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Fearless and candid filmmaker

In one of the world’s great film directors THEO PANAYIDES meets a man with surging energy and compassion for all, ever since giving up wild living to thank God for a ‘low-key boring life’

Abel Ferrara doesn’t really make eye contact. Sitting in the lobby of the Mediterranean Beach Hotel in Limassol (he’s here for a week, as president of the jury at the Cyprus Film Days festival), he answers all my questions but gazes at a spot just above my right shoulder, as if seeking inspiration in the ebb and flow of tourists behind me. Talking to him – at least in interview mode – is a little like feeding a slot machine. You put in your coins, there’s a flurry of excitement, then you end up with some odd, sometimes brilliant permutation – the fact that you don’t know in advance what you’re going to get being, of course, part of the deal.

He rants, lobbing out words in the kind of Noo Yawk accent that requires a tightly clenched jaw. He shambles, hunched over like a man with a sack of potatoes. His chin juts out, his teeth are crooked, his hair a silver-grey crown perched atop a long, egg-shaped head. His energy is restless and impatient, even when he’s trying to be nice – which he is almost all the time these days, since converting to Buddhism in the late 00s (more on this later). His replies pick up steam, sometimes petering out, finding his way as he goes, peppered with constant ‘y’know’s, bits of antiquated hipster slang and casual f-bombs – speaking of which, note that this profile will contain some colourful language. It seems a shame to dilute the man.

“Could I have some water, please?” he calls at one point. A waitress apologises for not having come to us earlier, explaining that she wasn’t sure whether to interrupt (like I said, his energy is combustible). “The usual?” she asks, and he nods. ‘The usual’ turns out to be a large bottle of Perrier which he startles me by sticking in his mouth, still unopened – then he grips the top with his teeth and twists it off lustily before knocking the bottle back for a big gulp, ignoring the proffered glass.

10 years ago, this would’ve been a very different interview – if only because he certainly wouldn’t have been knocking back Perrier. Ferrara is one of the world’s great film directors but was also, for many years, notorious for his wild living, where ‘wild living’ is a euphemism for alcohol-and-drug addiction. “We never stopped,” he explains, ‘we’ being presumably a nod to himself and his crew of friends (or just the royal ‘we’, who knows). “From the day I smoked my first joint, we never stopped. We were like rock’n rollers, rebels, that was our – y’know, badge of honour, man.”

Could he function enough to make films while wasted?

“Obviously!” he barks with a dry laugh. “I mean, we made them all. We made all those films while we were users. But I was under the illusion that I couldn’t do it without it. You understand? I couldn’t shoot, I couldn’t edit, I couldn’t have a relationship with a woman, I couldn’t be interviewed by you unless I had – a couple of beers, couple of lines of blow, whatever bullshit. You understand?”

His films, especially in the 80s and 90s, reflect who he was at the time, adding fuel to his legend. Addiction courses through almost all of them, even the one actually named The Addiction (made in 1995); there’s drugged-out Harvey Keitel as the Bad Lieutenant (1992) – but also, for instance, 18-year-old Zoe Lund in one of his earliest films, Ms. 45 (1981), taking revenge on the men who raped her only to find herself becoming addicted to punishing sex in general (by the end, she’s trying to kill some random guy for kissing his girlfriend). That’s another strand, especially in the early films – most of them written by Ferrara’s childhood friend Nicholas St. John – the presence of guilt and punishment, harking back to his background as a “very heavy Catholic”.

He was born in The Bronx, staunchly Italian-American (though with an Irish mother). “My father was a blue-collar worker, basically. Some of his life he was a bookmaker, he was kind of a bar owner… Yeah, he was an interesting character”. The legend works best with the young Abel cast as a rebel and a street-brawler – but in fact he came “from a very supportive, loving family”, went to film school in upstate New York and generally grew up in the idyllic early 60s, “the quote-unquote real America” when the sky was the limit. Catholic schooling was imbibed as part of the culture. “Y’know, I’m a Buddhist now, but I didn’t become a Buddhist till I was 60 years old,” he raps out a little ruefully. (He’ll be 67 in July.) “So, at the time, we went through the whole process, y’know we had the Catholic shit beaten into us. It was the only game in town – and we kinda lived it, then we rebelled against it, then we denied it”. Catholic school meant nuns, few of whom spared the rod – but he bears them no ill-will. “As I think back, some of them were beautiful,” he muses, suddenly wistful. “Young, beautiful women – caught up in a fuckin’ sad game…”

