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“You Create Your Own Freedom”: Abel Ferrara Discusses “Tommaso”

Abel Ferrara talks about his new drama inspired by his life in Rome, starring Willem Dafoe and the director’s own wife and daughter.
Tommaso
Tommaso is a work of unusually personal autoficition by its director, Abel Ferrara. Shooting in his own flat in Rome, to which the great but underfunded New York director decamped many years ago, casting his wife (Cristina Chiriac) and their young daughter (Anna Ferrara) to play themselves, and having Willem Dafoe act as his stand-in sharing personal details—including being a recovering addict and working on the long-gestating film project Siberia—the film finds the universal in the confessional. Shot guerrilla-style with the most minimal budget possible—Werner Herzog’s cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger, ensures a raw and immediate look—the film offers vivid flashes of the energetic but conflicted life of the titular director as he swings from joy with his four-year-old daughter to flashes of anger over his young wife’s self-sufficiency, the strength granted by confessions at AA meetings to constant erotic dreams of other women.
Like Ferrara’s wonderful biopic Pasolini—only recently released in the States after its premiere five years ago—which also stars Dafoe as a director, the film shows a life that struggles to balance the fantastic possibilities of filmmaking with the day-to-day mania involved in living a fulfilled family and creative life. We see storyboards of Siberia as a well as imagined scenes that could be for another desired film project, adapted from Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which Tommaso projects himself into as a man suffering a Christ-like passion. He also unreasonably suffers in his fresh marriage, and several of the arguments the husband picks with his wife are very parochial indeed, but only this serves as a more self-lacerating portrait—and after all, Ferrara has always embraced the vivacity of pulp and exaggeration. Throughout, Dafoe gives it his all in a movie that revolves the world around this ultimately very average man. With its extreme modesty of scale, intimate subject matter, and emphasis on poetics over storytelling, Tommaso is in keeping not so much with American cinema as it is in old-guard European auteur cinema in which visionaries have been reduced in funding to making bedroom productions, like the last two films by Jean-Claude Brisseau and Jean-Luc Godard. It might be a sketch of a film in between larger paintings, but there is always something more revealing and for that reason more expressive about an artist’s smaller, looser work. It is remarkable and not a little touching that Ferrara so wishes to share the torments and pleasures of his daily life he has found while striving to create greater things.
I sat down to chat with Ferrara at the Hotel Barrière Le Majestic in Cannes a few days after the world premiere of Tommaso to discuss making personal cinema, working with Willem Dafoe, living in Rome, and a changing New York.

NOTEBOOK: I love this kind of personal cinema, one that I feel doesn’t seem to exist in the United States anymore. It only seems to be funded, or allowed, in Europe...
ABEL FERRARA: You’ve gotta demand it! It’s never allowed.
NOTEBOOK: I saw the screening of Tommaso that you presented and it was such an intimate experience: you there with your wife and daughter, who are in the picture. What that was like for you, to watch that on the screen with a public audience?
FERRARA: When you watch the movie you’re no longer the filmmaker, you’re part of the audience. The film is shared. It’s made, and then it’s up there, and then what’s up there the audience sees—and then somewhere between all that is the movie. So I just sat there...and especially seeing it on a big screen, with a group, I was just looking at it like I was looking at it—as if I had bought a ticket, you know?
NOTEBOOK: So even though this film features your wife and child, and you’re shooting in your home city, it was just watching another one of your films? It didn’t feel like something else?
FERRARA: It always feels like that. When you’re watching a movie, you know the people. But if the film has any quality to it, or anything going for it...—which this does, thank God. I get lost in Tommaso. Willem [Dafoe] is sitting right next to me, I know Willem—it don’t matter. She’s sitting right there, but I get caught up in it. And then I start bringing my shit to the movie, which I guess is a little crazy here because it starts as my stuff, but actually [Tommaso] becomes a character to me. He’s not me. He’s a character, like all the characters we create.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of Willem, this took me back to New Rose Hotel. Can you remember what your first encounter with him was like? You’ve had a long history with the actor since.
FERRARA: We just got used to each other being on the set. We knew each other from the street, but that’s something else. To work together, to be out there, creating scenes together and doing shit together…
NOTEBOOK: But I imagine by now you have a remarkable intimacy after such collaboration.
