Abel Ferrara 1


The Chateau Marmont hotel, Los Angeles, 1990.

Like a fish out of water, native New Yorker, Abel Ferrara, scurries out of the sun, back into the darkness of his room.

Abel is in town to promote ‘King of New York’, which has just opened to rave reviews, but all he wants to talk about is the script his ‘King of New York’ star, Christopher Walken, has written.

Walken’s screenplay is based (loosely) on the life of John Holmes, a porn star, cocaine addict, murder suspect, and in Abel’s opinion, “an awesome actor”.

According to Ferrara, Walken’s identification with Holmes had become an obsession, even though, much to Abel’s amusement, Walken hadn’t actually even seen any John Holmes films.

The actual script, Abel laughed, was “insane. It’s got nothing to do with John Holmes. It’s his idea of him.”

A movie-within-a-movie, with Walken as John Holmes playing Johnny Wadd, it was about “this detective-gigolo who’s paid by this businessman to fly across the country and fuck his wife while he reads her his rights.
“The sex is hysterical.”

Ferrara loved it.
“The scenes are on separate pages, with no numbers, so you can move them around if you don’t like where Walken’s put them !”

When I asked Ferrara if he was going to direct it, he gave another one of his cackling jackdaw laughs and just muttered: “sure. Who the hell else is going to do it ?!”

This, it has to be said, was hard to argue with.

Abel Ferrara is one of a kind – a hyperkinetic, streetwise maverick capable of producing uniquely exhilarating, uncompromising cinema – films like 1979’s ‘Driller Killer (the original video nasty), the glorious, glamorous ‘King of New York’ and, of course ‘Bad Lieutenant’, probably the most remorselessly disturbing, powerful film of its time.

Having profiled Ferrara and Walken when ‘King of New York’ first came out, I’ve always kept in touch with what Abel’s been doing, dropping in to see him in his office/loft on the Lower East Side’s E.18ths street – usually in the middle of the night. (Abel’s day starts at about 8 in the evening.)

I remember when ‘Bad Lieutenant’ first came out in the States, (finally) getting its highly controversial NC-17 (porn certificate) rating and Abel first heard it was coming out on one of America’s biggest movie days, on Thanksgiving Day.

“Yeah,” snorted Ferrara in his brilliantly malevolent-sounding drawl. “Put the kids in the station wagon and come on down. See how the other half lives.”

As far as alot of people in the film industry are concerned, Abel Ferrara is the other half.

For a start, the portrayal of corrupt cops, ruthless killers and criminals in his films represents the most convincing evocation of New York streetlife you can see in modern-day movies: Scorsese without the commercial consideration and clichés. (There is, by the way, in Abel’s opinion, “no better director than Scorsese on a low budget.”)

Though he admitted in one interview that knowing a couple of cops has helped, he couldn’t help adding, “on a day to day basis, we prefer to hang out with the other side of the law.”

Though at first he can seem pretty intimidating, once you get to know him though, he is an intensely loveable character, big-hearted, funny and actually pretty shy. The fact that ‘China Girl’, his version of Romeo and Juliet, set in multi-racial modern-day Chinatown, remains his personal favourite of his own movies, has always suggested that underneath, he’s a pussycat.

Born and bred in the Bronx, usually clad in black, he speaks with a brilliant mix of thick Noo Yawk rap and heavy gangster patter, a string of “yeah G”s, “wassup Homes” and “knowadarmsayin’”s and phrases like “That was a cold flick, man.”

Even Laurence Fishburne, who spent a year in the Phillipine Jungle shooting ‘Apocalypse Now’ with prime-crazies Hopper, Sheen and Coppola once told me, “Cats like Abel and Walken they’re on the edge man. They ARE the edge. There ain’t shit those motherfuckas ain’t seen.”

Where Abel’s concerned, stories you would assume to be apocryphal invariably turn out NOT to be.

One story I’d heard was about a time Abel was in the public gallery of a New York court, attending the trial of a local gangster as part of his research for Michael Mann’s series, ‘Crime Story’.
The trial was suddenly interrupted when one of the attorneys complained to the Judge that a member of the public was trying to intimidate the jury.

