By Aaron Hillis
[Photo: Left, Willem Dafoe and the ladies of “Go Go Tales”; below, Abel Ferrara, Bellatrix Media, 2007]
In the tradition of Charles Bukowski, Samuel Fuller and other two-fisted, hard-living poets whose work bares teeth, Bronx-born auteur Abel Ferrara (“King of New York,” “Bad Lieutenant”) seizes the gritty, often violent beauty within the sleaze and decadence of the urban experience. Specifically, Ferrara’s films lurk in the shadows of his favorite locale, New York City from the Bowery-based rampage of his feature debut, 1979’s “Driller Killer,” to one hectic night at a failing strip club (and after-hours cabaret) in his latest, “Go Go Tales.” In Ferrara’s first flat-out comedy, Willem Dafoe stars as Ray Ruby, the well-intentioned club owner who can’t seem to catch a lucky break: his dancers are demanding their money, the landlord (a hilariously crusty Sylvia Miles) wants her rent, and both his accountant (Bob Hoskins) and his brother/partner (Matthew Modine) serve as further threats to the future of his business. As sordid as it is warm and lighthearted, the film has been a welcome addition to the sometimes hoity-toity schedule of this year’s New York Film Festival, and besides, where else will you find a half-naked Asia Argento making out with her pet Rottweiler? I had a chance to sit down with Ferrara after the NYFF press screening of his film, and was amazed that I had the notoriously distractible filmmaker’s attention long enough to finish an interview. (Full disclosure: the last time this writer met Ferrara, he walked away from me in the middle of his own sentence.)
Your whole oeuvre is so entrenched with the sights, textures and ideas of New York, yet you’ve abandoned the city to live in Rome for the past few years. What do you miss about the old NYC?
As an old-time New Yorker, it’s not that I miss the ’70s and ’80s or whatever. I miss the fact that there was a certain kind of energy that exists when people can live for nothing. That goes for the winos on the street. That goes for the people that can find places to live that don’t have to pay what [they’re supposed] to pay. It was also about how you can fail, you could take a shot at things, and then you can just chill out. You could “kick it,” as they say.
In New York now, it’s pedal to the medal. There are no bad neighborhoods, and it’s hardball with a capital H. That’s fine in its own way, but I don’t know if it’s something I miss. We’re doing a documentary on the Chelsea Hotel, and that’s a typical example of what real estate prices are doing. Where can you live? Where does New York exist? The fact is you can’t find a place; to pay the rents you have to pay, you need to be successful. You can’t take a chance on doing something that might not be profitable. Forget it. You can’t even sleep on the street.
[Ferrara’s phone rings. He gets off the call quickly and apologizes.]
It’s alright, you’re a busy guy.
No, I’m not a busy guy. Some scumbag fuckin’… I’m sorry. Are you married? I’m getting married again, and I’ve been married a long time. I’ve got two kids. Anyway, about “Go Go Tales”… as much as they talk about how loose and fast it is, it’s done in the way any other motion picture is made, with all the accoutrements and schedules. I’m very strict. So to shoot digitally, where you can let the cameras run, I think it’s great. It doesn’t matter if it’s film or not, it’s a different form. After this, I’m in the middle of a film in Naples, in Neapolitan, about the city. It’s about a women’s prison, kind of a TV documentary. I realized to understand these women in prison, we had to get outside of the prison. On top of that, we started writing re-enactments to try to use fiction to get to the truth. So for the Chelsea Hotel thing, we’re interviewing the people there that have anything to say about it, typical talking heads way. We’re pulling up archival footage, some outrageous stuff: the outtakes of “Chelsea Girls,” the music that was playing, people who had stayed there. It’s really a goldmine; we’re going to find 90 minutes in here. I’m also working with my writer from “New Rose Hotel,” who wrote “Fat Albert.” So we’re all writing different things, like vignettes small, five- or maybe ten-minute scenes that could be re-enactments, told through fiction. I’m doing one with Willem as a vacuum cleaner salesman from Wichita Falls who is accidentally in the wrong hotel. He doesn’t know where he is, and he’s in a room between Sid Vicious and Dee Dee Ramone. We’re also doing a Sid Vicious scene about what happened that night in that room. I met him once in passing, and there are a lot of people that say there’s no way in the world he could have done that, but two people wound up dead, you know what I mean? You try to document and get to the heart. It’s journalistic.
Back to “Go Go Tales” for a bit… What prompted you to try a screwball comedy? I’m glad you finally did because I laughed my ass off.
Thank you, that makes me feel so good. You know, we’ve done the vampire movie, the gangster movie, and this is almost a genre, like “La Cage Aux Folles” or “Broadway Danny Rose.” I mean, that’s basically a Woody Allen movie, but there is that genre, kind of a musical comedy. That’s what it is. For me, it’s like haiku poetry; you have certain parameters to work within. As an American genre filmmaker, it makes me understand the movies I watch so much better. It’s funny, the hardest thing to do is to make something look like it’s fast, loose and improvised, and get somebody to laugh. When I was interviewing people, there was this grandson for one of the writers of the Marx Brothers, and he told me this great story: For something like “Duck Soup,” [the Marx Brothers would] start on stage in New Haven or wherever, and take the show across the country on the train. The writers sat in the audience because it was a play, and they would work [the script] until they got two bona fide laughs per minute the producers would sit there with stopwatches. Then, when they got to L.A., they shot the film.
It’s been said that you’re very demanding, even hard on your actors. Would you agree?
They’re demanding on me! At this point, we don’t suffer fools lightly. On one hand, it’s one of the reasons I work with the same people over and over again. At the same time, you need fresh blood, different people and ideas. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. In this business, some people shouldn’t work with each other. They can be friends, they can be whatever. The actors that I love to work with, they’re hard on me. They’re pushing me. Willem is a tough taskmaster. He’s from our school of independent filmmaking, that we’re all out there to get that film made. Willem was on the set every day; Modine was there, too. Those guys were making that film with me. When you have that big of a cast and that much work, one director can’t… when you’re making a commitment to work with people who have never been in front of a camera, going for that real thing, it’s just a matter of my technique just to teach them how to move in a shot so they’re in focus, all this stuff. It’s a group effort. If you’re not rocking with them… The actors, you expect everything from them. I tell these people, “What do you think, De Niro comes to the set and expects some person he doesn’t know to give him a shirt or the right shoes?” A lot of these people think acting is finally getting the right to have somebody dress you or pick you up. It’s a very tough gig. Sure, the feeling of the crew is picked up by that camera, but you’re filming the actors. In the end, the film is the actors.
What’s it like, coming back to the New York Film Festival for the first time in many years?
The fact is none of our films played here after “King of New York,” which may have been a little too rough and ready for the kind of audience that was there, I don’t know. Listen, anybody who has a film festival has the right to show what they want. I just feel disappointed, hurt maybe, because so many times our films don’t get seen properly. They get demoted. This is a great venue, and this year is especially great, but I gotta say: it upsets me when I see 22 films from 22 separate places, and it’s the New York Film Festival. Then again, it’s their film festival. So I became more actively involved in the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. That, to me, is more my kind of thing, which is: you got three hundred bucks? You’re in the festival. Nobody’s judging films, nobody’s passing judgment, you know what I mean? Every film that’s made, if you got the money, somebody’s paying the projectionist; you get a shot to run your movie. But now, I was like a traitor this year because I knew we needed to be in this festival.
What would it take to get you to move back to New York?
A cheap apartment. [laughs]