Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Abel Ferrara

The Gospel According to Abel

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Bronx-born Abel Ferrara, 54, is among the upper echelon of American directors -- so unique that he can only secure financing overseas. Americans don't like such risky artists. Although his Bad Lieutenant (1992) was a considerable art-house success, and his Ms. 45 (1981) and King of New York (1990) have each earned the title "cult classic," his last four films, including the new Mary, have struggled to find distribution in their own country. Mary tells the story of an actress (Juliette Binoche) playing and becoming obsessed with Mary Magdalene and a film director (Matthew Modine) who casts himself as Jesus. The film may have hit a timing jackpot with the current Da Vinci Code frenzy. The maverick director recently spoke to me by phone.

Q: How did you and Nicholas St. John get started in movies?

AF: We just started. We were in high school. It was that period in the 1960s. You were either in a band or you were an artist or you made movies. But I can't draw a straight line, and my playing is a little -- after 40 years, my [guitar] playing has gotten at little bit better.

Q: Can you please tell me what you have coming up?

AF: The Last Crew, it's not the prequel of King of New York. Michael Pitt stars as a young gangster. He's from a very royal Mafioso family. They have the option of being anything they want. It's a coming of age film of these young guys, 22, 23 years old. It's 1978, and it's the last hurrah of the Mafioso, just before the Rico Act, an unconstitutional act that was put on the books in the beginning of the '80s, solely especially to bring down the mob, which they did. It takes place in Canarsie, Brooklyn, and Studio 54; it's the glamour when everything goes.

Q: Some writers have speculated that the Matthew Modine filmmaker character in Mary is a cross between you and Mel Gibson.

AF: He's playing a director. Matty has already directed films. I don't know if he knows Mel. I don't know Mel. We had fun with the character. We called him "Tony Ray-Ban." Don't give a fuck about nobody. He's directed a movie about Jesus and he cast himself. He's being crucified with a pair of sunglasses.

Q: You've told stories before about filmmakers and actors, specifically Dangerous Game and The Blackout. Does this help you air your frustrations about the business?

AF: It's obviously something we know about. I don't know why it comes around to that, but... yeah. It's funny with all these reality shows. And there's so much interest in films, and budgets of movies. Most people who ask that question won't really understand the answer. They say: everybody's in two businesses, the one they're in and the film business.

Q: Is it cathartic for you to explore subversive religious issues?

AF: The thing about Mary is about the findings the Gnostic Gospels, which were alternatives to the four or five gospels that everyone knows. They were discovered in 1945. That's basically what's running through The Da Vinci Code. The church said, 'this is the news, and this is the only thing that's gonna be written or taught.' I was brought up in a very heavy duty Catholic school. It's incredible when you start reading through the alternate stories. With Mary we were looking at the treatment of women through the last 2000 years, historically, and through the character of Mary Magdalene.

Q: 'R Xmas (2001) did not receive an American distributor either, but I think it's one of your best films. How did the idea of doing a holiday film come about?

AF: You make a movie; you gotta follow your vision. Sure it's about Christmas and family, but they're selling heroin. Are there any white people in the movie? No. At that point you get the vibe you're going to do some business in Guatemala, but not in Atlanta. But there are so many venues out there.

Q: How did you come to meet Schooly D?

AF: We were using his music in King of New York, but we never met him. Usually when musicians know you wanna use their stuff, you can't get rid of them. But him, we couldn't find him. He became like a Robert Johnson. We took some of his songs and sped 'em up and cut 'em up and I wasn't sure if he was going to like it. But then he started working with Joey and when Joey kid of split, he just took over the composing of the film.

Q: You worked with Zoe Lund (a.k.a. Zoe Tamerlis) as an actress in Ms. 45 (1981) and as a screenwriter on Bad Lieutenant (1992). How did you meet her?

AF: They made a movie called Saturay Night Fever and they go on a world wide search for the girl. We got the girl that came in second. We had a million dollar casting search for a $300,000 film! Then, Nicky (Nicholas St. John) wasn't into Bad Lieutenant so Zoe wrote it. She wrote the first draft of New Rose Hotel. Zoe would write 10-20 pages just to warm up. Here are these people writing a script working on them for a year and she turned in her draft, 240 pages on legal paper. I read the script, I'd just turn the page and hope I'd see more white than black, but with her, there was no white at all. She wrote in eye chart print, top to bottom, edge to edge. She killed that project in its tracks. When she writes you have to look up every ten words. You have to read with a dictionary. I don't know if anybody could have got through the thing. The chick was too much. But with Bad Lieutenant I stayed on top of her. She was a gifted, incredible person.

Q: Bad Lieutenant was a pretty big hit for you...

AF: The distributor pushed it. So it got big ads. It just was a certain film for its time.

Q: Cat Chaser (1989) was released in a truncated, edited version here in the U.S. -- is there any chance of ever seeing a complete version?

AF: There's a tape that's around that we like to show of my version. I didn't have final cut at that time. I made the ultimate sin of leaving a film before it's done, but I woulda killed somebody. They were intent on destroying that film and they did. Elmore Leonard is like the Mark Twain of today. The one line they kept from Elmore: "What kind of writing gets the most money? Ransom notes." There's a lotta lines like that, and that's the only one that survived. Here we got the greatest writer in the world who's actually trying to make these changes everybody wants. I said, 'How can you put up with this?' And he said, 'I'm doing a book about Hollywood and I'm researching.'

Q: You recently did a DVD commentary track for The Driller Killer? How does that film strike you now?

AF: Our biggest hit was Driller Killer. When it first opened, it was in Kansas City. It was the first or second highest grossing film in town. It basically was what it was. In the end, we were drilling 'em good. It was a freak show. When I look at my movies, it's like home movies. I remember when Variety reviewed it they said "Abel Ferrara makes Tobe Hooper look like Federico Fellini."

June 2, 2006

Partial Filmography:
The Driller Killer (1979)
Ms. 45 (1981)
Fear City (1984)
Crime Story (1986) (TV)
The Gladiator (1986) (TV)
China Girl (1987)
Cat Chaser (1988)
King of New York (1990)
Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Body Snatchers (1993)
Dangerous Game (1994)
The Addiction (1995)
The Funeral (1996)
Subway Stories: Tales from the Underground (1997) [segment]
The Blackout (1997)
New Rose Hotel (1998)
'R-Xmas (2001)
Mary (2005)
Go Go Tales (2007)
Chelsea on the Rocks (2008)

See also my 2008 interview with Abel Ferrara.

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