In honor of Pasolini’s birth centenary, we revisit the night in 2019 when director Abel Ferrara and star Willem Dafoe joined Metrograph to discuss their personal, unconventional Pasolini biopic, moderated by Last Days: Making 'Pasolini' documentary-maker Heather Buckley.
Heather Buckley: Hello, everyone. Let me bring up Abel and Willem.
Abel Ferrara: Alright, let’s start from the beginning. Can you lower these lights, man? I like to see who I’m talking to. I want to see my friends, we’re from another country over here. Okay good, now as
HB: What’s the first film that you saw from Pasolini that you knew that you had this connection?
AF: Please not that question.
HB: Yes, yes. I want to hear!
AF: Everybody knows, man. I’ve answered that a hundred thousand times. One... two... three... The Decameron!
HB: You want a deeper question? Okay, when did you start reading his works and his letters?
Willem Dafoe: Journalistic stuff, quite late, when we were preparing for this movie. I started reading his novels when I started living in Rome, and started reading his poetry then, because I was learning Italian. Someone gave me a book of his poems with Italian on one side and English on the other. And I had known his films.
HB: What was the first film you were introduced to?
AF: Eh… c’mon!
HB: I like to talk about it!
WD: I’m okay with that, I’m okay. There’s Salò or… you know, when I was doing this movie The Last Temptation of Christ, the one thing that Martin Scorsese told me to do, the one thing before showing up, was to watch The Gospel According to Matthew. It was very useful, and it’s a great film.
AF: That was a good direction. Laughs. I’m dying to hear what these people think of the movie, man. Who wants to ask about it, or to just say something that’s going to really like… come on.
What about “Polk Salad Annie,” the song that plays?
AF: Yeah, yeah, well, I just read the review where some guy says, “Oh my God, ‘Polk Salad Annie,’ what a ridiculous choice. Would Pasolini be reading listening to ‘Polk Salad Annie’?” Well if it was on a radio, what would he do? Drive the car into a bridge?
We were going to use Al Green. It’s going chhh boom chhh boom, you know? I’d like to dedicate this song... but we couldn’t afford Al Green, so then we’re trying to find something from the same period, the same place, like Memphis. Okay, so we had to go with a white guy, but in the beginning it’s boom chhh boom. So I’m sorry the cat from, I don’t even know who it was, it might have been Film Comment, he didn’t like it.
HB: What about the coded things, like when he says like “We are all in danger” or “Rome is finished?” It feels like something about how art exists in this world, and we’re what we’re doing now with the administration—like we are Rome, and Rome is burning, and art is now dangerous—and also how your art has been considered dangerous..
AF: That’s it? No, which one…. Laughs. No, c’mon. What’s the…
WD: Laughs. Maybe we should take some questions. Are there questions?
AF: I can’t answer these.
When he’s being interviewed, Pasolini talks about his experience as a director. I wondered how much of that monologue you wrote from personal experience, Abel, and how much of that you could relate to?
AF: I could relate to about 11%. Laughs. No really, I relate to about 24% of the film. Laughs.
WD: The interview in the beginning, when the French journalist is asking them questions? You can see that interview on YouTube. That’s taken word for word. As was the interview—it’s edited—but the interview at the end where he says we’re all in danger, and all those beautiful, prescient things about where he’s afraid society is going, that’s from his last interview…. Abel didn’t write that.
AF: We stole it off the YouTube.
WD: I certainly didn’t!
AF: That’s our default position. You know, they’re stealing from us, we’re stealing back from them.
I’ve got a question, I think it’s simple. In the beginning, the mother’s bringing breakfast, and she looks like she’s trying to hide something. I was waiting for a secret in a drawer, something like that. Was I just interpreting something that wasn’t there? Or maybe I missed something?
AF: The mother? Yeah there was something there that I think got lost in translation, but I can’t remember what it was.
I love her eyes. She was wonderful to watch. Really intense.
WD: She’s an actress that worked with Pasolini, and was a close friend.
