Lone Soldier: Abel Ferrara’s Avant-Garde Optimism

Ethan Hawke is a triple threat in Abel Ferrara’s Zeros and Ones.
Ethan Hawke is a triple threat in Abel Ferrara’s Zeros and Ones.

Zeros and Ones writer-director Abel Ferrara opens up about images as weapons, fourth-wall breaker Ethan Hawke, and being an optimist in spite of it all.

There comes a point in the movie where you just want the motherf—ker to look right at you and say, ‘Hey Jack, this is what the f—king shit is about.’ You know what I mean? Let’s stop with the plot line and the make-believe. Here’s where I’m at, man.” —⁠Abel Ferrara

Abel Ferrara has never played by the rules. Since making his feature filmmaking debut in 1976 with the adult film 9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat (credited as director under the pseudonym Jimmy Boy L, while also starring in the film), the director has made his name as his own artist.

Ferrara landed himself on the UK’s list of ‘video nasties’ with his second feature, the grindhouse slasher flick The Driller Killer, and followed that up with the provocative rape revenge film Ms. 45, in which Zoë Lund would enact bloody havoc while dressed as a nun. More commercial success would come in later years, with films including King of New York and Bad Lieutenant, but just when it seemed as though Ferrara might be turning over a slightly mainstream new leaf, he veered off in an even more anti-Hollywood direction.

You can almost pinpoint the moment where he shifts. His 1998 cyberpunk erotic drama, New Rose Hotel, takes a dramatic left turn with an extensive final act that breaks all narrative convention, mystifying and entrancing audiences. Since then, Ferrara has pushed further outside the realm of the norm; sobriety and his conversion to Buddhism having facilitated work of an increasingly existential and avant-garde variety.

The Bronx-born filmmaker found, upon relocating to Rome in the early 21st century, that he could work there without interference from studios who seek to warp his artistry for their own designs. As Ferrara puts it, making movies has “always been positive… well, when we’re not being f—ked with”. That bluntness and passion for the art has led to a longstanding partnership with Willem Dafoe, which began on New Rose Hotel and has carried on through films including Pasolini, Tommaso and Siberia, the latter released earlier this year after premiering at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival.

Ferrara has found a new collaborator for his latest, the political thriller Zeros and Ones. Ethan Hawke stars as JJ, a soldier heading to Rome to thwart a potential terrorist attack. Hawke also plays JJ’s twin, Justin, a revolutionary who holds information that may be able to thwart the attack.

Shot during the pandemic, under strict protocols, Zeros and Ones has an oddly alien atmosphere, as JJ walks the empty streets of Rome at night, having encounters with his contacts in his desperate attempts to try and prevent the Vatican from exploding. Given that Ferrara and Hawke have been chasing this collaboration for some time, it seems clever to double down on the actor’s roles. In fact, Hawke shows up a third time, in a post-credits, home-recorded video to explain to viewers what the movie they just watched is actually about.

What sounds like the latest Liam Neeson action flick is anything but, as Ferrara’s idiosyncratic approach delivers a film that is murky and difficult to parse. It is a very specific wavelength Ferarra is asking us to get on, which various Letterboxd members are happy to ride. Jakob gets what Ferrara was going for even before Hawke explains it: “power structures collapsing, meaningless searches for meaning, time and space bending onto itself in a digital sphere…” For Ethan [not Hawke], the appeal is perhaps even more simple: “Watched twice and still far from understanding it but ya gotta appreciate Abel in full-on, crazy-ass, white-boy mode.”

With a recent Best Director prize in hand from this year’s Locarno International Film Festival, Ferrara got on the line with Letterboxd senior editor Mitchell Beaupre to chat about making films his way, digital paranoia in the modern world, and how each new film feels like a total reinvention.

Ethan Hawke as soldier JJ, brother of the revolutionary Justin. 
Ethan Hawke as soldier JJ, brother of the revolutionary Justin. 

With the pandemic going on and being in lockdown in Rome, how did seeing what was happening in the world at the time influence the themes you wanted to tackle with Zeros and Ones?
Abel Ferrera: What happened was such a major event. The pandemic is… like, forget it, you know what I mean? I’m old. I was young enough to be around for the Vietnam War, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, and that’s just the stuff that really affected me, not even thinking about all the wars all over the world. It’s a tragedy, with the lives lost, kids not being in school, all of the specifics of it. It’s nightmarish and that fear and paranoia over getting sick gets into everybody, even with the whole idea of people believing it and then others not believing in it. There’s no way for that to not affect me.

I was working at the time that everything really started to go down. The last film I did was in competition at Berlin. That one took a long time to get made, so we were all feeling good and everything was really celebratory. Then, a week later, shit hits the fan and everything changes throughout the world. These ideas are ones I had been thinking about and working on for a few years, but the pandemic and living the way we’ve all been living definitely made a footprint.

There’s a line in the film that says, “If we hear only what we already know, nothing new happens.” Is that idea one that holds true in your own philosophy of the world and in the work you make?
That’s Ethan’s line! [laughs] Obviously, I liked it enough to put it in the movie, but he came up with that one. I’ll have to ask him about that.

I’ll give you my number, you can let me know what he says.
You’ve got to leave yourself open to new experiences, you know? It’s going to happen to you, whether you want it or not. The world is changing, you’re changing, and you’ve got to be receptive to it. You only exist in relation to what’s around you.

