Elena Lazic spoke with legendary director Abel Ferrara about his early film The Driller Killer (1979) ahead of a special screening this Sunday at Picturehouse Central.
In career that has encompassed such controversial classics as Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant and Welcome to New York, none of Abel Ferrara’s films have quite managed to match the shock, extremity and downright notorious nature of The Driller Killer.
AF: I started making films when I was 16. At a certain point you have to let go of school and go out in the world and try to make a living. There were two kinds of exploitation films back then, pornographic films and violent films. These were your two options and we were going to make films no matter what, whatever the deal was. The first one we made was a pornographic film. We might have convinced ourselves it wasn’t, but it was. We made it and that was enough.
We were coming totally from outside. We weren’t filmmakers and we didn’t know anybody. We weren’t smart enough to figure out a way to get into the industry and we didn’t even have enough to go to film school. We were just street filmmakers, street guys.
Once they realised the commerciality of course they started making movies like Friday the 13th and it became a very organised control of the marketplace. First they created a censorship system, which basically eliminated our ability to sell our films in the market. They made a bunch of films which would be R-rated. We would make the same film and it would be X-rated! It wasn’t so much the film itself, it was about controlling the marketplace.
EL: Regarding the theme of the film, it reminds me a lot of Taxi Driver, which is maybe what you’re talking about? A more commercial version of those types of films with much less violence but still the portrayal of New York as a seedy den of crime. The Driller Killer was made three years after, so I was wondering if you were consciously inspired by Taxi Driver or if it was just a coincidence?
AF: Well, we were both living in the same city. Obviously Scorsese was a big influence with films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and we were shooting in the same neighbourhoods. We started shooting The Driller Killer in 1977 and that film came out in 1976. Basically, we were shooting almost the same shots. That aspect of the seedy city, that was just what the city was like. It’s hard to imagine New York City like that now, but believe me that was how it was.
The Driller Killer was shot in Union Square which is as bourgeois a neighbourhood as you can imagine now. But at that time, it was a war zone. We lived there. We were young, so going somewhere else was pretty much out of the question. The idea in the movie of that kind of violence, that anger, is also similar, but you know, it was a punk movie! I was young, I didn’t understand that emotion, that anger. I didn’t understand what anger was, what anger could be and how it could be used, how you could not so much control it but understand it, realise what it is and how you have to be very vigilant in how you deal with it. Back then, we didn’t. We were also drinking all the time.
EL: You were angry yourself?
AF: Obviously! You don’t make a film called The Driller Killer, you don’t make it so that it means anything, unless you have that kind of drive. But I think a lot of that anger was ambition. I was coming off a pretty nasty breakup, the end of a long term relationship. It came up at a certain point in my life.
EL: The Driller Killer is still pretty different from Taxi Driver.
AF: It’s different because Scorsese’s character was a taxi driver, and the driller killer is a painter, he’s an artist. He had his work up there in the apartment. The taxi driver was a writer, he kept a journal, but in real life the Son of Sam killer was going around murdering people and he was keeping a journal too. So do you watch Taxi Driver and think ‘oh this is a young Franz Kafka?’ No. The Driller Killer is actually painting, and he has paintings that mean something you know? Or at least they’re finished.
EL: The main character in the film is a frustrated artist. Was the film autobiographical in that sense?
AF: Yeah, obviously, and I still have that. When you’re an artist you have frustrations about yourself, about what you can achieve and what you can’t. About how you let yourself down. It’s very easy to play that role. I can see now that a young artist is always going to put all this on someone. He acts delusional. He thinks some big producers or big financiers or an art gallery owner has something he doesn’t have and has all the power. Then when he fails you, it’s the age old thing. The tribe creates the king, they adore the king, they love the king and when it doesn’t rain, or the crops fail, they kill the king.
EL: Did you always plan to play the lead character?
AF: It wasn’t a coincidence. We approached a few people including David Johansen of the New York Dolls, but it didn’t happen. We shot that film mostly on weekends. That was the kind of project that might have gone on for five years, who knows? It wasn’t like we knew we were going to shoot for three weeks. It was an experimental film that ended up being The Driller Killer. It didn’t start off that way. We worked from a script but scenes led to other scenes.
