Talking to director Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York) is about as close to having a conversation with a human embodiment of pre-Giuliani New York as you can get. It is trying and you have the feeling that you could get attacked at any second. Not that I would have wanted it any other way.
Ferrara was exactly as brash, idiosyncratic, and inscrutable when I talked to him by phone last week regarding the theatrical rerelease of his 1981 exploitation classic Ms. 45 (out Friday). He is the kind of person who says "chick" and "ya dig?" in that thick Bronx accent of his. To indicate that he'd filmed a Ms. 45 scene on the block that I was calling from, he told me, "Look out the fuckin' window, what's the matter with you? You're probably living in the spot she started running in." I don't think he was saying it offensively; I think he was just saying.
The weirdest part came when I asked him about the way Ms. 45's rape content differed from so much of its contemporary ilk (without brutally depicting it, Ferrara's protagonist Thana, played by Zoë Lund, gets raped twice in an afternoon and then, using her second rapist's .45, goes on a spree in which she kills men that threaten her, and then those that she sees threatening others, and then just any men). "Whaddya want? Whaddya want?" he asked me and then delivered a nonetheless thoughtful answer. I still have no idea what he meant.
Ferrara no longer lives in New York, and though the man has undergone a cleaning up of his act similar in ways to the city itself (he's been sober for over two years). He's lost none of his swagger, nor has Ms. 45 (if anything, time has only been kind to Ferrara's movies). You can still fill this film under your fingernails.
Below is a slightly edited transcription of our phone conversation. I have preserved his clause-heavy speech pattern as faithfully as possible, ya dig?
Gawker: What do you think about Ms. 45 in 2013?
Abel Ferrara: Well, you know, I mean, it's cool. It's cool that they're actually putting it in a theatre like that. [In New York, it starts playing the IFC Center on Friday.] Although I started sensing that 'cause in Brooklyn there's that Nitehawk Theatre that's starting to do really well, showing all kinds of shit like that, right? Listen, [there's only] so far you can take watching movies on a telephone or on a screen, ya dig? For whatever the reason is, and the reason is, movies, you know, the traditional movies are a communal experience bigger than life. On a close-up, somebody's eyes, 10-feet tall. And you know, if eyes are the window to the soul, what you get what you get out of seeing the right people, the right way, doing the right—You know, performing. It's something that can't be, y'know, I don't know if you can really get it. I mean, you can't! You just can't. And then on the other side, especially now 'cause I'm rethinking this digital game, I don't know, you still aren't seeing the actual shadow of the silver, because, well, there's a whole thing I don't want to get into. But it's a whole different way of how film is projected. When a real film is projected, shot at 35, projected in 35, it's more of a dreamlike experience. More of a shared dreamlike experience.
And when you're talking about eyes, so much of what Zoë Lund does in Ms. 45 is with her eyes.
Yeah. Well, so much of it is there: who she is, what she is. She's a 17-year-old kid coming into her own. A really, really gifted woman, you know, playing, being. Yeah, it's a powerful appeal, sure. The more we know about her, the more powerful it is.
Yeah. Is Ms. 45 tough for you to watch at this point, given the fact that she's no longer living?
Yeah, the fact that she died the way that she died and I couldn't really help her at the time and… Yeah. It's a tragedy, man. There's no two ways of looking at it. You're shooting up $200 worth of dope a day since you're 23, where are you gonna end up? Dead at 37. I mean, this chick could write. This chick could act. This chick could play music. She was on a music scholarship at Columbia at the time. She's playing a mute [in Ms. 45], but believe me, this chick had a voice like a fucking nightingale, OK? I mean, this was a truly, truly gifted person who fell for this fucking scam that heroin is the elixir of life and the greatest thing in the world and you're gonna live forever and blah, blah, blah, you know. And it's kind of a heartbreak.
It's nice to see the movie get this kind of release because it's been so hard to see for so long. I mean, the uncut version never came out on DVD in America.
I don't even know which one's cut. It's just little bits and pieces. But I know what you're saying. Blockbuster kind of had a monopoly on cassettes. It seems at the time that Hollywood was in this kind of exploitation – for lack of a better word – game. And the ratings board was used to kind of control marketplace that wasn't theirs to begin with. It became 100 percent theirs.
Ms. 45 is less graphic and arguably more feminist than a lot of the films of the time that also dealt with rape.
Whaddya want? (long pause) Whaddya want?
I mean, I played the rapist. What are you going to do? You're not going to stick your dick into a 17-year-old actress, right? I was forced to play that part—believe me, I didn't cast myself in it. 'Cause the actor who was supposed to play it actually got a paying job in Kansas City, I'll never forget that. From the point of view of the actor, it's brutal. It is what it is. [Lund] found it funny, and she brought levity to the whole deal, 'cause she was so mature for her age and intelligent. And actually, a lot of the attitude of that film is her. The idea is [Nicholas St. John's] and the script is his, frame for frame, but she brought a very intelligent take on it, ya dig? Her answers, I mean, I'm sure you can look them up on the fuckin' internet, "Oh, it's this, too, there's feminism on that." She goes on and on and on about defining it, but the feminist attitude of that film comes from her heart. The fact that she's a woman who's an intelligent woman who gets it. But filming a rape scene, I mean, we only knew how to film one way, and that's to go for it. So it is what it is. Is it from her point of view? Well, you're in the movie from her point of view. You're watching it from her point of view. So I don't know if that's the camera, that's her power, or if it's being in the audience and conditioned to watch movies from the point of view of the star, or the most powerful presence on the screen.
