Welcome to Rome, where the film provocateur behind seedy New York City classics like Ms .45 (1981), King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992) has taken up his residence. After a run of films and documentaries set in the Eternal City, spearheaded by the riveting Pier Paolo Pasolini biopic Pasolini, Abel Ferrara is now showing what his brand of life in the Italian capital looks like. With Tommaso, Ferrara and his acting muse Willem Dafoe reunite – after New Rose Hotel (1998), Go Go Tales (2007) and Pasolini (2014) – for what is their most personal project to date. It premiered out of competition in Cannes, where it surprised critics with its unexpectedly touching, yet almost uncomfortably personal details of Ferrara’s private life.
Tommaso is set in Ferrara’s Rome apartment, in his neighbourhood, his AA meetings and acting classes. It stars Ferrara’s wife Cristina Chiriac and his daughter Anna Ferrara besides Willem Dafoe as the titular American-Italian director looking for love and redemption in Rome. It offers a little preview of Siberia, the upcoming Ferrara film that the Dafoe character is also working on within the film. Seen in light of Ferrara’s entire oeuvre and put in the context of his own biography, Tommaso emerges as a confrontational, yet intimate epic which suggests that the infamous chronicler and product of the New York City underground is coming to terms with his own turbulent past.
What Brad Stevens, Adrian Martin and Nicole Brenez have already proven in their essential texts on Ferrara, is that his individual films are best seen as deeply interlinked pieces that contribute to a fiercely eclectic, yet authorial whole. Seen in this light, Tommaso is one of the most riveting Ferraras in recent memory – followed closely by Pasolini – because it makes explicit what has so often been implicitly referred to in his other films. Starting with his proper feature film debut The Driller Killer (1979), in which Ferrara himself plays a frustrated artist who turns into the titular psycho with a murderous power tool, most of his films have somehow dealt with a film within a film or a filmmaker/artist within a film. There’s a clear thread running from The Driller Killer to Tommaso, that passes in particular through Dangerous Game (1993), Mary (2005), 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011) and Pasolini. You could say that Ferrara finds avatars that inhabit the spaces that he lives in: storytellers in search of redemption, artists that struggle with their own role in a bigger picture, filmmakers that unconsciously make films about themselves. In Tommaso, the guilt and anxiety of a filmmaker far removed from his past life are almost tangible. In many ways, it plays out like a withdrawal film in which the after effects of a lifetime of drug abuse, along with other toxic substances, are still present.
Addiction haunts Tommaso, just as all of Ferrara’s other films are in some way about addiction. The Driller Killer needs to kill. The assailants in Ms. 45 have to rape. The Bad Lieutenant has to drink, shoot, gamble and cum. The Addiction is obviously exactly about that. Later, when Ferrara becomes sober, addiction is the exorcised demon that tries to resurface. In 4:44 Last Day on Earth, for instance, the recovering character of Willem Dafoe is tempted to shoot up on his literal last moment on earth. In Tommaso drugs are left further behind in the rearview mirror, yet temptation is never too far away. Taken as a whole, Ferrara’s oeuvre indicates the progression of the directors’ own dependence on various toxic substances and behaviours. Isn’t the Bad Lieutenant repenting for his sins in some way Ferrara trying to repent for his? Isn’t Harvey Keitel as a troubled director in Dangerous Game somehow Ferrara coming to terms with his own toxic behaviour while on set? Isn’t the struggle of Dafoe whether to shoot or not part of Ferrara’s continues struggle with recovery and addiction? Or do these questions arise solely because of how intimately and thoroughly Tommaso seems to explore Ferrara’s most inner realms?
Ferrara easily dismisses most of these notions, just like he continually dismisses in other interviews that the search for redemption is a recurring theme in most of his films. In his words Tommaso is just “a movie about a director, his wishes, dreams and fears”, but that description entirely undersells the value that adepts of Ferrara find in individual instances of his oeuvre. Maybe this is the rare film in which Ferrara’s conscious motivations to make a film are visibly at odds with his subconscious need to confront himself through one. What is certain is that Tommaso heralds a new chapter in Abel Ferrara’s oeuvre. This semi-autobiography forms a bridge between the legacy of Pier Paolo Pasolini as explored in Pasolini and Ferrara’s highly anticipated Siberia that promises to take the Ferrara style to an entirely new extreme. At least with Tommaso, the American auteur provocateur is taking some bold new steps. As a person and as a director, he’s reinventing himself in Rome, and on the silver screen.