This is the new Abel Ferrara, with compassion for everyone (it’s a word he invokes more than once). He quit drinking eight years ago, and stopped doing drugs six years ago. Did something tip the balance, or he just decided that enough was enough? “That’s a good question,” he shrugs, and quotes a line from his 1996 movie The Funeral, spoken by a priest to a family of gangsters: “I don’t think any of you are broken enough to believe in God”. Maybe that’s it, he offers, “when you get broken enough, then you get to that point. I was finally broken enough to – surrender to the different reality. It’s strange, because when you’re under the grip of the drugs and the alcohol you’re totally delusional, thinking these things are cool, everything’s cool… So how, at that point, you decide to give it up is really a miracle”.

Belief in a new kind of God was one thing, going from Catholic guilt to what he calls “the real Word of Jesus” – one of his lesser-known films, the 2005 Mary with Juliette Binoche as Mary Magdalene, was apparently instrumental in that life-change – to the teachings of Buddha. But his life also changed in more practical ways. The lifelong New Yorker crossed the Atlantic, and has lived in Rome for the past five years; his most recent film is a documentary called Piazza Vittorio, made for a mere €75,000, observing his neighbours on the multicultural square where he lives. One of those neighbours is the actor Willem Dafoe, who’s also godfather to Abel’s child – because that’s the other big change: Ferrara is newly married to Christina, his second wife (she’s a Moldavian actress, considerably younger than himself, whom he met on his 2014 film Pasolini), and the father of a three-year-old daughter.

What’s his lifestyle like nowadays?

“We take care of the baby,” he replies with a touch of impatience. “We hang out. We live a boring life, thank God. We work on trying to raise money for projects.” He hasn’t stopped making films, and indeed has a major one due to start shooting next year. “Y’know, I live a low-key, boring life. And like I say, thank fuckin’ God.”

What does he do for fun, though? Now that his old vices are safely in the past?

“Play the guitar. Just be with my friends. Be with Christina and the baby. And read, that’s my thing now. Well, I always used to read, reading is my thing”. He takes out his phone and shows me his recent purchases: Don DeLillo, Richard Ford, Marx, Solzhenitzyn, Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, a book on the siege of Leningrad during WWII, the letters of Osama bin Laden “that they found in that bunker”.

Does he miss New York?

“I think I do, but when I go back I realise that I don’t.” The 9/11 aftermath was New York at its best, he recalls; after that, however, it quickly deteriorated to become “a playground for fuckin’ very wealthy people”. He shakes his head grimly: “Even if I was rich, it’s like ‘I don’t get it, what the fuck is going on here?’. Ya know what I mean? You want a bottle of water and you gotta pay $8 for a fuckin’ Pellegrino in a designer fuckin’ – ya know what I’m saying? You gotta walk nine blocks to get it, I mean what the fuck is happening? The subways don’t run, because if you can’t afford an Uber – if you can’t afford an Uber, fuck you. Die. Yeah, it sucks, man”. Ferrara has never been overtly political (at least in his films) but I suspect that might change, especially as an American abroad looking back on his country and its businessman president.

“It’s like New York,” he says of the whole Trump mentality. “Unless you’re a multi-millionaire – die! Go fuckin’ someplace, and fuckin’ die. ’Cause no-one gives a fuck. Is that really what capitalism was, is that why these guys drove [sic] over on the fuckin’ Mayflower? These are spiritual people, that discovered my country. OK, not all of them. On the Mayflower half of them were spiritual, half were fuckin’ hustlers like this fuckin’ president”. Not that Europe is perfect, admittedly (Rome is “a fuckin’ fascist city”, as implied in Piazza Vittorio), but there’s something more on this side of the pond, a little more culture, a bit more “respect for the art”. Ferrara is something of a prophet without honour in the US – unlike his status in Europe, which surely played a role in his decision to relocate. There was even a year (2012) when revered French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma placed not one but two of his films – Go Go Tales and 4:44 Last Day on Earth – on its annual Top 10 list.

