Depending on the source, either "maverick" or "notorious" usually precedes the name of Abel Ferrara, a fiercely independent director who sneaks street realism, philosophy, strong religious imagery, and other subversive elements into lowdown genre movies. Though he's been making films since childhood, Ferrara established his reputation with 1979's The Driller Killer, in which he starred as an artist-turned-slasher, and 1981's Ms. 45, a superb cult item about a mute seamstress (Zoë Lund) who is raped and takes revenge on her attackers (and other men, for good measure). Ferrara made a handful of other features in the '80s, including 1984's Fear City and a 1989 adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Cat Chaser, but he also broke through in television, directing two episodes of Miami Vice and the 1986 pilot for Crime Story. In the early '90s, his career took off critically—if not always financially—with a series of well-regarded films, including 1990's King Of New York with Christopher Walken, 1992's Bad Lieutenant with Harvey Keitel, and 1993's Body Snatchers, his first feature for a major studio. Ferrara's reputation was briefly damaged by the firestorm surrounding Madonna's performance in 1993's Dangerous Game (a.k.a. Snake Eyes), but he came back strong with 1995's philosophical vampire film The Addiction and 1996's The Funeral, a gangster melodrama set in the '30s. His last three films, including 1997's The Blackout and the 1998 William Gibson adaptation New Rose Hotel, all suffered from financing and distribution problems. Made nearly two years ago and only now getting a release in theaters and on video, Ferrara's latest film, 'R Xmas, stars Drea de Matteo (The Sopranos) and looks closely at the business of drug dealing. Ferrara recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about "robber baron" producers, bankrupt financiers, the ratings board, Jimmy Page, Madonna, and what the Videohound guide thought of Bad Lieutenant.
The Onion: How did you come to make 'R Xmas? It took quite a while before you shot it, is that right?
Abel Ferrara: I always wanted to do a sister film to King Of New York. King Of New York was like a Grimm Brothers fairy tale of dope dealing, but I never saw a film that was the real deal, that was about how drug dealing is really done. In movies, people get these little packages. But you think, "Where does this stuff actually come from? What's the process?" The marketing, the buying… the real thing, not the 50-gallon drums or taking over a Colombian gang in three days or any of that crap. Then I was introduced to [Cassandra De Jesus] in our "research"—quote, unquote—and she told us this story. This was five or six years ago. In essence, we approached the film as a documentary. Whether what this person told us was true or not, we accepted it as the truth. And the more you want to document it like that, the more stylized it became.
O: Before the film even gets to the main incident, the kidnapping, it's really just about the business of selling drugs.
AF: That's it in a nutshell. [Laughs.] That's the sentence you have to say when you're raising money: "It's about selling drugs."
O: Was there any fear from financiers that the film was not going to be story-driven so much as about these little details of the drug trade?
AF: Actually, for the financiers—and we went through a lot of them—this was a project they loved, because it was about a husband and wife and Christmas and the kids. But the more they would think about it, they would say, "Is that cocaine or heroin? Are there any white people at all in the film?" And that's bye-bye investors.
O: It mattered whether it was cocaine or heroin?
AF: I don't think these people even know the difference. The bottom line is that no one even does drugs in the movie. This, as opposed to, say, Bad Lieutenant.
O: There's only one gunshot in the film, too.
AF: Yeah, right, they shoot a basketball. I should apologize to our fans [for the lack of violence], but we're coming back, don't worry. [Laughs.]
O: Why was it important for the film to be set in the waning days of the David Dinkins years?
AF: That's when it happened. That story could not have happened at any other time afterward. You drive around those streets now, and there's nobody out there buying and selling drugs. There used to be a time when they'd be lined up around the block. It was like an open-air drug market. That ended very quickly after Wyatt Earp came to town.
O: What period details were important to you?
AF: The funny thing is, 1993 is as far away as the 1936 era we shot The Funeral in. When we looked at the pictures and researched it… just taking out the whole dot-com aspect to the city was a challenge. As much as nothing changes, it's amazing how different New York is in 10 years. We basically shot Bad Lieutenant in that same time period, and a lot of the research was just looking at the background of that film, in terms of the cars, the signs, the clothes, and so on. Especially with the younger cats, like the way they wear their sneakers, never mind the type of sneakers they've got. Things change, and they change dramatically, and they change for real. I work with people where it's very important that those details are right on.
