Abel Ferrara is a cult figure, a director known for directing the kinds of scenes like one in the original Bad Lieutenant (1992), starring Harvey Keitel, as he drives around real New York streets snorting coke off his hand and having a full, N-word screaming breakdown. All shot without permits, rolling through neighborhoods full of people who weren’t extras, mind you. Ferrara is the kind of guy I’d heard had his actress shoot real heroin on the same set, whose movies were and are always getting threatened with an NC-17 rating, and who’s more or less thought of as the least compromising of the filmmakers who came out of New York in the seventies, Scorsese among them. In short, he’s the kind of interview that scares the shit out of me.
Drafthouse offered me the chance to talk to Ferrara to promote their re-release of Ferrara’s cult classic Ms. 45, a 1981 revenge movie starring the pillow-lipped and pert-breasted Zoe Lund (then Zoe Tamerlis, who later co-wrote Bad Lieutenant) as a mute seamstress who goes on a killing rampage after she gets raped twice in the same morning (sidenote: think about what it says about New York in 1981 that this was a conceivable plot). It opens in New York and Austin this weekend, and goes wide after that (full schedule here). I tentatively agreed to the interview, if only because it seemed like I should, and luckily they said it’d be over the phone, which seemed safer, as it minimized the chances he might stab me if things went really south. But after only a few minutes on the phone with Ferrara, I learned what now seems like an obvious truth: the people you’re most scared to interview tend to make the best interviews.
Ferrara has a few movies in the works, like a project about Italian filmmaker Pier Pasolini and IMF sex guy Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but mostly we talked about the early years, the competitive world of filmmaking in New York in the seventies and eighties, and once having to perform in his own porno when the talent couldn’t (“It’s bad enough paying a guy $200 to fuck your girlfriend, then he can’t get it up,” Ferrara once said.). Enjoy.
“This isn’t for the poetry type guys.”
Vince Mancini: So did you move back to Italy, or are you still in New York?
Abel Ferrara: I’m in Rome. We’re doing a film about Pasolini [starring Willem Dafoe], so we’re preparing it now.
V: Are you living in New York other than that?
A: Yeah I been livin’ in Brooklyn.
V: You grew up in New York, right?
A: Yeah I grew up in the Bronx.
V: What was the New York where you grew up like, compared to now?
A: Well you know the Bronx in the ’50s was really, you know, kind of a paradise. I make movies since I was a kid, you know what I mean? It was a very Italian-American enclave. Moss, Park Avenue, this area. We all went to Catholic school and it was all Italians and Jews. Movie-wise, the theaters were like these big giant, sittin’ up in the balcony, they really kind of matched the churches we used to go to on Sunday, you know what I mean? In terms of the presentation of what was going to happen. It was very high-level, you were there, you were gonna see something special and usually you did.
V: It was going to be a big deal.
A: Yeah everything was a big deal back then.
V: When did you get into filmmaking? What initially brought you to it?
A: I started making films around like 15 or 16 years old. I grew up in the ’60s so, I was living in suburbia, this town in upstate New York. I met the cat who became my screenwriter in life, and also a guy who kept making films with me. So we were like kids, growin’ up during the Beatle era—playing guitars, post-beatnik, On The Road kinda dudes, ya know. We were gonna be artists one way or another. We weren’t going to drive trucks. At least we hoped we weren’t, ya dig? So we started playing guitars, then we thought we’d have a better chance making movies for a living.
V: Why did you think that?
A: Because we played so f*ckin’ bad! My uncle auditioned our band for his club, and he told me, “You wanna make money in the music business? Sell your instruments.” So, if your uncle tells you that I think you’re better off changing f*ckin’ gears. Ya know, we loved movies. We were making movies, it was a thing that wasn’t so outrageous at the time. There were Super 8 cameras; people did it. Spielberg made a f*ckin’ feature-length film with he was twelve or thirteen. So, not that I knew he was doing it, but you kind of felt it in the air. It was just something we did. It wasn’t an outrageous thing. Then it became the late ’60s and we had our own thing, it was something that we could do, ya dig?
