PRINT March 1993


ABEL FERRARA TAKES NO PRISONERS—not in conversation and certainly not in the seven feature films he’s directed over the past 13 years, especially his latest epic in degeneration, Bad Lieutenant. Starring Harvey Keitel, Bad Lieutenant tracks a few sorry days in the life of a nameless New York cop who’s going down fast and hard. An alcoholic crackhead on a gambling tear, he’s the kind of guy with one hand on his dick and another that’s always in some shmuck’s pocket. Shot for less than two million dollars, the film has the raw, pulpy texture of great ’70s movies like The French Connection, but with the soul of a medieval miracle play.

Faith, redemption—the words aren’t usually associated with the cheesy material Ferrara tends to chase, whether it’s serial slashers and hookers (Fear City, 1984) or a street Romeo ’n’ Juliet (China Girl, 1987). Still, in his best work—Ms. .45, 1981, King of New York, 1990, Bad Lieutenant, the pilot episode of television’s Crime Story—wild style isn’t just spectacle, it’s a means to deliverance. At the end of Ms. .45, the breakout movie Ferrara cowrote with the film’s star, Zoe Lund (who also coscripted Bad Lt.), the eponymous and mute psycho-seamstress stands dressed as a Halloween nun and pumping bullets, bathed in a vapor of red by lurid disco lights. But in the logic of Ferrara’s film, even as she is condemned, she’s saved. A similar casuistry drives the character of the Bad Lieutenant, whose absolute degradation runs a parallel course with salvation. When he’s not shoveling coke up his nose, the lieutenant’s placing apocalyptic bets on a baseball playoff series, dribbling away cash as fast as life. When a nun is raped, he attends to her case for the reward money. Then his grief comes into play, and his vestigial humanity, and he suffers a paroxysm of belief. Not unlike Martin Scorsese’s in The Last Temptation of Christ, this is a Jesus of flesh and tears and semen; a man who imagines paradise is more than lost, it’s run out. Meanwhile there are kids at home, Strawberry at bat, corpses in a car, a needle in the vein, blood on the floor, death at the door.

MANOHLA DARGIS: How did the script for Bad Lieutenant happen?

ABEL FERRARA: I had an idea ruminating for a long time, the theme of a guy who had every vice you could imagine, plus a badge. That was the Bad Lieutenant. I always come to these things in terms of character. Like in King of New York, I thought of a guy who comes out of jail after five years and now he’s gonna take over every drug deal in New York, period. Whether that’s feasible, not feasible, I don’t give a shit. That line, to me that was the whole movie: “If a nickel bag gets sold in the park, I want half.” The guy who’s gonna think that, or say that, or wanna do that, is where I’m at. The Bad Lieutenant is even one step above him ’cause he’s that guy only he’s a badge. It’s the power of being a cop, the power of Noriega. It’s dynamite. And then what never left me was this nun that got raped.

MD: So it’s based on a real story?

AF: In 1982, in Spanish Harlem, a nun was raped, period. That’s a true story. The church put up money, the mob put out money. Every cop in New York went after these guys, they caught them in ten minutes. Now I’m thinking, Why all of a sudden are they going apeshit over this chick?

MD: Because she’s a nun?

AF: But why? So what? Because she wears a penguin suit I’m supposed to get crazy? What about some 13-year-old that’s getting raped right now in the Bronx someplace, no one gives a shit about her.

MD: It’s because she belongs to the Church.

AF: Everyone belongs to the Church. If you really believe it.

MD: Not me.

AF: Well, you’re not the one to judge. The point is, if Jesus exists you don’t have a choice. The question is, if there is a God or not. Or if that God is the God that the nun professes. I mean, she had absolute belief that Jesus Christ died for her sins, that Eve bit the apple, that all this stuff is not some kind of fairy tale.

MD: Do you believe that?

AF: [Pause.] I don’t know what I believe. I’m coming to terms with all that. I’m not saying yes and I’m not saying no.

MD: Is it something you think about a lot?

AF: Enough.

MD: So you wanted to bring these different stories together.

AF: Yeah, plus baseball.

MD: Why baseball?

AF: Why not baseball? The baseball in the movie is awesome. You gotta know what a curveball is at three and two to really get it. That’s what I love about it, the knowledge, the intensity, how incredible it is to take strike three when it’s the fifth game of the World Series and not think you did it. The greatest performance in that film is [Darryl] Strawberry acting like he didn’t swing. You down on sports?

