Abel Ferrara on His Strauss-Kahn-Inspired ‘Welcome to New York,’ His Battle With Distributors, and ‘Pasolini’

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It’s a little after 7PM in Rome, where a wild-haired Abel Ferrara, clad in black, is seated at his computer, typing away and cursing under his breath. “This is like a nightmare,” he growls. He’s paused our talk via Skype to respond to a few of the many emails that have circulated through his inbox since his battle against distributor IFC began last fall. “Directors defend these films against all of this bullshit,” he says. “That’s part of the job description. You have to protect and defend the film. That’s the director’s gig.” We’ve been discussing the now-edited Welcome to New York — his new film inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, involving the attempted rape and sexual assault of former Sofitel housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo.

Despite Ferrara’s protests, the film has been edited down from its original 125 minutes to an R-rated 108 minutes by Parisian global distributor Wild Bunch and will be released by IFC in American theaters and on VOD on March 27, set to air on Showtime at a later date. During our talk, the filmmaker emails me a statement from Ferrara biographer Brad Stevens that reiterates why the R-rated cut of Welcome to New York drastically alters the meaning of the film’s most crucial scenes. “A comparison between the two versions demonstrates that the cuts were not made simply in order to avoid an R-rating, but rather, as Ferrara says, to change the political and moral content,” Stevens begins. “The most serious change involves [Gérard Depardieu’s] Devereaux’s assault on the maid, which now plays as a flashback during the scene in which the maid talks to the police — thus implying that it could merely be an illustration of her version of events, and Deveraux might actually be innocent. This cut seriously misrepresents the film Ferrara made, and he would have been quite within his rights to take his name off it.”

The Hollywood Reporter previously indicated that “Wild Bunch head Vincent Maraval maintains that because of financial obligations, IFC had always asked for an R-rated version of the film, and Ferrara was contractually obligated to deliver one. When he failed to deliver, Wild Bunch cut the film without him.” Maraval described the cuts as “very minor” and claimed they “help the film’s flow.” (Wild Bunch’s Maraval did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this piece.)

The hotel orgy scenes and other sexual content (some of which was trimmed by Wild Bunch) are necessary to establish Devereaux’s character and add nuance to Ferrara’s metaphors about political and social extremes, excess, and corruption. The scenes that follow, when Devereaux is being booked for jail, lose some of their impact without that foil, too. Devereaux’s grotesque animality is a key part of his self-image — the ways in which he begins to realize this, and the ways in which he fails (or refuses) to. Wheezing and snarling, barely able to dress himself, struggling against a language barrier with the prison guards, and later under house arrest, Devereaux becomes a caged beast.

“The bottom line is, you take out the rape of the maid, you take out the other rapes in the film, and you take out the idea that this character Devereaux has a history of this kind of sexual misconduct. You change this movie like this, you’re basically condoning rape. It’s open season on abusing women,” Ferrara tells me. “It’s criminal. And my name’s on it.”

In a response to Ferrara’s recent cease-and-desist letter, in which the filmmaker asked the public not to support the showing of the edited Welcome to New York, IFC issued a statement maintaining that:

Our contract with Wild Bunch (the film’s sales agent) is for an R-rated version. We offered Mr. Ferrara an opportunity to edit his own R-rated version of the film at our expense, but he did not respond. 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. … Any edits made to the original version of Welcome to New York were made by Wild Bunch, since Mr. Ferrara did not respond to our offer.

For Ferrara, the editing of his film is a betrayal that cuts deep. “There is a reluctance on [the part of] IFC to deny the personal relationship I have with Arianna Bocco and Jonathan Sehring of IFC,” Ferrara explains in a statement emailed to me. Ferrara also writes:

There were many emails back and forth and face-to-face meetings with IFC, but when I was told they would only distribute theatrically and on VOD the R-rated cut that was needed for Showtime, it became an issue for the lawyers. The precedent here is: I don’t make R-rated movies, especially concerning this subject matter, and IFC and Wild Bunch are well aware of that, being companies that handle unrated films. That’s why I am with them. IFC theaters and their VOD outlet are known for their unrated releases: Nymphomaniac, Blue Is the Warmest Color, 4:44 Last Day on Earth [Ferrara’s 2011 film], etc.

“Those people are friends of mine. I’m talking about IFC,” Ferrara continues on Skype. He mentions his ten-year working relationship with the distributor and adds that Bocco and Sehring were both at the premiere of Welcome to New York in Cannes. “They know all the issues. They are willingly allowing someone else’s movie to be distributed through their company. How is that not their issue?” he asks. “They never touched any of my films. I’ve had creative control for 30 years. This [R-rated edit of Welcome to New York] is like something is shot out of the blue. There’s reasons for it. The political content of this film is one of the reasons.”

