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The Reeler Blog

Ferrara's Tales From the City

Telling Tales: Sylvia Miles and Abel Ferrara following Monday's screening of Go Go Tales (Photos: STV)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

It's probably the subconscious rubbernecker in me pitting The Diving Bell and the Butterfly against Go Go Tales as my favorite films of the New York Film Festival thus far; what self-respecting New Yorker's hormones wouldn't roil at the vision of Julian Schnabel and Abel Ferrara grappling in feverish, foul-mouthed combat for the soul of the local festivalgoer? I gave Schnabel his ink last week; Monday it was Ferrara's turn as Go Go Tales ran its melty marathon of flesh, family and autobiography through the otherwise mild-mannered aisles of the Walter Reade Theater.

Willem Dafoe portrays Ray Ruby, the proprietor of the Chelsea strip joint Paradise. Four months behind on his rent, with his shrieking landlady (Sylvia Miles) and investor brother (Ferrara stock player Mathew Modine, genius as the lusty owner of the "biggest hair salon on Staten Island") descending from each side, Ray spends one Thursday night dodging demise, keeping the faith and generally juggling the legacy of cafe society with that of gentrifying New York. Mix in a gambling fetish, a healthy dose of self-reflection ("I took a shot, I played to win," Ray shouts at a chorus of collectors. "What do you want? I know; you want your money") and a loyal line of allies from Bob Hoskins to Burt Young to the staggeringly unhinged Asia Argento, and Go Go Tales is the kind of virtue/vice supercollider that Ferrara constructs as well -- and as fearlessly -- as anyone working today.

The ensemble (and, I suppose, dancing naked ladies) doesn't hurt. I asked Ferrara at Monday's press conference how he worked with his cast to develop and corral the surrogate family whose psychodramatic chemistry somehow resulted in perhaps the festival's best comedy. "I wrote this six years ago," Ferrara replied. "We were going to do this on Crosby Street, in a loft, and Frankie (Cee, one of Ferrara's allies and cast members) had built the $500,000 version of this. We had a reading once with Keitel and, unfortunately, Victor Argo. Sylvia gave that performance then."

"Well, I didn't see it," Miles said. "But I'll tell you one thing: It was good that we did that, because --

"And then I didn't talk to her for five years," Ferrara said.

"It got to jell in your mind," Miles continued.

"Yeah, the script on this was down," Ferrara said. "It was there. It's funny: I remember telling Scorsese we were going to do a comedy, and he started laughing so hard... But these are actors. They rehearse, they spend a lot of time rehearsing in the place -- on the set. We use actors who know how to create a role, and they want to do it together. I mean, you keep pushing for loose and fast, but when you have a script where the lines are down, and you're working -- especially with the girls, a lot of non-actors. Most of them don't speak English, and I don't speak Italian, even after living there for three years. It was like any club; we had the Russians, this and that. But it's a matter of the script being solid and actors who know how to use a real process. Granted, we used a lot of non-actors in the situation, but with Willem playing a role that Ray Ruby would do. Somebody's rehearsing those girls; somebody's putting that show together."

"The situations were strong": Go Go Tales leading man Willem Dafoe

"There was a script, but I think the situations were strong," Dafoe said. "And Abel's idea of that world was strong. I look back on it, and there was lots of looseness in the script; a lot of that that I see up there was sort of invented, but it did feel, in fact, like, 'OK, now we're going to improvise.' It was about bridging gaps through practical things we had to do in the story. There's a whole scene that was just sprung on me."

"Which one was that?" Ferrara asked.

"The one where (a dancer) tells me she's pregnant?" Dafoe replied. "It's like I've got a gun over my head to make the day, and Abel says, 'Listen, we've got this other thing we've gotta do. Here's the situation, this is the deal. Let's just do it.' And we did it. And I think that because the relationships were set and strong and the world was complete, it was fairly clear. It didn't feel like a strain; it didn't feel like we were inventing things. It really felt like we were being practical: Get it done. Make that club run."

Ferrara later noted his interest in continuing Go Go Tales by way of a Sopranos or Sex and the City-esque series. "That's something that was always in my mind from the beginning," he said.

Miles turned to Dafoe. "Would you come back and do it?" she whispered.

Ferrara overheard. He grimaced, gripped his eyes and leaned into the mic. "Don’t ask him that!" he groaned, still reeling with glee from his NYFF revival. "Don't ask him that."

Posted at September 25, 2007 12:57 PM

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