The famed Italian filmmaker, author and political activist Pier Paolo Pasolini receives the biopic treatment from Abel Ferrara in “Pasolini,” but the film, a la “Last Days” or “Fruitvale Station,” focuses solely on the final days of its subject. Ferrara, whose career has veered from porn to low budget shock horror, from TV hack work to classics of the American Independent film movement like “King of New York” and “Bad Lieutenant,” has always loved characters as iconoclastic as himself, and in “Pasolini” he has surely found his match. However, telling the story of the end of a fascinating life has brought out a different Ferrara. While certain flourishes remain from his previous work, this film is more subdued than much of his other films, with the director mostly staying out of longtime collaborator Willem Dafoe’s way. With his usual dark palette of chocolate browns and muted grays, the film shows us many sides of the man in question but doesn’t try to answer every question it can’t. It feel like a significant turn in Ferrara’s filmography, who against all odds has grown into one of American cinema’s true oddball treasures.
Ferrara caught up with The Playlist last week to talk about his newest work, the differences between working in Italy versus the United States, and what the difficult experience of making “Welcome to New York,” a source of tension between him and distributor IFC Films, taught him about making films based on real life characters.
So many films get tripped up by spanning an entire lifetime. You decided to focus on Pasolini’s last few days with a sense of intimacy, community, family and a world of ideas. Was that an easy sell as far as a Pasolini pic was concerned?
No, man. I have total freedom when we create a movie. I think he was constantly growing, constantly moving, intellectually, artistically, creatively. We nailed down a spot where you could focus on where he was at, at that last moment. His life was like one long take. When you die, everything comes into perspective. We researched the shit out of this guy. I’m coming from doing documentaries lately. We researched everything. And then in the end, you throw it all away and you make a movie, you know? I know it all. We got it all down, you dig?
The movie is a chamber piece in a way —what were your strategies for making it cinematic?
It was already cinematic. His life was more cinematic than you could ever make. Real life, like “Welcome to New York” —who can even come up with a story like that? Come up with a film about a director who made one of the greatest movies ever made and was about to make another one, had sixteen plays, all off the hook. These guys were rolling large, man. They were making a lot of money in the United States at that time. The film community was more approachable, bro, you know?
Those guys were making a lot of money and rolling big time, living that intellectual life, being a political rabble rouser and doing his thing —people went mad for this. He was a big time journalist, he was writing editorials for The New York Times. And at ten o’clock at night, he’d cruise the fucking city looking for young killers, okay? God, how you gonna come up with stories like that? That’s fucking incredible. It’s a cinematic movie, more cinematic than you can ever know. Then he gets killed out on the beach. Come on!
The film is in both English and Italian. How did you go about deciding what portions you would do in English and in Italian?
Will speaks good Italian and I usually don’t film with two languages. I think if he choose one, I’m more comfortable. With all that philosophy, you gotta get that in English. Those are tough fucking thoughts this guy was talking about. You know, I could order in a restaurant or ask where the bathroom is in Italian, and get around there. But I’m not gonna start going into these intellectual discussions —I’m not even good with that in English! A week with those real Roman street kids, you know, it was like the kids could out talk me.
We didn’t speak their language, there’s no parallel for them. I can get young Dominicans to talk in Spanish, but if they were to talk in their neighborhood in English, it wouldn’t translate. We’re going from language to language. I’m using every tool I got in the fucking kit to try to get to the heart of that guy. I’m not going to be locked into the convention of a movie in English or Italian. That’s just the fucking way I needed to get to the heart of the matter, you know?
Do you get a chance to prep there in a different way because of the way the money works and it’s coming from the government and the state versus private guys here?
I gotta tell you the truth —it really doesn’t. You gotta do a little bit of work in all these countries that put up money. So it was kind of a traveling editing tour: we edited a little in France, we edited a little it Italy. I’m blessed with having two really great crews, my guys in New York and my guys in Italy. But the process is the same, you know? Because we demand it. I need the actors before we start the script, for a lot of rehearsals. I need everybody to know that just because we had a script for the film, we would go page by page, you know? But I let all these guys know that we’re not gonna blow it.
After five pictures together, I’m sure you and Willem have a shorthand now?
