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Pasolini (2014) – Abel Ferrara
Willem Dafoe plays the iconic Italian cinematic visionary and writer in Ferrara's Pasolini (2014)Courtesy of Viennale

The spiritual side of Abel Ferrara

The cult director who's gone from Driller Killer to Pasolini talks Catholic nuns and how far to go with the sex scenes

Lunatics loose on the New York streets often feature in the violent and vibrantly scuzzy indies of Abel Ferrara, from the desperate, serial killing artist of The Driller Killer (1979) to the vice-ridden cop in Bad Lieutenant (1992). While his recent Welcome to New York (2014) sees the sleazy allegations around France’s disgraced IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn take unglorified centre stage, for his latest, Pasolini (2014), the director goes back to his Italian roots, channeling the dark corners of 70s Rome for his portrait of the fast-living cinematic visionary of the title, who’d just finished shooting notorious arthouse classic Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) when he was murdered. Ferrara’s got a rep as the terror of journalists, but when we caught up with him at Austria’s Viennale he was in fine spirits, chatting philosophy and Catholic nuns in his sweary Bronx rasp.

Pasolini (2014) and Welcome to New York (2014) are both about guys with no qualms about pushing way beyond the limits of what’s deemed socially acceptable…

Abel Ferrara: These guys take it to the end, you know? The reality of that kind of life is you’re going to end up in jail or you’re going to end up dead – there are your choices. Pasolini didn’t die of a heart attack, he ended up in a bad spot with some bad guys, no matter how you want to frame that. Strauss-Kahn ended up in jail. These guys lived a life, and what am I going to do, judge these guys? Forget it, I’ve done worse. How different are they from anybody else?

There’s a lot of push and pull with sex and guilt in your films. How much is that down to your Catholic upbringing?

Abel Ferrara: I was raised in the middle of it, in a southern Italian family. My mother being Irish also thought I should go to church. We went to a Catholic school with 15 kids in a class – this was before they even thought of ADHD, but we all had it I’m sure. There was a 25-year-old nun from fucking Spain who was the spitting image of Angelina Jolie, and the Mother Superior was young and like six-foot tall; you’d have a field day if you got into that as a fetish thing. But the spirituality – the Catholic Church can teach it, but can they bring it, being the political thing it is? How separate they are from Jesus I don’t know. Then once I started using, I’d wear a cross around my neck, for what? So my dealer would show up and I would score? When I stopped using I became a Buddhist.

“Then once I started using, I’d wear a cross around my neck, for what? So my dealer would show up and I would score? When I stopped using I became a Buddhist” – Abel Ferrara

That’s when you converted?

Abel Ferrara: It’s not a conversion, you’re not a card-carrying Catholic, you’re brought up Italian, so you’re brought up with those images. All the great art is financed by the Church so they have a monopoly on the paintings, and they’re powerful images, the whole nine yards of it. But Jesus was a living man, and so were Buddha and Muhammad. These three guys changed the fucking world, with their passion and love of other human beings. All these guys had was their word, and they came from fucking nowhere. I’m not saying Nazareth is nowhere – I’m sure Jesus came from a very cool neighbourhood.

Why did you compress Pasolini into one day, rather than spanning his whole life?

Abel Ferrara: The guy’s changing and mercurial. He’s never in one place, man. He changes from minute to minute, day to day. You’ve got to lock into the guy, find a spot. The interviews in the movie were given on the last day of his life, and it’s obvious he wasn’t expecting to die. I mean he knew he was living a fucking life, but he was an alpha dog – he didn’t think some kid was going to kill him. He’s the kind of guy who thought he could handle any situation, and he pushed the envelope. He was looking for that primal thing and he found it.

How did you decide how far to go with the sex scenes?

Abel Ferrara: We just let it roll, man. With Welcome to New York the women understood the gig, Gerard (Depardieu) was up for it, and what you see is what you get. The actresses feel confident with us. They know we’ve got their backs, so they’re not afraid. They respect and dig Gerard, and it’s just actors going for it. With Pasolini for us as a pretty much heterosexual crew you got gay sex man, but what difference does it make? It’s the reality of what it is. We just filmed Pasolini’s book Petrolio, he goes on for fucking 20 pages talking about giving a blow job to somebody, he made it really clear.

You tied a lot of quotes from Pasolini’s writing into the film.

Abel Ferrara: Yeah I’ve read it all, we’re students of his, you dig? He’s seen the death of the individual. We’ve all been made into consumers, wanting the same material things. The fact we’ll do anything to get them is the nightmare that’s not in the commercials. Okay we all want a Rolex. I can buy it, but some kid’s going to shoot you for it. We’re both going to get it, and in that sense we’re both robots.

The Safdie brothers, who were inspired by your early work, are here with their latest movie Heaven Knows What. Are you following what’s going on in New York with young filmmakers?

Abel Ferrara: When I was living there I was supporting all these guys. I do whatever I can to help, I’m with them 100%. I’m not personally into looking at a fucking film about street junkies, considering I was one, so it’s not like something I’m looking forward to seeing, but I’m glad they’re working. I’m glad they’re fucking rocking and rolling.