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A prolific independent filmmaker with a penchant for graphic sex and violence, director Abel Ferrara developed a strong following for his highly atmospheric, stylized portraits of an ultra-violent and crime-ridden New York City with gritty movies like "King of New York" (1990) and "Bad Lieutenant" (1992). Often working in collaboration with out-of-bounds actors like Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe, Ferrara rose above the seedy sex and violence to metaphorical and often allegorical levels by exploring good and evil, often through the use of religious iconography. Aided by screenwriting partner and childhood friend Nicholas St. John, he rose to prominence in the indie world with exploitation movies "Driller Killer" (1979) and "Ms. 45" (1980), and even had a brief brush with the mainstream by directing episodes of "Miami Vice" (NBC, 1984-89) and "Crime Story" (NBC, 1986). But it was "King of New York" and "Bad Lieutenant" that earned him a great deal of respect despite their sordid subject matter, the latter of which many considered to be Ferrara's masterpiece. After running into trouble with Madonna on "Dangerous Game" (1993) and the exquisite period gangster piece "The Funeral" (1996), he often struggled to find financing. In his later years, Ferrara continued making tough films that often depicted an essentially evil world that nonetheless contained hope for salvation.
Born on July 19, 1951 in the Bronx, NY, Ferrara was raised in a Catholic family and later moved to the suburb of Peekskill, NY, when he was 13 years old. It was while attending high school in Peekskill that he met Nicholas St. John, who became a screenwriter and Ferrara's lifelong collaborator. During this time, they made a number of amateur films on a Super-8 camera, while Ferrara moved on to briefly study film at the State University of New York, in Purchase, NY. He also enrolled at Rockland Community College to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. In his time at SUNY, Ferrara made a number of short films, while after leaving school he had his first professional gig directing a pornographic film called "Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy" (1976), which starred a then-girlfriend he paid another actor to have sex with on camera, only to perform the job himself when his actor was unable to do so.
Ferrara's first official feature was the exploitation flick "Driller Killer" (1979), a gory low-budget indie inspired by "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) where he played the titular murderer under the stage name Jimmy Laine. Haunting, bizarre and undeniably gory, "Driller Killer" was thrown into the category of video nasties, a term coined in the United Kingdom to describe a number of violent films released on video. But Ferrara's movie was something more than that in announcing a unique voice to the world of independent cinema. He followed up with the cult hit "Ms. 45/Angel of Vengeance" (1980), a dark and gritty exploitation film about a retribution-seeking rape victim (Zoe Tamerlis), in which he played one of the rapists. Though critics savaged the film for its excesses, "Ms. 45" earned a strong cult following in the years after its release. But with his first two films, Ferrara had developed a reputation for being unflinching in his use of unrelenting violence and graphic sexuality made more disturbing by being mixed in with religious iconography.
From there, Ferrara made three features that did little to advance his reputation. Despite a good cast that featured Tom Berenger, Melanie Griffith and Billy Dee Williams, "Fear City" (1984) repelled viewers as overly gratuitous, while the forgettable "Cat Chaser" (1989) never made it to the theaters. Meanwhile, "China Girl" (1987) - a retelling of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" by way of "Mean Streets" (1973) - exhibited Ferrara's tremendous trademark energy along with over-the-top violence and perhaps deserved more respect than it received. In between his film projects, Ferrara ventured into television via association with producer Michael Mann, which led to directing two first season episodes of "Miami Vice" (NBC, 1984-89), which led to him helming the critically-acclaimed two-hour pilot of the short-lived series "Crime Story" (NBC, 1986). But film remained his bread and butter, and in the early 1990s, Ferrara directed two of his best films, starting with "King of New York" (1990). The film starred Christopher Walken as a former drug dealer released from prison whose attempt to give something back to the community only leads to an all-out mob war. Although Ferrara's wife Nancy walked out on the premiere because of its treatment of women, the film attracted more interest than any of his features to that time.
Following up, Ferrara directed a film that many considered to be his masterpiece, "Bad Lieutenant" (1992), starring Harvey Keitel as a corrupt New York cop hooked on drugs and hookers who confronts issues of faith and redemption while investigating the brutal rape of a nun (Frankie Thorn). With Keitel's unrelenting performance hailed by critics, Ferrara's film developed a strong cult following that only added to his already notorious reputation. Long-time writing partner St. John, himself a devout Catholic, refused to work with Ferrara on the picture because of its blasphemous images, but was back on board for Ferrara's following movie. For his next two films, Ferrara ventured outside of low-budget waters for the first time thanks in part to Madonna's $4 million salary for "Dangerous Game" (1993). An unconventional account of the process of filmmaking, the movie starred Keitel as an indie filmmaker not unlike Ferrara who finds himself in a sort of existential dilemma while shooting a film. Madonna earned Ferrara's undying scorn when she lashed out against the film before reviews were in, only to learn that her performance had been praised by critics - a sin Ferrara never forgave.
