“I never lived at the Chelsea Hotel, but I used to visit a lot,” says Abel Ferrara, slouching against the long wooden bar at El Quijote, a Spanish restaurant next door to the hotel. “I remember watching Dee Dee Ramone—he would shoot his BB gun at car tires.” The restaurant feels dipped in amber—not unlike the 58-year-old, Bronx-born auteur of the pugnacious urban classics Bad Lieutenant and King of New York.
This Friday is the opening of Chelsea on the Rocks, a semi-documentary he accidentally directed about the fabled hotel. Loose and impressionistic, the film is a combination of archival footage (Andy Warhol, William S. Burroughs), fictional re-creations, and interviews with the hotel’s artistic eccentrics—past, present, unknown and known (Ethan Hawke, Dennis Hopper). In one of the re-creations, an unrecognizable Grace Jones—a member of Ferrara’s extensive downtown network—plays a resident who asks Janis Joplin to turn her music down. Another set piece imagines the night of Nancy Spungen’s death in 1978. “Nine out of ten people who walk by the Chelsea think Sid Vicious killed her, and that wasn’t the truth,” says Ferrara, who got Bijou Phillips, Jamie Burke, Adam Goldberg, and Giancarlo Esposito to play Nancy, Sid, and the drug dealers some believe killed her.
Jen Gatien—daughter of Ferrara’s old pal Peter Gatien—is sitting on a stool next to Ferrara. The film was her idea and he was one of the people being interviewed. “This was 2007,” she says. “I had a couple of college guys filming Abel, and he literally said, ‘You don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. Let me just do it.’ ” She looks affectionately at Ferrara, who guffaws. Gatien’s intention was to document a time when the hotel was going through a tense transition: Beloved manager Stanley Bard had been ousted by new owners who wanted to turn the bastion of bohemianism into a trendy hotel. Longtime tenants were threatened with eviction. “There’s a better chance of getting rid of cockroaches,” says Ferrara with a laugh that sounds blasted out of cement. “Everyone thought it was going to change, and then, bang, Wall Street crashes and no one has the money to do anything.”
Ferrara decided not to identify any of the interviewees, which can be disorienting. “The information should have come through the interviews,” says Ferrara. He offers Gatien a conciliatory smile, then laughs. “But it doesn’t,” he concedes. “Next time we’ll do better.”