From evocative exploitation movies like Ms .45 and his debut The Driller Killer to his run of subversive, stripped-back gangster epics (think King of New York, China Girl, and The Funeral), Abel Ferrara has long been a titan of cult cinema. His recent collaborations with Willem Dafoe have sparked more widespread critical interest in his work and mark a freshly experimental and existential dive into what it means to be an artist. Siberia, with its expressionistic, haunting intrusions of the past, is one of his most personal films yet.
As amicable, passionate, and humble as ever, Mr. Ferrara kindly lent his time to critics via a Zoom call. Rest assured, it was an absolute blast.
Joseph Bullock: There’s a lot to talk about in regard to this film, but I wanted to start with the use of colour, because it’s almost tinted with a very overwhelming blue.
Abel Ferrara: Well, it’s not that it’s tinted blue. It’s like, y’know, white is kind of a philosophical colour in the movie. Like snow. And then the colour of snow. So when you shoot digital you have a different kind of control in post. Right? But the question when you go into nature is, what is the colour of snow? You dig? Also, what is the sound of snow falling? Snow falling has a sound. It has a very different sound; it’s crazy. So this was really the point of the movie. I mean, the blue is… we’re filming nature as we see it. You’ve got the blue of the snow, the blue of the mountain storms, the blue of the sky in the desert. But it’s all based in us filming nature the way it’s coming to us, in all its beauty.
JB: There’s these almost artificial red and orange colours, too.
AF: Yeah. Like I say, we have control in post. So we can get a bit more creative; we can push some of these colour elements… yeah, for sure.
JB: There’s a great scene in King of New York where Christopher Walken does a dance [after being released from prison], but then vulnerably asks his friends, “why didn’t you come and see me?“
AF: You know, you’ve got Walken. You’ve got Nicky [Nicholas St. John] writing against type. You’ve got Walken obviously playing way against type. We were just improvising I think, and riffing on the genre itself — the gangster hero, not only from books and other movies but from real life itself. This was the time of John Gotti and Joey Gallo and blah blah blah. It was fictional guys you were representing and it was also real guys, who we knew.
JB: In terms of these films with Dafoe, are you exploring a different kind of vulnerability? Not in terms of genre but auto-fiction?
AF: Yeah. All these films are different by nature. They’re conceived by different people, and they’re conceived by us at different points in our lives, but every one of them is character-driven. We’re focused on who Willem’s playing. Same thing with Walken; the focus is Frank White. Even when the character is… you know, in theory, the starting point is me. In Tommaso, by the time we get to the end, it’s all about the plot. And in Siberia, the starting point was Willem — his past, his memories, his life. But in the end, it’s the search for Clint, not the search for Willem.
JB: Siberia is being defined as a sort of surrealist film, though I’m sure you’re trying to avoid reviews. I wondered If you find that term reductive, or if you don’t, where your influences in filmic surrealism lie. It seemed more akin to Cocteau than Jodorowsky, for example.
AF: Well, you know, it’s gonna be surreal if you’re watching the movies that are being made now… which is, like, one kind of accepted digital look that goes from fucking TV shows to football games to movies. And a style of editing that so machined down. So art films probably look absolutely surreal. I do read the reviews. The blogs are even more interesting. Everyone’s trying to connect the fucking dots, man. I find that funny. It’s like, give up, man. You know, it’s story as God. Dafoe has a line, it’s something like ‘story just gets in the way.’ It’s like a joke. I have a five year old, so I know. There’s the happy ending, there’s the story: three acts. The princess wakes up with a kiss. And if that’s plugged into you from the time you’re a one year old, and it never changes, then that’s what you’re gonna expect at the movies. So this film is not even gonna make sense to most people. They’re not gonna be able to find a sense to it because they’re not gonna let it happen to them. But I grew up with Godard. I grew up with Cocteau. You know, I grew up with van der Bent, Michael Snow, and Stan Brakhage. I grew up with watching flash flames, you dig? I grew up with Andy Warhol and Pasolini — this is my language. It’s not surreal at all. They should show some Stan Brakhage movies at the fucking London Film Festival and see the fucking blogs on that.