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Reel Streaming: An Exclusive Interview with Filmmaker Abel Ferrara

One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 38


By Laurence Lerman



Filmmaker Abel Ferrara
Filmmaker Abel Ferrara

On the eve of the release of the U.S. release of his latest film, the 2020 psychological drama Siberia, I caught up with writer/director Abel Ferrara, who spoke with me last week from his home in Rome.

Though he’ll always be first regarded as one of New York City’s most ferocious and formidable homegrown filmmakers, the Bronx-born Ferrara has now lived in the Eternal City for close to 20 years. Married to Italian actress Cristina Chiriac and the proud father of a five-year-old girl, Anna, he’s been clean and sober for nearly a decade and has recently embraced Buddhism.


His change of address and lifestyle notwithstanding, 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), films that previously defined the kind of audacious and forceful Gotham-based moviemaking that garnered him his auteur’s calling card.


A couple of movies into the fifth decade of his career, Ferrara has lately been alternating between narrative features (like 2014’s Welcome to New York, a bizarre, fictionalized take on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case) and flavorsome documentaries about both his hometown (2019’s The Projectionist) and his adopted one (2017’s Piazza Vittorio).


The 69-year-old Ferrara’s works have also 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 in Rome, and Pasolini (2014), about the final week in the life of the controversial Italian filmmaker. Both star Willem Dafoe, Ferrra’s frequent collaborator for the past two decades, who has lately served as an avatar for the filmmaker, most potently in Siberia, their latest film together.


Siberia (2020)
Siberia (2020)

In Siberia, Dafoe plays Clint, a bartender in a snowbound roadhouse in the Siberian mountains. He is surrounded by patrons who speak a language he doesn’t understand and who behave with a distinct, Ferrarian weirdness (if Clint and his barking huskies joining a group of little girls in a Maypole dance set to Del Shannon’s “Runaway” can be considered weird). Looking for answers, Clint jumps onto his dogsled and is pulled into the storm, kicking off an hour of strikingly depicted dreams, memories, nightmares and visions. Some of what unfolds on the screen comes from Clint’s past, some from his future and the rest might just be figments of his imagination.



Siberia’s narrative is untraditional and dream logic applies, which makes it wholly interpretive, particularly in the context of the film’s transmogrifying, episodic flow and its unending (and seamless) shifting of locales. Although Clint metaphysically confronting his own life may seem like a very vague through-line to hang an entire film on, Siberia remains well-crafted and engaging throughout.


So, yeah, Ferrara the filmmaker has definitely mellowed, but he still remains one of the most colorful and rambunctious interviews out there. It took me only minutes to realize that.



Laurence Lerman:

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 a tamer R-rated version of Bad Lieutenant as they would not carry the theatrically released NC-17 version 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.


LL:

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.


LL:

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?”


Piazza Vittorio (2017)
Piazza Vittorio (2017)

AF:

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


LL:

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.


Even in the ‘90s, 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 [in the 2010s] and we had a baby. And we’ve been living in the place where we fell in love.


LL:

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.


LL:

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

The Projectionist (2019)
The Projectionist (2019)

AF:

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


LL:

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!


LL:

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.


LL:

A reflection from the inside.


AF:

Reflection is a good word.


LL:

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 may use that word?


AF:

What can I say? He lives around the corner from me [in Rome], he is the godfather to my daughter. He’s my bro, you know? Yeah, we were working hard on getting it and those films [Pasolini, Tommaso and Siberia], 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 real people or if I’m dreaming up shit.


Abel Ferrara and Willem Dafoe
Abel Ferrara and Willem Dafoe

LL:

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?


LL:

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 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.


LL:

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-dozen of them over the past decade.


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.


LL:

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.


 Sportin' Life (2020)
Sportin' Life (2020)

LL:

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.



Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.

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