FERRARA: [Laughs] Remarkable intimacy! That’s a good one, I gotta remember that one. Yeah, we have this remarkable intimacy. You know, we’re developing our… you know, our game? You know what I mean? We’re just trying to keep pushing it to different places. Yeah, it’s a big help when you know each other, you trust each other, we’re not starting from: "Hi, my name’s Abel." It gives us that opportunity.
NOTEBOOK: Does that feeling change in movies like this and 4:44 Last Day on Earth, when the story is almost like a chamber drama? You have very little space for the set and the whole production is very close-quarters.
FERRARA: We had a big apartment, it’s not that small. In 4:44 we had a big place—for New York City, come on! People are living in New Rose Hotel in New York City at this point. So, you know, we had a big loft, it had a rooftop deck, blah blah blah. This guy has a big apartment in Rome, you know? We used the streets, we used the neighborhood. I didn’t feel confined at all. High ceilings. You know what I mean?
NOTEBOOK: Is this your own flat in Rome, Tommaso’s flat?
FERRARA: Yeah.
NOTEBOOK: At what point did you desire or admit to yourself how much of this film should be sourced from your own life? I think of your cinema—no matter how commercial or not— as always being deeply personal, which is one of the reasons I find it so affecting, but this obviously comes from something more specific.
FERRARA: I mean, what else can it be? You know? We’ve been shooting documentaries, we’ve been shooting Rome, so we always shoot the ‘hood. If it’s Driller Killer or on up. No one really lives in the city, right? Everyone lives in their neighborhood in a city. I don’t live in Rome, I live in that Piazza Vittorio, in that particular part of Rome. We’re doing the documentaries, and our documentaries and the features kind of find a certain language that we’ve been speaking lately.
NOTEBOOK: Do you feel that making these recent documentaries—from Napoli Napoli Napoli and Mulberry St. onward—have changed the way you’re approaching fiction filmmaking?
FERRARA: Yeah, you know we just did [the documentary] Piazza Vittorio and in a way, like [shooting] Pasolini in Piazza Vittorio—a film about a director, only we’re using this neighborhood. Here we’re using real people, you know? Which is an age-old trick. We’ve done this our whole lives, it’s a tradition of the Italian cinema anyway. It’s a Pasolini tradition. And he used them all, he used opera stars, old street cleaners…
NOTEBOOK: But it’s a tradition that in a way has been forgotten quite a bit. I feel like that technique is just as fresh now as it was then, because it hasn’t become the standard way of making cinema.
FERRARA: Yeah. It’s our way now, in a way. It’s always been.
NOTEBOOK: Is this influence of documentary on fiction one of the reasons that you wanted to work with cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, who I think is really crosses those lines really well in his films with Werner Herzog?
FERRARA: Our Italian D.P. wasn’t available, so when I met Peter—and it’s ironic that [Peter's] the guy that shot Bad Lieutenant [Port of Call New Orleans]—and I love Werner's films, and Peter is a big contributor to them, and they shoot the documentaries and the features. He brought a lot to the table.
NOTEBOOK: Usually if a character in a film is a filmmaker, you see a lot of them dealing with bullshit—getting funding, working with stars, trouble on the set—but what you’re showing here is something way more private and quiet, a gestation of this project I know you’ve been working on yourself.
FERRARA: Right, Siberia.
NOTEBOOK: Why did you want to show this intimate way of making movies, versus the cacophony of production?
FERRARA: It just happens to be this. I mean, this is the film: it’s the stage the guy is at with the film. He’s saying he’s looking for money, but when you’re doing those storyboards and you’re down to that point, he’s a little past money. It’s how Tommaso’s prepping his new movies, and he’s focused on that. He’s focused on trying to make it come alive for him. Again, it’s a little bit like how we did Pasolini, where we’re trying to film what he’s about to do. In Pasolini, we did the film that he never got a chance to make. So, here, thank God we just shot Siberia… Or otherwise I would have been another fantasy project [laughs]. Siberia we ended up shooting a little different than the one he’s drawing.
