Abel Ferrara has made a name for himself directing gritty films about drugs, corruption, and characters on the edge such as King of New York starring Christopher Walken and Laurence Fishburne and Bad Lieutenant starring Harvey Keitel. He began in the late 70’s making grindhouse, slasher films like The Driller Killer and developed into a notable indie filmmaker in the 80’s working with a regular crop of actors such as: Dennis Hopper, Forest Whitaker, and Matthew Modine in addition to those that were previously mentioned. In his new film 4:44 Last Day on Earth he tackles the end of the world from the perspective of a character living on the Lower East Side in Manhattan played by another regular Ferrara actor, Willem Dafoe.
I wanted to ask you first, what attracted you to making a film about the end of the world, what drew you to it in the first place?
You know, we are living in that time of life. It’s 2012, shit is happening: earthquakes, volcanoes are going off, people are stranded, and the whole idea of the Al Gore documentary (An Inconvenient Truth). Then, when it comes out, there’s five other movies about it so I guess I’m not the only one thinking about it.
Well, you come with a very different approach, a lot of your films are about a regular character that has to survive in a rough world and here’s a character who is forced to deal with the toughest world because it’s ending. It’s kind of an interesting bookend to a lot of your films, was there any thought about that or did it just work out that way?
Well you know we’re not into bigger than life characters, maybe Driller Killer, but lately…you know we started off with the vampires, gangsters, King of New York and all that crap, but I think we come back around, you know what I mean?
Absolutely. You mention King of New York, I heard rumors that there might be a sequel, any truth to that?
Yeah, we wrote it but I don’t know, it’s caught up in all that other nonsense.
A lot of your films, especially the early ones, are really gritty and tough and you got a reputation for that, how much of that reflects your life, is that the way you saw the world?
I try to make these films as reflective as possible, you know what I mean, obviously a lot is a metaphor but other wise we try to make it as clear a mirror as we can.
You shot this in New York again, you’re a big New York guy, you started off in Union Square with the first film and you even did the documentary Chelsea on the Rocks about the Chelsea Hotel, I mean how much is NY a character in your films?
It always is. I mean Manhattan especially, but you know Manhattan is a very heavily changed place. It’s grown into being an international financial capital, but the problem is the people that it attracts you know? It drives New Yorkers out, I mean New York is now Brooklyn, you know what I mean? Brooklyn is the new Manhattan.
You started out making low budget slasher films and your style developed a lot as you went on and it became more character focused and then you know you really managed to attract tremendous talent to your films, actors like Willem Dafoe, Keitel, and Walken. What do you think it is that draws them to your films?
You know, I think those guys, they’re hungry to make good movies and they’re willing to put it on the line. They’re not interested in the bullshit and the budgets, they’re just looking to make the films.
One of the things I liked about this movie, it all happens in one location for the most part, it’s almost a play in that way you have all this going on with the character in one small space.
Did you see Go Go Tales? Go Go Tales also took place in real time too. You know, even though this film took place over 12 hours I structured it in 6 segments: midday, late in the day, late afternoon (the magic hour), night, darker night and then the finale, but within those segments it was in real time.
Do you shoot a lot of takes when you are shooting this kind of stuff?
No, we shoot fast man, you know, we shot this film in 15 days
Wow, that’s amazing.
Yeah I know, we shot Bad Lieutenant in 18 days, but you know it took awhile in the beginning, Driller Killer took forever, you know we didn’t know how to make films.
That’s always the story of the first film, yeah.
Yeah, yeah we had to friggin figure out how to put wheels on a dolly.
I’m sure you’ve heard many times about how Martin Scorsese named Bad Lieutenant as one of his favorite films of the 90’s. He has a somewhat similar aesthetic. You are both NY born guys, how much does that mean to you?
Well you know we grew up hero-worshiping him, it meant a lot to us.
What directors are out there now that you appreciate?
I work with lots of young guys so now I’m in a different world. I’m mentoring a bunch of young directors, just working with them you know, I’m not going out, I see a few of my contemporaries, Jim Jarmusch is a favorite friend of mine and I saw a film called Johnny Mad Dog by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, you should check that film out.
And how do you feel about the whole Hollywood thing?
You know, I’ve been there, I’ve done it, they just don’t have the appreciation for the director, you know. The director is the last thing in the world they are interested in and you know fine but I’m a director, so you know, it was better going to Europe. Maybe the films don’t all get seen right away, but they’ll all get seen eventually.
Yeah, there’s a different aesthetic there any how, your style fits them.
You know pre-cutting someone else’s film is against the law.
I wanted to ask you about music. It’s sort of a big part of your films. You wrote a lot of music for your films and performed songs in a few of them too.
I’m not a good player, I know enough to get better players to do the music but I’m active in doing it, you know, I play the music. In this one we used a pure blues track which we never did, that’s the music we play and the music we love. We never really had a film that was like so focused on just the blues, the guitar I mean.
I read you did a video for Ben Folds Five track “Don’t Change Your Plans.” How did that come about?
Yeah, we’re not great with the video, I don’t know what he thought it would be, he was a big fan of ours. The funniest part is Ben Folds Five is one guy playing the piano, it’s not a band.
Yeah, it was 3 guys and then just Ben. They’re actually just coming back now and recording a new album. I wanted to ask you a little bit about your early life in the Bronx, I read you grew up in Peeksville, but how long were you in the Bronx before you moved up there?
I was in like 5th grade.
Oh, so you really grew up there. What was your upbringing like, your childhood? Very loving family you know, big, extended, Italian family, my father was a truck driver, blue collar guy. When I say extended, I mean my cousins and all. I have 2 sisters. I grew up in Peeksville which at that time was like half country/half suburbia you know.
The Catholic element in the films is certainly evident, do you still consider yourself a practicing Catholic or is it just there, just part of who you are?
It’s just such a part of me you know. I mean, I’m into Buddhism a lot now because my old lady is but you know I try to be as spiritual as I can. I find you really need something, you know what I mean, you really need something in this world.
It’s a lot like your characters, I understand. I wanted to ask you about Nick St. John who you collaborated with so often as a writer. You met him in high school, how did you manage to maintain that relationship?
You know, he stopped writing. At a certain point the business, he couldn’t take it, couldn’t stand it, couldn’t stand the people, couldn’t stand the bullshit and you know that’s a drag, you know that really is a drag.
I have to ask you about sex and drugs, you know you certainly seem like you have some experience in the stuff.
Too much. Right now I’m in sobriety because I’m an addict. Maybe for some people it works you know, but for me in the end it don’t work so you know.. sex that’s another thing, I ain’t giving that up!
I understand. Finally, looking back on your career, what are you most happy with as a director?
Just that we are still working, I mean, that we are still doing it, we’re still on it, you know what I’m saying, that we ain’t giving up.
Do you have any big ambitions these days, things you want to do?
I got plenty, jeez, I got plenty, we are doing a film on Pasolini, we are doing a film on Strauss-Kahn, so you know, we are working. We are on our own .com site, you know, our own website, www.abelferrara.com, we are going to make it better, we got a web series coming out called Peace Connection.
In terms of the website, did you just plan putting films out straight to that at some point?
Seems like the future.
That’s the only way to go man, it’s either going to save the day or forget it.