Hey, Mister Ferrara, how are you?
Hey, what’s up, man? Let’s go! Let’s do this shit man.
Yeah, let’s do this. For starters: in a way this film seems very autobiographical. Is it informed by the need to be critical towards your own disposition in life?
I’m sure it’s part of it. To examine the life you’re living. To make a movie using those elements.
Why did you feel the need to do that?
Well, you know. I think this came from… I don’t know really. We just shot a film about Pasolini living in Rome. So, it’s about a director living in Rome, really. If you take the Pasolini element out of it, it’s like the day to day life of a director in Rome. Then we’re shooting documentaries, all of which were around Piazza Vittorio, which is around my neighbourhood. So it’s kind of an extension of what I’m doing, you know what I mean? And an extension of life. We’ve done films about directors before. We did Dangerous Games with Harvey. We did it with Mary, right? Then Pasolini. Now this. I think it’s just a natural extension of what we’re doing. You’re not buying it?
No, I am. I’m just thinking about how you’re related to Pasolini now.
My favourite part of Pasolini is seeing this ordinary day of his life made extraordinary. It’s the average stuff that’s usually part of one’s routine, but considering it’s his last day on earth it heightens the entire experience of watching it. So it’s interesting to see parts of your daily life now.
I mean it’s not that different. Filmmakers make movies. We’re preparing films, whether you’re a genius like Pasolini or someone like the rest of us, you know. That’s what it’s about, somewhere between your imagination and your reality.
You show your daily life, but a part of the film is also at odds with that. There’s a thriller element that unfolds in the end, an act of revenge. So, you want to capture a normal part of daily life, but it seems there’s another story you want to tell with it?
Well, part of this everyday life is his imagination. His fears, his desires, his inner-life.
And are the doubts, desires and fears played in Willem Dafoe’s character of Tommaso yours as well?
Well I think that Tommaso, I don’t know if we share the same… But somewhere between Rome and myself and the group emerges this. This other. Yeah, that talks about us. And the other is the character in the movie, that’s not me nor Willem, or you know, the reality.
But we are in your apartment?
And we see the local cafes that you frequent?
Yeah. The thing is, they don’t even know we’re coming in there. We’re walking into those places. They don’t even know. There’s no telling them we’re shooting. Some of these scenes we’re just walking in the neighbourhood. They know we’re filmmakers so they’re not going to look at the cameras. They just play ball. That’s what’s really sweet about it.
So was there a lot of preparation or did you shoot most of it just on the go?
Willem showed up right when we started shooting. We shot it in a period just before he did two other movies. You know, we did prep it like any other film. You got to put the locations together, you know what I mean? You have the same requirements as with any film, except I know everybody and everything is in walking distance, which made it cool.
Was that part of why you wanted to focus on your everyday life?
Yeah, man. Imagine with the DP, man, we’re just shooting, we’re just rolling. And all the stuff we film, it’s just him in the world. We’re not creating the background.
Dafoe is terrific as Pasolini, just as in Tommaso. He’s currently at the Cannes film festival with Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse as well, in which he’s just as incredible. In Tommaso, he especially seems to bring so much to his character. Could you say he co-authors parts of this film with you?
You know, with me he is the actor of the movie. He’s given full responsibility to get that shit to life. Whatever is on the page, whatever he’s told, whatever is real, whatever is fake, whatever is this or that, he’s got to make it work in front of the camera. I mean it doesn’t exist until he starts playing it.
Could this movie even be possible without him?
I wouldn’t make it without him. The way we move towards a project is that we have different ideas. I’m talking about Siberia, I’m talking about Tommaso. I’m talking about two or three other things. The ones, you know, that everybody connects to. With the editor, the producer, the people in our lives. We’re talking about these things. And you know when he starts to think it might be a good idea, I send him the scenes. You know what I mean? And if he wouldn’t like them, we wouldn’t do them. And I would never do this without him.
