Abel Ferrara folded his frame into an armchair in a sunny apartment on the seventh floor of the Chelsea Hotel. He wouldn't remain seated for long. Saturday morning just turned into Saturday afternoon, and Ferrara had one movie to promote and another to complete.
The director of Bad Lieutenant and more than a dozen other movies, Ferrara will premiere his latest, Go Go Tales, this weekend in his hometown. It's his first New York Film Festival appearance since 1990, when the gangster epic King of New York divided audiences and provoked walk-outs protesting its perceived racism and misogyny. While Go Go Tales is unlikely to cause the same stir, the movie could raise a few eyebrows: Starring Willem Dafoe as Ray Ruby, a down-on-his-luck strip club owner attempting to save his floundering joint, the Paradise, Go Go Tales features plenty of T&A and requisite Ferrara darkness. But underneath the seedy trappings lies a good-natured comedy.
He attended the festival's opening-night gala the previous evening, the highlight of which for Ferrara was meeting fellow rabble-rouser Michael Moore. The night had been a flurry of promotion during which he traveled directly from an Apple Store appearance to Lincoln Center; at one point he negotiated a ride on his mobile phone as he answered questions from the audience about shooting digitally. But now Ferrara is ready to work. For starters there's the documentary he's making about the history of the Chelsea Hotel. "And he's saying, 'The beauty of this hotel, the essence of it, the stairwells are the vagina and da da da, and this hotel is not about Sid Vicious.' " Ferrara said to collaborator Jen Gatien, laughing his hoarse, throaty chuckle in disbelief as he related a conversation with an interview subject. "This hotel is about friendship and the bohemian lifestyle and creativity."
It's obvious he and Gatien are both tickled by the colorful material their sources are providing. In the 17 years that have passed since his last NYFF appearance, Ferrara has done battle with critics and the New York of Bad Lieutenant has all but disappeared into a tourist wonderland of big box stores and expensive neighborhoods. While not exactly lighthearted, Go Go Tales' hustler-with-a-heart-of-gold banter suggests that Ferrara himself has not escaped this transformation. He clearly relishes the chance to re-enter the gritty vibrancy of years past symbolized by the Chelsea Hotel.
And like his films, getting to know Ferrara is the equivalent of photographing a gymnast's routine: He never settles in one place or on one topic for very long; a recent transplant to Rome, where he shot Tales and his 2005 film Mary, Ferrara led The Reeler all over the Chelsea. Once home to the likes of Dennis Hopper, Milos Forman and Ethan Hawke -- all of whom will appear in the doc -- the hotel is under new management and the residential apartments, formerly comprising 60 percent of the building, are being phased out. The apartment where I met Ferrara belongs to Gatien, the daughter of nightclub legend Peter Gatien. She possesses a preservationist's eye for New York; the documentary is her baby.
"Mostly it's that my dad had nightclubs in New York and they suddenly went down without notice," Gatien said of iconic spots like Limelight and Tunnel, which, despite their stature, were never expansively filmed. "When I found out there was new management here, I thought I'd better document this -- this place could be gone. Gone the way it's been. I think in a year we're going to look at it and go, 'Oh, God.' It's going to be this trendy, boutique place."
Years ago the Limelight served as one of Ferrara's regular haunts; he's since identified it as an inspiration for Go Go Tales. Gatien enlisted him to direct the documentary through her father. "When I told him I was doing it I was like, 'You're the right person; you're the quintessential New York director,' " she said. "I didn't think it was going to happen that quickly, and he moved in here, like, six days later."
When I arrived at Gatien's apartment around noon she was making coffee and looking at archived footage of the hotel on her laptop. A green vintage couch separated the living room -- overflowing with camera equipment -- from her dining room workspace, which is also home to a life-size plastic Simpsons family. A few minutes later Ferrara came down from the apartment he's staying in upstairs, trailed by his girlfriend Shanyn Leigh (a slender redhead whom the director cast as one of Go Go Tales' dancers) and production designer Frank DeCurtis. Ferrara tucked an orange Adidas T-shirt into his Wranglers as he drained a beer, introduced himself, briefly talked shop with Gatien and then disappeared to see about an interview with a long-time resident. He returned after about 20 minutes, urging all five of us to join him upstairs for an interview. We piled into a tiny elevator and then into the tiny apartment of a man who was clearly not expecting company. His cat blinked at us from her perch atop his loft bed, as he sat underneath, several orange prescription bottles on the TV tray in front of him. "I have to take care of some things right now," he said. "Can you come back in about an hour?"
As we filed away, I asked Ferrara how movie-making in New York is different now from the days since his last NYFF berth. "Yeah, I mean, New York is a gentrified place," he said, opening the door to the shabby apartment he and Leigh are borrowing. "New York has been taken over by zillionaires. There's not a bad neighborhood in the whole place. Twenty years ago you couldn't walk on the Lower East Side, you couldn't walk in Union Square. Like this guy's getting thrown out after a thousand years. Did you see that room? He's lived there for 20 years."
"Abel and I were somewhere between the West Village and Chelsea, and Abel was looking for a beer," Leigh added. "All we could find were juice bars and smoothies. And it was really wild. There was no place to buy a beer, we had to walk, like, 10 more minutes."
In a NYFF press conference last week Ferrara referred to Go Go Tales as his "first intentional comedy"; the threat of a Bed, Bath and Beyond replacing Ray Ruby's Paradise offers one of the film's funniest comments on gentrification. But under the circumstances, why choose to make a comedy about New York now? "We make genre films, so it's a vampire movie or a gangster movie," Ferrara replied. "You know: A musical comedy is a genre piece. Basically we use those forms. You know what I'm saying?"
His phone rang in the pocket of his black corduroy jacket. He dug it out and answered; on the other end of the line was talk-show legend Joe Franklin -- a champion of the Chelsea over the past few months who wants to come up and say hello to Ferrara. We rejoined Gatien and DeCurtis, and soon enough, Franklin shuffled into the room, dapper in a pastel shirt, tie and jacket combination. He greeted everyone in the room, paying special attention to the ladies and finally chatting about the festival with Ferrara.
The director sunk into his armchair. "This year the New York Film Festival finally has New York directors," he told Franklin, referring to selections including work by Sidney Lumet, Julian Schnabel, Noah Baumbach and -- of course -- himself. Gatien and I explained a few of the festival's highlights. Franklin turned to me.
"You're working with a great man, one of the few," he said with trademark, gentle gravity. "Who's left? Coppola? There's not many left like Abel, are there?"
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