It’s obvious that Abel Ferrara, speaking via Skype from Rome, is more restless than usual, because he’s sitting down. When Ferrara talks, he normally will not take a seat. But while speaking to The Dissolve, he did not stand up once. This is how you know that Ferrara is furious. In a recent cease-and-desist letter, he took aim at the people whom he contends censored his Welcome To New York, a scathing political drama in which Gérard Depardieu plays a character inspired by Dominique Strauss-Kahn:
As a filmmaker and a human being I detest the destruction of my film Welcome To New York, now being distributed by IFC and Wild Bunch, and exhibited on Showtime and in IFC theaters. Behind all these entities are individuals—in this case Arianna Bocco, Jonathan Sehring and Vincent Maraval—who feel they can deny my contractual right of final cut, which is simply my freedom of expression. Some people wear hoods and carry automatic weapons, others sit behind their desks, but the attack and attempted suppression of the rights of the individual are the same. I will defend the right of free speech till the end and I ask all who believe as I do to not support the showing of this film, on their networks, in their theaters, or wherever.
Ferrara’s anger is tempered by pragmatism: He knows the odds are against him and his dispute with IFC and Wild Bunch. Still, when he fights against the misrepresentation of his film, he’s also fighting for the people that made the film, not just his personal vision. The Dissolve talked to Ferrara about getting to the truth through fiction, about his never-realized La Dolce Vita sequel, and about the postal service and/or NYPD’s sworn duty.
The Dissolve: Where are you at right now with IFC Films and Wild Bunch?
Abel Ferrara: I’m suing them. I’m suing them. I got an injunction to get them to stop showing the film... that’s somebody else’s movie.
The Dissolve: Right. They’re using you as a selling point.
Ferrara: What do you mean, as a selling point? They got my name all over it. I make these films for a reason. First of all, the changes that they made are illegal and immoral. No one agreed to make an R-rated film. I don’t make R-rated films, and I’ve never made R-rated films. In certain situations, they’ve modified a film for home video, or some such. In certain situations, that’s what we give them. But IFC has always put out our films unrated. They put almost all these unrated films out. Am I right, or am I wrong?
And it’s not about the sexual content. The subject matter of the film is very political: We’re talking about rape, regardless of who did it.
The Dissolve: When I first interviewed you, you were about to start filming Welcome To New York. You were anxiously awaiting phone calls from lawyers, but you had a pretty clear idea of what your movie was about, and what kind of power relationships you wanted to portray. Still, despite the film’s opening disclaimer, you had real people in mind when you made this film.
Ferrara: Fuck the disclaimer. The disclaimer is written by a bunch of lawyers, and the producers. So I can’t make any sense of the disclaimer. I don’t know, maybe you can explain it. What does it mean? When I watch Star Wars, do I need a disclaimer to tell me that R2-D2, or whatever that’s called, is an original character? So you’d have to talk to IFC and Wild Bunch’s lawyers about that. You should ask that to Vincent Maraval at Wild Bunch.
The Dissolve: Well, let me ask you: Were there any great changes between what you originally had in mind for the film, and what your lawyers felt might not be filmable?
Ferrara: Do you think I write my shit for a fucking lawyer? You’ve seen my fuckin’ movies: What are you, kiddin’ me? I don’t write my shit for fuckin’ nobody. I’m a fucking filmmaker. We’re working on the idea of the film from the screenplay to the shooting to the editing. Every certain way, we were discovering that film, and discovering ourselves. I don’t give a fuck what anybody thinks. And even the guys that work for me don’t give a shit for nobody. That’s the purity of the compositions we’re putting out there.
The Dissolve: Many of your movies are all about characters who perform for a living, and turn their lives into performance. Deveraux is no different in that sense.
Ferrara: A politician. He’s a politician.
The Dissolve: Right. But can you talk a little about working with Gérard Depardieu and his co-stars toward the aim of performing the film’s sex scenes?
Ferrara: Gérard, Gérard, Gérard. He’s a force of nature. He’s a brilliant actor. He’s everything that you want for that part, in an actor. That’s the shame of it, man: When they made those cuts, they destroyed a work of art. It’s a work of art, dude, and you cannot fuck it up for a second of it. What’s the word for it? I don’t know… destroying it! He’s allowing himself, as a human being, to merge himself with the character, the same that the director is allowing himself to merge with the performance. And what you have is special, not just to this film, but to every film. I won’t judge that. Gérard is precious; he knows that.
The Dissolve: It’s a tremendous performance.
Ferrara: Right! So why’d you want to fuckin’ smash it?
The Dissolve: I’ve singled out the sex scenes not just because they’re edited in the R-rated cut, but because their composition is very sensitive—or maybe specific to—body language while also seeming rather naturalistic. What’s the process for filming that kind of delicate scene? How meticulous are you about blocking? How improvisatory is it?
