Interview: Abel Ferrara
Pier Paolo Pasolini, the subject of Abel Ferrara’s latest film, had a great love for hustlers—and Ferrara is nothing if not that. He has been at least a half-dozen different kinds of filmmaker, having worked in porno, transgressive exploitation, Miami Vice–chic crime-thrillers, lacerating psychodramas, science fiction, Rabelaisian documentaries, and now in the biopic. Throughout, he has remained fundamentally himself, and though dogged by rumors of an unruly personal life that he has done his part to cultivate, he has never stopped working while many a sober and industrious professional has stalled or flaked out. He also has a reputation as the terror of interviewers but, disconcertingly, was the soul of courtesy when I spoke with him about Pasolini and sundry related matters. (He did take a moment to slag the reporter who preceded me as he was on his way out the door, and I’d feel a little blue to think I didn’t get a little of the same business after I’d left.)
Born in the Bronx but removed to placid rural Peekskill by his father—all for naught—Ferrara came of age commuting into New York City for cinema and countercultural immersion. It’s with this that our interview began. Pasolini screens October 2 and 3 in the New York Film Festival.
When did you first discover Pasolini?
I saw Decameron as a young filmmaker, and that was a pretty good beginning. All these films played big-time then. They were major releases—in all these beautiful theaters, the Paris, theaters in the Upper East Side, and you could go and check out Satyricon. Y’know, these guys were making a lot of money from American distribution. You could see these movies in a beautiful setting, and people went to them.
Was the impact of Decameron instantaneous?
Yeah, y’know, when you see something at that age, you’re so impressionable, and being Italian, Catholic, and watching that, seeing the players, how he shot it, everything about it. I saw the film again not long ago, I hadn’t seen it in probably 40 years. And it had the same heavy impact, only this time I could understand a little better why. The idea of the director as liberated artist: working, not having a crew and a cast and a budget, and all this on his back, like a cross. The guy is using his tools, pursuing a vision, and pursuing in search of a vision. He’s learning about the movie that you’re gonna see while he’s making it. He’s up there on a tightrope without a net, but he’s not worried. It’s a sense of freedom, and it’s a sense of passion. I saw it on a double bill with Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, and both of these films really slammed home the idea of what it is to be an independent, having your vision and pursuing that vision, bringing the crew and the actors to it, and making everyone find the movie that the audience is gonna end up seeing, so the film is being made right before your eyes.
How far back does the idea of translating this interest in Pasolini into a film about the man go?
I guess it’s always been there, it might’ve began when we found out he was killed. Maybe, I dunno. In the Nineties we were thinking of doing it with Zoe [Tamerlis Lund, star of Ms. 45 (81) and screenwriter of Bad Lieutenant (92)]. She was gonna play Pasolini in New York, and we would’ve flipped the gender, just kept the Alfa Romeo. We didn’t do it that way, so we went in another direction. The films, they come together when they’re meant to come together. I think we needed to do the documentaries [Chelsea on the Rocks (08); Napoli, Napoli, Napoli (09); Mulberry St. (10)], I think we needed to live in Rome and really get it going…
There’s an incredible parade of logos at the beginning of the movie. It seems like you got a little bit of money from a lot of places.
Well, that’s film financing in 2014, you gotta get money from—from the government, actually. Not corporate, but government—something that doesn’t exist in the United States. For me to go to my government and think that I’m gonna get money to make a film is absolutely the most avant-garde, outrageous concept. I wouldn’t dream of it in a million years. Call up Obama and say we’re making a movie? But in Europe they do, they support the arts. The city itself, the country, the campagna, the county, the state, the whatever. And we did it with three countries. France was a big supporter of the film, Belgium, and Italy is his home. I know, it looks a little funky at the beginning, but hey, whatever it is. Sometimes you get one guy to put up all the money, you got one name, sometimes you got 10 different people put up one-tenth of the money, you got 10 names. But, hey, we got a movie, I ain’t bitchin’.
Are you looking to continue working in Europe for the foreseeable future?
I’m gonna go wherever we find the money, we find the culture, we find the people who understand that these films count, they’re important. The tradition is alive and kicking. Unfortunately, I don’t see it so alive in my own country, and it’s a sin.
Did you ever get any flak, not being Italian-born, but being in Italy doing a film on a subject who’s a cultural icon there?
Yeah, but I mean, he belongs to the world, and he belongs to me as much as anybody. And the writer is Italian, the editor is Italian, the cinematographer is Italian. The creative team was me, Willem, and three guys who were born there. I’m not gonna let it stop me that I wasn’t born there. I mean, I read Dostoevsky, I don’t speak Russian, know what I mean? These guys are mine.
How did the international nature of the production influence what language was being spoken on screen?
