Abel Ferrara 2

On Set With Abel Ferrara

When Abel Ferrara’s fantastically glamorous gangster movie ‘King of New York’ came out in 1990, I interviewed actor Larry Fishburne about his break-out role as cinema’s first hip-hop gangster, Jimmy Jump.

Fishburne was on a high about working with Abel and co-star Christopher Walken, but one thing he said about them struck a chord with me – because I’d thought the same thing.

“Cats like Abel and Walken…” he explained forcibly. “They’re absolutely fuckin’ nuts. There ain’t shit those motherfuckas ain’t seen. There was NO WAY I was gonna hang out with them. These cats are on the edge man, knowaddamsayin’? They are the edge.”

Given that, when Laurence Fishburne was only 15 he’d spent several months in the Phillipines’ jungle making ‘Apocalypse Now’ with Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, and Marlon Brando I figured he should know.

Fishburne is no angel, and no fool.

Forget Quentin Tarantino. The hardest, hippest, films of the last fifteen years have been directed by Abel Ferrara.

While Quentin was getting his kicks reading comics and watching ‘The Partridge Family’, Ferrara was making one of the original Video Nasties of the early 80s – ‘Driller Killer’ – about an artist (played by Ferrara) who is driven insane by the rock band rehearsing in his apartment block and starts drilling people’s heads in.

In terms of sheer cinematic style and total street suss, ‘King of New York’ is pure class and, as Tarantino himself has acknowledged, the best non-GoodFellas gangster flick since ‘Scarface.’

And compared to ‘Bad Lieutenant’, ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is for boy scouts: just superficial popcorn.

But of course because they’re darker, deeper, and more disturbing/disturbed than Tarantino’s slick flicks, Abel Ferrara’s films have never had the same recognition.

In the industry, while QT is Hollywood’s cutest golden child, Abel is regarded as unsavoury and unstable: a maverick who is actually dangerous. And whereas Tarantino can’t stop talking, Abel is not interested in being anyone’s media-darling. He’s more concerned with trying to get his films made at all.

If you’re wondering what a quintessential scene of the last three Abel Ferrara film would actually be like, here’s three examples.

‘King of New York’ is full of great, ultra-glamorous, sex-drugs-and-violence scenes but one of the best of them is the one in which Jimmy Jump does a deal for a few kilos of cocaine and ‘pays’ the South American drug baron with a briefcase full of tampons. When the dealer looks perplexed, Jimmy explains genially “they’re for the bullet-holes” – before blowing him away.

My of my favourite moments in ‘Dangerous Game’, a complex, emotionally searing, film-within-a-film about a director whose life and family are falling apart, is when Harvey Keitel becomes all soppy with Madonna and recalls the time they were having sex and, as he came, blood started dripping from his nose.
“Ah, I didn’t know you were romantic”, sighs Madonna.

But when all is said and done, the quintessential Abel Ferrara scene is probably in ‘Bad Lieutentant.’

In fact, it probably is all of ‘Bad Lieutenant.’

The film opens with our ‘hero’ (Harvey Keitel) dropping his kids off at school then sitting outside and starting the day with a line of coke on the dashboard. This is just for starters though. During the film, Keitel smokes crack, shoots smack, and masturbates in the streets while humiliating two teenage girls he has pulled over and hassling for driving without a licence.

The pivotal scene is where Keitel, bombed out of his brains, is caught in a full-frontal Crucifixion pose, like a debauched Michelangelo statue, blubbering and whimpering like a dog.

This is a soul in hell, and it’s tempting to see it as both Keitel’s and certainly (as co-writer) Abel’s.

The Lieutenant’s descent into depravity coincides with an investigation into the brutalisation of a nun. This forces him to confront his own faith and try, amidst his despair, to find a kind of redemption, by forgiving the rapists and helping them rather than claim the $ 50,000 bounty he is due – and (for reasons we won’t reveal) desperately needs.

Like ‘Mean Streets’ meets ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, as a piece of uncompromising modern-day film-making, ‘Bad Lieutenant’ is unique: way out there, up there with Fassbinder or Pasolini at their most eloquent and most fucked up.

