One highly anticipated film from the past weeks’ Venice and Toronto festivals was Abel Ferrara’s newest collaboration with Willem Dafoe as lead, the darkly avant-garde “Pasolini.” Erroneously labelled a biopic, the film is a dreamlike journey through the moments comprising the final hours leading to the genius’ brutal murder. Ferrara shines light on the insignificant aspects of the would-be last day on earth just as much as the beliefs, relationships, and lust for life that firmed Pasolini’s spot on top and perhaps sent him to the grave. Dafoe, in Italian, French and English, is a dead ringer for the late filmmaker and the perfect dummy through which the audiences’ ventriloquy can realize the radical, haunted man on the verge of destruction.
I sat down with Abel Ferrara and Willem Dafoe to speak about their adoration for Pier Paolo Pasolini, how closely they worked together making the movie, and why they’re not making the least of attempts to please a straight audience.
My first question is about the genesis of the project and how much collaboration you two had with one another and with the screenwriter (Maurizio Braucci). Throughout the Q&A at last night’s screening you both said “We wanted to make a film about Pasolini, we decided that this must be included, etc.”
Ferrara: For me as the director, really Willem’s the actor at this point. I mean we gotta agree on what we’re going to do, then we can fight. So once we choose the thing we know we want to do then we’re off to the races. He actually gets work and has jobs. He goes out into the world and then he comes back and tells us what filmmaking is really like out there, outside of our little group of people. [Willem laughs] Because me and the guys, we don’t really get out there. So he goes out in the world and he brings all of the experiences back with him. And then we have a screenplay that he gets. And then we sit, and then we start going through it. Especially in these films, he’s in every scene. “4:44 Last Day on Earth” he’s in every scene except for the moon shots. When you separate the writing from the rehearsal from the discussion from the research from the understanding…
Dafoe: A lot of people make films you know. You have these little different teams that have different separate jobs and then they come together and they try to make something. Well, those things are a little looser at the beginning and they’re still very strong identities and different responsibilities. Abel understands, obviously, that if you give a performer a connection to what is going on then when it’s time to actually do the thing there’s an understanding. He can go deeper and I can go deeper because you don’t waste all this time trying to figure out what you’re doing. It sounds really prosaic and kind of obvious but it’s not. The model for making traditional movies very much is: you have a screenplay, you have a director, then you cast it, then you get everyone there and you get them dressed in the clothes and everything’s nice but then when you get there it just doesn’t come together because people start from different places and they’re interested in different things. When we all start at the same place it’s not to say that everyone does everything, but if you allow for that it’s much more organic.
At what point in the initial stages of the film’s production did it become evident that you would focus solely on the last day of Pasolini’s life, and that you were going to intersperse that with depictions of his late writing?
Ferrara: I think one film warps into another. Going back even to “Go Go Tales”, that’s the same timeframe too. The bottom line here is that the movie’s 90 minutes so if it’s 1 day or 200 days, if we start in 800 BC and go 14,000 years in the future, you’re still looking at an approximately 85 minute framing. You know we’re not big on character arcs. In our history of character arcs we go from Point A to Point A. [laughs] But you know the structure. In a 90 minute movie we keep that mindset. That mindset of where he was on the day of his death, which is daunting enough.
Dafoe: Let me take a little leap here and say if you think presence in the present is the future and the past, but if you try to represent all three, if you try to deal with the past, present, and the future, which biopics by their very nature tend to do because it can account for the person’s life and kind of say who they are, then you have a different job. We really concern ourselves with the present and we fix it at that point, that day before he dies basically. But that implies all the past. It gives you freedom to take that in but doesn’t want to slave to explain our experience. And the future is implied by what he was interested in doing. Of course that future never happened because his life was cut short by this brutal murder. But that’s probably why Abel’s attracted to that form, because you’re free to move.
Ferrara: You know his big word is ‘focus’. It gives us the focus, man.
