Interview: Abel Ferrara talks 4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH
Legendary New York director Abel Ferrara returns with 4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH, an intimate portrayal of a painter and an actor spending their last day on Earth together. After making a name for himself with films like DRILLER KILLER, MS. 45, THE KING OF NEW YORK, and BAD LIEUTENANT, Ferrara delves into deeply personal territory for his new film. I sat down with the director last week at a roundtable here in New York City to discuss 4:44, which opens in limited release today.
Can I start by asking what was the significance of the time 4:44? Was there significance to the fact that you chose that time for the end of the world?
Well, Shanyn [Leigh] is a numerologist and 4:44 has a very heavy Chinese meaning that resonates. (Asks one of the reporters what his background is, he is from Japan) Does the number 4 mean anything in Japan? (Reporter says in Japan 4 means death) 4 means death, so 4:44, so I don’t know they might have to change that title in China.
So it’s very fitting.
Absolutely, but at the same time if the film is in New York, 4:44 is only on the east coast, the world is going to end at 1:44 in Los Angeles. The world is going to end at 10:44 in the morning in Rome, right? So in New York the bars close at 4, so it’s almost like the time when if it’s not happening by 4:44, go home. At what time is the night over?
It’s also a multiple of eleven and eleven is a power number, so I was just wondering if that had any sort of significance, but Shanyn is the numerologist, right? So, I should have asked her.
It’s the hour of the wolf almost, when does the night end?
Speaking of numbers, maybe you have been asked this a lot on this press junket, but there’s such a big deal about 2012 being the year of the apocalypse, I was wondering when did you come up with the idea for this screenplay? Did the fact that this movie is coming out in the year 2012 factor into when you wanted the movie to come out?
No, it’s funny how that came about, a few years ago I did this short called 42 where they had forty-two directors do a forty-two second film, a dream thing, it’s cool. You can see it if you go on YouTube and punch in Dream Piece. It had all kinds of interesting directors that worked on it. I do things like that and Al Gore at the time was doing his own documentary and was putting the word out to a few different directors to ask if they would do short films based on his ideas, which is basically kind of Al Gore, the idea of the ozone being depleted. So that kind of got me thinking about it, the idea generated from there. I think it's serendipity that it’s happening in 2012.
4:44 adds up to twelve, wonder what Shanyn makes of that?
That’s a good one, ok?
But just to be clear, Gore didn’t approach you about an end of the world movie?
No, not at all. They approached me about something that he was doing and it never happened, so I don’t know if that kind of made me start seeing something specific about it. I’m just trying to think. I mean, you know, where do these ideas come from?
Wasn’t that by Al Gore, 7/7/2007? Wasn’t that where there were seven concerts in seven countries?
Yeah, that was it. They wanted some movies for that. That’s how long ago that was, all right, so that was five years ago, but it never got beyond a conversation. Although, I am an Al Gore fan.
I think he’s great. I think AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH was a great film that I was particularly very moved by and even when that movie came out, I think it was 2006, I think a lot of those prophecies are really taking shape, so a lot quicker than I expected after watching the film. I think there has been a big trend with films like MELANCHOLIA and some other films out there that are depicting the end of the world and I do think it’s kind of an interesting time in context and history with all the hype about 2012 so it’s definitely pertinent, so great stuff.
Absolutely, I remember we did a vampire movie that was like three other ones at that time. The question is always asked, Where the idea? Why the idea? Where do ideas come from? We all know, they are out there as much as they are inside when you keep your antenna tuned up right.
Is there a part of you that personally fears that the end is truly coming?
I don’t know about personally fearing it, I mean I could accept it. You have to have some kind of ego to think. There are much more advanced civilizations than ours that have gone down for reasons. One thing I wanted to make sure in this film, this wasn’t a meteorite hitting the earth. This was due to man’s destruction of what is out there. You could buy into Al Gore’s idea, you could dismiss it, you could say because a bunch of hackers come up with a bunch of fucking emails that might or might not have been real. There’s a lot of ways of going back. It’s like the Dalai Lama says in the movie, “We don’t control nature, we don’t understand we are part of nature.” And that if we think we can abuse it and not use it, you’re going to be in for a surprise. Like the people in Easter Island and there’s a lot of other civilizations too.
I like the fact that you ended it with everything going into a white light. Now, it could have been kind of a violent kind of ending, but it was a very peaceful ending and I am assuming that was a very creative choice on your part.
The point is, if the film is about the ozone gone, you would think that you are getting radiated, right? It would be kind of like an atomic deal, a whiteout.
I would think, but you showed a window breaking and some swirling colors outside…
A disturbance of wind, he was outside, there was a disturbance in the atmosphere, but if the ozone is protecting us from the rays of the sun, and the ozone is gone, that’s it.
It would just be like a white light. I just thought it was a good creative choice and I was wondering if you struggled with that at all?