Ferrara denies that he made serious threats of violence against IFC’s theaters in his emailed statement, writing that “those comments were metaphorical. I am an artist and a Buddhist, so fire-bombing theaters is not on my agenda.” And he scoffs at IFC’s statement that they support and champion their filmmakers, and would have “welcomed the opportunity to work more closely with him on the film, if he’d been willing.” The director elaborates in his written comments:

If you support and champion a filmmaker, you distribute his movie as he intended it to be, not ‘work closely’ in an attempt to change his or her film, and by doing so, changing the politics and message the filmmaker is expressing. The politics in this case state ‘no means no’ and ‘violence towards women is not a choice’ — but obviously Vincent Maraval does not feel that way, and IFC is supporting him.

In response to Ferrara’s assertions about the political reasons for the R-rated edit of Welcome to New York, IFC provided Flavorwire with essentially the same statement it issued after his earlier cease-and-desist letter, adding: “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.” They reiterate that the R-rated version of Welcome to New York was “delivered to us by the film’s financier Wild Bunch, in accordance with our contractual obligation.” The updated statement ends with a new expression of exasperation:

We understand that [Ferrara] 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.

Ferrara, who dismisses IFC’s updated statement as “newspeak,” insists that Bocco and Sehring “both have my email and my telephone number” if they want to continue the conversation. But, he asks, “What meaningful dialogue can there be after IFC accepts a foreign sales agent’s destruction of our work and then distributes it across the United States, a misrepresentation that condones violence against women? That is what IFC needs to address.”

The filmmaker and his co-screenwriter, Chris Zois, are adamant that their battle is about more than just pushing IFC to “change their minds” and release a sexually explicit, unrated version of the film. They’re fighting what they see as censorship, a battle that they believe will have repercussions beyond Welcome to New York. In a statement provided to Flavorwire by Ferrara, Zois writes, “We do not want IFC to release a version that is not authorized by the director. The issue of censorship is being buried under the obfuscation of ratings. The rating issue should not be resolved by changing the political and artistic aspects of the work… If IFC and [Wild Bunch] get away with this, it will set a precedent that will subvert independent filmmaking.”

During my Skype conversation with Ferrara, we moved beyond his struggle with IFC and Wild Bunch to talk in depth about Welcome to New York and the filmmaker’s latest movie, Pasolini, which follows the last day of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life.

What is your attitude toward Welcome to New York now? If you can step away from the legal battles for a moment, how do you feel about the movie — your original cut?

It is a beautiful film made by dedicated and beautiful people who have worked together for a long time. Although it is the first time Depardieu [has worked] with us, he immediately became part of the energy and brought his own, and gave a magnificent performance. That’s the tragedy of what [Wild Bunch’s Vincent] Maraval has done.

I was really taken with your eye for bodies and the architecture of flesh in the film. Several times I caught glimpses of the craters on Depardieu’s back and face. His nose appears more like a phallus than ever under your lighting. He is made for this role, which overwhelms us with the palpability of flesh and monstrous extremes of anatomy — a Goya painting brought to life. I know painterly filmmakers like Robert Bresson have been an influence on you. Can you talk more about your artistic direction for the movie?

We went very realistic. We went to the real places. We did it like Pasolini. That’s Rikers Island. That’s the hotel. That’s the apartment that those people were in, in Welcome to New York. And it’s a matter of going to these places and finding the light and feeling the light and being sensitive to it. With Gérard and Jacqueline [Bisset] it’s the same way. It’s something me and Kenny [cinematographer Ken Kelsch] have been doing a long time. We started with Driller Killer, we did a lot of films, it’s something we do.

Much has been written about your actors as self-aware performers, which is demonstrated in several scenes. Depardieu breaks the fourth wall twice and addresses us with his gaze. There is a discussion among the lawyers about Jacqueline Bisset’s Simone acting in the role of the supportive and loving wife, treating the trial as a fiction. And the bedroom becomes a political theater. Depardieu’s Devereaux says he feels no remorse for his wrongdoings — and this confirms that he is more rocked by the lack of control he has over his “stage” than anything else. He becomes a puppet for his lawyers, his wife, and the doctor who attempts to treat him. His role as a performer has been transformed, and he is lost. How did you achieve this tone with your performers?

The actor is the key to the style of the film. With Gerard, his physicality, intellect, and experience becomes the heart-center of the film. He knows this world, and he knows the psyche of Devereaux — a man battling, but expressing both his intellect and his primal desires without any regard for where this takes him. I am not a psychiatrist, but we are dealing with sociopathic behavior here — a person not aware of the results of his pursuits.

When you’re making a film like this, there’s only one way to shoot: You have to get it on, man. This is a sex addict [referring to Devereaux, as portrayed by Depardieu]. Two people in the movie say to him, “This is a disaster.” The psychiatrist in the movie was played by the writer [of Welcome to New York]. That’s Chris Zois. He is a psychiatrist. So, this is basically a session between the writer and the character. It got down to that key line: “This is a disaster. What happened was a disaster.”