V: Yeah. I read in one of your other interviews that one of your first movies was a porno that you ended up shooting. [The 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, 1976]
A: And acting in, actually. Yeah at first we were making films, and we went through all kinds of learning experiences with different short movies, this that and the other thing. And then [this was] our first, I guess real attempt at surviving, making money at your craft. Those were the choices: you could either make a porno film, or not. Or be a kinda Stan Brakhage experimental filmmaker. So we chose the other way.
V: I read that you ended up starring because the original guy couldn’t perform, and then you had to draw straws or something.
A: That’s exactly what happened. I got the short straw, so to speak. They were all girlfriends, anyway, at the time, if you can imagine the lifestyle we were living. They weren’t really porno actresses, but I mean they were some topless go-go dancers in some pretty sleazy clothes. It was like 1975, we were kids, what the f*ck did we know? At that time it seemed like an exorbitant amount of money to f*ck your girlfriend, and he couldn’t even get it up, I mean, that’s kind of an insult. So we just tossed him and jumped in ourselves. It seemed like a natural thing to do at the time. It sounds kind of ridiculous, you know, [laughs] it sounds more outrageous than it actually was.
V: Well it seemed like back then, making porno and making mainstream films wasn’t as different as it is now.
A: Nah, I mean pornography was the mainstream films. Debbie Does Dallas, Deep Throat, these are the films that were the Top 10 films. There was no digital, there was no going home and watching movies, or watching movies with your iPhone. You had to buy a ticket and sit in the audience. It’s like today, sex is a spectator sport.
Bad Lieutenant, 1992
V: Right, but you still had to have the filmmaking chops to get it made back then.
A: Yeah you gotta know how to make movies. By that time we’d been making movies for ten years. We were just out of school but we knew what the f*ck we were doing. We started at 16 and kept shootin’ until we figured it out.
V: What was the process of raising money to shoot stuff back then?
A: The same as now, man. You gotta get somebody that trusts you, that has some confidence in you, that has confidence in what you’re doing, and you have to have confidence that you’re going to get the money back. I haven’t really, even to this day, am I going to take money from somebody unless I feel in my heart that he’s going to get it back, or he’s going to have an experience worth the amount of money he’s given me. You know what I mean? So it’s the same. We’re not begging on the street for money, though it might look like it [laughs]. It’s a business proposition, you get what I’m sayin’? Though it’s a pretty funky business.
V: Compared to being able to actually make a good movie, how important is it to be able to convince someone that you can make a good movie?
A: I’d like to say it’s the same thing, but I’ve seen too many really talented cats just fall by the wayside because they couldn’t deal with it. They couldn’t handle it. They couldn’t prostitute them—not the movie—but themselves. They couldn’t get to it. Wheelin’ and dealin’ in a capitalist situation. If you want to make a movie you gotta raise anywhere from 50 to hundreds of millions of dollars. I mean maybe you could do it for nothing, but even down low you’re making them for thirty thousand, fifty, a hundred, even on your phone you’re going to need money. It’s all relative. There’s a lot of great films that have never been made, just because the cats couldn’t—and you see a lot of real talented directors that, after one or two films, burnt out. You see a film and think, “Cool film” you see the next one and it’s even better. Where are they? Well they just couldn’t take it anymore. They were too sensitive to the game. This isn’t for the poetry type guys. This isn’t for the poetry-writing, water color drawing type people, you know.
V: You gotta be capitalistic about it.
A: Yeah, you know what I’m saying.
V: And that part never bothered you?
A: I had no choice, man, because that’s what we were. It was either filmmaking or driving a truck. I don’t know what we were going to do. We’re not good at taking orders, so we couldn’t be waiters. We’re not going to work our way through some place. I dunno, everyone has their special gift and that was ours. We knew it, and were happy to have it, and kept at it. And it’s paid off one or another. What does Bruce say? You gotta prove it all night. [Yes, he means Springsteen.]