EL: Did you let the actors improvise a lot or were you quite strict?
AF: They were barely capable of remembering their lines. Some were professional actors, others were not and it was just mix and match. You just choose the people for who they are, what they are, what they can bring. You know Nicky (Nicholas St. John) wrote all the scripts for me in that period – The Funeral, The Addiction,King of New York – we were working from the page, we weren’t just making it up on the fly.
EL: Your film was banned in the UK for a long time.
AF: It was more of an economic grab, a way to control the market. There is still some censorship, there’s the sense that the films are watched by a community. I mean, our films aren’t for children. They’re not kids movies.
EL: But now the film isn’t banned at all in the UK.
AF: Yeah but I mean you’re not going show it to five year olds at three o’clock in the afternoon! As a father to a young daughter, I wouldn’t want her to see The Driller Killer because it happens to play on TV. But we’re not going to ban TV, so we’ve got to figure something out.
EL: It feels like now people are more trusting of audiences to make that kind of choice.
AF: I don’t know. It depends who you’re with. I had a weird experience with one of my films, Ms. 45. We shot a really tragic story – the lead character was raped in the street, which is something that happens – but the reaction of audiences just really blew me away. I didn’t expect it. They thought that it just was the funniest, happiest thing. It was very eye opening and a very awakening moment for me. When the character in that film turns it around and attacks some men she actually has that same audience terrified. So I guess the character kind of wins in the end.
EL: Is it true The Driller Killer was not banned at all in the US?
AF: It was rated X. But that was really in the beginning of all that. They almost created ratings specifically for those movies. If those movies hadn’t made money, they would not have bothered. But there was a big market for that, people wanted to see people being violated. They wanted to see violence, they wanted to see that kind violence which Hollywood was not giving them. I grew up on Salo and The Battle of Algiers and movies like that. So to me violence was a big part of things. Those films were all outside the boundaries of Hollywood and that’s why we made them and why people went to them. You followed the money.
AF: We wanted both things. Both sides of the coin. It’s all one expression.
EL: Do you think the slasher violence helped bring a bigger crowd?
AF: We had a crowd. We did it to get the financing. A film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is made for $30K and does $30 million dollars. What does that tell everybody? People don’t want to see Hollywood movies with fake fights and fake violence, people want to see Taxi Driver, which is a violent movie, and it was out there. Balls to the wall. They were all doing it, and there was an audience for it. At that time we were like the guys in the movie. We were trying to make a living, we were trying to survive as filmmakers before we knew how to and thinking maybe we never would make it. I had to re-watch that film not long ago because I had to do the commentary on the new DVD and I came away from it thinking ‘these guys look like they would never make another film’. They put everything they had into it. I was thinking ‘Hey guys, you don’t have to tell everybody everything you know, hold something back, be cool!’
AF: Not as much as I should be. That was a specific time in my life. I’ve made films now and I understand that the world is not going to stop or go on based on whether I make another film. There are more important things. Me, as a human being and how I relate to other people, are both a lot more important than that. I think I can accept not making another film. But I am, we’re shooting one right now. We’re just not that desperate. At the time of The Driller Killer we weren’t going to wait, man! The opportunity was right in our face, we didn’t care. We didn’t care so much as ‘oh my god you make a porno film.’ So what, bro? What difference does it make? Get over it.
EL: Do you still like The Driller Killer?
It’s not really a standalone movie. You don’t watch it and wonder ‘what happened to these people?’ You see so many directors looking like they’ve got something really going and then you never see or hear from them again. That didn’t happen to us. I know what happened to me. There’s a continuum, there’s other films. It’s what it is. It’s one of our films, it’s part of the work. I don’t see these films outside of the other ones. But again, I’d been making films for several years when I made The Driller Killer. It wasn’t my first film. It’s part of the progression. Yeah ok, it went into theatres and sold some tickets. But I just see it now in perspective. I’m glad it’s coming back out.