I know a lot of this era and a lot of your movies that were made in New York are wrapped up in substance abuse issues and stuff like that. But do you at all miss pre-Giuliani New York?
I don't miss getting mugged, I'll tell you that. Do I miss having an apartment that I can afford? Yeah. Do I miss being surrounded by kids who were trying to make it in the world as opposed to [being] millionaires? You know, I don't know how much money you have to make to be broke in New York, but I'm sure it's…it's six figures, you know what I'm saying? So there's things you miss, there's things you don't miss, but you know man, you find it when you find it. What people tell me about New York is it's in Bushwick, Brooklyn, it's fucking outside… It's in Rome. It's anywhere. You feel it, you're looking for it. It's an attitude, you know?
How much has changed is so striking when going back and watching a movie like Ms. 45.
The biggest joke is that there are abandoned buildings. A certain friend came to visit me in New York not long ago and said, "You know, the hardest thing to do in New York is to take a leak." There's not one square inch of Manhattan that you could actually piss in the street on. You know what I mean? That you're not destroying a $5,000-a-month, you know, sidewalk or something, you know what I mean? There's no abandoned buildings. I mean, come on. I was actually living in that lot that she runs across. I mean, can you imagine an empty lot in NoHo?
No, I can't! What do you think about the fact that this movie, even Dangerous Game—Bad Lieutenant, even—they've all sort of grown in respect. Time has been kind to these movies. People respect them more, from what I understand, than they did then.
We were panicking when we were making them. Yeah, sometimes seeing these films right out of the box...people will get, you know, the events around you. It's tough to see Madonna in a movie when she had a number-one book and she was the sex act of the century, you know what I mean? When she was Lady Gaga, the original, you know what I'm saying?
I love your commentary tracks, especially Driller Killer. Do you have any thoughts on those? They are really off the wall.
Well, you know, there's not much to do. How can you watch a movie and talk about it? 'Cause if you're going to talk about one thing, the movie's running 100 miles an hour. Really, whoever came up with that idea is really, it's a nightmare. In the beginning they used to pay you a lot of money. Hey, will you turn down five, ten thousand dollars to watch your own movie for an hour and talk into a microphone? You know, it's ridiculous. You gotta do it, and then there's no tradition of what this is. What are you gonna do? You watch it as if you're sitting next to somebody you're watching a movie with. I mean, if you really want to comment on your film you have to freeze-frame it, stop it, discuss it, write things up, talk about certain things. It'd take you longer to fuckin' do a commentary, properly, than it is to make a movie.
Yeah, yeah. So is there a little satire when you're kind of flippantly commenting like that? Especially on Driller Killer.
I mean, it's a freakin' rip-off! You know it's a stupid thing to do, only you're getting paid for it, and you're gonna do it, and you're a fuckin' drug addict at the time, and who gives a shit, and you do it.
You recently filmed the Dominique Strauss-Kahn biopic Welcome To New York in New York. How was that? Because it seemed like in pre-interviews you were a little bit worried about having to go back to New York with your past and the addiction behind you.
Part of the thing is, you really have to, you know, if you really want to stay well, you've really gotta cut off your ties with everybody. And if every street is a memory, a drug memory, it's kind of tough. But you hang out with the people who are straight, who don't use, you know? You stay with the program and you focus. And for me, sobriety has been a very, very positive mindset. It's like, man, what the fuck was wrong with me? But I know what was wrong with me. But, you know, when you come back for the first time you've gotta deal with it. We stayed cool. With this storyline, dealing with this kind of power and abuse, and the problem is with these films, you've gotta find it in you. I could be making a film about a real person, a make-believe person, a cartoon, probably, whatever it is. But when you're making a film you've gotta find it in you. And it's there. You know? It's there. It's not something you revel in, and it's something you're working on. But this ability to be sexually or any way abusive, and to use power against those who don't have it, and all that. I don't need Strauss-Kahn to know the fucking deal, you know? You know, these films are very… A gift to the mental health, you know? Like, medicinal. They're like, they help you work through shit. You're taking these things on.
What do you think about the notion that all artists artistically peak at some point, and do you worry about that?
The thing is, man, there is no scale. There's no grades, nobody's giving anybody grades, nobody's saying you can make these movies badly. I'm not playing second base for the Mets, you know what I mean? I'm not going to be washed up at 35. The filmmakers I love made their best movies when they were 70, 80, 90, you know what I mean? You gotta worry about, you know, it's just reflecting your life! It's a matter of how you're living your life. That's the key, is living your life. And then these films are gonna just be what they are, you know. It's not like they're gonna judge this movie against that movie, but hopefully you're progressing in some kind of way with your life. You know, the longer you live, hopefully, and then, hey, the movies are gonna be the movies. And they're not meant to be judged, and they're not meant to be put up against each other, they're not meant to be given stars, or anything. They're the experience of the people who made them. And they exist, and that's there. And they only exist in front of the group and the audience that's gonna watch them. Like you say, the audience is gonna see Dangerous Game at one time… You know, I've seen movies – you've seen movies, right, that you've seen ten years later? It's like, "Wow." "Look at that." You never experience a film the same way again. The film don't change. That's the funny part. The film never changes. That's the coolest part about it.
[Photo Credit: Ward Ivan Rafik]