a conversation with Spencer Sweeney
interview by SPENCER SWEENEY
photography by ANNABEL MEHRAN
Abel Ferrara’s new film, 4:44 — Last Day on Earth, is about the apocalypse. It stars Willem Dafoe and Ferrara’s longtime companion, Shanyn Leigh, and was shot by his longtime cinematographer, Ken Kelsch. In the film, Leigh plays the role of a painter. Spencer Sweeney, the New York artist who prepared this interview for Purple, did the actual paintings in the film, which comes out this year.
SPENCER SWEENEY — Sometimes when I’m working on a painting, it starts to take a direction. But maybe I’ll want to do a 180-degree turn-around, cover the whole thing up, and start over. The experience can lead to a decision that becomes part of it, right up to the end.
ABEL FERRARA — Exactly. The painting you did for the movie was a process. The under-painting is still there, even if you go over it. It’s part of the process. Frankie [DeCurtis] is the designer, and also a painter in his own right, so the fact that you, too, were willing to enter into the process — and work without a net — was the only way to do it. We just knew the direction we were going in, and then it all fit. That’s the thing: we can go and other guys can’t because you can fail with this kind of money. You don’t want to, but it can happen. You can’t fail when you’re making a $50 million movie. The only way to guarantee you won’t fail is to be mediocre or to have a safety net. But you have to be able to chance failing.
SPENCER SWEENEY — When I showed up with my paints and brushes — and you said OK, go! — I had no idea what we were working toward. I just went with it.
ABEL FERRARA — The first time I went to the circus, in 1955 or something, my mother brought us to see the Ringling Brothers. It was the night the Wallenda family fell off the high wire. I was there. Cut to when my kids were small and we bring them to the Cirque du Soleil: we’re having a great time, when all of a sudden a chick on the two rings is going to do a triple flip — and they take the net away! I’m like, “You motherfuckers!” The kids in the audience don’t understand, but I do, and I’m scared. I’d been there. Then two clowns go and stand underneath the chick. So now we’ve got entertainment — if she has a net it’s not the knife-edge. That’s the point. First to find something to film and then to make something happen in front of the camera — and you have to be able to screw up. Finding a subject to film and then the script is one thing. But how do you make it lethal? Sometimes we joked that in this film we were filming paint drying. Some of those scenes are essential, too, but not every night. When you’ve only got 4:44 to do something… And there’s something about her painting the picture and wanting to finish it so badly. We had to capture that intensity in her character. Do you believe in reincarnation?
SPENCER SWEENEY — I think religion is a way of embracing the unknown, of interfacing with it. I think of it as a concept so huge that it’s humbling. And I think that being humbled is a good thing. [Laughs]
ABEL FERRARA — They say Steve Jobs tried to stay humble. Did you hear what his last words were? “Oh, wow. Wow. Oh, wow.” Something like that. That had to be in there.
SPENCER SWEENEY — Take the scene where Shanyn and Willem are making love on the bed, and she says, “Come inside me.” Did you write that?
ABEL FERRARA — Yes, I wrote that.
SPENCER SWEENEY — You wrote the script somewhat minimally, which left a lot of room for the actors to improvise.
ABEL FERRARA — A lot of directors are writers. But what scares Hollywood the most is a director. If they could, they’d make do without directors. So they try to get writers to do the directing, so they won’t have to deal with real ones. They don’t want one guy with a vision taking up time. That’s the last thing they want. I was never a writer. When I was growing up, Nicholas St. John was the writer. All those movies I made, like King of New York, The Addiction, and The Funeral, were written by him. We’ve known each other since we were kids. He was the writer, and I was the director. When we were really young, I’d write and he’d direct, and then he’d write the next one. There was another guy, Mac, who could act, direct, and write, too. We’d all take turns. Then it just came down to Nicky doing the writing. His scripts weren’t long, but they were beautiful. The Funeral and King of New York were only 70 pages or 80 pages long. But then he quit. At the height of our money making, he walked away. He couldn’t stand the people, the business. That was 10 or 12 years ago. Suddenly we didn’t have a writer. You can’t replace a guy like him so easily. We started with Zoë Tamerlis, but she OD’d. She was a lifetime heroin casualty. She wrote a couple of things. Then I started working with Marla Hanson — the model who had her face slashed. Jay McInerney lived with her back in the late ’80s, early ’90s. We didn’t last long, but she introduced us to her psychiatrist, Chris Zois, who I’m still working with now. He wrote Blackout and New Rose Hotel.
SPENCER SWEENEY — But he didn’t work on 4:44. How did you write the script?
