The Way We Get By: Abel Ferrara on the Films of John Cassavetes

Under lockdown in Rome, the director of Bad Lieutenant and Driller Killer looks to the works of a legendary auteur as a form of escape.

Most of us are sequestered in our homes, doing our part to slow the spread of COVID-19. That includes some of our favorite artists, so we’re asking them to tell us about one thing — a book, a movie, a record, whatever — that’s helping them get through this difficult time.

I’m in Rome and we’re hanging in there, but the nightmare is in Milan, where there’s no room in the hospitals and they can’t even bury the bodies. I don’t know what people are seeing on TV, but I think they’re using Italy to scare the shit out of everybody else. In the north, it’s psychoville: the hospitals can’t handle it, there’s the most old people in the world outside of Japan, and it just nailed them. They had no idea what was going to happen. Who knows what it’s going to be like in a few weeks here. We’ve been quarantined for a long time now. And as locked down as everybody is, they’re still going out for food. You can’t starve to death. You gotta eat, and you gotta hope you have have money to eat. When everything shuts down for a month, it’s really hard for everybody. It’s like The Twilight Zone, it’s uncharted territory.

When I go out to get food, I put a mask on, I put gloves on, and I stay away from people as much as I can. At my age, I’m in the danger zone. I’m worried it’ll get to the point where the virus will kill everybody over 65. I see certain young people act like they are not going to die, but it’s their grandmother who’s going to die and they don’t give a shit about their grandmother – if they even know they have one. If I was 25 and still using, I’d just think, OK, everybody get it, whoever dies dies, and let’s get fucking going. Being quarantined is tough, but you do it for people who are older. And also because the hospitals can’t handle the volume of patients, so if you happen to fall off your motorcycle, you’re not going to get a bed because the hospitals are already too full.

Now is the test of how great America is. In China and South Korea, they could test everybody, so if somebody got sick, they’d jump on it – not just the doctors, but the cops and the health bureau too. They tracked down everybody who got it, and all those people were quarantined. But in America, they can’t test anybody, they can’t treat anybody, so what the fuck can they do? They can’t even protect the doctors, because there aren’t enough masks. Where is America going? When are they going to tell Calvin Klein to make surgical gowns and stop with the underwear? When is Victoria’s Secret going to make nurse’s outfits? Trump is now really out of his depth.

If people are looking for something to take them out of this moment, I would recommend getting into all the John Cassavetes movies. Just watch all of them. First see all the movies he directed, and then go see the movies he acted in, the ones Peter Falk acted in, the ones Ben Gazzara acted in. Rosemary’s Baby with Cassavetes as an actor, The Strange One with Gazzara as an actor, Peter Falk in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Just go through their whole body of work.

When I was growing up, Cassavetes’ movies were an alternative to the popcorn movies I was watching. I’m basically from the suburbs, so my worldview was Hollywood movies. But at the same time, we started seeing the films from Europe, Japan and India, and we started watching the American filmmakers from outside the studio system, and Cassavetes was the first one. He was able to bridge those two worlds, and the other guys too. With his independence, his voice, he was just a cool dude. And then you saw how he made those movies, which was by just fucking doing it. Get your friends and fucking do it. The films are so powerful, all of them, and then the work of his old lady, Gena Rowlands, is incredible too. A Woman Under the Influence is the masterpiece of masterpieces. When I revisit those films now, they’re better than ever.

In the ’70s and ’80s, I was a downtown punk filmmaker, a street rat, and Cassavetes and his gang were accomplished big-time Hollywood people. Back then, I was shooting Driller Killer on spit. But later on, I got to be close with Ben Gazzara. He was awesome. I never got a chance to shoot with him, although Vinny Gallo got it together to make Buffalo ’66 with him. I would have loved to work with Ben, and Falk too. One time I saw Ben in New Haven, Connecticut, acting in Al Pacino’s two-man play Chinese Coffee. The guy who’d been doing it with Pacino got sick, so he asked Gazzara to do it with him on very short notice. I went up to see him and Pacino do the play, and then also got to go backstage afterwards. It was something else; the play was awesome, and backstage was even more awesome.

I’ve also been reading Jack Finney recently. In the ‘90s, I directed Body Snatchers, and he wrote the book it’s based on, but I didn’t know he’d written all these other novels and collections of short stories. You have to search out his stuff, but it’s pretty cool. In a way, it’s all about what happening today. It’s not about the end of the world, but it’s about how life changes, and how what people perceive as progress might not be anything near progress.

Just for the record, I started making films when I was 17 in 1968 and have never stopped for 1 minute and am not planning to.