What were rehearsals for these roles like? Did the actors stick to the script, or did you allow them to simply perform?

We rehearse the way Gérard rehearses, which is not a normal rehearsal. But we don’t just show up like it’s a TV show, the script arrives, and everybody parrots the lines. It’s written. We discussed it. It’s written again. It’s discussed again. It’s being re-written, and the writer is on the set. In this case, the writer is acting. And we shoot a 20-minute segment. That’s a 20-minute take. With these guys, the Keitels and Depardieus of the world, you’re gonna get one take, so you better be fucking ready for it.

You chose to shoot your sex scenes (including the scenes of violation and rape) in an unflinching single take. What was the importance of that approach for you? How did you balance making these scenes sexually palatable and revolting at the same time? And how did you engage with the images while you were shooting these scenes? Are you comfortable with audiences, particularly women, reading your take as ambiguous or indifferent?

The actresses have respect, and they have trust.

I’m working with a crew there that I’ve worked with my whole life. Kenny [Ken Kelsch], my DP, I’ve shot with him since 1977. That’s why, when you chop this shit up and destroy a film, you’re not just destroying my film, this is the work of a lot of brilliant people. That’s the tragedy. Every frame counts. Every line of dialogue, every piece of music, everything.

Women know what’s going on. We’re grown-ups. We’re big boys. That’s why this idea of an R-rating is a joke. I’ve never made an R-rated film. I wouldn’t even accept the term “R-rating.” A long time ago when I used to work with these guys [speaking of film studio execs in general] and make the cuts… I was there when the MPAA was invented, I was there when the whole thing came about. It came to a moment in my life where I realized I was thinking in those terms, and then I stopped. Because I cannot do what I do, worrying about that. I wouldn’t even accept the concept of an R-rated film — and I live in and work in Europe, so that doesn’t exist [here]. These people, IFC, put out unrated films. That’s their fucking thing. And Wild Bunch as a European-fucking distributor . . . c’mon man. Blue is the Warmest Color, Nymphomaniac, all these films, ya dig? And they [IFC and Wild Bunch] know who I am. We’ve made five films together. They [IFC and Wild Bunch] grew up watching my films. They know I don’t make R-rated films. And this subject matter, this story, the way I shot it, you cannot. I wouldn’t have made it, I wouldn’t have done it. They’re tyrants. They act with impunity. It’s not going to fly with me, or people who have any sense of the truth.

The actors come to the plate. We know the game. We’re all adults. I have a rapport with the women in that film. And I have a rapport with Depardieu. And Depardieu is an incredible, incredible actor. He’s a work of art.

He is.

His work of art is his relationship to the other actors in that room. And again, when you fuck this cut up like that, you’re destroying his performance. You can’t cut a film if you can’t make a film. There’s a lot of very in-tune, expert editing here.

You have to live with the film. Truly know it.

You have to have the ability to do it. You can’t cut a film unless you can make it. And these cats can’t make these films. You gotta make a film to cut a film.

I didn’t recognize the film Devereaux is watching in one scene. We see a white woman dressed as a geisha (a symbol of feminine servitude), just before Simone enters the room and another argument breaks out between the couple.

It is François Truffaut’s Bed and Board, and it has to do with adultery.

Devereaux and Pier Paolo Pasolini are different from your usual protagonists in that both are real people (at least, Devereaux is akin to a real-life person). Both are political figures. Both are concerned with the corrupting influence of capitalism on society — the difference being that Pasolini rails against that relationship while Devereaux uses that disadvantage for his gain. Is there anything you’d like to say about this?

When you live on the edge like these guys lived — and now I’m talking about the real guys, Dominique and Pier Paolo — when you live that life, it’s not going to come out all good. You have Pasolini, the great artist we adore. He ended up out in the fucking woods, out in a ditch somewhere, getting mauled by some tough dudes. He got himself into a situation that I’m sure he thought he could handle. But he couldn’t. He ended up dead. Dominique ended up sitting in Rikers Island, which is not a place for a white guy to be accused of raping a black woman. That’s as close to hell in a situation as you’re going to get. I’m a Buddhist, so I believe in karma.

Is Pasolini a kindred spirit?

As an artist, he’s my teacher. I saw his first films when I was 19. I watch his work. As a Buddhist, this is a basic meditation. You meditate on your teacher.