MD: I followed the Yankees in the ’70s. Mickey Rivers was one of my heroes.

AF: Yeah, Mickey, he’s my hero, too. Didja know him?

MD: No! I just loved that team.

AF: He was a big gambler, he was a heavy horse player. Anyway, Zoe [Lund] combined these elements. We talked, she wrote.

MD: Why is the Bad Lieutenant so bad? Is it the city, a loss of faith, or is that just the way he is?

AF: Well, I don’t think he’s so bad. He’s not any different than most people I know.

MD: [Laughs.] You’re not laughing, I’m sorry.

AF: No, no, it’s all right. I mean, most people I know are. . . .

MD: Have this level of obsession, this level of vice?

AF: In their own way.

MD: In other movies in which there are corrupt cops there’s usually a real judgment brought to bear on them, as if they’d been in a state of grace and fallen, which is questionable to begin with.

AF: This guy doesn’t give a shit about that.This guy’s in such an ego-tripping mindset, he’s out there in this black hole of personal gratification. It’s not Serpico, you know. Those guys work twice as hard to hustle the police department, or hustle the drug dealers, as they would if they were real cops, ya dig? This guy don’t give a fuck about anything. He’s into—I don’t know what it is—a certain kind of life-style. Degradation, man.

Everybody’s like that. How many fuckin’ saints are walkin’ around out there? You’ve got half the senators in the Congress trying to fuck their secretaries. I saw him on TV last night, what’s his name?

MD: Packwood?

AF: I don’t know the guy and I don’t know the circumstances, but the fact is six chicks are saying he’s got his hands all up under their skirts. The guy’s looking for some tail, man. Like every other guy in this room. It’s a Freudian world.

MD: It’s just most movies need to teach us a little moral—

AF: There is a moral to the story: he lets the rapists go.

MD: Yeah, but he dies.

AF: So what?

MD: So what?

AF: Everybody’s gonna die, and is your death gonna mean something or are you just gonna get hit by a truck? You know Jesus’ death, even if he’s not the son of God, still resonates. The Bad Lieutenant’s death wasn’t a death, his death was a sacrifice. He would have been the front page of the New York Post, the hero copand he gave all that up.

MD: Why?

AF: Because he knew he’d found and understood what forgiveness was about. He’s on his knees in front of Jesus Christ saying “I am sorry.” He is now at the point the nun’s at, or at least on the same road, whether he’s at tollbooth 10 and she’s down at 38.

MD: Okay, but there in the church when he’s at the feet of Jesus, Jesus turns into an old lady. Is that a hallucination, or is he completely insane?

AF: It doesn’t matter. Once he’s said “Forgive me” that’s all he’s gotta say. This guy believes, he’s not a nonbeliever. The point is, where is his belief? Jesus led him into fuckin’. . . .

MD: Pure sensation.

AF: Into hell, man. He’s rockin’ and rollin’, what does he give a shit? These are big-time players, it’s not like going on a date on Friday night and having a couple too many beers. I don’t know, maybe I just happen to know certain people.

MD: People you know?

AF: People I see, people I know. The fact that the movie has attracted this many people, this kind of press—we’re not creating this person outta nowhere. I’ve sat in theaters where they’ve all related to this cat. All this other stuff is the joke, the veil, the front—“Oh, no, we don’t do that.”

MD: How much room is there for improvisation when you work?

AF: Everything’s improvised. Writing a script is an improvisation: you sit down in front of a blank piece of paper, what do you do with it? You say: “Hi.” “How are you?” “Fine.” “Great.” That’s an improvisation with yourself.

MD: Some directors are very set up when they start to shoot, they’ve got their storyboards, their ideas.

AF: If you’re Alfred Hitchcock, who cares? But if you’re not, you can only do it the way you do it. I come from a certain school, a certain world.

MD: Which is what?

AF: Filmmakers? Cassavetes meets Kubrick, I guess.

MD: That’s pretty good lineage.

AF: You might as well aspire to the top. But it’s really impossible to talk about the process because it’s constantly changing. All of a sudden somebody parks a truck in a spot, the guy ain’t moving the truck, or he’s going to shoot your fuckin’ head off. All of a sudden you see how fast you change a shot. It’s a live deal, it’s in 3D, man.