Well, me and Willem and the Americans—our native tongue is English, we read Pasolini in English. Willem speaks better Italian than me, but even he’s not gonna attempt to relate certain ideas—you’re talking philosophy, you’re talking poetry. And we’ve barely got it together in the language that we have. So we’re not gonna do those scenes—the Furio Colombo interview, the other interview—we’re gonna do those in English, man. But when he’s with the kid [Pino “The Frog” Pelosi, played by Damiano Tamilia], and the kid is speaking Italian, that language that that kid is speaking, you’re not gonna get that speaking English. You can’t translate that. You can’t drop that into American. What’d he be, a rapper or something? I don’t know what the fuck he’d be speaking. He’s a street kid, y’know? Thank God Willem speaks enough Italian, and can speak Italian well enough, that he can get that kid’s talking back, which to me is more important at that moment. It’s a stretch, but the audience has to stretch to the imagination of the filmmakers. I’m not gonna reduce our imagination, you gotta come up to the plate when you wanna watch a movie.
There’s a real emphasis on the quiet, domestic moments in Pasolini’s last hours—the flight from Stockholm, the after-hours dinner with Pino in a suburban restaurant. I thought about the domestic scenes with the director played by Harvey Keitel in Dangerous Game (93), a film that’s also interested in the counterpoising of an artist’s domestic existence with their riskier activities.
This was the life the guy led, it was basically that. He lived with his mother! What more can you say? He was a 53-year-old guy who lived with—and loved, and adored, and spent a lot of time with—his mother. He spent time with his friends. He went to certain restaurants. And then he had that other side of his life. And he was an artist. At the time of his death he had two beautiful screenplays and a 1,700-page novel… so he better spend time fuckin’ writing that shit. That stuff don’t write itself. You have to dedicate this time. And that was what was so beautiful about him. He was a man of action. His ideas, he put ’em on paper, they’re living there for everybody, they’re done. But he’s able to balance his life in that certain way, and one night it went a little bit off-kilter on him.
You brought up the Colombo interview, which Pasolini suggested the title for: “We Are All in Danger.” His thinking at this point is very apocalyptic, which put me in mind of one of your more recent films, 4:44: Last Day on Earth (11). Is this idea of impending doomsday something you’re particularly aware of?
From Pasolini’s point of view—and everything he says, I would buy into—he was saying: “Don’t think that you’re gonna be immune.” If you’re on earth, and this is what’s happening to the world, don’t think that somehow you’re gonna save yourself because you’re living in a gated community, or you have something that’s supposed to protect you. You’re not gonna avoid it. We’re all in this together. What he was talking about specifically—to him, the worst tragedy that hit mankind was consumerism. So he’s out there doing it, he’s out there living a life among kids who he thinks have changed and not for the better, that won’t stop short of murder. He’s been there with them.
But that danger that he’s in, everyone is facing: the tragedy of wanting and needing things without even knowing why. It’s one thing to need to eat, it’s another thing to need a certain brand of wristwatch, a Rolex, to need a certain brand or you actually feel bad. That’s a new kind of thing that was being put into people, before they even know enough to make that choice. When you’re going to the shopping mall on Sunday instead of going to church, you know you’ve got a problem with the spirituality of the community. You could argue about forced Catholicism but…
He was very concerned about the snuffing out of proletarian energy, and in some of your recent work—Go Go Tales (07), the New York documentaries—you seem to have similar worries. You’re looking at New York City being denuded of the people that make it a vital place, as Pasolini was looking at the process in Rome.
But he thought Rome was over. Manhattan’s been bought and sold so many times. They stole it from the Indians, now they stole it from the artists. That’s just the way it is. You wanna see the Manhattan that everyone so cherished? Go to Flatbush. Or Bushwick, rather. Maybe Flatbush too. It’s there. Go to Istanbul.
In filming scenes from Pasolini’s novel, Oil (Petrolio), or his screenplay for Porno-Teo-Kolossal, you didn’t seem to try to make these things look like a Pasolini movie.
It’s not gonna happen, even if you try. I mean, we’re students of the director, my crew are students of [Tonino] Delli Colli, his DP. My DP [Stefano Falivene] worked with him. The bottom line is, that work is so clear and so concise and so precise and so inspiring that to shoot those sequences is everything you want from a screenplay. It’s beautiful and it’s clear, it makes you want to do it.
The narrative arc of the movie conforms to a pattern that’s interested you in the past—it’s there in 4:44, but also in Bad Lieutenant and ’R Xmas (01). These are countdown movies.
Right, right, right. It’s interesting you mention that. Go Go Tales is also real-time, and the place is gonna close down. This one, you kinda know where it’s going. If you know his life, you know what’s gonna happen. Even if you don’t, I think you feel it for some reason, I don’t know what. The guy was full of life. The last shot of the movie, that’s his daybook, that’s his actual daybook. When you see the appointments he was making that day for the next day, and the way he wrote—this guy, he was not expecting to die.
