To celebrate the new restoration of one of the most notorious video nasties - The Driller Killer - coming to special edition Blu-ray and DVD Steelbook from Arrow Video on28th November, we recently talked to acclaimed director Abel Ferrara.
Ferrara has made such classics as Bad Lieutenant (starring Harvey Keitel), King of New York (starring Christopher Walken) and made his foray into Hollywood studio films with Body Snatchers and Dangerous Game (starring Madonna), but none of Abel Ferrara’s films have quite managed to match the shock, extremity and downright notorious nature of The Driller Killer.
In the film, Ferrara plays struggling artist Reno, a man pushed to the edge by the economic realities of New York living in the late seventies and the No Wave band practising in the apartment below. His grip on reality soon begins to slip and he takes to stalking the streets with his power tool in search of prey…
One of the most infamous ‘video nasties’, in part thanks to its drill-in-head sleeve, The Driller Killer has lost none of its power to unnerve and is presented by Arrow Video fully uncut alongside their trademark wealth of bonus material, which includes: a Brand new 4K restoration from the original camera negative of the film; an audio commentary by Abel Ferrara, recorded exclusively for this release; and Mulberry St., Ferrara’s feature-length 2010 documentary portrait of the New York location that has played a key role in his life and work, available on home video in the UK for the first time ever
Talking to Abel Ferrara is a real thrill. An uncompromising straight shooter, and a real one-off who takes no shit and no prisoners, Ferrara is brutally and often disarmingly honest and flip. He discusses a lot of his filmography as well as what his favourite Werner Herzog movie is, why audio commentaries actually suck, and how you can’t take the high road when you’re drilling people in the head.
Back when The Driller Killer was first released in the UK it was very notorious and got tagged as a “video nasty”.
Were you annoyed with that reception and perception, or did it ultimately help raise awareness of the film?
Well, now that you mention it, I found it kind of funny. I mean, they were talking about me in the House of Commons, the House of Lords, you know? Without having actually seen the movie we were up in front of these guys, it all seemed kind of crazy, you know?
That must have felt very strange.
Well, you know, the idea of censorship at that point is such a two-way street, you know? Censorship is very strategical and, um, you know, market oriented. Like in a lot of ways it’s used to keep the competition at bay, not so much about being up in arms over content; but I’m sure they were up in arms over the content too! So now they were like “fuck it”, the film is just “exploitive”, you know? Define that, man! EVERY film is an exploitation film.
As a film maker, did you find it frustrating for it to also be labelled as a “slasher” film?
“Slasher” movie too! I mean, you can’t deny that! I’m just glad it’s out there. I’m not hung up about anything. I mean, a film called “The Driller Killer” is obviously a “slasher” movie, if you’re gonna use those terms, right? [laughs].
Right! Fair enough!
You know, if you’re drilling people in the head you can’t be like taking the high road, you know? [laughs].
So Arrow Video have created this new Blu-Ray of The Driller Killer, how involved have you been with the project?
Well, kid, these guys came with the idea, and wanted to do it, you know. This crew… and they tracked down the original negative and the DP is all over it with the guys from Arrow.
And are you happy with the look of the film? Was it cool to see the 4K remaster?
Nah, because when you saw the original negative, that’s what it looked like! You know, it always looked good. But, look, it’s like anything, you gotta keep protecting the look. It looked good in the dailies, you know, then, when some fuckin’ slam bang video company puts it out they just [pan and scan] it, you know what I mean? So it’s getting back to the intent that Kenny (the DP) had when he shot it.
You’ve recorded an audio commentary for the film – how did you find that?
It’s the third one, but I don’t know if it’ll match the insanity of the other two, bro!
Is it a process that you find it interesting? Revisiting…
Absolutely hate it! [laughs]
What is it you hate about it?
I mean, I don’t know who invented it, it’s like a ridiculous format. If you wanna talk about the film, you gotta show a little, stop… I’d like to do it if I could do it in the right way, you know? Do it over time. Discuss the film. But you can’t discuss the film while it’s running – you start talking about one shot and then you’re twenty shots later.
Oh, I see. Yeah, that’s true.
It’s a moronic concept, whoever came up with it. [laughs]
But you know, kid – we did it – it’s fine.
Going back to the film itself, you play the lead yourself and I have always wanted to know if that was out of necessity, or the plan all along.
No, no, no, I asked a few people. They just laughed – they thought it was the most ridiculous idea… You know, we shot the film over a period of time, we shot the film in different ways, we had no money, I wasn’t going to gamble on an actor being there, I mean, you know, it could have took us ten years to make that film. Plus I knew the guy – it’s the guy who plays in the band, you know? The lead singer in the band, The Unmentionables, he was a good friend of mine, so I was just basically playing him. He’s also a painter and those are his paintings in the film, so I just figured I’d (laughs) just put his clothes on and make the same faces he makes.
Obviously New York is a really important space and place to you. How do you find that it informs the stories you want to tell, and shapes the ways in which you tell the?
