Interviews | One from the Heart: Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales

By Dennis Lim

For the first question of the Go Go Tales press conference at Cannes, moderator Henri Behar asked Abel Ferrara to describe Ray Ruby’s Paradise Lounge, the Manhattan strip club where his new film is set. “It’s a place where you go and they wait on you and you’re in a tuxedo and every drink is 40 euros and up,” said Ferrara, who was clutching a bottle of Bud under the table and trying without success to be discreet when he swigged from it between answers. He paused, then drew the connection: “A little bit like Cannes.” Behar arched an eyebrow: “Where do you see go-go dancers in Cannes?” Ferrara replied: “Everywhere I go.”

Ferrara’s 16th feature—and his second, after Mary (2005), since he decamped for Rome a few years ago—is his first flat-out comedy. The press book name-checks Wilder, Sturges, and Capra, and he described it in a 2002 interview (it took years to get this project off the ground) as “Cheers meets The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.” But as you might deduce from that little exchange with Behar, Go Go Tales is also an allegory: a portrait of the artist as a hustler, a gambler, a performer, a dreamer, an addict, a throwback, a holdout, and, of course, a purveyor of good old-fashioned T&A, navigating the screw-or-be-screwed questions common to all exploitative professions, indeed to modern capitalist systems. You could say this one comes from the heart.

Go Go Tales unfolds over the course of one stressful night at Ray Ruby’s Paradise Lounge, as a serious cashflow problem comes to a head for proprietor and emcee Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe). His lease is up soon and the screeching landlady (Sylvia Miles) has arrived to remind him that she has much bigger prospective new tenants: Bed Bath & Beyond. (Miles squawks an astonishing punk-rock ode to the home-furnishings retailer over the end credits.) The dancers haven’t been paid in weeks and are threatening a strip strike. Ray’s brother and primary backer (Matthew Modine), the swishiest straight hairdresser in the world, shows up from Staten Island with plans to pull the plug. Ray’s way of dealing with it all is to launch a scheme with his Irish accountant and a dealer supposedly having a lead on the first three numbers of the Lotto, buy a stack of tickets, and cross his fingers in anticipation of that night’s $18 million jackpot. Amazingly, he wins. Even more amazingly, he can’t find the winning ticket.

There’s one more bit of crucial information. Go Go Tales is a New York story—or, more precisely, a story about a classic New York fear and emblem of failure: being forced out of New York—that was filmed entirely in Rome, at Cinecitta. It’s the first time this hometown boy, one of the great New York filmmakers, has ever had to find a stand-in for his city: a fact that, in the context of this particular film, is at once sad, apt, heroic, and redemptive. Ferrara has made a movie about the price of independence that is independent to the core. The film is anything but whiny, but there’s undoubtedly a righteous indignation burbling here: Ray never gets any respect, and the director, you can tell, identifies.

Critics have always found it easy to dismiss Ferrara—to chuckle at his drunken buffoonery and write off his films as scraps of underbelly anthropology. That attitude reared its head at Cannes this year. Despite being invited to open the Quinzaine, Go Go Tales quite predictably received a midnight slot out of competition and many viewers reacted as they had been programmed to: The Hollywood Reporter’s reviewer proclaimed it “dunderheaded”; a few high-profile critics and programmers were only too happy to announce that they walked out. Even those who called it a “return to form” are somewhat misstating the case. This may well be Ferrara’s best film in years but on the basis of The Blackout (1997), R-Xmas (2001), and Mary, it isn’t “form” so much as the American film industry that has deserted him (The Funeral was his last film to receive a proper US release, in 1996).

Largely unnoted amid the condescending appraisals of Go Go Tales as simply “fun” or “trashy” is the sheer dynamism and inventiveness of the filmmaking. Ferrara was keen, at the press conference and in conversation, to lavish praise on his collaborators, especially longtime production designer Frank DeCurtis; cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti, whose camera prowls the two-floor Paradise with remarkable stealth and fluidity; and composer Francis Kuipers, responsible for the sustained adrenaline rush of the wall-to-wall soundtrack. Ferrara has routinely worked wonders with New York locations—his films have a sense of place that is both acutely powerful and wholly unforced. (This paradoxical quality often comes across in the performances too, as if the actors are being pushed to their limits and granted complete freedom at the same time.) Confined to soundstage interiors, he produces similarly potent results.

