When British distributor VIPCO put out full-age ads depicting a particularly bloody scene from Driller Killer, the movie became an unwitting part of the ‘video nasty’ moral flap of the early 80s. Suddenly, director Abel Ferrara’s low-budget, quick-and-dirty horror-arthouse-drama about a young artist going crazy in Manhattan was lumped in with such films as Cannibal Holocaust, Last House On The Left and the tawdry SS Experiment Camp.
Banned from 1984 until 1999 (when it was released with nearly a minute of cuts), Driller Killer is about to get a restored, 4K edition courtesy of Arrow Films, which presents the original theatrical version as well as a previously unseen pre-release edit. Even all these years later, Driller Killer remains a tough and unsettling film, and sets the tone for the uncompromising movies Ferrara has made ever since. Whether they deal with kung fu serial killers (Fear City), gangsters (King Of New York), renegade cops (Bad Lieutenant) or vampires (The Addiction), Ferrara’s movies frequently deal with the messiness of morality: there’s violence and addiction in his stories, but also occasional glimmers of goodness and redemption.
Ahead of Driller Killer’s re-release, we spoke to Ferrara over Skype about a few of the highlights in his body of work, from the power tool-heavy movie that got the British government in a lather in the mid-80s to his forthcoming Siberia, which stars Willem Defoe, Nic Cage and a dog sled. Whatever the subject, Ferrara always speaks his mind, so brace yourself for some saucy language if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing…
I’ll start with Driller Killer, because that’s getting a remastered release in the UK. Over here, the movie was synonymous with the Video Nasty flap in the early 80s. I wondered if you were aware that was going on at the time, and what your reaction was to it.
Sure, sure. Well, other than laughing about the film being talked about in the House… what do you call it, the House of Commons? Obviously, that generated some laughter. But we realised from the very beginning that the ideas we had were gonna be challenged, you know? Coming from the United States with freedom of speech, but it’s still… that censorship game, it’s an economic censorship game that’s being played in the United States. I’m still being sued, man. I’m being sued for Welcome To New York by Dominique Strauss-Kahn [a French politician used as the basis for Gerard Depardieu’s character] so it’s something I’m living with.
I did read about that, yeah. Didn’t it seem rather strange that Driller Killer got lumped in with a bunch of horror films? Because it isn’t a slasher film. It’s not a conventional horror film at all.
Well, when you call your film Driller Killer, you can’t be shocked when that happens!
It was one of several horror films in the 70s and 80s that involved power tools. Do you know where that came from?
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
So was it your response to that film?
It was a world we were trying to be a part of, you know? We wanted to put our movies in theatres, and those were the movies people were watching and we put two and two together.
The film’s had a lot of labels attached to it over the years, but it doesn’t quite fit with any of them. Some say it’s an exploitation film, some say it’s an art movie. The media here briefly said it was a video nasty. How do you categorise it, if at all?
A documentary, I think, of the life we were living at the time.
So it’s autobiographical, then – other than the drilling bits, obviously.
More biographical. Even the drilling bit is, like, dreams and fantasies. New York was an intense city, you know – I’m living in Rome now, so it was like what Rome is now. I mean, New York is now the international banking headquarters. Those people [in Driller Killer] are gone; in 1977, people were squatting, living on the street, not paying rent, you know?
That’s one of the things I find fascinating about your films is that if you watch them in sequence, you can see New York change.
Yep. For the worse! [Raucous laugh] Not for the better!
That was what I was going to ask you, what you thought about that, because in some respects, you could say that the gentrification of New York has made it safer to walk the streets, but it also seems to have stripped some of the life out of the place.
What’s safe? Is it psychologically safer? Is it culturally safer? Is it spiritually safer? I don’t think so. Giving a free-fly zone to every fuckin’ thieving, fuckin’, banking muthafucker in the world? You think that’s safer? What’s so safe about that, you know?
To be fair, a similar thing’s happened in London.
It’s all over the world – it’s not just in New York. Listen, cities are constantly changing. London’s been changing forever, right? It’s never the same. In New York, what’s there now could be gone tomorrow, so…
I saw an interview with you, a Q&A, and you were talking about one of the first reviews of Driller Killer, I think it was Variety. And the writer moaned about the strawberries given out at the screening.
