Abel Ferrara: Lights! Camera! Anguish!

Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Abel Ferrara’s new film, “Bad Lieutenant,” doesn’t mark the first time the notorious New York-based director has had a tangle with the American movie ratings system. But it is the first time he’s had a picture go out with a scarlet NC-17 rating. Ironically enough, it’s also the first feature he’s done that contains virtually no on-screen carnage.

Not that you won’t leave the theater feeling like you’ve seen some serious gore.

“To me it’s as violent a film,” Ferrara says, “but not that kind of shoot-'em-up violence. It’s not there. It’s the mood.”

Not often, of course, does the Motion Picture Assn. of America award an adults-only rating mainly for mood, but this one is oppressive indeed. Harvey Keitel stars in the title role (like the other characters, he has no name) as a top cop who shirks his job responsibilities in order to better pursue virtually every vice known to Manhattan man, including hard drugs, gambling, theft and sexual harassment, on and off the job. While there are elements of police thriller to the movie’s structure, in tone it’s more gruelingly akin to pictures of slow personal disintegration like “Sid & Nancy” or “Dead Ringers.”


“ ‘Bad Lieutenant’ is a hard film to even sit in the editing room and watch,” Ferrara acknowledges, “there are moments of such pain and anguish.”

It’s also a film as heavily steeped in Catholicism as it is in debased street life, with a guest appearance by Jesus Christ himself and a quasi-redemptive theme to go with the rapes and shooting-up and profane, stoned soliloquies. This unwieldy mix of the sordid and spiritual is bound to draw the Bronx-born Ferrara even more Martin Scorsese comparisons than he’s gotten already.

He doesn’t turn them away. “Scorsese is a filmmaker of our world, a filmmaker we respect 120%,” Ferrara says, even as he adds, “A lot of what those films are about is because Harvey was in them. So when you use that actor, then you’re talking a big part of what those pictures were. ‘Who’s That Knocking at My Door’ and ‘Mean Streets'--those have so much to do with their relationship.”

As for the Catholic connection: “Yeah, I was born and raised in the church, so I’m not gonna deny that, and whatever was instilled in me as a child is gonna be in my work. Harvey, he’s coming from another very deep, spiritual place of doing right versus wrong, but understanding the hell that we’re all subjected to in this life. What does he call it? He calls it the abyss. He calls it some scary (expletive). That place that the Bad Lieutenant’s at, man, that place of total egotism and total (expletive) degradation.”


To call Ferrara’s speech salty doesn’t do it or him any kind of justice. If he were a movie character, you’d call him stylized--contemporary and anachronistic all at once, full of archaic but profane beatnik-speak, selective naivete about aspects of the film business he’d rather ignore, and complete and utter street-wisdom.

He’s willfully ignorant enough of the system he abhors to lace his rambling diatribes against the film ratings board with references to the “GP” rating, which hasn’t existed in more than 15 years. His speech is unself-consciously peppered with “man” and “bread” and “cats” (as in, “those cats on the board”) and “baby” (as in, “Where does some ad hoc group of people from God knows where tell me I can’t take my child to see a movie? I mean, where am I living, Bulgaria, baby?”)--not to mention the sort of colorful phrases that earn an automatic R at the movies or ellipses in a family paper.

And on top of that, somewhat disingenuously describing himself as “not eloquent” and uncomfortably begging off certain philosophical questions, he makes no bones about his distaste for doing interviews. But journalists, at least, love him. Candid and jivey, Ferrara is a character.

Not all film buffs appreciate his street-level world view quite so avidly. When his last film, the contemporary gangland saga “King of New York,” was shown at the New York and Telluride Film Festivals, it elicited numerous walkouts in both cases, along with commensurate praise. This year, “Bad Lieutenant” wasn’t invited to the New York festival and didn’t stir up much trouble at Telluride, probably because the easily offended knew by then to say away from a Ferrara screening, he figures.

Heretofore, from the low-budget 1981 cult favorite “Ms .45" on, the audience for his pictures typically has been a small but appreciative intersection of the action crowd and art-house denizens. With “Bad Lieutenant,” he’s skewing a lot more toward the latter, providing all of the soul-scorched sordidness and none of the visceral thrills. Though some detractors are bound to find the film exploitative, the mostly actionless film may not play as well with habitues of his native New York City’s exploitation houses as with the Village Voice set.

He’s not so sure, though. “You never know what the mentality of the ‘action house’ is,” Ferrara maintains. “I think the sensibility is there, I think the understanding of who this character is and what he’s going through is there. I think there’s a lot that that audience can relate to in him. We’ll see; we’re gonna play those theaters in January,” when the film expands to a wider run.

“That thing with violence--most of this is a metaphor and a parable anyway. You can hurt someone as much with one word. A lot of this shooting is just symbolic of something else, like interpersonal violence, and how people who love each other hurt each other the most.”

