Interview

Interview

Exclusive: Abel Ferrara on 'Ms. 45,' Porn, and Grindhouse

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abel ferraraAbel Ferrara is exactly what you want in a grindhouse director. He is opinionated and brash yet respectful, with a thick Bronx accent that reeks of 42nd Street. In other words, he was a delight to chat with about Drafthouse Films’s upcoming rerelease of his 1981 rape/revenge flick Ms. 45. In Ms. 45, a young seamstress is brutally raped by two different men in two disparate events on the same day. The gun she carries begins as a protective measure, but soon devolves into a rampage against the perceived male threat. 

I spoke with Ferrara about the good ol’ grindhouse days, the Internet revolution, and porn. Because every grindhouse interview should involve porn.

How did this rerelease come about? Did Drafthouse reach out to you, or were you actively seeking a rerelease?

It came to me out of the blue sky. In a million years it wouldn’t have occurred to me... I’m trying to get the films we make now into theaters. These guys came up with the idea, and we were up for anything. If they are trying to resurrect the movie theater experience, we aren’t standing in the way.

What was it like, revisiting a 30-year-old film?

I didn’t have to do anything except these interviews! Those guys [Drafthouse] did it all. For me to revisit this movie, it’s like I made it yesterday. When you make a movie, it’s in you. We’re not the kind of guys who make 10 a year. A director’s memory is kind of all he really has as his tool. 

At what point did you realize that Ms. 45 was becoming a cult classic?

I remember the agony of making it, getting it done, nobody wanted it, it’s sitting on a shelf for a year, people saying it’s useless. Then Warner Bros. buying it - thanks to Billy Friedkin, actually - for a lot of money. It came out in the States in a kind of typical, independent way, but then was getting rave reviews from these serious papers. We’ve been making films since we were 16, so we’re not like, “Hey, this did great in Chicago, this did great in Chile, this is good in the North Pole.” Back then, we weren’t as jaded or cynical. I can remember the experience of it. All good, man. It was all good.

You mentioned the “agony” of making the film. What was so agonizing about it?

Any film is. Trying to raise money in an independent way. Making a certain kind of film with a certain kind of look for a certain kind of theater for one hundredth of the money... we basically made this film for $7,000 a week for six weeks. Later we made more money but we were waiting for the $7,000 check every week to make a 35mm film that we swore among us, as a group, that it was going to look like a movie that people had to pay [regular admission prices for]. We knew at the time, we weren’t playing games. We weren’t kids. We knew they had to make money or we’re not going to make any more movies. We’re living off our fucking craft here, ya dig?

Was there much controversy surrounding Ms. 45 when it came out?

In which way?

Well, it’s far less violent - visually - than many of the other rape/revenge films that came out around that time. By the time Ms. 45 came out, had audiences been a bit desensitized?

This was a genre of films. These independent, violent, X-rated movies were a big-time genre, from Texas Chainsaw Massacre to our Driller Killer... pre-Friday the 13th, pre-Halloween type of movies. This shit was all expected. This wasn’t Friday night at the movies. We opened at a drive-in in Kansas City. We’d better have that shit in there! It wasn’t controversial; it was the opposite. If we didn’t have that stuff in it, it would have been controversial. You dig what I mean? We weren’t showing this at Lincoln Center.

Right, it was playing 42nd Street [the notorious strip of grindhouse theaters in New York].

Right, it was playing the circuit. It played 96 theaters in New York, which is a pretty big circuit at the time! It played with Oliver Stone’s The Hand, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre... that may have been a few years before, but you know what I’m talking about. Like you said, it’s a rape/revenge [story], but the fact that it is coming from the woman’s side makes it a little different. But rape is rape. I just finished a film on Dominique Strauss-Kahn [a high-ranking French politician who was arrested in New York in 2011 for sexual assault]. It’s another rape film! The reality of it is yeah, the guy is thrown in jail for raping a woman. It’s a touchy subject, but it is what it is. You have to confront it. 

It’s true. There is a whole subgenre devoted to it in horror and grindhouse films because it’s pretty fucking horrifying. 

Yeah, but “grindhouse” makes it sound so long ago.

I live in the past.

Yeah, so do I!

I love grindhouse films. I was a little too young to actually go to the grindhouses, which may be why I am obsessed with them. But anyway... you started in porno films. Did you ever worry that once you dipped your toe into that pool you wouldn’t be able to get out of it?

Yeah. One of the worst fear of our lives. But you are young and dumb and you don’t really get it, but you get it. You know it’s stupid and you realize what you are doing and you know why you’re doing it. But you do things when you have to do them or you don’t have the defenses to say, “Hey, I’m crossing a line here.”

You’ve gotta see the movie we made. Have you ever seen 9 Lives

No. Is it available on DVD or anything?

I don’t know. I hope not, but it probably is. I don’t think the original version we had is available. But it’s the same guys I’m making movies with today. It was a step in the process of a filmmaking community. Would I do it again? No. Would I have done it if I had any brains? No. But we were who we were and it represents who we were.

Did you find that having that credit to your name hindered your chances to get more “mainstream” gigs?

The films we make are the films we finance. We’re not really hired by people and when we are, we’re not really hired twice. Not that we’re proud of it, for the record!

But also, during the time that you made 9 Lives was the peak of the “porn chic” revolution. Deep Throat was one of the biggest films of the era. Was that any sort of saving grace?

Yeah, but at that time, the only place you were going to see pornography was in the theater! I don’t care what walk of life you come from, you better put a raincoat on and go inside - if that’s your thing. And obviously it’s everybody’s thing.

Willem Dafoe told me something the other day. He said the two biggest things on the internet are pornography and cats.

Yup! That’s 100% true. Now if you could just find a way to blend the two...

Into what, pussy? That’s just a joke. I don’t know, I don’t know if I believe him.

Okay, getting back on topic... Drafthouse Films seems to be bringing back grindhouse - except that the Drafthouse theaters are someplace that you actually enjoy going. Do you think there will be a resurgence in grindhouse films?

I think this: how far can you take watching movies on a subway, on an iPhone? I’m one of them -I’ve got my iPhone going on the subway, then I say to someone, “I saw your film.” Is that watching a film? I dunno, obviously it is. I’m not going to fight the internet revolution; I’m part of it. I was there at the beginning and I’m in it now. But there’s also a tradition in the way movies are made and the way movies are watched. They are watched in a communal situation, where you can look at people’s faces and you can actually see into their eyes. The actor’s faces are two stories high and you can see through the window into the soul. Obviously, that experience is valid, is a reality... it is. Living in Brooklyn, all these young kids are going to all these theaters, these theaters are all filled up, showing old movies. I grew up in retro houses. They would play two at a time that would play today and tomorrow, then they would change. That was the normal movie-going experience.

So what are you working on right now?

We finished the film about Strauss-Kahn with Gerard Depardieu, and I’m about to do a film on the last day in the life of Pier Paolo Pasolini with Willem Dafoe. I’m in Rome right now for that.

Ms. 45 opens in New York and Austin on December 13th; and Los Angeles on December 20th. It comes to VOD on March 25th, 2014. Be sure to check out Scott Weinberg’s FEARnet review of Ms. 45.

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