Abel Ferrara, the cine scuzz-meister who set the bar for urban depravity with King of New York, then vaulted over it with the original Bad Lieutenant, is back home. 4:44 Last Day on Earth, opening Friday, is the End of the World on Delancey Street: In a loft above the Williamsburg Bridge, Willem Dafoe and his artist girlfriend Shanyn Leigh are counting the hours until it all vanishes. Al Gore was right—there’s an unpluggable hole in the ozone. No hope, no exit. They make love, watch NY1, eat Chinese takeout, and engage in screaming Skype-a-thons.
4:44 was rapturously received by the crowd at last fall’s New York Film Festival, where, along with Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, it was one of three doomsday scenarios. “Proof positive that the Zeitgeist exists,” per Ferrara. But 4:44 has its own particular mood. When I tell him that 4:44 is his most romantic movie, he smiles and croaks, “Romantic, yeah.” But because it’s also an Abel Ferrara film, Leigh’s character is trying to finish her last painting while Dafoe is out looking to cop some dope. The 60-year-old filmmaker’s eternal subject is the nature of Need. (The last feature he shot entirely in New York, 2001’s ’R Xmas, concerns a pair of hardworking Caribbean immigrants who wholesale heroin to pay for their daughter’s private-school tuition.) Only now, it’s the Big Need in the White Light of Eternity.
In 2003, Ferrara relocated to Rome (“They call you maestro there!”), but like something stuck to the sole of your shoe, New York came with him. His 2007 movie Go-Go Tales, in which Dafoe played the manager of a topless joint equivalent to Steppenwolf’s Magic Theatre, was set in a studio-created Manhattan. Since his return five years ago, Ferrara has been celebrating his hometown with an elegiac documentary on the Chelsea Hotel and another steeped in the heartburn charms of the Little Italy street festival staged each year right on his block.
Our interview begins there in a capacious ristorante–cum–piano bar. The owner is a movie buff who built Ferrara an editing room in the corner of the basement. “My kitchen and my living room,” the filmmaker rasps, adding that back in the day, the place was John Gotti’s favorite watering hole. But “this is the new hood—Ecuadoran chefs, Albanian waiters.” Ferrara is a son of the Bronx. In fact, with an Italian father and an Irish mother, he’s a quintessential New Yorker—a parochial-school veteran raised in part by two Jewish aunts.
Ferrara describes his father as “a bookmaker and a degenerate gambler” run afoul of the mob. When Abel was a teenager, the Ferraras moved upstate. “You hear the guys in the movies threaten, ‘We’re gonna kill your family!’—I was that family.” Morris Park Avenue dissolved into Peekskill, a place Ferrara alternately describes as “Spielberg suburbia” and a hopeless boondocks: “There were kids literally milking cows before school.” In high school, Ferrara started making movies, beginning with an 8-mm. version of The Myth of Sisyphus, as well as the scene: “I was at Woodstock—five guys in a Karmann Ghia!”
It’s hard to imagine Ferrara as a flower child. His profile is at once noble and Cro-Magnon; his features look chiseled from stone and eroded by a century’s worth of tears. Like Jim Jarmusch and Nan Goldin, Ferrara is rooted in the dark days of New York’s late-seventies post-hippie punk bohemia. In 1977, he and his buddies rented two floors in an empty loft building on 18th Street and Broadway, where they shot a porn film starring Ferrara’s girlfriend and then The Driller Killer, with the filmmaker himself playing an insane murderous artist. Ferrara was still living there on 9/11, and it continues to figure in his imagination. For 4:44, he restored another loft—this one belonging to painter-D.J. Spencer Sweeney (who also provided the artwork)—to the half-raw state of a pre-gentrification artist-in-residence space. “We don’t have the loft, we don’t have the movie.”
People see 4:44 as a 9/11 film, but Ferrara has a more primal sense of doom. “We had shelter drills,” he says when I ask him about being a St. Clare’s sixth-grader during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “They scared the living shit out of us. Of course it’s about that.”
Now the question is, do you need to be high for the Last Day on Earth or can you take it straight? Ferrara has been sober for a year and a half. Once, he and his pals “were rip-roaring fucking assholes.” Now he goes to meetings. Formerly obsessed with Catholic guilt, he’s become interested in Buddhism under the influence of Leigh, with whom he’s been living for the past seven years (“a miracle”).