O: On the DVD commentary for the film…
AF: I don't know what DVD commentaries are about. I'd like to strangle the person who came up with that concept. Now, it's almost a must. I mean, what are you going to say? By the time we finished 'R Xmas, I had seen it so many times that the final version is, for me, one version of a hundred or a thousand. So I'm looking at that and saying, "Wait. That's what we ended up with?" That's the thing about making a movie: You never finish editing. They just take it away from you. Who knows where we're at when they take it away? No matter what, I still have in my mind the film I wanted to make, the way I wanted to present it.
O: Do you feel regret when you rewatch it?
AF: Yeah, there are always things I'd like to improve or take back. But overall, we love the film. [Laughs.] What can I tell you? We're egomaniacs. We're happy with it, but between ourselves, we see mistakes.
O: On the commentary track, you look at the credit "A Pierre Kalfon Production" and ask, "What's a Pierre Kalfon production?" So… what is it?
AF: Yeah, it's a joke. This is some robber baron. He's the guy who was the in-between guy between Canal+ [the largest French financing company] and us. In France, if you rob a quarter-million dollars from the budget, that's business as usual. I'm not kidding. I'm very angry about what happened. They're using our names to raise money. In their mind, if it wasn't for them, there would be no financing, so they see it as their money, you dig what I mean? When you deal with the French… The French, they stick together. So between Pierre and these guys, it got to a point… Canal had put up X amount of money to preproduce the film, and we never saw a penny of it. We were preproducing it for nothing, and all along, Pierre had this money in his pocket. I initially said, "Forget it, I'm not going to do this." But then, who would believe that there was $200,000 appropriated for preproduction, and I didn't know about it? So we were forced to make the film. I wasn't going to have anything to do with this film, but I made it with Canal under the express consent that Pierre have nothing to do with it, and I have final cut anyway. Everything went along well until we finished the movie and they just stole the fucking print and put on all these producers that I never even heard of. And now, with the poster, Barry Amato—the guy who produced the film, who actually made it happen—his name isn't even on it. It's a nightmare. We own 25 percent of this movie, but when they sold it in the States, they made a deal with a company that doesn't even have distribution set up. I mean, who is Barry Barnholtz? Who are these people? We own that film. We slaved on it for two years. In the film business, it's basically honor among thieves. I see the biggest rip-offs in the world, and they're all sitting next to each other at Morton's or Spago. With this film, we're seriously thinking about filing a class-action lawsuit. They promised me theatrical distribution, and they opened it in L.A., but they have one print. They booked three cities, and they only have one fucking print. No ads. Who the fuck do these people think they are? They put it out, we get very good reviews in the L.A. papers… In the rest of the world, we don't have these distribution problems, though we still have never gotten proper accounting. I don't want to sound like some whiner, but there's a place where you've got to draw the line, and this is the film. This is one of the reasons why we haven't done another film since then.
O: You've had these problems with your last three films, right?
AF: Every one is a different story. The story with The Blackout is unbelievable. There's a big lawsuit now in an L.A. bankruptcy court about it. We made a deal with Destination Films that set up a distribution system. They bought two or three films, including The Blackout, raised $100 million, and never distributed anything. Five years later, they're trying to go bankrupt, saying all that's left is $35,000 out of $100 million, even though they never distributed one film. Now, I don't know what's going on. I'd love to show you the paperwork. I'm getting thousands and thousands of documents. I'm just one of a ton of people this company screwed over. Can you imagine these pricks? They're basically trying to steal $100 million. It's a fucking robbery.
O: What about New Rose Hotel?
AF: With The Blackout, we really didn't have a deal. With New Rose Hotel, I knew that I was getting paid a $100,000 fee to write, produce, and direct, and that's all I was going to get. I was told this up front, so I don't mind that part of it. Hey, $100,000 isn't a lot of money compared to Leonardo DiCaprio's fee, or DMX's, but I'm not going to stop that movie from happening. I come from a different world. A success to me… Any of these films are great successes. If someone tries to tell me that The Blackout ain't a success, I say, "Hey, we made the movie we wanted to make." I come from a world where you get the film done, that's a success. I ain't worried about what it does on opening weekend in fucking Topeka or Phoenix, you know what I mean? But this kind of robbery… I mean, fuck these people. Fuck 'em. In the end, our films are out there. We know a lot about contracts, but a contract is invalid if someone is going to straight-out rob you. And then to see something like "A Pierre Kalfon Production"… I mean, gimme a break. I never had my name above the title, like "A Film By Abel Ferrara," because I would never insult the people I work with. Ever since I saw "A Film By Henry Winkler"… [Laughs.] There's a great joke where Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond drive by a house, and Billy Wilder says, "That's Otto Preminger's house." And I.A.L. Diamond goes, "No, that's 'A House By Otto Preminger.'" [Laughs.]
