Abel Ferrara on Collaborating With Willem Dafoe for the Sixth Time on 'Tommaso': "He's a Partner in Crime"

Abel Ferrara inset and – Tomasso Still-H 2020
Daniele Venturelli/WireImage; Kino Lorber

The Rome-based auteur weighs in on cancel culture, what he'll miss about Cannes and finding ways to make movies during the COVID-19 crisis: "We've got to go forward and shoot, but you've got to keep everybody safe."

Sometime after the second or third film together, director Abel Ferrara and his frequent star Willem Dafoe developed something of a shorthand. “The closer we are and the more experience we have together, the more independent we become on the set,” says the Bronx-born auteur behind such indie classics as King of New York and Bad Lieutenant. “He knows what he needs. I know what he needs. And he can go about doing it. And we have the confidence in each other.” With Tommaso, which marks Ferrara’s first narrative feature since 2014's Pasolini and his sixth collaboration with Dafoe, the pair are canvasing terrain easily described as close-to-home. Ferrara shot the film at his Rome apartment, where Dafoe is his real-life neighbor. The titular character is an American expat filmmaker living in Rome, grappling with sobriety (something Ferrara has struggled with in the past). And the 68-year-old director’s wife, Cristina Chiriac, and his toddler daughter, Deedee Ferrara, round out the cast. Ahead of the film’s premiere at the Virtual Cannes Market, Ferrara spoke to THR about where the line between fact and fiction blurs in Tommaso, his one experience making a big-budget studio film and why Woody Allen hasn’t really been canceled.

You’ve worked with Dafoe six times now. Is he your muse?

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s one of the many things he is. He’s a partner in crime. He’s a partner in getting these films made. He’s my neighbor, he’s a godfather to the baby. We’re creatively connected, doing this stuff. So he’s a lot of things for me, on top of being the actor that he is.

How would you describe the dynamic between the two of you?

It’s a director-actor dynamic. Basically, he’s got a job to do, and I’ve got a job to do. And at this point, the way we work, it crosses but it doesn’t cross. I have things other than the acting to deal with, and he’s got what he needs to do to prepare and be ready to shoot and to deliver the performance. I’m not “casting” Willem [for a film]. Willem is part of the process from the very beginning. We have a lot of back and forth on what we want to do, which production we want to go to [next] and what we want to write. He’s involved in that phase of it, which he needs to be, and then as we process into the actual filming itself. But the thing is, each film is so different. It changes, but we are in tune with each other, very much.

How was it working with your wife and daughter?

Well Cristina is an actress. So, the minute we started doing this, she is an actress. Willem is an actor, he’s no longer my friend, neighbor, godfather of the baby. She’s an actress, and she’s very cool. She’s done theater at a very early age, then started doing movies and then she met me on the filming of Pasolini. She’s got the gift. And she’s got a relationship with Willem. The baby — this is like the third movie. She’s in Siberia. She’s my daughter so I think she’s fantastic, but I think that the film proves what she’s like. She’s very natural, very cool in front of the camera. She’s good for two takes, and then she’s not going to do anymore. But she’s sweet in those takes. She has that thing. It’s a family business. It’s like a gift that she can do what she does. 

Did you share Tommaso with any fellow filmmakers to get feedback during the process?

Sometimes I show it to strangers. I show it to people in the business. I show it to people who are not in the business. I drive everybody crazy. But not so much other directors. They're working on their own films, I’ve got my own problems. When somebody approaches me with a script or a film to watch, like, “Yeah, I don’t know how much I can help you. I’m trying to help me, ya know?” I don’t know if that [New York director] community is the way it was in the nineties when you’re talking about Spike [Lee] or the Coen Brothers and [Jim] Jarmusch. Everybody was in New York, and things were screened so there was more of that back then. [Quentin] Tarantino is a friend. I’m pretty much a lone wolf at this point as a director in Rome. 

The film is about an American filmmaker expat living in Rome, dealing with sobriety and demons. How autobiographical is it?

My life is a starting point. And that was like [my life] two or three years ago. I take Italian lessons from that woman [depicted in Tommaso]. I go to those bars. I go to meetings. Cristina is the mother of the baby. But once the actor comes in and the cameras come out, now we’re making a movie and it becomes a different process. And some of those scenes aren’t real. And the ones that are real become, say, maybe more abstract than the abstract ones because it’s the actors making it come to life. It’s a fiction film. In the end, you have Tomasso who is not me, and then you have Cristina, who is not the Cristina I know. That’s the beauty of making films, right? It’s why we do it.

