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The director Abel Ferrara, from darkness to light

 

Iconoclastic film director Abel Ferrara has marked the history of indie American cinema with his dark, mythic tales such as Bad Lieutenant or The King of New York. Numéro caught up with him at 1.00 am in a hotel bar.

Numéro: I’ve often heard you play, like in Cannes in 1997, with Julian Schnabel and Schoolly D, or in private homes where you covered the Beatles, solo with your guitar. Are you a rock star manqué?

Abel Ferrara: No. I don’t know if I’ve got any talent for any of it but I have music in my blood. I’ve always played the guitar, it helps me appreciate music even more when I listen to it. It’s the same with the movies: the fact that I make films myself helps me appreciate other people’s even more.

 

You generally name Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder as your favourite directors. But as an adolescent, didn’t you admire actors like James Cagney?

Hey, I’m not that old! What moved me as a child was Bambi or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

 

Right. But afterwards you were fascinated by rebel figures like Marlon Brando and James Dean?

Not them either – I’m from the generation after that, Easy Rider and all the hippies…

 

You made your first film very young, at the age of 16. What was it that attracted you to the movies? 

I didn’t want to work in a factory or carry on driving trucks in the summer to help my family. I grew up in front of the TV, and for all working-class kids cinema was the dream ticket to success, to earning a living without too much bother.

 

You seem nonetheless to have been a great cinephile – I’m thinking, for example, of the scene in King of New York where a Chinatown gangster decides to watch Murnau’s Nosferatu

As a teenager I liked films by John Ford, Anthony Mann or Robert Aldrich, such as Ten Seconds to Hell. But we went to the movies as a gang, without worrying about who the director was. I only understood the importance of these films when I studied them at Purchase College. For example, I liked Spartacus, but I didn’t know it was by Kubrick…

 

Would you say you’re a child of New Hollywood?

Yes. The golden age for me is the late 60s: the first films by Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman or Woody Allen. These guys were better than mere filmmakers. Then I saw Pasolini’s Decameron in 1971 and I’d found my master: he wasn’t just a director, he was a writer, a poet, an activist…

 

And a Catholic, like you…

I’ve been a Buddhist for ten years.

 

Why?

Because it makes sense. I think that God is within in me, I like the idea that there’s no beginning or end. Buddhism is a wisdom founded in personal, human experience. Buddha said, “If meditation doesn’t suit you, don’t meditate.”

 

But you do meditate, don’t you?

Yes, every day.

 

And is that what helped you come off drugs?

To start with drugs helped me, and then, like everyone, I became their slave. I was a heroin addict for 14 years, living in a complete illusion. Buddhism and meditation taught me that we give things a power they don’t have, and to distinguish what’s real from what’s illusory. I no longer touch either drugs or alcohol.

 

Why did you decide to live in Rome? Is it because your work has become more European?

To make films, it would be easier living in Paris, but I met Cristina Chiriac in Rome, I married her, and we have an 18-month-old daughter. As for my movies, they’re no more European than before…

 

Your recent Pasolini, with Willem Dafoe, really doesn’t seem like a contemporary American movie…

It was an ode, a love letter to a genius whose last days I filmed in the real places where he’d lived. That’s why I did it in Rome. But the same year I did Welcome to New York in Manhattan. And for Siberia, my next film, I’m shooting in snow-capped mountains with dog sleighs. These distinctions between European, American or auteur cinema don’t concern me.

 

Why did you make Welcome to New York in the heat of the moment? What was it that attracted you? The story? The character of Dominique Strauss-Kahn?

The idea just came to me; it seemed like the dream occasion to make a movie with Depardieu…

 

Were you moved, or shocked, to see a powerful man humiliated, in handcuffs, reduced to nothing?

Shocked? No. We were saturated with those images, and the party concerned knew exactly what he was doing. But I don’t want to talk about it, because I’m being sued for slander, along with the producer and the distributor.

 

You’ve made horror films, films noirs, psychological dramas… Are you trying to tackle every genre, like Kubrick?

Kubrick tried to reinvent cinema, to discover new things. Everything he did is worthy of admiration.

 

He also had a reputation for pushing actors to the edge. Is that what you tried to do with Madonna in Dangerous Game?

In 1993, Madonna was starting out as a producer, and she was happy to play Sarah Jennings, a second-rate TV actress who the director tries to turn into Meryl Streep. At the end, he’s the one who goes crazy and burns up.

 

Fiction got the better of you…

You didn’t like the movie? I thought Madonna was essential and that her energy carries the film, shot after shot…

 

Yes, for better or for worse. Claudia Schiffer, on the other hand, was apparently a little unresponsive while filming The Blackout and you had to slap her…

But that’s total crap, where did you read that? How could you think I’d raise my hand to an actress, or to any woman come to that? Yes, we’re under pressure when we shoot, but if the actors aren’t good I don’t hire them. And I’m not the only one in charge on a shoot. We’re all involved with inventing the film every day, finding its form. It’s not like there’s a universal formula.

 

Do you still go to the movies?

No, I prefer reading books. I seem to find in them more of what I’m looking for in terms of emotion and intelligence. At the moment I’m reading Osama bin Laden’s letters, which he wrote during the last years of his life, while he was in hiding in Pakistan. I’m trying to understand what motivated him, his obsessions, his beliefs, his hatred.

 

Is cinema a way of telling your own truths?

I dunno. I try to tell stories that say something about our times. All my films, alas, say something about me, one way or another. I try not to be me, but in the end of course I can’t help it.

 

Siberia, which stars Willem Dafoe, is an internal odyssey of dreams and memories. Are you no longer fascinated by bad boys like Christopher Walken in King of New York, or renegade cops like Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant?

Actually I’m not especially into bad boys. It’s not so much people’s bad sides that interest me, as the fact that they’re living through a conflict. I think there’s something we can learn from them.

Interview by Éric Dahan, Photo : Stéphane Gallois

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