NOTEBOOK: I don’t think of you as a storyboard filmmaker. Do you storyboard?
FERRARA: In Siberia, we did.
NOTEBOOK: Why was that?
FERRARA: Just ‘cause I’m tired of explaining what the fuck we need to do. It was a very complicated shoot, we were shooting in three countries, three different groups of people, four different languages. You know, a picture tells a thousand words.
NOTEBOOK: It’s finally done though! That film has been quite a saga…
FERRARA: Well, we shot it. Siberia is a long odyssey about a long odyssey—that’s actually what the film is about. Yeah, we got it shot. We’re in the middle of the editing.
NOTEBOOK: When were you making Tommaso and when you were you shooting Siberia? Was there overlap?
FERRARA: No. I had this idea I wanted to do this while we were in the last stages. We shot in January, so Willem had this period that he was free, before he did this big movie in Canada, and he was gonna be away for a long time so we thought we could shoot this. When he came back, we went right into Siberia.
NOTEBOOK: So Tommaso came about very quickly.
FERRARA: Yeah. I like to shoot fast, he likes to shoot fast. You know what I mean?
NOTEBOOK: I imagine shooting like this presents a whole new range of challenges. With Siberia—larger production, multiple countries, multiple actors—it’s a lot of logistics, but with this it’s a bit more spontaneous.
FERRARA: You’re shooting and you’re freakin’ out. You’re shooting in your neighborhood and you’re shooting free, guerilla-style… well, I mean “hi-tech” guerilla-style...
NOTEBOOK: Does less budget mean greater creative freedom?
FERRARA: No man, it’s always the same. The freedom is what you want. You create your own freedom. You can’t buy it. You can have it for nothing, as long as you have it in you.
NOTEBOOK: I was very impressed by the A.A. meetings in this film. I know that that experience you’ve talked about quite a bit over the years, but I’ve never seen it revealed in your cinema.
FERRARA: Well, it’s the process. Like everything else in the movie, it’s the real deal, with the real people, you know.
NOTEBOOK: With this theme, it’s notable that didn’t include explicit temptation—for drug or alcohol abuse—in this story, the way that you might have in the past.
FERRARA: Temptation for [Tommaso] is right there. It’s with him 24 hours a day. I mean, when he hears these stories of [other recovering addicts]—yeah, it’s great. He’s got six years, but there’s guys sitting right next to him with ten, twelve that went out like that [snaps fingers].
NOTEBOOK: Are those all actors in those A.A. meetings?
FERRARA: There are no actors in the movie! Willem is the only actor [laughs]. I mean, Cristina is an actor and Anna is an actor and these people, actually—some of them are actors, but you know, what’s an actor? That’s what it really comes down to. You put a camera in front of somebody and they’re an actor.
NOTEBOOK: Did you direct Willem different than you directed Cristina, as someone who’s been on sets forever and someone who’s new to working in cinema?
FERRARA: No, each individual person you have to have a different relationship with. Every day is different. Sometimes it’s different from morning to afternoon, or from one take to another. So, you’ve got to be open. When I deal with Anna, she’s four, or when I’m dealing with the little kids or girlfriends—I gotta be available to everybody.
NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me about these fantasy sequences? I was particularly struck by this scene of Tommaso arrested and taken to the police station, with its Biblical references.
FERRARA: Yeah, that’s a scene out of The Master and Margarita. You know, the [Mikhail] Bulgakov? It was part of that little trilogy, that little Passion trilogy that runs through his imagination, the confrontation with Pilate, the Garden before he was arrested, and then the Crucifixion.
NOTEBOOK: I was surprised by the Crucifixion because the Buddhist elements are so strong in Tommaso’s character. Do you see the Buddhism of the character being in the present and the Catholicism being in the past and still informing his life?
FERRARA: These are the things that are going through his mind. Whether they’re from movies he’s made, or these might be movies he’s thinking about. We don’t know if Tommaso was an actor or not. I was realizing that when I was watching it: He could be a Woody Allen kind of guy, where he’s actually gonna [act] in his movies. Or this is a movie he already did, which Willem did in those scenes. So, I don’t know. It’s not so important. What does Willem say? Willem quotes this Buddhist teacher. You have about 50,000 ideas a day. So use about 75 of them [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: Obviously the film is in many ways close to your life, but what did you want to give to Tommaso that was farthest from you? That you wanted to see on screen that was unrelated to your own experience. Something that you couldn’t do or hadn’t done or hadn’t thought.