[For Pasolini], we took the structure of 4:44 Last Day on Earth, and took the last day of his life, because his work, his art was so… I mean, he just did so much in terms of books. Just in that last period, he had a 1700-page novel he was working on, two beautiful screenplays that were pretty much done, and he had just finished cutting Salò, which to me is still a knockout movie. And he was a guy who was constantly reinventing his take on the world. So, you gotta get him at a certain point to begin to even use 90 minutes to explain him. That’s one of the reasons we confined it to one day, for the last 36 hours of his life. Willem [Dafoe] took him on, man. We wore his clothes. We cast Davoli. Everyone here embraced us. They knew what we were doing. We came here out of love for the guy, we’re not trying to trash anybody. And we came at it the same way toward Strauss-Kahn. I didn’t come into that movie to trash the guy. I’m an artist. The world is my fucking canvas, it’s my paint, my brushes. I’m doing what I’m doing. Pasolini’s life is now my canvas.

Can you talk about working with Pasolini’s companion Ninetto Davoli in the film? Did he approach you for a part or did you seek him out?

It’s a small town here. Everybody knew we were going to make the movie. It’s no shock. We’re reaching out to everybody. Basically, [Davoli] wanted to know what’s going on, because he was [Pasolini’s] friend. The guy’s been dead for 35 years. That’s basically what he said, “I just want to know what’s going on, because this guy was my buddy. This guy was my friend.” I mean, that’s pretty heavy. Thirty-five years later, he’s still watching this guy’s back.

And that’s the way it was right down the line. That’s really the beautiful thing I discovered in this film, is that this guy was, Pier Paolo, a gentle, loving, good dude. Never raised his voice, never fucking trashed people, never got into these rages on the set, off the set, anywhere. Was the nicest to the smallest people. Was a very, very cool dude. Whatever his life was, whatever he did, blah, blah, blah, he was a cool dude, and people remembered him that way. I met a lot of people — a lot of people — that knew him. No one had a bad word to say about him. The more we found out about him, the more we locked into why we loved the guy. We were so blown away back in the day. The first movie [I watched of Pasolini’s] was The Decameron. I was 19 or 20 years old when I saw that film. I was a young filmmaker. I saw that film, and I was like, “Yeah, man. That’s it. That’s what I’m trying to do.” I mean, we couldn’t do it, but this guy set the bar. And the bar is up there.

What did you want to achieve by sculpting your own take on Pasolini’s unfinished novel, Petrolio, by creating a film within a film?

We tried to pull the images that we connected with. The writer on this is Maurizio Braucci. And you know, between Willem, Maurizio, and myself, we’re finding the pieces. We’re a filmmaking community. This is a different group of guys than from Welcome to New York. This is the Italian side of my filmmaking. But the editors were involved from the beginning, just like in New York. We’re there, and we’re finding the pieces in that book that connect all of us, and we’re filming them. We’re using them as a script. And then, there’s scenes from the script he wrote. Petrolio was a 1700-page novel. Porno-Teo-Kolossal was the script. So, we shot scenes from the script, too.

Do you have any thoughts about Pasolini’s murder or his final interview, where he says, “We’re all in danger”?

When he’s saying we’re all in danger, he’s talking to a journalist who basically represents the bourgeoisie thing he’s angry with. [Pasolini is] not writing from an ivory tower. In his mind, he’s going in as a sociologist, a political activist. He’s out on the street.

The thing that he would be totally appalled about today is all these bloggers, and you know, I’m talking to a lot of these guys. They’re writing these things based on other articles and other blogs. Nobody is going out. You’re at least interviewing me. You gotta get out on the street, man. And that’s what he’s saying to all these [writers]: “I’m out on the street, I’m going down to hell, and I know my life’s in danger. I know what will happen.” But he’s saying, that’s his job. Because he’s a filmmaker: “I’m a political activist. I’m a fucking social critic. I’m a journalist. A real journalist. So that’s where I gotta be.” And he’s saying, there’s something bad going on.

He’s basically predicting the future of the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s in the ghetto in America — where murder is nothing to a 16-year-old kid and they’ll kill you over a watch and a car. And this idea, this upstart of violence, is not just in America, but around the world. He is not only predicting, but is basing it on this consumer society’s kids — and I’m one of them, and you are, too — that was brought up subconsciously to want things — to be sold things to the point you’d kill somebody for it. And he’s saying, “You can’t hide.” Don’t think because you live in an a gated community or some rich neighborhood, or you’ve got money… don’t think you are safe where you are. Because when the shit goes down, which might be happening right now, we are all in danger. There is nowhere to hide. You’re not going to hide behind your money or your position in the world. You’re not going to hide behind the cops. Imagine an apocalypse. Again, that might happen. You’re watching guys chop people up and cut people’s heads off on the fucking Internet. He’s talking about that moment, and when that comes, no one is safe. We’re all in danger. So if you don’t confront this and figure out what the fuck is going on now, it’ll be too late.

You have to remember, this is a guy who lived through World War II — who lived through Auschwitz and the atom bomb. So this is coming from a guy from that perspective. He saw the apocalypse.

Any idea when Pasolini will finally be released in the US?

No. We’ll find out. It’s not coming out through IFC, I can guarantee you that.