Dafoe: Even the discipline. The discipline to say “what is this?” If we’re looking at this whole table, how do you frame that? How do you frame that? At some point you’ve got to choose. You need the structure and inside that structure you can go deep. But if you’re searching for the structure, which people struggle with in biopics: “What’s the important part?” And you’re supposed to explain things or look to the past or see where they fit into the world. That wasn’t this. We were trying to really approximate a moment. And we had lots of help, because we had people giving us lots of factual information plus it was a wildly well-documented life, an amazingly full life, and a life full of contradiction. So all that’s percolating but we had the discipline of that time.
Of course, and I think it works really well. If you’ve seen the Grace Kelly biopic “Grace of Monaco”, these two films are miles away from each other. [Dafoe laughs.] And what was it like casting Ninetto Davoli, the young star of several of Pasolini’s works and the purported love of his life?
Ferrara: He came to us. One of the beautiful things about Pasolini is that these people loved him. It’s not just 1 or 2 people; no one had a bad word about him. This guy came to us, I mean there was no role in the movie for him at all. He came to us and said “I’m here because I was his friend.” Now the essence of what that friendship was, you know, these guys were gay but he’s married with kids. These young hustlers in Rome: were they gay, were they not, what were they looking for? I mean, Pasolini was gay. He knew he was gay, he lived a gay life. 1975 was not easy to be gay in Rome. The disadvantage of the city like that, the fascist state, the Vatican the bla bla bla… But at the same time it was a very free period. 1960s, after that, and it was pre-AIDS. You dig? So these guys could rock n’ roll without that threat. This guy never had sex with a guy older than 19 in his life.
Dafoe [to me]: You would’ve been too old.
Ferrara: You would’ve been turned down by Pasolini. And he wouldn’t like the fact that you had a job, and that you’re serious. He went for that street thing. He went for these rough and tough kids. His expression of freedom was Davoli too. You know that was his guy. That was his friend. Broke his heart when he got… You know there’s so many stories you could do, just the relationship between those 2 guys. But for me to understand his work and a put a camera on that fucking guy, on Pasolini’s actor, now we understand so much more than you know watching the movies or talking about it or researching it.
Dafoe: And for me you talk about artifacts, you talk about details. When he’s looking at the comet and he smiles, it’s the same smile that you’ve seen in 6, 7 Pasolini movies. It brings you back. It’s a huge length. It was really generous for him to be in the movie and I think it was important. He was really generous with me, really sweet, really encouraging. When we were still trying to find the form and figure it out, he came in and was like “I don’t want this just to be about the death.” And we didn’t either but it’s kind of important that he said “I want it to be about how full of life he was.” He was clearly a man who loved life and lived in a very full way, and a lot of films previously had really focused on the kind of suspense of his death and conspiracy theories and just all the heaviness and persecution. So that was very important to have in the room with us when we were trying to do this thing, because we wanted to do something that would honour his memory and his work. We didn’t want to explore historical detail to make a thriller.
Were there ever any doubts about how you would portray Pasolini’s sexuality? In biopics sometimes filmmakers completely gloss over points to make the film more accessible.
Ferrara: Accessible for what? Straight people?
Exactly. For straight people.
Ferrara: We don’t give a fuck about straight people. He is what he is. He wrote about what he wrote about. These films are an education for us even at our age, man. We’re investigating our own sexuality. Constantly. But in 1975 there wasn’t a gay thing. This place was like an oasis for the gay community where the cops let it go. And they went and to him it was a place of life, where they could go and be who the fuck they want. And when his cousin talked to us, more out than Pier Paolo who was more of a macho-tough kind of gay guy, he said “Don’t pass judgement. Don’t make a moral judgement on this guy. You guys are heterosexual. You could get married and you could get divorced. You could have children.” What was it for him? That scene where he’s writing of holding a baby is absolutely true. [Ninetto] Davoli’s son is named Pier Paolo. If you’re gay and you’re committed to being gay, where is your kid? He talks about the city that’s gay and one night a year they come to procreate the race. I mean these are all ideas that the guy is dealing with. Where is the future if marriage is a continuation of the consumer society and a mere formality of consumerism? The guy was living it. When he had his friends, some of the most brilliant people in the world, he needed all of them. But every night, 10 o’clock, and it wasn’t hidden. 10 o’clock it was time to do his thing. He wasn’t looking at it in a negative way. But it led to his death.
