“How people watch films, who cares? I shoot the same way” | Abel Ferrara on Tommaso

Abel Ferrara is a wild man. After all, this is a filmmaker who began his career directing and starring in The Driller Killer, a film about a troubled artist who begins murdering homeless people with a power tool.

Just as his debut opens with the message ‘THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD’, he lived his next few decades similarly brashly. At the same time, he helmed 80’s and 90’s classics like China Girl, King of New York, The Funeral and The Addiction – all of which to varying degrees are dark and lurid, films with dirt under their fingernails.

However, following an early 21st century relocation from New York to Rome and finally conquering his long term battles with addiction, Ferrara has matured. While his output can still be tough and disturbing, movies like Welcome to New York, Pasolini and his most recent work Tommaso are quieter, feeling more mediative and introspective.

In Dublin for the Silk Road International Film Festival, I got to sit down with the filmmaker to discuss his latest, a heavily autobiographical drama that might be the most beautiful thing he’s put on celluloid and perhaps his late-career masterpiece. We spoke about Tommaso, his long-term collaboration with his leading man Willem Dafoe, his career as a whole and what’s next for him.


Tell us about Tommaso?

Well, it’s a good one. Willem Dafoe plays a director living in Rome – sounds familiar [chuckles]. It’s just about his daily inner life. The film stars the woman I live with [Cristina Chiriac] and my five-year-old daugher [Anna Ferrara]. So, it’s about his family life. It’s about his work. He’s teaching. He’s putting another film together. Basically, he’s living the kind of the life I live.

But Tommaso is his own character. Within that framework, Willem does his magic. He creates a person that you got to see to believe.

This is a movie about an American filmmaker going to live in Italy. It stars your daughter. Is it the most personal thing you’ve made to date?

Ah, they’re all personal, man. Whoever the characters are, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m sure Mickey Mouse was personal to Walt Disney, very autobiographical! [laughing]

You hear about directors and actors having special relationships – Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar and Antonio Banderas. But it seems you and Willem have a very special relationship.

Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and John Wayne – it’s a tradition.

Yes but it’s not just that you and Willem are filmmaking collaborators, you’re also neighbours, right?

Yeah he lives around the corner when he’s in Rome. But he does a lot of work. Willem is a globetrotter.

What do you think it is about your films that keep bringing Willem back. He works with so many directors. He’ll show up in blockbusters. But it seems like you allow him a freedom.

Yeah like I said, it’s a tradition. We’re connecting. These films, the next one is always based on the ones we did before. It’s like we’re working towards something. I don’t know what. But I hope it’s something. We feel it’s something.

We have a group and Willem’s part of it. He’s the actor. Willem brings so much to this. His experience, the fact he works with all these people, that he goes out. All that he brings to the table. He’s worked in theatre groups. He comes from a big family actually. He has a very strong sense of community that keeps our group together.

Would his contributions to the movies be on top of acting? Would he be writing?

He’s in it all the way, man. It’s a team effort from the very beginning.

Has moving from New York to Italy changed the movies you want to make at all?

Well yeah, everything changes in terms of movies you want to make. I mean, everything changes. You change. Places change. Rome has changed from when I first got there. I’ve been working in Italy for 18 years now.

I notice from the movies you were making in the 80s and 90s and the movies you are making now, they’re still about similar topics. But I think the ones in the past were thrillers about good versus evil and the Dante’s Inferno of addiction, whereas the ones now have that but feel more meditative and are probing why humans do what they do. Am I right in that?

Yeah. It changes with your experience, getting older, working more. I think it was always part of our thing but we were in other places, making other kinds of films with different people for different reasons. I think this [Tommaso] is just some place we’ve matured to. But I don’t think it’s any different from the beginning. That was always somewhere deep in our unconscious.

I host a podcast about character actors.

What kind of guys?

We did an episode about Bob Hoskins who is in Go Go Tales. What was he like to work with?

He was fantastic. He was all in, all there. Totally connected. These guys, they are so open to other people. We had him in there with real people, surrounded by real guys, not actors. He was so generous. He brought a couple of his own guys too [laughing]. It was good. I’m sorry he’s gone.

You’ve also worked with some of the best character actors maybe ever. Christopher Walken…

What do you mean by character actor?

Well, it’s a very loose term on the show. We’re always debating who is a character actor and who is not. I always think of it as people that aren’t marquee idols.

I see.

Or their names aren’t above the poster on a movie.

But they think they’re marquee idols [chuckling]. Christopher Walken’s the ultimate marquee kinda guy.

He’s almost become an A-lister from being such a great character actor which is the place you want to be. Is there anyone in particular you’ve worked with in the past that I haven’t mentioned that was a great experience?

There’s a lot of guys. It’s real positive with the actors. That’s why I’m a director. I connect to them. I dig ’em. I dig the people we work with. Women as much as men.

Maybe I got into some beefs in the early days when I wasn’t really sensitive enough or I wasn’t a good enough director for the actor. But not lately. We’re smart enough to know who we should work with and who we shouldn’t. Once we do, filmmaking is great. Everything is cool.

In your movies I notice that, not even just with the main actors, everyone has an amazing face. Their faces tell stories. Like in Pasolini or even the non-fiction parts of Napoli, Napoli, Napoli, everyone looks the part and you feel very immersed in their world. I imagine from what you are saying, you’re taking people off the streets and putting them in films.

That’s the deal. Even the actors come from the streets. They’re all from the streets.

You moved to Italy after 9/11 because you said it became hard to get movies funded in New York.

