Two years ago, the firebrand filmmaker Abel Ferrera was thrust back into the mainstream consciousness when he sparked a very public feud with German auteur Werner Herzog. The crux of their disagreement was this: Herzog remade Ferrera’s off-beat classic, Bad Lieutenant, with Nicolas Cage replacing Harvey Keitel in the lead, and updating the action from New York to post-Katrina New Orleans. Herzog maintained that his film was not a remake and that he in fact had not even seen Ferrera’s film. Words were exchanged, and ultimately things fizzled out when Herzog invited Ferrera to share a bottle of whiskey with him. Whether this meeting ever took place is unknown, but the incident proved to be another chapter in the great history of eccentric artists mincing words in the media. For his part, Ferrera has remained busy, directing no less than seven films over the last decade. Last Friday saw the release of his newest work, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, a film starring Willem Dafoe, about people dealing with the impending apocalypse.
Is the end of the world a subject that you’ve been wanting to explore for a while?
The film’s about relationships, it’s a very in-depth study of two people. And this could be just a normal day, you know? But on the other side of it, it isn’t a normal day, it’s the day that the earth is going to have a total meltdown and everyone on the planet is going to end up dead.
Is this an idea you’ve had for a while?
My stuff is basically about where I’m at. I’ve been with Shanyn Leigh for like 7 years. She’s the female lead in the movie. As a matter of fact, Willem Dafoe, she’s a lot younger than him also. It’s kind of similar relationship to mine. That’s part of what starts me, people in love. And I know what you’re saying, I mean, why now? All of a sudden there are like five movies out about the end of the world.
You talk about love in the context of this film, was John Cassavetes at all an influence?
He’s the gold standard. I never met him but I was once given a script that he wrote. I knew Ben Gazzara. Are you a fan of those guys?
You can see where their movies come from when you live, know what I mean?
Do you still shoot on film?
No, this is the first feature we shot on digital and we hope it won’t be the last. We used to always shoot on 35mm negative, but once you shoot it, it’s digital all the way. I’m a big fucking fan.
Do you miss the romance of shooting on film and then having it processed and the anticipation of seeing how the dailies look?
Yeah, but making features and the pressure that’s on it and the pressure of the money, you know what I mean? I was just hearing this story that Tarantino was telling me, how he shot a film he made before Reservoir Dogs and it was like six months before he had the money to sync the footage.
Would you ever shoot a movie in 3D?
The good thing about 3D is that they can’t steal it because that’s a big fucking problem. Because with all this digital technology, anybody can get it and anybody can pass it on. The internet’s a big deal. Right now, I’m a bit pissed off about it because of the piracy. It’s out of hand. I live in downtown Manhattan. If somebody robs one of the yuppies in this neighbourhood, the cops are here in 5 minutes. You know, this isn’t New York in the 1980s, if someone steals your car you got a good chance to get it back. If someone steals your $3 million film, no one gives a shit. You’re showing this thing at film festivals here, there, and everywhere, and all it takes is one guy with his fucking iPhone. Those things have better cameras on them than what we had to shoot.
I read somewhere that Silvio Berlusconi was involved in the financing for your film King of New York, is that true?
Berlusconi was in the entertainment business. Before he became a politician he was like the Ted Turner of Europe. He was involved in all sorts of films.
Did you ever meet him?
Are you a fan of his?
I’m not a fan. He’s an interesting guy, I guess.
Yeah, a little too interesting.
Are you working on a prequel to The King of New York?
We were trying. There was a moment when we could have made this film, but it’s kind of passed. I’ve got another idea about it. It can be about a young rapper. Like Biggie.
What else are you working on right now?
We’re working on the Strauss-Kahn story.
Right, with Gerard Depardieu. Is that close to shooting?
We’re getting there.
Are you still securing financing?
Well you never have the financing until the movie’s finished. He (Depardieu) announced for the first time that he’s going to play the role about three days ago. He was asked why he was going to play this role and he said, “Because I hate the guy, he’s fucking arrogant.”
Your films often feature Christian imagery. Have you ever seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ?
What’d you think of it?
That’s a tough one, you know? I was making a film about the same thing.
The film Mary, with Matt Modine playing Jesus Christ.
That’s good casting.
What’s the last film of mine you saw?
I haven’t seen a lot of your more recent stuff. It can be hard to find unless you download them, which I don’t want to do.
Yeah, alright I see your position. You gotta check out 4:44, man.