“They were talking about this guy in the sunglasses,” Abel explained. “I turned round to see who it was and there was no-one there. It was me.”

The Dukes Hotel, London, November 1996

Abel looked rather less intimidating the last time I saw him, last November, lying in bed in his hotel room in London being interviewed by some bemused film magazine reporter. It was the morning after the night before. I was in the other room clearing up the wreckage. He wasn’t saying much, but, personally, I was impressed he could speak at all.

Still, interviewing Abel is notoriously difficult at the best of times and can be intimidating, a gruff, shambling figure pacing the room, in crumpled black clothes and a large crucifix dangling round his neck, and his greying hair resembling a priestly crown.

Always intense, laconic and hyper by turns, his attention is easily distracted. You can ask him something and see him just walk off, walk out, to do something, as the man from the London Film Festival had discovered the previous day during “an Abel Ferrara masterclass” early one Sunday morning at a cinema in Leicester Square.

Ten minutes and a few questions in, in the middle of a clip from his new film, ‘The Funeral’, Abel got up, walked off the stage and kept walking. The film carried on running, to the audience’s obvious confusion, way past the clip we were meant to see.
The PR’s explanation that he had gone for some pizza was not quite right. He had gone for a beer and had to buy the pizza to get it.

Still, the audience got an idea of how charming, funny, and good-natured he can be, seeing him wincing as they played the scene from ‘Bad Lieutenant’ of Zoe Lund shooting up Harvey Keitel.

“I can’t believe we’re all sittin’ here watchin’ this shit,” he cried, literally squirming in his seat. “On a fucken Sunday !? Getouttahere !”

“Sometimes you wonder whether this is too heavy. You’re in this church in Jersey filming this chick being raped. On the altar. You just think to yourself, ‘Holy shit !’”

The girl who played the nun raped in ‘Bad Lieutenant’ asked Abel if he was sure it had been violent enough.
“Kids these days….” he mutttered, shaking his head.

Discussing his work doesn’t particularly interest him, even if you hit him with accolades, he’ll just mumble, “yeah, yeah, right.”

“How’s Crash doing over there ?” – he says, changing the subject.

When I asked him if making ‘Bad Lieutenant’ had affected him, he just mutters, “yeah plenty.”

He seems uncomfortable with anything very personal (one of the reasons not much is known about his background), and is not particularly interested in analysing the work. He is particularly fond of Walken’s answer to a journalist’s question about what happens to the children’s ward in ‘King of New York’ which Walken’s character, gangster Frank White, has been trying to save.
“Walken said ‘nothing – the movie’s over.’ Hah-Hah !”

Though even Abel seemed shocked by Walken’s remark, during the making of ‘The Addiction’ that, to him, Jesus was “an over-used literary device.”

The plus side of Abel’s attitude is how refreshing it is to find someone left in this business who isn’t interested in selling his movie through the press, figuring (probably correctly) that most people know by now whether they want to see his style of film-making or not.

The truth is no-one else even THINKS about making films like Ferrara’s, let alone gets them made.

For devotees (and Ferrara is one of the biggest cult directors in the world), this month is a double whammy, with the release on the same day of both ‘The Funeral’ (a film about three brothers, gangsters, set in the 1930s, starring Benificio del Toro, Chris Penn, Annabella Sciorra and Isabella Rossellini), together with 1995’s bizarre black and white junkie/horror movie, ‘The Addiction’, with Lilli Taylor and Sciorra.

“‘The Addiction’ and ‘The Funeral’ are coming out on the same day in Britain !” he repeats with bewilderment, when I tell him.
“That’s a fucked up day.”

Both films star Christopher Walken.
“Me and Walken,” he once told me, “we’re like Fassbinder. Just get the cash, get the chicks, call him up and shoot it over the weekend. Just jam.”

He has also enthused about Walken’s hair – “he’s got the best hair action going on in the world man.”

As far as the legions of Ferrara’s fans are concerned, you can forget Tarantino. The hardest, hippest films of the last twenty years have been directed by Abel Ferrara.

