“It’s Criminal, and My Name’s On It”: Abel Ferrara on His Strauss-Kahn-Inspired ‘Welcome to New York,’ His Battle With Distributors, and ‘Pasolini’

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It’s a little after 7PM in Rome, where a wild-haired Abel Ferrara, clad in black, is seated at his computer, typing away and cursing under his breath. “This is like a nightmare,” he growls. He’s paused our talk via Skype to respond to a few of the many emails that have circulated through his inbox since his battle against distributor IFC began last fall. “Directors defend these films against all of this bullshit,” he says. “That’s part of the job description. You have to protect and defend the film. That’s the director’s gig.” We’ve been discussing the now-edited Welcome to New York — his new film inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, involving the attempted rape and sexual assault of former Sofitel housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo.

Despite Ferrara’s protests, the film has been edited down from its original 125 minutes to an R-rated 108 minutes by Parisian global distributor Wild Bunch and will be released by IFC in American theaters and on VOD on March 27, set to air on Showtime at a later date. During our talk, the filmmaker emails me a statement from Ferrara biographer Brad Stevens that reiterates why the R-rated cut of Welcome to New York drastically alters the meaning of the film’s most crucial scenes. “A comparison between the two versions demonstrates that the cuts were not made simply in order to avoid an R-rating, but rather, as Ferrara says, to change the political and moral content,” Stevens begins. “The most serious change involves [Gérard Depardieu’s] Devereaux’s assault on the maid, which now plays as a flashback during the scene in which the maid talks to the police — thus implying that it could merely be an illustration of her version of events, and Deveraux might actually be innocent. This cut seriously misrepresents the film Ferrara made, and he would have been quite within his rights to take his name off it.”

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The Hollywood Reporter previously indicated that “Wild Bunch head Vincent Maraval maintains that because of financial obligations, IFC had always asked for an R-rated version of the film, and Ferrara was contractually obligated to deliver one. When he failed to deliver, Wild Bunch cut the film without him.” Maraval described the cuts as “very minor” and claimed they “help the film’s flow.” (Wild Bunch’s Maraval did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this piece.)

The hotel orgy scenes and other sexual content (some of which was trimmed by Wild Bunch) are necessary to establish Devereaux’s character and add nuance to Ferrara’s metaphors about political and social extremes, excess, and corruption. The scenes that follow, when Devereaux is being booked for jail, lose some of their impact without that foil, too. Devereaux’s grotesque animality is a key part of his self-image — the ways in which he begins to realize this, and the ways in which he fails (or refuses) to. Wheezing and snarling, barely able to dress himself, struggling against a language barrier with the prison guards, and later under house arrest, Devereaux becomes a caged beast.

“The bottom line is, you take out the rape of the maid, you take out the other rapes in the film, and you take out the idea that this character Devereaux has a history of this kind of sexual misconduct. You change this movie like this, you’re basically condoning rape. It’s open season on abusing women,” Ferrara tells me. “It’s criminal. And my name’s on it.”

In a response to Ferrara’s recent cease-and-desist letter, in which the filmmaker asked the public not to support the showing of the edited Welcome to New York, IFC issued a statement maintaining that:

Our contract with Wild Bunch (the film’s sales agent) is for an R-rated version. We offered Mr. Ferrara an opportunity to edit his own R-rated version of the film at our expense, but he did not respond. After his threats of violence towards the IFC Center last September, we decided we could not risk showing the film there, but we offered to screen his original directors cut at the Anthology Film Archives theater in New York. It is our understanding that the theater was in touch with Abel Ferrara, after which they declined to screen it. … Any edits made to the original version of Welcome to New York were made by Wild Bunch, since Mr. Ferrara did not respond to our offer.

