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Bronx-born filmmaker Abel Ferrara considers all of his fiction films to be documentaries: What you see is what happened in the moment that was shot. That mentality informed the making of Ms. 45, Ferrara's characteristically complex 1981 rape-revenge drama. In the film, a mute teenager (Zoë Lund) copes with being raped by gunning down everyone she believes wants to exploit her, including friendly (but pushy) strangers and acquaintances. Ferrara and screenwriter Nicholas St. John's sympathetic but horrified view of Lund's character is informed by their equally conflicted feelings about New York City in 1981. In time for the Alamo Drafthouse's new restoration of Ms. 45, the Voice talked to Ferrara about his memories of Fun City-era New York, his never-realized Yojimbo remake, and his psychedelic, long-abandoned '70s porn, Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy.
You've said before that you don't like to compare your earlier movies with your more recent work because they were made by two different people.
It could be eight different people at this point. What, wanna compare 'em? For you, I'll do it.
Well, almost all of your films exist in multiple cuts and edits. So, in light of this new restoration of Ms. 45, have you taken another look at it?
No. They didn't fuck it up, did they?
No, it looks great. A print of it screened earlier this year at the IFC Center, too.
We shot on [35mm] negative. Which is funny, I'm going back to film, as opposed to digital. It's a film, dude. A film is the shadow of silver on the wall, not a computation of zeros and ones, you know? That's a big difference, bro, it's a big difference.
You've also previously said that the way people see movies now is so drastically different from the way you're accustomed to, but you don't seem that threatened by that difference.
It's hard to tell, man. You see these kids watching stories on their telephones, and I know that's how they grew up on it. They grew up looking at computers, and I'm not arguing with that. Because the stories aren't going to change. What we're bringing to the table, our ability, our technique, our understanding of our lives has gotten better. But otherwise, the power has got to come through.
I saw 2001 in New York on a giant screen, 70mm, and in stereo sound, the full works — blew my fuckin' mind. Twenty years later, I was in a fucking snowstorm in a cabin somewhere in Vermont. I saw that on a 12-inch black-and-white monitor with a tiny speaker. It was mind-blowing! [laughs] Fuckin' mind-blowing both ways. Seeing a movie on the big screen is a communal experience that you cannot — when I show my films, I always tell them, even if they've seen it before, "See it with this other cat." Because film's are made in the communal way. Films aren't usually made by a single person.
Did you and [screenwriter and frequent collaborator] St. John see eye-to-eye on [Ms. 45's] script? I'm especially curious about Zoë Lund's boss in the film, played by Albert Sinkys. He kinda speaks to how conflicted and pushy the film's men are, almost like he's having a crisis of masculinity.
I think he mighta been gay, that guy. [Laughs] I'm not saying he was, but I think he played ... ah, who cares. [Laughs] Nah, Nicky sent that script to me, totally and completely intact. I didn't change anything; I don't even think Nicky was around when we shot that? He didn't have to be there; he wrote what you saw. It was just a matter of finding a woman. Thank God Zoë appeared.
Just to backtrack for a second: Her boss wasn't written as gay, the actor just brought that to the role?
Well, he looked pretty horny on the chick. A performance like that covers all the bases. Albert really delivered the goods under some duress. It wasn't an easy shoot, you dig? It wasn't just making that film. We had to learnhow to make it, too.
[In Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision] Brad Stevens argues that in The Driller Killer, everyone that the main character [played by Ferrara] interacts with is an extension of the protagonist. That's true of Ms. 45, too, don't you think?
Extensions of Zoë? Her character was so preformed in the script itself — 16-, 17-year-old girl who can't speak, and is brutalized right out of the box — but there's Zoë, too. This was pre-junkie Zoë; she was a kid out of university, she was a baby. She wasn't doing drugs, she wasn't drinking ... but it was a sad end for her, dig what I mean? Anyway, I think any good performance can give you something like that. Given the right character, performed by the right actor, reflects a lot in the other players.
'R Xmas is [NYC Mayor] David Dinkins's New York while Ms. 45 is John Lindsay's New York. Both of those periods' griminess has been almost glamorized in retrospect: Post-Giuliani New York is now often described as "Disneyfied," as if the personality has been sucked out of it.
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