Back in the late 70s, while Quentin was reading comics and getting off on ‘Charlie’s Angels’, Ferrara was making ‘Driller Killer’, one of the original low-budget “Video Nasties”, about an artist (played by Ferrara) who is driven insane by a 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 street suss, the criminally under-rated ‘King of New York’ is pure class – as Tarantino himself acknowledged, the best non-Italian gangster flick since ‘Scarface’.

And compared to ‘Bad Lieutenant’, ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is for boy scouts, kids stuff, just superficial popcorn. (You can judge the difference between the director by just contrasting the intensity of the performance you get from Harvey Keitel.)

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

At first his 1994 version of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatcher’ (cast-list: “Meg Tilly, Forrest Whittaker, and a bunch of martians”) seemed like a way of raising finance for other projects but actually it fits in perfectly with his canon of films about people torn between doing good and the temptation of evil (through sex, drugs, violence), a theme which dominates both ‘The Addiction’ and ‘The Funeral’. Ferrara’s protagonists are men in torment.

In America, all of his films, apart from ‘The Body Snatchers’, have been given ‘X’ certificates.
“They have to have something they call ‘the mood of an X’, which always sounds like a Duke Ellington song.”

So are you ever sure why a film is rated X ?
“Yeah we’re very sure. If there’s a mood of an X, we’re it.”

Ask him what Hollywood thinks of his films and he just sneers, “who cares what they think ? They wish we would just go away. All they care about in Hollywood is ‘sympathy for the character’. I never did understand that concept.”

When people were saying Keitel was possibly going to be up for an Oscar for Bad Lieutenant and The Piano, Abel wasn’t having any of it.
“In a way it would be an insult to have any kind of recognition from that crowd,” he snarled.

The facts of Ferrara’s past are, predictably, fairly vague.
Now 45 (Cancerian), born in the Bronx and raised Catholic, he talks little about his family. He has (I think) two sisters and two adopted American Indian children. His wife, Nancy, played Harvey Keitel’s wife in ‘Dangerous Game’ (a Freudian’s field-day).

He described his father to me as “a wheeler-dealer. One of those good times/bad times kind of guys. We saw both sides.”

He met regular collaborator, scriptwriter Nicky St.John (who wrote ‘The Addiction’ and ‘The Funeral’ in six months back-to-back) at school in Upstate New York when he was 15.

At 16, he “quit rock ‘n’ roll” (his two great loves are hip-hop and Bob Dylan) and started making super-8 films, some of which he jokes, “you couldn’t see and couldn’t hear.”

Asked if he went to film school, he just pulls an “are you kidding me ?” face and mutters something about film school being somewhere you go to “acquire” the equipment.

His first feature, in 1979, ‘Driller Killer’ was shot “urban guerrila style – with 5 people” using “a crew of characters from Philly who would keep going off doing mercenary work in Panama and shit,” some of whom he still works with.

After a screening of ‘Driller Killer’ at the House of Commons, MPs and tabloids were up in arms, and, along with ‘The Evil Dead’, ‘Driller Killer’ has been banned in this country ever since.

He followed it two years later with the excellent feminist vigilante movie, ‘Ms 45: Angel of Vengeance’, starring Abel as “first rapist” and ‘Bad Lieutenant’ co-writer/co-star, Zoe Lund, in the title role (looking, let’s say, slightly more innocent).

A spell trying to work within the movie mainstream followed with 1984’s ‘Fear City’ (starring Tom Berenger and Melanie Griffith), the pilot of Michael Mann’s series ‘Crime Story’, and two episodes of ‘Miami Vice’. His adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s noir ‘Cat Chaser’ in 1989 (starring Peter Weller) was so butchered by the studio, he said, “even I couldn’t follow it.”

He started the 90s’ with Nicky St.John’s ‘King of New York’, financed by future Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, re-launched Walken’s career, and proved a fantastic springboard for the likes of Laurence Fishburne, Steve Buscemi, David Caruso and Wesley Snipes.

Walken himself was stunning as drug baron, Frank White.
“Walken is Frank White. If you didn’t have Walken, you didn’t have a movie,” Abel enthused. “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.”

