s Shakespeare. It shows you how powerful and beautiful and how eloquent he was plot-wise.
LB Aside from that, you tend to focus on evil, on the dark side of life, and to portray characters who are depraved, decadent, or corrupt, or weak…
AF Like who?
LB The Frank White character in King of New York, the gang members. Almost everybody has some venal sin, or they’re involved in violence or vice. They do drugs. Or they deal drugs. Frank White tries to redeem himself by giving money to the hospital…
AF He’s a gangster. But there’s the police. They don’t do drugs. There’s the other side of that. There’s the Victor Argo character in King of New York, right?
LB Yes, he’s the good guy but he seems powerless and he gets killed.
AF There’s three of them.
LB Yeah, but the emphasis seems on corruption.
AF Well, I’m just seeing the world I live in. Hold on.
LB It’s not a criticism. Do you think that everything has gotten so twisted and society is so cynical that say you did become interested in the other side, it would be impossible to create convincing characters?
AF There’s the Lili Taylor character in The Addiction. She’s convincing. Look at her at the end of the movie.
LB But she dies.
AF Well, not the person in the cemetery.
LB Just the bad part of her dies. But throughout the film she’s under the spell of the addiction.
AF I don’t understand what you’re saying. Are we making films about people who invent a cure for polio? We’re making films about people caught in the grip of good and evil. Two sides to the coin. Where are you at and how do you deal with it. That’s what the movies are about and that conflict is the flicking film.
LB The Harvey Keitel character in Bad Lieutenant goes from bad to worse.
AF No, not at the end. He plays out what the nun wants him to do. Lets them off, gives them the money. He could have saved himself and he chose to save them.
LB Do you think that’s good considering the crime they committed? They raped a nun.
AF Well, that’s the question. The nun has forgiven them. He’s not letting them go because he thinks they committed a great crime and therefore they should be rewarded. He’s letting them go because that’s what the victim asked him to do.
LB Right. But isn’t he also letting them go because the justice system is such that they would get off anyway because they’re juveniles.
AF I doubt if they’d get off.
LB But that’s what he says to the nun in the church, they’re going to walk. See, I read it…
AF Wait, hold on. He wanted to kill them right there, but he let them go.
LB The way I read your take on the justice system, in King of New York, is that it favors the scumbag. It’s almost impossible for the police to do their job. Same thing in Bad Lieutenant, we get the sense that justice will not be served, so the lieutenant has to pick the lesser of two evils. He’s sending the kids on the bus so that they’ll be out of town.
AF No. He’s giving them a second chance. He says to them, “Your life ain’t worth shit in this town.” Those guys’ll be killed in prison. They wouldn’t be given a fair trial. They’d be killed before they even got to prison.
LB So then you don’t have much faith in the justice system, right?
AF Well, it’s kind of overwhelmed. But it’s trying.
LB Your view of the individual and society is closer to tragedy. It’s not that you’re taking evil lightly. The individual tends to give in to his worst impulses. The social system is such that with the best intentions justice can’t really be done because the courts are strangled with rules and regulations.
AF It’s tough. But hey, people are trying. Whether they accomplish it or not is another thing. Are you going to be up for a while? Call me back in 20 minutes.
(2 a.m. Ferrara explains what’s going on.)
AF See, it’s a casting situation. I have this brilliant lawyer. His name is Jay Julian. He represents Keitel and Walken and Joe Pesci and a lot of filmmakers too. He started off as a Broadway producer. He used to represent de Niro and Scorsese. Not any more. Anyway, he’s amazing. I don’t know his age, but he’s up there. This is when we do the wheeling and dealing, at this time of night. We’re very close to shooting. There’s this incredible amount of pressure. You know what I mean? With these actors it’s so fucking difficult.
LB Is he in L.A.?
AF No. He’s in New York right on Broadway. On Times Square. He’s like a Damon Runyon character. He was there in the Actors’ Studio at the very beginning. He was a wild character. He helps me finance the films.
LB Oh, he’s very important to you then.