Ferrara protégé Asia Argento, who has a typically bravura cameo as Monroe, the “sexiest and scariest” of the dancers, is responsible for the film’s (and perhaps the festival’s) singlemost talked-about scene—she entwines tongues while stripping with a Rottweiler—and she addressed her mentor’s methods at the press conference. “It’s like going to film school for an actor to observe him work,” she said. “He shoots with two cameras, on two different floors and he’s got two screens. You’re moving from one floor to another and into another scene. It’s complete madness, but he’s got it all figured out completely.”

With its deft ensemble choreography and palpable communal warmth, Go Go Tales could almost be Ferrara’s A Prairie Home Companion (2006), ending not with a graceful fade-out but on a note of crazy defiance. In a nutty, inspired touch, the Paradise turns out to be a haven for creative expression—there’s an after-show that comes on once the strip-club clientele has left, an eccentric talent pageant attended largely by friends and family of the dancers, who all apparently harbour artistic aspirations. The film’s perpetual night and tawdry cabaret ambience certainly evokes The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), but the most pertinent swipe from Casssavetes—not just Bookie but also Opening Night (1977)—is the protagonist’s dogged, almost unhinged insistence that the show must go on.

Like almost all Ferrara heroes, from Ms. 45 to the bad lieutenant to the Mel Gibson-Abel Ferrara hybrid of Mary, Ray is a visionary. His final speech is accordingly grandiose, a funny, stirring crescendo of heart-on-sleeve pleas and avowals: “I love to gamble!” “I played to win!” “What do you want from me? You wanna kill my dream? Take my heart?” It is, of course, Ferrara’s own manifesto, a message to audiences and investors who have lost faith.

Ray continues to dream, and dream big, summoning a mix of tenacity, blind optimism, and belief in community that are, more than ever, the necessary traits of the iconoclast. His gamble pays off, and so does Ferrara’s. The filmmaker’s departure from his beloved city—“the courage to leave,” as he put it when we met for an interview at his Cannes hotel bar—has allowed him to prove a point: He’s still the king of New York, wherever he may be.

CINEMA SCOPE: How did the public screening go the other night?

ABEL FERRARA: Walking down the red carpet takes more organization then shooting the movie. All that “who’s in front” and people pushing around. I’m saying, “God, just relax. We’re here, we made the movie.” Fabio Cianchetti, who shot The Dreamers (2003) for Bertolucci, is really one of the great cinematographers in the world, so to see his stuff up there was great—and you know, we kept it as dark as we could. I don’t know if we got that many laughs though.

SCOPE: Do you think it was a subtitling issue?

FERRARA: I don’t think we’re that funny, or we’re more unintentionally funny. No, no, no, we were going for the jokes. There’s a story about the Marx Brothers—how they’d go on tour, start in Providence or New Haven or New York, and go across the country with the writers in the theatre and see if they could get two laughs a minute, a guaranteed two, like, ha ha ha laughs a minute. And they kept writing and writing across the whole country, and when they got to L.A. they’d shoot it. And we could do that kind of thing with Go Go Tales because it’s real time. We could get those actors and perform it as a Wooster Group special.

SCOPE: Speaking of the Wooster Group: you got a really effective, almost theatrical performance from Willem Dafoe.

FERRARA: We wrote the part for Walken and Chris never really got it. Willem and I had worked together in New Rose Hotel (1998). We had our differences but he’s now also living in Rome, and when he read it he got it. If you’re gonna have a film where someone’s got his name on the cuff of his shirt, that’s a pretty big ego you have to play. And he got it, he did it, he sang. It’s so sad he wasn’t there that night, but he’s shooting this movie [Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected] where he’s playing the head of the Gestapo or a concentration camp. Willem understands the idea with entertainment, that the show must go on, from a theatrical point of view, and he made it happen. We’ve been trying to make this film for seven years, but we never really had the guy.

SCOPE: You wrote Go Go Tales before Mary?

FERRARA: I wrote it way back: Mary, Go Go Tales, and the King of New York prequel that I’m trying to do next—they all kind of came together. You never know when the inspiration is going to come. We were here in Cannes seven years ago, trying to get money for Go Go Tales.