1993’s ‘Dangerous Game’ (aka ‘Snake Eyes’), with the frightening, whacked-out, combination of Harvey Keitel, Madonna and James Russo, was perhaps too close to home for both Keitel and Ferrara whose personal lives were seemingly going through hell at the time.
“You either got it or you didn’t,” he says now.

Abel’s version of it – “‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf’ on acid”, or ‘The Player’ meets ‘Contempt’ meets Cassavetes” – certainly gives you general idea, and, if nothing else, the method-acting consumption of drink and drugs in the film is always watchable, especially, a clearly stoned, Madonna. Russo’s fraught performance is probably best seen as a pre-cursor to his 1992 classic ‘Bad Lieutenant’, which Abel rates as “Harvey at his most Harvey-est”.

Keitel’s personal commitment to the content of a morally and financially bankrupt detective whose soul is in hell and is seeking some sort of salvation was obvious, bleeding over every frame.

“Hell is here now and so is the opportunity to know heaven,” he once told me, by way of explanation. “If you have the will to take the journey, you’ll come to a place called in mythology the holy void, the abyss and you come to the light.”

“No wonder Harvey got upset every time I said ‘Bad Lieutenant’ was going to be a fuck film,” Ferrara laughed, referring to its NC-17 porn certificate in the US.

The authenticity Ferrara achieved in the ‘Bad Lieutenant’ is in every detail – detail like the fact that the kids playing in the background while Keitel is doing coke off communion pictures are Keitel’s kids. The girl Harvey masturbates over in the car was his kids’ nanny. (Her debut role and, as far as I know, perhaps not surprisingly, her last.)

The fact that Ferrara wrote ‘Bad Lieutenant always indicated ‘Bad Lieutenant’ was dealing with Abel’s own demons, but he denies it’s necessarily his most personal movie.

“Harvey has a way of making it seem like it’s more personal,” he shrugs. “I think it’s coming from the same place we’ve always been coming from.”

He points out, he has to empathise with all the characters in his movies and anyway, the demons he’s dealing with are the same demons we all have.

When ‘Variety’ compared it to Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Silence’, praising the way it “tackles the subject of God’s absence from people’s lives in such a sexually explicit and morbid context”, Abel appreciated the comparison.

“The Silence’ is a hip flick,” he told me. “This guy, and two chicks, really hot chicks and he gets down with ‘em.”

But he wasn’t that ecstatic.
“Who the hell is going to see a film they’re comparing to Ingmar Bergman !” he growled, citing a slating from The Hollywood Reporter as being more to his taste.

“They listed all the things about the film that they hated, and I was thinking, ‘I’d love to see this picture’ !”

An elegant town house in New York’s Soho, 1995, 6am.

Abel is shooting the final scene of ‘The Addiction’, an elite cocktail party at which half the guests are actually vampires. There are blood-drenched extras everywhere, mingling in with Abel’s home-boy buddies and scary Italian relatives, not to mention a disproportionate number of beautiful girls, some of whom usually end up in the movie (usually in the party scene).

Abel paces restlessly, waiting for the make-up and lighting people to do their work, impatient to get the camera rolling.

“I only hope this many people come to the movie”, Abel mutters to himself, before telling the girl delicately dabbling Annabella Sciorra with fake-blood to just “tip it all out, all over her. That’s it baby.”

Later, one of the extras (a local home-boy playing a vampire), goes up to Sciorra and mutters, “How about you an me doing that Jungle Fever thing ?”

The next shot involves the camera following actress Lilli Taylor as she drifts round the party, with several extras criss-crossing her path. 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.”

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

When I ask him what Lilli used to shoot up, he just says
“I was too polite to ask.”

Although he has ‘The Addiction’ in only four weeks, on a minuscule budget, Ferrara still had to fight to make it in black & white.

“No-one wants to see black and white anymore,” one potential backer told him.
“What about Schindler’s List ?!” Abel asked.
“That was about the holocaust.”
“Well this is about the holocaust,” Abel insisted. “My own personal holocaust.”

