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The Pursuit of Freedom: Abel Ferrara Discusses "Welcome to New York"

The great American director talks controversy, his film's release strategy, addiction, Depardieu's charm, Pasolini, and more.

Photo by Quentin Carbonell

Despite the fact the Festival de Cannes—for whatever reason—did not want Abel Ferrara's Welcome to New York, Cannes itself got the film, first in three separate cinema screenings staged during the festival, and then simultaneously online in France through video on demand. Wild Bunch, the film's producers, staged this alt-Cannes premiere as if it were a real one, complete with a press conference with director Abel Ferrara, screenwriter Christ Zois, and actors Gérard Depardieu and Jacqueline Bisset, as well as a series of interviews with the talent provided for the press.

I was able to participate in a roundtable conversation with the director, who was generous in time, spirit and patience with his surrounding journalists. For more on the film itself, see my report from Cannes, as well as Marie-Pierre Duhamel's report from Paris.


QUESTION: I read somewhere that this film was supposed to be part of the Competition? But, you know, the political pressure. Is that so?

ABEL FERRARA: Political pressure to what?

QUESTION: You know, because it's exposing some sort of dirt...

FERRARA: These guys didn't like the film. I don't think Thierry [Frémaux, artistic director and delegate general of the Festival de Cannes] or these guys had a problem that way. They just didn't like the movie, you know? None of them did. They really didn't like it. And so, that's it. It's their film festival, they can show what they want. If it was my film festival, I show what I want.

QUESTION: It's interesting the event they staged for your film, it almost made the festival itself seem not necessary as an event. You showed your film in several cinemas to hundreds of people, digitally projected just like in the official selection, and you were here, and the film was a premiere. What's the difference between that and “Cannes”?

FERRARA: There's none. And there's a lot films that are shown in the marketplace [during Cannes]. It shows it's the strength of the film and the power of the film. Then again, it's films that people want to see at this moment in time, it doesn't make that film any better or make it any worse. If you have a film in competition, if you even win, there are films that have won this competition that no one even watches any more. It's a tradition, it's a kind of thing... where I'm at, they don't own Cannes, they own the Cannes Film Festival. The guys who financed this film are French too; they're from Marseilles, Vincent [Maraval]. It's just as much his town as anyone else's. So you rent a theatre and show a movie, that's how you do it. Now, how do you get people into the theatre—that's the question.

QUESTION: Can we talk about the decision to put this film only on video on demand?

FERRARA: It's not only on video on demand. The point is: the film is out there. Their problem is this (and it's my problem too). You put a film out in France and it has to take four months to be on the net. In those four that film is taken and it's on the net for free. Now, why everyone thinks because it's on the net it should be for free. It can't go down like that. It's robbing...it's not just robbing “my movie.” You're robbing me of making another movie. You're robbing yourself of me working again. And when I say “me” I'm saying the whole group I'm in and the whole spirit...any filmmaker you steal from. It's kind of counter productive, because the great thing about the French situation is 10% of all ticket sales go to new movies. That's brilliant, that's fantastic, that's great. A lot of my movies wouldn't be made without that, our films are financed in France, mostly. Hey, come on, it's karma. You can't steal something that's on the Internet. You can't cop this bullshit, “these people are millionaires and movie stars...” I wouldn't go into your house and rob your fuckin' toys. Get off my back, man. Pay for what you're gettin', pay for what you see. It's just karma, it's not cool.

QUESTION: And you're releasing it like this just in France?

FERRARA: It'll be in the theatre. It'll be where it's gonna be. It was in a theatre the other day. It might be in a theatre nine months from now, two years from now, might be in a theatre here, there, somewhere else, what difference does it make? It is what it is. Bottom line, it's an opportunity to see the movie. But that's the reason to try to figure out how to take a film... And like the same thing here: you want to show the film, show the film. The film has a power of itself; Gérard [Depardieu] has his power, people want to see him. We have our power, whatever it is. People decide to see what they want to see.

QUESTION: To see him naked is not such a pleasure, to be honest with you...

FERRARA: [laughs]

QUESTION: ...but when you are thinking about him and his huge body—naked—in the context of the real [Dominique] Strauss-Kahn, then you realize all the kinds of connections. Is there any reactions from the real characters so far?

FERRARA: Well, there are no real characters. The real characters for me are Jacqueline [Bisset] and Gérard. Who are you talking about specifically?

QUESTION: Strauss-Kahn.

FERRARA: There's plenty.

QUESTION: There has been a threat to sue...

FERRARA: He wants to sue me, basically. I read that the guy wants to sue me. So thank you, now I'm in a lawsuit, I don't got enough problems [laughs]. Sue me for what? What do they want, my guitar? They can have it.

QUESTION: Is this film for you about dirty politics or about addiction?

