Abel Ferrara is an icon of cinema to many, with 1979’s The Driller Killer putting him firmly on the map. With that cult classic effort now getting a new, crammed Dual Format release from those ever-great guys at Arrow Video, we caught up with Abel to discuss his infamous feature film debut, dealing with Hollywood and censorship issues, plus King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, and what he’s working on at the moment.
STARBURST: Given that it’s nearly 40 years since The Driller Killer was first released, is it kind of crazy for you to see the movie getting another new release in 2016?
Abel Ferrara: We shot in ’77 and ’78, so that’s like a hundred years ago. You realise it’s not about the week they come out or the month they come out. Especially with us. We’re in there for the count. This has been coming out now for years, and it’s almost had some crazy life of its own.
Was it frustrating to you that the film was banned and cut in so many countries, with the UK actually banning Driller Killer from 1984 until 1999?
The film came out X-rated, we didn’t cut it at all. We tried to cut it, but you can’t cut a film like this. I mean, the title itself is X-rated. It is what it is. I grew up with films like Salo, so it seemed a little strange. But Salo is still censored in Italy; you still can’t get it in Italy.
And what did you think of the video nasties tag that was being thrown at movies like yours during the early-1980s? Was that almost like a badge of honour at the time?
The fact that they argued it, that somebody was actually trying to find a definition of art versus exploitation… In the end, a film is a film. Adults have the right to see what they can see. You gotta be free to make it, and you gotta be free to see what you gotta see. Are you gonna show it to a 4-year-old kid? No! How old were you when you saw it?
About 16 or so, at a guess, likely when it aired on TV over here...
That just shows! One year, they put the guy in jail who was selling the video tapes, then ten years later they’re showing it on TV to whoever. But no 10-year-olds are sitting in front of the TV while they’re mothers are out, right…?
Was it always the plan for you to star in the movie as well as direct it?
No, no, no. I offered it to David Johansen and he just laughed at me. I was just the best choice out of a very sorry group of people.
Do you think people initially saw you more as an actor or a director after that came out?
They knew I wasn’t an actor, but then they didn’t think that much of me as a director either. The initial response to that film wasn’t great. The Variety review was “Abel Ferrara makes Tobe Hooper look like Federico Fellini”. But we were happy we were even reviewed by Variety, so we thought that was a great review.
How was it to see audiences react to the movie the way that they did at the time?
We did better business than probably most other films. It was a real audience, you know. It was back at a time when Hollywood didn’t make these kind of movies. There was no video, no YouTube. If you wanted to see a movie like this, you had to go to the theatre, buy a ticket, and sit and watch it. It seems like prehistoric times. There was no DVD, no nothing. You want to see a movie, you gotta go to a movie theatre. If you want to see a violent movie, this was the only one you were going to see. Hollywood didn’t get hip to the fact that people wanted to see this kind of movie.
When do you think was the particular point that Hollywood decided to embrace this sort of movie?
Once they see $35 million or something like Texas Chain Saw Godard, you knew you were gonna see Brigitte Bardot’s bare ass.
For you, was there a particular moment when working on The Driller Killer where you thought that you had something special that would connect with a certain set of people?
We didn’t know what we were doing, like usual. What do we do know? We don’t know what the fuck we’re doing. We’re out there without a net, we’re experimenting. It was experimental film, like everything else we do. It wasn’t a film made be some crafty guys -we were kids, we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing.
If the original Driller Killer was being made today, do you think it could be made in the same way or have times changed too much?
It couldn’t be made the same way. The world has changed, everything has changed, the perception of everything has changed, the way people see things has changed, how people make things has changed. There is no equivalent to that. Even a week later, there wouldn’t have been an equivalent. That film was specific to the moment and time and place that it was made: 1978, New York City. We were shooting in the streets. We weren’t out there playing games, we were shooting what was in front of the camera.
There’s been talks over the years of potentially a remake of the movie. Is that something you think could work?
You mean have me come out of, what, a home for the criminally insane? I mean what would it be, The Return of The Driller Killer? I guess anything’s possible.
More a remake, was what we were thinking. Back in 2006, there was talk of David Hess coming in to star in a remake that was being called Driller Killer Redux. And considering how Hollywood loves to remake anything that has any sort of notoriety or name value…
I don’t know how much name value The Driller Killer has, man. To you, maybe, and to me, but let’s not get carried away. Hollywood isn’t going to remake The Driller Killer.
We dunno. After all, there’s been loose new takes on the likes of Prom Night and The Toolbox Murders.
Well I could do it, not as a remake but as a sequel. I’m still alive. A lot of them are still alive, so we could do it and crank it up again.
On the remake front, you’ve had your Bad Lieutenant kind of remade and you’ve also done your own take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. How were your experiences of being at both ends of the remake spectrum?
Well I wasn’t remaking anybody else’s stuff, that on it, although we did borrow a lot from it and were influenced by him.
And what did you think of the Bad Lieutenant movie with Nic Cage?
I didn’t see it, no. You know, Werner Herzog told me that he didn’t make that film expecting it to be Bad Lieutenant. He thought it was going to be called Port of Call. If you saw that film and it was called Port of Call, it’d be a whole different thing - a Werner Herzog and Nic Cage film that had nothing to do with my film. But, you know, the producers decided to call it that after the fact. At least that’s what Werner told me. If you hadn’t seen the original, it wouldn’t have mattered though.
How was it for you going from working on The Driller Killer to then working on Bad Lieutenant and The King of New York with guys like Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, and Laurence Fishburne?
Fishburne was a young actor at that time, he wasn’t a star. Walken was a star. The other guys weren’t stars - Wesley Snipes hadn’t even been in a movie yet, I think. But you use your friends, you reach out to people you know. Walken was a big star though, so that was something that was pretty new to me.
How did you find it having to direct yourself in The Driller Killer? Was that easier because you knew what you wanted, or did you find it more of a challenge because of the extra pressure?
Well, you know, I was working under Jack Daniels .
If someone was to ask you to take a look back at your career to date and pick your personal highlight, what would that be?
Right now, talking to you. Talking to somebody in Wales who knows all of this shit, you’re the highlight of my fucking career. We’re in the middle of it, man, we’re still doing the same shit. Believe me, we’re shooting by the skin of our teeth, by the balls of our ass. We’re experimental, the same deal. We don’t take it too seriously but it’s the most important thing in the world.
And what are you working on next?
There’s a film called Siberia. We’re gonna make a film called Siberia with Willem and Nic Cage, the Bad Lieutenant himself. Then we just shot a documentary on the musician, the guy who scored Driller Killer. We just played some dates and we’re doing a documentary on the music from the movies that we’ve been playing in concert. Then I’m doing a documentary on Piazza Vittorio and Rome, which is about immigration and old world Italy versus the modern neighbourhood.
When can we expect for these upcoming projects to be released?
We’re trying to do them all at once. We’ll release them when they’re done .
The Driller Killer gets a new Dual Edition release courtesy of Arrow Video on November 28th.