Why do you live in Italy vs. America?

I moved to Italy after 9/11. I moved to Italy because of the independence that a film director has [here] is a given. In Europe, there is no conversation of final cut. It isn’t even a discussion. In New York, even back in the day, it was always a contractual battle. Now I don’t think that the [phrase] is even used. I don’t see how I could make the films I want to do and do it in the way films are being made now in the United States. I’m not saying that there aren’t directors that have total autonomy, but it’s not an accepted thing. Being an artist is not an accepted thing in America. It’s better for me here. And that’s not saying I’m not going to go back. We did Welcome to New York in New York. I just did a documentary, The Projectionist, in New York. I could go back to New York and shoot tomorrow. But I met Cristina, we had the child, and it’s a different life.

Were you approached often to do big studio movies back in ’90s?

I did Body Snatchers at Warner Bros. It was $20 million, but we shot it in Alabama so it was like making it for around $60 million. It was really a lot of effects, all kinds of crazy stuff, all pre-CGI. Working that way in L.A., it is what it is when you’re handed $20 million. But at the same time, the studio was making Clint Eastwood movies where he was autonomous. They were making Oliver Stone’s JFK. They were making Malcolm X with Spike at the time. I work the same way. I’m not giving up my vision of the film for anybody or anything. It was tough, I actually didn’t have final cut on that film, and that was the last one that I didn’t have it. So, it was a battle. But some great films have been made in that [studio] world. And I’m the end product of studio filmmaking. A lot of my DNA is Hollywood, all the way. It’s just not the way I choose to work.

What are your thoughts on the current studio film now that everything is very corporatized? 

I don’t watch a lot of it and that’s probably the reason. It’s not often that people say, “Hey man, you gotta see this [studio] film. You can’t miss this film.” I’ve seen some stuff. It’s alright. Listen, great films come from a singular vision. Directing a movie is not a groupthink. The director has a certain job. Everyone has their gig. It’s a communal trip, but the director is the final word. And if he’s not, I don’t know what the possibilities of that movie could ever be. Movies [like Star Wars] are made for children.

What will you miss most about physical Cannes?

The life we had might be gone. I miss sitting and having an espresso and discussing a film. I miss the water. I miss the people, seeing friends you don’t see, showing a movie, seeing people from all over the world. That’s the real tragedy. The ability for people from all walks of life, from all countries, can travel, meet, be together, share their experiences is gone. This is what makes this pandemic such a disaster. I hope that comes back. 

Many of your compatriots have been canceled. How do you feel about that phenomenon? 

What do you mean by cancelled?

Like Woody Allen. He cannot work.

He works. He makes movies and he just wrote a book. It’s a complicated issue. Because I grew up with the Women’s Movement. So in the early '70s, when I was a university student, this was an all-powerful thing, like #MeToo in certain ways. I have three daughters. I know what their life is like out there in the world. It’s very tough. And two of my daughters are Black, so, that’s even tougher, and it breaks my heart. I kept saying to myself, where is this woman’s movement? And then in the last four or five years, it [has emerged] in a big way. It’s like what’s happened in the last month — the recognition of what it’s like to really be Black in the United States. So, I don’t know about being cancelled. It’s a scary word. It’s like being deleted, eliminated. But everyone has to confront — I’m a Buddhist, so I’ll say it — your karma. Your actions are going to define who and what you are, and you’ve got to answer to it. But you could overcome it. You could rise. It’s not an execution. I mean every one of us, everybody who’s in jail, they’re not dead. So, they have to try to make amends for what they have done and who they hurt. And that’s it. Right now, things are happening fast. What did Vladimir Lenin say? Sometimes decades go by and nothing happens, and sometimes weeks go by, and decades happen. I think that’s what’s happening now. I hope what went down in the last month is really going to inspire some real change.

What’s next for you?

Right now, the key is we’ve got to go forward and shoot, but you’ve got to keep everybody safe, especially starting with me because I’m 68 years old. So this virus is a little different for me than it is for others. But we’re trying to find a way to shoot. So, I’m thinking of something. We’re going to shoot in Rome in a way that’s designed to be shot safe. It’s designed for how we could go about it and keep everybody from getting sick. It’s a vision I have. Willem, he’s got a camera in one hand, he’s got a gun in the other hand, he’s got a military uniform on, he’s got a mask on, and it goes from there. I don’t want to talk too much about it because we’re trying to put it together.

Interview edited for length and clarity.