Abel Ferrara: ‘You can’t imagine the life I’ve led’

The Bronx filmmaker talks spirituality, creative bonds and his Italian-Irish roots

More than any other filmmaker, even those anointed by Cahiers du Cinéma at its peak, the American writer-director Abel Ferrara requires a degree of Francophone framing.    By any or all accounts, he's an agent provocateur, an enfant terrible, or a cinéaste maudit who bridges the gap between the arthouse and the grindhouse.    More precisely, as French biographer Nicole Brenez has it, he's an operator from the "crossroads of auteur cinema, industrial production and the underground counter-culture".    This unlikely intersection has produced a wild, Gomorran body of work, stretching from the rape-revenge fantasy of Ms 45 (1981) to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn inspired dissolution of Welcome to New York (2014).

Almost 50 years – not to mention 21 narrative features, half a dozen documentaries, and several music videos – into Ferrara’s career and the director of Bad Lieutenant and The King of New York is hitting his purplest and most prolific patch.

Last April, he premiered The Projectionist, a fond documentary portrait of the Cyprus-born, New York cinema manager Nick Nicolau, just ahead of the belated US release for Pasolini, a 2014 biopic chronicling the last days of the Italian auteur. He has recently wrapped Siberia, a new feature inspired by Carl Jung and Jack London. He also unveiled Tommaso, a hallucinogenic and autobiographical new drama, at last May's Cannes Film Festival.

This week, he’s scheduled to appear at the Lord Mayor of Dublin’s Mansion House to receive an honorary lifetime achievement award as part of the Eighth Silk Road International Film Festival. It’s his first visit to Ireland since the 1990s.   “There was a retrospective of my work at the time The Addiction came out,” he says. “I was hanging out with Bono from U2. He’s a friend of mine. That’s all I remember. I didn’t have much time to see the nation.”


Driller Killer

The Dublin tribute arrives within months of a major MOMA retrospective. The writer-director didn’t see any of this coming. “I think I was respected at university.” he recalls. “But when you’re going to Dublin and when you’re at the Museum of Modern Art, it’s a shock, you know? And you go: wow, that’s crazy; here I am; the guy that made Driller Killer. But that’s the life I got, and I’m going to enjoy it.”

I've been making a lot of documentaries recently and listen, every film is autobiographical

Ferrara's films frequently blur the line between reality and fantasy. The groundbreaking The Driller Killer, once dismissed in the UK as a "video nasty" starred Ferrera in the title role and was shot in his own Union Square apartment and surrounding streets. Dangerous Game seems to will the viewer into imagining that Harvey Keitel's LA-based New York director – presiding over Madonna and James Russo in a marital drama – is Ferrara himself. For Pasolini, Dafoe wore glasses and clothes belonging to the late Italian director.    "It's part of the process, man" says Ferrara in his appealing Bronx drawl. "It is what it is. I've been making a lot of documentaries recently and listen, every film is autobiographical. No matter what you disguise it as. In the end what are movies really about but the people that make them?"   Even within Ferrara's characteristically laid-bare oeuvre, Tommaso makes for a striking confessional. The film casts the filmmaker's regular muse Willem Dafoe as a fictionalised, titular version of the filmmaker. Like Ferrara, Tommaso attends a 12-step programme and struggles with prior transgressions and addictions. Also like Ferrara, Tommaso has built a new life in Rome with a younger wife (Christina Chiriac) and child (Anna Ferrara) – both played by Ferrara's real life wife and daughter – and the action takes place in their own apartment and adjacent blocks. Following on from the short doc, Alive in France, this is his second project to feature Chiriac and the younger Ferarra. The work, says the director, is "all one long home movie".

Beauty of films

“We do it because we love doing it and because it’s an expression of something,” says Ferrara. “That’s that’s the beauty of making films. It’s always positive. If it was not, I would stop. There are moments when everybody could try to kill each other but basically we love it. It’s powerful and it makes life better. It helps us understand things clearer and it gives us all a focus and a feeling of unity. We’re expressing ourselves to each other, you know? We make sense of each other through the work. Although for baby, with Anna, she’s going to give you two takes and then it’s pasta. So you better get it on the first or the second take. There is no negotiation with her.”   How much of the material is improvised?   “Only certain things are written down. It just depends on the situation and how we feel – especially how Willem feels about it. With certain things you don’t want to know too much; you want to be able to play around. But it’s all improvised in the sense that if you write something; that’s improvisation. Every second take is an improvisation on take one. So there’s no rules. It’s a process and that process is continuous until the editing and the end.”