From ‘Driller Killer’ to ‘Dangerous Game’, Abel Ferrara is a one-off: the most extreme, exhilarating, and most intense film-maker in America, and probably the best it has produced since Scorsese.

No-one else even thinks about making films like Abel, let alone actually gets them made.

One thing’s for sure. If you haven’t caught up them yet, you won’t be seeing them on any in-flight movie.

Fans like myself have always wondered what it would be like to be on the set of an Abel Ferrara film.

When I heard he was shooting his new film, ‘The Addiction’, in an elegant town-house off Fifth Avenue near to where I was staying, I didn’t hesitate.

Written by regular Ferrara collaborator, Nicholas St.John (‘King of New York’, ‘Dangerous Game’), ‘The Addiction’ can best be described as an existentialist-vampire movie.

Shot in black and white by ‘Driller Killer’ cameraman Ken Kelsch, the film focuses on a young philosophy student (Lilli Taylor) who is attacked in New York. As the vampire virus takes over, she is forced to look for meaning in her increasingly depraved state.

The themes – how susceptible we are to evil, how we can only resist the descent into sin by finding faith – are the same you find in most of Ferrara’s films, from ‘Driller Killer’ and ‘Ms .45’ through to ‘Bad Lieutenant’, even his re-make of ‘Invasion of The Body Snatchers.’
When I arrive on the set, Abel rolls over and greets me as only he can: “Heyyyy Shell ! What the fuck’s up ?! Back a-fuckin-gain ?!” And then adding in his characteristic mumble: “You’re a glutton for punishment.”

They are shooting the final scene of the movie – an elite cocktail party at which half the guests are actually vampires. There are blood-drenched extras everywhere, mingling in with the director’s friends and hangers-on who are a mixture of gorgeous women, Abel’s home-boys like rapper Schooly D and some scary-looking Italian ‘investors’ dressed in black that I am advised by the film’s producer not to talk to “under no fucking circumstances.”

“I only hope this many people come to the movie…” Abel mutters to himself.

The next shot involves the camera following Lilli Taylor as she drifts round the party, mingling with the melee of extras. It’s the kind of take that, ordinarily, would be rigorously choreographed (or, rather, would have to be). But Abel being Abel, he is just going to wing it.
“The only way we’re gonna get this shot,” he advises everyone after the first few attempts, “is by complete fucken fluke.”

When I ask Taylor what the rehearsals were like, she smiles.
“What rehearsals ? We did none. It’s all done on the set.”

Abel has no shot list and no storyboards, preferring the ‘electricity’ of spontaneity and relying on the the quality of his cast to pull it off.
“Guys like Walken or Keitel,” he once told me, “are so awesome I just let ‘em go. All I do is try and keep them in focus.”

In between takes, Abel paces around restlessly, impatient to get the camera rolling again, make something happen.
“Let’s just turn it on,” he shouts at one point, after the crew say they’re still setting up. “I don’t care if we don’t use it. Come on. Let’s roll. Hardcore.”

The cameraman reminds him the last shot had a flare in it.
“Yeah,” Abel acknowledged, almost despairingly admitting defeat, then adding: “but it looked good.”

When the scene starts again, he has his face pressed close into the monitor watching Annabella Sciorra get her teeth into an old lady and start another blood-fest, encouraging her, shouting: “yeah go on baby, go on !”

When the scene’s over, one of the film’s more venerable-looking investors comes over to give the director his thoughts.
“This time,” he suggests sagely, “you’ve gone too far.”
“I agree !” Abel says.

As Larry Fishburne said, until you get to know him Abel Ferrara can cast an intimidating figure: permanently clad in ragged black jeans and t-shirt, leather jacket and dark glasses, he can seem curt and hostile. He never sits still, doesn’t particularly like doing interviews and when he does talk, speaks (or mutters) in a dark, sardonic, drawl that is part Noo Yawk Italian gangster and part rapper’s street patter.
“That was a cold flick, man,” he says of one early Keitel movie, admiringly.

He calls everyone “Homes” (even lovely, little, Lilli Taylor) or “motherfucka” (not always as a term of affection).