FERRARA: It's both. I think it's more about...this guy is addictive nature. The self-destruction, the destruction he does to his family, the destruction he does to his life, where it gets him, where he is—you know? And how he just can't come around to it; it's a disaster. It's said twice in the film, she says to him “this is a disaster,” man, but he ain't realize it, he doesn't see it. It's another one of the films we make where the character goes from Point A to Point A. There he is. Where is he at the end of the film? Sometimes I watch the film and I think he's going to grab that chick [a servant who appears at the end of the film]. And he's capable of it, because he's not confronting himself, he's in no position to say “I've hit rock bottom, I need to change.” These guys are not about changes, changing.

QUESTION: He didn't want to be saved, he said in the movie.

FERRARA: Right. “What I've realized is that one one wants to be saved.” Well, let him speak for himself, because I do! I got news for you. I want to be saved and I'm trying to be saved, and I don't believe it. These guys are in pain, they're suffering, and they're create a lot of fucking turmoil. The tragedy of that film is the relationship, the woman [his wife, played by Jacqueline Bisset] is in love with him obviously, she's trying to save it, she's there talking to him, she's trying to figure it out. She knows his problem. Is he going to try to turn it around? No. He doesn't, the opportunities are over, he's got his daughter right in front of him. “I don't want to be helped.” What does he say? “Fuck 'em all, I don't care.” Because he says “I don't care, I don't care.” We're not talking about Depardieu, we're talking about [his character] Devereaux. I don't give a shit about these other people. I'm talking about the character like that. I'm talking about Devereaux. It's not Gérard, it's not me, it's not this guy, it's not that guy. I should sue myself [laughs]!

QUESTION: When I saw the actor I thought the film started to sympathize the character in a way. Before, I thought he's just an evil, selfish man. But I now can see his problem: so he has a problem like addiction, so I see that's behind his reason, so I start understanding him. Not liking him, but before I thought he's a jerk, he's into just sex, he treats women like second class citizens. But there is a tragedy about him, he can't find out about his problem.

FERRARA: You see his addiction, but he doesn't see his addiction, you know? That's the step he needs to take. These films, we keep making the same...we got to make that film that we go there with it, you know? I got to. I'm gonna. It's not that I “got to,” I'm the one who decides what I'm going to do. Somehow, okay, enough is enough with these, these guys have got to say “okay.” We're not in life to fucking suffer. I'm a Buddhist; we're not here to suffer. He can't be walking around creating destruction; he's like a one man bomber.

QUESTION: Can you talk about the moment you read about the coverage of the original case, how it inspired you?

FERRARA: I wouldn't say it inspired me, I had no choice, you wake up it's here, it's in the newspaper, everyone's talking about it, I'm fuckin' stuck with it. What am I going to say? “It inspired me”?

QUESTION: That's the wording you have at the beginning of the film, that's why I used that word.

FERRARA: Yeah but I didn't put that [text] there. I would never put something like that in front of the film.

QUESTION: What was the moment when you thought, “that's it, that's my next film.”

FERRARA: I don't think like that, because I got a bunch of films we're making and I'm working with a group. So the guys in France, where I come up with my money, obviously that's the story they're seeing. It's something you kind of group around, saying “look at this, blah, blah, blah.” Gérard was totally not interested in this guy, or the research. He said it at the beginning of the movie, what'd he say? “I don't care about this guy, I don't like these guys, I don't give a shit.” That's where it's at. It's always something that kind of puts everybody together to make a film. He's talking about King Lear. Every conversation I had with Gérard, we're not talking about Strauss-Kahn; we're talking about King Lear. He's talking about an epic thing, he's talking about characters, he's talking about films, he's talking about Greek tragedy. The writer is a brilliant psychiatrist who wrote the script; I didn't write the script. These guys are talking...I can't even understand what the fuck they're talking about—but I get the gist, I know what it's about, I know where we're going with this guy. I'm making films from my point of view. I've been where this guy's been, believe me. Worse. I'm not passing judgment on it. I'm trying to deal with it. I'm not condoning it, and I'm not passing judgment on the guy.

QUESTION: But you gave him a human face.

FERRARA: Gérard did. But yeah we gave him a human face because we put the camera in front of him, it's not behind him [laughs].

QUESTION: In this film, you show us the guy is sick, actually. So you defend Strauss-Kahn.

FERRARA: I'm not defending him. How? But I'm not talking about Strauss-Kahn, I'm talking about Gérard.

QUESTION: He's a guy who has a problem with a sickness.

FERRARA: So? He's addicted, so? So I'm defending his addiction? But at this point I could care less about Strauss-Kahn.

QUESTION: But he tried to us his power...

FERRARA: What did Kissinger say? That power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, is what you're saying. And power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And there's the flow. But it doesn't have to. You don't have to be in that position and use it that way.

QUESTION: There aren't many moments giving a voice to the women or victims of the crimes.