These kind of films are not scientific documentaries. I had my guy from Stanford and he would say, “Listen, go with the Twilght Zone as much as possible”. We’re dealing with fiction. I just wanted to make sure it came from the Earth. What would happen if we didn’t have the ozone protecting us from the sun? You’re like in a fucking microwave. How painful that’s going to be? I don’t know. The film isn’t about that.
This is more on a personal level, but I think that global warming is going to be a long, long process.
I mean look outside today it’s March.
I know, it’s crazy.
You could say ok, it’s March, it’s just another day. Who cares?
But there’s not going to be one day, you know what I mean? There’s going to be a series of days of disasters.
It’s going to be what they say it’s going to be, but the guy who came up with aerosol spray deodorant; did he think he was destroying the ozone? No, but if you’re not aware of it, the worst part is to be aware of it and to not give a fuck. So what, you’re going tell the Chinese and India that they aren’t going to have their fifties? That they aren’t going to have their age of consumerism, blatant, global destructing consumerism? What are we going to say? Oh, I went through it, I had it and it’s not really that big of a deal. Anyway, stay on the farm.
What neighborhood did you grow up in?
I was born in the Bronx and I grew up in upstate New York.
What part of the Bronx? I’m from the Bronx.
Was it dangerous when you grew up, in the Bronx?
The neighborhood I came from is very Italian and very protected. It was very dangerous in a way of white street gangs you know when I was really young and then I moved away from it, but then I moved to a town that was the crack capital, New York Peekskill.
Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your film BAD LIEUTENANT? Not to get off topic, but to me it was a really striking film and when I first watched it I was really, really blown away by the buttons that you pushed and the approach that you took. To this day, I think it’s a masterpiece film, it really is, it’s a modern classic film. Obviously, it was redone by Herzog, who is another great filmmaker, but one scene that really struck me is the scene where Harvey Keitel was nude and kind of had this outburst of emotion and screaming. I would love to know how that came about, if you directed him to do that?
These things he does, these are almost like actoring, when they warm up almost, it’s like certain things they do to get to the character. They don’t really rehearse the scene, you would never see an actor like Harvey or Al or those guys, they’re not going to do the scene over and over, that’s not how they rehearse a scene. If they are going to do this scene, they are going to devise, exercises, for lack of a better word, to get to that. So, it was something that he did to prepare for something else.
It worked great though.
Yeah, yeah you can’t mess with him. He was going through some very emotional things that he was able to channel it through the character.
Yeah, it really came across, really well. Abel, I want to ask you something about 4:44. There was a very strong theme about sobriety in that film.
Yeah, well I’m drinking water, so it really was about that. Obviously, he’s in the program, Willem, and it’s about, you know, he’s counting days. We were sitting and I met the guy and we were talking about how many days we were sober. In came that moment, he went to the drug dealers obviously to score, then he bumps into another cat with twenty years of sobriety. So the point was, was he going to get high or was he not going to get high.
Yeah, that was a very powerful scene. Where would you want to be at the end and what would you be doing?
I think that’s pretty much what I would want to be doing, I mean, I’m not going to go to Times Square and watch the ball come down.
She would want to be in nature, would you want to be with her in nature?
I don’t know about nature, but… Well, if she was going, I would have to follow her, but I wouldn’t be travelling around. I would want to be where I am, in my house, I think. I am just a homebody though.
I also wanted to ask you something, sort of random, but I like the fact that you cast Pat Kiernan for people who watch New York One, that was great, so tell me a little bit about that.
To do it ourselves, to try and be ourselves, you know using a real guy could either take you out of a movie, you know you have got to be careful, when you start to put real people into an actual film. Same thing with Willem’s character, it could have been Willem Defoe as a choice too. We kind of tried doing it with our own characters and believe me it didn’t work at all, so we went to the real guy, I mean, he really delivered it.
Was that improvised at all?
Pretty much improvised, it’s like anything else. You know him obviously, right?
I don’t know him, but…
Any actor that wants the script, needs the script, the script has to be there and the improvisation comes from the script. The better the script, the better the improvisation.
I was going to ask you about comedy. There was a time that you wanted to do comedies, I believe. Subway Stories? Wasn’t that way back when you were doing Subway Stories?
GO GO TALES was the only real intentional comedy that we did, intentionally.
What are your thoughts about how New York is changing in the last twenty years with all of the cycles that the city goes through over time?
This city has changed to be very international. It started with Giuliani. It became very much focused on the money. It’s become an international financial capital, which it’s always been, but it has spread from just the Wall Street and certain neighborhoods like here to almost all Manhattan. So, if you want to go to Manhattan, you have to go to Brooklyn now. Brooklyn is the new Manhattan now.
Film Annex is our website and we are also doing Vice TV, we’re doing a webisode called Pizza Connection, so check it out March 19th.
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