Lemme break it down:
I've grown up with Abel Ferrara's films and they've grown up with me. His Driller Killer and Ms. 45 were on my exact wavelength when I first sought them out during illicit trips to the video store. I didn't see it until much later, but his directorial debut, the porn flick 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, would've been my vibe back then, too. Watching it now, it's a prep course for his later work, having the same grindhouse appeal and, as it happens, the same ineffable sense of intimacy that still informs his incomparable sex scenes. Movies for adults in the United States used to be nasty like this sometimes, and no one is nastier than Mr. Ferrara when he sets his mind to it.
But there was always more to his movies than the lizard brain informing their more prurient pleasures. The phallic dispatches, the hungry sex, the ugly rapes reveal themselves, in the end and to a one, as speaking to a certain self-destructiveness that did, indeed, reflect his own compulsions. Addiction is the throughline, and the burden of bad choices is what has always driven his characters. My favourite film of his, The Funeral, is an astonishing treatise on male violence and its toll on men, of course, but specifically on the women expected to pick up the pieces. It's home to career performances from Chris Penn and Annabella Sciorra. Shit, it's home to career performances from Christopher Walken and Vincent Gallo, too. It's a gangster film, I guess, but more specifically it's a film about tribalism and brutality. And sex. Always sex.
As Ferrara's career transitions into introspective, some would say autobiographical ruminations like Tomasso and his documentary The Projectionist, I have come to find in him the same quality I've found in other artists entering their late sixties and early seventies: a certain heft of wisdom that Ferrara calls one of the only good things about getting old.
I feel lucky to have been able to talk to him for a little while on a sunny day in the middle of the end of the world. I started out by asking him how went the pandemic in his corner of Rome, where he's lived since leaving New York after 9/11.
ABEL FERRARA: You know, man, it's...bad. We had a little break out today. That anxiety, it doesn't go away, you know, and I mean it shouldn't go away. It's like it's just, you know, it's definitely a reality now that the world has changed and we're not going back to the way we were.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: In a way, that speaks to the regret of Tomasso and Pasolini.
Yeah, you can hear that? I think that's the gift and the horror, the curse of getting older. You get a perspective on how things were and who you used to be, and it's maybe the only good thing about getting old--that ability to appreciate the long view of it.
I thought a lot of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita while watching Tomasso.
I know the scene you mean and leading up to it, you know, the obvious thing is Willem had already played Christ, and if this is The Last Temptation of Christ we'd already shot the scene with Mary, right, and Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested--the emotional torture of it--and then that scene with the heart is not...that's all Schrader and Scorsese, just purely from that film. The scene with Christ and Pontious Pilate, now you see echoes of, yes, Bulgakov, but also a little of the character of Holden Caulfield, I thought, and wouldn't it be more interesting now in Tomasso to consider that this sequence with the heart could be transformed into this author's memory of this performance as filtered through The Master and Margarita. Like something that speaks to Willem's experience and then something that is maybe an adaptation this character would like to have made.
No one but Dafoe could've played it with all those layers.
And he played the shit out of it, he nailed that motherfucker. You make something like Tomasso that's not entirely, you know, real, right, and you give yourself that freedom. Could it have been this movie he was in, could it be a book he'd read, could it be the movie he wants to make, maybe it's just a dream he's having based on The Master and Margarita. Is he remembering playing Christ, does he believe he's Christ? It's his creative mind playing out the Passion. He's a director, Willem, he's an actor, a writer, all of these things, and you can't separate that out from the character he's playing.
I haven't had a chance to see Siberia, yet, but so many of your films have characters that are artists sort of surfing that wave of a Jungian idea of the zeitgeist.
Well, you know, that's the point of it. You're making a movie and you're in that state. You can do what you want. You can create the world. We demand it, we earned it, we got it, it's there, this is the sum of our ambition, to be able to live in the moment and live in the world. We affect the entire world by our actions and I'm affected by it. We are all living in the same place and the same time. What is the world but the sum, the end result of all actions and thoughts? That's what we got and that's all we got, and when I make something, yeah, we take from the collective and we return to the collective.