HB: That'd be interesting thing to talk about, Abel, how the family and friends were involved in the film.
AF: Yeah, I mean, everyone was 2,000% in, you know? That was one of the reasons we were really… We kind of felt it. We reached for it, and then they reached for us. But I don’t think we would have pursued it the way we did, without everyone all in.
It has to do with the amount of time we’ve been living there. Willem’s been living there and working there; I’ve been living there and working there, off and on; these last five years I’ve been living exclusively there. So we’re part of the community, and these guys respected our work, and they respected us going into it. And they’ve still got a lot of love for the dude! I mean, that’s my big get out of this: 45 years later, these people are passionate about him. He had that thing. He put out a lot of love, and he attracted a lot of love. On top of being the talented super artist that he was.
"that’s my big get out of this: 45 years later, these people are passionate about him. He had that thing. He put out a lot of love, and he attracted a lot of love. On top of being the talented super artist that he was."
I have a question. Why did you choose to depict the last days of Pasolini’s life?
AF: How did we get to the last two days, the last 36 hours…
WD: I’ll try and make it quick. A producer came to Abel, a guy that helped finance King of New York. He said, “I’d like to make a movie about Pasolini.” And he knew Abel was a great admirer of Pasolini, so they started talking about it. They had someone write a not-very-good traditional biopic script that was thrown out. He asked me to come on board. He started doing lots of interviews, collecting a lot of information. And there was so much information. We were really interested in his work, what he was thinking about; we didn’t want to get hung up on why he got killed, or, you know... we wanted to make it about his work, what he was saying, and we thought the best way to do that was to catch him at the culmination of it all. It’s convenient because then we have that natural structure of just him doing his daily things: he came from Stockholm, did this interview, you see him waking up, then you see him going to lunch… it was laid out for us, and it was a way for us to concentrate all these feelings and all this information we had on him. So it was really a sort of a convention, and then only later do you realize... it really worked for us
HB: It’s also about his unfinished work though, which is heartbreaking.
WD: Yeah. Well that, Abel can talk to that. He’s here too. Laughs.
HB: So Mr. Abel, I want to hear about the unfinished work.
AF: Moderate, girl!
HB: It’s heartbreaking because it also covers two of his unfinished works, and you’re able to depict them.
AF: The death of a poet is heartbreaking, so that’s really the bottom line. And he’s really a poet. For anybody struggling with a screenplay or trying to put a film together—like all of us, including me, I’m on page one of our next script, but at least I got a half a page. Laughs. I got a couple of names and a location, and I know it’s gonna start… But this dude had one of the greatest movies ever made coming out; he had two off the hook, brilliant screenplays already written: the one we shot, Porno-Teo-Kolossal, and another script about St. Paul that begins with the Partisans in Paris at the end of the Nazi occupation, and ends with the Black Panthers in Detroit. You can find it somewhere, and it’s a fucking knockout. He’s writing once a week in his newspaper, a scathing political that could have been one of the reasons they offed him. This guy’s like a fucking lion, bro. He’s like, a 1,700-page novel, that he was putting the finishing touches on, that’s what’s in there. A lot of people were trying to say to me, “Oh, he arranged his own murder,” it’s all bullshit, man. That final shot, of that book, that’s his book, okay? His cousin gave me that book, his day book. And man, the day after and the day after that, you look at that handwriting, if you see this movie again, focus in on that. I mean, that ain’t somebody who thinks he’s gonna die, that’s somebody setting up shit, even if it was just lunch, meeting that person and meeting that one. This guy wasn’t thinking he was getting offed on Monday, or Sunday night, you know?
AF: Who have we got? Doesn’t have to be a question. It could be a what cool, brilliant comment. Okay, here we go.
This is not a traditional biopic so. Willem, what was most challenging about playing this role?
