Interview: Abel Ferrara (Go Go Tales, Bad Lieutenant)

Interview: Abel Ferrara (Go Go Tales, Bad Lieutenant). By Simon Miraudo.

The irascible writer-director Abel Ferrara has never been backwards about coming forwards.  When Werner Herzog made a sequel/spin-off to his legendary Bad Lieutenant, the disapproving Ferrara suggested those involved “die in hell.” Herzog responded by claiming he had no idea who this Abel character was: “Is he Italian? Is he French?” Ferrara is in fact a Bronx native, now based in Italy. It’s been close to a decade since he’s been able to get funding for a film in the States, and now relies on European investors (unreliable as they may be).

His flick Go Go Tales debuted at Cannes back in 2007, and though the feature starred Willem Dafoe as ‘Go Go’ bar entrepreneur Ray Ruby and Bob Hoskins as the club bouncer, all anyone wanted to talk about was the sequence in which Asia Argento’s exotic dancer tongue-kissed a dog onstage. It took four years for it to even screen in the U.S., and five for it to arrive on DVD in Australia. Ahead of the picture’s release, I spoke to Ferrara – who was both friendly, frank, and ferocious – about the lies investors tell, getting paid in “Monopoly money,” living with a movie that remains unreleased, his interpretation of the famously ambiguous ending of Bad Lieutenant, and if he’s gotten over Werner Herzog, Nicolas Cage, and producer Ed Pressman spinning-it off. Spoiler alert: he hasn’t.

SM: What was the first seed of inspiration for Go Go Tales?

AF: Now that’s a good question. What, are you starting with the hardest question?

SM: I do, I do. It’s a tactic.

AF: [Laughs] You know, it’s a situation I know. Some of those people in that film are real. They’re not actors. Frankie Cee is like an uncle of mine. The big, big heavy guy. Who’d he play? Luigi, or somebody. I forget his name in the film. You know the guy I’m talking about? He’s got white hair.

SM: Yeah.

AF: That’s a real guy. He owned those clubs. Hoskins, to give him credit, I adore him as an actor. I just wanted him to f***ng roam; put a tuxedo on him, and say, “Just hang out, and do your thing.” It’s a credit to him. I made a film way, way back, a long, long time ago called Fear City. It’s the world that I kind of know. I don’t know where these ideas come from. They’re beyond me in a way. In the end these films come through you. They’re of you, but they’re through you, if you get what I’m saying? I don’t know where the initial inspiration came from. I spent more than a fair share of time hanging out in these places.

SM: Well, fair enough.

AF: I don’t know about you guys. Get a beer, if you’re drinking. I didn’t have to pay for the drinks, because they’re pretty expensive at a place like that.

SM: The sex and violence is pretty prominent in your previous films, sometimes intertwined. Go Go Tales certainly isn’t a G-rated movie, but I did get a bit of a warmer feeling from it. There seems to be a decent nature to a lot of the characters here. Were you looking to make a movie that was a bit lighter in tone?

AF: In reality, these are Go Go girls; they’re not hookers. You go in places there, you have to have a suit on, number one. B) You’ve got to spend $20 on a beer. C) If you touch the girls, they’ll break your f***ing arm. You don’t mess with the girls unless they want you to. This isn’t a film about sex and hookers. This is a film about dancers and performers. In the end, you find out that these people are not really Go Go dancers, they’re all actors and magicians or whatever the f*** they are.

SM: I think that definitely comes across in the movie, especially in the final sequence where they get to show off their other creative outlets.

AF: Yeah, all the brilliant f***ing magicians. When she did the trick, I said, “What the f*** did you do man?” Maybe the magic would have worked better if she was in a G-string, as opposed to a tuxedo, but hey, you know.

SM: The picture is set in New York, but you did shoot it in Rome where you’ve been based for a number of years. Do you still feel compelled, in 2012, to tell New York stories now that you live abroad?

AF: Well, I’m back and forth from Rome. That’s a good question. Again, it’s where the inspiration comes from. Is it summoned? I mean, a Go Go club could be anywhere? It could be Chicago; that could be London; that could be Sydney. You’ve got a bunch of Chinese guys in the club, run by a blonde-haired guy, with an English cockney guy running the floor. How New York really is that? Well, it is New York, from my perspective. I know places that I hung out at that are still there. I was born in the Bronx, man. I have that in me, and I don’t think I could ever take that out of me, even if I live in f***ing Italy. No matter where I live. You know what I mean?