SCOPE: Has the film changed much since your original conception? I assume you were planning to shoot in New York to begin with.

FERRARA: It’s different in that I’m different. And yeah, in terms of how we were going to film it. We were going to shoot on Wooster Street—we had a three-story townhouse and we built almost the entire set, but obviously not like we ended up doing at Cinecitta. We did a reading with Harvey Keitel and a lot of the actors; it was very low budget. But I’m walking down Wooster Street one day and I see my set being tossed out into the middle of the block. We didn’t pay the rent. We didn’t have the money. The financiers backed out.

But there’s a time and a place for everything. This film took me so long to make, and there’s so much gratification from it. It was something I’d really wanted to do and couldn’t but we never gave up on it, and then it came together so beautifully in Italy. It was so odd, Matthew Modine, one minute he’s playing Jesus Christ [Modine plays the director-star of a Jesus movie in Mary] and then the next minute he’s playing the greatest beautician in Staten Island. That’s probably a Christ-like character too.

SCOPE: Is the Paradise based on actual clubs you used to go to?

FERRARA: There’s a film I made that I actually almost forgot called Fear City (1984) [set largely in seedy Manhattan strip clubs]. There’s an up-and-down wave of these go-go clubs. Sometimes they’re so in fashion—you go and there’s limousines parked down the block and Hollywood actresses are jumping up onstage. But sometimes you go and they’ve closed down. I remember going to this one and Leonardo DiCaprio was there and I remember going with Matt Dillon and, you know, it was a classy club. I’ve got to be careful what I say because this is such a litigious society. If you mention somebody’s name then they’ll sue you for saying they really directed and wrote it, send you storyboards. But yeah, it was on 20th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues and the Limelight was around the corner, and that club was in the middle of the block. It was when we were making Bad Lieutenant (1992)—I know exactly when it was. I know the day, I know the minute, I know the hour. The Limelight was rocking, and that street, everywhere we went we got drinks for free, New York was beautiful, but it was bad too. You had the crack epidemic and people getting murdered, Drugs were a nightmare. But when 9/11 came down, that put a stop to it.

SCOPE: But things were already changing under Giuliani.

FERRARA: It might have been, but 9/11—that was a knife in the heart of our city. To me, life is before and after. I’d never imagined at the time, that was a golden era for New York.

SCOPE: Did you move to Rome right after 9/11?

FERRARA: No, we hung out for as long as we could. It became very hard to make films, it became very hard for me to even want to make a film. I didn’t want to leave New York. Most of my films are financed as much in Europe as in the United States, so it’s not a big deal for us to come and shoot in France or Italy—you can see how people react to me here. To leave New York when it wasn’t the right time would have been too hard. I grew up there and there was that independent film thing, Jim Jarmusch and Spike, there was a world of films and filmmakers, and then all of a sudden it became… I still have a problem dealing with all this, you know. What was the response, the political response, as a New Yorker, not as an American. As an American citizen, Iraq is Iraq, but as a New Yorker, what about Osama bin Laden? Where is he?

SCOPE: Ray’s speech at the end of the film, where he lays it all out, is really rousing—and there seems to be a lot of you in it.

FERRARA: I hope it’s 110 percent me in it. At one point, the character has to express himself, unless it’s Ms. 45 (1981) and the actor is mute, then it’s not an issue! You want to stay away from the idea that now your lead actor is going to make the big speech, but there’s a point where he’s got to really say where he’s at, you know? Ray’s the king of jive, he’s giving everybody what they want, he’s talking in circles, but at that point he’s got to come down to it. And Willem understood it. The ball is in his hands—he’s either gonna put it in the end zone or he’s gonna lose the game. His life was on the line, he knew there was only one way to get even, man. So, yeah, he could’ve shut the place down, he could’ve gone to Miami. But the guy’s gonna stand up and say, “I know what I want.” He knew how to go after it. Sure, he’s a gambling addict, but maybe he’s also a gambling expert, which makes him a gambling addict.

SCOPE: Would you say this is the most personal or most heartfelt film you’ve made?

