Interview: Abel Ferrara, Filmmaker

Though he’ll always be first regarded as one of New York City’s most ferocious and formidable homegrown filmmakers, the Bronx-born Abel Ferrara has lived in Rome for more nearly 20 years now. He’s married to Italian actress Cristina Chiriac, is the proud father of a little girl, has gotten sober and recently embraced Buddhism. A couple of films into the fifth decade of his career, Ferrara’s output has remained steady and diverse as he moves further and further on from Ms. 45 (1981), King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992), which define the kind of sordid, forceful Gotham-based movies that garnered him his auteur’s calling card.

Since his change of address and lifestyle, Ferrara has been alternating between narrative features (2011’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth and 2014’s Welcome to New York, a bizarre, fictionalized take on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case) and flavorsome documentaries about his both hometown (2010’s Mulberry St., 2019’s The Projectionist) and his adopted one (2009’s Napoli, Napoli, Napoli and 2017’s Piazza Vittorio).

The 69-year-old Ferrara’s works have grown increasingly self-reflective and biographically tinted, as can be seen in the recent dramas Tommaso (2019) concerning an American filmmaker in recovery and building a new life for himself fin Rome, and Pasolini (2014), about the final week in the life of the controversial Italian filmmaker. Both star Willem Dafoe, who has headlined six Ferrara films over the past two decades and lately has served as an avatar for the filmmaker, most potently in their latest collaboration, 2020’s fantastical psychological drama Siberia.

In the film, Dafoe plays Clint, a bartender in a snowbound roadhouse in the Siberian mountains who is surrounded by patrons who speak a language he doesn’t understand and who behave with a distinct, Ferrara-ian weirdness (if a pregnant woman inexplicably shedding her clothes and a mystic demanding that Clint “shake his ass” can be considered weird). Looking for some kind of answer to what’s happening, Clint jumps onto his dogsled and is pulled into the storm, kicking off an hour of even stranger characters (naked dwarves, anyone?) involved in equally strange situations. Some of the scenes that unfold are from Clint’s past, some from his future and others might just be figments of his imagination.

It’s an untraditional narrative, and “dream logic” applies to what goes down, particularly as the bulk of the story is comprised of dreams, as well as memories, nightmares and visions. And, again, they’re weird: At one point, Clint and his barking huskies join a group of little girls in a Maypole dance set to Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” I’m not sure exactly what that and other bits signify, particularly in the context of the film’s transmogrifying, episodic flow and its unending (and seamless) shifting of locales. But the idea that Clint is metaphysically confronting his own life is a through-line of sorts, and though that’s a vague narrative thread to hang a whole film on, Siberia remains well-crafted and engaging throughout.

The Projectionist (2019)

And it looks and sounds really cool.

Last week, I spoke with Ferrara, who was in his Roman home, about Siberia, his life in Rome and working with Dafoe. Though the filmmaker has definitely mellowed, he still remains one of the most colorful and rambunctious interviews out there. It took me only ten minutes to realize that.

Disc Dish: Before we get going, I wanted to tell you that many years back, you were my first-ever filmmaker interview. It was 1995 and we met at Malatesta, that little Italian place in the West Village—they had great gnocchi. We spoke about Blockbuster Video forcing you and [distributor] Artisan Entertainment to create an R-rated version of Bad Lieutenant to carry in their stores. Not a happy time for you.

Abel Ferrara: No, but that was always the whole thing with Blockbuster and it was a given from the beginning. It didn’t come as a shock. The real shock was for people who experienced it on TV for the first time.

DD: Well, Blockbuster has been gone now for about 15 years, and you were making films before they were around and you’re still making films today.

AF: So, who gets the last laugh, right? I actually miss them, though; I’m nostalgic for video stores.

DD: I told a friend I was interviewing Abel Ferrara regarding his latest film—someone who was most familiar with your work from the Nineties—and the first thing he asked was, “What’s the King of New York doing in Siberia?”

AF: A good question. Well, where our imagination takes us is where we go. Have gun, will travel, you know what I mean, bro?

DD: Is it fair to say that over the past 15, 20 years, since you relocated to Rome and started a family, you’ve been engaged in a distinctly different kind of filmmaking.

AF: It’s not a line of demarcation. Your films change. It’s like a journey of learning how to make films, learning how to express yourself. It’s a life journey and part of the journey is moving and being in different places. I lived a lot of my life in Los Angeles and Dangerous Game depicts that. So does Fear City.  Now I’m in Rome.