FERRARA: That’s in the process. The process of filmmaking is to get to these ideas and feelings and to take what you have and with not just Willem, but the whole group. I’m working with a lot of people besides Willem: the D.P., the other actors, the producers, the editor, Fabio [Nunziata], especially, the composer, Joey [Delia]. By working in a group way, we hopefully come to certain understandings and certain realizations, through each other. That’s something you’re not going to maybe arrive at as an individual. That’s the hope and dream and purpose of the movie. That’s why we do it.
NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like having your youngest daughter has changed the way you think about movies, or the way you make cinema now?
FERRARA: It’s changed my life. I have two other daughters who are older now. But having the baby now, later in life, it’s a godsend, it’s a miracle. For sure, she’s changed the game for me—big time.
NOTEBOOK: Jugging the logistics of being a parent and being a filmmaker, like Tommaso, do you think that that impedes or accentuates…
FERRARA: ...It’s a complicated issue. Relationships are complicated. When two become three, it’s complex. It’s very rewarding, but rewards have their own trials.
NOTEBOOK: I was impressed by the film’s sticking to Tommaso’s perspective and I feel like in that way, his difficulties with his marriage and his struggles with fidelity and so forth are sympathetic, but at a certain point you realize how flawed he is.
FERRARA: Yeah, well, that’s part of his psyche. That selfish deal is in there. He’s working it, he’s working his practice, he’s going to the meetings, he’s trying to connect. But it’s not easy being the Dalai Lama. But then the Dalai Lama doesn’t have a girlfriend.
NOTEBOOK: Doesn’t have to make movies!
FERRARA: [Laughs] Yeah. Tommaso has his issues, man.
NOTEBOOK: You recently were the subject of a large retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Did that experience provoke a certain self-reflection on your career? You’ve probably had to talk about your work from top to bottom.
FERRARA: Well, it was nice. It’s nice that they did it. When we had the party the opening night, Joey played with all these musicians, people I hadn’t seen for 30, 35 years, everyone who worked on the films—it was really great. It was great to see everybody, the people who were still alive, the people who wanted to come. It was a good vibe. And I started doing this when I was 16 years old. But we still… I’m still going through it.
NOTEBOOK: I imagine things have changed in New York since shooting in the ‘70s and bringing your films to MoMA in 2019.
FERRARA: [Laughs] Yeah, I mean going to MoMA is great. With the changes in New York, you’d have to be a millionaire to be broke. Yeah, going uptown—taking our downtown act uptown. Now 1977 becomes like a magical year for everyone.
NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like we look back at that nostalgically, like when New York was “real” and now it’s not?
FERRARA: I’m not a nostalgic kind of guy. Yeah, there’s things that were… I don’t miss getting mugged, I’ll tell you that. And I don’t have that feeling like I’m about to, at any minute. But New York’s such a changing, ever-changing ball of energy. I just see people being… it seems like they’re being exploited—when the prices get that high, everybody’s gotta be grinding all the time. And that’s really the difference between Europe and that. There’s gotta be a certain amount of time when you don’t have to be. But, you know, it’s a choice. If you want to come to New York, you better be ready to work around the clock. That’s what you gotta do to afford your apartment.
NOTEBOOK: What are you getting out of Rome right now? How is Rome inspiring you?
FERRARA: Rome is cool. It’s an attitude towards work, an attitude towards art, an attitude towards life. I’m Italian-American, so that side of me is not such a foreign place. The culture. I like Europe. I like working here, I like the attitude about what it is I do, about how they look at films. A festival like this you’re not gonna have in the United States. They have some beautiful festivals, don’t get me wrong—but I don’t know, there’s a certain kind of take an attitude towards what movies are about, and the tradition… just the tradition. Just tradition. You know, we’re from a new country, bro, you know what I mean? It’s 350 years old. I live in a neighborhood that’s 3,000 years old.

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