Bronx-born filmmaker Abel Ferrara considers all of his fiction films to be documentaries: What you see is what happened in the moment that was shot. That mentality informed the making of Ms. 45, Ferrara's characteristically complex 1981 rape-revenge drama. In the film, a mute teenager (Zoë Lund) copes with being raped by gunning down everyone she believes wants to exploit her, including friendly (but pushy) strangers and acquaintances. Ferrara and screenwriter Nicholas St. John's sympathetic but horrified view of Lund's character is informed by their equally conflicted feelings about New York City in 1981. In time for the Alamo Drafthouse's new restoration of Ms. 45, the Village Voice talked to Ferrara about his memories of Fun City–era New York, his never-realized Yojimbo remake and his psychedelic, long-abandoned '70s porn, Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy.
You've said before that you don't like to compare your earlier movies with your more recent work because they were made by two different people.
It could be eight different people at this point. What, wanna compare 'em? For you, I'll do it.
Well, almost all of your films exist in multiple cuts and edits. So, in light of this new restoration of Ms. 45, have you taken another look at it?
No. They didn't fuck it up, did they?
No, it looks great. A print of it screened earlier this year at the IFC Center, too.
We shot on [35mm] negative. Which is funny, I'm going back to film, as opposed to digital. It's a film, dude. A film is the shadow of silver on the wall, not a computation of zeros and ones, you know? That's a big difference, bro, it's a big difference.
You've also previously said that the way people see movies now is so drastically different from the way you're accustomed to, but you don't seem that threatened by that difference.
It's hard to tell, man. You see these kids watching stories on their telephones, and I know that's how they grew up on it. They grew up looking at computers, and I'm not arguing with that. Because the stories aren't going to change. What we're bringing to the table—our ability, our technique, our understanding of our lives—has gotten better. But otherwise, the power has got to come through.
I saw2001 in New York on a giant screen, 70mm, and in stereo sound, the full works — blew my fuckin' mind. Twenty years later, I was in a fucking snowstorm in a cabin somewhere in Vermont. I saw that on a 12-inch black-and-white monitor with a tiny speaker. It was mind-blowing! [laughs] Fuckin' mind-blowing both ways. Seeing a movie on the big screen is a communal experience that you cannot — when I show my films, I always tell them, even if they've seen it before, “See it with this other cat.” Because films are made in the communal way. Films aren't usually made by a single person.
Did you and [screenwriter and frequent collaborator] Nicholas St. John see eye-to-eye on [Ms. 45's] script? I'm especially curious about Zoë Lund's boss in the film, played by Albert Sinkys. He kinda speaks to how conflicted and pushy the film's men are, almost like he's having a crisis of masculinity.
I think he mighta been gay, that guy. [Laughs] I'm not saying he was, but I think he played … ah, who cares. [Laughs] Nah, Nicky sent that script to me, totally and completely intact. I didn't change anything; I don't even think Nicky was around when we shot that. He didn't have to be there; he wrote what you saw. It was just a matter of finding a woman. Thank God Zoë appeared.
Just to backtrack for a second: Her boss wasn't written as gay, the actor just brought that to the role?
Well, he looked pretty horny on the chick. A performance like that covers all the bases. Albert really delivered the goods under some duress. It wasn't an easy shoot, you dig? It wasn't just making that film. We had to learnhow to make it, too.
[In Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision] Brad Stevens argues that in The Driller Killer, everyone that the main character [played by Ferrara] interacts with is an extension of the protagonist. That's true of Ms. 45, too, don't you think?
Extensions of Zoë? Her character was so preformed in the script itself — 16-, 17-year-old girl who can't speak, and is brutalized right out of the box — but there's Zoë, too. This was pre-junkie Zoë; she was a kid out of university, she was a baby. She wasn't doing drugs, she wasn't drinking … but it was a sad end for her, dig what I mean? Anyway, I think any good performance can give you something like that. Given the right character, performed by the right actor, reflects a lot in the other players.
'R Xmas is [NYC Mayor] David Dinkins' New York while Ms. 45 is John Lindsay's New York. Both of those periods' griminess has been almost glamorized in retrospect: Post-Giuliani New York is now often described as “Disneyfied,” as if the personality has been sucked out of it.
Yeah, “Disneyfied” is more like it. You bring a lot of money into a place, and you take out a certain aspect of it. When we made Driller Killer, there was a hobo camp on Fifth Avenue and 18th Street. We didn't have to bring those bums in for the film, they were right downstairs. And when you turn that city — which is a very conscious move — into a playground for people with enough money to buy apartments… Apartments used to be $500.
The loft in that movie went for $500 a month, and 15 years later, it was $5,000. Now I'm sure it's $10,000. But we had skylights! [laughs] On Fifth Avenue and 18th Street, and we're bitching because they raised the rent from $400 to $450. But at $400, you bring in energy, and a bunch of kids trying to find themselves. That's now in Brooklyn; you want to find what was in Manhattan back then, go to Brooklyn.
I really can't complain. I remember when Union Square was a war zone. It was, like, the first stop on the subway from Brooklyn, and you could not go anywhere at night. Wild dogs, Doberman Pinschers … now, you haven't seen Doberman Pinschers in 100 years, but those dogs used to be running wild. Drug dealers used to be shooting at each other — in Union Square! Can you even imagine now?
In front of the Trader Joe's, right?
Yeah, right. Maybe it isn't even a matter of being young but an attitude. New York is a creative center forever, forever, since the day it was stolen from the Indians, or “negotiated” from the Indians.
Given that you don't like to revisit your films, it's interesting that you scripted but never shot a prequel to King of New York. You've also previously said that 'R Xmas was “a sister film to King of New York.” What keeps bringing you back to that one?
'R Xmas is a documentary on the real war on selling drugs. King of New York … OK, it was Biggie's favorite movie and all that. But for me, at that period, that was the reality of selling hard drugs on the street. It wasn't a fantasy. 'R Xmas was an actual story of a real person. How we filmed it is something else, but everything that was told to me is the truth. And we went after it in that kind of way, and did not glamorize it. Somebody blows up a basketball in the street right in front of you — in the real world, you don't need to kill 50 people to make your point, you dig what I mean?
You never made another movie that was also about drugs in the city, Crack City Terminator. Have you ever revisited that?
[laughs] Crack City Terminator was a remake of Yojimbo, so it was basically a shot-for-shot remake. We just wanted to remake one of our favorite films. But it was a fantasy, more on the King of New York level — no, not on the King of New York level, it was a remake of a fuckin' great movie! There's a real Crack City Terminator, though; this was in the Bronx in the early '80s, and it was some crazy motherfucker who was ripping off cops, drug dealers and everyone else. That would have been a cool movie.
If someone were to put a pile of money in your lap, and said, “I want to restore Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy,” would you let them?
If they wanted to restore the movie, they wouldn't have to put a pile of money in my lap. They'd need a big pile of money to restore it, though. Let me tell you a story: We shot that film, and back in the day, it would play the porno circuits of Baltimore to North Carolina, and it would end up in Miami, and then back. And every stop on the way, the projectionist would take his favorite scene out of the movie. So by the time the movie came back, a big film — it was not a great film to begin with — was now missing its five, six best scenes. It'd be pretty funny, going around trying to find those clips hanging on some projectionist's wall of favorite scenes from porno films. I'd like to see that movie: a collection of some projectionist's all-time favorite porno scenes. That would be a movie I'd like to fuckin' see.