That actually leads the way into my next question. In the film his murder is depicted as a hate crime. Do you think the openness and the notoriety of his homosexuality, in some way or another, led to his demise?
Dafoe: It’s tough. I think Abel says it. To travel out to Ostia with a stranger that you don’t know, get intimate with them, then you’re vulnerable to that person if they tend to be violent or they have some reason to rob you or beat you. And in this case which is not explicit in the movie, if some other people are coming by and they see two men embracing, or even undoing their pants…
Ferrara: Or going all the way.
Dafoe: He’s putting himself at risk. In the story, when I see that: Is it a robbery? Is it a hate crime? It’s a little unclear but the point is the guy clearly, whether it was his political stance or his sexuality or his work or having money, all these things put him at risk to be out in Ostia in the middle of the night with a young boy. And which one it was doesn’t really matter because he died. This is why I get a little crazy when people obsess over the ‘why’. The point is the guy died. The guy was murdered, there’s no doubt about it.
Ferrara: He was murdered there, and you want some real facts? Here’s a real fact. If that car didn’t run over him he’d be alive. So did that car go over him because the kid was in the fucking car or was it a CIA agent or a fascist P2 player or somebody paid from Sicily? Did he hit that guy because it was in the dark and he couldn’t drive it right, or did he roll that guy? “The guy you hate is the guy who makes you know you’re gay.” Maybe we thought that kid was straight or the kid thought he was straight. All those Roman kids are doing it to eat, bro. You dig? Back then they’re doing it to fucking eat. That’s a whole movie right there. And Pasolini takes that kid and he makes him understand what that kid is, for the rest of his life. It’s all that but when you’re making a movie you gotta make it so…
Dafoe: You’ve got to make a reality.
Ferrara: Because we were out there with three fucking kids. I didn’t ask those kids are they gay or are they not gay, I don’t even ask him [gesturing to Willem] if he’s gay or not gay. What’s the next question now that we’re going down this gay road?
We could break away from the gay road.
Dafoe, Ferrara: No no no no.
Ferrara: You’re the only one who’s had the nerve to talk about it. I mean how many movies have a gay lead guy? An out guy? This is a film about a homosexual.
Dafoe: And a great artist.
Ferrara: I mean how many movies are out there where you can say the lead actor is a gay guy?
Dafoe: [laughing] The lead character.
Ferrara: Who we love and worship.
Something I really liked from the Q&A last night was when you referred to Pasolini as a prophet. Willem, you’ve played a lot of iconic figures but a prophet almost exists in another ballpark. It so clearly shone through that you both admired Pasolini deeply, and most of all did not want to cause the slightest bit of injustice to his name. So how do you play a prophet?
Dafoe: You don’t. You try to, once again, inhabit those ideas. And the only way you can express them is to have an affinity and an understanding. To will yourself to have an understanding. That becomes the work. I always feel like as an actor, my job is not to express my experience but to go towards something that’s not my experience and to have a relationship to it and as I go towards it I’m transformed. And that transformation is what fuels the inner life of the performance. I want to be transformed because I want to learn a different way of thinking and a different way of seeing, and when you have someone as brilliant as Pasolini it’s a beautiful opportunity to be transformed in a way that’s inspiring. Hopefully there’s some taste of that in the movie. When people see it they remember things that they forgot and learn things that they never thought. Because some of his ideas are expressed and there’s enough little flavour about how he led his life that that’s also inspiring. He had some dark aspects too and lots of contradictions but I think that whole process of going towards his thoughts is really what invests that feeling of him being a prophet. Because once you sit with all those things he’s saying I start to see them going on all over the place. He was right, he called it. What’s happening to society is still happening. He said it: we’re all in danger. Not to be a flat-out pessimist but I think the evolution of society, from a false sense of progress, in some ways we’re going backwards. We’re losing our humanity.
Ferrara: Did you get that on tape or are you going to remember all of that?
I got that. Now did you, Abel, try to carry Pasolini’s style or spirit of filmmaking into the way you made the film?
Ferrara: Well his filmmaking is in my DNA. I’ve been watching him since I was a kid. You dig? It’s in there. Whether we like it or not. With this film we’re exorcising him. Maybe we finally got him off our back.