“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’

welcome

What is your attitude toward Welcome to New York now? If you can step away from the legal battles for a moment, how do you feel about the movie — your original cut?

It is a beautiful film made by dedicated and beautiful people who have worked together for a long time. Although it is the first time Depardieu [has worked] with us, he immediately became part of the energy and brought his own, and gave a magnificent performance. That’s the tragedy of what [Wild Bunch’s Vincent] Maraval has done.

I was really taken with your eye for bodies and the architecture of flesh in the film. Several times I caught glimpses of the craters on Depardieu’s back and face. His nose appears more like a phallus than ever under your lighting. He is made for this role, which overwhelms us with the palpability of flesh and monstrous extremes of anatomy — a Goya painting brought to life. I know painterly filmmakers like Robert Bresson have been an influence on you. Can you talk more about your artistic direction for the movie?

We went very realistic. We went to the real places. We did it like Pasolini. That’s Rikers Island. That’s the hotel. That’s the apartment that those people were in, in Welcome to New York. And it’s a matter of going to these places and finding the light and feeling the light and being sensitive to it. With Gérard and Jacqueline [Bisset] it’s the same way. It’s something me and Kenny [cinematographer Ken Kelsch] have been doing a long time. We started with Driller Killer, we did a lot of films, it’s something we do.

Much has been written about your actors as self-aware performers, which is demonstrated in several scenes. Depardieu breaks the fourth wall twice and addresses us with his gaze. There is a discussion among the lawyers about Jacqueline Bisset’s Simone acting in the role of the supportive and loving wife, treating the trial as a fiction. And the bedroom becomes a political theater. Depardieu’s Devereaux says he feels no remorse for his wrongdoings — and this confirms that he is more rocked by the lack of control he has over his “stage” than anything else. He becomes a puppet for his lawyers, his wife, and the doctor who attempts to treat him. His role as a performer has been transformed, and he is lost. How did you achieve this tone with your performers?

The actor is the key to the style of the film. With Gerard, his physicality, intellect, and experience becomes the heart-center of the film. He knows this world, and he knows the psyche of Devereaux — a man battling, but expressing both his intellect and his primal desires without any regard for where this takes him. I am not a psychiatrist, but we are dealing with sociopathic behavior here — a person not aware of the results of his pursuits.

When you’re making a film like this, there’s only one way to shoot: You have to get it on, man. This is a sex addict [referring to Devereaux, as portrayed by Depardieu]. Two people in the movie say to him, “This is a disaster.” The psychiatrist in the movie was played by the writer [of Welcome to New York]. That’s Chris Zois. He is a psychiatrist. So, this is basically a session between the writer and the character. It got down to that key line: “This is a disaster. What happened was a disaster.”

What were rehearsals for these roles like? Did the actors stick to the script, or did you allow them to simply perform?

We rehearse the way Gérard rehearses, which is not a normal rehearsal. But we don’t just show up like it’s a TV show, the script arrives, and everybody parrots the lines. It’s written. We discussed it. It’s written again. It’s discussed again. It’s being re-written, and the writer is on the set. In this case, the writer is acting. And we shoot a 20-minute segment. That’s a 20-minute take. With these guys, the Keitels and Depardieus of the world, you’re gonna get one take, so you better be fucking ready for it.

You chose to shoot your sex scenes (including the scenes of violation and rape) in an unflinching single take. What was the importance of that approach for you? How did you balance making these scenes sexually palatable and revolting at the same time? And how did you engage with the images while you were shooting these scenes? Are you comfortable with audiences, particularly women, reading your take as ambiguous or indifferent?

The actresses have respect, and they have trust.

I’m working with a crew there that I’ve worked with my whole life. Kenny [Ken Kelsch], my DP, I’ve shot with him since 1977. That’s why, when you chop this shit up and destroy a film, you’re not just destroying my film, this is the work of a lot of brilliant people. That’s the tragedy. Every frame counts. Every line of dialogue, every piece of music, everything.

