By Helen Barlow, The Age
Friday 20 July 2001
Ice T in R-Xmas
In today's banal film making world, there are a few original directors remaining who, like Tim Burton and Abel Ferrara, are oddballs in their own right. It is pleasing to note that both are back in fine form.
While Burton's highly visual Planet of the Apes is eagerly anticipated, Ferrara aptly depicts his more urban New York jungle in R-Xmas, a film set during the holiday period, where a happy, middle-class family are not quite as regular as they seem. They are in fact Hispanic immigrants, who have a business dealing heroin - RX is noted on American pharmaceutical prescriptions.
"This is a story about immigrants," explained the film's co-screenwriter, Scott Pardo, filling in for Ferrara at the film's press conference during the Cannes Festival. "My grandmother was an immigrant who came over from Turkey and built a business, like the husband in the film. Only the reality in New York now is that immigrants have very little choice in the work they can do. His choice was to be a drug dealer, and he became the best. But the essence is that he's a family man, he doesn't use drugs, he doesn't like drugs. He's doing this for his child."
Many of Ferrara's previous films were also set in New York's seedy immigrant communities, be they Italian, Hispanic or even Chinese, as in China Girl. Yet where was Ferrara to talk about this? Probably stuck in traffic, explained R-Xmas' French producer, Pierre Kalfon. Little did he know that the director was still in New York.
The perennial eccentric couldn't find his passport so had turned up at the airport with newspaper clippings as proof of identity. The American authorities were not film buffs and were unimpressed. Ferrara chuckled about the incident the following day when he finally made it to Cannes. "I had clips from the New York Times magazine, and from page six of the New York Post," he protested.
"Anyway, I'm here."
Quite appropriately, our interview took place at a bar, with Ferrara flanked by the street-smart youngster Pardo and another producer he had brought to Cannes to try to sell his next film. "It's a prequel to King of New York starring Mark Wahlberg," Ferrara announced proudly. After his recent failures, The Addiction, New Rose Hotel and The Blackout, the director is keen to return to the style of film making that brought him a wider audience, to films like King of New York and The Funeral, starring Christopher Walken, and Bad Lieutenant and Dangerous Game, starring Harvey Keitel. Ferrara has long maintained that making movies keeps him out of trouble - good movies that is, not bad movies, like The Addiction, where he now admits "I was near death".
Despite smoking copious amounts cigarettes and drinking a beer, he was healthier in Cannes and had put on weight. "I hope so," he said. "I've been feeding him carrot juice," Pardo piped in. In fact Ferrara seemed bemused by it all.
Wearing a smart, baggy grey suit, a black sport shirt and trendy drug-dealer sunglasses, he kept looking at himself in the mirror, almost in disbelief, as photographers snapped his picture. Did he have a prior knowledge of the drug world? "Research," he replied, with a cheesy grin, and flicking back his long grey curls.
What in fact makes R-Xmas credible is the performance of Drea De Matteo as the wife (the film's characters have no names.) She is a steely bleached blonde, reminiscent of Madonna in Ferrara's Dangerous Game, only that De Matteo, who features in the television series The Sopranos - she plays Michael Imperioli's girlfriend - has subsequently become a hot Hollywood property and is in the upcoming films Made and Deuces Wild.
"People are afraid to take chances," Ferrara bellowed in his nasal drawl, "because Drea hasn't been 10 things and she's a tough chick. It takes time for her, and we took a risk. That's why the same s--- gets made over and over again. Drea is refreshingly earthy," he paused, "she's covered in tattoos."
R-Xmas was filmed in 18 days, so we are not talking about Hollywood film making here. Ferrara had one abortive attempt at Hollywood with Body Snatchers and has vowed never to return. The French recognise his creative genius and R-Xmas was financed by the French cable television giant Canal Plus. Kalfon, who has worked with film making icons Antonioni,Visconti and Polanski, has long championed and distributed Ferrara's films in France. He oversaw R-Xmas all the way.
"It takes 24 hours a day," Kalfon said, "because you have to catch Abel when suddenly he wants to talk about something, even if he's there all the time. It's a challenge in a way to take the director's vision and put it on the page. You know, Abel's a tremendous visionary, but sometimes he doesn't verbalise it that well."
A new film making team was hired to inject some fresh blood into the project, and Pardo had a strong voice, too. "The writing process continued on to the set," he explained, "we shot a lot of that stuff on the fly. There was a lot of improvising with the actors and Abel and I were writing right before shooting sometimes."
It is understandable that harnessing Ferrara's energy could require quite an effort since during our interview he conducted several conversations at once and could barely stand still - he even rummaged through the contents of my bag as we stood at the bar. The conversation he constantly returned to was regarding the failure of his recent films to be distributed in Australia, a market that less and less will take risks with edgier movies.
"Australia was once the centre of films like Mad Max and Road Warrior, off-the-wall edgy films," he complained.
Ferrara's great passion is New York and, as usual, in R-Xmas he presents it as a cesspool of good and evil, where the bad guys seek redemption. Yet Ferrara's New York is not present-day. Like many a New Yorker, he pines for the days when the city was gritty and exciting, so he has set R-Xmas in 1993, just before the time of the current mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who went on a clean-up rampage.
"Drug trafficking has lessened and especially changed," he said. "In 1993, one knew that at three in the afternoon, in a certain building, you could buy certain drugs-and there would be a queue around the block."
For De Matteo, New York today is just not the same. "It's a big mall,"
she said. "The main cast members - me, Lillo Brancato (who plays the husband
and is best known from A Bronx Tale) and Ice T (a corrupt cop) - we're
all die-hard New Yorkers. We love New York, and we loved it for all its
greatness and we still love it now. However, Disneyworld has taken over
Time Square. There's no more porn shops, no more movie theatres with big