Ferrara: Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes we’re on a roll, sometimes it doesn’t work, you gotta change it. These scenes work because people trust each other. The actresses in those scenes trust Gérard, ya dig? They respect him and they trust him, and he respects and trusts them. And the same goes for us. And there are a lot of women in that room who are technicians. That trust is where the magic of those scenes comes from. But for someone like Vincent [Maraval], there is no magic in the world. It’s false flags.
The Dissolve; Another controversial scene that was changed in the IFC cut is…
Ferrara: It’s not IFC’s version, it’s Vincent Maraval’s version. [The R-rated cut is being offered by Maraval’s Wild Bunch production company. IFC is merely distributing that cut. —ed.]
The Dissolve: One of the scenes I know was changed was the one where a character makes a comment about Israel. Based on your conversations, and your dealings with IFC and Wild Bunch, do you think this was a major sticking point when it came to the R-rated cut?
Ferrara: Listen, dude: A film cannot be anti-Semitic. It’s your perception of a film that’s anti-Semitic. Tony Redman, who edited the film, was active in making the film’s final cut. He’s a Jew. There’s no anti-Semitism in his work. So Vincent can go fuck himself with his fucking bullshit.
The Dissolve: There are two behind-the-scenes narratives about the making of this film: One is about working against censorship and interference…
Ferrara: It’s just one narrative, and that’s making the film. Don’t you understand that? I make films. I’ve made five films with Vincent, and we’ve never had a problem. IFC, for years, has put out my films—never had a problem. Then this happens. I’ve got final cut. I don’t even get involved, bro! I haven’t had to deal with that bullshit since 1985, or ’91—some time so long ago I can barely remember it. IFC has nothing to do with me. This film, the way we went at it, we went at it, okay? We just did a film about this event the way we did it, ya dig? I’m an artist: I react to the fuckin’ world. When something comes out of me, it’s a work of art. They can say what they wanna say. I have one right, and it’s my right of expression. No one’s going to give it to me.
The Dissolve: Well, you’re also responding to real people, and that changes the way you tell a story. In the case of Chelsea On The Rocks, you’re re-interpreting reality in a narrative, mixing documentary interviews with dramatic re-enactments. Did you choose that style for that movie because it’s about ghosts, or at least, about the past as it’s seen from the present?
Ferrara: You can’t interview Sid Vicious, man. At that point, I felt like you could talk to whoever you wanna talk to, but there’s a certain point where you need to try to get to the truth through the fiction. The scenes make more sense if you create them. Chelsea was a documentary; Welcome To New York was not a documentary. They’re two different films. I mean, Chelsea, Mulbery Street, and Napoli Napoli… those are documentaries. Welcome To New York is not a documentary.
The Dissolve: But what’s striking about your films—the ones that mix documentary footage with re-enactments—is that the mix of the two narrative elements is fluid, a little more naturalistic. It’s like an earlier project that you did that you became dissatisfied with as you edited it, and that’s the pilot of what became FBI: The Untold Stories. How was the footage you shot for that project different from what you had hoped it would turn out to be?
Ferrara: It was the same thing, dude. We had...what’s that actor’s name? Woody Harrelson’s father, Charles Harrelson, okay? We went to talk to him, and he was on trial for murdering a federal judge. We shot all this great interview footage with him. But it was the pilot for an FBI series, obviously, so some monkey-ass knuckle-head went in, and made the movie he wanted to make. Which is a real shame because that interview we did was an awesome interview. But they just wanted to portray him as a fucking criminal. Forget it, it was destroyed.
The Dissolve: There were two of your earlier projects that didn’t come to fruition that were either based on or stopped because of a real person. The first one is a film about [porn star] John Holmes that Christopher Walken wanted to make with you. Whatever happened to that film?
Ferrara: It never got made, man. Chris got a beautiful script, beautiful script, and started writing. He did a rewrite of it, whatever. He wanted to get that guy to star...—Eric Roberts! Eric Roberts was gonna play John Holmes. But it never came to anything.
The Dissolve: The other project that never happened is a sort of sequel to La Dolce Vita set in Miami with Benicio Del Toro as Marcello’s son. Is it true that you dropped the idea after Marcello Mastroianni’s death?
Ferrara: It’s an idea that we had. We went to Paris to talk to Marcello to see if he’d be cool with that. And the week we talked to him, he died. It’s one of those events that made me look at the project in another way. We were gonna do it with Steven Bauer, from Scarface. We had all of these crazy ideas. You make some, you don’t make some.
The Dissolve: Your Pasolini film [Pasolini, a not-yet-released film starring Willem Dafoe as Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini] is also striking in that you had his real-life muse, Ninetto Davoli, involved. Davoli also participated in MoMA’s big retrospective of Pasolini’s works. What kind of feedback did he give you about Pasolini, and your film’s view of him?