Ferrara next turned to science fiction with "Body Snatchers" (1994), the second remake of Don Siegel's classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956). Although favorably reviewed at several major film festivals, the studio mysteriously shelved it for a time and marketed it pitifully upon its release. Consequently, the $20 million picture did relatively little business when finally exhibited and helped make Ferrara an even more resolute foe of the studios. Refusing to be compromised by money matters, Ferrara returned to the low-budget grittiness of his early work with "The Addiction" (1995), which was, on the surface, a tale of vampirism. Filmed in black and white, the film was really a theological tale probing the corrupt human condition while allowing Lili Taylor's character a way out through Jesus Christ. He continued in the same vein with the 1930's gangster piece "The Funeral" (1996), which starred Christopher Walken as the oldest of three brothers who wrestles with a Catholic conscience at odds with his need to revenge his younger brother's death. Chris Penn turned in a riveting portrayal of the insane middle brother while Isabella Rossellini, Annabella Sciorra, Vincent Gallo and Benicio del Toro contributed notable performances.
For "The Blackout" (1997), Ferrara temporarily abandoned his usual NYC locale for a warmer Miami, FL but returned to New York where Matthew Modine, comfortably settled into domestic stability with his girlfriend Claudia Schiffer, must confront the trace memories of a murder he committed during an alcoholic blackout 18 months before. He next directed "New Rose Hotel" (1998), a cyberpunk thriller about a team of corporate extraction specialists (Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe). After making the crime thriller "'R Xmas" (2001) with Ice-T and the divisive "Mary" (2005), an examination of feminism in Catholicism starring Juliette Binoche, Ferrara found greater difficulty trying to fund projects even on an exceedingly low budget. He reunited with Willem Dafoe on the festival-bound "Go Go Tales" (2007), where the actor played a strip club owner, and made his first documentary "Chelsea on the Rocks" (2008), which looked at the people and events surrounding New York's famed Chelsea Hotel. From there, he made another documentary, "Napoli Napoli Napoli" (2009), which depicted the city of Naples, Italy, and reunited with Dafoe once more for the futuristic apocalyptic drama "4:44 Last Day on Earth" (2011), which saw only a very limited release after its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival.
By Shawn Dwyer
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Inspired by success of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1975), decided to make "The Driller Killer"; film marked his feature directorial debut and screen writing debut of longtime collaborator Nicholas St. John; also starred, edited, and wrote songs under pseudonym Jimmy Laine
Second directorial effort, revenge drama "Ms. 45"; also played first rapist, again credited as Jimmy Laine
Directed two episodes of Michael Mann's "Miami Vice" (NBC) during its debut season
Helmed two-hour pilot for Michael Mann produced cop series "Crime Story" (NBC)
Crime thriller "King of New York" featured at various international festivals (including New York) and caught attention of mainstream critics; first collaboration with Christopher Walken
Directed and co-wrote crime drama "Bad Lieutenant"; repelled by its blasphemous imagery, devout Catholic Nicholas St. John refused to work on film with long-time partner; first collaboration with Harvey Keitel
Honored with career retrospective during 22nd annual Rotterdam Film Festival
Directed erotic drama "Dangerous Game," starring Madonna and Keitel
Helmed "Body Snatchers", a slick remake of the 1954 classic horror flick
Returned to low-budget, visceral nature of early work with "The Addiction"; filmed in black and white
Directed period gangster piece "The Funeral"
Contributed 10-minute segment featuring Rosie Perez ("Love on the A Train") to Jonathan Demme produced HBO anthology "Subway Stories"
Drama feature "The Blackout," starring Mathew Modine debuted at Cannes Film Festival
Directed "The New Rose Hotel"; co-scripted with Zoe Lund (who co-wrote "Bad Lieutenant")
Helmed crime drama "'R Xmas"
First acting role in 25 years, "Exes"
Made documentary feature debut with "Chelsea on the Rocks"
Credited as co-writer in Werner Herzog directed "The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans," starring Nicolas Cage
Directed documentary about his old neighborhood "Mulberry St."