Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

The Metrograph Interview: Abel Ferrara

May 8 2019

Pasolini, the new feature film from Abel Ferrara, will make its long-awaited North American theatrical debut this week at Metrograph. (The run coincides with the director’s career retrospective further uptown at the Museum of Modern Art.) That means the legendary, controversial director of Ms. 45 and Bad Lieutenant is back in New York, where Ferrara built his reputation as an irascible downtown provocateur.

He now lives in Rome, where the late poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ferrara’s lifelong idol, made his home until his 1975 murder. The last day of Pasolini’s life is the subject of Pasolini, which stars Willem Dafoe, a frequent Ferrara contributor.

The morning after the opening night party at MoMA, Ferrara sat down at his New York hotel for an extensive interview with Metrograph. In between sips straight from the table’s bottle of sparkling water, Ferrara talked at great length about his early days in New York, Pasolini’s life and death, and why he believes Salò is a documentary.

Austin Dale: I wanted to start by asking you about Pier Paolo Pasolini, and how you first were exposed to his movies.

Abel Ferrara: I think I saw The Decameron first. Did you ever see that film?

AD: Yeah.

AF: Once we saw that, I became totally obsessed. I started tracking down his other films. But back in the day, they were not so simple to get. You couldn’t just go online and see them. You searched around. This was back in the 70’s, so…

AD: Were they screening occasionally in repertory houses around town?

AF: Sure. Showed all of them. I had an immediate super attraction. I saw Salò, then he died. No, he died, then I saw Salò. He was already dead when that film came to the US.

AD: What was it about those first few experiences that made him so different from everything else that you were looking at?

AF: It was the quality of the movies. His ability to make a movie. He had a gift that no one else had.

AD: And when you started making films around that time, were you thinking in terms of, "What would Pasolini do?"

AF: I wouldn't know how to do that, because I don't know Pasolini. What would he do? I think in terms of what he said. He says, "You can learn everything you need to know about making films in 30 minutes."

AD: In other words, you learned on the job.

AF: Yeah, I just started making movies.

AD: You've worked with Willem Dafoe a lot. Was he the only person you ever had in mind to play this part? Because, I know you were trying to make this movie for a long time before it actually happened.

AF: Yeah. 20 something years ago, we just joked around with it. But this particular phase of the filmmaking, we were just focused on Willem. It's not like we got him to play the part, he was part of the process of making the film. I had done three, four movies with him.

AD: And the resemblance is uncanny. It’s great.

AF: Well, when he plays it, he plays it, and he gets the spirit of it. But it didn’t matter that he looked like him, or didn’t look like him. We didn’t hire him because he looked like the guy. I did it because he wanted to do it.

AD: You had a couple of other folks in the movie who worked with Pasolini. I was really excited to see Ninetto Davoli and Adriana Asti in the film.

AF: She’s great. When you’re around Ninetto, when you’re around her, you get the real spirit of it. Especially how much they loved the guy. They love him more forty years later. He’s a guy who really inspired love, because he gave it. He was a loving person.

AD: So, Pasolini’s death. It’s really unfortunate that it is so woven into his legend, and some people might say it’s overshadowed some of his work, especially because it was such a miserable death.

AF: The death of a poet’s always a fucking tragedy.

AD: What were your initial reactions when you heard about how Pasolini had died?

AF: Shocked by the fact that he was dead. Blown away by the whole pointlessness of it, how it happened. But like every event in Italy, who the fuck knows what really happened? You get that vibe too.

AD: There are still a lot of questions.

AF: But it didn’t surprise the people he knew. Buck in those days, you didn’t know shit about shit. We adored his movies, but I wasn’t following his personal life.

AD: But you must’ve known he was gay.

AF: Yeah, that I knew. And again, like I said, it wasn’t a surprise to the people who knew him. When we researched the whole deal and started to understand, you know… You have to understand the politics of being gay in Rome in 1975. It was a real statement. It wasn’t like he was living in San Francisco. Yeah, there was a gay community, but hardly anyone was out, and he was out. And that was a political stance. You read it in his poetry. You read it in his books.

AD: You see it in his movies too.

AF: Of course.

AD: There’s a horniness under all his work.

AF: Yeah, and this guy never had sex with anyone older than 21 in his life. And he didn’t have the same guy twice. So, you can imagine. Talk to your friends about their sex life. Everybody under 21 and nobody twice? And he’s out there every night. But he didn’t shy away from that. Everybody knew it. He wasn’t living any kind of lie. That was a dangerous move. It wasn’t easy, and it says a lot about him, as a man.

AD: What are Ninetto’s feelings about him now? Because Ninetto was really, really young when we was with Pasolini?

AF: He loves him. He loved the guy. And even when he left him to get married and have children, which was a great tragedy for Pier Paolo, it didn’t change. That was his bro. He met him when he was 14, 15 years old. He loved him then. He loves him now.