O: Do you feel like it's better to have an arrangement like New Rose Hotel, where you get all the money up front?
AF: No. With 'R Xmas, we were owners of the film, and we went into it thinking we were going to make the film, sell the film, and do the whole nine yards. As a filmmaker, you're responsible from the initial concept to putting the film into theaters to the DVD and the video box. You've got to take it all the way. And that's okay. That's my job. But when you get prevented from doing your job, and they take it away from you and say they don't need you anymore… The bottom line is, you're trying to make the film and fight for the money. These guys are just fighting for the money, and without the filmmakers, there ain't nothing to rob. If these people could just rob each other without those horrible, inconsequential moments of actually making the movie, that's what they would do. And they're calling you every night: "Hey, how's it going? Are you getting all the shots you needed?" Which basically means, "Are you wasting any money, asshole?" The only thing we got going for us is that we've never gone over schedule and we've never gone over budget. If I ever did, you'd never hear from me again.
O: Have you ever found a financier or a distributor you were comfortable with?
AF: We've bankrupted every one. [Laughs.] With Vivendi [the Canal+ company responsible for 'R Xmas], I was excited. They started off like a house on fire. They made the Jim Jarmusch movie [Ghost Dog], the Kathryn Bigelow movie [The Weight Of Water], the John Waters movie [Cecil B. Demented], Bully… I thought it was going to be great. When we finished, there was a full-page ad in the back of Variety thanking me for making the movie. But then, boom, we bankrupted Vivendi. [Laughs.] Now that we're dealing with the distribution of this film, all the people who were involved with making it through Vivendi are no longer there. So you call this office in France that owns your films. And they say, "'ello?" "Yeah, this is Abel Ferrera calling from New York." "Okay, hold on." Click. Goodbye. So after you waste about $50 on those calls, you get the idea that they might not want to talk to you.
O: I'd like to talk about your earlier work a little bit…
AF: Yeah, let's talk about filmmaking.
O: What inspired you to pick up a camera when you were an adolescent?
AF: I grew up in the '60s, which was a creative time, so it wasn't that big of a stretch to go from a baseball bat to a guitar to a film camera. I was born in the Bronx, and then my father moved us to the country at an early age. But it was a creative country. My original screenwriter, Nikky St. John, and this great writer, T.C. Boyle, were from this town. Mel Gibson was from this town. Pee-wee Herman was from this town. Hey, how about that group? [Laughs.] When you're surrounded by people like that, you'd better do something.
O: This was Peekskill, right?
AF: Yeah, Peekskill.
O: Do you remember what sort of films you were making with your friends at the time?
AF: Yeah, we were making these esoteric, philosophical, boring films. They were silent movies. Unfortunately, we didn't have the luxury of a digital camera.
O: You were shooting on 8mm, right?
AF: You hit it right on the head. We were shooting before Super 8mm, where you'd drop off your footage to get it developed and you'd wait a week for it to come back. Our first film teachers were the guys behind the counter at a shopping center. It wasn't even a mall then. That's how old I am. They were still called "shopping centers." [Laughs.]
O: You made a lot of films in the '70s, but The Driller Killer was a breakthrough for you.
AF: That was our first theatrical release. We were so happy. We opened up Variety and there it was. We were on the street dancing, jumping around. Meanwhile, the review said, "Abel Ferrara makes Tobe Hooper look like Federico Fellini." This guy hated the movie so badly, he started ridiculing the strawberries we served at the première. He hated everything. This guy was so beside himself with that film, or should I say, "what you could see of that movie"… [Laughs.] But it was our greatest review, because our names were out there.
O: Were you happy with the way it came out?
AF: Driller Killer? I mean, how happy can you be? [Laughs.] We were happy that we finished it. We accomplished it. It got into theaters. It got us money for the next movie. Actually, Driller Killer was the only time we didn't bankrupt somebody. [Laughs.]
O: Ms. 45 has the distinction of being considered a sort of feminist exploitation film. Do you think that's a fair description?
AF: Well, it was written and made by men, though Zoë [Lund, the lead actress, who died in 1999] was a driving force. I wouldn't belittle the film by calling it feminist. For that matter, I wouldn't trash the feminist movement by associating it with that film. [Laughs.] The movie starred and was about a powerful woman. Same with 'R Xmas. There are so few films you see like that, which depict women who are as mysterious and as beautiful and as powerful as they are in real life.
O: What was your working relationship like with Lund on that film and Bad Lieutenant?
