There are few directors who could count a porno among their early works (“9 Lives of a Wet Pussy,” in case you’re wondering), but then again, there are few filmmakers like Abel Ferrara. Perhaps he was always destined to court controversy, but that hasn’t diminished Ferrara’s distinctive, kinetic and yes, provocative, body of work that has seen him tell dark stories set in even darker corners of society. But once the initial power of those first viewings wear off, Ferarra’s work reveals layers that weren’t immediately apparent on repeated visits. And that may certainly be the case for the filmmaker’s 1981 sophomore feature “Ms. 45.”
Returning to theaters courtesy of Drafthouse Films, the revival of the film is a chance to not only revisit Ferarra at the very nascent stages of his career, but to give another look at a movie that explores the repercussions of sexual violence in the structure of a revenge fantasy. It’s likely the most artful exploitation movie you’re likely to see, and with “Ms. 45” gracing the big screen again, we got on the phone with the director to talk about the return of his film, filmmaking in general, and what projects lay on the horizon.
When you heard that Drafthouse wanted to re-release “Ms. 45.” what was your initial reaction?
You know, it seems strange, but it’s cool. Although lately living in Brooklyn, this kind of [film] is retrospective stuff again. So people can see it, some of these movies. Me personally, I saw so many of the movies that really mean a lot to me in kind of a retrospective situation. This is actually a re-release which is kind of different, but whatever gets these films out there.
Have you unwatched it recently?
I haven’t watched it in a long time but I close my eyes and I see the movie. I’ve got that movie indelibly printed in my DNA.
What was your first memory of making that movie? What kind of filmmaker were you then compared to now?
We were trying to bust out. You know we were trying to make a name for something, we were trying to basically come up in the world of making movies and we had just done “Driller Killer.” When we made “Driller Killer,” we weren’t really visiting films coming out in theaters, you know what I mean? Coming off of short [films], we did a porno film, but basically to shoot a feature and then get it down and then all of a sudden it’s playing in theaters and people buy tickets and people are viewing it—there’s an expectation of its abilities that exists in those movies.
An audience who was looking for an X-rated, violent movie, that they were not getting anywhere, it was kind of on us to make that movie. So in “Ms. 45” I think we were caught between [making a movie for] a paying audience, which is a whole different thing from showing movies to your friends. [Also] living in New York was very heavy, at that time … it was a very heavy criteria for what it’s supposed to look like. “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” Woody Allen‘s movies. Those films were being made by people that I knew, so hey you want to fucking be a New York film maker, you better at least aspire to an A game.
So were you making “Ms. 45” with the expectation that it would attract a grindhouse audience?
Well, we were kind of dreamers, thinking we’re going to make a movie that everybody in the world is going to watch. It’s 35 years later it’s actually being released. So I don’t know if I actually came to the realization. I probably had the realization but I didn’t know I had it. You’re making a movie, you’re making it for all time, you can’t put a limitation on it. But I knew the film has to be in focus and better be 80 minutes long, because somebody is paying ten dollars, you better be able to … not have them ask for their money back.
If “Ms. 45” came to you today, do you think in today’s climate it would be an easy film to make?
I don’t know that’s a tough question … I’m making a film about the last day in the life of Pasolini. I just made a film about [Dominique] Strauss-Khan that took us all kinds of time. I don’t know about chances. You have inspired peaks. When I read it, I was as inspired as you are when you see it. So you’re going to fucking follow that inspiration, it’s the source of all creation.
Are we going to see some of your older films get a shot at a re-release?
You’ve got to ask these guys from Drafthouse … This might just be a passing phase.
Your films have rightly or wrongly been considered “controversial.” Do you think you’ve been mischaracterized or misrepresented sometimes when it comes to your movies?
No, I think it’s probably an honest assumption from the people writing [those things], but there’s a lot of points of view.
Do those kind of reactions surprise you?
Not anymore. You’re making movies like “Driller Killer” and what do you expect the reaction to be? You’re asking for that kind of reaction once you start playing those cards.
So when you made “Bad Lieutenant,” did you have a sense that people were going to react the way they did?
You know, I can’t even explain the idea of a cop being a crack head … You know after a while I stopped even explaining because it’s the kind of thing that, man, you see it and then you get it. I come from the world where “Battle of Algiers,” those kind of movies, so they’re nothing outrageous to me. It’s coming from a point of inspiration and the inspiration is followed through by the people making the film. It’s like everybody’s all in, all the way. What’s controversial in Tokyo is fucking mundane in Glasgow. Who knows? Then what’s mundane in Glasgow becomes controversial 20 years later and when you’re as old as me—it all becomes kind of ridiculous. The film is what the film is and the audience is going to see it from their own eyes. When the lights go out, the bullshit about a movie is what that is. I’m not putting down the art of film criticism, because I think it’s valid, but you know in the end you march through your own eyes. You see the movie, it’s going to connect with you or it’s not going to connect. It could connect with you today and next time you see it it might be ridiculous, it might be the opposite. I’ve seen movies I didn’t get at all and then I watch them again and I go, “Holy shit this is fucking deep, man.” That’s the beauty of it.
Over the years you’ve had a couple projects come up that didn’t quite come together. Will we ever see “The King of New York” prequel you’d sort of had an idea for?
It’s funny I was just with Michael Pitt today who’s going to be the lead actor. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. You never say never. I don’t know, that’s a whole interview in itself. Let’s table that discussion for when we’re siting one on one and you have about an hour.
If someone sees “Ms. 45” for the first time and they dig it, what would you tell them to see next out of your films?
Whichever one happens to be playing at a neighborhood near them. Just don’t rob it off the internet unless you are dying to see it and it’s the only way. If you’re flat broke and you really want to see the movie, steal it, but steal it with a conscience.
You mentioned a couple of movies you have coming up, and I’m curoius about your Dominique Strauss-Khan film. What kind of look does it take at him? Is it about the scandal or about more?
It’s a scandal no matter how you look at it, I mean this guy’s a scandal, he’s a scandal and everything around him is a scandal. You know it can’t be avoided.
As for the Pasolini film, what are you exploring about the filmmaker in this movie?
It’s amazing. The more you fucking research it and the closer you get to him it’s even more. I mean he’s someone that’s inspired me, he still inspires me and it’s an exciting piece. It’s something to make a movie about, man. Willem Defoe is going to play Pasolini, and we’ve got the whole team going on this one.
“Ms. 45” opens in limited release starting this Friday, December 13th.