AD: Pasolini certainly gave him his career. Made him into a really good actor. But, you know…

AF: Yeah, but even way more than that. He was a teacher. He met these guys, he was like a substitute teacher or some kind of shit. Going to work, taking three different fucking trains or buses, or however Pasolini needed to get to the school he was teaching in. All these guys were dirt poor. Seeing these kids playing. Bought them a soccer ball. That blew their minds. Did he have ulterior motives, did he have these other things, who knows? He was always there to show these kids another side of the world. Because they were all street kids.

AD: You see that in the last act of your movie, on the night he died, when he’s in the car with the kid. You get the feeling the kid’s never had these real basic questions asked of him before. No one’s ever been curious about him.

AF: Eat your French fries, man. Don’t let me eat alone.

AD: Okay. So on top of the Metrograph run of Pasolini, you’re having a complete career retrospective at MoMA. Are you enjoying it?

AF: Yeah. Why wouldn’t I enjoy it? They’re going to show all my movies at a museum like that for a fucking month.

AD: How long were you working with them on that?

AF: They’ve been talking about it for years. Those kind of things, I don’t believe them before I see them, but I believe it now.

AD: And if I’m not mistaken, they’ve found all the director’s cuts…?

AF: They’re all the real film. It’s not about a director’s cut, this cut, that cut. There’s the film, and then there’s an abomination of that film, for whatever reason. You see my new movie, The Projectionist?

AD: No, not yet. I just read about it. Tell me a little bit about that.

AF: Well, it’s about Nicolas Nicolaou, at the Cinemart Cinemas in Queens. He started in 1975, when I started, so we went through a similar career, sort of, through the same kind of pornographic films, exploitation, first run, art house. He showed all of ‘em. So, I felt a connection. I thought it could be a cool film, to look back to when there was a million theaters. 42nd Street was nothing but theaters. And there was no video tape. Anything you wanted to see as a moving image, you had to go see in a movie theater. From pornography to Pasolini, to first run Hollywood movies, anything, you dig?

AD: Yeah, there were projectionists then, and now you’re really lucky to project a film. We do a lot of 35mm at Metrograph, so we have in-house projectionists who know their shit.

AF: He could project a film in a pinch, but he was more than that. He was the theater manager, but then he became the owner and he started buying the buildings. How about that? And then he had a couple of buildings in Manhattan.

AD: How long have you lived in Rome?

AF: I’ve been there on and off for 15 years.

AD: How is it different making movies there? You were so identified with New York filmmaking for so long.

AF: Yeah, right. Well, that’s because I lived here, and I shot here, but I shot films in LA, I’ve shot films in Alabama. The New York I came to, that I came up in, because I came to New York when I was 24 years old to start a life, to start a career or whatever… it was a different place. You could come to this town with no money, which you absolutely cannot now. I didn’t have this incredible pressure… Well, yeah, there was big pressure. Nobody had work, there was a money game, it was all the same shit, but you could squat. I know the dollar is different, and $300 might be $3000 now, but we were able to squat.

AD: Where’d you live when you first got to town?

AF: Union Square.

AD: And you were squatting?

AF: We had four or five guys living in a photography studio, and working there. Then we got our own loft, and that was $400. A loft that’s now $12,000 a month on 5th avenue. Skylights. Giant loft. It was $400 a month.

AD: $400 between you guys?

AF: Yeah, there was three of us. A couple of us. It depends. Who came, who left.

AD: Yeah, no, you can’t do that anymore. Not in Manhattan. Not in Brooklyn. Not in the Bronx.

AF: Yeah, I know. You gotta keep going further and further away, so are you really in New York? Brooklyn’s cool, but if I’m in Bed-Stuy and you’re in Greenpoint, it’s not even the same town. I don’t know what the scene is anymore, though. There’s a scene in Brooklyn, but there’s 20 scenes like there always was.

AD: It’s always in flux.

AF: Exactly, that’s the key. It’s always changing. It was changing back then. Never the same.

AD: So, what was your scene like your first couple of years in New York?

AF: Hustling gigs.

AD: What kind of folks were you hanging around?

AF: Whoever we’d meet living on the street. We had a place to live, and we had our friends, but it wasn’t like we were going out to clubs. Anyplace we went had to be for zero. What’s that like? It’s like you’re deciding whether you’re going to get on the subway or you’re going to eat a pretzel. That was your choice for the day. There was a pizza place called Stromboli’s on 13th and University. It was the go-to restaurant. These Italian guys from Sicily had it. They’d give you an extra slice of pizza.

AD: Were you meeting other filmmakers at the time?

AF: Yay and nay. Directors don’t hang out with other directors.

AD: No?

AF: No. Do you know any that do?

AD: That’s a good question. Yeah, yes and no.

AF: I get it, but you know what I’m saying.

AD: Was Willem part of that scene?

AF: He was downtown. He was doing the theater thing at the Wooster Group.

AD: Did you go see plays and things like that?

AF: I seen him on stage, yeah. But we weren’t paying to go in. We had places to go. It was a different life. No restaurants, no hotels.

AD: You wouldn’t come to a restaurant like this.

