Close Encounters with Abel Ferrara
As many of you may know, Drafthouse Films is re-releasing somewhat forgotten exploitation classic, MS. 45 (in select theaters this Friday, including one hosted by FANGORIA’s own Michael Gingold in Yonkers) from the prolific and gritty independent legend Abel Ferrara. Upon hearing this, I was quite excited, as I have always been a fan of Mr. Ferrara’s work and this had been especially hard to track down. Yet, while fishing for details regarding the release, I told my FANGORIA cohorts that my history with Abel was not merely one of fandom. Through a series of weird events, I had not only had several weird run-in’s with Mr. Ferrara, but had actually at one point directed him as an actor.
Let me take you all back to the beginning, circa early 2011. I was in my senior year at Montclair State University and well into my thesis project, a short-form mockumentary entitled VIETNAM: THE MUSICAL. It was a comedy about a blacklisted Hollywood producer who uses the rest of his savings to option the rights to a massively influential war novel, only to be left with enough money to turn it into a stage musical. It had a long conceptual travel (at one point, the musical was to be a kids’ television program with puppets) but for someone working a full time job with full time classes, this route seemed much more practical.
In making a mockumentary, I did present myself with a strange opportunity: I could contact celebrities to see if they’d like to participate in the project, seeing that I had a small budget, and play themselves. I essentially sent out emails to all the weird celebrities I could find, with several almost-gets, including Murder Junkies bassist Merle Allin, and others who I did get, including Lloyd Kaufman (although that’s another awesome story entirely). But the most exciting prospect was one that came entirely of coincidence.
Our school’s Film Forum Q + A series was starting up again for the first time since winter break, and our first guest was none other than Abel Ferrara and his longtime cinematographer, Ken Kelsch. Knowing about my search for celebrity cameos, one of the department heads suggested I pitch him to act in my film, under the singular condition that I go into New York City and personally make sure Abel made it to the campus. Thus began my journey into Abel’s world.
One week later, I was outside Abel Ferrara’s apartment, waiting with the driver of our private car. I wasn’t sure what to expect exactly, as I’d only heard tales of Abel’s erratic (yet seemingly appropriate) behavior previously. I was given $20 for commute expenses, his fee for his appearance and his phone number, and had been told to either expect him alone or with his girlfriend. I had also been told to not expect him to be on time, but not to let him run more than 15 minutes late. Sure enough, 15 minutes rolled by and suddenly, Abel strolled out of his building, alone and smiling wide.
I remember my first impression of Abel was that he was very cheery, although obviously spacey and a bit flustered. I shook his hand and greeted him as we entered the limousine. We exchanged some small talk about ourselves, and he asked me about what kind of films I wanted to make and current events. Then, the silent downtime set in, and in between reading and spontaneously singing Beatles songs, Abel asked the occasional question about the campus itself and the brutally cold weather.
Ninety minutes later, we arrived on campus bundled up and heading over to our meeting point at the coffee shop to await further instructions. It was on our travels that I strategically pitched his role in my thesis, which I described as “a small thing we could shoot after the Q + A.” Abel was surprisingly receptive, and perhaps a little relieved that I’d ask him to do something creative rather than for a picture or autograph. I was ecstatic that he agreed to the part, and starting to carry a conversation about his next film, which was 4:44—at the time, Ethan Hawke was attached to star and Abel was crowning it as his “masterpiece.” Soon after, we met Ken Kelsch and got to the jam-packed Q + A room.
Then, the weird became a whole lot weirder. After an uneventful preamble, the school decided to show select clips from BAD LIEUTENANT as a springboard to the audience Q + A. Midway through the first scene however, Kelsch stood up and took the remote that controlled the video player. He immediately skipped to the orgy scene, letting it play out in its entirety with no explanation whatever. He then skipped to the rape scene with the nun, once again letting it play out with no explanation at all. Then, he turned off the video player. Silence.
The department head quickly launched into an audience Q + A, completely ignoring the bizarre events that we all just witnessed. Many of the questions related into “getting into the business”, which was responded to by serious persuasion to not even bother by Kelsch and Ferrara. Both attested to the lack of money currently in the film business, the tyranny of the MPAA and the death of physical film as reasons to not even try to be a professional filmmaker. Other questions revealed that Christopher Walken is, indeed, a great guy, and that Hollywood actively wants both Kelsch and Ferrara to fail. However, both filmmakers had a wonderful sense of levity in the expression of their frustration, and there was a level of energy that roared through the room when the session ended.
Soon after, I approached Abel with my ready Camera Operator (and DP) and my Boom Operator and we ran off to a good shooting area to get his cameo. I knew I had maybe 10 minutes at the most with Abel, so I played a game called “improv with Abel Ferrara,” where all he had to do was talk shit about a fictional character. Abel relished the opportunity, screaming at the camera, “DON’T GIVE THAT GUY MONEY! DON’T GIVE THAT FUCKING GUY MONEY! GIVE ME MONEY!” I decided that would be his shining moment in the film, so after three or four takes of him yelling variations on that, I let Abel go, and like that, he was gone. I looked over at my shoestring crew and judging by their mischievous grins, we had something good.
