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Director Abel Ferrara doesn’t tend to hold his tongue. He’s best known for the blunt noir films King Of New York and Bad Lieutenant, but lately, his thoughts have led him elsewhere. His last film, Mulberry St., documents the feast of San Gennaro, which overtakes the block where he lives in lower Manhattan. His new film, 4:44 Last Day On Earth, delves deeper into his personal life. It stars his girlfriend of seven years (Shanyn Leigh) and Willem Dafoe as an artistic couple living out the world’s last day. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Ferrara to discuss his impulse for making the film, the role religion plays in his work, and a new project he’s developing with Dafoe about Pier Paolo Pasolini.
The A.V. Club: What was your initial impetus for making an end-of-the-world film?
Abel Ferrara: Just hanging out with my old lady. You can’t really finance a film behind that, in a sense. You want it to be as personal as it can be. That’s the secret, that’s the trick—but then it has to be about something. Even we don’t have the nerve to say, when someone asks “Oh, what’s your next film?” when we go to finance it to say, “Oh, it’s just about me and my girlfriend. So, it’s about the end of the world, but then again, it’s 2012 and it’s 90 degrees and March in New York. Yeah, fine. Maybe it’s all about hacking into a bunch of emails, and it’s all bullshit. Maybe. I don’t know.” You know what I’m saying?
More civilized places than this have ended up gone from the fucking world. Why should we not be one of them? As barbaric is we are, it’s a miracle we haven’t blown ourselves off the face of the earth so far. While we’re making the film, there’s Hurricane Katrina. In Chile, the earthquake almost knocked the planet off its axis. Volcanoes strand people in Europe for almost six weeks. They were stranded in this hotel. You remember when the volcano happened and no one could fly? Who ever heard of that? They couldn’t leave. I was in Europe, and the hotel guy said, “Well, we’ll let them stay in the hotel because it was an act of God.” I said, “Oh, that’s really great. You’ll just let them stay here?” He said, “Yeah, but they got to pay.” They’ll extend your reservation if you pay, but a lot of people only have money for a few days. Imagine if you’re going to Europe, you probably only have enough money for the five days or whenever you’re there. Down to the minute. I mean, even if you stayed in an airport, a bottle of water like this is $12! Just the idea that there are five other movies on the same subject, right? So obviously there’s something to be said there.
AVC: When you were thinking about it, were you also contemplating your own mortality?
AF: When you’re my age… First of all, it’s a miracle that I’ve lived to this age. So yeah. I guess I am. Then again, on the Buddhist cycle, that’s something that was discussed, planned out, figured out, The Book Of The Dead and all that crap. It’s only Western civilization that, God forbid, you talk about dying, when it’s the only thing we know for certain, right? Everyone’s going to die, so what’s the big problem? “Oh, God. Don’t talk about it. Don’t think about it.” I mean, I’m one of them. I’m not a big fan of talking about dying. And then I make a movie where I kill everybody. I didn’t really think about that. We destroy every work of art. Everything that man has ever accomplished. At the end of 4:44, not one thing is left.
AVC: So in a strange sense, it’s your most violent film.
AF: I think so. “The body count is up to 10, G. Hide out. Lay low. You know they want to kill me.” Yeah, the body count’s up to a few zillion in this movie.
AVC: Unlike your other films that feature a lot of Catholic imagery, 4:44 is filled with Buddhist—
AF: Shanyn’s a Buddhist, and I live with Shanyn. When you live with your girlfriend, you just go along.
AVC: So, it’s rubbed off on you?
AF: I’m a lapsed Buddhist like I’m a lapsed Catholic. I take it to a point. The more you get into any religion, it becomes the same. It really becomes how you treat other people and how you get outside yourself. How you look to help other people, and how you get out of this “I, me, mine” type of thing.
AVC: In my own agnostic mind, I always thought if anything did exist, it’s beyond our level of comprehension as humans.
