Abel Ferrara remains a true original. He’s been making uncompromising films since ever since he debuted with the notorious grindhouse/arthouse classic Driller Killer (1979) and his woman revenge film Ms. 45 (1981). It was in the 1990s that Ferrara reached critical attention, thanks in large part to a string of acclaimed films like King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, and The Funeral.
With 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Ferrara explores what happens in the final hours of life on the planet. As the line from the trailer goes, “It doesn’t matter where you live or how much money you have: we are all about to face the same fate at the same moment.” At the center of this story is a New York couple played by Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh, an actor and an artist, respectively. In real life, they’re Ferrara’s close friend and girlfriend, respectively.
I got a chance to interview Ferrara with a table of other journalists. He entered with swagger, a good-spirited and intelligent sort of f**k-you attitude, with a thick Bronx accent to match. Before we got down to questions, he asked us which sites we wrote for. At the end of our introductions he said with a smile, “Good. It’s nice to see a face behind the internet.” (Note that I omitted or reworded some questions and responses in the interview in order to avoid spoilers.)
So how do you incorporate the current era? When I saw 4:44 Last Day on Earth at the New York Film Festival, you had this idea of showing the end of the world in the internet era.
I think it’s the basic, modern way of life. I mean, everyone’s Skyping everyone. In fact, I don’t know why it’s taken a while in the movies to catch up to that, you know what I’m saying? It’s just how you communicate, right? I mean everybody’s got their, you know. [Points to a journalist’s Sony tablet, brings out his own iPhone.] This is happening right here. I got mine, right?
[Journalist with tablet] All right, I’m putting it down.
Nah, that’s all right. No, no, no — you need it, you’re working with it.
[Journalist with tablet] No, I’m good actually. I’m good.
[Journalist with tablet] I’m absolutely sure.
Because here: now look at that photograph. [Shows picture on iPhone.] Just, it’s an awesome photograph. Okay, I mean, it’s amazing. I just got this. I had a Blackberry — which was a tremendous phone — a Blackberry and T Mobile, which was a great phone, and the last two years, everything was out of focus every picture I took. Now I have an awesome camera and I can’t make a phone call.
[Laughs] What phone are you using.
This is a 4S, right? This is top of the line. And it’s AT&T, and I can’t make a phone call. I can make a beautiful movie. I’m making great films in the street, you know what I’m saying? But heaven help me make a phone call. Does anybody have AT&T?
Mhmm. Yeah, I have AT&T, yeah.
Is it the truth? Am I the only one who has to dial twice almost?
No, mine works pretty good, but sometimes I can’t hear so well when somebody’s calling me.
When somebody’s calling me it’s like, “Huh? What? I lost you.”
So you know.
So have we come to the end of the world in communication?
We’ve come to the beginning of the world, I think.
The beginning of the world? What do you mean by that?
Well, not the beginning of the world. I mean — [pause]. It’s so changed. I mean just the fact I’m 60 years old, right? I remember when I needed to get a phone call, I couldn’t leave my house. I’m from before the answering machine era. Okay, so I mean just the fact that you can live a life and be in communication with everyone in the world — I mean, come on, that’s a major deal. I can call and see anyone I want in the whole world. I’ve got a website, AbelFerrara.com, that’s translated into Chinese, the whole site. And as long as you make the films, you know… It’s funny. Our films are becoming more verbal as the audience becomes more international. It kind of goes against each other, if you know what I mean.
Why do you suppose that is?
I don’t know why. I gotta think about it. Because I remember Hitchcock telling Truffaut, “You know, you should make a movie [like this], man,” and he was talking about Psycho. He says, “They scream just as loud in Australia as they do in Tokyo as they do in Paris as they do in Marrakech.” Because they’re screaming to the language of the cinema. They’re not screaming to the language of what’s being said. You don’t have to understand the words for the film to rock.
To piggyback on a previous question: not only do you use Skype a lot in the film, but the relationships are Skyped. Why did you make that choice?
Yeah, why weren’t they face to face on the last day on earth. That’s a big part of some relationships in the film. I got the sense that they were in two different cities, you know? In situations like that, it’s the people you don’t Skype. It’s the people who really define your life. It’s who you call and who you don’t call when you only have X-amount of hours in your life.