For Ferrara, the editing of his film is a betrayal that cuts deep. “There is a reluctance on [the part of] IFC to deny the personal relationship I have with Arianna Bocco and Jonathan Sehring of IFC,” Ferrara explains in a statement emailed to me. Ferrara also writes:

There were many emails back and forth and face-to-face meetings with IFC, but when I was told they would only distribute theatrically and on VOD the R-rated cut that was needed for Showtime, it became an issue for the lawyers. The precedent here is: I don’t make R-rated movies, especially concerning this subject matter, and IFC and Wild Bunch are well aware of that, being companies that handle unrated films. That’s why I am with them. IFC theaters and their VOD outlet are known for their unrated releases: Nymphomaniac, Blue Is the Warmest Color, 4:44 Last Day on Earth [Ferrara’s 2011 film], etc.

“Those people are friends of mine. I’m talking about IFC,” Ferrara continues on Skype. He mentions his ten-year working relationship with the distributor and adds that Bocco and Sehring were both at the premiere of Welcome to New York in Cannes. “They know all the issues. They are willingly allowing someone else’s movie to be distributed through their company. How is that not their issue?” he asks. “They never touched any of my films. I’ve had creative control for 30 years. This [R-rated edit of Welcome to New York] is like something is shot out of the blue. There’s reasons for it. The political content of this film is one of the reasons.”

Ferrara denies that he made serious threats of violence against IFC’s theaters in his emailed statement, writing that “those comments were metaphorical. I am an artist and a Buddhist, so fire-bombing theaters is not on my agenda.” And he scoffs at IFC’s statement that they support and champion their filmmakers, and would have “welcomed the opportunity to work more closely with him on the film, if he’d been willing.” The director elaborates in his written comments:

If you support and champion a filmmaker, you distribute his movie as he intended it to be, not ‘work closely’ in an attempt to change his or her film, and by doing so, changing the politics and message the filmmaker is expressing. The politics in this case state ‘no means no’ and ‘violence towards women is not a choice’ — but obviously Vincent Maraval does not feel that way, and IFC is supporting him.

In response to Ferrara’s assertions about the political reasons for the R-rated edit of Welcome to New York, IFC provided Flavorwire with essentially the same statement it issued after his earlier cease-and-desist letter, adding: “We have been trying to get Mr. Ferrara to prepare an R-rated version of the film for us since Sept. of 2013. He has never responded to any of our offers.” They reiterate that the R-rated version of Welcome to New York was “delivered to us by the film’s financier Wild Bunch, in accordance with our contractual obligation.” The updated statement ends with a new expression of exasperation:

We understand that [Ferrara] wants us to just change our minds and release the film unrated and he notes that we have released unrated films in the past. However, the economics of every film are different and in this situation the economics on this film necessitate a theatrical release of an R-rated version for many reasons. This was made clear from the start and is what Wild Bunch agreed to in our contract. We have made every effort to make this work for Mr. Ferrara and we are very sorry that he refuses to engage in ANY meaningful dialogue over this matter.

Ferrara, who dismisses IFC’s updated statement as “newspeak,” insists that Bocco and Sehring “both have my email and my telephone number” if they want to continue the conversation. But, he asks, “What meaningful dialogue can there be after IFC accepts a foreign sales agent’s destruction of our work and then distributes it across the United States, a misrepresentation that condones violence against women? That is what IFC needs to address.”

The filmmaker and his co-screenwriter, Chris Zois, are adamant that their battle is about more than just pushing IFC to “change their minds” and release a sexually explicit, unrated version of the film. They’re fighting what they see as censorship, a battle that they believe will have repercussions beyond Welcome to New York. In a statement provided to Flavorwire by Ferrara, Zois writes, “We do not want IFC to release a version that is not authorized by the director. The issue of censorship is being buried under the obfuscation of ratings. The rating issue should not be resolved by changing the political and artistic aspects of the work… If IFC and [Wild Bunch] get away with this, it will set a precedent that will subvert independent filmmaking.”

During my Skype conversation with Ferrara, we moved beyond his struggle with IFC and Wild Bunch to talk in depth about Welcome to New York and the filmmaker’s latest movie, Pasolini, which follows the last day of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life.