Wouldn’t be anywhere else, man. The films come out of me, man. Where you’re living, people you’re around – it’s a part of you, the time and space. Then when you’re filming there it’s… that’s it. I mean, New York 1977, 1978, that’s what you got, you know?
Yeah. One of the cool things about watching The Driller Killer now is that it still feels dangerous. I think you really bottled the feel of those streets at that time.
I swear it was like a demilitarised zone, you know? You can’t imagine it now. 2016, Union Square is like a market with expensive cafes and that sort of thing, back then it was fuckin’ drug dealers and they din’t even have pitbulls – they had dobermans. I would walk a mile out of my way to not go through Union Square, man. New York was a crime centre – not an international banking headquarters.
After The Driller Killer and Ms. 45 you went into TV for a bit – directing episodes of Miami Vice – how was making the move from making your own movies to shooting for TV?
A lot more profitable [laughs] The quality of life went up! It is what it is, you know? We did those gigs for big money, learned a lot, and got in the position to do different kinds of movies, so I’m not knocking it.
Of course. One of those kinds of movies you got to make off the back of that is King of New York, which is a favourite of mine. Can you tell me about the making of that film, and working with Christopher Walken?
Yeah, well, Chris is… It was the first time we’d met Chris. He’s just a giving… he’s just the Rolls Royce of fucking actors. He’s there, he’s present, he brings a lot to the table. He understands the script in a certain way and adds something to the whole deal. He delivers under pressure and he’s a joy to be around… They invented the negative to film people like that, you know?
Wow. Yeah. With character actors like Chris and Harvey Keitel – who you’ve worked with a lot as well – they bring an intensity to their performance. As a director, how do you go about getting heightened extreme performances from them?
I mean, basically, that’s the level they live at, you know? They’re there. Our deal is just to make the situation as comfortable and as real for them, so it’s no stress, you know? So they can carry on working at the top of their game with nothing to distract them.
You then went on to do Bad Lieutenant with Harvey – which was the first one of your films that I saw at about twelve or thirteen…
…Twelve is a little young for that one! I hope it didn’t steer you in the wrong direction! Twelve or thirteen years down the road, it’s still rated ‘X’ this movie, it’s different times from what we were talking about with Driller Killer, the early 90’s were a return to the more radical cinema.
Would you say that that was a period where you felt more free to express yourself?
I mean, freedom starts and ends with me so… That’s always in me so… If I’m not free to make a film, I’m not gonna make it. I mean… I had my heart broken once… once and a half, and that was enough so… If I don’t have control – it’s not gonna happen. It’s not a matter of different periods. Freedom comes from the inside, you know what I mean? It’s gotta be in your heart.
Sure. Was one of those films that broke your heart Body Snatchers?
Body Snatchers we kind of battled it out, but, you know, we were far enough into the game that after the battle ended the film survived. Barely. A movie like Cat Chaser, it was destroyed, so that was a shame. I wouldn’t let that happen again, so…
An Elmore Leonard adaptation like Cat Chaser, and a remake like Body Snatchers, were very different from what you had done up until that point – was that the appeal?
Well, I was approached to do it, Body Snatchers isn’t an original concept, but when I read the original material – the short story – that short story kept me fighting for the film. It’s true. I would have quit that film else wise!
Yeah. I mean it was made in a real studio system with… all that. So you can imagine wanting to go along with that.
Of course. After studio interference on Chaser and Snatchers were you worried about that happening again on Dangerous Game?
I had final cut on Dangerous Game.
Did you insist on that due to Chaser and Snatchers?
Yeah, probably. I think it was more to do with Chaser – it was a film for Warner Brothers, with a lot of money, and we barely survived, the film barely survived, but I wasn’t going to take any more chances after that.
Fair enough. Dangerous Game saw you directing Madonna – how was that?
I get to know people on a personal level, so who and what they are to the real world is just… you know… She was a girlfriend of a friend of mine, so that was how how I know her. And I know her from New York. Back before she was anything, so… Before she was anything she was always someone very special.
Cool. If you could remake any film which one would it be and why?
I wanna remake La Dolce Vita is what I wanna do.
Yeah? And who would you cast?
Benicio del Toro.
What are you working on now?
I’m doing a film called Siberia with Willem [Dafoe] and Nic Cage.
That sounds cool. You haven’t worked with Nic Cage before.
Nope. He was going to play the lead in The Funeral, but it didn’t work out.
Huh, cool. Obviously he was the lead in Werner Herzog’s version of Bad Lieutenant – have the two of you ever talked about that?
Nah. I haven’t seen it. There’s so many movies. I am a Herzog fan, so maybe one day I’ll see it, but not right now.
What’s your favourite Herzog movie?
That bear movie he did.
Grizzly Man, right?
Yeah, that’s a great movie.
My last question today is if you could be killed by any movie monster, which one would it be, and what would your last words be?
Anything but that bear from Grizzly Man!
Arrow Video’s dual format Blu-Ray/DVD of The Driller Killer is released in the UK on the 28th November.