Is that the aspect of Buddhism that attracted you the most, you think? The feeling of interconnectedness and responsibility to others?
I think the thing that got me in the beginning is that we're not on Earth to suffer.
That... I'm having kind of an emotional reaction to that.
It's a simple, basic thing, right? Good, you know. Things are better if you can realize that it's possible not to suffer. When I got sober I realized it was possible. When you're an addict it's only the agony or the ecstasy. I was never able to accept that I was not placed on this Earth to suffer until one day I was finally free of all that stuff in my body for the first time and... I felt so good it was frightening. And then I was able to accept that it didn't have to be this way. That I didn't have to suffer.
Not that there isn't suffering.
If you are in pain--and I'm not talking about if you get hit by a car or something bad, more of if you're subjecting yourself to some kind of self-induced torture by not truly appreciating the beauty of the moment, you know, you're just going about it wrong. You're seeing the world wrong. You're acting wrong. You're choosing the negative.
I feel addicted to sadness.
(laughs) If you want to feel sad, then in a sense you got what you want. But I mean, look at the Dalai Llama. Look at the shit he's been through, but he's not suffering, you know. His whole country, his beliefs, culture: destroyed. But he's cool. He sees the reasons why. He has a larger understanding of the moment. I'm not saying it's not work, but it's good work.
Forty days is the length of time you detox. Forty days is how long Jesus spent in the desert. What was he coming down from?
(laughs) Look, Jesus, you see him at his Bar Mitzvah and then you don't see him for twenty years. What was his life during those twenty years? That's a movie right there. We know the endgame and we know the lead-up immediately to it, but we don't know the shit that got him there. I like to think of that time as a period of training to be a healer, you know? Now if you go to a doctor and you have a cataract and they cure that, you don't form a religion around the guy, right? Maybe then, though, maybe Christ was a country doctor.
A healer in a literal sense.
You know, somebody is in a coma and he wakes him up. The Egyptians had all of that in their culture--these civilizations that predate Christianity by centuries: India, China. In terms of what they could do that must have seemed like magic to someone on the outside. Suddenly the curing of basic maladies is giving sight to the blind or raising Lazarus from the dead. So...
Is that how you see your role, as someone who's perceived to be doing something extraordinary but is in fact doing something mundane?
Pasolini was right about everything. To him, he saw where everyone was at. To him the consumer society, post-WWII in his mind, was worse than fascism. He got to see what was happening with the riots, the forever wars to drive the economy... You go back now to Manhattan and there's no places of worship, not really, except these shining new monuments to consumerism. They're cathedrals, these incredible stores. The Rolex store, the Apple Store, and everyone wants what's in them and 99% of people can't afford what's in them, you know, and that creates desperation and sadness. It fuels the cycle.
It feeds the Beast.
Yeah, I think a lot now about the pandemic and about death. I did a movie, 4:44, that is about creating at the end of the world. There's no statues and paintings in the public square now, it's just the new store full of things you can't have.
Churches where salvation was denied to you.
And everybody wants what's in 'em so bad they'll kill you for it. They'll smash a window now in rage and frustration to get it, and so what's the big surprise? That's what Pasolini was saying, you know. The kids, they know every brand and make of every fucking sneaker, inside-out. They want it because they're taught that's their purpose. They'll kill you for that prize.
Vincent Gallo's character in The Funeral has this conversation and makes this warning.
Pasolini haunts a lot of my movies. Nick [St. John] wrote that, you know, that was just a beautiful, beautiful script. Yeah--that character. He gets punished, you know, for believing in a better society.
Jesus, Chris Penn.
Chris Penn... He's awesome, man. Heartbreaking. We were all fucked-up at the time. That's the endgame for most of us like that: you end up in jail or you're dead. If you're lucky you end up in jail, and if you're not, you end up dead. He was so talented. He was so talented. To succumb to addiction is just...just...yeah.