SM: I think we’d all be very sad if you did lose that part of you. It has been a constant throughout your career. There is a recurring theme in the movie of the characters waiting to be paid their dues. They’re waiting for their payday; their big pay day. Getting the money together for the bar is a bit of a struggle, but Ray Ruby, Willem Dafoe’s character, is ferocious in his determination. Is this a bit of a comment on how you’ve had to go about setting up your more recent projects?

AF: It’s like all projects in a sense. If you have $10… If you’ve got $10 million, you try to spend $5 million, I think. The lifestyle of these guys… I get more out of people when I pay them, than when I tell them I’m going to pay them. [Laughs] I’m different than Ray Ruby. I’d rather pay you so I don’t have to listen to your bulls***. If I pay you, then I can fire you.

SM: That’s a good approach, I think.

AF: I’d rather get paid to do work as opposed to have somebody tell me, “Oh, when the film comes out… Oh, when it comes to DVD … And whenever we sell the rights to Mars.” It’s just natural to me. You work, you get paid. You cook food, you eat it. Do you dig what I’m saying?

SM: Of course.

AF: It’s kind of a natural deal. OK, these guys [in the movie] don’t have any money. That’s their complaint. He’s doing this with f***ing smoke and mirrors. But any normal person would have shut this joint down and gone home. He says to his brother, “I’m not going to f***ing Florida? What did you come here to do?” “Well, hey babe, I wish someone sent me to Florida to retire.” It seems like you have a choice, but this guy’s a player. This guy’s a dreamer. This guy’s one of these motherf***ers.  He’s like Frank White from King of New York. He’s going to build this hospital. But where’s the hospital? Did you see that movie? There were pictures of a hospital. That’s like this guy. He’s paying those girls with Ray Ruby money. I’ve got paid with Monopoly money too. How is the economy doing down there in Australia?

SM: It’s doing OK. We avoided the recession, but look, if America goes down, we all go down with it, you know?

AF: Yeah man.

SM: The film did debut at Cannes back in 2007. It’s hitting DVD in Australia at the end of 2012. Can you tell me about living with the movie for five years, and how you’ve felt over that period? Whether you knew it would get a release or not?

AF: Living with it for five years, before I made it or after I made?

SM: Yeah, you wrote it a number of years ago, but more from the perspective of five years from once it was made?

AF: Well, once it’s made, man, it’s somebody else’s problem. I got enough problems trying to get these movies made. Believe me, it took a long time to get this made. Two or three heart-breaking false starts. It’s one of these things that I’m learning now. Things happen when they happen. You can’t push it. I don’t finance these movies. I don’t have f***ing $5 million in a safe under my bed, you dig? Or $2 million or $500,000 or $8 million, you dig? I can only make these movies when I can convince somebody else to put up the money. And then, once the movie is made, it comes out when somebody else puts it out. Because I make movies; I don’t sell movies, I don’t distribute movies, and I don’t finance movies, you dig? I’m a filmmaker, and it took me a long time to realise that. You think you’re f***ing God, and you’re gonna do it all because you’re so f***ing great, but it ain’t like that. It’s more frustrating. With Go Go Tales, you make the right movie, and you make it the right way, it doesn’t matter if people see it the day after it’s made, or you’re watching it now, or five years later, or you watch it thirty years from now. The movies that affected me most were fifty years old when I saw them. But they weren’t fifty years old in my eyes, you dig what I’m saying?

SM: Absolutely. Speaking of moving onto your next projects, can you tell me how The Strauss-Kahn Story is coming along?

AF: Well, I’ve made a bunch of films since Go Go Tales. Like, three documentaries, and a film called 4:44: The Last Day on Earth, also with Willem Dafoe.

SM: You’re definitely moving on.