Yeah, right! We’d spent our last five bucks buying strawberries for everybody, and the guy, he didn’t even like them! It just goes to show.
There’s a quote John Carpenter once said, which is that “In France I’m an auteur, in Germany I’m a filmmaker, in the UK I’m a horror director, and in the US I’m a bum.” Do you think you’re perceived differently by critics in different countries?
Yeah, sounds like me! There’s snobbery in Europe. I think it’s a reverse snobbery. In America, nobody knows who the director is, really. It’s almost extinct.
What makes you say that?
Because it just is, man. The role of directors… if you have final cut, you’re an auteur, and that’s it. If you don’t have that, you’re not a director. Anybody can make a film – making films is easy. Making a good film – that’s something else. John Carpenter is a bum in a country that has no appreciation for what he does, what he is, his music, his imagination, his ability to rise above… his ability to just be who he is. There were so many filmmakers that he influenced, and I was one of them.
So what do you think the solution is for young filmmakers? Because obviously, you can make a movie on your phone now and upload it to YouTube.
Is that a route you might have taken had that technology been available in the 70s?
It’s a big help, man. The tools you need are right in front of you. If you need half a million dollars to buy a pencil and a piece of paper, how much poetry do you think you’re going to get? So the fact that it’s accessible, that it’s there… these kids have access to every film ever made on YouTube, and that’s got to be a positive thing.
Looking back over the films you’ve made in your career, the subject matters and the genres are so wide-ranging. So how do you find a project that interests you?
We’re working from our imagination. We don’t really adapt books or adapt novels or buy music or whatever. It’s just what we do. It’s our lives, basically. It’s our dreams, our fantasies, who we are. It’s our expression, our way of living.
Do you think what you try to do through your films is get to a certain human truth, for example in The Addiction, it’s a vampire story, but it’s human and believable on one level.
That’s Nicholas St John, you know. He writes the scripts. It’s Nicky coming to terms with what he believes in; there’s darkness in the metaphor of the vampires, there’s the light of Jesus Christ. It’s a learning process; I’m just funding my education through my work, through the tools of film. I’m expressing myself, and I’m also trying to understand myself. I’m doing it to connect. That’s the process, right? You do something like a film, and a film doesn’t exist unless somebody goes to watch it.
Are you surprised by which of your films have endured and connected more than others. For example, King Of New York is one that has a huge, huge cult following.
When King Of New York came out, no one went to see that film. That was nowhere near as successful as Driller Killer, okay? Not even close. So today, people perceive that film a certain way; 20 years from now, people will perceive something else. A thousand years from now, they’ll perceive something else.
What was it like to work with Christopher Walken so many times? What was the working relationship like between you guys?
We worked with him because we loved working with him, you know? I’d work with him now, but it’s just the way things go. But for a director to have an actor like that, it spoils you, and it makes your job worthwhile. He’s giving, intelligent, he’s committed to his work, committed to his craft. And, you know, there were a lot of things that he didn’t do that I asked him to do. He’s committed to what he’s committed to. He brings it. He brings himself to everything he does, and that gives things a whole new life.
He was supposed to do Bad Lieutenant with you, wasn’t he? So what made him change his mind?
Yeah. It was something he was sensing I wanted. That was a script that I wrote, and we did rehearsals… I actually did a lot of writing for that script based on his rehearsals. But I think in the end he felt I wanted something that he didn’t perceive in that character. It was a pretty big blow at the time, but looking back at it, it was a generous act on his part. He couldn’t deliver; and he told me straight up; “I know what you’re looking for, and I can’t do it.” And that was it! [Chuckles] With those guys, you don’t argue.
And of course it worked out so well, because Harvey Keitel’s performance is incredible. Did the way you film – quickly, without permits on occasion – feed into the energy of his performance, do you think?
Yeah, Harvey was right in that moment. There was a lot he needed to express; he was going through a lot of personal stuff. Plus, he’s a spiritual dude, and a lot of what’s in that film is him, you know?