Tell me more about your conversation with addiction, because if there's a unifying trope to your work, it's that and the masculine compulsion towards self-destruction and violence.
Well, if that's true, I want to be clear that it's not just men who are afflicted, right? It's women: Zoe in Ms. 45, Lili in The Addiction. I was so mad. I was so mad for so long, man. When you're an addict, you're angry all the time because you spend your life in avoidance. I look back--when I look back--and I just see that. I sometimes won't remember a thing about shooting it because I was so fucked-up, but, you can feel that rage.
"Give up the ego, abandon the self, this person you think you are, this character I played called Abel where I clung so tight to everything I thought he was."
Why do you keep working with the people you work with? What do they help you to express?
I love actors that bring the heat. They're there to work. They have the gift, they can share it, they understand the process and they love the process and then that love gets shared. Depardieu, put him in there with those guys--they have a joy. They have such joy in what they're doing and it's contagious. You're not only getting all that ability and that whatever it is that makes people come to life in front of the camera more than others, that star quality, but you're getting that love for what they're doing. They're all positive people.
You have such great empathy for your women characters.
Wisdom is in the woman. You gotta either get in touch with your feminine side or find women you can connect to who will counsel you on that, who are generous enough to share their wisdom. Women are incredibly strong. It's a Buddhist thing, that all wisdom derives from the feminine aspect.
Do you look back to find everything leading you to Buddhism?
Ah, well, you can certainly find that story if you look for it, but I'll say these things about balance and love and living in the moment are all the best aspects of every philosophy. Catholicism, you know. Find a life that's worth living, the right mindset, realize you must give more than you take... It's not solely a Buddhist thing. That's what all spirituality is about. Not the religion or dogma you practice--you gotta find it in yourself. Give up the ego, abandon the self, this person you think you are, this character I played called Abel where I clung so tight to everything I thought he was: He listens to the Rolling Stones, he wears black, you know, so you're living your life so narrowly. You isolate yourself. You don't see the possibilities of the larger world.
What could we do if we abandoned fear?
That's it. That's right. You could do anything. Try, fail. You can fail. It's the same as not failing. It's all open for you, and film is about commitment to the group. It's not an individual act, it's communion, it's the most sacred of rituals. I chose this. I chose to make films and not to be a poet, and so I must dedicate to this group.
But you make poetry.
(laughs) I mean, not a poet in the literal, sitting in a room and writing poetry books sense of being a poet. But consider that the audience that watches your shit is part of your group, too, that this collaboration involved in this creation isn't just with the people I have here with me, but the people who are watching now, too, the audience is all a part of this thing. It's in the world and it affects it. You can't see yourself as some special, unique thing. You are a part of a bigger conversation.
Is that why the sex in your films feels as intimate as it does?
I dunno, yeah, maybe man, you gotta let get off your inhibitions and get off the ego. Just make it real. It's life, you know, it's to not be repressed, not to be afraid and to encourage, to empower your actors to trust and to be free and to express themselves through movement and that communion, right?
I'm thinking of the way you film skin in 4:44: it's tactile, it bends and creases.
Yeah, man, it's so beautiful, the body, sex. It's not me, though, you know, it's from this tradition, this European tradition, and it used to be American but not so much anymore. I've seen it so many times, it's so beautiful in movies. Now it's like we're in the Victorian age again, but go back to Fassbinder, start with him, the just absolute beauty of flesh. It's not something I invented, it's something I've seen, and there's something to be said for movies that will shoot below the waist.
Are you at peace?
For the moment, man, for right this second. I mean, who knows what's gonna happen in the next ten minutes, but for right now, not being under the heel of alcohol and drugs, you have a chance to find some kind of balance. Listen, you gotta live on life's terms. Our country's in a civil war, we got a really scary disease here, so... It is what it is, you gotta let things be or else you freak out, you know, or for me you turn to the bottle, that temptation is always there to avoid again, to want to mute the real horror out there. But you ask and I can say that, yeah, man, right now in this moment, talking to you here and all that. Yeah, man, I'm at peace.