Spike Lee was the mentor of Kyle Bell in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative 2020 - 2022. Photo by Arnaud Montagard / Rolex
Abel Ferrara

Abel Ferrara: “Does pain really teach you at all?”

Short Profile

Name: Abel Ferrara
DOB: 19 July 1951
Place of birth: The Bronx, New York, United States
Occupation: Film director

Abel Ferrara's new film Zeros and Ones will be in select theaters, on Apple TV, and everywhere you rent movies on 19 November 2021. Available on Blu-ray and DVD on 4 January 2022.

Mr. Ferrara, although your independent films have often been described as provocative and controversial, you have always stayed the course. Has it been difficult?

It is difficult, for sure. You have got to learn not to compromise, there's a lot of hard lessons — heartbreaking ones in trying to maintain the honesty and the purity of the film. But I feel like I have no choice in the matter, especially when the road I chose was one of self-expression. It's the gift I have. If I was a good enough musician, would I have been one? If I could paint, would I have been a painter? I don’t know, but this is a gift I have, so I'm not questioning it, I've been doing it since I'm 16.

It must be nice to have that kind of unwavering faith in your art, kind of like a religion.

I do think that filmmaking is sacred. Filmmaking is always beautiful, when you're doing it for the right reasons and everybody's there for the right reasons; it's never anything less than a beautiful gift. Really, I'm not kidding, I've been doing this forever, and as hard as it may be, it's never let me down. I have such a will to make these movies!

“Filmmaking is always beautiful, when you're doing it for the right reasons and everybody's there for the right reasons; it's never anything less than a beautiful gift.”

I believe it! You even directed Zeros and Ones during the lockdown in Rome.

Well, I think now we're at a point in the pandemic, where you're either going to live for the rest of your life in quarantine, or you're gonna go for it, right? At the same time, you don't want to get anybody sick. Especially someone like me, ‘cause I'm the oldest guy in the group at this point. But we had a city like Rome, totally empty! So we kept with protocol, small team: our game is guerrilla, our game is street, our game is quick. You could run a drone in the middle of Rome, all these things you could never have done otherwise… So it was also playing into our hands.

How did that context impact your collaborative approach to filmmaking?

We were all Zoomed up and you could actually be more collaborative than ever! And it's work intensive, because you're home, there's no distraction, no bars, no driving around on motorcycles, everybody's there. Ethan Hawke, and I, for instance, we have a connection, I‘ve known him from the beginning — we're kind of on the same team, even though we hadn't played a game together, you know? He was very courageous to partake in this situation. He's a writer and a filmmaker, too. And he brings a lot of experience to the table.

I imagine that experience is vital especially in the context of your recent films which have a blurred line between narrative and improvisation.

Right, to have someone on board that could be a teacher as well is important, because we're working with a lot of young cats here… And as a director, you’ve got to protect the film, you’ve got to protect the child. A film is the end result of a group — but somebody's got to be the last one in line, you know, and that’s the director. You know, Zeros and Ones, Ethan Hawke says at the end, “The hard road leads to the real life.” He wrote it, and it was one of those lines that I heard and said, “That sounds great!” So I put it in the film. Now, does pain really teach you at all? That's a question I ask myself.

What do you think?

Well, I made it a lot harder on myself than I needed to. I had a battle with drugs and alcohol, I was an addict. I was delusional thinking that I needed something like that. So, do you have to make the road as hard as you make it? No. You’re not on earth to suffer — that's a Buddhist expression. And if you are suffering, you're looking at things delusionally. And I buy into that.

“There's a lot of great work that you didn't have to live the fucking life I lived to do it. Then again, that was my life.”

Do you think you could have written characters as visceral as Harvey Keitel’s addicted, erratic cop in Bad Lieutenant or Christopher Walken’s drug kingpin in King of New York if you hadn’t experienced that edge yourself?

To give you an example, my movie The Addiction was written by Nicholas St. John. Nicky — he never took a drug in his life, and that film is the most in-depth take on heroin addiction that you'll ever know! I had never used heroin before that movie, but I did afterwards and then I realised where that film was at, it was right on the money! And he never touched anything. So, you know, did he have to go through all the shit I had to go through to be able to then make a movie like The Addiction? Do you have to go through the pain and suffering and the anguish and then destroy everyone and everything around you to create a film like that?

I guess he didn't have to.

Exactly. Believe me, his writing was so pure, and then you add Lili Taylor to it… I'm just along for the ride. You know what I mean? (Laughs) Life is tough enough, man. Life is going to give you all you need to handle without you purposely looking for trouble. Trouble is gonna be there. All those interesting things, all that crazy shit — it’s going to be there. There's a lot of great work that you didn't have to live the fucking life I lived to do it. Then again, that was my life. I don’t want to say that “was” my life, because I'm still here. (Laughs) I plan on being here tomorrow, too, you know, I'm still standing.

As time goes by, do you find yourself more and more grateful for the kind of freedom of expression you have as a filmmaker?

I was born free, I was free when I was a kid… But afterwards, you’ve got to fight for it every day because it seems like the whole world is trying to suppress something, someone is always being oppressed from every which way. Even just the air you breathe, the food they're trying to force you to eat, or the poison other people lay on you. Freedom — it's the state of nature, and yet people died for it. So it's not just handed to you. You can't take it for granted. You have to appreciate it, demand it, desire it. It's hard for me to express this in words... I can express it better in a movie.