As someone who generally prefers to leave the exegesis to his collaborators and critics, and who is not a likely shoo-in for the Alan Alda Sensitivity Award, Ferrara is not a fellow who uses the word interpersonal too freely or frequently. Yet here is this purveyor of screen violence expounding on his new movie’s intentions: “I’m just here to raise the flag of compassion and forgiveness, in a society that’s being overrun by hatred and violence.” Doesn’t sound like the Abel Ferrara that 42nd Street and Hollywood Boulevard know and love.


Indeed, the most disturbing aspect of “Bad Lieutenant” for some might not be the harrowing masturbation or drug scenes, but the non-bloodthirsty way in which the crime story is wrapped up. As the Keitel character follows a case involving the brutal rape of a nun to its surprising conclusion, though it’s not completely without bloodshed, the frontier justice some might anticipate is not meted out.

Though Ferrara defends the unusual climax and its heavily Christian (some would say pseudo-Christian) overtones to a point, pressed further on his intent, he begs off and insists that “it’s not like there’s some kind of message in this movie” . . . even if, by definition, a “parable” imparts one.

One soul who didn’t care for the crisis of faith depicted in “Bad Lieutenant” was the director’s usual collaborator, screenwriter Nicholas St. John, who not only refused to work on the film but tried to dissuade Ferrara and Keitel from even making it.

“Yeah, Nicky didn’t buy into it. He tried to talk us out of it. That was a pretty interesting conversation between him and Harvey, ‘cause Harvey has some strong views on Christianity himself--considering he was Judas Iscariot (in Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ”), I guess, especially,” notes Ferrara, laughing.

Were St. John’s objections to the story’s religiosity coming from a place of belief or non-belief? “Total belief,” Ferrara said. “He’s not interested in being on a film where someone says, ‘Do you believe in Jesus Christ?’ and looks at you with that look. But you know, there’s those of us who are, quote-unquote, confused. Ha ha.”

To take St. John’s place in fleshing out the director’s confusion, Ferrara enlisted Zoe Lund--the star of “Ms. 45" and a bit player as a junkie in this film--to co-write the screenplay. But St. John is back in his usual writing spot on Ferrara’s next two films: the already-completed remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and the about-to-film “Snake Eyes.”

As a major-studio project and an update of a science-fiction classic, “Body Snatchers” (as the remake is titled) might sound like a less personal picture for such a notoriously independent filmmaker. He agrees, but says it became a more individualistically minded film once he and St. John “threw out the window” the script they were given and went back to the source material, Jack Finney’s novel:

“The fact that the antagonists are passive, that’s an incredible concept to make a movie . . . The riot of it is that it comes down to the original idea. And the original idea is what they’re all fighting for and running from--the ability to create an original thought, which is the essence of being human.


“Now, whether all that survived the process, who the (expletive) knows,” he blurts out in a typically candid code. “We’re working totally within the system there, with the whole nine yards of screenings and executives and blah blah blah. So we’ll see.”

The budget for “Body Snatchers” was “a lot of money--I mean, a lot of money.” By which he means about $20 million, still slightly below the average cost of a studio feature--as opposed to around $5 million for the independently financed “Bad Lieutenant.” “Snake Eyes” is estimated to cost somewhere in-between, described in some published reports as around $10 million. Though it’s not terribly commercial-sounding, it does have the benefit of Madonna’s production company, Maverick, behind it, as well as the mogul herself as co-star.

“It’s slightly lower, but we got some bread. I think each film dictates its own budget,” Ferrara says. “My philosophy is to raise as much money as we can possibly make, but knowing we’re gonna make the movie anyway, no matter what. ‘Bad Lieutenant’ was gonna get made if I had to be the Bad Lieutenant and film myself in front of a mirror with a video camera. We’d make these films for nothing, if we had to. But at the same time, I don’t take that attitude when I’m out on the street trying to put the financing together.”

“Snake Eyes,” which is set in Hollywood, will once again star Keitel, this time as a character Ferrara laughingly calls “the bad director,” a Cassavetes-like filmmaker character directing a two-character film with actors Madonna and James Russo. With no gunmen or gangsters in the small cast of characters, “Snake Eyes” sounds like it could be a little less, well, disturbing than his other pictures.

“The film-within-a-film that Harvey wants to make is like the violent breakup of a marriage in real time on one set, paralleling the breakup of his own marriage. And he’s not just sending a letter home, they’re breaking --with a capital B--up. There’s no extras at all, just watching two people bounce off the walls. So I’m already feeling disturbed, you know what I mean? He ha ha ha!

“You know, I think the closer you get to yourself with these films, I think the most disturbing they actually get. You don’t hide behind the fact that someone’s some kind of drug lord or someone’s a bad lieutenant or somebody’s a Martian. I think the stakes get raised.

“But I know what you’re saying. It could be a nice movie, like ‘The Player’ or ‘Day for Night.’ You never know. We might come up with a sweet little film. A nice, GP-rated movie.

“Unfortunately, or fortunately, with the people we got, and the writers we have, and with me, I wouldn’t count on it.”