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Abel Ferrara: The Last Badass Director

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Sex, violence and making people puke; Abel Ferrara lets rip to ShortList’s Matthew Turner

If you’re looking for a director who does things differently, who plays by their own rules, who respects nothing but their own vision, you’re looking for Abel Ferrara. The Bronx-born maverick burst on to the independent filmmaking scene with the one-two punch of 1979’s horror flick The Driller Killer and 1981’s rape-revenge thriller Ms 45. Subsequent controversial career highlights have included King Of New York and Bad Lieutenant, which featured an unforgettable central performance from Harvey Keitel, to say nothing of ‘Little Harvey’. The 63-year-old’s latest film, released this week, is Welcome To New York, a gripping portrait of power, sex and addiction, inspired by the downfall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

How did the film come about?

The idea was [based on] an event that happened. I woke up one morning, and me and the rest of the world discovered that the next President of France was sitting in Rikers Island. That seemed like a good basis for something. An event of that magnitude obviously works into your subconscious, whether you want it to or not.

In the film, Gérard Depardieu bares all as he’s being processed for jail. How did you approach that level of nudity with him?

Well, that’s how it happens, man. They don’t play around in jail. Those are real cops [in that scene]. They didn’t even know they were going to be acting that day, I just pulled them right out of the f*cking gig and said, “OK, deal with this guy the way you would deal with the guy.” They remember when he was there, but who cares about Strauss-Kahn? Once you’re in the system, man, you’re just another motherf*cking criminal and that’s how you get dealt with. That’s how it’s done. And [Gérard’s] been in jail. You’re not talking about a child here. He’s done serious time in prison. If it was anything less than that, he would have a conversation with me. Like, “What, are we playing around?” He knows our filmmaking – we ain’t playing f*cking games.

You blur fiction and reality – Depardieu talks about playing his character in the opening scene. Why did you do that?

In the beginning when we were screening it, I started sensing that people were coming thinking it was going to be a documentary on Strauss-Kahn. And the film is not a documentary – this is a fiction film made by me and my guys, with Gérard and Jacqueline [Bisset who plays Depardieu’s wife] in it. And that’s a separate entity. So it needed Gérard saying, very straight up, “I’m not playing the guy, because I don’t respect the guy.” Ya dig? What you’re seeing is a performance. You come here to watch the DSK story, you’re coming to the wrong f*cking theatre. You’d better leave now.

Do you know if Dominique Strauss-Kahn has seen the film?

I forget if he said he saw it. I think he said he didn’t see it, but [Strauss-Kahn’s wife Anne Sinclair] said she saw it and she threw up on her computer. What can I say?

You’ve had problems with financiers and distributors throughout your career. How do you deal with that?

I just take a positive attitude and go for it. We don’t take no for an answer, no matter how adamant they are or how many times they say it. I realise what I’m doing is selling a dream, I’m not selling real estate that’s going to become this, that and the other thing. I’m selling a dream, basically to gamblers, so when they try to turn it into an accounting business or a finance thing it’s ridiculous.

You started off directing adult films. Did you learn anything from that?

Pornography? You know, we didn’t approach that as if we were making a porno film. That was actually our first 35mm big-time film and we went at it. What I got from that was there’s an audience, and that audience is there for something. There’s a big difference between showing your movie to your mother in your garage and people paying money to see something.

What are your lasting memories of making The Driller Killer? Have you re-watched it recently?

I mean, how much of that film are you going to watch? I was coming from a very hard, broken place. It was New York at a period where everybody was f*cking angry, and New York was broke – I don’t even know why we were all so f*cking angry. But we got our anger out. That was the first film we had that was actually reviewed in Variety – “Abel Ferrara makes Tobe Hooper look like Federico Fellini.” Now that’s a bad review. But we were so ecstatic that our names were in Variety we didn’t give a sh*t. This guy trashed the movie, he trashed the party, he trashed the strawberries we served at the party. He thought it was the worst film in the world – to us, it was like the most magnificent thing.

Bad Lieutenant is one of your most memorable films. How much of that central character was you?

All of it. Every bit of it. I’m writing it, I’m directing it, I’m directing the actor. I’m there all the way. But it would be a whole different movie if it wasn’t Harvey Keitel. It’s a magic act. Once the cameras come out and the actors show up and the make-up goes on, dude, all bets are off. Everybody’s in that character and nobody’s in it.

You’ve worked with Christopher Walken numerous times. What’s your favourite Walken story?

One of the first times I met him, he came to my house – he lives in Connecticut and drives everywhere. He has no entourage, the dude just shows up. In those days you’d send any other movie star the script in a FedEx envelope, and he would have people carrying bags, a guy with a leather script bag – [Walken] would just have the script in the same FedEx envelope you sent it to him in six months before. Anyway, he was in my house in Manhattan, and I knew he drove there. We left and he said, “You want to drive?” I said, “OK,” and I’m following him, thinking we’re going to his car. So after we walk around in circles for a while, I said, “Hey, do you know where you parked your car?” I was shy to ask him. But he says, “I was following you.” We’ve walked 10 blocks, I’m thinking I’m following him, he thinks he’s following me. Maybe that’s a kind of metaphor for how our films get made.

Finally, how would you like to be remembered?

It’s neither here nor there. It’s not something I think about. I mean, I’m going to be remembered as a nice guy by the people I was nice to and as a scumbag by the people I f*cked over, so it’s a little late now.

Welcome To New York is at selected cinemas from 8 August

(Images: Attitude Film/Rex/Kobal/Getty)

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