Cristina Chiriac as the Laughing Russian agent in Zeros and Ones. 
Cristina Chiriac as the Laughing Russian agent in Zeros and Ones

The character JJ spends a lot of time moving around the city with a camera in his hand, collecting images of the world around him. Images are used several times throughout the film as a weapon, with recordings shown as threats. Is an image just as powerful a weapon as a gun?
It’s the power of information, and what’s real and what’s not. How real is an image, and how manipulated is it? That idea of surveillance was from—who’s that dude living in Russia?

Yeah, Snowden. With him, if someone comes in with an iPhone, they’d have to put it in the freezer. Right? Not the refrigerator. The freezer. I thought that was pretty funny. So, I’m thinking about that, and imagining who’s seeing me. This interview right now is being recorded. Sure, the publicist is recording it, but who else is recording it? This interview is being captured by somebody who’s not even here, and you and I both know that. Then one day, somebody who wants to do something to you or to me or to Letterboxd—somebody who we don’t even know—they can just pluck it out of the cloud.

That’s it, that’s what our lives are all about. And we accept it, because we want the iPhone. This instrument, I never let it leave my hand. God forbid I f—king lose it, then I lose everything. I lose every f—king thing, but I ain’t losing that. I shouldn’t say that, I’ll probably lose it tomorrow now. You know what I’m saying, though? I keep it in my hand, because it’s the tool of my trade. I shoot with it, and I edit with it. I get all kinds of information, and connect to other people with it. Even though I’m giving up my freedom with it, I’m giving up my life to become this consumer where somebody says something to me and the next minute I’m getting a commercial for it.

A friend of mine was wearing a tee shirt about something, and then two days later he’s getting an ad offering him something related to that. That’s what the film is about, in a sense.

The film opens and ends with videos of Ethan, as himself, speaking directly to the audience. He mentions that the first video was made to help get financing for the film, yet you made the decision to keep both videos in the final cut.
Yeah, it’s unconventional, but during the pandemic all these festivals we go to are always asking for a video, and even when I’m watching something remotely we’re seeing somebody introducing it.

We did it before, with Welcome to New York. You’re getting to see the guy, you know? I just like hearing him. There comes a point in the movie where you just want the motherf—ker to look right at you and say, “Hey Jack, this is what the f—king shit is about.” You know what I mean? Let’s stop with the plot line and the make-believe. Here’s where I’m at, man.

It’s like a Shakespearean thing at a certain point. The dude steps to the front of the stage and starts talking to the audience, then he steps back and goes back into the movie or the play. It’s an old-school deal.

Ethan Hawke, Anna Ferrara and Valeria Correale in Zeros and Ones. 
Ethan Hawke, Anna Ferrara and Valeria Correale in Zeros and Ones

In the video at the end, Ethan speaks about there being two outlooks on life. In one, you can be pessimistic, agonizing over the cruelty of the world. In the other, you wake up and see the beauty that still exists in everyday life. With this film, and some of your other recent work, like 4:44 Last Day on Earth and Siberia, you’ve captured the idea that both of these outlooks can exist simultaneously.
It’s true. With this pandemic going on, the big upside I think is gratitude. The gratitude is bringing the kids to the park. Something you take totally for granted when you’re too lazy to just get a cup of coffee, sit down, and have a drink with somebody. What you’re taking for granted is life itself. It’s that beauty of it, and how much you miss it when it’s taken away from you in the worst situation. That’s the lesson, I think, is the gratitude.

Is that gratitude something you’ve noticed yourself expressing more in your recent work?
I’m an optimist. Even when I was a drug addict, I was an optimist. Nowadays, I’m a grateful dude and I’m looking way more towards that. The bad things are going to come. Not even the bad things necessarily. Life is what it is, man. It’s rough. It’s rough without having to look for it—without generating it. The more you’re positive, the more you’re an optimist, the more you can handle some of this shit that you’re going to have to f—king deal with.

Back at the beginning of the pandemic, I actually went through this period over a couple of weeks where I watched all of your films that I could get my hands on, some of which I had seen before and some I was seeing for the first time—
And you’re still here? Wow.

Filmmaker Abel Ferrara. — Photographer… Aude Guerrucci
Filmmaker Abel Ferrara. Photographer… Aude Guerrucci

Grateful to be here. Watching them all, it was interesting to see your career develop, from early films like The Driller Killer and Ms. 45 through King of New York and The Addiction to the work that you’re doing now. Do you feel that you’re a different filmmaker now than the one you were 30 or 40 years ago? Or are you the same guy making movies that you were back then?
When you look at the approach compared to something like [The] Driller Killer, a lot stays the same. A leopard ain’t going to change its spots, you know? We have some core beliefs that we obviously still believe in. Being lucky enough to be alive so long and to keep making movies, you watch these films—like you say, one brings you to the other, and that gets you to the next one. You just keep bringing the energy and those beliefs.

I’ve never stopped. It’s never let me down. Making the movies has always brought me to a higher place. No matter what shape my life might have been in at the moment. You just continue on. It’s that same idea—you look at it two ways. On one side, you’ve got a lot of experience, and you’ve got the tools to deal with it. At the same time, every film is so different. It’s almost like, what does it matter what you’ve learned? Now you’ve got to reinvent it all over again.

Everybody’s got to bring it, and they’ve got to bring it all day long. Ask Kubrick, a film demands way more than everybody can ever give it. You’ve just got to make sure you bring it, and then hope for the best. It’s always been positive. Well, when we’re not being f—ked with, when it’s not being manipulated, when we’re not working for the wrong reasons where the intent is off.

When we’re not being righteous, we’re not being honest with ourselves, when we’re being scared and talking ourselves out of it. When we’re just flowing with it, it’s sacred, man.

Zeros and Ones’ is out now in theaters and on VOD.

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