This article was published in the Guardian, on August the 6th, 2010.
Images courtesy of Tim Knox. To see more of his work, click here.
Of all the great New York movie directors, none has captured the city’s restless energy better than Abel Ferrara. But while Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese have become establishment figures, while Spike Lee and John Cassavetes have been feted, Ferrara has largely been ignored. Although he has never stopped making films, it is now more than a decade since his last cinematic release.
His best known movies, Bad Lieutenant and King Of New York, are set in the dangerous but creatively fertile period that began with hip-hop and ended with an influx of corporate money, marshalled by mayor Rudy Giuliani. His anti-heroes are gangsters, junkies and cops, living on the margins in the heart of Manhattan. Ferrara is the punk poet laureate of a city that no longer exists.
When funding for his projects dried up in 2003, he moved to Italy. But for three years, he’s been back home, downtown. “It’s the best place to shoot. I know the neighbourhoods,” he says. “The light is really nice here, for some reason.”
For Ferrara fans, this is cause for excitement. Last year’s spat with Werner Herzog over Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans generated plenty of publicity, in an industry where name recognition is everything. Warner Brothers reportedly agreed to finance his version of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, starring Forrest Whitaker and rapper 50 Cent. Finally, it seemed like his career was on the rise again.
A lifetime of broken Hollywood promises has made him wary. “I don’t care if I get $50 million to do a film,” he says. “My existence is about making movies, so I’ve just got to rock and roll with the punches. You want to make movies on telephones, I’m there.”
Ferrara lives on Mulberry Street, Little Italy’s last drag, hemmed in between Chinatown and Soho. We arrange to meet in a nearby bar, but when the jukebox plays New York, New York twice in a row, it’s time to leave. It’s only a few metres to his flat, but that’s far enough to be stopped by a group of tourists, eager to talk movies. He politely waves them off.
“Follow me,” he says, leading us into a restaurant kitchen. It’s only a simple galley, but passing through it reminds me of the shot in Goodfellas, when Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco enter the Copacabana via the basement. Ferrara has been granted the freedom of Little Italy. Each time he finishes a beer, he takes another from the fridge without asking.
The summer he returned, he made a documentary called Mulberry Street, about the annual Feast of San Gennaro. Shot with a handheld digital camera, ambushing interviewees in the crowd, it portrays a neighbourhood running on nostalgia, a caricature of its former self. The ghosts of Mean Streets and the Godfather still attract visitors, but the mob guys are gone, to the suburbs and New Jersey.
“Mulberry Street was the beating heart of the Italian-American experience but you don’t find those gangsters now,” Ferrara says. “My father was a gangster, and it’s funny coming back here because he’s just passed. I live with a bunch of Chinese yuppies and models. On this block there’s not an Italian-American left.”
His documentary topped the bill at this year’s New York Independent Film Festival, in the company of a thousand other undistributed films. Ferrara’s last movie to get a run on the big screen was The Funeral, in 1996 – a superb mafia tragedy, starring Christopher Walken, Chris Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Isabella Rosselini and Vincent Gallo.
Five years ago, his exploration of spiritual crisis, Mary, starring Juliette Binoche, swept the board at the Venice Film Festival, but didn’t reach American cinemas. The only way to watch his most recent films is to download them illegally.
In France, Ferrara is considered an auteur: a worthy disciple of Jean-Luc Godard, whose maxim – “cinema is truth, 24 frames a second” – he adopted as his own. In Britain, he is regarded as a sensationalist lowlife whose films rely on gratuitous nudity, drug use and violence. Highbrow critical opinion can be summed up by a New Yorker review of The Addiction: “Abel Ferrara has made some interestingly lousy films; this one is just lousy.”
His official debut, The Driller Killer, was actually his second movie. The first, Nine Lives Of A Wet Pussy, was straightforward porn, starring his girlfriend, her friends and a hired cast of studs, one of whom had difficulty rising to the occasion. “It’s bad enough paying a guy $200 to fuck your girlfriend, he can’t get it up,” Ferrara remembers. The crew drew lots, and he lost, thus making his first appearance in front of the camera.