ABEL FERRARA — What I do is take an idea and structure it, without dialogue, until I know where the scenes are going. When I get to a certain point, I bring in Frankie and run it by him. Then Kenny comes in and, naturally, Shanyn, because we’re together, and she’s always on it. Once I have the structure and know the scenes and the flow of the film, Willem comes in to see if he even wants to do it. Then we really start working on it. Tony [Anthony Redman], the editor, who’s in LA, doesn’t want to see or hear anything. He’ll read it once maybe. We send him footage. Then we rehearse for a week or so before we start shooting. We rarely rehearse on a set in front of the crew. Then we start, and though the scenes don’t change, it usually takes a while to get out of the box.
SPENCER SWEENEY — What do you mean?
ABEL FERRARA — In the first week of shooting — and remember, we’re shooting in continuity — those first days can be confusing because nobody yet knows exactly what’s going on. Remember the first day we shot? There wasn’t a lot happening — just walking around, then the sex scene, and then it got going and we hit our stride with those scenes where he’s on the roof, talking to himself. When you’ve got a place like this to work in, and you’re working with actors who can do long takes, it gets better as the take goes on. On the eighth day, we waited for the magic hour. We went from day to night seamlessly. The man and woman were meditating. It was late in the afternoon, and they went outside. It started getting darker, time passed, and they got on the bed. We’d done the pieces of the scene where he throws things out and all that. Then we did the whole take from the meditation part up to the point when the Vietnamese kid came in, which is like a 15-minute take. And we had it. Everything matched. You know you’ve got it when your crew has a groove going. They’ve got the monitors going, and nobody’s tripping over their feet. We had a good take, a home-run take. To be able to run that long is one of the advantages of shooting digitally. When you shoot this way, everybody has to watch his own specific thing. You can do the greatest take in the world, if there’s a tripod reflected in a mirror or a piece of gaffer’s tape in the shot you’re sunk. OK, you can Photoshop this and that, but still, that’s not the point — details make a movie. Frankie made genius moves.
SPENCER SWEENEY — Specifically?
ABEL FERRARA — Like what color we’re going to paint the floor? The color of the scuff prints people leave so we don’t have to be mopping up all the time. But then that’s the nature of film. You learn things and do things you’ll do again. It took us 40 years to figure out that idea. Spencer, you had to learn how to do a painting for a movie. Maybe you’ll never do a painting for a movie again. But now we’re experts. If you need a painting in a movie, call us up and we’ll show you how to do it.
SPENCER SWEENEY — So, the details…
ABEL FERRARA — Yes, the details. You learn about getting the important thing: the take. That’s the payoff of a movie. Hitchcock did Rope in four or five takes. Back in those days, they could shoot for only ten minutes in a go because that’s how much film was in a roll. You could probably shoot a whole movie in a single take today. If Hitchcock were alive, he probably would try to shoot a whole movie in one take. He did nine or ten ten-minute takes for Rope. Others, like Buñuel, did it too — as did Jarmusch. And those guys are some of my favorite directors. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie has long takes with the camera moving — outrageous — with layering and all the tricks in the book — and not just done in the editing. And there is something about shooting in one place. This place made the film because outside was somewhere else. The producers were trying to get me to green-screen everything. [Green-screen is a software application used for removing backgrounds in film shots.] Can you imagine what a bullshit movie this would’ve been if we’d done that? They even wanted me to green-screen that little video we see when the kid is downstairs.
SPENCER SWEENEY — No!
ABEL FERRARA — But if we can’t pull it off for real, then why are we even making movies? And if I really had wanted to make it look like it was outside, I wouldn’t have wanted that particular green. You remember that we were going to float furniture around and all that. But it was so stupid. It’s like you’ve got to have some kind of trick. Can you imagine — at the end of the movie, someone gets hit by a couch?
SPENCER SWEENEY — No. Well, yeah. [Laughs] But what you see during the apocalypse — at the end of the world — is a relationship between two people, not furniture flying around. It’s about a couple’s love for each other. It’s quiet, in fact — a small moment at the end of the world.
ABEL FERRARA — What we were saying as the end of the world approaches is that the extraneous is gone.
SPENCER SWEENEY — That’s what you see in this movie, like in the scene of the guy feeding his dog. It goes against everything the film industry usually does, with all the explosions and the noise.
ABEL FERRARA — The funny thing about being so old is that this is the third time around for me doing 3D. When they start shooting in 3D, it means they’re desperate. Now that anybody can make a film on their phone, they use 3D. I mean, the glasses still give you a headache. And it doesn’t change a movie an iota. In the ’70s there was a soft-core film called The Stewardesses, in 3D. It made a lot of money, actually.
SPENCER SWEENEY — There’s one with John Holmes called Deep Vision.