Even though you know it’s coming, the scene on the beach in Ostia is very difficult to watch.
He was killed by the car, you know? If that car didn’t roll over him, he would’ve lived. And so, whoever’s driving that car, whether they were gunning for him or it was just dark and they couldn’t control that Alfa and it was muddy and all that bullshit and it was an accident… That’s a big accident, ’cause you took out a big player.
How have people who knew Pasolini who’ve seen the movie been responding to it?
Everybody responds with their own eyes, you know what I mean? It’s different with everybody. Everybody sees the movie, everybody reacts different, some can communicate it to you, some can’t. But I mean: they get it. We came at this from love and respect, we came at it with open eyes and we were gonna let it take us wherever it took us.
You mentioned the daybook was his, were there other artifacts of his that you used?
We got it all. I mean, Graziella [Chiarcossi] the cousin, [Pasolini actor Ninetto] Davoli… We were embraced there by them, that’s what gives the film its soul, y’know? The medal he was wearing, his clothes—Willem was wearing his clothes. We shot in all the same places. That’ll only take you so far, but—it can take you so far. We had Ninetto, and Arianna Asti who was his… forget it, they were good fuckin’ friends. That’s what was great about being in Rome, 45 years ago is not that long ago. And that’s the tragedy too. We went and shot at those restaurants, those guys were there the night he was there. Those guys were alive, and kicking, and talking, those guys were there. He could’ve still been alive, and he could’ve still been working. That’s what’s lost, that’s what’s gone when shit like that happens, and that you cannot get back. You can find the missing this and you can find a Van Gogh painting in a garage but you’re not gonna… The stuff that’s not done is not done.
In discussing his novel Oil, Pasolini says of the protagonist, Carlo: “Aside from the similarities of his story to mine, he is repugnant to me.” This made me think right away of Devereaux, the venal politician that Gérard Depardieu plays in Welcome to New York (14).
He’s writing about a guy, he might despise him, but he knows him, and he gets him. It’s a complicated issue. It’s the same thing with Gérard. At the beginning of the movie, Gérard talks about playing DSK, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He might say there at the beginning of the movie “That’s it,” but he gets him, he knows him, and he plays him by not playing him. That’s an actor going through his beats. Pasolini could despise that character, but he wrote a 1,700-page novel about him.
You could say that both of the movies are about men undone by desire, though in one case you’re sympathetic…
In one case you love the guy, and in one case you don’t, okay, I know. But in the end, with Pier Paolo, he was living a life that he felt he had balanced, he thought he had it together, you know. It’s a tough call. I’m not gonna pass judgment on either of these guys. It’s a tough call with Dominique. What happened in that hotel room—who knows what happened? Really. But, you know, you live that life, it’s not gonna come out all good. It’s just not. These are two examples of it. Again, you don’t wanna pass judgment on either one of them, and in both cases, as a filmmaker, I have to empathize, I have to get there with them, that film has to make sense for me. I have to understand where he’s going and why he was doing it. I have to find those guys in me, you dig? I gotta feel it, I gotta feel like, “Okay, I get it, that’s what happened.” Because that’s what makes sense to me. Whether that’s what happened, didn’t happen—really I could care less in the end. As long as I can understand why they got to where they got to. And at that point you’re talking about your own… you’re talking about yourself.
You say you’re not going to pass judgment—I think of Pasolini during his own interview in the movie: “I’m not a moralist.” Does this hold true for you?
Judging on these two films, we’re definitely not moralists. But that’s because he said it. Because we’re students of his, we’re not gonna be moralists.
Is Welcome to New York going to see the light of day in the U.S.?
In the U.S.? Right now it’s a war with these people, these guys think they can just cavalierly take our film and do what they want with it just because they bought it. Just because you buy the Mona Lisa doesn’t mean you can put a moustache on it. It’s my job to protect that film, so we’ll see what’s gonna happen. But it’s out, it’s on the Internet, steal it, man.
I already did.
You have several movies that exist in longer versions, like Dangerous Game and Cat Chaser (89)—
Cat Chaser was a disaster. We gave up final cut and we paid for it. It was a total disaster. It could’ve been a very cool film—it was a cool film at one point—and it was totally butchered and destroyed by a couple of drunken bums. And what am I gonna do? I mean the guy’s dead now, I don’t want to badmouth him. But it’s a sin. Thank God for Anthology Film Archives, they’ve got a funky rough cut of Tony [Redman]’s, the editor’s, that does some service to the actors, to the great Elmore Leonard, to the dude who wrote it, to the people that made the film. That taught me the last lesson: it’s my job to protect the fucking film, period. That’s the director’s gig. It’s not the director’s job to make the film—he’s got a lot of help making the film—but to defend it. And when it gets fucking butchered, when it gets changed, there’s no one to blame but the director.