AF He is. He’s not a producer but he helps finance the films because he represents actors. In this day and age, the actors are the key. As it should be.
LB Without the actors you don’t have the deal.
AF Which is the base of this problem.
LB So is all the financing in place for The Funeral?
AF Um, I hope so. The money is coming from October Films, who’re going to distribute The Addiction and these young dudes who did Kids, have you seen that?
LB Not yet, no.
AF Good flick, man. And the guys who put up the money are 25, 26 years old. Mike Chambers and Pat Panzerella. It’s a good group of people. What’s good is the money is coming from the distribution.
LB So the film is guaranteed distribution?
AF Well, we’ll see.
LB Nothing’s guaranteed until the film’s in the can.
AF You know that, right.
LB And even then.
AF You haven’t stopped making movies, have you?
LB Actually, I wrote a book of short stories since I made my film.
AF Really? So now what, you’re going to sell them to the movies?
LB I’ve optioned one story. “Crocodile Tears.”
AF “Crocodile Tears.” That’s a great title. It’s like “Snake Eyes.” Did you see the Madonna movie?
LB Yes, of course, Dangerous Game.
AF The original title was Snake Eyes. But there’s a porno film called Snake Eyes so we couldn’t use it as a title. MGM was afraid of getting sued. They had a generic list of titles to choose from. It’s funny, because whenever we are in between films and people say, what are you going to do next…
LB That’s all people ever say, isn’t it.
AF Yeah. So I used to say, “Snake eyes.”
LB Oh, I see, like rolling the dice.
AF Yeah, that’s what it means. Snake eyes is a losing hand. If you roll two ones, that’s a losing throw. When I wasn’t in a mood to get into a conversation, and people’d ask, what movie are you going to do next, I’d say, “Snake eyes.” And they’d go, Wow, sounds good, ‘cause there’s something about it that sounds official, but meanwhile there never was a movie that went with it. All we had was this title to shut people up.
LB You’re pretty good at doing that, aren’t you?
AF (laughter) Definitely.
LB You sound calmer. Something must have happened.
AF We admitted defeat.
LB No you didn’t. What happened between then and now? Something good, right?
AF I wouldn’t say good but we resolved something. I got some good legal advice, let’s put it that way.
LB Do you have all the locations for the film?
AF Yeah. Jersey City and Brooklyn. The story takes place in Mount Vernon. It’s the first town north of the Bronx. You know where the Bronx is?
LB Yeah. When you lived in Peekskill you came into New York to look at Warhol movies?
AF Yeah yeah yeah. Joe Dallesandro, Pasolini…
LB Italian new realist cinema.
AF Do you like Godard?
LB I like Breathless and Pierrot Le Fou and Masculin Feminin and Vivre So Vie and Week-End.
AF The last one was good, Nouvelle Vague.
LB So how did you get that break with Edward Pressman?
AF What do you mean, “break?” Bad Lieutenant was less than $2 million. We did big films before him. Fear City, ever see that one? With Tom Berenger and Melanie Griffith.
LB Not yet.
AF China Girl was way bigger than Bad Lieutenant.
LB Oh, because of all the action sequences with the gangs. It seems like Edward Pressman backs good films.
AF No, no, he’s a great producer.
LB How do you feel about making so-called Hollywood movies?
AF Which one?
LB Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
AF I liked that film. But it was the typical process. It’s not a film I feel like doing every day.
LB You have less control? Or more people to hassle with?
AF Yeah. When the budget’s $20 million…
LB The pressure’s 20 million pounds on you.
AF Exactly. Ten times the pressure of a $2 million film.
LB I was wondering. Could we talk in person?
AF No, we can meet. Have you ever seen me? Have we ever met?
LB I’ve seen you on screen.
AF That was a long time ago.
AF I’m 44 now. It was just my birthday.
AF July 19.
LB You were probably too busy to notice.
AF Actually, I had a very interesting birthday.
LB What did you do?
AF I cried.
LB You cried?
AF No. (laughter)
LB I’m listening.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.