WF: Well, just getting behind what… you know it all leads up to that interview at the end, for me. And also, just to take a walk in his shoes, and also be credible when I look at that kid that I’m picking up, look at him with a certain pull. That had to be credible, I had to have a rapport in those scenes. So those were challenges. But mainly, it was just really to wrap my brain around the things he was saying and imagine these different modes he worked in because he was so incredible. He would go from, you know, lunch with some intellectuals to hanging out with these street kids; he’d be playing soccer with kids one moment, and then he’d be speaking in one dialect with his mother, and then he’d be going…. he wore lots of different masks, but they were all connected. You couldn’t separate his sexuality from his politics from his work; it was all one thing. So I’m just considering those things. I’m wearing his clothes, I’m in the places where he’s going. My actions are very clear. In a lot of the movie, I’m quite not-passive but I’m like a director, I’m an observer, I’m watching these things go by. So it’s really about receptivity, and not trying to push an agenda that’s not there, and really think about what he’s saying and have it affect me. Then that experience of affecting me is recorded, and hopefully is the inner life of what you see in our Pasolini. You know, not get crazy about dictating who Pasolini was but really try to be present, in my imagination, for who this guy could have been, for me. So that’s really it.
AF: I hope everybody got that. Y’all got that?
HB: Do you feel closer to the work once you put on the clothes? What did that do for you?
AF: Well, yeah. Because whenever you… you have a different stake. I mean, you’re having experiences that are parallel to his experience, and that’s a real relationship. That’s what’s so beautiful about… you know, the restaurant that he meets the kid at? We’re sitting at the table he sat at; some of the people that served him are still there; some of those dishes… we’re eating what he ate. So it becomes sort of a ritual. I always feel like when you’re in the place, and you’re sort of imitating or reliving those things, you’re flirting with ghosts, you know? You’re willing yourself to imagine another time.
AF: Yo Amos, c’mon! Somebody give the microphone to Amos [Poe], I haven’t seen him in a bit. Where is he?
AMOS POE: Hi Abe, hey, what’s up?
AF: I’m good, bro, good.
AP: This the film I always wanted to see, man.
AF: Until you saw it. Laughs.
AP: No, I felt it, man. What’s the through line between Driller Killer, Bad Lieutenant and this? What’s the through line? Tie it all up.
WD: Like a rodeo cowboy.
AF: Laughs. Nah….
WD: They’re all directed by Abel Ferrara!
HB: I saw so much of the work that you’ve been doing your entire life wrapped up in this, the stuff around transgression, violence, things like that. Maybe that’s what Amos is seeing. Are you seeing it, Amos? Yes, yes. Abel, you don’t feel that at all, that this sort of speaks back to your work? Especially centering it around Salò, and death, and a lot of the stuff he said?
AF: That’s great! That’s… yeah, that’s what I’m saying. We don’t have to ask a question. You can make a comment! That’s a good comment. So who else has a comment?
AP: So Willem: Jesus, Van Gogh, Pasolini…
WD: Where is this voice coming from?! I’m sorry! Forgive me! I did the best I could!
Okay, listen, you make those connections. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff in between those things. I played some characters based on real-life characters, but I don’t think I’ve ever really made a biopic. You know, Van Gogh, that was our Van Gogh, that wasn’t the Van Gogh; Jesus, that was our Jesus, that wasn’t the Jesus; this is our Pasolini, it wasn’t the Pasolini. I think that’s what I want to say about all those things… I don’t want to be glib, but you get it, right?
This is a question for Willem. I am just burning with curiosity to know, having played Van Gogh, and Pasolini, and Jesus, and a vampire, and a Vietnam vet who was sort of a Jesus allegory, if you had your pick of historical characters to conquer next, who would you pick?
WD: You know, I never dreamed up those things, and I don’t have fantasies like that… I don’t want to make fun of your question but I don’t have a good answer. I guess the point to be made is, even when I played those roles, I didn’t have fantasies about playing those roles. That was something that didn’t exist until someone proposed it to me, and then I got behind it. But I never have fantasies about what I want to play, I don’t know what I want to do until I’m there, really. Usually, as an actor when you feel like, ‘Oh, I’d really like to play this or that,’ you’re usually doing that because it’s something that you know already. And that’s usually a dead end for me. I like to find something, a situation, that propels me to learn something and have an experience, whereas if I wanted to play…. give me a historical figure!
