Packing a voice that’s sounds like a New York accent filtered through gravel and a filmmaking resume comprised exclusively of uncompromising darkness, Abel Ferrara is a pretty intimidating provocateur. He’s also a genuine artist who sprung from the exploitation movie marketplace with art film aspirations and now brings a little of the old grit with him to art house fare. HIs career began with self-explanatory shock titles like Driller Killer and Ms. 45, then matured through the likes of King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, and The Addiction. These days, his hair is white and his wrinkles have wrinkles, but the work remains just as incendiary and he’s more productive than ever.
Ferrara’s last film Welcome to New York just premiered at Cannes and now his latest film Pasolini has come to this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. As the title suggests, it’s about the legendary Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini with Ferrara’s latest muse Willem Dafoe in the title role. It follows the final days of Pasolini’s life, finishing up his still controversial masterpiece Salo, working on some unfinished projects, engaging in a few heated debates with critics, visiting friends, and finally getting murdered under mysterious circumstances. In other words, it’s perfect Ferrara subject matter. Collider got a chance to chat with Ferrara during his visit to TIFF about his latest movie, shooting some of Pasolini’s unfinished scripts, battling over Body Snatchers, and the possibility (or not) of a Driller Killer 2. Hit the jump for all the details.
ABEL FERRARA: Well, how do you separate him from the movies? It’s all the same thing, man.
How did you settling on making the film about the last few days of his life, then?
FERRARA: Well, had done 4:44, the last day on earth movie. So we had that structure and liked it. The guy was ever-changing. The way he was three years before wasn’t that guy. If you’re doing the last day of his life or you’re doing every day of his 57 years, the movie’s still 90 minutes long. So, really time is neither here nor there. Fuck it. This just brought focus to where he was at, you know.
What led to your decision to shoot some of Pasolini’s stories and an unfilmed screenplay for your film?
FERRARA: They were part of the research. This is what he was writing. The day he died, he was in the middle of a 1700 page novel. He had two screenplays that he was about to make. One was a modern day version of St. Paul, which was pretty off the hook. Porno-Teo-Kolossal was the film he was going to do with DeFilippo and Davoli. So these were the things he was working on the day he died, or at least in that 24 or 36 hour window that we were doing. This was all the stuff that was right there.
Was that material that’s been available or things that you found in private collections?
FERRARA: Um, they just published the screenplay about St. Paul in English. You should read it, it’s pretty cool. Porno-Teo-Kolossal he talked into a tape recorder, never wrote it down. It’s pretty powerful listening to him explain his movie. He was a great screenwriter on top of everything else.
So when you shot that material, were you trying to shoot it as you imagined he would?
FERRARA: No, I’m just shooting it they way he wrote it. Just trying to be true to the vision. That’s why he’s brilliant. When he wrote a scene, you saw it, you felt it, you smelled it. The actors felt it. The crew got it. He was writing cinema, man. So I was basically just given a great screenplay and that’s half the gig.
FERRARA: Well, we interviewed 90 people. He was one in 90. That’s all. We don’t know if he really killed him. He says he killed him, but who the hell knows what happened that night?
How’d you end up with Willem Dafoe as Pasolini?
FERRARA: Because we’ve done movies, you know. He’s my actor now. Well, not my actor, but he’s the actor for the team. When we decide we’re making films, I’m deciding with him now. A director without an actor is kind of fruitless. The process between us begins with deciding what movie we’re going to do. We decide that together. Then at least we agree on that. We can fight later on.
Would you ever cast him as yourself? Because aside from sharing similar sensibilities, you both even look oddly alike.
FERRARA: Well, he’s playing me already, obviously. Who the hell else is he playing? We’re playing each other here. We’ve got a very similar background. There’s a lot of parallels. The characters we’re doing together now are somewhere between him and me. That’s why we do it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
So, this movie was financed in Italy—
FERRARA: Italy, France, and Belgium.
