Interview: Abel Ferrara on Rome, Pasolini, new film 'Siberia'

Abel Ferrara (right), Christina Ferrara and daughter (centre), Konrad van Halewyn (left) Credit: Tim Wade

ROME - The Italian Insider spoke to Abel Ferrara, one of the most controversial filmmakers of the era, near Piazza Vittorio, his home of several years in the Eternal City. The "shocking" filmmaker was formerly known to critics for what they saw as his troubling subject matter, gritty urban environments, and decadence with films such as Bad Lieutenant and King of New York. He is now a family man with a wife and a young daughter, nearly anonymous on the Roman streets. Catching up with Abel we spoke about his past, his opinions on Rome, and his shift to documentary filmmaking:


Q: So you’re born in the Bronx and you’re now in Rome. What can you tell me about these two cities, do you see a similarity? 

A: The more similar they are the more different they are. In general I was brought up in a very Italian-American neighbourhood in the Bronx, I mean, very Italian. My father and my uncles were born in America, they didn’t speak a word of English and that’s incredible when you think about it. They went to school at 6 years old and they didn’t know one word of English. They spoke Neapolitan dialect, period. Specifically, my grandfather came from the south, which is like the countryside.

 So he went to the Bronx, in the Bronx it’s not a ghetto. There is a ghetto in the Bronx, but the Bronx is not a ghetto. He was in the part of the Bronx that was like a farm to match where he came from. So even though when everybody first lands they are in the ghetto, they move out of the ghetto. So the Bronx I grew up in the 50s, there were Italians around. I grew up Italian American. How can I compare? Rome of 2017 to the Bronx of the 50s, yeah they were speaking Italian but totally different Italian because here they speak one dialect, but there it was Neapolitan. 

 Q: Do you think there was something similar in the attitude from your background and here? 

 Yeah, there was a real family attitude, it’s a thing Italians have. It’s more of a tradition, it’s a country that’s been around for 3,000 years. Things aren’t that important that they have to happen in 5 seconds, let’s see how things pan out over a course of 3-4,000 years. It’s not like anyone is in rush. In New York, it’s minute to minute. 

 Q: What about the grittiness of New York, in the time growing up and depicted in your films? 

 I had three different lives: I lived in the Bronx, I lived in upstate New York, I went to high school in a totally different country. I was 24 years old after university when I came to New York City. I came in 1975 and it was a very violent, ya’know, not as violent as Myanmar or Syria, but, compared to where it is now, it was an unpoliced city really. 

 Q: So I saw Pasolini, do you think Pasolini was killed because he was gay? 

 Ya’know, I think Pasolini was living a lifestyle. He lays it out in an interview, he’s living that life. He’s out there in the jungle, he needed that thing. The guy is cruising the train station, he’s not going to universities looking for young guys, and he needs a new guy every day. He had a thing and he lived it. It’s not something that was a big, deep, dark secret. It was his life, he lived it. That was his freedom, and his freedom was writing political commentary in a newspaper. At that point, both those things could get you killed. This is 1975, it’s not easy being gay, but that’s the stance he took. 

 Q: Do you admire that full dedication? 

 You’re making a movie. He’s an activist, he’s committed, he’s not just a filmmaker. He’s a writer, he’s a journalist, he’s a musician, he’s a poet, he’s a lover, he’s a f*cking awesome dude. 

 Q: What about that Festival of Fertility thing in Pasolini

 That’s how I met my wife. Now we have a 3-year-old. 

 Q: You met during that? She was one of the actresses? So where did that come from, was it one of Pasolini’s fictions? 

 Yeah I’m serious and it was from his book. When we did that shooting, the film he was working on. He spoke the script out into a mic. The screenplay, the first time, he just rattled it into the thing. This guy was a brilliant screenwriter. Most directors can’t even write. On top of that, being a great director, he was a brilliant screenwriter. I listened to it, I heard it. I followed his direction. The beautiful thing of that scene is, yeah, he could be an out-there gay guy but he is confronting the issue that if you are a gay guy “what happens to the procreation of the race.” We’re all gay, that’s cool. Liberation, blah blah blah, everybody does their own thing. But what happens? So he conceives of this one day where, in a city that is 100 percent gay, that’s how they deal with that. Where all the best guys, against all the best chicks, all these guys f**king, and it’s not an orgy, which is a hard thing to explain to all these young actors that we are using. This is not an orgy, this is the opportunity. When they gotta knock the chick up, they gotta [impregnate her,] and that’s why the fireworks are going off. 

 Q: And what do they chant?

 They’re saying “dick, dick, dick, fica, fica, fica! Cazzo cazzo cazzo.”

 This is all out of the imagination of Pasolini. 

 Q: So how would you define an orgy if that wasn’t one? 