The bottom line is that if a director has to be directing the actor on the day you’re shooting, you’re in trouble. The guys you choose, who you have to walk through every little fucking thing all the way to the damn premiere? [They] better be very good…
Willem is a gifted actor. He’s the quarterback of the team. He’s in there, and he’s the one that’s reflecting the ideas of the screenwriter, of the passion of the crew, all of us. He’s got to get it, he’s got to reflect it and we’re counting on him. The camera is on him. And I’m grateful that he and I have this relationship and it’s something that we keep working on. I know it’s always getting better.
Was there anything about Pasolini that you discovered while making the movie, as opposed to beforehand, that changed your perspective on his story and how you wanted to tell it?
He had written a great script that he was ready to shoot and he had this seventeen hundred page novel that he was writing. Checking those out finally helped draw him out. “Salo” had just been done. He was in the prime of his life, and the people he was with the last day, they’re still alive and are still vital. And the fact that this guy had been working for all these years and produced some great things, that’s not the great tragedy of his death. It was the loss of the work he was gonna do.
Have you shown the film to his relatives and his close friends?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, they’re cool. The relatives, the family were all at the screening, they were all there the first time we screened it. So we had access. I mean Willem was wearing his clothes, you dig what I’m saying?
Those were actually his clothes? That jacket?
He is wearing his fucking clothes. He is wearing his fucking jewelry, and we got the car, the whole deal. You know in Italy, it’s not a fight. In a lot of ways, 1975 is not that long ago. The restaurants are still there. The woman who served him fucking beer is still there in that restaurant, okay? [That kind of thing] only gets you so far, but at least it gets you that far.
In the film, Pasolini complains about the commercialism in Italy and the way the country is becoming less hospitable to the poor and to working people.
What he was saying is he was interested in fascism. He lived through the riots of the fucking Christian Democrats, and to him fascism wasn’t half as normal and half as bad an idea that consumerism is. It’s the same deal, really. And what he saw in 1975 was it doesn’t matter if these kids are from the ghetto or if they’re from the wealthiest family in Rome. All they’re thinking about is which Rolex they want and whether they can buy it or they can rob it from you. They don’t stop for anything, because that’s what they want, and that’s their culture. Their culture is Gucci, and they know this guy was a big time director. They know because he had an Alfa Romeo on the street with a custom paint job. Those kids knew that car comes in three colors and [his was] none of those.
I think this is the first time, in a career in which you’ve staged many deaths, that you recreated someone’s actual death. Someone you revered, no less.
In the end we had to make what happened that night at the beach work for us. We had to create it. It’s like Pasolini said about the death of this great revolutionary Italian oil man who blew up in an airplane. And Pasolini was gonna [say who blew it up] in the newspaper. He said, “listen, I’m gonna tell everyone the name of who did this.” And they said, “how do you know?” He said, “Well, I’m not a detective. I’m gonna do it as an artist.” So when we created that last thing, me, Willem and my guys got to go here as artists and come up with a truth that’s the truth in this film. And here’s the bottom line: that car didn’t go over him, he ain’t dead. This is just the end part of a lot of research. If that car did not go over him, he would’ve lived. I don’t know who was driving that car, and I certainly don’t know whether that car drove over him intentionally or if it was just late at night, or if the kid didn’t know how to drive the car, or if he couldn’t see the dude on the ground. But if that car didn’t go over him, he’d still be alive. But it’s got fuzzy details, so I think you just go on a cinematic thing.
Were you cutting this and “Welcome To New York” at the same time?
No, we finished “Welcome to New York,” then we started this one. “Welcome to New York” really focused me in on how to do a movie about a real event and a real person.
That’s the point of making these movies. It’s what you learn, you know? And you have to be able to learn and you got to be able to change. You want to know what I learned from Pasolini? Give up your spot. Think outside the box. Whenever you think you know what’s going on, change it, because you’re wrong. And keep attacking it. After I made “Welcome To New York,” I realized we were barking up the wrong tree. It left a lot to be desired.
How did you change it?
There’s a relationship, a difference between the truth and the cinematic truths. You think, “oh it is the truth,” but you’re never gonna find out what happened. Whether it was a year and a half ago in a hotel room at that fucking Sofitel in midtown Manhattan or forty-five years ago on a beach of Ostia, you dig? But we know what’s gonna happen in front of that camera. We can make that happen. And the more research the better, but in the end you gotta make it happen in front of that camera.