AF: You can probably watch them online. My favourite marketplace. Let YouTube get the money. But YouTube doesn’t make any money; try to buy stock in it, and see how high that is. Google don’t make any money; except when you try to buy their stock, or until they sell it. This company we’re talking on [Skype] is the ultimate Buddhist company. You guys don’t know about it, but eight years ago they started giving away phone calls. In other words, everything we’re doing now is for free. This is insane, right? These conversations used to cost me thousands of dollars. When we’re making a film, or doing a film, or whatever, it’s scary. Now, it’s nothing. The guy turned around and sold the company, after giving s*** away, for four billion dollars. So, you tell me about the internet. All my films can be found on the internet, one way or another. Pirate them… not pirate them, but, that’s where it’s at. I’m talking about the finances of filmmaking. What was the question again? I’m sorry.

SM: I was asking how progress was going on The Strauss-Kahn Story, but I think you’re right. Your fans have always found a way to watch Abel Ferrara movies.

AF: The Strauss-Kahn Story. Me and my guy wrote a script; Chris Zois, OK? Now, We’ve got Gerard Depardieu ready to do it; who wants to do it, who’d love to do it. We’ve got a bunch of guys who might have the money; they might not have the money. They tell me they’ve got the money; they might have somebody else’s money. You know what I mean? I don’t know if you know; they might have no money and tell me it’s someone else’s money. And these are good friends of mine, quote unquote. We’re ready to make the movie. Maybe we’ll make it tomorrow, maybe we’ll make it five years from tomorrow, you dig? That’s where it’s at. Like I said man, the one thing I’ve learned – and I’m not the smartest guy in the world –I don’t have the money to put up for Strauss-Kahn. I can’t pay Depardieu enough money; he might or might not work for nothing on this film, but ‘nothing’ to Depardieu is not what ‘nothing’ means to you, you understand? ‘Nothing’ might $500,000 in cash, and I’m not saying it is, I’m just saying, you don’t know what ‘nothing’ is until you’ve got to pay him. [Laughs]

SM: Well, I do hope it is closer to tomorrow than five years from now for The Strauss-Kahn Story. Abel, before we wrap up, I have to ask: there are rumours that still swirl around of sequels to Bad Lieutenant, with different directors and actors. How do you feel about that? Would you ever want to revisit that world?

AF: How do I feel about somebody taking my f***ing idea and f***ing making their own movie with it? I think it sucks. You know what I mean? I think it’s a f***ing rip. What do I think of Nicky Cage f***ing playing that other guy? I think it sucks. Is he so desperate that he needed that $2 million? What do I think of making a film for nothing – me and my guys – and then they remake it for $8 million and everybody gets a payday? Harvey [Keitel] did that film for nothing. He not only did that film for nothing – and you can quote me on this, man – he put in $100,000 of his own money into that project, and he got zero. When they sold that – whatever Bad Lieutenant is and whoever wrote the script – he never got a penny for that. They made that film again and they took that f***ing brand, or whatever terminology they use in Hollywood… I’ll brand them in the f***ing mouth, man. You dig? What do I think about it? I don’t think too much about any of those guys. What Herzog said, “Oh, the guy’s….” What did he say? “Waving at windmills?” I don’t know.

SM: The Don Quixote reference.

AF: Yeah. What is the stupid quote? I’d rather be ‘chasing windmills’ than stealing other people’s ideas. The bottom line with the character: we left the guy totally in the throes of addiction. Whatever everybody thinks about redemption, I don’t see a lot of redemption in that f***ing film. I see a lot of pain, I see a lot of agony, I see a guy at square zero. A shot goes off somewhere near the end of that film. Whether it even hit him, who knows? OK? He could have been thinking he got shot, because that’s what they teach these cops. If you’re under f***ing duress and you can’t fire back, act like it did. You don’t have to teach somebody that; it’s kind of a normal animal instinct thing to do. So who knows if the guy’s dead, alive, or whatever.  Granted, I’m sure Herzog…I don’t believe he saw Bad Lieutenant. I could give a f*** if he did. I don’t blame him. He took a million dollar payday and made his own f***ing movie, which I have no interest in seeing even though I happen to really like Herzog’s films. You know what I mean? But I don’t want to watch that one. As for [producer] Ed Pressman, he can f***ing die. Not die, but you know. For all the compassion and all the Buddhist love I have, I can’t love those guys. You don’t f***ing rip people off. That’s the first thing I learnt from my father. You don’t steal from somebody. You starve to death, but you don’t steal from somebody. And that’s where I’m at.

Go Go Tales is available on DVD in Australia from November 22, 2012.

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