It’s an orgy with a purpose. This is a focused ritual that is conceived by him. Also think of the brilliance of the conception by him of the three wise men following the star. I’ve heard that story my whole life, I’ve never had someone ask me to consider what did the wise man tell his wife when he decided to take off for three years. That he was going to see Jesus, who the f**k is Jesus? So those scenes are just a window into his f**king mind.

 Q: I really liked the way it worked together. That fictional storyline and then Pasolini’s life, could you tell me more about it?

 The Messiah isn’t consummated. It’s searching for heaven and heaven doesn’t exist. But that’s the scene that he has just works. The luck of the draw bro, it’s the gift you get from the cinema gods. We thought about putting those scenes there, but that comes in the editing and it works so much better. Everything in Porno-Teo-Kolossalis is exactly how he wrote it, just trying to stay true to his script. 

 Q: What was that like for you? Am I right in thinking that you really influenced the start of filmmaking by Pasolini?

 I was making films for a while before we even heard of Pasolini. 

 Q: Your directorial debut was in porn, am I right?

 No no, I started making films in 1968 when I was 16 years old. I had been making films for 7 years before. Nine lives  was the first time we made a film that we put in the movie theatre but we were shooting. I shot all through university. I went to school right outside of Oxford. It was like some kind of crazy exchange programme. I was a horrible student but it was a crazy exchange programme and I ended up there outside of Oxfordshire.

 I hustled the BBC to let me shoot a short movie with their equipment; I don’t know what I told them, it was a big awakening for me as a kid from nowhere. They were 5 minute films.

 Q: Your generation of American filmmakers seems to have gotten a lot of influence from the European ones. So Scorsese often talks about Goddard, you obviously have a deep relationship with Pasolini. What do you think you got out of these directors? 

 It’s the difference between Parmesan cheese versus hamburgers and French fries. It's from a different place. The economics of the film are the politics of the film, they were just raising money and making films on the street. 

 It’s funny because Godard and those guys were copying Hitchcock. They were in love with the American movies. Rossellini who told these guys to forget it, you’re not going to make a movie like Hitchcock, you’ve gotta forget it, you’ve gotta make street movies. 

 When Rossellini started, the war just ended, everybody was decimated. That was great energy. That was the beginning of the renaissance of the Italian films. 

 Q: You have a reputation for being a controversial filmmaker. Do you enjoy shocking people with your movies or is the shock a secondary thing? 

 You shock some people; you don’t shock others. Some people are unshockable. 

 Q: Do you think it is getting harder to shock people? 

 Easier, people are used to straight movies and straight s**t. You don’t see anything, everything is censored. There’s a clip here or there on youtube but, yeah, I grew up with the Vietnam War on television. You don’t see that s**t on TV. Everybody is protected from that s**t. 

 Q: How does that impact how you go about documenting life? Napoli! Napoli! Napoli!

 I’m not worried about the audience. I’m just trying to the make the thing happen. I’m just trying to stay connected to my muse. I’m just trying to stay connected to what it is that I find really honest and what I can do and how I do it. 

  Q: So do you go about making documentaries quite differently to the way you make features or do they come from the same place?

 The good thing about documentaries is you don’t have to start writing a bunch of lies telling people what you might do or might not do. It’s a much freer way of making film where the shooting and the subject dictates the course of the film. You’re not forced to write a script or raise money and now everybody has, even if you say you’re not gonna follow the script, is still there. You’ve still got point A to point Z, which I don’t know how true a way it is. For some people, I’m sure, it’s great. 

 Q: How do you go about it? Do you just go out with a camera and meet people? 

 In Piazza Vittorio? It’s easier there because it’s my neighbourhood. I know people. I’ve been living there for three years so there is a structure even if it doesn’t look like it to some people.

 Napoli Napoli began as a film about the women’s prison, it is very specific, women in prison. We’re there and I’m starting to think 'I don’t know if we’re going to be able to tell this whole story' inside the prison, we gotta get outside the prison. We’ve gotta write a narrative against it. We didn’t do that with Piazza Vittorio, it’s all documentary. Napoli Napoli, like Chelsea on the Rocks, integrated written scenes. 

 Q: When did you get interested in writing documentary films? 

 The first one would be Napoli Napoli. There was an opportunity to do it. 

 Q: What did you think about Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant

 I didn’t see it. I’m not interested in seeing it. I like Herzog but I’d rather see his film about a bear eating that guy. That’s a great movie. He told me personally that it wasn’t supposed to be called Bad Lieutenant, he got f*cked over on that too. 

 Q: You are a Buddhist, is that right? And you converted quite recently, in the past few years?

 I converted like 10 years ago, actually more like 12 years ago. 

 Q: Has it changed the way you make films? 

 I hope it has. 

 Q: I thought it was really interesting that you converted to Buddhism and then you started making documentaries.

 That might be a good point, you start seeing other human beings. You realise that other human beings exist. Other people than you exist in the world, what a revelation. Had to come all the way to Italy to realise that, had to have the Dalai Lama tell me that. 

