Abel Ferrara has made a career as one of the industry’s leading provocateurs.
While his latest film, “Zeros and Ones,” may not shock quite like “Driller Killer” or “Ms .45,” it still stands out for being very deliberately set during the pandemic.
“Zeros and Ones” stars Ethan Hawke as an American soldier stationed in Rome, caught in the midst of an apocalyptic siege, wandering empty streets that feel eerily familiar. In between the action, sex and drug deals (this is a Ferrara film, after all), Hawke’s JJ sanitizes his hands, changes masks, and seems far from amused when two other characters reassure him, “Don’t worry, we’re negative.”
Variety sat down with the maverick director ahead of the film’s world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival to discuss taking a Willem Dafoe break in working with Hawke, and his “need” to make a film during the pandemic.
Ethan introduced the film as “Abel’s hit on what we’ve been going through.” What compelled you to take that hit?
I couldn’t help it. If you’re a filmmaker how do you avoid it? Even if you try to avoid it, it’s gonna be in the movie. This was an idea I had before the pandemic; the pandemic elements are just part of a city under siege. How do you shoot Rome like that? It was given to me. In the darkest moments, there are things that are positive too. I’m a moment-to-moment filmmaker. These films are personal, they’re very much where I live. I’ve lived in Rome for seven years, I’ve shot that neighborhood, I know the effect the pandemic has had on that neighborhood. These are real people from that neighborhood in the movie. That’s how I shoot.
Yet the majority of filmmakers seem to have avoided the pandemic in their projects.
It’s human nature to want to forget it. I wanted to make a film, I needed to make a film, I needed to shoot. That was the real underlying point of this film. At that point, after 10 months of lockdown, I needed to film, so I figured out how to keep everybody safe and alive, including myself. The protocols I was reading coming from the unions and from L.A. or London or wherever, I don’t buy them.
Because you can’t make a film that was written before this, and then try to figure out how to shoot it. You’ve got to be part of the event. In my film, the actors wear masks, there are no extras, people are washing their hands. We shot the film very quickly, there was a very small crew, there wasn’t anything that could have contaminated. If I wrote a script about some gigantic costume drama three years before the pandemic and tried to come up with 400 protocols to make that safe to shoot, it’s not gonna happen. My first responsibility as the director is to make sure no-one gets killed. I’m talking about going back to action, car crashes, pre-CGI, shooting guns off. As fake as that is, you can really hurt somebody, the act of making films pre-CGI is pretty dangerous, and this is even more dangerous. Plus, as a 70-year-old, I’m in the real danger zone.
You once said, “I have apocalyptic films in my DNA.” Does “Zeros and Ones” feel like an extension of yourself?
For sure. It’s an apocalyptic moment in history. We’re in the middle of this pandemic. The fact that people think it’s over is some kind of needed groupthink. Everything’s fine, we can have this festival. Things have relaxed a little bit, but if this isn’t an apocalyptic moment in my life I don’t know what is. It’s up there with Vietnam, I was a kid then, the World Trade Center, 9/11, there have been a lot of terrible things that have happened. But this has been a wake-up call. I’m a Buddhist, so this is call karma. Ever country is working on weaponizing viruses. It’s the karma from that. It’s the Chinese this time, or someone does it because they want to. Let’s hope that’s not what happened now, let’s hope it was an “accident.” The fact that’s even on the table as a worldwide concept is horrifying. I’ve got a six-year-old daughter, you’ve got to be kidding.
She’s in the film too.
Yeah, my daughter’s an actress.
Are you happy about that?
It’s the family business. I don’t want to leave her home. If we go to work, if we go somewhere, we’re not going to leave her with a stranger, with a baby sitter, with her grandmother. She’s part of the film. The fact she’s great in front of the camera is a gift. Willem is her godfather. She just works on it, some people, very few people can be filmed. I don’t know what it is. Every father thinks her daughter is very cool, but mine is.
Willem called himself your “creature.” How different was collaborating with Ethan for the first time?
Ethan’s cool. I’ve known him since he came to New York. We have a kindred spirit. We know the same people, he’s a good friend of Willem’s. I’ve seen his stuff, he’s a musician too, he’s special. He related to the material, and there wasn’t a lot of material. The script was…
Is 18 pages bare bones enough? Ethan says, “I got a script, but I don’t know if you’d call it a script.” It was the people, it was the events. Once I knew it was him, we took it to the next level.
The film ends on a dawn of sorts. Are you saying there’s some hope to cling to?
For sure, everybody’s waiting for that moment: The moment of normal reality that everyone was sick of two years before. Now, going to a bar and ordering a coffee is a surreal, life-changing event which we took for granted. If there’s anything beautiful that comes out of this, it’s the gratitude. Just walking through the park, just not wearing a mask, to take life as the gift that it is. The simplest thing can be taken away like that, there’s no guarantee all of this is there forever. If anything, this has put us in this global consciousness. It don’t matter where you live, what your ethnicity is, how much money you got, who your governor is, everybody is living on the same planet and we’ve got to get it right. If this is a man-made virus, that’s a pretty sorry fucking comment to make on all of us as human beings.