What process did you use to choose the iconic figures to put into the film? You have footage of Al Gore, Mandela, the Dalai Lama. Why those figures?
Yeah, I think you said it: because they’re iconic, and they’re iconic for a reason. Because the Dalai Lama, I never hear one word out of his mouth that doesn’t make me sit up straight.
These people were talking a lot about consciousness, what’s real and what’s not real.
Why did you choose them talking about those particular subjects? Is this something you think people would think about on their last day on earth?
I don’t think it matters that it’s the last day on earth. In other words, this is where [Skye (Leigh)] as a character is thinking. You know, her character is about that. In Buddhism, the act of dying is not something [where you think], “Oh wow, I’m gonna die now.” I mean growing up as a Christian, death was like [a big thing]. Then growing up as like a beyond-Christian, you know what I mean, a lapsed Catholic… Death isn’t a subject for Americans to be speaking about, I think. But as a Buddhist, you know, it makes so much sense. The one thing we all know is gonna happen is everyone at this table is gonna die. All right. Sorry to break the news to you guys.
[laughs] Not me.
Right? Some of us sooner than later. Who knows? I mean, I can’t believe I’m on earth this long.
It’s okay — I’ve already died three times and come back.
That’s great, hon. So, I think it’s more about the life and how to live the life. When there’s not a lot of time you’re gonna tend to focus on people who make a lot of sense and not take a chance on some people. You know, you listen for a while and then you say, “This person’s totally full of s**t.” You know, like, the Dalai Lama is not full of s**t in my book. Who was the other character we had there…
Nelson Mandela, Al Gore.
Right, but that great philosopher.
Oh, Joseph Campbell.
Campbell’s another favorite of ours.
This film pretty much relied on your actors. You have a relationship with Shanyn. Did that help in any way?
Yeah, well, it was part of the inspiration. You know, I live with Shanyn, so it’s kind of a love poem. It’s like a film I’m dedicating to her. And she was also part of the writing of it since I’m writing it and she’s living with me. Willem also has a relationship with a woman who’s much younger than he is — her name’s Giada [Colagrande], she’s a great Italian director — and we’re all friends, you know? It kind of has that balance to it.
How did you get Pat Kiernan involved, that national newscaster?
Well, we tried it ourselves. We tried to do it with our own actors and psssh forget it. You know, it’s just something… It comes back to my documentary work. If you’re gonna need a journalist in the movies, what are you gonna do? Get an actor? Okay, fine on one level. But on another level, when we had [actors] do it, and they do that, and they’re in a lot of movies and have a system of how they do [their performance] — and I basically gave these guys a s**tload of notes. But it was night and day; we just couldn’t make it happen the way that I wanted it. When you bring real people into a movie, it’s a fine line. Sometime you gotta be careful — you dig what I mean — when that person is “real,” because it’ll throw you right out of a movie sometimes. Sometimes it brings you into the movie like in this case.
How do you figure your work in documentaries has informed your work as an artist?
Working with the actors, I think.
In what way?
Because when you work with real people, the level of bulls**t is not there, you know? And how you arrive at situations, and how you let the camera run, and how you… Listen, you learn something from every film, and every film’s a different experience, so it’s not to me a documentary because our documentaries were as much fiction films as documentaries.
Well, they should be.
No, but they’re split. In other words they’re not only documentaries. In Napoli, Napoli, Napoli and Chelsea on the Rocks, we filmed reenactments, basically. You know, I’ve found that to get to the truth you almost need fiction, you know what I’m saying? Just because someone’s speaking and that camera’s on and it’s a documentary doesn’t mean you’re necessarily getting the real deal.
Is a story about the end of the world particularly timely right now?
Yeah, I think the 2012 thing really puts a stamp on it. And then living in New York with what happened last May when they were saying this is going to be the end, you know, May 21st. That was wildfire, right? That day, every single person I knew was talking about that. Why was that? What is it about that situation? [Editor’s note: For those unaware, this was the day that radio host Harold Camping predicted Judgment Day would occur.] Today could be the last day. I mean, every night you go to sleep — theoretically this is the last day. You know, you die every night a certain way. But, I don’t know… Every story… The volcano in Iceland, the tsunami, there was an earthquake in Chile that literally pushed the earth slightly off its axis. I mean, this is like, “[Could this be the end?] Who knows?”