The movie he’s talking about in the film all the time? Is it something you want to make?
We did it. We shot it already.
So that’s Siberia?
Yes, we shot it. We haven’t edited yet. It’s way different, man. We went all overboard.
It focuses on the psychological subconsciousness, right?
That’s it, yeah. The subconsciousness, man. Dreams. It’s about a journey through nature. We shot at the top of the Alps. Went to the desert in Mexico. It’s crazy shit. We shot in a studio in Germany. It’s like an odyssey. Like Alice in Wonderland for adults.
Dreams and subconscious images recur in Tommaso as well.
In most of your films actually.
I mean, I don’t pursue this, but films are dreams anyway. But you know, the idea of the, the nature of dreams, memory, the idea of memory. You know, how do you remember things?
They become stories.
Twenty years from now, you’ll remember this conversation, you know what I mean? But how much of it do you remember, you know? Right? I mean, you know what I’m saying?
I’ll remember talking to you and seeing you holding your daughter in your arms.
Or maybe you’ll remember this couch. Or that man, he’s wearing a tuxedo. There’s a baby on the seat over there. It’s always something random, that makes it crazy. But we’re going to reconstruct memory, not as an event. That’s what Siberia is going to be. It’s about the break-up of a man and his wife, in the middle of a cave with dogs and it’s crazy shit. It’s really hard to explain, but you know, we wouldn’t bring all these fucking people to this places if it wasn’t crazy shit.
It sounds like the antithesis of Tommaso. This film is a bit more grounded in reality.
With Tommaso, we’re dealing with a lot of details. It’s like a documentary. It’s all there. If we had to build Tommaso on set, we couldn’t do this.
Has there been a lot of improvisation with your wife Cristina and your daughter Anna?
Yeah, you know, it varies from scene to scene. Some scenes got some dialogue and Willem, he’s improvising things, but you need to ask him that. He needs to answer those questions. But there’s always an event in these moments. Whether he’s making dinner, or eating with them, or not eating with them. Or if they get in a fight: she wants to take a subway and he wants to call them a cab. In all these situations, he’s in there. He doesn’t know the people, the people from my life, basically, but he’s going to deal with them. He’s going to play with them. They’re not professional actors. If they need lines, they get them. If they don’t, they don’t get them. I’m not hung up on the lines, but if we need them, we got them.
What’s it like to be the director of your wife and kids?
The baby is a natural. She’s like any other actor. You got to deal with what they can and can’t do. When she stops, she just stops. You’re not getting something else. Each person, whether an actor or non-actor you know every person changes. One day you work with them in one way and the next in another. It’s constantly changing.
I got the feeling that Tommaso is driven by a lot of anxiety. Would you agree with that?
Sure, he’s got the same fears we all have: the fear of losing something, the fear of not being able to… to live up to the expectations he has given to himself and other people. The life that’s given to him. There’s the fact that he’s going through his recovery, you know? He’s coming from a bad situation, just living day to day life. He’s putting together a film, thinking of where to find the money. You know what I mean? So he has the same insecurities we all have.
You exhibit a lot of your private life in your film. Is that different to investigating the life of Pasolini in a film? Does this make you feel more naked?
Well, I had to research Pasolini. I didn’t have to research Tommaso. Pier Paolo Pasolini, we had to learn it. So it was, you know, at first a documentary film, but we didn’t film that, unfortunately. Then it became the fiction film. Here it’s just a movie. No one knows what it will be. But Willem, he’s the godfather of the baby. We’ve known each other for a very long time. I know him even before we worked together. Fuck, I’ve probably known him longer than you’re alive.
I’m born in 1993.
So I knew him before your mother was born!
Well I doubt that, but it brings me to another point: memory places a big part in this film. Tommaso reflects a lot on his past life: his addiction, the highs and lows of a director reflecting on his life experiences. Are these your memories?
Could you say that this film had to be made to put a past life in perspective?