 Q: Coming from a Catholic family, was it a surprise to your family or a big shift? 

 People don’t always get it. People think that instead of worshipping Christ you are worshipping the Buddha, they don’t get the idea that first it is a philosophy. A key idea of the philosophy is there is no beginning, there is no non-beginning. Deep inside my Roman Catholic upbringing is the creation and who was responsible for it.  With Buddhism, you question the Buddha, you question the teaching it’s not a doctrine that everyone gets on their knees for and so I have come to see, like Bob Marley says, “the Almighty God was a living man.” You see people and realise you are all on the earth, you are all in that struggle.  We shot Mary in Jerusalem and it really hit home even more that these were real people. Buddha was a living man; Jesus Christ was a living man.  In terms of the compassion, the word of Jesus is very much a Buddhist doctrine, and when you think that Jesus was 800 years after Buddha, and they are basically living in the same neighbourhood in a sense, I’m sure he was in contact with people who knew the Dharma.

 Q: Do you see a lot of greed, hatred and delusion around you? 

I see it in me. I’m attracted to it. I don’t want to but I’m not enlightened yet. 

 Q: Do you think that attraction impacts the movies that you make, to these shocking subjects and horrible people? 

They come from a point that - there is a lot of delusional thinking in these films but when you are young, you don’t know anything. But then again I wasn’t that young. I made a lot of films that I have to question where I was coming from, where I have to question the effect.

 Q: Do you think you get different things out of making your films

I think that is the point: you’re trying to learn, you’re trying to grow, and you’re trying to get off your spot. You’re trying to get out of your comfort zone.

 Q: What is the community here like?

It’s cool, my Italian isn’t that great. You are a stranger in a strange land. It’s not like I’m living in New York. It’s good, there are some great things about it, and there are some not great things about it. But I’m here, obviously. Willem Dafoe is here too, he’s around the corner. 

 I met Christina here, we had a baby. I’m here right now. Not speaking the language makes business tough but it is what it is. We do things in New York. A filmmaker's life is a gypsy life; you follow the films. 

 Q: You have Willem Dafoe and yourself living here. What’s that like, you have a lot in common both being American?

 He’s the godfather to the baby. His wife, Giada, is a movie director too and the godmother. I’ve made four films with him, he’s my bro. 

 Q: What’s the creative scene like here? Is it a place where things happen, where you collaborate, and do your own thing?

 I’m married with a kid and I’m also sober. It’s a different life to the nightlife or the sporting life. The work thing is, you said it, the collaboration through is the guys I work with. I respect all the guys I work with and I hang out with actors and editors and writers. I know and I respect them and everything is cool. For me, it is a collaborative process, so the writing for me, at this point is with the editors, is with the writers. Everyone is on the same page before we begin, it’s not like I conceive of something, then we find an actor, and after we shoot it the editor shows up. That’s not how we work. I work with the same people over and over. 

 Q: Do you find working with the same people, that it becomes easier or harder to collaborate? 

 It’s both. You got a lot more trust, everyone knows what the game is so, you know, you’re with people for a reason, you appreciate that talent doesn’t grow on trees with people editing films, or writing films, or acting in them, so when you find them you have to keep them, cherish them 

 Q: Tell me about your next project “Siberia,” what the story about?

 It’s like the Odyssey or the Odyssey meets Alice in wonderland, but in a way circular. It’s a journey through nature. It’s a journey through the guy’s soul and his memory

 The key is that we’re using Willem as the character, and Willem as himself, so instead of him trying to suss out Pasolini or us trying to figure out the inner workings of some fictional character. We’re just sticking with Willem, pure and simple. It’s his past. It’s his relationship with his parents, with the mother of his child, and we’re focussing on being true to that. The way we’re using time: we go reality, the now, and into the past, filming memories and their dreams.

 Q: Is it a kind of portrait of Willem?

It will come down to that.

 Q: Are you political?

 I’m living it here, I am the politics here, and so are you. There’s the life you live that’s politics, and then there the make-believe circus, but your day to day life is your political reality

 Q: You emphasised the fact that you are an immigrant in Piazza Vittorio

 It was just a reaction to the fact that we’re all here, we’re all living in Rome, you’re an immigrant too so what do you call them?

 Q: Immigrants?

 Well, yeah, I guess. We’re all individuals living our own individual lives in this shared space. It is what it is. We’re all out there doing our own things. You’d better show compassion and empathy to other people because you have to hope they show it to you.

 It’s like with Trump, he never met anyone without insurance, that’s not in his reality so he doesn’t give a s**t, he has insurance. He doesn’t care about anything except playing golf, or whatever he does. It takes some compassion to see he’s a man, an individual like the rest of us.

 There’s no reason to call someone an immigrant, most are actually refugees, they’re still human beings. We’ve being moving around forever. Imagine if you were against immigration at the beginning of history, the whole earth would be empty.