Abel Ferrara Talks 'Zeros & Ones,' Shooting During A Pandemic & Why He Prefers Making Films In Europe [Locarno Interview]

Bad Lieutenant” director Abel Ferrara wasn’t about to sit still during the pandemic. He found his temptation to venture into an eerily empty Rome to film the Ethan Hawke-starrer, “Zeros and Ones,” in December. “I don’t need permission to do anything,” he jokes although he did apply for some permits. He’s lived in Rome for the best part of seven years.

In Ferrara’s new espionage film, featuring a plot to blow up the Vatican, Hawke plays an American soldier sent to patrol the city and a revolutionary. He also gives a prologue to the film, recorded when he had read the script, and completed once he shot the film. Ferrara took home the Best Director prize for the film at the Locarno Film Festival when it made its world premiere, earlier this month.

READ MORE: Abel Ferrara’s ‘Zeros And Ones’ With Ethan Hawke Is A Flashbulb Pop Of Pandemic-Era Filmmaking & A Fascinating, Ferocious Funsuck [Locarno Review]

The filmmaker is a slick, skinny individual with a large character, frank New York charm, East Coast lingo, and a mop of gray hair. He’s able to swear in the same sentence as talking about his conversion to Buddhism. Able to be family with a wide variety of characters. Yet, he retains his individuality. Ferrara played with the Festival Blues Band in Locarno,  featuring US blues musician Joe Delia who scored ‘Zeros.’ The band and film also featured Ferrara’s wife Cristina Chiriac whom he followed to live in Rome when she had their child.

“That’s a good question,” Ferrara says when asked how he reconciles his Buddhist beliefs, whilst incorporating violence into his films. In his new feature, scenes include water-boarding, soldiers, guns, Russian agents, and sex with strangers. A primary virtue in Buddhism is not to injure.

“I don’t think I embrace it in the same way I used to. But I’m a real deal filmmaker,” he added. “You can’t deny [violence] exists. It’s a real question. I’m expressing it. Like blowing up the Vatican. Come on. I think as long as we keep it in the movie, it’s okay. As long as we keep it in the confines of a story. The process of filmmaking is the purifying element. The fact that it’s art.”

READ MORE: ‘Zeros & Ones’ First Look: Watch The First 2 Clips Of Ethan Hawke In Abel Ferrara’s Locarno Award-Winning Drama

The same argument goes for his water-boarding scenes.

“It’s reality,” Ferrara explained. “Waterboarding. Waterboarding. Waterboarding. I don’t even know what it fucking means. So the guys I worked with are in the military that I worked with on the movie, they are trained military guys. I asked them. What’s this waterboarding shit? The waterboard the shit out of these kids when they sign up to the military. When you are in American training, 19-years-old, just left your mother’s house, they pull you out of bed in the middle of the night and waterboard the shit out of you. It’s part of the training. It’s a tool for interrogation. It’s a tool of destruction. It’s all part of the military process.”

Ferrara has been working on three other films at the same time as making ‘Zeros.’ His current projects include a feature on Saint Padre Pio, apparently starring Shia LaBeouf; a documentary about Patti Smith, which he’s already filming, he says, and something he described as “similar to ‘Tommaso’ (an autobiographical Ferrara feature about a recovered drug addict living in Rome) but with Asia [Argento] playing me. We are shooting that one too,” he says.

He started working on ‘Zeros’ last summer and was inspired by his neighborhood. He lives “just down the block from the Vatican.”

READ MORE: Abel Ferrara Says Shia LaBeouf Will Star In His Upcoming Film About The Italian Saint Padre Pio

“We know what we have to do. I like to shoot. I don’t like to plan. I want to shoot. It’s like a snake shedding its skin. With ‘Zeros,’ I just needed to shoot at that moment. I had enough of being inside, remote. I knew it was dangerous, especially for me. I do not need permission to do anything. We had permission to a point. I got my phone,” the director said when asked about the situation in Rome during the shoot.

The ever-present pandemic is visible in his film, even though other filmmakers have avoided showing it.

“How can you avoid it, making a film during the pandemic?” asked Ferrara. “First of all, it’s a dangerous situation trying to make a movie while a pandemic is going on and then, what, avoid it? So if I care about the actors living, saying you kiss her. You know what I’m saying? If I acted like it’s not happening, it seems ridiculous to me.”

Another concern when shooting during COVID was the filmmaker’s own health situation. Ferrara’s no spring chicken.

“I’ve got to keep my crew alive. I’ve got to keep myself alive. I’m 70. Most of my crew is 25 to 30. Am I going to make a film and make-believe that we can’t kill each other in five minutes?” the filmmaker said. “I don’t get it. I’m a now filmmaker and I make films about my fucking position in the world anyway. I’m making films in the world. You wear a mask. We wash our hands. There’s something dangerous there. No one is in the street after 9 o’clock at night. That’s a reality. It’s not a movie. What are we going to say is out there? Who knows? A manmade virus coming out of a lab in Wuhan? Somebody’s telling me it came out of a lab in North Carolina and they sold it to Wuhan. Who gives a shit where it came from? Basically, everyone is developing the same deal. So that’s nice to know there are a bunch of scientists out there trying to murder everyone on Earth.”

LISTEN: Abel Ferrara Talks ‘Siberia,’ Working With Dennis Hopper, Staying Sober & Much More [Deep Focus Podcast]

Going back to his spiritual nature, Ferrara explained how he became a Buddhist when he gave up his addictions. His Buddhism has impacted how he sees things.

“I’m a Buddhist so all that karma comes to fruition if you think about it,” he said. “I became a Buddhist when I became sober. I’ve been sober for nine years. So when I stopped drinking and drugging, that’s when I became a Buddhist. Because you can’t be a Buddhist if you are an addict.”

Back to the issue of “Zeros and Ones,” Ferrara talked about how his views on the American military found their way into the feature. It’s not just the idea of the lone American soldier that he is concerned with.

“It is counter espionage. Genre filmmakers. We grew up on those kinds of movies. You know, the idea of the soldier. The lone American soldier,” he says. “Our main character is constantly asking questions, but you never get a straight answer. It’s part of the genre. It’s an espionage movie so yes means no. He is with her. Who is your friend? Who is your enemy? He pulls a gun on his sister-in-law. Why? Because he don’t trust her either.”

He added, “So why do they waterboard the guy? To put into his head that we are the American military and we do what the fuck we want. And if we tell you to do something, you do it. And if we tell you to do it now, you do it fucking now because we are the American army. We do what the fuck we want to whoever the fuck we want. That’s the statement. That makes you uncomfortable and it should. That’s the point of that scene.”

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Now that Ferrara has spent years living and working in Europe, he has found the European respect for film is a better fit for him, always wanting to have the final cut.

“Europe for me is where art is respected,” he explained. “The artist is respected. It’s not about money or whose car is bigger. It’s really about the work and there’s a big sensitivity to the work. There’s just a beauty here. You know my country is 300 years old. It just doesn’t have it.”

What about Hollywood?

“And the film side of it is what it is. I was in it for a long time, and I had enough of it,” Ferrara said. “I lived in Hollywood. I made Hollywood movies. I did all that. I’m an artist. I’m a final cut director which is unheard of in the United States. I’m not into it and I don’t want to fight it. Here Italian movies look how they look because the director is the director. And there’s the respect given to a director. Given to the position of a director. The director has a position of respect. In the United States, there is no such thing as a director. Or films as art.”

“Zeros and Ones” debuted at this year’s Locarno Film Festival. A formal international release has yet to be announced.