MD: Did you have a hard time getting money together, given the film’s content?

AF: It was difficult, but they’re all difficult. Trying to put more than a million dollars in a bank account at any given time is a bitch. Raising capital in the ’90s separates the men from the boys, I tell you.

MD: Were you upset about the NC-17 rating you got?

AF: I could give a shit. I knew what the rating was going to be, I’m in the business, baby. I am the ratings system.

MD: What did they object to? Keitel jerking off?

AF: That didn’t help. Raping a nun on an altar didn’t help. Every other word is “fuck,” that didn’t help. Some chick shooting up for two minutes, that didn’t help. But it didn’t matter, because this film needed the NC-17. We hadda have it. It’s like going to see an R-rated version of Deep Throat, who the fuck is gonna see that? The whole point about this film is that you’re gonna see somebody jack off.

MD: The scenes in the apartment with Zoe’s character booting up with the lieutenant are amazing. The movie opens up, and time stops. There’s just a little ambient sound, some room tone.

AF: The city gets real quiet at five in the morning, believe me. That was basically the sound there. We put a microphone up the moment we shot that scene, that’s what you heard.

MD: Did you purposely set out to make Bad Lieutenant look different from King of New York?

AF: You know the economics of a film determines the look of it, determines everything. Like Godard said, “The economics of a film are the politics of a film.” The difference in the look of the films is the difference between the needs of Harvey Keitel versus the needs of Christopher Walken [Frank White in King of New York].

MD: King of New York is like a fairy tale in a lot of ways.

AF: Yeah, Grimm’s Fairy Tales. King of New York was about very wealthy people. The bottom line of Bad Lieutenant was how much the guy is making: the guy’s fuckin’ broke, can’t even cover a $50,000 debt. King of New York’s about a guy who’s making two, three million dollars a week. Think about that.

MD: Are you sensitive about the criticism of the way you handled race in King of New York? Frank White and his black and Latin minions?

AF: I got certain actors I work with, some of ’em white, some of ’em black. For me it’s the ’90s, man, you start lookin’ at the color people are, you’re full of shit, really. You can have compassion about who’s making money and who’s starving to death, but making an issue about the color of somebody’s skin’s as lame as it gets.

MD: What do you think about violence in movies?

AF: Right now I think it’s all pussy, man. But what is violence? In a movie, to keep quoting Godard, “A gun going off is not a gun going off.” Violence in the movies—it’s an attitude, it’s aggression. And these films weren’t made for kids. You’re not gonna take a three-year-old to a burlesque.

MD: Did you see One False Move? That’s another movie that would have been tossed off as an exploitation film if it had been handled differently, or hadn’t gotten great advance word.

AF: Every film is an exploitation film, they’re not making films not to earn. Friday night has got to get them even, you know. Tell me one film that’s not an exploitation film, one film that’s made where they don’t care if they get the money back. Today we shot all day on videotape, I’m not looking to sell that.

MD: You shoot your rehearsals?

AF: Yeah, sure, although actually the shit with Madonna I could probably make a fortune. [Laughs.]

MD: What’s the film you’re rehearsing with her?

AF: It’s about the process of making a film, it’s called Snake Eyes. Harvey plays a director who wants to make a film. He chooses Madonna because she comes with the bread, and he thinks she can play the part. It’s about making a movie . . . the Bad Director.

MD: Is the script autobiographical?

AF: On his part, not mine. Harvey puts his own stuff into everything.

MD: So what’s the director like in Snake Eyes?

AF: He’s Harvey, man. Figure that one out.

MD: Is he in some sort of moral—

AF: Harvey’s in a continual state of questioning. You saw him in the elevator, man. Even if he didn’t say a word, you can just see him, the cat’s vibrating, baby. These are the guys you want to be turning the camera on.

MD: Is that how it works for you, making movies? A state of questioning?

AF: Yeah, we’re asking, we’re not preaching.

MD: There’s a scene early in Bad Lieutenant when Keitel goes to Union Square. He looks into the car at the two corpses, and the camera moves down from the face of the murdered woman and stops at her tits.

AF: Yeah, that’s what he’s looking at, man.

MD: He’s looking at her tits?

AF: Well, he’s looking at a dead body, there might be a fingerprint, who knows. It ’s part of being a police officer. You gotta check and see if they got raped before they got killed. It’s a tough job.

MD: Do you know any cops?

AF: I know some.

