• Interviews

Abel Ferrara: Allora Film Festival Interview

Independent eccentric filmmaker Abel Ferrara, a hard-core New Yorker (born in the Bronx in 1951), is in the land of his ancestors, Southern Italy, a special guest of the 1st edition of the Allora Film Festival in Ostuni, Puglia.

The director of Bad Lieutenant (1992), King of New York, Body Snatchers, The Addiction (1995), The Blackout and many documentaries on the most varied subjects (among them the city of Naples and writer/filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini) talked to an enthusiastic crowd of young filmmakers and students during the festival.


He recently filmed the thriller Zeros and Ones with Ethan Hawke, and Padre Pio with Shia LeBeouf portraying a Catholic priest who became a sort of performer of miracles. Pio is considered a saint and a cult-like figure by many, an impostor by others, and is certainly a controversial figure in Italy. He died in 1968. The film will be shown during the Venice Days section of the upcoming Venice Film Festival at the beginning of September.


Ferrara is also at work on a documentary about one of his American idols, rock star/poet Patti Smith. The camera follows her very closely as she talks about her past and her love for music and art, while she walks around New York and her favorite art spots, while she sings her new poem. It’s a work in progress that Ferrara has been shooting for over a year and is still working on; his passion is obvious in his often rambling, often ranting, one-hour talk with students and filmmakers as he showed some clips from his latest projects on Padre Pio and Patti Smith.


Here are some excerpts from the long-winded Q &A with Ferrara redacted for clarity and length.

What can you tell us about your project on Patti Smith?

The film is about focus. Why Patti Smith? Because if you watch this movie, you see her focus. But it’s a work in progress. There’s no guarantee I’m going to finish it, and there’s no guarantee I’m going to show it. I want to show what an artist she is. And the focus of the artist.

It seems that your recent works are also about poetry. Patti Smith is also a poet, as were Padre Pio and Pasolini.  Is it something that interests you?

Pasolini and Padre Pio are beyond poetry. They are putting their heart on a table, but you get to watch that beating heart. If you’re not interested, go to the beach, do something else. You got to cherish the art. You got to worship it. Pio and Patti and Pasolini are committed 24/7. You know what I mean? You want to get the most out of life, commit yourself 24/7. Da Vinci, hear with your ears, see with your eyes, don’t have people tell you what to do.

In one of the clips you showed, Patti said that when you are young, you are arrogant, and you have the enthusiasm to do stuff. But then through life, you shed this enthusiasm and you are just naked in front of your art. Is it something that you also went through in your experience as an artist?

I mean she 75. I’m 70. I get it, but she’s still older than me. I still look up to her. She’s from a generation a little bit older than me, you know? So yeah. I mean, if it’s in my movie, I believe it. Okay? I’m not putting things in my movie I don’t believe. I shot 30 hours of her. You’re seeing 10 minutes which we shot in Paris. This is going to be a 90-minute … who knows what it’s going to be? I don’t even know if I’m going to finish it, but I’m definitely going to keep following her and shooting her.

How did you meet Patti?

I didn’t know her prior the shooting. I met her in a café in New York, it was 7 o’clock in the morning. We’re sitting there, 7 o’clock in the morning, having a coffee. I’d never met her before. [We were] talking about that she knows [my] work, she loves the films. We gave her all the footage on Pasolini, she’s working on something with that. So she said, “How do you want to go about doing it?” And I said, “Well, I wish I could be shooting this meeting.” And she says, “You got a telephone. Get it out.” Okay. So, that was the take. I was maybe a little bit intimidated; I needed this chick’s balls.

But you got to make a movie, bro. I need a crew, I need the guys, we got to shoot something. So, we’re going to meet in Paris, and I got the guys in Paris to shoot the documentary. And I meet the crew at 7… it’s always 7 o’clock in the morning with this chick. So, she’s there, and they don’t know if she’s in the mood, she doesn’t want to, maybe she will, maybe she won’t. So, my guys, they’re putting equipment together, ready to go. I’m saying, “Hey, listen, I’m going to go to the bar, to the café. We’re going to have coffee.” And they’re looking at me like I’m crazy. Like, “Are we shooting today, or are we not?” I said, “You stay here, and I’m going to go to the bar, have a croissant, have some coffee with her.” I could see she’s cool. I call the guys, I go, “Turn the fucking cameras on…  Don’t do anything, just roll in here, and start shooting.” So, we shoot that day. We go to the studio, the next day we shoot again in the studio. Following her around.

Technically, this is a small production in which you have a camera crew, and then you have yourself with the telephone. 

Yeah. No, we got two games going with me. We shoot documentaries, and we shoot features. There’s certain features like Tommaso that are like documentaries. Pasolini was basically a documentary, real places, real people, and Willem [Dafoe] is in there, therefore some is fiction. So, we got the documentary game, and then we got our feature game, but the camera guys are interchangeable. When we do something low budget, we’re not bringing everybody everywhere. When we’re in Paris, we shoot with the French guys. In Italy, we shoot with the Sicilian guys who shot Padre Pio. Patti was awesome all along.

Was she and her music an influence on your life? How did your love for her start?  

She’s like a contemporary mind. I’m an old-school Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan kind of guy. It’s like, we’re monastic that way. It’s like the Stones or nothing, Dylan or nothing. But I’m very aware of her, and the people around me are crazy for her. They’re crazy, adore her the way I adore Dylan, but she adores Dylan the way I adore Dylan.