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 role as 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, because I’d thought the same thing.

“Cats like Abel and Walken,” he explained, “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 he was only 15, Fishburne had spent months hanging out in the Phillipine jungle with Dennis Hopper, Francis Ford Coppola and Marlon Brando making ‘Apocalypse Now’, 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.

You don’t think so ? While Quentin was reading comics and watching ‘The Partridge Family’, Ferrara was making ‘Driller Killer’, one of the original Video Nasties of the early 80s, 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.

Years before ‘Pulp Fiction’, in terms of sheer cinematic style and total street suss, ‘King of New York’ is pure class, as Tarantino himself acknowledged; the best non-Good Fellas gangster flick since ‘Scarface’.

And compared to ‘Bad Lieutenant’, ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is for boy scouts; kids stuff; 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 exposure.

While QT is Hollywood’s cutest golden child, Abel is regarded as unsavoury and unstable, a dangerous maverick. And unlike motormouth, he is not interested in being anyone’s media-star. He’s more concerned with trying to get his films made at all.

So 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 (Fishburne) pays a South American drug baron for a few kilos of cocaine with a briefcase full of tampax. When he looks perplexed, Jimmy shrugs genially, “they’re for the bulletholes”, 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 is falling apart, comes when Harvey Keitel comes over 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.

When all is said and done, the quintessential Abel Ferrara scene is probably in ‘Bad Lieutentant’. It probably IS ‘Bad Lieutenant’.

The film opens with the Bad Lieutentant (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 and during the film, Keitel smokes crack, shoots smack, and masturbates in the streets while humiliating two teenage girls he has been hassling for driving without a licence.

The pivotal, pinnacle, scene is where Keitel, bombed out of his brains, is caught in a full-frontal Crucifixtion pose, like a debauched Michaelangelo 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 Abel’s soul on the screen.

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.

Where ‘Mean Streets’ meets ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, as a piece of uncompromising modern-day film-making, ‘Bad Lieutenant’ is unique: way, 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’s cameraman Ken Kelsch, the film focuses on a young philosophy student (Lilli Taylor) who is attacked in New York. As the vampire virus takes her over, she is forced to look for meaning in her increasingly depraved state.

This theme – how susceptible we are to evil, and how we can only resist the descent into sin by finding faith – is one you can find in most of Ferrara’s films, from ‘Driller Killer’ and ‘Ms .45’ through to ‘Bad Lieutenant’ and 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: “Hey-ay Shell’. What the fuck’s up ? Back a-fuckin-gain ? 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 friends and hangers-on, a mixture of gorgeous women and Abel’s home-boy buddies and scary Italian relatives.

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

The next shot involves the camera following Lilli as she drifts round the party, mingling with the melee of extras. Ordinarily, the take would be rigorously choreographed but Abel’s trying to wing it.
“The only way we’re gonna get this shot,” he announces after the first few attempts, “is by complete fluke.”

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

Abel has no shot list, and no storyboards, relying on the quality of his cast to carry it through.
“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, as the crew complain they’re still setting up. “I don’t care if we don’t use it. Come on. Let’s roll. Hardcore.”

The cameraman points out the last shot had a flare in it.
“Yeah,” Abel sighs. “But it looked good.”

When the scene starts again, he has his face pressed close into the monitor, shouting, “yeah go on baby, go on” as Annabella Sciorra gets her teeth into an old lady and a blood-fest ensues.

When it’s over, one of the film’s venerable-looking investors comes over to say ‘hello’.
“This time,” he says sagely, “you’ve gone too far”.
“I agree” Abel says.

As Larry Fishburne suggested, until you get to know him, Abel Ferrara can cast an intimidating figure: street-punk jeans and t-shirt, permanently clad in leather jacket and dark glasses, Abel 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/part rapping street patter.
“That was a cold flick, man,” he says of an early Keitel movie.

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

Nicky St. John sums him when he looks at him, shakes his head and says simply, “He’s a yo-yo.”

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

Ask if making ‘The Addiction’ or ‘Bad Lieutenant’ had an effect on him personally, he just mumbles, “yeah plenty.”

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

But he can also be warm, funny, and generous. The cast and crew on his movies are mostly devotees and regular collaborators: although he’s portrayed as a maverick, an outsider, you can sense that everyone here loves working for him. The cast and crew on ‘The Addiction’ are all working on deferred payment.

The most recent convert to the Ferrara faith is actress, Lilli Taylor.
“There’s not really a hierarchy here. Everybody helps out. I’ve never really seen anything like it.”

He 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.”

The set is like a family and certainly the importance of family is an important theme is most of his films (he’s married with two adopted children) – whether it be a nuclear family like the ‘Bad Leiutenant’s or the director in ‘Dangerous Game’, or a gang like ‘King of New York’ or ‘China Girl’.

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

At 16, he “quit rock ‘n’ roll” (“it wasn’t happening”), got into the idea of directing, and started making 8mm films with Nicky St.John.

He once described their way of working as ‘urban guerrilla style film-making’. ‘Driller Killer’ was so hard it has been banned in this country ever since MPs had a special screening 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 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 by rescuing a children’s hospital from 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 ‘KNY’, 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 felt unfairly portrayed as ‘a psycho’ in previous profiles written about him (by me !).

He insists that he identifies with lots of the characters in his films, but, nevertheless, you’ve got to say, these films don’t get made by accident. No-one else is making them. Most of them are dealing with his demons.

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

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.”

The fact is, Abel knows how the other half lives. He admitted to one interviewer 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.”

I can well believe it.

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

Drugs are a recurring interest in his stories. (In ‘Dangerous Game’, even Madonna get stoned.) When I asked Fishburne what they used for cocaine in ‘King of New York’, he just roared with laughter and wouldn’t say anything. When I ask what Lilli Taylor uses to jack up with in ‘The Addiction’, Ferrara just mumbles, ‘I was too polite to ask.”

And when I ask him if films like ‘KNY’ glamorise drugs and if he’s advocating 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. ‘Say no to drugs to me, was always ‘Say KNOW to drugs, knowaddamsaying ?”

Although there are alot of sex, drugs and violence in his films, what makes his films so powerful is 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’ are 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 says. “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’ (because of its porn-rating certificate), Harvey got upset,” he laughs. “He didn’t always understand my sense of humour.”

In ‘Bad Lieutenant’, Harvey’s completely gone, I say.
“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 saying of 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.”

At 5am, Abel shouts to the cast and crew, “we are one take away from euphoria.”

Once again, Sciorra and co. get stuck in to one another.
Abel shouts, “And…cut-ski”. It’s a wrap.

One hour later, in a scene reminiscent of ‘King of New York’, Abel, myself , Sciorra and three great-looking girls are cruising round New York in a Cadillac, playing Schooly D and getting mashed.

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

By now, it has to be said, we are 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 is insisting I tape all their private conversations whatever they’re about. (The man does not give a fuck.)

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.” He describes 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 says “we’re preppin’ this new flick” – ‘The Funeral’, a 30s 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 shouts, “you can be in it.”

It is going to be a long day. Hours later, I bail. Fishburne was right. Hanging out with Abel Ferrara is too heavy-duty. The man is going places you don’t want to go.

Abel takes me out to the street and we veer down 5th Avenue, clad in black, for once without sunglasses. The winter sun is streaming down on us and we duck our heads, raise our hands to the light, like vampires. Abel staggers away towards God-knows-where, to go and do God-knows-what.

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