V: Watching Ms. 45, what sort of struck me about it was, you know, watching a movie that came out 30 years ago and wasn’t shot on a huge budget, it struck me that it looked better, visually, than a lot of movies that come out now. Do you see a lot of movies now? What do you think about them, visually?
A: I don’t see a lot of movies now, but I see more international, and I see the gamut of them. Back in the early ’80s, there was I think a tradition in New York of a certain kind of film. Godfather, Manhattan, you know, Marty [Scorcese] shootin’ with [Michael] Chapman. It might have been a territorial thing, but there was a New York vibe, and a New York way of shootin’ that really upped the ante. You’re showing your dailies in the laboratory, and they better look like this other guy’s stuff, ya dig? In movie making, money is no f*ckin’ excuse. It doesn’t cost anything to set up a cool looking shot. You gotta f*ckin’ own up. You gotta man up and get it. I think Ms. 45 is very indicative of a—and I think the people I was working with, who were all kind of young union guys that wanted to show their bosses they could do it too. I think that movement that, even the filmmaking from [Owen] Roizman, who was another one of these great DPs from New York, like The French Connection, even though it was a wonderful film, it’s a different style of movie that’s very indigenous to late-’70s, early-’80s New York. From the lab equipment, from the soundhouse that did the sound for these guys. I mean, the sound was mixed where they mixed Woody’s movies. It was a point where we’re not in school, we’re not playing games, people are actually buying tickets here. People pay $5, they better be able to see the f*ckin’ movie.
V: When I watched this, to me it’s sort of like difference between music then and now, where there’s not as much dynamic range now. It seems similar with film, where back then you had wide shots, close shots. Whereas now, everything’s sort of shrill, and there’s always noise going on, and there’s no negative space.
A: Yeah, I hear you bro, I know what you’re saying. First of all, with films too, I mean, the economic situation for a lot of people—unless you’re making a $300 million movie with fake people and 3D—the economics are down. The style of working digitally also eliminates a lot of people, which eliminates a lot of texture. It’s hard for me to explain why, but it’s very personal and it gets to be very digital. A lot of people put a lot of work to get that soundtrack. The soundtrack to Raging Bull, of King of New York, those kind of movies, they’re almost… gone. They’re extinct. You’re not going to hear it anymore. You’re not going to see it anymore. The labs are even gone. I’m shootin’ the new film about Pascellini, and I absolutely will not shoot it unless it’s on negative. That style of of filmmaking is long gone, bro.
King of New York, Ferrara (1990)
V: What do you think are the landmark movies from that era that, people my age, you kind of have to see to know what that era was?
A: Raging Bull, Manhattan, Zelig, I mean there’s a bunch of them. New York in that era, there’s other ones that I can’t even think of—
V: Sorry to put you on the spot. So, in the movie I was wondering, how much of Ms. 45 is about the predatoriness of New York and how much is about the predatoriness of sex, specifically?
A: It’s like with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, which is again, somebody said to me, “oh you’re back to making rape movies.” Well I guess people are still raping other people, you know? Power on power, or abusing women, or abusing someone who can’t speak. I think it’s indicative of that period. Was New York City more violent? Yeah, way more violent. But it was more violent in the crack days, the drug days. The period around Bad Lieutenant was more violent but, ’75 or ’76, just see it. See Taxi Driver. It’s in the background. You’re almost seeing crimes being committed in the background, ya dig? It’s an economic-type situation, but just because they gentrify New York, when you get people being oppressed, it’s no excuse and you can’t live it, you gotta look the other side of it, and it’s there. In Ms. 45 it was a dangerous city. Those neighborhoods were bad. They were dangerous because they were dangerous, and not because we created that danger, or we were paranoid.
V: Last question I guess, what does she say at the end of Ms. 45? I couldn’t figure it out.
A: She says, “Sistah!”
V: Sister, okay.
A: Be cool.
V: Thanks a lot for talking to me.