Siberia (2020)

Even in the Nineties, a lot of the financing for our films was European-based. The fact that we had notoriety in Europe is lot of the reason that we could get one leg up [with the financing] and get those movies made. I’m from an Italian-American family, born in the Bronx. Coming to Rome and being here, well…for filmmakers, Rome is a place to be. There’s Los Angeles, there’s New York, there’s Paris—that’s where films are made. So, I was going back-and-forth for a while, making Pasolini, some documentaries, and then I met Cristina and we had a baby. And we’ve been living in the place where we fell in love.

DD: You weren’t much of a Roman homebody for Siberia—it was shot in different locations around Italy, also in Germany and Mexico. Where exactly did you shoot all those rugged mountain scenes?

AF: That was in the Alps, the Italian Alps in Northern Italy. It was the real deal.

DD: It must have been physically challenging. Was it really snowing all the time during those scenes or was it, er, stunt snow?

AF: Yeah, it was snowing like a motherfucker! It was cold, it was fucking snowing and it was dangerous—the whole package!

DD: For all the large expanses and outdoor trekking across the tundra and even a desert in Siberia, with the huskies and the whole Jack London adventure feel—

AF: —Jack London, yeah!

DD: —but with all that, it was still a very “interior” film, as much as it was an exterior one—a man looking at himself and everything around him, but from deep inside.

AF: We were trying to confront the issues of our lives, of our pasts. The idea of memory, our dreams, our fears. We tried to put the camera on things like that, as opposed to physical events. We were trying to focus on the genesis of where those exterior events come from.

DD: A reflection from the inside.

AF: Reflection is a good word, yeah.

Abel Ferrara and Willem Dafoe in production on Tommaso (2019)

DD: Let’s talk about your relationship with Mr. Dafoe, which extends back for six films over 20 years. He’s become a kind of avatar for you over the past decade. An alter-ego, if I can use that word?

AF: What can I say? He lives around the corner from me [in Rome], he’s the godfather to my daughter. He’s my bro, you know? [With Pasolini, Tommaso and Siberia], yeah, we were working hard on getting it and those films, they’re in that place where he can play them. It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg with [Dafoe]: Are they in a place where he can play them, or am I trying to keep my focus on things he can play? I’m always thinking about things he could play, whether it’s really people or if I’m dreaming up shit.

DD: The two of you must have developed a real shorthand with each other over the years.

AF: It takes a lifetime to learn how to fucking connect—to make a connection between a director and actor. And it’s constantly changing. The thing that makes it change is the material itself and every time you present yourself with a different film and a different character, you have to gear up again. [Dafoe] works with a lot of people on a lot of different things. He does this, he does that. He still works onstage, too. So, he brings a lot of fucking experience to what he does. He comes back to whatever we’re doing with a lot to offer, you dig?

DD: Since 2008’s Chelsea on the Rocks [about the Chelsea Hotel], you’ve been making documentaries regularly.

AF: Every other film, we’ll be shooting documentaries, which is a big-turn-on to me. Working with real people who aren’t real actors in documentaries, or using real actors in documentaries, which is an interesting way to turn it around. I like to work with what’s in front of me—Siberia isn’t really a good example of that. But otherwise, I like to keep it close to home, close to the vest, close to the people you know.

DD: You were many years into your career before you began making documentaries, but once you started, you came out blazing and took no prisoners. You’ve made a half-a-dozen of them over the past decade.

Sportin’ Life (2020)

AF: Once I did one, it really opened up my eyes. You don’t need big financing and you don’t need to even know where you’re going. They’re easy. What I like is that it’s a discovery of a subject, of an event or of whatever’s grabbed your interest. The film itself is what allows you to create it—the process of making the film is what brings you to what you’ve got.

DD: The film and the filmmaking process feed each other.

AF: Yeah, as opposed to having a locked-down script and knowing what’s going to happen next and all that bullshit.

DD: Clearly, you’ve been very busy, but have you seen any good movies lately? Anything that’s made an impression over the past year during the lockdown?

AF: I hate to say this, but when you’ve been watching films all day in the editing room—we just edited three films in a row, one is a documentary on Siberia being in the Berlin Film Festival called Sportin’ Life—the last thing you want to do is look at movies or any moving images at all. It feels too much like work. I’ve got my own problems and I don’t want to be looking at somebody else’s problems. My thing is reading, anyway, you know?

Siberia opens in select theaters and everywhere movies can be rented on June 18, and on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on June 22 from Lionsgate.

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.