Abel Ferrara makes the kind of gonzo movies that usually open in Times Square theaters. So it came as something of a shock to see his blood-drenched new action film, "King of New York," get a classy send-off last month at the prestigious New York Film Festival.
"All these people thought they were gonna see a (Jean-Luc) Godard film or something," Ferrara said with a bemused grin, opening a bottle of beer as he puttered around his hotel room here in his stocking feet. "Boy, they were in for a surprise. I know some people really dug it, but most of them--whew!--they were leaving in droves." He wagged his head. "The New York Times critic said we might've been better received if we'd shown it on the moon."
After the screening, Ferrara found himself peppered with heated complaints about the film, which stars Christopher Walken as a drug lord who returns from a prison stretch to launch a murderous attack on a host of Asian, Colombian and Italian hoods who've muscled in on his lucrative cocaine trade.
"They were upset about all the violence," Ferrara explained. "And I'm saying, 'Hey, what'd you expect? This is a film about New York!' "
It's no wonder that Larry Fishburne, who plays the b-boy leader of Walken's black gang in the film, calls the director "the poet gangster of cinema." If Ferrara had designed the famous "I Love New York" valentine buttons, he would've shown the heart with a stake through it.
Born in the Bronx, Ferrara is a colorful hipster with the street-wise bravado of a Times Square hustler running a dice game. When he makes a business call and no one answers the phone, he growls, "Hey, let the (expletive) phone ring a little longer!"
A wiry man with a messy thatch of dark hair and a ton of nervous energy, Ferrara is the ultimate outlaw filmmaker. He idolizes Martin Scorsese, blasts rap music from his boom box and jokes that when Hollywood execs read the "King of New York" script, they told him, "Take this and get out of here."
Showing his visitor a recent issue of the New York Post, Ferrara gleefully pointed out a story about the arrest of rock star Dee Dee Ramone, who is pictured at police headquarters, shirtless, screaming at photographers after a pot bust.
"Is that a great picture or what?" Ferrara said. "Look at Dee Dee, with all his tattoos showing, yelling at these guys. Now that's attitude. "
The same issue of the Post features a plug for "King of New York" that only Ferrara could love. The headline: "Reel Life Thug Is Real Life Robber." The story details the arrest of Lance Guecia, one of the film's actors, who was jailed for the knife-point robberies of six cabdrivers and two Korean grocery stores.
Visiting with Fishburne here last week, Ferrara gave him an update on Guecia's difficulties. "It's terrible," Ferrara explained. "He's in jail on a $100,000 bond. I talked to him on the phone and you know what he tells me? He says, 'Man, everybody in here's seen your movie. They really loved it. It must be a hit.' "
Actually, the hits have been few and far between for Ferrara. His first above-ground feature, a 1981 feminist vigilante film called "Ms. 45," won him a burst of critical praise. But nobody rushed out to see his next film, "Fear City," a stylish thriller starring Melanie Griffith and Tom Berenger about a stripper agency whose girls are stalked by a psycho killer.
Variety labeled his 1987 film, "China Girl," a "masterfully directed, uncompromising drama," but it never found an audience. Ferrara's subsequent project, "Cat Chaser," has never been released. "King of New York," which opened here Friday, has been playing back East, but with less-than-mediocre results.
During a lull between making movies, Ferrara hooked up with producer Michael Mann, who had him direct two first-season episodes of "Miami Vice" and the acclaimed pilot episode of "Crime Story."
Unfortunately, the engaging 39-year-old director doesn't have the temperament--or the desire--to fit neatly into the Hollywood studio machinery. His films are too raw for the art-house crowd, too idiosyncratic for the action-movie fans.
"Abel is great to work with because he's a wild man who gets swept away by his own enthusiasm," said Mann. "He has a real attitude. He puts himself into the dynamics of a script the way an actor gets into a character. When we did 'Crime Story,' he got the jokes, he hit the streets with us--he joined the band. But to make his kind of movies, he's got to scramble. Abel's not the kind of guy who can come to Hollywood and do 'Breakfast at Tiffany's.' He couldn't do that if you put a gun to his head."
So Ferrara has been scrambling.
"If you don't see my movies the Friday night they open, you're out of luck 'cause then they're gone," he joked. "After that, you gotta check 'em out on videotape."
Written by Ferrara's longtime collaborator, Nicholas St. John, "King of New York" is a lurid urban thriller populated with cutthroat hoods and revenge-crazed cops. As gang chieftain Frank White, Christopher Walken is a nutty Robin Hood-style thug who lives at the Plaza Hotel, bankrolls a South Bronx hospital and attends avant-garde theater.
Walken handles the part as if he'd imagined how James Dean would play "Little Caesar." Released from prison, he celebrates by showing off his new dance moves. After murdering a hated police adversary, White arrives in a stretch limo at his funeral and finishes the job by bumping off one of the cop's partners.
The critics have been divided about the film's merits. The New York Times' Janet Maslin praised it as a "high-voltage drama," saying Ferrara "still works unapologetically in B-movie territory, but does it with A-movie style."
The Detroit News' Kevin Ransom slammed its "noxious violence and cheapjack fatalism . . . . It's difficult for a film so taken with its own sleaze factor to be anything but sleazy."
It certainly wasn't easy getting "King of New York" made. "Nobody would touch it," Ferrara said with characteristic candor, stretching out on his hotel-room couch. "I went around this town 22 times--and got nothing. Universal put up money for the script, but then I don't think they ever read it."