Though some journalists have, somewhat naively, drawn personal parallels between ‘The Addiction’ and its director (just because he keeps rather late hours doesn’t actually mean he’s a vampire), it’s worth remembering that the script is by Nicky St.John. Abel didn’t even know he was writing it and shot it exactly as it was given to him, as he says he would do with anything St.John gave him.

On the set of ‘The Addiction’ you can see how Abel likes to work – there’s no shot list, no rehearsals, no storyboards, just relying on the quality of the cast and the support and dedication of his team, who have worked on virtually all his pictures and obviously love him; his family.

Abel always refers to his work as “films we’ve made.”

The first time I saw ‘Bad Lieutenant’, I called him to congratulate him. His response was instantaneous.
“What about that Harvey !? He’s out there without a net man.”

“Film-making’s a communal trip. There’s a certain kind of thing when you’re making a film and no-one’s getting paid. Everybody’s there for the right reason. There’s a sweet vibe, which you sometimes lose in big-time film-making.”

Above all, what you notice is how much Ferrara loves his actors. His faith has certainly always been vindicated. Although his films are perceived as being about male themes (male bonding and betrayal; violence, power and retribution), he also gets terrific performances from his female leads – like Madonna, Zoe Lund, and Lilli Taylor. And, in ‘The Funeral’, Annabella Sciorra, Isabella Rossellini, and Gretchen Mol in ‘The Funeral’. His next film even features a sterling performance from none other than Claudia Schiffer.

His cameraman Ken Kelsch once told me, “An Abel Ferrara film, to me, means pushing the envelope to the max. The actors go to the limit. Some of them don’t even know their limits until they get on the set and Abel works it out of them.”

Abel’s regard for Walken and Keitel in particular amounts to awe.
“I just let ‘em go,” he once told me. “All I do is try and keep them in focus.”

Walken was originally down for ‘Bad Lieutenant’ and at various times, Keitel was going to play at least one of the Walken roles in ‘The Addiction’ and ‘The Funeral’.

Besides the John Holmes movie, over the years, various others have fallen by the way, including a film of the life of Pier Paolo Pasolini (to be played, bizarrely, by Zoe Lund), a re-make of ‘La Dolce Vita’ and ‘Birds of Prey’, in which LA is being run by an IBM-style corporation and being unemployed is illegal.

“Walken was gonna play the head of the Gestapo. You get stopped without an American Express card and Walken blows you away.”

He is currently developing his next two projects and has his next movie already in the can. He wants to do a TV series for HBO, with weekly 30-minute episodes, set in his local strip club (“it’ll be a cross between the clubs in ‘King of New York’, Dorothy Parker’s round table and the club at the beginning in ‘Star Wars’… Our ‘Peyton Place’). He already, provisionally, has Walken, Willem Dafoe, Buscemi and virtually every female star in all his other films, not to mention “some other real-deal freaks.”

His next film project pitches Walken and Dafoe together in an adaptation of William Gibson’s short story, ‘New Rose Hotel’.
“It’s gonna rock.”

His next film already in the can, due to be shown at Cannes, is ‘The Black-Out’, starring Schiffer (“as the good girl”), Matthew Modine, Beatrice Dalle, ‘Scarface’ star Steven Bauer, Matthew Modine and Dennis Hopper.
“Another one of our genre of cry baby men who lose their bitches and don’t stop fucken crying about it,” Abel describes it.

Shot in beautiful blues, in Miami and New York, “a Vertigo-style number” about a guy (Modine) who’s starts to believe he has murdered someone during a drug-fuelled lost weekend “taking dope, crack, ‘shrooms, everything. Fucken laughing gas, the whole nine. Allergy pills…”

From what I’ve seen of it, it features Ferrara’s wildest sex scenes yet (which is something of an achievement in itself), with a shaven-headed Hopper out-doing ‘Blue Velvet’ for rage and craziness.

“Hopper’s dynamite,” Ferrara promises. “He’s been driving me nuts, busting my chops, but, you know, talent rules. Meanwhile,” he can’t help laughing, “Claudia Schiffer’s goin’ around town, goin’ on TV, tellin’ everyone how much she loves me and what a sweet guy I am.”

It could ruin his reputation.