FERRARA: The voice was given to the wife, I don't know... They're in the movie, they're there, you see them. You have the lawyers discussing when they dropped the case, saying "you're putting every woman in the city in danger, you're not pursuing this as a rape case, you gotta be crazy."

QUESTION: I wanted to ask about the making of the film, because you went to the jail—the real jail—and used real cops.

FERRARA: Yeah those are real detectives. How is an actor going to play that? First of all, these detectives are actors anyway, or think they are; just the nature of their job. Then, they're watching TV and sayin' this... but you want to get that reality, that thing, it's a [Pier Paolo] Pasolini deal, it's that kind of film, you use real people. The strip search scene everybody likes, and those are real guys, man, those are the guys that are there. Yeah you could get actors, they'd probably cost you two million a piece to get those two guys, right? I just pulled them right out of the place. That's what they do, that's how they do it. That's it.

QUESTION: Did they want to create immediately or did they hesitate to help you?

FERRARA: Yeah they want to be in the film, but can they be? Or are they hambonin' it up, do we got to switch them around, am I screaming and yelling? No, believe me we go through torture to get every...every second of it is torture [laughs].

QUESTION: You mentioned Pasolini, you are influenced by him?

FERRARA: Yeah, our new film, we just made a film with Willem Dafoe playing Pasolini, it's going to be in the Venice Film Festival. It's about the last day in the life of Pasolini.

QUESTION: Does it change your direction on the set if you're basing the drama on real life?

FERRARA: When you get there, even when you're shooting documentaries, you put the camera in front of people and after a while you wonder: just cause it's a documentary, are these people telling the truth? Everything becomes a stage, the line between what's real and what's not.

QUESTION: The relationship between Devereaux and his daughter was interesting. Was it written like that or there was lots of improvisation?

FERRARA: It's written. The script is written, Gérard is working off the script, he's working with the writer, they're talking, they're discussing. And we get the girl, the woman really gets it, Marie [Moute, who plays the daughter] was fantastic, she gets it, she understands it, she has a relationship with Gérard. All these women do. Gérard has this thing. What with men too—he had me at his feet. He's just a charismatic guy, you saw him the other night, that's him. He's so giving as an actor and open. He has two daughters, I have two daughters. She's playing and he's there, with her. Hey, through my addiction, my relationship with my daughter, whew, you can make five movies with it. What can I say? I'm a recovering alcoholic, I'm a recovering drug addict; the switch in my life is 180 degrees. When I see these guys...I'm not defending the guy, I see his suffering and I feel for it, but you come and gotta make the attempt. He's got to feel, Devereaux's got to come back to the world. Otherwise, where is he? He's railing against God, he's railing against his mother, he's railing against his wife, he's railing against the world. It's all this fucking drunkin' shit, man, it's really bullshit. He's in pain, he's in agony, the guy ends in agony, and for what, for what? Pursuit of what? Women, in such an ugly way? Depardieu says it at the beginning, “I'm not into these guys, you're gonna find pleasure in seven minutes with somebody, you gotta be kidding me. You want me to play that, I ain't playing it.” You want to get into the legal case there's the case, “I'm not playing him, I'm not playing the guy.” And I'm not either. I'm worried about me. I don't know the guy, I don't care about the guy. I mean, I care about him as a human being. Do I know him? No. Do I know me? Yes. Have I been where this guy's been? Yes. Can Gérard represent it for me? Better: I can't act like that. He's 300 foot, 300 pounds—he's 1000 pounds, who cares. Put him out there. He's gonna do shit other people wouldn't do. This guy is bringing another thing to it. I don't know what it is.

QUESTION: When you are doing a film about a real character like Strauss-Kahn or like Pasolini, for example...

FERRARA: Yeah like Pasolini, for example. He can't sue me [laughs]. Naw, his family is on our side.

QUESTION: ...do you have a different kind of responsibility?

FERRARA: With Pasolini? He's my teacher. It's a Buddhist meditation. You meditate on the strength, and the beauty and the power of your teacher. That's what I'm doing. This guy was a poet, he was an artist...his best writing was in interviews like this, he took it all seriously. He cared. We interviewed 100 people 35 years after he died, not one person said one bad thing about this guy. Imagine that's your legacy? The smallest guys on the set he was the best to. Never raised his voice on a set, never got angry. Things happened to him would have you tear your hair out of your head. He was so spiritual, so gifted, so blessed. So egoless, in a way. Yeah, I got a responsibility. We gotta ratchet it up a notch. We gotta match that...we can't match that guy. Think they're worrying about who is cutting, or Harvey Weinstein is worried about this or this guy don't like that, or the festival don't like this, and this guy is suing here? These guys are where it's really at in terms of a freedom, a certain freedom that I grew up with in the 60s and 70s. And I know it's here, I know it's around. It's something you can't just let your guard down on, you know? It's something you have to pursue and believe in.

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