AF: Yeah, that’s what they taught us in Catholic school. Don’t try to think about certain things, because it will make you crazy. That’s what the nuns told us. Don’t think about anything too much, or you’ll go crazy. That’s pretty good advice, actually.
AVC: In a way, it seems 4:44 is less about the end of the world than a specific moment in time in this couple’s relationship that just happens to be on the last day of the earth.
AF: Yeah, because how can we be, even if it is the last day on earth? It’s like Christmas Eve. “Okay, it’s going to be Christmas. So what. What are you going to do? Jump off the Empire State Building?” It’s all still the same. The last day of your life is still going to be a day. Then there’s that thing, maybe it’s not true. Who knows? Are you going to believe it? Are you going to buy it? There are a lot of other things that are important, you know. You know what they say. Life is what happens when you’re doing other things, right?
AVC: It’s your first time directing your girlfriend in a leading role. How was that experience different from directing other actors?
AF: It was great because I knew she was going to be in it. Part of the writing of it obviously was so much of her. And you know, when you’re with a woman that long, you know the chick isn’t going to leave in the middle of the shoot. She’s in there for the fucking long haul.
AVC: Has that been a problem for you in the past?
AF: It’s always a problem when you’re working with people you don’t really know. Most filmmaking is about shaking hands and just starting. You know, these month- or two-month-long endeavors that millions of dollars are based on, and the people doing them don’t even know each other, or know each other under pressure, or know each other when things are really… Which filmmaking is completely done under in many circumstances. You’re under constant crisis, making a movie.
AVC: Is that also why you chose Willem Dafoe? Because you worked with him before?
AF: Definitely, and he’s also married to a much younger woman. She’s a film director. He understands the trip. Actually, they’ve been together seven years too. We know each other, so he very much understands what the deal is. It’s not like he’s playing a knight in shining armor, you know? He knows what he’s playing.
AVC: Was that part of the idea behind the script, to show this relationship between an older guy and younger girl in a way you hadn’t seen before?
AF: I don’t know. When you’re in a relationship, you don’t think about it in those terms. Every relationship has whatever. It’s not something we can discuss. The fact is, if you’re with someone for a period of time, that’s… But you know, in the film, you don’t really have a lot of this stuff. The movie started off that he was an actor, but you could watch that movie and never know he was an actor. You barely know his name. I mean, in real life, people don’t go around calling each other by their names. If someone heard this conversation, they wouldn’t have any idea what our names were. It’s not a matter of discussing the point, but we try to get to that reality and what’s really there without, you know. Part of the film is, you know, we’re filming him sleeping. We’re filming paint drying. We’d laugh on the set. We’re actually filming paint drying, but in the reality of making a painting, the drying is an integral part of it. It’s how I know half these fucking van Goghs are fake, because he couldn’t have lived long enough to paint those paintings. You know?
AVC: What was your rehearsal process like?
AF: You know, because of what it is, there wasn’t a lot. Willem and I are going to do a film about Pasolini, and I’m sure that’ll be a different rehearsal process, especially with him trying to get the guy, and us working the scenes and doing it in another language. But here, he’s basically playing himself. He’s playing us. He’s playing me, or you know, a cool version of us. It’s not like he’s trying to put on something. The rehearsal process is part of the writing process. I don’t want to get too far ahead of the actor. While I’m putting the ideas together and the scenes together, I need the actor with me a lot. So a lot of it’s written based on the conversations we have. Not that I give them the whole script, and it’s an argument of what we should do and what we shouldn’t. I don’t want to get to that place in the argument. I want to start by showing them the direction I’m going in, and then as we find common ground, I’ll write and texture in where we’re both at, so we can find a series of ideas over the course of 90 minutes that we’re all looking at it in the same way.
AVC: So the script evolved throughout shooting?
AF: This was all before. We only shoot things once. Once we go for it… You know, you only shoot a scene once. It’s set up to be shot on that day. It’s like an arc, and you’re hoping that it’s at the peak when you’re doing that scene. We’re not going back. That’s it, and if it’s not good, that’s what you’re going to see.