AF: Nah, man. We weren’t doing any restaurants. Except if we knew the guy, the person who owned it, or I was with my mother or something. In the beginning, it was a struggle. If you’re going to be a filmmaker, just plan on struggling. You might accidentally become Leonardo DiCaprio, but don’t count on it.

AD: One thing about being a filmmaker. Pasolini sits for two interviews in the movie. Pretty revealing interviews. What’s your feeling on being interviewed?

AF: After him, I accepted it’s part of my gig. It’s part of the job description. It’s easier to embrace it. With Pasolini, I watch how he handled interviews, and he didn’t get thrown. If the interview wasn’t right on the money, if he didn’t have your knowledge of the film, whatever, he was still able to express an answer. But with Pasolini, he really wanted to know who he was talking to. Where the magazine came from. Which magazine. Who was reading it. What it was read for. Why he was doing it. He was that kind of guy. I take it a little more casual. I’m willing to try to answer anyone’s questions. I’m not going to be negative. But I wasn’t always like that.

AD: You run across some interesting people in my gig.

AF: I can imagine.

AD: There are loads of movies about filmmaking and filmmakers, but you don’t ever see anything about the process of selling a movie, getting people to find out about, read about the movie. But that’s so much a part of what Pasolini did. That’s how he built his public image, through interviews, talking politics.

AF: Yeah, well, he wrote for the main paper in Rome. He wrote a weekly, political column, a real rabble-rousing thing.

AD: Some of his political views would be sort of incendiary today.

AF: Like which ones?

AD: Well, on the subject of sex…

AF: Yeah, he didn’t believe in abortion, and he didn’t believe in marriage. Those were the two key pieces. When he went to a wedding, he’d go to it like he was at a funeral.

AD: The difference nowadays is gay people fought for marriage. That was the main thing gay people were fighting for, for the longest time, and Pasolini would’ve been completely opposed to that.

AF: He wouldn’t be opposed. He’d just be bored by it! He wasn’t one of these bourgeois guys who had his apartment and his boyfriend. He’s out in the street, man, looking for the real deal. He wasn’t cruising universities. He was cruising train stations. You dig? And what he was looking for, he found.

AD: We’d call it rough trade.

AF: Yeah, okay, he found the roughest of them. And I don’t think it was [Giuseppe] Pelosi. [Note: Convicted of Pasolini’s murder in 1976, and 17 years old at the time of the incident, Pelosi now claims his confession was made under threat of violence to his family.] There was other guys there that night. And they weren’t even guys. These were 15, 16 year old kids. But in that interview scene, he called it. He told them, “I’m not talking from an ivory tower. I’m writing from the street, bro.” And when you’re in the street, anything can happen.

AD: Right. He’s talking about the possibility of violence that exists in everyone under capitalism.

AF: Yeah, he’s talking about a kid who doesn’t have that violence in him, but if he wants a fucking watch that he’s been conditioned to think he needs to have? [Ferrara holds up his iPhone.] I’m conditioned that I need this fucking phone. But the point is, in the society I’m brought up in, I’ll kill you and go to jail for your phone, because I need to have that fucking phone. The same way you need to have that phone. The way we all need that. He called the whole iPhone trip 50 years ago. We all need that phone. I’m no different. And he drove an Alfa-Romeo that he had custom colored. He had a house by the beach. He had Dior-designed clothes. It wasn’t a contradiction, it was just the way it fucking was.

AD: Yeah, he’s talking about the people on the street and the things they want, the things they covet, to use, maybe, a Catholic word. But he considered himself one of those people himself, so when he’s talking that way, he’s not pointing fingers.

AF: Absolutely. But he also had his spiritual nature, and an artistic soul. He’s not just walking around the mall all day. He’s not a victim of all of it, but he sees it happening, and he sees everybody changing by it, and it was really killing him.

AD: What do you think he’d think about the way things are today?

AF: He predicted it, so I think it would be no shock to him, man. This is the end game. Amazon and Netflix, that’s the end game. I’m not just talking about in movies. Amazon is a fucking grocery store. But believe me, I’m more guilty of this than anyone. The poorer you start off in life, the more you want some of this shit. You seen Salò?

AD: Yeah, sure.

AF: I saw the absolute first show it showed in the United States. Uptown, 57th, I think it was. The Paris Theater.

AD: The very first show.

AF: I was there, bro. There was 15 people there and there was about seven when it was over.

AD: It already had the reputation.

AF: He drove those motherfuckers out of there. People came, and not a lot of people. I walked out of the theater, and the people that stayed were transfixed. I didn’t even know what fucking city I was in. I remember it was snowing that night, I think. It was just so crazy. The thing with Salò, you got to remember, that’s a documentary. He lived through that shit. He was there. His brother was killed, not by the Nazis, but in a scene like that. He was living in the north, in that period when Mussolini was taken out of prison by the Germans, and they were ruling in that alternate fucking universe. That’s the shit these guys were doing. That’s not make believe. He saw it with his own eyes. This shit is going on now. I mean, come on. Systematically killing and raping how many thousands of women? It’s the same fucking shit. He didn’t prophesize it, he documentized it.

This interview has been edited for clarity.