AF: At the time, Zoë was only 17. And pure. [Laughs.] Zoë was a very brilliant, on-the-money chick. Zoë rules. Zoë reigns. You listened to Zoë in five languages. I remember being at Cannes doing the press conference for Bad Lieutenant. Me and Harvey Keitel were just sitting there with our sunglasses on. No matter who the question was aimed at and no matter what language, she didn't need the headsets. She answered the fucking question in the language it was asked, no matter who it was directed to. It finally got to the point where a journalist would ask, "Could Harvey please answer the question?" And she was like, "I'll tell Harvey when he will answer. I'll tell Abel when he can talk."
O: How did you discover her?
AF: After Saturday Night Fever, this genius producer was doing this search for the lead character in a movie called Times Square. Times Square was the follow-up to Saturday Night Fever, and as big a hit as Saturday Night Fever was, that's as big a bomb as Times Square was. They had a million-dollar talent search. They went to every city. They played up the auditions as a publicity stunt, the search for an unknown for the lead role. Zoë came in third. I happened to know the guys who were doing that casting search, and they said, "We've got the girl for you. We can't tell you her name now, but we know they're not going to use her, because she's too whacked for these people. But she's awesome." So for a $60,000 movie, we had a million-dollar talent search. [Laughs.] I can't remember who they finally got for the lead in Times Square… Hold on a minute. [Flips through Videohound's Golden Movie Retriever.] Okay, Times Square. "A 13-year-old girl learns about life on her own when she teams up with a defiant, antisocial child of the streets. Unappealing and unrealistic." [Laughs.] Trini Alvarado, that was the girl they found for the part.
O: What does the Videohound guide have to say about your movies?
AF: Let's look it up. Let's try Bad Lieutenant. Okay, The Bad Pack, Bad Ronald… Here it is, Bad Lieutenant. Hey, three bones! Out of 20. No, I think it's four, maybe five, but we'll say four. [Laughs.] "Social chaos and degeneration characterize the story as well as the nameless loner lieutenant (Keitel), who is as corrupt as they come. Assigned to a case involving a raped nun, he's confronted by own lagging Catholic beliefs and the need for saving grace." Oh, so that's what it's about? [Laughs.] "From cult filmmaker Ferrara (Ms. 45) and filled with violence, drugs, and grotesque sexual situations." Grotesque sexual situations? I'd rent this in a second. "Tense, over-the-top urban drama is not intended for seekers of the subtle. Rent it with Reservoir Dogs and prepare yourself for a long, tense evening of top-rated Keitel and screen-splitting violence. R-rated version is also available."
O: What's the story behind the R-rated version of Bad Lieutenant?
AF: It was a contractual thing. We had to have it for Blockbuster. God forbid you make a movie they won't take at Blockbuster. They can rent pornos. They rent Blame It On Rio, where a guy fucks his friend's daughter at 12 years old. But they can't rent an NC-17 movie. Don't get me going. People think ratings are given out by the government, but they're made up by a bunch of housewives in Beverly Hills, and you have to pay for that. You can't believe how much you have to pay to get a rating. And if you don't have a rating, you can't even advertise your movie in the film section of the newspaper. You can advertise it in the sports section, though. That's all right if the movie's Major League or Build It And I'll Come [Field Of Dreams], or some crap like that. Also, there are all these theaters in shopping malls around the country where it's put in the lease for the theater that they can't show an NC-17 film. If that isn't unconstitutional, you tell me what is.
O: Did you have to be involved in cutting together the R-rated version of Bad Lieutenant?
AF: Yeah. Who else would we leave that job to? It's horrible, because people rent the R-rated version and it's pathetic, because the ratings board takes out all the best scenes in the movie. They won't even tell you what gives it an X, because they say they don't want to act as censors. Don't wanna act as censors? When you ask them why they gave the film an X, they say stuff like, "The film has the mood of an X." The mood of an X? What is that, like a Miles Davis album? How are you going to cut that? So you have to guess, and it isn't too hard. Like that scene with the two girls and Harvey jacking off, that seems to have the mood of an X. [Laughs.] It's a rip-off. The R-rated version of that film is a joke.
O: I was disappointed when the Led Zeppelin sample from "Kashmir" had to be lifted from Schoolly D's song "Signifying Rapper" for Bad Lieutenant.
AF: Oh, yeah. I'll strangle that cocksucker Jimmy Page. As if every fucking lick that guy ever played didn't come off a Robert Johnson album. "Signifying Rapper" was out for five years, and there wasn't a problem. Then the film had already been out for two years and they start bitching about it. And these pricks, when their attorneys are on the job, our guys are afraid to come out of their office. You're not gonna fight their fucking warriors, you know what I mean? Can you imagine, this was down at a federal court in New York, with a 70-year-old judge, and they're playing Schoolly D and Led Zeppelin to the guy? It cost Schoolly like $50,000. It was a nightmare. And meanwhile, "Signifying Rapper" is 50 million times better than "Kashmir" ever thought of being. And then, this prick [Page] turns around with Puff Daddy and redoes it for the Godzilla soundtrack. Here's Puff Daddy, where every other song this boy sang was King Of New York this and King Of New York that. And I would never even fucking think of suing these guys. Why sue? You should be happy that somebody is paying homage to your work.