His long-time screenwriter Nicky St. John sums Abel up best: looking at him, shaking his head and saying simply “he’s a fucken yo-yo.”

He certainly never seems uncomfortable talking about himself or analysing his work.

When I wonder if making ‘The Addiction’ or ‘Bad Lieutenant’ had an effect on him personally, he just mumbles “yeah plenty”, sounding so derisive he could happily kill me for asking. (I think it’s just his manner. At least I hope so.)

What he seems to enjoy most though is talking about Christopher Walken, specifically Christopher Walken’s hair.
“He’s got the best hair action in this movie goin’ on,” he says about the actor’s cameo. “His hair is one of the 8 wonders of the world man, I swear. I don’t know what he does to it: blow-dries with anti-gravity shoes on.”

But Ferrara can also be warm, funny, and generous. The cast and crew on his movies are mostly regular collaborators. Although he’s portrayed as a maverick and an outsider, you can sense that everyone here loves working for him (as a film-maker) and is devoted to him (as a person). The cast and crew on ‘The Addiction’ are all on deferred payments.

The most recent convert to the Cult of Ferrara is Lilli Taylor.
“There’s not really a hierarchy here. Everybody helps out. I’ve never really seen anything like it,” she says, sounding still amazed.

He notably refers to his work as films “we’ve made.”
“It’s a sweet vibe we got here, which, you know, you sometimes lose in the course of big-time film-making.”

He is married with two adopted children and the importance of family is another important theme in most of his films, whether it be a nuclear family like the Bad Leiutenant’s and the director’s in ‘Dangerous Game’, or a gang like the ones in ‘King of New York’ and ‘China Girl.’

Born in the Bronx and raised Catholic, Ferrara describes his father as a “wheeler-dealer – one of those good times/bad times kind of guys. We saw both sides.”

At 16, he says he “quit rock ‘n’ roll” (“it wasn’t happening”) and started making 8mm short films with Nicky St.John (some of which, he jokes, “you couldn’t see and couldn’t hear”).

I once asked him if he went to film school. He just looked at me and almost spat scornfully “are you kidding me ?”, before telling me film school was just somewhere to “acquire” equipment.

Instead, he views his way of working as “urban guerrilla style film-making.”

‘Driller Killer’ (made “with five people – a crew of characters from Philly who would keep going off doing mercenary work in Panama and shit”) was so hard it has been banned in this country ever since a special screening from MPs at the House of Commons.

The follow-up ‘Ms.45: Angel of Vengeance’ was a powerful, violent, feminist vigilante movie with many similiarities to ‘The Addiction.’

His most/only commercial period in Hollywood saw him make ‘Fear City, ‘China Girl’, and ‘Cat Chaser’ – which the studio re-edited until, Abel says, “even I couldn’t follow it !”

He started finding his own funding for movies.
“All Hollywood cares about is ‘sympathy for the characters.’ I never did understand that concept. That’s all they talk about. ‘He loves his mother really’, some bullshit like that. Well, you know, my guys ain’t askin’ for sympathy.”

Then came ‘King of New York.’ Glossy, glamorous and razor-sharp, nearly every scene in ‘King of New York’ is fantastic with glorious performances from Fishburne and Walken as Frank White, a drug-dealer who (in part) wants to redeem what he does for a living by ensuring that the local children’s hospital is saved for closure.

“Walken is Frank White !” Abel screams, with delight. “If you didn’t have Walken, you didn’t have a movie. He could act under ten feet of water. When Frank White says: ‘I’ve done things you haven’t even thought about’ it’s only good because it’s coming out of Walken’s mouth.”

According to Abel, after ‘King of New York’, the violence and generally fucked up state of the characters in ‘Bad Lieutenant’ and ‘Dangerous Game’ meant people were confusing him with his characters. He complains that he’s been portrayed as “a psycho” in previous newspaper profiles about him (including those by me !).

He admits he identifies with some of his protagonists but insists this isn’t fair. Then again, these films don’t get made by accident. No-one else is making them. Most of them are dealing with his demons.