Abel Ferrara Portrait in his house in Rome, Italia

4:44 may also be his most Buddhist work, its premise being that the world is ending tomorrow morning (at 4:44am, to be precise). The film seems oddly undramatic, insofar as none of its characters do anything very memorable to mark their final hours – but that’s the point, that we live in the shadow of Death anyway (even if we don’t know when exactly it’s coming) and all we can do, in true Buddhist fashion, is to live in the moment. “One breath at a time,” affirms Ferrara, preferring not to dwell on the past – and meanwhile he forgives everyone, even the money-men/swindlers whom he railed against in the old days (working on the relative margins often brought him in contact with the sleazier end of the film-financing spectrum). “I heard this quote the other day,” he offers wryly: “‘When money comes in the room, God walks out’. But those films exist,” he adds pointedly, speaking of the ones that got buried in feuds and rights issues. “Whether three people seen [them], 300,000, three million – who knows what the future of those films is gonna be. But we stand by those films. And I’m grateful that we made them.”

His magnanimous mood is no accident. If you’re a former addict, now embarked on a clean-and-sober second life, then you have to forgive everyone – because it’s the only way you can also forgive yourself. Looking back, did he try to do good overall? Or was he just a nightmare?

He scoffs at the question. “Forget it,” he snaps. “When you’re using, you’re – you’re mad, a delusional ego-fuckin’-maniac chasing your own… y’know, it’s a disaster. You’re like a fuckin’ tsunami, ya know what I mean? And yeah, sometimes somebody’s in the eye of your storm, and it’s cool for very little [time], and then – y’know, the worst is gonna happen. I lived a very un-spiritual, fucked-up life. Y’know? And I did it for a long time. I’m trying to make amends for that”. He shakes his head: “Now at least I’m out. Believe me, I’m still far from – Buddha-hood. Far, far, far! But at least I’m making progress.”

Does he ever reconnect with people from the past, and try to apologise?

“I do it all the time. Absolutely. That’s part of it.” Most accept his contrition, but “some people, it’s never gonna be cool. And some you just can’t do it, because opening that door is gonna be even more painful than the way it is”. One of those in the third category may be his old friend Nicholas St. John, who has no writing credits after The Funeral in 1996. “He just had enough, man,” says Ferrara sadly. “He didn’t have a drug problem, didn’t have an alcohol problem, and I’m sure he was not overjoyed where everybody was going with that, you dig? He was a true spiritual person, a true talent”. (The two are no longer in touch.) Then there’s a fourth category, those who are no longer here to connect with, or apologise to. Zoe Lund, the star of Ms. 45, died at 37, a heroin addict. Chris Penn, whose performance in The Funeral won a prize at Venice, died at 40. ‘You really got something great out of him,’ I say, but Ferrara shakes his head: “It’s all him. He was a great actor… He felt good, man, he was in a good spot. But y’know, him and I were fuckin’ drinking and drugging, and it wasn’t good. I wish I could’ve been there for him, but I wasn’t. Not the directing and acting, he didn’t need me then, as much as he needed me when we said ‘Cut’. I was, like, in worse shape than him, so I wasn’t in any position to help him.”

In the end, the one thing I really wanted to learn from Abel Ferrara – how he’s managed to elicit so many no-holds-barred performances from alpha-male actors, not just Penn but also Harvey Keitel, or Gerard Depardieu in Welcome to New York (2014) – is the one thing we barely talk about. “I don’t think I got anything out of them that they don’t have in them,” he shrugs, making it sound like he pointed the camera and let them get on with it. I suspect the legend helped, the director’s notoriety giving them licence to go out on a limb – but they also surely responded to Ferrara’s own surging energy, his impatience and fearlessness and personal candour. There’s just something that draws you along with the man. We’ve been talking for an hour, and I find myself out of questions; we say goodbye but I can’t quite detach, still a bit dazed by his volatile presence. “Lemme go, bro,” he says with sudden, surprising benevolence, claps me on the shoulder, and shambles away into the lobby.

 

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