O: And Bad Lieutenant was hardly even a blip on the cultural radar.
AF: Exactly. And it ruined the movie. I was so pissed off, I said, "All right, fuck this." We could have changed it and put other music in those spots, but I said, "Fuck this, we ain't putting nothing in." This is one of those decisions you end up regretting.
O: What was it like making Body Snatchers for a major studio?
AF: I enjoyed the freedom of a big budget versus a bunch of guys breathing down my neck, but in the end, they didn't want to distribute the film. That's another long story.
O: It was a solid genre film. What else did they want from it?
AF: Yeah, it was in competition at Cannes. And you know what they said when that happened? They said, "Oh, now you've ruined it, man. Now they're going to think it's an art film. I hope you're satisfied now." The guy from the Cannes Film Festival went to dinner with the Warner Bros. publicist, who was waiting with bated breath over which Warner Bros. movies they were going to take. And they took that one with Michael Douglas where he's crazy and he's in a traffic jam…
O: Falling Down.
AF: Right. So the Cannes guy tells the publicist that the only Warner Bros. films they want are Falling Down and Body Snatchers. And this publicist didn't even know what Body Snatchers was. [Laughs.] But he was cool. He just excused himself from dinner, called up [studio head] Terry Semel, and said, "What the fuck is Body Snatchers?" The executive in charge of the film was actually the guy Tim Robbins modeled himself after for that Robert Altman movie about the movie business. What was it called?
O: The Player.
AF: Yeah. This executive was caught in a corporate war. He was hired by Warner Bros. for a lot of money. He was a young kid, and now they were going to muscle him out of there. And they got him in a sexual-harassment suit. You couldn't believe what these guys did to him, and once they got rid of him, the last thing they wanted was a film of his to be a great success. Because then, the stockholders would say, "You spent a fortune on this guy. It cost us a fortune to get rid of him. Whose idea was it to get rid of a guy who was making us money?" If the executive was still at the studio and still held in high regard, Body Snatchers would have come out. The funny thing is—and this is how paranoid they are of any fucking publicity—it opened in L.A., and one of the L.A. Times critics complained. He said, "Why is a film of this quality in these theaters?" They booked Body Snatchers at the worst theaters in town, and the next week, it got moved.
O: Do you feel like your reputation was affected by the drama over Dangerous Game?
AF: No. It was just another one of our films that never came out. But on that one, the audience didn't really like the film. Madonna killed it. The first impression people get on a movie is the one that never gets out of their mind. So after Madonna got so trashed for doing Body Of Evidence, she thought she was going to beat the critics to the punch and badmouth the film. And she actually got good reviews. She never got a good review from the Voice or The New York Times in her life, but she got good reviews for this movie, which she came out and trashed. I'll never forgive her for it.
O: Did you sense during the production that she was going to be a problem when the film came out?
AF: No, I couldn't believe that. Because no matter what somebody thinks of the film, it's family business. Believe me, I hear it from every actor when they see the final cut of every movie, because the actors only remember the scenes that didn't make it in. But I never had an actor badmouth a movie. It's just something that isn't done. But she's not a film-business person. She doesn't know the protocol, the traditions of the trade.
O: It's about managing her own image, I suppose.
AF: It's being paranoid, man. It's being paranoid and scared, and that's the reason she can't act, because she hasn't got confidence. Because if you don't have confidence, the camera sees that and comes barreling through.
O: She has the confidence to get on stage…
AF: Yeah, she has the confidence to get on stage and sing, but she ain't got confidence to get in front of the camera. I'm talking about a different kind of confidence, that ability to look into the eye of the camera without looking at the camera, you know what I'm saying? What do you think of her fucking films?
O: They're all pretty terrible, but I remember thinking she fit pretty well into Dangerous Game.
AF: Yeah, that's because she plays an actress who's so bad, the director commits suicide. Who else would be better for the part?
O: What are you working on now?
AF: We're working on The Go-Go Tales, a film that we want to star Christopher Walken. It's a comedy feature set in a go-go club. That's going to be the pilot for a series. It's like La Cage Aux Folles meets The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie. [Laughs.] If you can figure out how to do that, e-mail me.