I mean, yeah, but I’m not thinking consciously you know? I’m just saying we’re going to approach this as a documentary. Some of these events happened. Some of them were imagined. And some of them have happened specifically in the film, but filtered through the experience of Will. Sometimes it did happen to Will, but not to me. You know? In that space. Will has his own relationship with Cristina. His own relationship with Anna. It’s not how I am. He’s not just trying to play me. He’s inhabiting that world. That’s somebody that’s not me. Tommaso is not me. I mean, shit, I can’t do handstands!
Dafoe’s yoga skills are insane.
Are you into Yoga as well?
I meditate! I meditate! I’m a Buddhist. But I can’t do what Will does.
Religion plays a pretty big part here as well? In the end Tommaso ends up on a cross like in a Christ-like scenario.
It’s that bit of The Passion, you know? The scene in the police station is right out of the court of Pilate, where Jesus confronts Pontius Pilate.
It’s the rare, really fictional element in the film in a way, which makes it such a stark contrast with all the other scenes. For instance, there are some AA meetings that are filmed as well. Are these actors recounting experiences you had?
Man, there are no actors!
Except for Dafoe?
He’s the only professional actor. There’s wannabe actors and when you put the camera in front of these people they become actors. Cristina is an actor then. But Willem is the only working, professional actor. Some of these people were just there. The bum, the homeless man in front of my apartment. He’s just there all the time. So we filmed him too.
And the addict from Amsterdam?
He’s the real deal. It’s his story. We’re not writing that shit.
How was it for them to be in front of your camera? An AA meeting is a pretty intimate and private thing.
Yeah, you see, I can’t really talk about it, because anonymity is part of my recovery. Let’s leave it at that.
But you were allowed to put it in the film?
I did it, you know? I’m stretching a little here, you know? I mean, it’s cool. Every group is a little different. It’s cool, but I didn’t do it. There’s a lot of scenes where we’re stretching it. You shouldn’t be teaching breathing techniques to your Italian teacher. You’re not supposed to be doing that, never mind touching her. We’re not supposed to be filming Will’s practice. This is sacred stuff. But we had to do it. That’s how we roll.
Is this how film works for you?
Well, if you wanna make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs, bro.
Is this what you mean when you’re saying you’re playing ball?
And is this the reason why you’re able to make such a lived-in low budget film? Because I mean, it’s the real world and it also looks kind of great.
It’s like a big time movie, man. It’s Widescreen, shot in Anamorphic. Arriflex is the best equipment in the whole word. It’s top of the line shit, bro. We were inventing. They’re inventing equipment to be able to shoot so freely. It’s like postmodern fucking shit.
That’s interesting. Did you think about Pasolini and the Italian Neorealists? Technological developments in 16mm lightweight cameras made their films possible. Can you imagine what they would do with an Arri?
Oh man, Pasolini would have loved that shit, but he would have his own take on it, obviously.
You said Pasolini has been an inspiration for Tommaso. How deep does your connection with Pasolini go?
He’s like a teacher for me. It’s as simple as that. I adore him. We learn from him by shooting that movie. It’s like Buddhist meditation: you meditate as if you are the Dalai Lama. You don’t meditate to become the Dalai Lama.
You inhabit his space?
Yeah, you inhabit the space. So when you do a film that he would have shot, with the guys that he worked with, you’re trying to make something of his magic happen. However, I’m not thinking how he would approach scenes. You know? He was so different. He was so eclectic, because he was so different as a man. He was a musician, poet, writer, great interviewer, great journalist. Everything he did was like that. So he approached filmmaking in a lot of different ways. Alright? You got your interview? I’m done or do you’ve got one more burning desire?
I’ll shoot: you made an incredible run of American films in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Tommaso seems to implicitly look back and say farewell to that life. So my question would be: Does this period of your life, where you were one of the hottest American directors while living through severe addictions, still give you pride and energy, or is this a part of your life that you want to keep behind you?
I mean these films, that lifestyle, they’re in the past. What I do take away from it is that I still work with some of the same people. So, yeah, it’s a past life, but I’m still living it.