ABEL FERRARA — And the big-budget movies from that period, like Earthquake and Towering Inferno in Sensurround — Sensurround my ass. They overloaded the speakers and shook the camera. My biggest lesson was in high school. A bunch of us skipped out of school to see 2001 in 70 mm at the Ziegfeld. We got toasted and sat right up front. We might have even seen it twice. I saw it again, years later, on a nine-inch, black-and-white TV. I was stuck in a blizzard in a log cabin in Vermont. No big theater or giant screen or 3D glasses. And it was the same masterpiece.
SPENCER SWEENEY — You were talking about the seamlessness of the sequence, from night to day. The film seems to have a liquid nature that bathes you in the expression of the story. Was it in the script, to have all the elements of chance filmed in this liquid-like push from beginning to end?
ABEL FERRARA — I don’t know about liquid movement. People have called it a trance film.
SPENCER SWEENEY — The images bleed into each other, and there are visual symbols that are repeated, like that of the circle. There’s a circle in the painting, they make love in a circle, there’s a circle in the reflections of the eye. Was that something that you decided upon — or did it just keep popping up and so you kept it?
ABEL FERRARA — You start filming and designing. Frankie looks at these things like it’s a painting. A lot of times he’s just looking at designs and lines. And sometimes I’m looking at shots one way, and he’s looking at them another. Kenny also brings his vision to it — and believe me, it’s not like we’re in synch. But that conflict is what makes our films ours.
SPENCER SWEENEY — Some of the music reminded me of what Ry Cooder did with Paul Schrader, like in Blue Collar. Or what he did for the soundtrack of Performance.
ABEL FERRARA — Slide guitar. Francis [Kuipers] is a blues man. He’s also a virtuoso guitarist. But we never did a pure blues track for a film until this one.
SPENCER SWEENEY — There are situations in everyday life that become humorous in the face of the ultimate end. One thing that struck me is the way technology is featured in the film — like computer screens and the noise that Skype makes. It’s absurd. But that will all be there in the most serious of situations — the end of the human race. You have these goofy technological things going on. In the scene where Dafoe is fighting with his ex, Shanyn comes in screaming at the top of her lungs. But he’s still occupied with his computer. It’s total chaos. Then we see the other character on the computer screen. And in the background there’s a picture of Fassbinder, smiling and rolling his eyes.
ABEL FERRARA — Willem brought the Fassbinder image in and Frankie slipped it in. You never know what’s going to happen.
SPENCER SWEENEY — Is it possible that people would stay so cool at the end of the world?
ABEL FERRARA — Yes. Because the film is not about the moment everyone found out that the world was ending. That had happened months before. This film is about the final moment. Resignation and acceptance — and sure, there is anger. But everyone is beyond all that.
SPENCER SWEENEY — What about the genre of a film like 4:44? What were you looking for? What were you trying to do?
ABEL FERRARA — We’re talking about circles, as you mentioned before, and about how you start. The thing is, once it was structured we understood that there wasn’t going to be a war at the end. We weren’t going to play it that way. You’ve got to be able to hit the ground running. But once you’ve got enough scenes to get the film going, it has to make itself. You can’t have a script so rigid that you’re locked into it — unless you’re really committed to doing that. It has to be done in a way that it’s layered on. You have to trust the actors, and they have to trust us. Willem had the faith that we would come up with something. But we didn’t have it until we finished editing.
SPENCER SWEENEY — There’s echoing and mirroring in the film. I remember you talked about me coming over with my paint, and then something about a jazz band. But what it ends up as — at the end of the world — is that people don’t know what’s on the other side of that minute. The film does turn into a kind of jazz.
ABEL FERRARA — Shanyn’s character believed in something. Willem’s didn’t. He was in war paint because he didn’t have a religious instinct. When Coppola made Apocalypse Now, he was pissed because he didn’t know what the ending was going to be. And the film doesn’t really have an ending. I’ve seen four endings, all of them good, all of them feasible. But, at that point Coppola didn’t realize this, and the actors wouldn’t go along with it because he didn’t know how it was going to end. But, like we spoke in the beginning, there was a lot of money riding on it. 4:44 didn’t really have a conventional script either. You just have to have confidence. The people around you have to have confidence, too, like the people putting up the money. I’m sure that when Kubrick spent a year making Full Metal Jacket it was great. He pushed everybody, and they worked their asses off, trying to get home by Thanksgiving. And they got home by Thanksgiving — the next Thanksgiving. Woody Allen shoots scenes that he’s already budgeted and rescheduled the re-shoots for. He knows he’s going to re-shoot those scenes. He’s out there the first time just to get it going, to find it — and then start the rewriting. He has the time, and, as you know, it’s all about the process.
SPENCER SWEENEY — I guess that’s all art actually is.
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