Breaking Bad: The Second Coming of Abel Ferrara
The decadent director of Bad Lieutenant and King of New York was brought down by his own dark habits. Now he's a year sober and shooting a hot new film.
When director Abel Ferrara’s addiction-oriented masterpiece, Bad Lieutenant, hit movie theaters in 1992, the crack epidemic in New York City was at its peak. In the popular cult film, Harvey Keitel played a crackhead NYPD detective who prowled the streets of the city, smoking ungodly amounts of crack and generally behaving, well, like a very bad lieutenant. The film is an exhausting portrait of addiction and violence, but it’s also the story of a man who is clearly not comfortable inside his body, and who deadens that discomfort by abusing cocaine and power in equal measure.
In a sense, it's the story of Ferrara himself. The director had first become an international druggy cult-icon after making his 1991 hit, King of New York. But his bad-boy rep was really cemented when he released The Addiction in 1995 and The Funeral the following year. Both films depicted characters who were unapologetic about their ardor for drugs—people like him and his friends. Ferrara started using when he was barely out of his teens. Since then he's fought a decades-long battle with alcohol and drugs. In the beginning he justified his drug use as a creative necessity. "I thought in order to make these films, I needed to be an addict.” he says. When he first appeared on the scene, both film-goers and critics were intrigued by the dangerous dark sub-cultures he depicted. But after a while, all the drugs began taking a toll on the director, whose personal taste for the high life was an open secret in Hollywood. Inevitably, his behavior became so erratic that it is rumored insurance companies refused to cover his productions. Rumors of his drug use too spread like wildfire across So-Cal studio lots. Funding for his films allegedly dried up, and Ferrara went from the dark darling of addiction verite to a poster boy for self-destruction. For years he was a frequent presence at New York's most notorious after-hours drug bars, surrounded by a phalanx of coked-up acolytes, washed-up damsels, dirty cops and wise-guys.
Now, after an extended hiatus, he's finally back behind a camera. The 61-year-old Bronx native insists he's been completely sober for a year, and he's once again getting steady work as a director. He’s in production on an old script called Coup d’Etat, and just announced that he'll direct Gerard Depardieu in a much-anticipated biopic of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF head (and likely sex addict) accused of raping a hotel maid in Manhattan last year.
The Fix met up with the legend at a restaurant in Little Italy, where he spent a couple of hours talking candidly about addiction, death, and Hollywood's tendency to turn its back on addicts. Ever the provocateur, he started off by admitting that he'd recently kicked a substance with the help of the opioid blocker Suboxone. Then he backtracked, and then backtracked again.
So you don't want to mention that you were on Suboxone?
It’s just, you know, maybe I don’t want my kids reading about this shit in the paper.
They must have some idea about your history.
Yeah! They’ve seen my movies, and they lived with me too. Of course they know. It’s just that I only quit drinking a year ago. You know?
So let’s switch gears. Bad Lieutenant was without a doubt one of the greatest movies about addiction. After it came out, your co-writer, Zoe Lund, died in 1999 after years of prolonged drug use. How much of that film was taken from your life?
Obviously, we all knew the subject, you know, we knew the material. Zoe was a hardcore addict, who’s now dead. She loved heroin, she was killed by heroin.
Dope is a one-way deal. You’re either going to be in jail where you can’t use, or dead where you can’t use. That’s it. And when you start it, the drug is demonic. You have no idea that's where it's taking you.
Were you using while you were shooting the movie?
Uh, yeah. The director of that film needed to be using, the director and the writer—not the actors. [Pause] I’d love to get into answering this question, but I don’t want to right now. The whole thing is just so recent for me to talk about. But Zoe was one of these people who thought heroin was the greatest thing in the world, and she did until the day she died. She was down on coke, down on everything, but you know, heroin was the elixir of life for her. But she had that heart condition you get from shooting up. What’s that called?”
Maybe. She also starred in a movie of mine called Ms. 45 [Ferrara’s 1981 feature], that was back before Zoe was high.
She was just a teenager then.
Yeah. She was 17 years old. You look at her in that movie and she was gorgeous. Pure virgin. Well I don’t know if she really was a virgin...[smiles]
She looked virginal...
