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Cannes 2019: Abel Ferrara Returns to the Festival With Tommaso

For many at Cannes, Pedro Almodóvar's "Pain and Glory" is the best film about a filmmaker at this year's festival. But Abel Ferrara's "Tommaso," shown in special screenings, is a rougher-edged and (to my mind) more soul-baring self-portrait. There is one scene in which the title character, a director played by Willem Dafoe, literally rips out his heart on screen.

Ferrara says that Tommaso is not him, but the movie does star his partner, Cristina Chiriac, and their daughter, Anna Ferrara, as Tommaso's family, and it was shot in Ferrara's apartment in Rome. The filmmaker ("Ms. 45," "King of New York"), 67, sat down with me at a beach pavilion to discuss the movie (his fifth collaboration with Dafoe), the ongoing retrospective of his work taking place this month at the Museum of Modern Art, and his career. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

You're everywhere suddenly.

I've always been somewhere! Now I'm somewhere else.

You have this huge career-spanning retrospective at MoMA that's still going on.

That was a pleasant surprise. We're kind of downtown filmmakers, you know what I mean?

You're living in Rome now. Where's your ideal audience?

You don't make these films for a day, a week, or whatever. I look at it, there are six billion people on Earth, and a lot of them watch movies, one way or another, somehow, somewhere, in some time. The movies playing at MoMA is an example of that. There's movies made last week playing alongside movies we made 35 years ago. Can't tell one from the other. [Laughs.]

I read an interview in Indiewire in which you said your films feel like they're one long home movie. And you introduced "Tommaso" on Monday night as "kind of a home movie."

You can look at them that way if you see me as a filmmaker watching them, but if I sit in the audience watching the film, I see it as an audience member.

They come alive for you?

It's like anybody else. You watch a movie, a million things come to mind. Some of them have to do with the movie, some of them don't. It's not like you're distracted. It's just what it is to be human. If I make the commitment to watching it as an audience member, I'm going to get into it as a movie. Because that's the power that films have, even over the person who made it.

Along with "4:44: Last Day on Earth" (2011), "Tommaso" is a movie in which Dafoe gets very intimate with the person you were involved with during the film's making.

When that moment comes, they're actors, and I'm a director. We're professionals making movies. That's our gig. Every scene is intimate in a way. The lovemaking isn't any more intimate than them having dinner together or them fighting on the street together.

There's this push-pull between Tommaso's desire to keep Cristina's character under his control—to keep an eye on her—and his wandering eye. He lusts after other women. Hypocrisy spirals into paranoia.

I don't know about hypocrisy. He's the father of the baby. That's the mother of the child. He thinks she should take a cab instead of riding on a subway into a bad neighborhood. What is that? Is that taking care of your baby, or is that being an obsessive control freak? If I offered you a cab ride, instead of taking that subway, would you take it?

I might. It depends.

It depends on how you perceive that request—if you think it's somebody trying to control how you run your life. Tommaso has issues, bro. He's not Jesus. He's got his practice [Buddhism], but he's not the Dalai Lama yet.

He wants to sleep with other women, so he assumes that she is sleeping with other men, or might be sleeping with other men.

The law of the jungle for me—if you're cheating on your old lady, you can rest assured she's cheating on you. That's my experience.

The support group meetings—I understand that some of those are drawn from your own experiences.

I'm in recovery. Anonymity is part of my recovery, so I really can't talk about it. That's a key part of it. But yeah, I'm speaking from experience.

Do you mind if I ask how long you've been in recovery?

I haven't drank or used drugs for like seven years.

Do you find that having been in recovery has changed the way you approach movies?

It cuts the chaos of your life. So much of my time and energy was focused on scoring drugs, recovering from drinking and alcohol. You're just a better human being. You're more responsible to the people around you. The number-one thing in your life isn't getting high.

One of things I liked about "Tommaso" is that it allows some rough edges to be in there. In the support group, the members have these long speeches that are allowed to play out. They're the sorts of things that cause pacing issues that probably make the suits anxious.

These aren't cookie cutter films. You sit in [a] plane, and eight people are watching eight different Hollywood movies, and I know every cut they’re going to make, because it's just machined out.

The equivalent of the European government funding you get doesn't exist in the United States.

No kidding. And that's one of the reasons I'm not living there. Because the attitude behind why it doesn't exist is the key. With Trump, at least it's out in the open: Art don’t matterWho cares. It's just the attitude of a capitalist society—you're on your own. If you can prove your film is gonna make money, you'll find capital to support it. It's a business, and it's only a business. But it's not only a business, because films aren't like cans of tomatoes. There's a longevity to it. It's an art. You dig?

I remember when you were here with "Alive in France" two years ago, you took a little bit of a dig at Netflix at the Q&A.

What did I say?

You just said you didn't watch it.

I'm not subscribed. It is what it is. I like the idea that the studios created this almost like a Frankenstein monster that devoured the studios. That would be a good movie.

Created it how?

Well, who created Netflix? I would say the studios giving them all those films, thinking they had a straight hookup to the house. But it's the moment for them now, so great. We'll see what kind of films they make and how they survive. I've been in Cannes—that's one thing about being my age. I remember when Cannon had big banners, and there was all kinds of hustlers and pirates, and there was all kinds of money. I would come here and leave with money. Then there was Miramax and New Line. And Vestron and home video. And then that came and went. So it's a constantly changing battlefield. I don't got nothing against Netflix.

You're still finding financing for your films, but how do you eat? You don’t make money off those films.

Well, obviously. I eat better than I've ever eaten, because I live in Rome, where they actually have real food, and people who make it for you care whether you live or die. I'm doing all right. I'm cool.

If I were to describe "Siberia," the film you've just shot with Dafoe, what would I say?

It's an odyssey movie. Same thing. It's about the guy trying to come to terms with himself, only this time we're putting him through nature. We'll make it a little bit more fantastical—kind of like an adult "Alice in Wonderland," maybe.

That doesn't sound like any of your films that I've seen.

No, it doesn't. But you live and learn. You get older, you try different things.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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