I feel that’s one of the common themes in your films, is the collision between spirituality and the flesh-and-blood reality of being human: violence, addiction…
That’s where spirituality comes from. You can’t separate the body from the soul.
Do you think your philosophy has changed in the process of making your films?
Well, I’m a Buddhist now, but I hope it has. I hope I’m learning something… I’m trying, put it that way. I’m focused on being a better person.
What are your memories of making Body Snatchers?
Jack… what was the name of the guy who wrote the original story? Jack Finney. That original story’s a masterpiece. It’s brilliant writing. [Don] Siegel’s movie was a pretty impressive movie, and he was impressive as a movie director. But it was very true to the book. Then Warner Bros, they switched it around.
You know, I’d like to do another remake [of Body Snatchers]. Because the idea of someone who’s changed… the idea of it being in a small town where the guy who knows everyone – especially the doctor, who grew up in that town – the most beautiful part is when he tries to deny the reality of what’s happening. But when he sees the librarian, he realises that she isn’t the same woman. It’s a great, great moment.
We started our film, already we’re far enough into the script where Warner Bros already had the idea of strangers in a military camp. You couldn’t come up with a worse place or a worse starting point for that film. We did the best we could; without telling the guys at Warner Bros, I was holding onto the original story, minus the narration.
So if you were to remake it, you would take it back to the small town.
Yeah, absolutely. The doctor in the small town somewhere. Why change that? It’s brilliant. Why would you change that? If you’ve got a great reason for changing it, then yeah. But if you’ve got an arbitrary reason? You’re gonna make a $40m film on some arbitrary, dopey-ass fuckin’ chase some idiot screenwriter made – that was fired anyway? That’s it in a nutshell.
What happened while it was being made? Was it a difficult film to make because of Warner Bros?
We had a lot of money and we were out in the middle of nowhere, so it was in the editing that it went south. Dede Allen was a really talented editor at Warners, in charge of all the editing for all the films. I mean, I butted heads, because I don’t like anybody telling me what to do. But, you know, we had a pretty good editor ourselves [Anthony Redman], and we were able to play a game well enough that… you’ve seen the film, right?
Yeah, I really liked it.
Right. I’m glad you like it – I like it too. But could it have been better? Sure. Would I like to do a remake of that? Yeah. Do I think I could do a better one than these clowns did with [Invasion]? I haven’t seen all of it, but I’ve seen enough…
What do you think is the core of Body Snatchers that makes it so resonant?
Spirituality of the writer. Him trying to come to terms with the possibility that the world could possibly blow up in his face. It’s just a beautiful work of fiction, man. It’s creative. He was a talented guy at the top of his game. That’s why it resonates. They gave [Jack Finney] 500 bucks, and that was it. That’s all he got. They made four studio films based on that idea, and the guy got 500 bucks. And when I talked to him about it, he had no resentment at all; he said, “Hey, that’s the deal I made.”
So you spoke to Jack Finney?
Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of the perks of being who I am! You get to talk to Jack Finney, you get to talk to William Gibson. But then you’ve got to work with the Warner Bros guys! The difference between Jack Finney and Warner Bros… Jack was really cool, very helpful, just what you’d expect. Then I got a call from the Warner Bros guys saying, “Don’t talk to that guy, because, like he basically got $500, and that’s all he’s gonna fuckin’ get, and we don’t want him asking for more.” So that ended that conversation.
That seems to be a common theme with writers of these stories. The same thing happened to the guy who wrote The Day The Earth Stood Still. I think he got $500 too.
[Roars with laughter] That was the going rate for masterpieces back then! Five hundred, and yeah, be happy you got that!
What are you doing next, because I really want to see your Jekyll And Hyde movie.
Yeah well, I don’t know if you’re gonna see that one next. But we’re doing Siberia, with Willem Defoe, Nic Cage and Isabelle Beart. It’s like The Odyssey, like a journey that Willem makes by dog sled, of all things. Dealing with animals, dealing with nature, but basically dealing with Willem’s dreams of the unconscious. We haven’t started filming yet, but we’re close.
Well, I really look forward to seeing that. Abel Ferrara, thank you very much.
The Driller Killer is out on disc on the 28th November from Arrow Films.