9/11 was a tragedy. Too many people died. Even the after effects, so many people are dying now from the reprocussions of that. All the kids growing up without fathers and mothers, it’s a fucking disaster.

But right after that was a great time. I mean, New York really came together. After that tragedy, it was a really beautiful time to be a New Yorker. Then, it became a landgrab to what New York is now. My New York is unrecognisable. I’m sure it’s a wonderful, beautiful place to a lot of people. I don’t dig it.

I don’t dig driving people out. I don’t think in 15 years rents should skyrocket 10 times, the fucking cost! Coffee is $8 a fucking cup. It’s all inner cities, all urban cities. I’m not buying it. To me, it’s like a rip-off.

But when I go back, it’s exciting. I get it. But everybody’s working and grinding, man. I see these people working and I’m thinking ‘Fuck, it’s like being in Egypt building the fucking pyramids.’ There are cab drivers working 16 hours a day, six days a week – just to fucking pay the rent. That’s not cool. I like the Italian style better.

It sounds like you wouldn’t want to go back there to work.

Ah, I’ll go anywhere. I’m a filmmaker. If an idea brings me someplace, I’ll go there. If I can afford to be there when I’m there, I’ll be there. I’m not negative to anything. Some places are cooler than others.

Is there any filmmakers that are emerging right now from that New York scene that you particularly like?

I’m not living there. I’m not there working. I’m in Italy. I know the guys around my neighbourhood. There’s a film school there. I know those guys. But I make films. My focus is on what I’m doing.

I only ask because the Safdie Brothers have really blown up lately. I see a lot of you in their movies.

Yeah that was a good one – Uncut Gems! It was really good. I thought Sandler was great in that.

And you were in their early film Daddy Longlegs.

Yeah. I’m not as good as Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems [laughing] but I’m in that movie.

It seems they are doing a similar thing to you in that they are casting people from off the streets.

It’s a tradition of New York filmmaking. They are New York filmmakers.

I’m not sure if you heard but Quentin Tarantino was on a podcast called The Rewatchables recently where he spoke in depth about three favourite films of his, movies he wanted to discuss with the critics hosting the show. He picked Dunkirk, Unstoppable and King of New York. He was full of praise for you and was talking a lot about your movies like Ms .45, The Gladiator, China Girl and King of New York and how much he loved them.

The Gladiator? Okay.

Yes. He went in deep. He even talked about Miami Vice episodes you directed and Crime Story.

He’s like an idiot savant. He’s brilliant. I don’t know how he keeps on top of all that information. But I’m happy. You know, I knew him back in the day. He was doing Reservoir Dogs when we were making Bad Lieutenant.

The Keitel connection.

Yeah Harvey. He [Tarantino] was cool.

You’ve got Tommaso screening here. Then your next film Siberia not soon after. I’m sure we’re going to see it here. If people were rediscovering your work, is there any movies that you directed that you think went a little underrated or underseen that you would like people to check out?

How about never seen [chuckling] – ‘R Xmas [2001 crime thriller starring Drea de Matteo and Ice-T]

I’m not sure that ever properly came out in Ireland.

I don’t think it came out anywhere. Maybe New York or the States. Check it out.

I think Napoli, Napoli, Napoli is an incredible movie.

There’s a documentary – we did it with Chelsea on the Rocks too – where we were shooting dramatic scenes within the framework of a documentary.

Do you like doing documentary films?

I love it. It’s loose and free. I like talking to people. I like hearing other people’s stories.

I saw a quote from Willem Dafoe where he said about you: “He’s not a criminal. He’s not a street guy. But he has some affinity with those people.” Where do you think that comes from? I was watching Napoli, Napoli, Napoli and you are interviewing these prison inmates and going to pretty rough areas and you are getting so much out of them. And there’s a lot of empathy.

They’re my homeboys. Like you, you’re from there. You sense your soul, you sense your connection. It’s beautiful. To have the opportunity to do it, to shoot it, to interconnect, it’s the act of making a movie.

While we’re going into your filmmography, you directed the pilot episode for Crime Story and episodes of Miami Vice. Now, in this prestige era of television, they feel like the first examples of that – bringing a cinematic style and non-serialised storytelling to TV. Did it feel like that at the time?

Yeah. Well Michael Mann, he was like the big dog then, man, doing that stuff. He was great. To him, everything was the most important thing in the fucking world – the guy’s tie, the bottles on the floor. He’s very special. He brought this unique thing. He didn’t give a shit it was TV.

It’s all shooting, man. It doesn’t matter where or who it’s for. It’s about who is behind the camera, their mindset.

Would you ever return to TV?

I’d do anything. How people watch films, who cares? I shoot the same way. I’m still bringing the same thing hopefully to every fucking shot. I’m not thinking about how people are going to watch it. I’m worried about the frame, bro.

Can we talk about your next film Siberia?

I mean, it’s hard to talk about. That’s why it took so long to get made. It’s Willem again.

I hear he’s playing four characters.

Well, he’s in there a couple of times. He does a couple of different things. We play the double game. There’s a lot of personal stuff of his in there. There’s his father. He’s playing him.

It’s a journey. We got out of our comfort zone. We’re up the top of the Alps. We’re shooting dog sleds. We’re shooting in the desert in Mexico. We’re in LA wrestling bears. It’s fucking crazy shit.

Sounds like you are in your element.

[Laughing] Yeah! It’s become my element! Then we go back home and shoot Tommaso 2.

Tommaso screened as part of the Silk Road International Film Festival. It does not have a general Irish release date yet.

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