Women know what’s going on. We’re grown-ups. We’re big boys. That’s why this idea of an R-rating is a joke. I’ve never made an R-rated film. I wouldn’t even accept the term “R-rating.” A long time ago when I used to work with these guys [speaking of film studio execs in general] and make the cuts… I was there when the MPAA was invented, I was there when the whole thing came about. It came to a moment in my life where I realized I was thinking in those terms, and then I stopped. Because I cannot do what I do, worrying about that. I wouldn’t even accept the concept of an R-rated film — and I live in and work in Europe, so that doesn’t exist [here]. These people, IFC, put out unrated films. That’s their fucking thing. And Wild Bunch as a European-fucking distributor . . . c’mon man. Blue is the Warmest Color, Nymphomaniac, all these films, ya dig? And they [IFC and Wild Bunch] know who I am. We’ve made five films together. They [IFC and Wild Bunch] grew up watching my films. They know I don’t make R-rated films. And this subject matter, this story, the way I shot it, you cannot. I wouldn’t have made it, I wouldn’t have done it. They’re tyrants. They act with impunity. It’s not going to fly with me, or people who have any sense of the truth.

The actors come to the plate. We know the game. We’re all adults. I have a rapport with the women in that film. And I have a rapport with Depardieu. And Depardieu is an incredible, incredible actor. He’s a work of art.

He is.

His work of art is his relationship to the other actors in that room. And again, when you fuck this cut up like that, you’re destroying his performance. You can’t cut a film if you can’t make a film. There’s a lot of very in-tune, expert editing here.

You have to live with the film. Truly know it.

You have to have the ability to do it. You can’t cut a film unless you can make it. And these cats can’t make these films. You gotta make a film to cut a film.

I didn’t recognize the film Devereaux is watching in one scene. We see a white woman dressed as a geisha (a symbol of feminine servitude), just before Simone enters the room and another argument breaks out between the couple.

It is François Truffaut’s Bed and Board, and it has to do with adultery.

pasolini

Devereaux and Pier Paolo Pasolini are different from your usual protagonists in that both are real people (at least, Devereaux is akin to a real-life person). Both are political figures. Both are concerned with the corrupting influence of capitalism on society — the difference being that Pasolini rails against that relationship while Devereaux uses that disadvantage for his gain. Is there anything you’d like to say about this?

When you live on the edge like these guys lived — and now I’m talking about the real guys, Dominique and Pier Paolo — when you live that life, it’s not going to come out all good. You have Pasolini, the great artist we adore. He ended up out in the fucking woods, out in a ditch somewhere, getting mauled by some tough dudes. He got himself into a situation that I’m sure he thought he could handle. But he couldn’t. He ended up dead. Dominique ended up sitting in Rikers Island, which is not a place for a white guy to be accused of raping a black woman. That’s as close to hell in a situation as you’re going to get. I’m a Buddhist, so I believe in karma.

Is Pasolini a kindred spirit?

As an artist, he’s my teacher. I saw his first films when I was 19. I watch his work. As a Buddhist, this is a basic meditation. You meditate on your teacher.

[For Pasolini], we took the structure of 4:44 Last Day on Earth, and took the last day of his life, because his work, his art was so… I mean, he just did so much in terms of books. Just in that last period, he had a 1700-page novel he was working on, two beautiful screenplays that were pretty much done, and he had just finished cutting Salò, which to me is still a knockout movie. And he was a guy who was constantly reinventing his take on the world. So, you gotta get him at a certain point to begin to even use 90 minutes to explain him. That’s one of the reasons we confined it to one day, for the last 36 hours of his life. Willem [Dafoe] took him on, man. We wore his clothes. We cast Davoli. Everyone here embraced us. They knew what we were doing. We came here out of love for the guy, we’re not trying to trash anybody. And we came at it the same way toward Strauss-Kahn. I didn’t come into that movie to trash the guy. I’m an artist. The world is my fucking canvas, it’s my paint, my brushes. I’m doing what I’m doing. Pasolini’s life is now my canvas.

Can you talk about working with Pasolini’s companion Ninetto Davoli in the film? Did he approach you for a part or did you seek him out?

