US maverick filmmaker Abel Ferrara spoke at Venice following the world-premiere of his Sportin’ Life, a personal and intimate documentary made in lockdown.
“The most beautiful words a filmmaker could hear are, ‘hey, do what you want’,” Abel Ferrara told the international press corps after the screening of his latest documentary Sportin’ Life, for which he was given “carte-blanche” in terms of subject and processes. One of the film’s producers is international fashion house YSL.
“A dream project of mine would always be to work without a script, to go out and let the shooting determine the flow of the movie, and you arrive at the film through the shooting itself. I really up to this point didn’t have the nerve to do that, [nor] did I have the investors who would just go along with that.”
Sportin’ Life is described on the festival website as “Abel Ferrara’s intimate and lush look at his own life, his world refracted through his art – music, filmmaking, his collaborators and inspirations… his partner Cristina Chiriac and their daughter Anna, their life in the eternal city, Roma… as the corona virus descends and paralyses the world.” The film also stars actor and friend Willem Dafoe.
Ferrara described the last time he attended a film festival, the Berlinale back in February 2020, to world-premiere his Siberia. His Sportin’ Life camera crew was there to record events. “[At] the opening of Siberia there were 2000 people, there was only one person with a mask at the whole movie… A week later we were in lockdown.”
Producer Gary Fargas added: “So basically we had to change gears, but Abel never stopped filming, creating, so even during lockdown in Rome he kept shooting all the time, and he and his editor Leo (Leonardo Daniel), they kept sourcing material and they edited this film, which is a very personal film.”
Added long-term producer and collaborator Diana Phillips: “What was amazing was that YSL accepted the flow of the story as it came as the news changed and as Abel responded to being an artist creating his film in lockdown. It was a completely new experience for all of us.”
Ferrara spoke about the perceived necessity to make the project, and the solo aspect of the overall venture. “When you are a documentary filmmaker you are basically a journalist, and so an essential worker,” he said. “I was very, very grateful to be one of the few people who had a job during this period… I had a job and I went somewhere to work.”
He went on: “The work was very, very focussed even though I was alone in a room. I left the house, I came to the editing room. I was totally alone but through Zoom, through the beauty and the upside of the net, the modern equipment… we knew we were doing something that was so immediate and so on point. At the same time…I missed sitting in the room with the guys, I missed going to the meetings where we could talk together and screen the thing and being there.”
Abel was asked by a journalist about the impression he gives of being ‘dark’ in his approach to filmmaking. He passed the question to producer Phillips, whom he jokingly named ‘the queen of darkness.’
“I think Abel is on a journey and we are with him all the way,” she responded. “No, he is not looking at darkness, he is looking at life. He is looking at where he has got to, where we have got to, where he is going, what is important, the essential questions. Yeah, it has been an arc since we did Bad Lieutenant and King of New York. It’s a real journey and yeah, I think we are heading towards the light, for sure. I know we are.”
Towards the end Ferrara, who lives in Rome, discussed the US, as seen through both Covid-19 and Trumpian lenses.
“I live in Italy, I live here, but to really understand the politics of a place you have to be from there. I don’t think anybody really understands Trump the way I understand him, because he grew up in the same period I did. He speaks the same way I speak. There is such a cultural similarity,” he said.
“So when dealing with the pandemic on a political level, it just made more sense for us, for me as an American, to throw the weight of it, even though it was a world event, to what is happening in the United States. For some reason the US is like the stage and the theatre that everybody relates to put their own lives in perspective. And especially with him being the president, it gives us like a real Falstaffian Shakespearean character that we can gauge ourselves against.”