AF: Whoa, good one!
WD: Okay, Dante… Okay, that blew my circuits. Laughs.
I wanted to ask, it seems like the kid who was with him in the car at the beginning wasn’t in on what was going on. It didn’t feel like he wanted to kill him, but then he ended up being part of the murder. Is that accurate historically, and why did that happen?
WD: There’s lots of controversy about what actually happened. You know, one guy was accused of the crime. One thing that’s really clear with the evidence that’s available, to me—and it’s pretty common knowledge—it probably wasn’t one guy. They do know he was run over by the car. They knew he was beat up, because he was bloody, he was really messed up bad. It wasn’t one guy. What they don’t know is whether it was planned, whether it was a hate crime, whether it was a political crime, whether it was just some hustlers trying to rob the guy, and then it got rough… there’s all these possibilities. Some people feel very strongly it was a plot, but we don’t know that for sure. And I don’t think the movie concerns itself with that. The point is, the guy died, and it was an assassination. Whether it was by chance or whether it was planned—for the purposes of this movie, and for the purposes of his work, and what his life was—we didn’t want to get into that, because then it becomes a whole other movie. And there have been movies made about that.
AF: This is awesome. I mean, just awesome Q&Aing going on here. And with a hotshot moderator. You’re getting all of this for 15 bucks?
HB: The whole circus.
AF: Everybody paid? You stayed here from another show? There’s only one theatre here, right? You can’t sneak in from another theatre.
Willem, there does seem to be part of this movie where violence just pervades so much of what he’s talking about, like the nature of living, talking about how we all feel like machines… Having played this role, and having gotten into the headspace of this version of Pasolini you’ve created, have you come to sympathize with that view? Are you an assassin? Are we like that?
WD: As I hear it, your question’s kind of mixed. But as far as the lockstep that there’s certain developments in society taking away our sense of our humanity, yeah, I think everybody in this room probably feels it. I mean, the thing that was incredible about him, and makes the stuff so strong, even now, is he saw the internet coming before there was an internet. He saw that connectivity, he saw…. He was always fighting. I’ll try to connect the two parts of your question, but just simply, I’m not a scholar of Pasolini, but it was very clear that he was afraid people were conforming too much, that they were losing their souls—through materialism, through consumerism, through television, through people manipulating them, information giving them a sense of false freedom, false tolerance. He felt like people didn’t really know how they felt, and they were losing their character. That’s why in an interview once, someone said, “Who are your favorite people?” And this very erudite, educated, refined, sophisticated Italian intellectual said, “My favorite people are people with less than a fourth-grade education.” And he wasn’t joking. Because he found that simple people who weren’t corrupted, to his mind, by a certain educational system, they were more natural and I think they were closer to what he loved about life. He constantly goes back to sensation, to feeling, and he felt that was being lost. I hope that kind of answered your question.
HB: Well there is the statement where he says, “I am an assassin but I am also a good man.”
WD: Yeah, and he also talked a lot about making things sacred again. I mean, what’s crazy about him, he was like, bring it on but bring it on with feeling. Don’t bullshit us. He was unpredictable, he was an original thinker, and he didn’t think along the lines of political correctness, he really decided many things that weren’t necessarily in favor. And it was also so interesting to see his evolution. At this point, there’s some parts of him that are dog-tired. I was really struck by how in his early novels, he writes beautifully about these boys, it’s very poetic, it’s very romantic. And then by the end, in some of his social commentary, he’s writing these scathing things about those same boys, because he’s found that they’ve turned into shells of their former selves. Because so much had changed in society, they were losing their naturalness, they were losing their feelings, their contact with each other.
AF: That’s why he gets the big bucks, man. You get all that? Everybody get all that?