When The Driller Killer arrived in Britain in 1982, straight to VHS without certification, it was cited by Mary Whitehouse as one of the “video nasties” corrupting our youth. It does, as advertised, show people being murdered with a power tool. It’s also a vivid depiction of artistic alienation, full of evocative shots of New York, but that didn’t matter to the Daily Mail.
Ferrara takes pride in his capacity to shock. “They used to have these charts of how many people were killed in a movie, how many curse words,” he says. “Well, King Of New York made Scarface look like Mary Poppins.” The film has become a hip-hop favourite, partly because of the flamboyant terrorism waged by Walken, Larry Fishburne and their gang.
Ferrara pulls out his phone and finds a photograph of 50 Cent, sitting in the restaurant. “He could be an awesome Ed Hyde. He’s the real deal. But it’s not gonna get made,” he says. “Warner Brothers have put up about one fifth of what the film should cost and want about one third of what it’s gonna make, and I’m supposed to kiss the feet of whoever made that deal.” Ferrara has a big laugh, which he employs often. This time, it comes out as a mirthless chuckle.
“They never made Jekyll & Hyde the way it was written. It’s a guy and his creation. Having one actor play both parts is an abomination, a distortion of Stevenson’s story,” he says. “It’s a masterpiece. I’m gonna make it one day.” Filming was supposed to start this summer but has been put on hold indefinitely.
Ferrara has made two studio films, Dangerous Game and Bodysnatchers, but his reputation is for shooting fast, with few takes, placing extraordinary faith in his cast to deliver intense performances. Actors like Walken and Harvey Keitel who enjoy this freedom – and pressure – have returned to work with him several times. Even Madonna, who trashed Dangerous Game when it came out, admits that it’s her best performance as an actress.
Bad Lieutenant follows Keitel around New York as he investigates the rape of a nun, committing every sin imaginable, before finding something like absolution. The DVD comes with one of the great director’s commentaries, in which Ferrara and his cinematographer Ken Kelsch reveal how much was filmed on the fly, without any kind of permit.
The camera follows Keitel into a hospital, past real doctors and nurses, who are “probably grateful he’s not coming in with a gunshot wound”. When Zoe Lund, who wrote the film, is shown shooting up, she really is injecting heroin. New York looks unusually raw, for a movie, because the extras are going about their lives, as Keitel drives past like a maniac, snorting cocaine off his hand with the siren blaring.
Herzog took the name and concept, hired Nicolas Cage and transferred the action to New Orleans. He initially claimed not to have heard of Ferrara, who was quoted expressing a wish that everyone involved in the new film would “die in hell” for stealing his idea. To the disappointment of gossip columnists, the row fizzled out in Venice, where Herzog suggested resolving their differences over a bottle of whisky.
Although the meeting never happened, Ferrara evidently respects the German’s dedication to uncompromising film-making. In Dangerous Game, he included a clip of Herzog talking about his doomed epic, Fitzcarraldo.
“I don’t have a problem with Werner Herzog,” he says now. “I got a problem with the guys who took our idea and when we did it for nothing, for sweat and blood, made it for $12 million, without one person from our crew on the project. But now they called me back and said ‘let’s do Bad Lieutenant 3’ so I’m their biggest fan.”
He could do with a commercial hit, I suggest, to increase the opportunities available to him. This makes him angry. “What is someone going to knock on my door and offer me: the ability to make another film? I don’t need them,” he says. “My life is proof that I don’t need you to do what I do. If there’s no-one to see it, I’ll watch it. I don’t give a fuck. Making money is not gonna change anything about what I am, except I won’t answer the door.” He laughs, breaking the tension. “We got a great place to do this interview, we’re drinking for nothing. What more can you ask for in life?”
Ferrara never watches movies and rarely listens to music, preferring to play his guitar. He’s working on a film called The Last Day On Earth, about what would happen if everyone knew the world was ending. He trusts that the money will come from somewhere.
“The minute you have to raise one dollar, you’re in a world of shit, a world of compromise,” he says. “But I’m never gonna get to a point in my life where what it costs to shoot a movie is going to determine what it is. The limits of my imagination is the only thing that’s gonna stop me.”