FERRARA: I hope not. I mean, I hope it is. Absolutely. It’s my most heartfelt film. But what’s that saying about the other ones? They were my least heartfelt films? But all kidding aside, you make these films about the characters, and you’re not always the characters, you know? I’m not that egomaniacal. Ray Ruby could have his name above the marquee and he could have his initials on his cufflinks, but I’m not wearing cufflinks, I’m not wearing fucking Ruby buttons. You need to be true to the characters, that’s really what it’s at, for me and the actor. And the actor and I have to be close to each other to really understand how we’re going to create that guy. Willem’s not Ruby and neither am I, but we know who Ruby really is. And we nail him, and then we’re him too. But I don’t think I want to be too much like Ray Ruby. With the white tuxedo and the singing, and all these girls with no clothes on day and night. I know, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.

SCOPE: A few of us critics have compared Go Go Tales to A Prairie Home Companion—they’re both very personal ensemble movies about show business and performance. And the club ambience is reminiscent of Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Did you have those films in mind?

FERRARA: Cassavetes and Woody Allen were my mantras. Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Broadway Danny Rose (1984). A Prairie Home Companion was also a big film for us during the process of editing. Believe me, I’m not putting myself with those filmmakers. We wanted at one point to use Ben Gazzara because he was in Italy, but I just didn’t have had the heart to do that.

SCOPE: Compared to the Altman, the show-must-go-on sentiment in Go Go Tales is obviously more defiant then melancholy.

FERRARA: Oh yeah, there’s no melancholy. My girlfriend, they used to teach her there’s no room for sourpusses at Bloomingdale’s. When they were training them to work at Bloomingdale’s, she used to tell me these great stories. “No room for sourpusses on the seventh floor.” New York, ain’t no room for melancholy. You better have that tuxedo buttoned up and it’s Ray Ruby’s tonight and this is the hottest thing yet. Ain’t no place for melancholy on 20th Street, I guarantee you that.

SCOPE: Have you had to adapt much to working conditions in Italy?

FERRARA: I’ve been there for about two-and-a-half years, so I understand the political structure, but underneath that there are some of the greatest filmmakers, greatest actors. The cinema to me is Pasolini, Rossellini, Fellini—if you work at Cinecitta, the ghosts are all there, the spirits are alive.

SCOPE: You mentioned 9/11, but in terms of New York changing, what was the turning point for the film industry? When did it start to get harder to be a certain kind of American filmmaker?

FERRARA: There was that period in the ’90s when all these guys sold out—Harvey and all that. When every studio had an independent branch, it was the wrong way to go, 100 percent. You’re either going to battle them on that level or be a change on that level. You’re going to say, oh right, being a part of Disney is going to help independent films? That’s fucking bullshit, man. Who are you kidding?

SCOPE: You’ve managed to avoid working in digital thus far.

FERRARA: I want to make a feature film that’s pure digital. It’ll be a modern-day version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I want to do it like in [William Gibson’s 2003 novel] Pattern Recognition, where they put these short segments out on the internet. Just put it out there on the Web and try to create that world that William [Gibson] was talking about, where you can bypass them all.

With the internet, and going to Europe, I feel like I grew up. You’ve got to be like a Wall Street broker, especially with the internet and digital, watching that tape every minute to know how the film business is going. There’s going to be a way, for the people who want to see my films, where I can go right to them with it.

SCOPE: So you’re pretty optimistic about the future?

FERRARA: There are so many ways to work, I want to try them all. I remember seeing 2001 (1968) at the Ziegfield in the afternoon. There were 30 people, I’m sitting there eating popcorn by myself. In 70mm, Dolby Stereo, super wide screen, it was unbelievable. But I also remember during a snowstorm one time, they showed it on TV, my friend had an 11-inch black-and-white television, and it was the same experience. Films play on every level. But you need the freedom and you need the respect. In New York there was always respect for movies. Jim Jarmusch is respected on the street. I don’t know how respected he is at Spago’s, or if he even exists. You know, I can’t take it any more. At a certain point, you have to have respect for the work. Just because you can afford the Mona Lisa doesn’t mean you can put a mustache on it.

In the end, having the courage to leave New York—once you do that, you find places. You find they want to shoot films in Shanghai, Korea. As long as you’re making films, it doesn’t matter, I don’t know if you even need language. There are a lot of ways to go. But the only way is where you’re working with people who respect what you’re doing.

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