Yeah, at least her arms were virginal. You see, she’s a perfect before-and-after cautionary tale for anyone who thinks they want to do heroin. Go look at Zoe in Bad Lieutenant and go look at her in Ms. 45. Anyway, bottom line: heroin is a wonderful drug, but she’s now dead. I knew her when she was seventeen, before she used, before and after. She was a talented and creative person before she was using. And she ended up dead. So what’s the payoff?
That’s how it usually ends.
That’s how it always ends. It’s not usually. Dope is strictly a one-way deal. You’re either going to end up in jail where you can’t use, or dead where you can’t use. That’s it. Once you start it, the drug is demonic. You have no idea where it's taking you.
You had these series of break out hits, but the Hollywood studios eventually shunned you. Do you think drugs were the reason?
Maybe. It's also probably because I’m not big on people telling me what to do. I wasn’t in Hollywood back when all these guys were high as kites, at the time when Easy Rider and these movies were being made. Back then, coke was like the wonder drug, it was a world where everyone was hiding, you know what I mean? They’d be shooting up at production meetings, agency meetings, shooting up between their fingers. That’s why people in the movie business connected to Bad Lieutenant.
In 2010, The Guardian claimed your funding dried up in 2003. Why is that?
At the end of the day man, for everyone it’s all about survival. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, you can’t not have your cake and not eat it—you need subsistence. It dried up because it dried up. Drugs is an excuse I think. If you’re making a zillion dollars, nobody cares. Nobody cared that Keith Richards was a drug addict. Did that bother anybody? Well maybe the police, the Canadian police, but that’s it.
Keith’s addiction was accepted—expected even.
In rock and roll, yeah it is. But that’s a joke. The best thing, simplest thing I learned in 12-step meetings was from this cat who said he learned he didn’t have to drink. It sounds simple. But it took me a while to realize it too. I don’t have to drink! It’s so obvious I can’t believe it took so long to get in my mind—It’s not like because I’m a filmmaker or a rock and roller that drinking an drugs are required of me. You don’t need the drugs. Amazing! Zoe was a brilliant, creative person before the drugs, the drugs just killed her. Drugs have a glamor to them.
That's true. Also, people tend to connect them with creativity.
When I was growing up there was this glamor of Woodstock. But Woodstock put more people on the road to destruction and addiction than any other event in the world, right? “The Summer of Love.” I remember when coke was called "The Wonder Drug" on the cover of Time magazine. They said it wasn’t addictive—but we know now that was all bullshit. It didn’t get you hung over. Right? Can you imagine that? Pretty sad when you think cocaine was called the wonder drug.
The thing about coke to me, at least personally, is that it’s addictive while you’re doing it, but I could do it, and then never think about it again.
Did you ever smoke it?
Freebase? Did I smoke it? Yeah man, I smoked crack. I did it all.
Yeah, you don’t get sick when you kick, but there’s a huge psychological dependency. When I think about kids strung out on crack, I don’t know how you get ‘em off it.
On the bright side, it’s not the epidemic it was in the ’80s and ’90s.
No kidding. When we made Bad Lieutenant, that was the crack wars. Where we shot scenes in that film, now it’s like a college campus.
How do you feel about the way New York has changed in recent years?
It sucks. It’s become a tourist center. A one-note tourist-filled shithole!. And because it’s the economic center of the world, it has this trickle down effect.
How long have you been sober?
I haven’t had a drink for over a year.
Do you think your use of drugs and alcohol had an adverse impact on your your career?
Drugs and alcohol? Absolutely! It took me a year and a half just to stop drinking. Whether it’s genetic or however it works, I had no control over it. At one point I tried only drinking light beer, but I was drinking forty beers a day. You don’t even get high when you’re drinking beers! I mean you do, but, it’s not like chug-a-lugging pure vodka. You know what I mean? I just wish I came to grips with it much sooner. Believe me, my sobriety is day to day, but I’m one billion times happier sober than not. The temptation is there—it’s everywhere. The funny thing is, I never liked getting drunk that much anyway.
How about drugs?
It’s interesting, I never thought I was out of control with narcotics. For me, it’s not that kind of drug. I mean I could walk in a straight line when I was on it. Yeah I was out of control with the use of it, it just wasn’t the kind of drug where you’re tripping all over yourself. But we know who’s high and not.
Sometimes I fantasize that when I’m old and sick I’ll be able to start using it again.
You will—it’s called morphine. In the end, with these cats, like my uncle when he was sick, in the last days of his life my cousin was shooting him up, because well, he had advanced cancer. So you never know.