And the last one Welcome To New York was also financed out of Europe, right?
FERRARA: Yeah, Chechnian and France.
Is it not even worth it for you to look for the money to make the type of movies that interest you in America at this point?
FERRARA: No. In terms of the kind of films we make, in terms of artistic control, in terms of the subject matter, it’s just not fucking worth it. I mean, you could probably do it. But then you could also probably hit lottery, you know?
How do you find working with Italian crews?
FERRARA: Great, I’ve been there for three or four movies now. They’re great. They learn to speak my language more that I learn to speak their language. I still don’t know if they understand English, but they understand me.
FERRARA: That’s fucking funny.
Yeah, just because you never hear a filmmaker being so honest about their own work like that. How do you feel about it now? It was hard to tell because you clearly enjoyed making fun of it so much.
FERRARA: Well, what can you do? It’s a memory to me now, but it’s a very, very fond memory. It was one of our first features. There were guys on it who I still work with. We were at the beginning of our fucking careers. It was a film that got out there. It is what it is. Am I going to sit there and watch it and judge now? No! But somebody wants to give me money to do it? Then I do it. I don’t know who came up with the idea of these audio commentaries, but I’d like to strangle the guy. I mean, there’s no precedent for it. How do you do it? If you really wanted to do it right, forget it. It would take you longer than making the movie to do a proper commentary on a film. To try and do it on the fly while the film is running, by the time you’re done with one thing you’re ten minutes into the film and missed ten other things. It’s ridiculous. But you know, in those days if somebody put cash on the table, god knows the shit we would do.
Would you ever do a commentary for the movie that you made before Driller Killer?
FERRARA: What? Nine Lives of A Wet Pussy? I think I did. Look, what are you gonna do? It’s a thing we did. That’s the reality. We wanted to do it. We did it. Nobody put a gun to our head. It is what it is.
How do you feel about acting? I always enjoy seeing you pop up in those early movies?
FERRARA: Well, I’ve done it a few times to help friends out. But compared to the actors I use? Gimme a break. Believe me, if I thought I could do better than the guys I got, I would do it. But I’m going to come close to any of these guys.
Do you miss the days with that exploitation movie market that you started in?
FERRARA: Well, I mean I could probably get financed for Driller Killer 2 if I felt like putting that fucking portapack back on. I just don’t have that kind of anger right now. I don’t know about the blood anymore. Right now, maybe? It depends. I’m a slave to my imagination, you dig? If it takes me there, I’ll go there.
FERRARA: I’m working on another little something with Willem playing (loooooong pause). I’ll tell you another time when it’s a little further developed. We’re still knocking shit around. This is the thing. The ultimate myth of Sisyphus. We just finished film and rolled that fucking rock up the hill and now we gotta do it again.
Did you ever see Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant?
FERRARA: Nah, who cares? I wouldn’t be interested in it at all. I talked to Werner about it actually. I bumped into him a few weeks ago. Turns out, he was never making Bad Lieutenant. They renamed the film on him. He wanted to call it Port Of Call and they promised him that was the title, but then Ed Pressman got other ideas. Fucking guy…
FERRARA: Oh yeah, we’re really fond of it. We hung in there and we fought for that film. That was the last movie we ever made without contractual final cut and we fought for what we wanted big time. Tony Redman the editor and Nicky St John my writer, they fought man. I don’t know how they dealt with those guys at Warner Brothers, but they did. You know, it’s just such a strong piece of material. Jack Finney, that fucking guy. It’s just such a powerful piece of writing that he delivered. Don Siegel’s film is pretty strong too and Philip Kaufman’s movie ain’t bad either. We fit right in there.
Alright, I’ve gotta go now, but it was great to chat with you and please keep making movies.
FERRARA: Oh, yeah. Don’t you worry about that, kid. We’ll keep rocking, keep fucking rocking till the day we die (At this point, Ferrara flung his arms into the air triumphantly and stumbled out of the room. A legend.)