It’s a small town here. Everybody knew we were going to make the movie. It’s no shock. We’re reaching out to everybody. Basically, [Davoli] wanted to know what’s going on, because he was [Pasolini’s] friend. The guy’s been dead for 35 years. That’s basically what he said, “I just want to know what’s going on, because this guy was my buddy. This guy was my friend.” I mean, that’s pretty heavy. Thirty-five years later, he’s still watching this guy’s back.

And that’s the way it was right down the line. That’s really the beautiful thing I discovered in this film, is that this guy was, Pier Paolo, a gentle, loving, good dude. Never raised his voice, never fucking trashed people, never got into these rages on the set, off the set, anywhere. Was the nicest to the smallest people. Was a very, very cool dude. Whatever his life was, whatever he did, blah, blah, blah, he was a cool dude, and people remembered him that way. I met a lot of people — a lot of people — that knew him. No one had a bad word to say about him. The more we found out about him, the more we locked into why we loved the guy. We were so blown away back in the day. The first movie [I watched of Pasolini’s] was The Decameron. I was 19 or 20 years old when I saw that film. I was a young filmmaker. I saw that film, and I was like, “Yeah, man. That’s it. That’s what I’m trying to do.” I mean, we couldn’t do it, but this guy set the bar. And the bar is up there.

What did you want to achieve by sculpting your own take on Pasolini’s unfinished novel, Petrolio, by creating a film within a film?

We tried to pull the images that we connected with. The writer on this is Maurizio Braucci. And you know, between Willem, Maurizio, and myself, we’re finding the pieces. We’re a filmmaking community. This is a different group of guys than from Welcome to New York. This is the Italian side of my filmmaking. But the editors were involved from the beginning, just like in New York. We’re there, and we’re finding the pieces in that book that connect all of us, and we’re filming them. We’re using them as a script. And then, there’s scenes from the script he wrote. Petrolio was a 1700-page novel. Porno-Teo-Kolossal was the script. So, we shot scenes from the script, too.

paso

Do you have any thoughts about Pasolini’s murder or his final interview, where he says, “We’re all in danger”?

When he’s saying we’re all in danger, he’s talking to a journalist who basically represents the bourgeoisie thing he’s angry with. [Pasolini is] not writing from an ivory tower. In his mind, he’s going in as a sociologist, a political activist. He’s out on the street.

The thing that he would be totally appalled about today is all these bloggers, and you know, I’m talking to a lot of these guys. They’re writing these things based on other articles and other blogs. Nobody is going out. You’re at least interviewing me. You gotta get out on the street, man. And that’s what he’s saying to all these [writers]: “I’m out on the street, I’m going down to hell, and I know my life’s in danger. I know what will happen.” But he’s saying, that’s his job. Because he’s a filmmaker: “I’m a political activist. I’m a fucking social critic. I’m a journalist. A real journalist. So that’s where I gotta be.” And he’s saying, there’s something bad going on.

He’s basically predicting the future of the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s in the ghetto in America — where murder is nothing to a 16-year-old kid and they’ll kill you over a watch and a car. And this idea, this upstart of violence, is not just in America, but around the world. He is not only predicting, but is basing it on this consumer society’s kids — and I’m one of them, and you are, too — that was brought up subconsciously to want things — to be sold things to the point you’d kill somebody for it. And he’s saying, “You can’t hide.” Don’t think because you live in an a gated community or some rich neighborhood, or you’ve got money… don’t think you are safe where you are. Because when the shit goes down, which might be happening right now, we are all in danger. There is nowhere to hide. You’re not going to hide behind your money or your position in the world. You’re not going to hide behind the cops. Imagine an apocalypse. Again, that might happen. You’re watching guys chop people up and cut people’s heads off on the fucking Internet. He’s talking about that moment, and when that comes, no one is safe. We’re all in danger. So if you don’t confront this and figure out what the fuck is going on now, it’ll be too late.

You have to remember, this is a guy who lived through World War II — who lived through Auschwitz and the atom bomb. So this is coming from a guy from that perspective. He saw the apocalypse.

Any idea when Pasolini will finally be released in the US?

No. We’ll find out. It’s not coming out through IFC, I can guarantee you that.