Tommaso wanders between acting classes, Italian lessons and marital difficulties at home, seeking, as so many other Ferrara characters before him, some kind of inner peace, while simultaneously threatening to explode. Characteristically for the director, motifs and images from Catholicism, the religion he was raised in, and ideas from Buddhism, align. Indeed, watching Tommaso, it’s impossible not to think back to the closing words of the director’s tremendous 1995 vampire drama, The Addiction: “self-revelation is annihilation of self.” Or, indeed, the central drama of Bad Lieutenant, by which the necessary act of self-redemption is also an act of self-destruction.

Annihilation of self

“It’s a spiritual character trying to live a spiritual life,” says Ferrara. “It’s all the same stuff at the end of the day. You are either spiritual or you’re not, regardless of religion, regardless of what you’re actually practising. Buddhism isn’t even a religion. It’s the idea of compassion, the idea of community and the idea of annihilation of self and to get away from the egotistical sense of I. I was brought up Catholic. Big time. And now I live in Rome. But it turns out in Rome there as many atheists as there are crucifixes.”

You are either spiritual or you're not, regardless of religion, regardless of what you're actually practising

Over the past five decades, Ferrara has presided over a changing troupe of players and collaborators, including writer Nicholas St John, writer and actor Zoe Lund, composers Paul Hipp and Joe Delia, cinematographers Ken Kelsch and Bojan Bazelli, and actors David Caruso, Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, Victor Argo, Matthew Modine, Lili Taylor, Forest Whitaker, Gretchen Mol, and Annabella Sciorra. Tommaso marks the director's fifth film with Willem Dafoe and they've already shot their sixth feature (which is the script that Dafoe's character is working on in Tommaso).    "We came to New York at the same time," says Ferrara. "He came from Wisconsin, way out west, I came from not far away, just upstate New York. Because we knew each other back in the day, we had that experience of New York in the 1970s and the 1980s. When we first started working together, it was a gradual thing. Slowly become stronger. We're like a group. We have this very strong sense of community and he's part of that. He comes from a big family so he brings that to the group. There are other players – the cameraman, the editor – and he's the actor."

Super 8 origins

Abel Ferrara, who is of Irish and Italian descent, was born in the Bronx in 1951. He began shooting on Super 8 as a teenager, an interest that coalesced into an ambition after one fateful double bill.     “I saw Mean Streets and The Conformist back-to-back on the same afternoon and I knew I was to be a filmmaker or die,” wrote Ferrara in the foreword to Clayton Patterson’s Captured. “Watching films was more or less over for me.”

“My mother’s maiden name was O’Brien,” he tells me. “No one on the Italian side was artistic. I found out years later, going back many hundreds of years, there were painters in the family. But on the Irish side my uncle was a vaudeville song and dance man and that was pretty cool. I grew up in a working-class environment. My mother was from a very poor Irish prohibition-era family. She lost her mother and her father early. The arts wasn’t any kind of alternative but as far as she was concerned anything was better than going to jail so she wasn’t complaining.”

I saw Mean Streets and The Conformist back-to-back on the same afternoon and I knew I was to be a filmmaker or die

After graduating from SUNY Purchase film school, Ferrara struggled to find work and ended up pseudonymously directing a porn film (9 Lives of a Wet Pussy) before making a splash with the 16mm-shot The Driller Killer (1979) and Ms 45 (1981). The gritty disreputability of those early features has never completely gone away. A chronicler of New York, more than Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, or Spike Lee, Ferrara is a street poet who focuses on crooked cops, mobsters, drug dealers, kidnappers and ne'er do wells trying to turn things around.    After 9/11 he headed to Europe, finally settling in Rome. It's been fascinating to watch his subsequent trans-Atlantic career, commuting between New York set projects (including 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Welcome to New York) and such Italian-based films as Pasolini, Piazza Vittorio and Tommaso.    "You know you become the place you're in," says Ferrara. "Your environment shapes you. I've been working on and off in Rome for 20 years. I'm living there permanently since we had the baby. And I have Italian roots to begin with. They're more southern than Rome. But that town sneaks up on you."

At 68, Ferrara is busier than ever and determined to keep it that way.  "I'm shooting all the time," he says. "I would never stop except it takes time to put these movies together. There is no plan, man. I take it day by day. You can't imagine the life I've led. That's why I'm really grateful that I'm still working. I'm so grateful that I have a daughter who actually has my mother's eyes and my mother's hair. That's crazy. You got to be grateful. You got to take it day by day."  Abel Ferrara will attend the Silk Road International Film Festival at the IFI on Wed Jan 22nd for a Q&A following the Irish premiere screening of Tommaso