Stories about Abel Ferrara and the circles he moves in are legion. And having seen some of the characters he hangs around with, I’m not certainly not going to repeat them in print.

When ‘Bad Lieutenant’ opened in the States, Ferrara drawled “put the kids in the station wagon and come on down. See how the other half lives…”

Abel Ferrara knows how the other half lives. He admitted to one interviewer that he knows a few cops but “on a day to day to basis, we try to hang out with the other side of the law.”

When ‘Sight & Sound’ asked him if the character in ‘Bad Lieutenant’ was based on himself, he answered simply: “I hope so.”

Drugs are a recurring interest in his stories. (In ‘Dangerous Game’, even Madonna gets stoned.) When I asked Laurence Fishburne what they used for cocaine in ‘King of New York’, he just roared with laughter and told me “I’m not saying anything !”

When I wondered what Lilli Taylor used to jack up in ‘The Addiction’, Ferrara just mumbles: ‘I was too polite to ask.”

And when I ask him if films like ‘King of New York’ glamorise drugs and if he thinks they might encourage kids to try them, he sneers: “Nah. It’s strictly for adults. The more the merrier. All drugs should be legal, sure. It’s prohibition man. It’s a police state. They hype these drugs so they can stick 5000 more white guys driving police cars on the streets.”

As for why there are so many drugs in his films, he just shrugs.
“Hey, I didn’t invent cocaine,” he says. “Drugs are out there, so you either deal with them or turn your back on them. ‘Just Say No to drugs to me was always ‘Say KNOW to drugs, knowaddamsaying ?”

Although there is a lot of sex, drugs, and violence in his films, what makes his films so powerful is that the characters’ standpoint is always one of torment. Torn between a spiritual one and a venal one, the drugs are both a sign of despair and adding to it.

As a trilogy, ‘Bad Lieutenant’, ‘Dangerous Game’, and ‘The Addiction’ is dealing with the same demons, characters trying to re-find their faith as they succumb to the sins of the flesh and lose what they hold dearest to them. Most of his characters are looking for salvation of some kind – either though revenge or self-sacrifice; either way, someone’s death is coming – along with their Day of Judgment.

Ken Kelsch says: “I asked Abel the other day, do we keep making the first film (‘Driller Killer’) over and over ? It’s a possibility.”

“Yeah. We haven’t progressed an iota,” Abel tells me. “We’re on the treadmill to nowhere.”

The moral of ‘King of New York’ – according to Abel, “live by the sword, die by the sword” – is at the heart of alot of his films. In the end, you have to be judged by your actions: in ‘Bad Lieutenant’, it’s just a question of whether the Lieutenant’s compassion and redemption have come too late. He might still be going to hell.

Keitel certainly saw it as a deeply serious “spiritual journey.”
“If you have the will to take the journey,” he told one interviewer, “you’ll come to a place that’s called ‘the holy void’ in mythology, the ‘abyss’, and you’ll come to the light.”

This is not Abel’s style.
“No wonder every time I referred to it as ‘a fuck film’ Harvey got upset,” he laughs (referring to its porn-rating certificate). “He didn’t always understand my sense of humour.”

In ‘Bad Lieutenant’, Harvey’s completely checked out.
“That’s right. He takes first prize,” Ferrara laughs. “Who knows where the script stops and the improvisation starts. He’s out there without a net. That’s basically his trip.”

“He was up for it all,” he explains about the crucifixion/masturbation scenes, his admiration obvious. ‘‘Anything to get that total degradation. He knows where it’s coming from. I wouldn’t say it was the most personal film, not really. Harvey has a way of bringing out the inner life… Pushing right down your throat, that might make it seem like it’s more personal. I think it’s coming from the same place we’ve always been coming from.”

When I mention it’s scary how well Keitel and he capture the scorch of the crack, the glug of the vodka, the fucked up stupor of the heroin, he just laughs.

“Haha. Don’t get us started !! That’s what a great actor can do. It could have been vanilla ice cream in there and he could make it the same.”

Abel said at the time of ‘Bad Lieutenant’ and ‘King of New York’ that his films weren’t really coming from a ‘philosophical place’, he was just “trying to reflect what I see on the streets.”