MD: Do you like them?

AF: Some. [Laughs.]

MD: Then, in another scene, Keitel’s driving the kids who raped the nun to the bus station, there’s a cut, and suddenly the camera’s right in the passenger seat where the kid is. I felt very removed from the lieutenant’s point of view right there.

AF: You want everybody to know what it feels like when you got a nine-millimeter right in your fuckin’ mouth , baby. At that moment the cop’s so cracked up he coulda pulled that trigger as soon as not. Who do you think would question him? He’d get a fuckin’ ribbon from mayor whoever-the-fuckin’-mayor is at the time. That moment was live and die. He could have blown that fucker’s head off but he didn’t.

MD: Do you admire that?

AF: Oh, yeah, are you kidding me? I love the fact he gave them a second chance. What are you gonna do, kill them? How is that gonna help my situation?

MD: It might make me feel better.

AF: It ain’t gonna make her [the nun] feel better. She’s sorry she didn’t help them. That was the great part of Zoe’s rap: here was an opportunity to help the sinner. They’re there to be saved, not be thrown in a prison cell.

MD: How is that saving them?

AF: Well, he’s giving them an opportunity.

MD: It’s a bailout.

AF: It’s not a bailout. He’s saying, “ Your life ain’t worth shit in this town; go, get the fuck out of here. It’s your only hope. She forgives you.”

MD: Do you think that’s a particularly Catholic way of looking at the world?

AF: I think it’s a moral way of looking at the world, it’s the only way of looking at the world.

MD: Forgiveness?

AF: Absolutely. The potential of forgiveness, the potential of helping somebody. Listen, I’m not saying you take someone who has raped and murdered three-year-old children and get them off the streets, but I think there’s something you’ve gotta give. Somebody or someone on this earth gotta reach out. I think it’s the responsibility of society not to be pulling the plug on people, not playing God. I know an eye for an eye and all that, I don’t buy a life for a life.

MD: Do you think of yourself as a moral filmmaker?

AF: I’m trying. We have our lapses, though. [Laughs.]

MD: Yet, and at the same time, Frank White is responsible for all this death and misery—

AF: Like he says, “I never killed anyone who didn’t deserve to die.” That’s a heavy line.

MD: It is a heavy line, but think about all the people who buy dope down on Avenue C—

AF: That’s their responsibility. If you’re a 21-year-old crack head that’s your responsibility, that ain’t Frank’s.

MD: So he’s off the hook?

AF: No, he ain’t off the hook. He doesn’t see himself as being off the hook, he’s not trying to call himself a moral person, you know. His reality is: “Yeah, the world sucks, so do I, fuck you.” Whatever that attitude is, for the person who’s looking to score, he’s there to give it to them. He’s not gonna sit there and have a moral conversation with the cat who’s looking to buy a nickel bag.

MD: I know, but it just seems like it’s a very. . . .

AF: You go to Atlantic City, and there’s nine million fuckin’ middle-class housewives pullin’ fuckin’ one-armed bandits. They want to get off, they’re getting off, what’s the difference? I understand where you’re coming from, fin e, but Frank White is not at that point. His attitude is that if someone wants to get high, he’ll make it happen.

MD: So it’s just pure capitalism.

AF: You bet it’s pure capitalism.

MD: So you don’t think it’s fair to say you valorize Frank?

AF: If you think he’s heroic then he’s heroic. But yo u don’t think he’s heroic. That’s what’s great about Walken, he gives you the full spectrum, man. That’s what great acting is about. He ain’t passing judgment on who and what he is. That’s up to the audience.

MD: Why have you done a third version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers ?

AF: I liked the fact that it was for Warner Brothers, I liked the fact it was a big-budget movie, I liked the fact we were doing a Don Siegel movie that, at least on the rumor mill, [Sam] Peckinpah wrote.

MD: Warner came to you with the project?

AF: They said, “We know you don’t want to do it but what a re you thinking?” and I said “Yeah.” I got very into the original short story by Jack Finney, it’s incredible, very Philip Dick. The material was rich, man, so deep and so rich. It’s called The Body Snatchers which is the title of our film. It’s a great title because who the hell knows what that means?

MD: Kidnappers, snatch, the whole thing.

AF: Yeah, Abel Ferrara’s Snatch. That’s what I’m gonna call it.

Manohla Dargis is a writer who lives in New York.