Ferrara: He was his bro. He still has Pasolini’s clothes, his jeans, his shirts. He was all in, man, he was 100 percent behind this project. That’s the kind of human connection you get when you make these films. It’s not like what’s happened to Welcome To New York, where it’s become all about the negative side effects. When we talk about IFC, we talk about people: Arianna Bocco and Jonathan Sehring. Name these people’s fucking names, man! It’s not IFC, or Wild Bunch that’s fucking up: These are human beings. They have no respect for the artists, no respect for the artist’s right to freedom of speech.
The Dissolve: Are there any other movies that you’ve made that you knew beforehand that you would have to try to… well, not sneak, but—
Ferrara: I don’t play that game, bro. I’m an honest man. I wouldn’t want to make something original, and then find out later that it could be fucked up. I don’t do that. It’s hard enough expressing yourself in this medium, but to be going at it where I censor myself? You’re out of your fuckin’ mind! If you’re a director, you can’t. It’s in the job description. If you’re not doing that as a director, I don’t know what the fuck you are. Kindergarten teacher, maybe, I don’t know what the fuck you are.
The Dissolve: Well, you’ve had experiences in that past that would have, for another director, been pretty traumatizing.
Ferrara: They were pretty traumatizing for me, man. Somebody fucks with your work. And it’s pretty traumatic what’s happening right now. I understand the reality of the situation, but that’s not going to stop me from defending that movie. That’s what a director does: He’s gotta defend the movie. He’s gotta protect the movie, okay? And that’s what I’m gonna do. Yeah, I know they’re IFC, and big corporations, and have plenty of money. I don’t give a fuck. I have my right, and my right is my right, okay? I’m defending the rights of the people that made that film. Welcome To New York is from beautiful people, and they made a beautiful film. And one guy doesn’t have the right to bullshit me, and destroy [the film]. You cannot cut something unless you make it, understand? You can’t edit a film unless you’re allowed to make a film. So don’t call what they did a “cut.” A cut is by professional filmmakers. This was a butcher job.
The Dissolve: From preproduction to post, what’s the hardest film you’ve made? Would you say it’s Welcome To New York at this point?
Ferrara: Who knows? Every film is a giant. The highs, the lows, the tragedies. But in the end, man, when you do it, and you do it without any interference, it’s between the filmmakers and the audiences. You gotta remember, we’re also in that audience. Anyway, that interaction, that sharing of experience—it’s fucking awesome, man! It’s what I live for. And no one’s going to prevent me from defending the work I’ve done. To protect and defend, isn’t that the motto of the New York City Police Department? Or is it the post office? The post office protects and defends. [“Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect” is the NYPD’s motto. The postal service’s unofficial motto is “Neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” But we can dig it, Abel. —ed.]
UPDATE: A previous version of this piece used the phrase “cease-and-desist order.” This has been changed to “cease-and-desist letter” at the request of a spokesman from IFC, who offered this explanation: “There is no order that was issued; there is only a letter that Abel has said he’s mailed but IFC has never received a copy to date.” IFC also included a statement expressing the company’s account of the controversy, which is reprinted in full below:
STATEMENT FROM IFC FILMS RE: WELCOME TO NEW YORK
At IFC Films, we place high priority on our relationships with filmmakers and want to address the controversy and drama around the film Welcome to New York, which has now expanded beyond the scandalous story depicted in the movie. We want to set the record straight about our role as the U.S. distributor of the film.
Our contract with Wild Bunch (the film’s sales agent ) is for an R-rated version. We have been trying to get Mr. Ferrara to prepare an R Rated version of the film for us since Sept. of 2013. He has never responded to any of our offers. After his threats of violence towards the IFC Center last September, we decided we could not risk showing the film there, but we offered to screen his original directors cut at the Anthology Film Archives theater in New York. It is our understanding that the theater was in touch with Abel Ferrara, after which they declined to screen it.
On March 27th, we will be releasing on VOD and in select theaters the R-rated version of Welcome to New Yorkthat has been delivered to us by the film’s financier Wild Bunch, in accordance with our contractual obligation. Any edits made to the original version of Welcome to New York were made by Wild Bunch, since again Mr. Ferrara did not respond to our offer.
It’s a core mission of IFC Films to support and champion our filmmakers and we regret that Mr. Ferrara has refused to engage with us past slinging mud and insults. We’d have welcomed the opportunity to work more closely with him on the film, if he’d been willing.
We understand that he wants us to just change our minds and release the film unrated and he notes that we have released unrated films in the past. However, the economics of every film are different and in this situation the economics on this film necessitate a theatrical release of an R rated version for many reasons. This was made clear from the start and is what Wild Bunch agreed to in our contract. We have made every effort to make this work for Mr. Ferrara and we are very sorry that he refuses to engage in ANY meaningful dialogue over this matter.