But ‘The Addiction’ is different. As Lilli Taylor says: “it is as raw, but it’s quieter, colder, than ‘Bad Lieutenant’. More positive.”

Ken Kelsch reckons scenes of Lilli cutting her wrist have “more violence than the whole of ‘Natural Born Killers’” and her scenes going cold turkey are certainly as hard-hitting and despairing as any in ‘Bad Lieutenant.’ A typically wacko cameo from Walken as another urban vampire, the urban vampire, also puts it right out there.

To Abel, though, the conclusion to ‘Bad Lieutenant.” is a join. The lieutenant gets shot, but in fact, the film has come full circle, with Keitel driving the rape suspects to the bus station, just as in the opening scenes, he was driving his own kids to school.

“Looking at someone’s children as your own, for me, that’s a heavy place to get to,” Abel explains. “‘For whom the bells toll’, know what I’m sayin’ ?”

Maybe he’s learning to control the demons; cling on to his faith. Lilli Taylor’s character finds it much easier than the Bad Lieutenant did.

“Well, ‘The Addiction’ is about belief in Jesus Christ on a very specific level. It isn’t questioning it, which I think ‘Bad Lieutenant’ is about. There’s no doubt about the fact He died for our sins. It’s about accepting that fact. Whether you can or cannot: everyone has their own religion which they get addicted to. I’m going through a personal crisis, but I’m not going to let it get me down, you know what I mean. Cos life is sacred.”

On the set we’ve hit 5am. Abel shouts to the cast and crew: “we are one take away from euphoria.”

Sciorra and the other vampires get stuck in to the extras’ necks more one time, before Abel shouts: “And…cut-ski.”

It’s a wrap.

One hour later in a scene reminiscent of ‘King of New York’, Abel, myself, Annabella Sciorra and three amazing-looking models have left the set and are cruising round the city’s streets in a limo, listening to Mobb Deep, necking the miniatures the company has thoughtfully provided.

“I love making fucking movies !” Sciorra roars.
Abel laughs and drawls: “get the fuck outta here. How the hell d’you even get in this business ?!”

We are by now in varying degrees of disarray, having celebrated the end of the shoot with aplomb. (Good stuff that Aplomb.)

Sciorra is screaming insults at me (“you motherfucking teabag”) having just discovered I am one of her most hated species, an English journalist. Abel meanwhile is insisting I tape their private conversations (whatever they’re about) and print them.

As we drive, he starts putting together an idea for another movie.

“Mattie Dillon plays Matt Dillon. Mickey Rourke as Mickey Rourke. Annabella fucking Sciorra plays Annabella Sciorra”, describing it as “a ‘Vertigo’ number.”

“Matt and Mickey just doin’ their fuckin motherfuckin’ full-time boogie trip… Mattie kills this girl but he was all fucked up at the time so he can’t remember who. And I mean doin’ everything: dope, crack, fuckin ‘shrooms, everything. Fucking laughing gas, the whole nine. Allergy pills….”

Before this though, he tells me, “we’re preppin’ this new flick”, by which he means ‘The Funeral’, a 1930s gangster pic starring Walken, Chris Penn, Isabella Rossellini, and Annabella fucking Sciorra, scripted once again by Nicky St.John.

He still has plans to shoot a film about the life of porn king John Holmes, based on a surreal script by Christopher Walken. When he does, I tell him, I want to be there.
“Be there !?” he cries. “You can be in it !!”

It proves to be a long night/day. Even for an English journalist, hanging out with Abel Ferrara is too heavy-duty.  Laurence Fishburne was right: “the man is going places you don’t want to go.”

Hours later, I decide to bail.

Abel takes me out to the street and we veer down 5th Avenue, clad in black and inexplicably without sunglasses. With the winter sun streaming down on us, we duck our heads and raise our hands to the light, like vampires taking fright. After a block or two, Ferrara staggers away heading God-knows-where, to do God-knows-what.

I watch him go.
The Big Abel.
The original Bad Lieutenant.
The King of New York.