"he also talked a lot about making things sacred again. I mean, what’s crazy about him, he was like, bring it on but bring it on with feeling. Don’t bullshit us. He was unpredictable, he was an original thinker,"
Abel, was the framing device, in contrast to the sort of traditional biopic narrative, was that influenced at all by Paul Schrader’s Mishima?
AF: Yeah, I think it was very much influenced by the film… even though I didn’t see it. Laughs. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m sure it was influenced by it, and if I had seen it, it would be even more influenced by it. So, thank God. I’m going to see it.
Can you describe the thinking behind the decision to incorporate some of Pasolini’s unfinished works?
AF: You’re doing the life of an artist. He’s a filmmaker, the guy’s writing a book, this is what he does all day, okay? So we’re locking into one day in the life of a guy. It just so happens that it’s the last day on Earth for poor Pier Paolo but we don’t know that. So what does the guy do? He’s a writer. He’s writing a book [Petrolio]. That’s what the fuck he’s writing, he’s writing those lines, those words, those images. He’s sitting there at the typewriter, that’s how he worked. He typed, and he typed fucking fast. And on top of it, he’d type while he was talking to you, okay, so try that! That’s how you write a 1,700-page novel while you’re fucking doing this, and while you’re directing a movie, and while you’re humping guys all night all over town, that’s how it works.
So he’s doing that! You get what I’m saying? The guy’s doing it, he’s making a movie, so when he meets his actor, it’s like any other director. I say to him, “Hey, what about this? What about that? What do you think?” That’s what’s happening. He’s talking about the movie that he was going to make, it was written... It’s straight up, to me: this is what he was writing, this is what he was planning on doing, this is what he was doing, Salò —we had the clip—it was very specific, actually. That last 36 hours began with him doing the final dub on Salò. And then he did the interview, and then he took a plane home, it’s really that dopey. [Willem] said it—then he woke up, his mother woke him up, and then he read the paper. And we knew what he did because we talked to his cousin. We knew what he said, we knew where he ate, we knew where he went… and that’s it, man. There’s no great mystery there.
HB: Maybe what she may not understand is that as an artist, up to your death, you’re creating. The movie, the book, it all exists simultaneously. Because that’s the life of an artist.
AF: You can make a comment! You don’t have to ask a question.
What about the orgy scene?
AF: Well that was another brilliant scene that he had…. But the point is that this is the mind of Pasolini. Okay, Paradise: I’m gay; a town that’s all gay, it’s so gay that if you come to town the cops stop you and say, “Hey dude.” They size you up. If you ain’t gay, why don’t you stay in a hotel in Staten Island, because Manhattan is like… you’d be more comfortable in Staten Island…
But real seriously, you’re gay, how do you procreate the race? Pasolini’s a gay man, he’s holding that baby, that scene—that was his lover. He loved [Ninetto] Davoli. Davoli, these guys were hustlers. He was his boyfriend, but he met a chick, married and has a family, you dig? They’re all young hustlers, and there’s no difference between Davoli and [Pino] Pelosi [who was convicted for Pasolini’s murder] and all those kitty cats. But that idea, when he’s holding that baby, the idea of what is the future of society? So he’s imagining this feast of the fertility where on a specific night—and this is a true feast day, and this feast day is nine months before Christmas, so, you know, suck on that, right? And on that night, they line up—they just happen to be in town that night. And on that night, in Pasolini’s imagination, they line up the best girls you got here and the best guys here: all gay. And now you go for it. It’s not an orgy, though I never got that across to the actors. Laughs. It’s a good thing I got a good editor. But it’s not an orgy, guys, it’s like you have to procreate the race, okay? So everybody’s screaming, freaking, fire—all in the imagination of this man. And if you’re there as the guy, you have got to basically come as fast as you can, so we can get enough women pregnant by the end of the night. So any time some guy comes, the fireworks go off.
So that was it, alright? And that’s an idea. Anybody had an idea like that lately?