Ten years ago, Abel Ferrara was getting clean at a farm in the middle of nowhere, and had his first good night’s sleep in decades. “The moment I knew I kicked the drugs was 40 days after I stopped doing them,” the filmmaker remembers, his Bronx drawl thick and crackling. “It’s like Jesus in the desert – you need 40 days of detox to actually become sober. And the way you know you’re sober is that you go to sleep at night. It was eight or nine o’clock, and it got dark, as if everything else in the universe was going to sleep. And finally, after God knows how long, I actually went to sleep, too.”
Today Ferrara is 69, and in the midst of what must be his sixth or seventh life. He remains one of cinema’s true visionaries, a provocateur and poet, his most famous films bruising deconstructions of power, madness and masculinity. There’s the whirring, blood-soaked satire The Driller Killer (1977), Harvey Keitel’s barenaked and broken Bad Lieutenant (1992), Christopher Walken at his most eerie in the crime epic King of New York (1990), and Zoe Lund dressed as a nun and gunning down rapists in Ms 45 (1981).
Ferrara has also made pornography; left generations of journalists frightened and squirming in his wake; infuriated Madonna while directing her to her greatest acting performance (in 1993’s little-seen Dangerous Game); and been celebrated at both the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art. A hard-living, creatively boundless New York icon who has guzzled, injected and seen it all, Ferrara is somehow still standing – more respected than ever by the artistic elite and, with his beguiling new movie Siberia, which plays this week at the London Film Festival, still pushing the boundaries of filmmaking. He’s also not as scary as he used to be.
“He’s emotional, sweeter, more objective, but also more sincere,” Willem Dafoe explains. They’ve worked together on six films over the course of 22 years, before and after Ferrara’s sobriety. Siberia is their latest collaboration. “I come from experimental theatre, I’m not a traditional actor,” Dafoe adds. “So when I’m given the opportunity to be an extension of my director, to be his creature, then I’m very happy.”
Appropriately for a director who is finally getting it, sleep factors heavily into Siberia. It is its own kind of living daydream. Dafoe plays an American exile working behind a bar in the Siberian mountains, who is also running from something. He plunges into non-linear snapshots of his psyche – there are bear attacks, marital regrets, rare moments of joy. It is ultimately mesmerising, a funny, frank journey into the subconscious of an adrift man. “Abel’s always told stories that other people aren’t telling,” Dafoe says. “He doesn’t wait around for permission, he’s a doer.”
That attitude has sometimes got him into trouble. For much of his career, Ferrara has made films the world isn’t ready for. The Driller Killer was famously banned in the UK from 1984 until 2002, while Bad Lieutenant’s depiction of drugs and sexual assault saw it receive a financially ruinous NC-17 certificate in the US. The New York sleaze of those films, and his ability to shock, earned Ferrara a reputation as a kind of haunted-house Scorsese, but also meant much of their thematic power got overlooked. Ferrara’s films are about social disorder, self-destruction, and man’s desperate hunt for spiritual redemption. Many of them have been reappraised in recent years, but he is a little more cynical about it all. “When you get older, I think you get a lot of respect just because you’ve lived so f***ing long,” he jokes.
Ferrara is speaking from Rome, where he’s lived since 2002. He and Dafoe are neighbours, two sinewy and intimidating legends who fled their native USA and married Italian actors. For Ferrara, leaving his home turf was partly inspired by its rapid gentrification under former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani – ‘R Xmas (2002), the last film he made in the US while he was still permanently residing there, was bookended by captions critiquing Giuliani’s “civic clean-up” policies. Total escape was impossible, though. Flash forward two decades and Giuliani is now on the world stage, a man closely allied with Donald Trump, another unpopular New York fixture suddenly everyone else’s problem, too.
“Vampires live forever, you know what I mean?” Ferrara sighs. “I see these guys and I see myself. I’m hearing them speaking the same accent and using the same words and phrasing that I use and my friends use. It’s strange, but they represented the will of the people. Back then, New York was either gonna go into total anarchy or it was gonna go the other way, and New York is never the happy medium, you dig?”
Inequality remains entrenched. “I get the broken window policy,” says Ferrara of the Giuliani-backed theory that visible signs of crime encourage further crime, “and I get wanting a good quality of life, but you break a window and you go to jail for 10 years. You rip off somebody for $50m on Wall Street, and you get a f***ing pat on the back.”
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The frustration Ferrara felt echoes many of the themes in The Driller Killer, about a struggling artist driven to insanity by skyrocketing rents, bad neighbours and gentrification. In hindsight, did the character sort of have a point? “Well, not when you start killing people,” Ferrara laughs. “At that point? Yo, you need a doctor! That dude needs help! But it was also more of a parable, I guess. We were already angry back then, and we had no other way of expressing it.”
He looks back at that anger as somewhat misguided, though. Or at least ignorant to how bad things would eventually get. Ferrara shot the film in his own Union Square apartment, a 1,600 square-foot loft with a skylight, and played the Driller Killer himself. “Young artists don’t have a chance in that town today,” he says. “I mean, you have to go to Jersey City, or like, the ass-end of Brooklyn. We were basically squatting. I mean, that apartment was right off Fifth Avenue, and now it goes for $12,000 a month. That life he was living? What the f*** more did he want? He’s got a place, he’s painting, he’s healthy. He’s young, he’s rockin’ – the Driller Killer didn’t know how good he had it! He had it f***ing real good!”
Many of Ferrara’s films seem oddly prescient. Both The Driller Killer and ‘R Xmas feel like warnings of a coming storm. Likewise 2007’s Go Go Tales, about a strip club on its last legs due to an unscrupulous landlord, and 2014’s controversial Welcome to New York, about a grotesque politician (Gerard Depardieu) accused of raping his housekeeper. Post-#MeToo, it’s impossible to watch it and not think of Harvey Weinstein. He and Ferrara crossed paths, both titans of independent filmmaking in Nineties New York, but never directly worked together.
“I was brought up by people who taught me to, you know, keep my dick in my pants until she takes it out,” Ferrara jokes. “We didn’t have much interaction. Yeah, he made some movies, but he probably f***ed up more movies than he put together. But I don’t want to pass too much judgment on him. I’ve still got my own s**t to resolve, in terms of the movies that I f***ed up, or the situations that I f***ing destroyed – the relationships I had.”
The pains of sobriety weave in and out of conversation with Ferrara, underpinning his spiritual philosophy (he’s a Buddhist), and guiding his worldview. Appropriately, he speaks often of his newfound gratitude, that he’s still here while many of his contemporaries aren’t. Lund, so powerful and striking in Ms 45, was a prolific drug user, succumbing to heart failure in 1999 at the age of 37.
“I should have helped her but I was in the same spot she was in,” he remembers. “It’s a miracle that I’m still alive, and a f***ing tragedy that she’s not. But she did more than romanticise. Heroin was her God, you know? It was the elixir of life. She was one of the smartest people I ever met, but she f***ing bought into it.”
He returns to the Driller Killer, or Weinstein, or maybe himself. “The process of making movies is such a positive,” Ferrara explains. “To start using it for your own self-aggrandisement, or to follow your own dark trail… you’re not some kind of king, because filmmaking is a group effort, man. No matter how auteur a director might be, he’s nothing without his actors, he’s nothing without his editors or producers, or without the money. My trip? It’s a communal f***ing act. It’s a righteous path making movies, bro. It’s a gift.”
Siberia screens on the BFI Player on 10 October as part of the London Film Festival. A UK release has yet to be announced.
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