In a middle of a well-heeled Parisian neighbourhood, behind the front door of a building that looks part private hotel, part Buddhist temple, we meet the mercurial wild man of international cinema… “There aren’t any more great films…I mean films that are lyrical, and uplifting. Now there’s nothing left. Just empty characters, and empty actors. They haven’t really ‘lived anything’. Kind of like some of you rotten journalists.” With Abel Ferrara’s scandalous Welcome to New York now in cinemas, we embark on a journey with one of world cinema’s true mavericks…
Why are you still in the business?
I have to make a living, and besides, I do other things too. Cinema is not the only thing I do, luckily. I hang out with artists, I travel, I’m into cuisine, and wine, I go and visit dictators…or so they say!
Your new film, Welcome to New York, has caused something of a furore, being a graphic take on the Dominic Strauss-Khan scandal… The film is not about DSK, it’s not named DSK but Welcome to New York. It’s about a guy named Devereaux, me, and his wife Simone. A film inspired by a real story, one so famous that you might recognise an important official and a leading female journalist. The film doesn’t even bother Strauss-Kahn. It is She [Anne Sinclair, Strauss-Khan’s now ex-wife] who raised an issue with the film. She said: “I don’t want it, I don’t want it…” And she has friends in high places.
You used to get into fights, didn’t you?
It’s in my nature, bold and expansive, particularly at that time. When you’re full of life, it can have a positive effect – like offering someone 1,000 roses. That can be good – or it can be bad, like bashing an ashtray on a cop’s head because he refuses to drink the champagne you’re offering him. But usually I’m never the one who starts the fight.
What about wine?
When I’m bored, I drink. Apart from occasional compulsory moments of abstinence. After undergoing bypass surgery (five times), and also because of cholesterol and stuff, I have to be careful. Anyway, I’m not going to die. Not now. I still have energy. But if ever I start drinking… I can’t drink like a normal person. I can absorb 12, 13, 14 bottles…per day. But I’m never totally drunk, just a little pissed. All you need is a 10-minute nap and voilà, a slurp of rosé wine and I feel as fresh as a daisy! I have to admit that when I start counting, doctors start worrying.
What’s Putin like?
Putin is a simple guy, a former KGB agent who was long imprisoned in Vienna. I told him about what I had read about the army in Stalingrad. I read a lot. He said to me “But how do you know all that?’ It’s because it interests me as much as the stories of Rasputin, Ivan Grozny, and Catherine the Great or Alexander II. Then he told me about his father.
His father was injured during Stalingrad. When he got back home, his house had just been bombarded. Dead bodies were being moved away. Among them he saw his wife. “Get an ambulance!” yelled his father, with his wife in his arms.
People around him said that it was over, and that she wouldn’t survive, but he tried anyway, and saved her. Putin’s elder brother, he died. Putin was born in 1952, because her husband saved his mother’s life. That’s destiny.
Before Putin, you met Castro.
Fidel was a smart guy. He saved Chávez. Chávez was about to kill himself. His daughter called Fidel. And Fidel told Chávez: “If you die now, you’ll become some sort of a hero, but if you wait until after your two year stint in jail, you will become president, like me”.
Fidel did the same in Angola. He was an exuberant Latino. These guys aren’t dictators, they’re very intelligent people.
What about Pussy Riot? Putin doesn’t give a damn about Pussy Riot. It’s a joke for him. He even says: “When they are free, it will be awkward for them because they will have nothing.”
You pilot your own plane…
As soon as I had enough money, I bought a plane so I could go wherever I wanted. True luxury is to be free. It’s not to carry a Vuitton handbag. What would I do with a Vuitton bag? I’d have a crap in it. My freedom has no price. I don’t want to be waiting for the person in from of me to move. Luxury is to depend on no one but yourself.
Do you believe in genius?
Some people are geniuses, yes. Simenon, that’s genius. Stefan Zweig, that’s genius. Duras, Picasso, Bacon, Mozart…that’s genius.
And Depardieu… genius?
I couldn’t care less. All geniuses are monstrous, and terribly unfair. Talking again about Welcome to New York, at first, I used to say about the character: “It’s a good thing I don’t like him, it makes things easier.”
I don’t care if the man had supposedly been promised a bright future. He was terribly human, monstrously human… People disapprove of his actions, but that’s not going to change him. He was in deep shit, and that’s why his wife left. This made me like him. It could happen to anyone.
You once wrote: “One hardly ever resembles his reputation…”
I don’t care about reputations. No one knows me, not even myself.
And what about ego?
Ego is just a way of being reassured. That’s why the word exists. If you are free, you don’t need to be egocentric. You can do whatever you want to do, without paying attention to what people think. Do you think that if I was egocentric I could approach Jean-Paul II, Mitterrand, Castro, Putin, and all those kinds of people? I don’t care about having an ego.
Are you happy to be starring in Blue is the Warmest Colour director Abdellatif Kechiche’s next film?
I don’t think he’ll need 28 takes with me. And he knows it
How do you attract a woman, do you have a catchphrase?
Me? What are you thinking, I have never made a move on any woman! I’m far too afraid of being face to face with her. When there are other men around, I can become quite obscene.