an interview with Abel Ferrara…
CINEMA SCOPE: Speaking of the Wooster Group — you got a really effective, almost theatrical performance from Willem Dafoe.
ABEL FERRARA: We wrote the part for Walken and Chris never really got it. Willem and I had worked together in New Rose Hotel (1998). We had our differences but he’s now also living in Rome, and when he read it he got it. If you’re gonna have a film where someone’s got his name on the cuff of his shirt, that’s a pretty big ego you have to play. And he got it, he did it, he sang. It’s so sad he wasn’t there that night, but he’s shooting this movie [Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected] where he’s playing the head of the Gestapo or a concentration camp. Willem understands the idea with entertainment, that the show must go on, from a theatrical point of view, and he made it happen. We’ve been trying to make this film for seven years, but we never really had the guy.
CS: You wrote Go Go Tales before Mary?
AF: I wrote it way back: Mary, Go Go Tales, and the King of New York prequel that I’m trying to do next—they all kind of came together. You never know when the inspiration is going to come. We were here in Cannes seven years ago, trying to get money for Go Go Tales.
CS: Has the film changed much since your original conception? I assume you were planning to shoot in New York to begin with.
AF: It’s different in that I’m different. And yeah, in terms of how we were going to film it. We were going to shoot on Wooster Street—we had a three-story townhouse and we built almost the entire set, but obviously not like we ended up doing at Cinecitta. We did a reading with Harvey Keitel and a lot of the actors; it was very low budget. But I’m walking down Wooster Street one day and I see my set being tossed out into the middle of the block. We didn’t pay the rent. We didn’t have the money. The financiers backed out. But there’s a time and a place for everything. This film took me so long to make, and there’s so much gratification from it. It was something I’d really wanted to do and couldn’t but we never gave up on it, and then it came together so beautifully in Italy. It was so odd, Matthew Modine, one minute he’s playing Jesus Christ [Modine plays the director-star of a Jesus movie in Mary] and then the next minute he’s playing the greatest beautician in Staten Island. That’s probably a Christ-like character too.
CS: Is the Paradise based on actual clubs you used to go to?
AF: There’s a film I made that I actually almost forgot called Fear City (1984) [set largely in seedy Manhattan strip clubs]. There’s an up-and-down wave of these go-go clubs. Sometimes they’re so in fashion—you go and there’s limousines parked down the block and Hollywood actresses are jumping up onstage. But sometimes you go and they’ve closed down. I remember going to this one and Leonardo DiCaprio was there and I remember going with Matt Dillon and, you know, it was a classy club. I’ve got to be careful what I say because this is such a litigious society. If you mention somebody’s name then they’ll sue you for saying they really directed and wrote it, send you storyboards. But yeah, it was on 20th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues and the Limelight was around the corner, and that club was in the middle of the block. It was when we were making Bad Lieutenant (1992)—I know exactly when it was. I know the day, I know the minute, I know the hour. The Limelight was rocking, and that street, everywhere we went we got drinks for free, New York was beautiful, but it was bad too. You had the crack epidemic and people getting murdered, Drugs were a nightmare. But when 9/11 came down, that put a stop to it.
CS: But things were already changing under Giuliani.
AF: It might have been, but 9/11—that was a knife in the heart of our city. To me, life is before and after. I’d never imagined at the time, that was a golden era for New York.
CS: Did you move to Rome right after 9/11?
AF: No, we hung out for as long as we could. It became very hard to make films, it became very hard for me to even want to make a film. I didn’t want to leave New York. Most of my films are financed as much in Europe as in the United States, so it’s not a big deal for us to come and shoot in France or Italy—you can see how people react to me here. To leave New York when it wasn’t the right time would have been too hard. I grew up there and there was that independent film thing, Jim Jarmusch and Spike, there was a world of films and filmmakers, and then all of a sudden it became… I still have a problem dealing with all this, you know. What was the response, the political response, as a New Yorker, not as an American. As an American citizen, Iraq is Iraq, but as a New Yorker, what about Osama bin Laden? Where is he?
CS: Would you say this is the most personal or most heartfelt film you’ve made?
AF: I hope not. I mean, I hope it is. Absolutely. It’s my most heartfelt film. But what’s that saying about the other ones? They were my least heartfelt films? But all kidding aside, you make these films about the characters, and you’re not always the characters, you know? I’m not that egomaniacal. Ray Ruby could have his name above the marquee and he could have his initials on his cufflinks, but I’m not wearing cufflinks, I’m not wearing fucking Ruby buttons. You need to be true to the characters, that’s really what it’s at, for me and the actor. And the actor and I have to be close to each other to really understand how we’re going to create that guy. Willem’s not Ruby and neither am I, but we know who Ruby really is. And we nail him, and then we’re him too. But I don’t think I want to be too much like Ray Ruby. With the white tuxedo and the singing, and all these girls with no clothes on day and night. I know, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
CS: Have you had to adapt much to working conditions in Italy?
AF: I’ve been there for about two-and-a-half years, so I understand the political structure, but underneath that there are some of the greatest filmmakers, greatest actors. The cinema to me is Pasolini, Rossellini, Fellini—if you work at Cinecitta, the ghosts are all there, the spirits are alive.
CS: You mentioned 9/11, but in terms of New York changing, what was the turning point for the film industry? When did it start to get harder to be a certain kind of American filmmaker?
AF: There was that period in the ’90s when all these guys sold out—Harvey and all that. When every studio had an independent branch, it was the wrong way to go, 100 percent. You’re either going to battle them on that level or be a change on that level. You’re going to say, oh right, being a part of Disney is going to help independent films? That’s fucking bullshit, man. Who are you kidding?
CS: You’ve managed to avoid working in digital thus far.
AF: I want to make a feature film that’s pure digital. It’ll be a modern-day version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I want to do it like in [William Gibson’s 2003 novel] Pattern Recognition, where they put these short segments out on the internet. Just put it out there on the Web and try to create that world that William [Gibson] was talking about, where you can bypass them all. With the internet, and going to Europe, I feel like I grew up. You’ve got to be like a Wall Street broker, especially with the internet and digital, watching that tape every minute to know how the film business is going. There’s going to be a way, for the people who want to see my films, where I can go right to them with it.
CS: So you’re pretty optimistic about the future?
AF: There are so many ways to work, I want to try them all. I remember seeing 2001 (1968) at the Ziegfield in the afternoon. There were 30 people, I’m sitting there eating popcorn by myself. In 70mm, Dolby Stereo, super wide screen, it was unbelievable. But I also remember during a snowstorm one time, they showed it on TV, my friend had an 11-inch black-and-white television, and it was the same experience. Films play on every level. But you need the freedom and you need the respect. In New York there was always respect for movies. Jim Jarmusch is respected on the street. I don’t know how respected he is at Spago’s, or if he even exists. You know, I can’t take it any more. At a certain point, you have to have respect for the work. Just because you can afford the Mona Lisa doesn’t mean you can put a mustache on it. In the end, having the courage to leave New York—once you do that, you find places. You find they want to shoot films in Shanghai, Korea. As long as you’re making films, it doesn’t matter, I don’t know if you even need language. There are a lot of ways to go. But the only way is where you’re working with people who respect what you’re doing.
read the entire article here…
“GO GO TALES” 2007 directed by Abel Ferrara
screening 1.17 and 1.18 at the Anthology Film Archives as part of the series “Abel Ferrara in the 21st Century”…