Two months later, I had wrapped production on the film (including an entire dress rehearsal of full-length musical numbers) and was preparing for post. Having met with my composer earlier that week, I was ready to begin editing, and I had switched over all of my footage into an external hard drive the night before. But when I sat down at the editing bay, my worst fears sprang to life: the external drive had inexplicably crashed, and refused to start up. My entire thesis, from inception to wrap, was stuck in one location. I quickly vented with an emotional breakdown and then rushed to find an affordable recovery service. Unfortunately, for external drives, the word “affordable” was not-applicable, as the company would do it for a flat $2,000 rate (even with the warranty) and the lowest estimate I had gotten for independent recovery stores was $1,600.
I didn’t have the cash then, and throughout the two-and-half years since, I’ve had too many life hazards to save since (including car repairs, laptop repairs, etc.), which is unfortunate as I’m especially proud of the film and the great work of all involved. I still have the hard drive, and one day, VIETNAM: THE MUSICAL will see the light of day, and you all may see Abel Ferrara yelling and Lloyd Kaufman making jokes about incestuous relationships just yet. I also feel bad for the incredible performers who went out of their way to help make VIETNAM: THE MUSICAL somewhat of a reality, including my leads, Scott Glazer, Lee Lustig and Steve Sachs, as well as voice actress Dana Segal as the sole protesting voice against the production (to whom I still owe some footage for her reel; Sorry, Dana.)
My next experience with Abel was a quick and mysterious one. Following that film, I had gotten an unpaid gig as a script supervisor on a colleague’s shoot. I had just upgraded to a touchscreen phone and my contacts had all transferred over, including Abel’s number. During one take, I was showing off something to a friend when suddenly we heard “QUIET ON THE SET!” I shoved my phone in my pocket and zeroed in on the scene. Yet, when the director yelled “CUT!”, I noticed an alert. I had a voicemail waiting for me, and it was from none other than Abel. Even more surprising was the reasoning: unbeknownst to me, I had butt-dialed Abel Ferrara.
I immediately felt a knot in my stomach, knowing he had probably forgotten my number, definitely answered and heard only the dialogue of the scene playing out before me as context. I was afraid of the explosion that awaited me on the other side of the digital realm, so I did what I thought made the most sense: I deleted the message without even giving it a listen. I have no idea what was said or if Abel was angry or not, but I sure as hell didn’t care to find out. In retrospect, I do regret not even giving it a little bit of a lesson, but I still feel like I made the right call. Lord knows I don’t want a scolding from one of the greatest living independent crime film directors on my conscience forever.
My most recent, and last (to date), run-in with Abel was entirely incidental and took place a year later. I had heard some excellent buzz on an action film making the rounds called THE RAID: REDEMPTION, and made sure I was there opening weekend to give it the support I thought it would deserve. Better yet, in addition to giving me an excuse to go into New York City again, I’d have a chance to drop by the IFC Center afterwards and check out a 35mm print of Jodorowsky’s EL TOPO. Following that physically exhausting experience of watching THE RAID in a crowded theater, and getting some dinner with drinks, I set out with three of my friends to the IFC Center on a brisk 40 block trek from the AMC Empire 25.
We arrived earlier than expected, and little did I know that the first post-acquisition screening of 4:44— which now starred Willem Dafoe—was happening that very night, with Abel in attendance. The film had already begun and had sold out, so I had no chance of seeing it, but with time on our hands, we waited in their designated waiting area upstairs, across from the theater playing 4:44. A few minutes of examining the retro posters and the pamphlets on display went by before the door to the theater busted open, and out walked Abel.
Well, walked may be the wrong verb. “Stormed” was more like it. From what we could gather immediately, someone’s phone had gone off during a pivotal scene, and Abel was there to catch it in action. He was not happy. Soon followed one of his friends and a member of theater personnel, both trying to calm the visibly upset Abel, who started making unreasonable demands (such as stopping and restarting the film, as well as personally ejecting those with phones not turned off) and dropping some unsavory words about the audience member.
Quickly, Abel begins launching into a story about a correlating experience and I began to convey to my friends that I slightly knew this mumbling man. I tried to stay low key as Abel paced around the room, unaware of his surroundings. Finally, the inevitable eye contact happens.
There’s a flicker of recognition, causing him to pause. I instinctively blurt out, “Hey Abel.” He nods, goes “Hi,” clearly unable to remember me from exactly where, and returns to his storytelling tangent. A few minutes after that, the film ends and the theater lets out to a chorus of applause and more of Abel’s friends, congratulating him on the film. Suddenly, Abel comes back to Earth, and that familiar smile returns to his face. In mere minutes, I watched him go from murderous rage to rambling indifference to genuine joy, and it all felt like old news.
If I were to meet Abel once more, I doubt he’d remember who I am, the memories he’d find to be fleeting that I categorize as unforgettable. He never was the out-of-control man I had been warned of, nor was he certainly an angel in disguise, but he had a young soul in a world-weary visage, and that made him all the more endearing. But most importantly, he was a filmmaker, passionate enough to be grateful for the career he’s had and also get pissed off when some jackass doesn’t turn their phone off at his movie. It’s that passion that’s very apparent in his work, even if much of it requires a good amount of patience, and hopefully, you all will be able to see that passion on the big screen once more with MS. 45.
See his work and celebrate it, because whether it’s corrupt cops, drug lords, body snatchers or vengeful nuns, it’s all through the unique and uncompromising eyes of the one and only Abel Ferrara.
Top Photo: Ward Ivan Rafik