Finally, when Ferrara was in Italy opening "China Girl," he got an offer from Penta Films, a big Italian firm. "They just crank out movies over there," he said. "They're not reading scripts like these retarded people out here, who give you notes on Page 12 saying, 'Maybe this is a good place for the gangster to visit his mother.' When we told 'em we had Chris Walken committed, they wanted to kiss our feet. They love him over there, so they gave me the bread and I never had any hassles making the movie. Period."
Accustomed to shooting fast and cheap, Ferrara made "King of New York" for $5.3 million. Still, he needed all his low-budget wiles to secure certain key locations, most notably the swank Plaza, which serves as Walken's headquarters in the film.
Ferrara said the hotel, owned by Donald Trump, charged Francis Ford Coppola "$5,000 an hour" to film there. But Ferrara had an ace up his sleeve. "Ivana (Trump) was a huge fan of Chris Walken's, so they said if she could pose for a photo with him, we could have it for nothing. So she got some great pictures, and we got the Plaza."
One of Ferrara's favorite scenes, where Fishburne is hassled by the police at a fast-food chicken joint, was filmed in a grim Brooklyn slum neighborhood.
"We shot that so deep in Brooklyn you needed a passport to get there," he said. "Here I was, preparing to shoot, and I'm worried whether my cast is gonna show up or not. I mean, on our budget, we don't have drivers. So everyone takes the subway, and you just hope they don't get lost or mugged on the way. It was the kind of place where every store for five blocks had bulletproof glass, which we had to make them take out of the windows 'cause it reflects like crazy.
"So I'm running around, talking to the store owners, who are all saying, 'OK, you can take it out, but you better make sure that glass is back up tonight!' "
Half-Italian and half-Irish, Ferrara grew up in the Fordham Road section of the Bronx. "We lived near where Jake LaMotta lived when he moved to the Bronx," Ferrara explained while driving around L.A. "Jake was the neighborhood thug-hero. He had this great restaurant. Instead of a disco in the back room, they had a boxing ring. On Friday nights, the guys would go back there and beat the (expletive) out of each other."
Ferrara was deliberately vague about his father's occupation. "You could say he was a Frank White-type guy. He and his pals owned bars and after-hours places. I mean, who knew what they did? They'd go from being rich to being broke. In the Bronx in the '50s, who knew what was legal and what wasn't?"
Ferrara shrugged. "They were like the guys in 'GoodFellas.' Who cared what you did as long as you had money to show for it? You know, the American Dream."
When Ferrara was 13, his family moved to Peekskill in upstate New York. "It was like moving to Mars," he said. "I remember the first day I went to school, they were all excited 'cause they'd built a new sidewalk. So all the kids are jumping up and down, and I'm thinking, 'What is this?' "
In high school, Ferrara became friends with writer Nicholas St. John. They made short 8mm movies together, starting a collaboration that has lasted through five feature films, including "Ms. 45," "China White" and "King of New York."
Set in the urban jungle, Ferrara's films offer an ominous, often ambiguous interpretation of race relations. As one critic said of "King of New York," it's a movie in which "every scene is a weird mix of prejudice and belief in racial coalition."
"I grew up with racism," Ferrara said. "I was taught to hate the black race and be ready to do battle with anyone who wasn't Italian. That's the tribalism of New York--it's all around you. But somehow I learned to think for myself, to understand and appreciate black culture. You just learned that racism wasn't right--it's not human."
Oddly enough, while some critics have criticized "King of New York" for portraying a black gang with a white leader, the film has actually been doing its best business with black audiences. In fact, the film's distributor almost postponed its opening here, partially because Los Angeles isn't considered a strong black market.
"I think it's ridiculous to put things in black and white terms," Ferrara said. "It's degrading to Larry Fishburne and Wesley Snipes' performance to focus on them being black guys working for a white guy. It's an ensemble performance. I didn't think of any of these roles as black or white. Fishburne's part was originally meant for an Italian guy--we only switched it at the last minute. In fact, the Frank White character was based just as much on Nicky Barnes, a great Harlem gangster, as it was on Joey Gallo, who was Italian."
Ferrara laughed. "Hey, the way everybody is lit in this movie, they all look blue anyway!"
Ferrara's biggest problem these days is not only finding backers to finance his movies, but film companies that know how to sell them. He's clearly unimpressed by the print ads for "King of New York," which superimpose Walken over New York's glittering evening skyline. "Look at that," he groaned, waving a copy of the ad. "It makes it look like a (expletive) Woody Allen movie."
There's no confusing Abel Ferrara with Woody Allen. They may both be die-hard New Yorkers, but Ferrara paints a much darker, more foreboding portrait of the city--and of human nature. Ferrara's films are savage thrillers, fueled by steamy images and provocative themes.
"My films explore the dark side of people, but only because I'm fascinated by the conflict between good and evil," he said. "That's what every great story ultimately comes down to."
Ferrara pointed out the car window toward the dregs of Hollywood Boulevard. "The world isn't some (expletive) Disneyland where everything turns out great all the time. It's a bad place where all sorts of bad stuff happens. That's the reality, and if you want to make great movies, that's what you've got to capture." He paused and grinned. "And hey. The way things are going these days, if I don't do it, who else will?"