Are you watching documentaries or other films dealing with these kinds of issues? There are so many documentaries that lead to thought about the last days or hours — that event.
Are you watching any of them?
I’m watching what I watch. I haven’t noticed any more than usual. Feature film-wise, yeah.
So what are the ones you’ve watched that you’ve found interesting?
I like von Trier’s movie [Melancholia], I thought it was interesting. Which is funny since it’s so much like our film, or at least the idea was identical. [laughs] You know, I didn’t know he was doing it, but it happens a lot, though, when you make films. We were making a black and white vampire film once, The Addiction, and there were two others. You know what I mean, these kind of things definitely happen.
[Similar ideas are] in the air?
Yeah, definitely, you know. I think it really shows you that a lot of ideas that you think are yours might not be yours. Creativity comes as much from having your antenna up as listening to your heart.
Now Skye in the film, she‘s a painter. We see her going through this whole process of painting and not until the end of this film do we see what she‘s painting. How did you decide what that image would be and why?
It’s because of what it means. It’s another iconic symbol, another age-old type of symbol.
Is the symbol so powerful in your mind that it conveys its meaning for people who don‘t have the background of knowing what it means?
Well, I think that’s why it’s iconic, in other words something that is that powerful and has that kind of thought. You know, it’s like the idea of vampires. I mean, one of the deals that’s scary is that anywhere you go, any civilization — whether you track it down to drawings on a cave wall in Alaska or you know what I mean — the idea of a character living on the blood of others, the undead with the same kinds of characteristics, that’s not just one place at one time. [Editor’s note: Don’t worry, the painting has nothing to do with vampires. Nothing has been spoiled.] So the painting in the film and what the symbol is: if you understand it, you understand it; if you’re an expert on it, that’s even better. Maybe you’ll be come an expert about it after you see the movie, it might trip you into that kind of thing.
Some of the elements of the film are very claustrophobic. How did you map it out with your DP Ken Kelsch?
Well, I worked with the production designer, Frank DeCurtis, and Kenny for a lot of movies, you know what I mean. So what might seem like a small area… We did the same thing with Go Go Tales. Kenny wasn’t shooting that in Italy, we shot with Bertolucci’s DP [Fabio Cianchetti]. This was a movie I made and it was all set in a go-go club in real time. And [4:44] is kind of in real time, it takes place over 12 hours. It starts in midday, then the afternoon, then sunset, but within those places it’s in kind of real time, and we’re shooting real time here, and the movement from day into night. But you know, if you’re in a loft that’s that big and has that exterior space and you can see out into the city, and you have her area and his place, and you have all those images through the TV set, right? I mean, in one sense it’s claustrophobic, and it should be claustrophobic because that’s the life they’re living, but at the same time, it terms of filming it, I see it as 50 locations. You know: this side of the loft, this [other] side of the loft, this side of the loft at daytime, this side of the loft at night, shooting that direction day and night, in the elevator, outside on their balcony. So it’s all kinds of stuff. [Abel receives a text message.]
Uh-oh — your ATT&T.[Pause.]
How have your opinions about death and inevitability changed as you’ve gotten older and over the course of your career?
One second. [Texts back.]
[Laughs] My folks do the same thing every time I go back for the holidays.[Smiles. Finishes text.] All right, so, let me hear it.
How have your opinions about death and inevitability changed over the course of your life and career?
Yeah, of course, through your whole life, you know. One thing about getting older is you have more experiences, you know what I mean, and you have more to balance things and look back on. You realize a lot of what you thought you knew that you don’t know, you know what I mean? [Laughs] It’s like I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. That makes a lot of sense to me now.
What have you drawn? Let us see.
I haven’t drawn anything. I can’t draw. Here, you can have it. [Editor’s note: Abel had been idly doodling on a notepad through the roundtable interview. It looked almost like a hallway, or at least shapes on a plane that resembled a hallway. Sadly I wasn’t the one who got the picture.] I wish I could draw. You know, a lot of directors are great artists — I’m not one of them.