Prolific filmmaker Abel Ferrara got his start in grindhouse features, including “Driller Killer” (starring himself) and “Ms. 45.” But he was always about more than sleaze. In addition to the more serious fare like “Bad Lieutenant” and “Body Snatchers,” he’s stepped outside the world of crime for “The Addiction” (about vampires), “Mary” (about a film on Jesus’ mom) and “Welcome to New York” (about Dominique Strauss-Kahn). His latest, “Pasolini,” chronicles the last days of murdered director Pier Paolo Pasolini (Willem Dafoe). Ferrara and his frequent star Dafoe spoke with Metro as it played the New York Film Festival.
Was Pasolini always one of your favorite filmmakers?
Abel Ferrara: For me he was one of my biggest influences as a director. You get influenced at a certain point in your life. You’re open and you’re susceptible. When you become a filmmaker, you’re at a point where you know enough to know. Maybe you’re more influenced when you’re young. The first movie I ever saw was “Bambi.” Maybe that had the biggest effect on my career. You watch a movie like “Bambi,” you almost learn the language of cinema. We were kids sitting on folding chairs, scared like s— out of that f—in’ traumatic experience. Maybe that had more of an effect on me than Pasolini. But there’s a point where you really older and going to movies and you’re judgmental too, ya dig? You’re all in, like The Beatles versus The Rolling Stones. You’re all in for somebody and you’re out for everyone else. Pasolini, he was an all-in guy. You remember where you were when you saw his films.
I will never forget when I saw “Salo.”
AF: It’s the kind of film that makes you want to make movies — or even make those kinds of movies. And then you really get to that point in your life, you understand why, you understand where he was it, that these film weren’t just f—in’ flights of fancy. They’re based on f—ing intellect and f—ing where his life meets his f—ing mind, where his creativity meets his passion. He’s a guy working it from all angles. He was a poet, that’s one discipline. He was a filmmaking, another. He was a political journalist. And all that is rich.
Willem, what is your history with Pasolini?
Willem Dafoe: I’m an actor who was locked in a theater for many years. I came to films slow, late. But the first of his films I saw was “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” because Martin Scorsese told me to watch it as preparation for “Last Temptation.” Then I knew him because I married an Italian, then started to know his poetry. Then I started to read his novels. Then when we started to do this project I got turned on to his critical writing, his political journalism. In Italy He comes up a lot of places.
This film portrays his last days, but it’s not a sensationalistic portrait of his murder, which has never been solved.
AF: We could have picked any day in his life. He led a very, very interesting life, living through the f—in’ Nazi invasion, the American invasion, the f—in’ rise of the Christian Democrats, living as an out gay guy as a teacher in a small town in Northern Italy. You could pick any f—in’ day. He came to f—in’ New York, raved up in Harlem. Went to India. There’s that story the f—in’ guy who made “Romeo and Juliet” —
WD: [Franco] Zeffirelli.
AF: Zeffirelli told me when those guys went to India, they didn’t make movies, they just went there. He told me a story that’ll make your f—in’ hairs stand up on end: Two f—in’ days of him raving around in India. They couldn’t f—in’ find the guy. I don’t know why we went for the last day. We did “4:44 — Last Day on Earth,” we’ve got a little franchise going. The next one will be “Last Day on Earth” with f—in’ Plato. [Laughs]
“Pasolini” shows one way he could have been killed, but you’re by no means saying this is definitely how he died. How did you knife through all the speculation?
AF: You’ve got to separate the business from the reality. We read everything. We read every bullshit trip, and everyone’s trying to sell a book, every hustler. The guy’s being hustled, simple as that. We’re one of them too, if you look at it that way. What happened 40 years ago on that beach, the only guy who knows is the guy who killed him. He could be dead too. Who knows? Does it really matter? You’re not bringing the guy back. And all the work he would have done in the last 40-some years is not going to happen. It’s not going to happen by me making that scene. But he did create brilliant work that’s more brilliant the more you read or watch it.
“Pasolini” also isn’t centered entirely around his death. It’s a portrait of where he was right before his murder. If you didn’t know anything about him you might even be surprised how the film ends.
WD: It’s weird: You’re watching this movie, there’s all these brilliant things being said, all these prophetic things he’s saying in the interviews. And then everyone thinks about the murder. It’s like a game for them, this little drama they can invest themselves in. Where for me, the things he’s saying are more valuable. But we’re less trained to focus our mind on that, because don’t know what to do with that knowledge — whereas we’re more invested in the dramatic gossip narrative.
Was it at all difficult getting his friend and actor Ninetto Davoli to play one of the roles?
AF: The guy’s an actor. He came to use because he wanted to know what we were going to do with his friend. It just showed that 40 years later the guy’s still caring for his friend.
WD: And he was so generous with us. He supported us and gave us information. He supported me.
You’ve talked about abandoning the style of filmmaking you made in the first couple decades of your career for one that’s more loose. You even recorded a commentary track for “King of New York” — which you confessed, on the track, only for the money — in which you mostly make fun of it and call it “fascistic filmmaking.”
AF: I was talking about a style of filmmaking where you arrive a certain day, and he’s going to do this and she’s going to say that, and the car’s gotta go that way. And yeah, we could be really good at that and put our art in that. But that ain’t me. I don’t care how good you might think that movie might be — I’m not going to keep making movies like that. Then you get paid to do the commentary. It’s the most asinine thing. It’s not even an art form. It’s not a tradition. How could you be satisfied recording it? The film is running, so if I want to talk about something you have to stop the film.
WD: You’re good, because you just free associate. It’s as though you’re not even referring to the film that’s playing.
AF: If you really wanted to do it right, you’d have to freeze the shots, show other movies that actors were in, come back — it’d take you more time to do the commentary than to make the f—in’ movie. Maybe we should do one. Break the f in’ thing down, go through the whole f—in’ thing, satisfy all these f—in’ anal motherf—ers. But back in the day we’d get cash, they’d put cash on the table [to record commentaries]. I would never have done that if I wasn’t being paid, in cash.
In the film, Pasolini is interviewed and says things that sound like they could come from you, particularly about narrative cinema and Hollywood.
AF: I get asked that a hundred times: “Do you think the Hollywood cinema is the devil’s work?” It can be the devil’s work; it can be the angels’ work. Some of the best movies I’ve ever seen were made in Hollywood — and a lot of the worst.
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