Abel Ferrara is a handful. With wild gestures and expertly timed jokes, he piles the digressions high, but is much sharper and in control than his legendarily hard-living persona would suggest. The sixty-one-year-old has had one of American indie cinema’s most eclectic careers. A Bronx native, Ferrara has made his way from 42nd Street’s row of exploitation and porn theaters to the Croissette in Cannes. He mantains a manic, youthful energy that is both infectious and a bit terrifying, and although since he became sober over a year ago he has mellowed a bit, the toll that years of less-than-legal substances has taken has certainly not affected the filmmaker’s wit or broad-hearted sensibility.
His new film, “4:44 Last Day On Earth,” was shot early last spring and was initially slated to star Ethan Hawke. Some sources have claimed that Hawke dropped out after shooting had begun, rumors that Ferrara declined to address. Regardless, Willem Dafoe, who was astonishingly good in Ferrara’s terribly underseen “Go-Go Tales,” gives another piercing performance here, as the Ferrara surrogate of sorts, a newly sober man living out the last day of Earth’s existence due to an impending, man-made castastrophe.
Co-starring Ferrara’s girlfriend Shanyn Leigh and Natasha Lyonne, “4:44 Last Day On Earth” represents the first time in over a decade that one of Ferrara’s films has been released by a U.S. theatrical distributor. Following stops at the New York and Venice Film Festivals, IFC quickly scooped up the film for domestic release. On the eve of its release, we caught up with Ferrara for a wide-ranging discussion of the movie, his feelings about the industry and the perilous world we live in.
The Playlist: What got you thinking about the end of the world? The eighty-degree March days? Peak Oil? Or are you not someone that dwells on this stuff at all?
Abel Ferrara: Not really, but you’d have to be a maniac to not think about that stuff. I mean, it’s happened before. It has happened to more advanced civilizations than us. But the point I wanted to get across was this wasn’t a meteorite hitting the earth, you know what I mean, this is our shit, this is a man-made disaster over here. It’s like the Dalai Lama says, if you don’t realize you’re part of nature, that you’re not in control of nature or above anything, that you better find your own rhythm within it. We’re in for some big trouble.
You wrote the film to star your girlfriend and it touches pretty heavily on addiction, which is something that as someone who has recently won his sobriety is a very personal struggle for you. Is that perhaps the place that this work is coming from as well?
Yeah, yeah, that’s it, but you know, it’s also, I mean, I’m not that thrilled with filming car chases, you know what I’m sayin’? The danger for me is in the person struggle. The stuff from the heart. That’s when you’re really risking it all. That’s when you’re traveling 90 miles an hour down a dirt road firing gun shots. I know people appreciate that kind of filmmaking. [The film] is about Shanyn, it’s about our life, it’s about the life we’ve spent together. And Willem, you know, he’s also with a young woman, so. He has a love affair with an Italian, I don’t know if you know her?
No, I don’t.
Well anyways, because I knew it was with Willem and I knew where we could go and you know this is like the third time around with us, so there’s a lot of trust, at this point it’s gotten easy you know? We’ve journeyed beyond a lot of points in our relationship, we can really share, a lot of it is the same stuff you know, and definitely the sobriety is a big deal in this film. This is someone who has no time and he’s living with a woman who is not a drug user and they’re not going to share that experience so at the end of the film he has a decision about what he cares about more.
Were there things that really surprised you about what the film meant to you after you’d completed it?
Well there are things that are always there. You don’t want to think too much about a film when you’re writing it. Or when you’re filming it. You don’t want to over-analyze it. You’re in the process of doing it. You want to find that groove when you’re in the moment. When you’re in the editing room and you’re looking at it and it takes you six months to edit something you shot in one month, and you’re basically discovering what people are going to take from it and you really get a chance to see what you did, because before you really didn’t. Not what you wanted to do. Not what you thought you did. You see what you really did. And that’s when you find the film that you made, you dig? You got to be open to that. The more experienced you are, the more you’re not afraid of the process of discovering a whole different thing in front of you. You got to be true to that also.
How did this movie come about on the financing end?
We did this in a special way where we’re all partners on this film financially, it’s a modern thing, and we’re working with Wild Bunch now for four or five films, in fact we’re about to do a movie with them about [Dominique] Strauss-Kahn with Gerard Depardieu playing Strauss-Kahn. [laughs] So these cats are pretty much supportive of what I do of if it’s in the right ballpark budget-wise, and it depends on the actor, you know what I mean?
Do you think Strauss-Kahn assaulted that woman?
Well you got to see the film, but all I’m going to say is, don’t believe what you read in the newspapers. What you’re going to see in this film is going to be eye opening.
You worked again with cinematographer Ken Kelsch for the first time on a feature in over a decade this time right?
Well we did “Chelsea On The Rocks” together, but otherwise I’ve been working in Europe you know, we’re working on other things. But yeah, it’s been that long since we had a film I produced and put together outside of Rome and with Italy, you know, you better use the Italian crew, you dig?
Working with people you’re close with helps get what’s in your mind out there more closely, and it helps to have that trust in the direction everybody is going in, you also have you give yourself room to fail, you know? I think that’s the real essence of independent filmmaking. When you make a film for hundreds of millions of dollars, you can’t really take a chance on failing. You got to play it close to the chest. You dig? But a film like this? Hey, we’re rolling the dice, you know what I mean? We’re out here on our neck pretty much. Thank God we know how to walk on a tight rope.
Is there a comfort level with the two of you that’s easy to slip back into? He’s shot your most revered films.
He’s done a lot. He’s a good guy, you know what I mean? We’ve been through it together. We’ve been at it a long time. We had a very young crew. It was interesting working with them. He’s older than me if you can believe that. It was funny working with these kids too, a lot of young kids. But it all worked out well.
This is the first time you’ve had traditional distribution in a while stateside.
What is traditional distribution anymore? IFC is putting it out and I’m happy they are because they’re a pretty cool group, but you turn around and the fucking thing is on the internet before you even finish it. Most kids want this shit for free. So traditional distribution, I don’t think anybody knows what it means anymore at this point in time. Day and date with the net and the theater? Who knows. I mean we’re not making films that are blowing up the opening weekend here.
I mean I’m not calling myself Picasso, but I mean Van Gogh’s best thing was rolled up on the floor of his fucking apartment for fifteen years and some guys come and rob his place and they take the silverware and leave the masterpiece, you dig? The greatest painting of the twentieth century, and took his silver spoon, you know what I’m sayin’? Our films are going to be out there, some will come out next year, some five years from now, but if the films are made with heart, if they’re made with soul, if the kids see them, the people see them, it’s always going to be there.
How would you spend your last day or night on Earth?
I’m not the type to trudge to 42nd street and watch the ball drop, you know what I mean? I would stay pretty much, you know, it’s a personal film in the ugly moments and the light moments too. It’s the kind of life we’re livin’, we’d share it at the end. You should be with the people you’re closest too. What would you do? How would you spend your last day on Earth?
I dunno. Pray. Go to the mountains overlooking my hometown and take mushrooms.
[Laughs] That sounds good! That sounds good!