Released 30 years ago almost to the day in the United States, Bad Lieutenant and his excess battery of all kinds had left more than one spectator on the floor. In 2018, Première met its terrible mastermind on the occasion of its reissue.
Interview originally published in Première Classics number 14, with Rocky on the cover, available on our online store.
Not convenient, Abel Ferrara. Restless and grumpy, the guy alternates between a machine gun flow and long pauses during which he seems to probe your soul. The director puts on two espressos and finally agrees to talk about bad lieutenant, perhaps his most bizarre, most hardcore work, in a filmo that nonetheless exudes amazement. In June 2018, Ferrara is in Nantes for the SoFilm Summercamp while his 1992 film is about to be released in a restored version. A feature film with express shooting (18 days) in the most gloomy corners of Manhattan and the Bronx. “ The starting point was a nun who had been raped and mutilated in New York in the early 80s. It had made a lot of noise, it was absolutely necessary to catch the guy who had done that “, he recalls. A sordid news item on which Bo Dietl, the detective who found the culprits, returned in detail in his autobiography One Tough Cop. The book largely inspired Ferrara and her friend, co-screenwriter and actress Zoë Lund (who died of an overdose at age 37) to bad lieutenant. The story of a cop played by Harvey Keitel, crippled in debt, crooked and addicted to just about every substance, who investigates the rape and murder of a nun at the altar of a church. Arty and sticky object fuel for emergency and collapse, bad lieutenant is seen as much as a way of the cross as a quest for redemption. At least, that’s what we believed before Abel Ferrara put us in our place.
Watching the film again, we rediscover that baseball is very present. It’s a real common thread.
Abel Ferrara: Yeah, baseball plays a key role in bad lieutenant. In the United States, we all know this sport inside out. We grew up with it. We know all the players and we know everything there is to know about them: who their wife is, their girlfriend. Who deceives whom and with whom. Who is hurt. Who takes drugs. Who goes out for drinks late at night in bars. And so, in the film, we tell a World Series [série finale de la ligue majeure de baseball] between the Mets and the Dodgers that never happened but that we all wanted. The baseball atmosphere, the suspense, the players present… Everything is perfectly plausible. I don’t know if we were good at making movies, but damn, we knew baseball. (Laughter.)
The character of Harvey Keitel was already loaded with addictions, why did you make him an inveterate gambler?
My father was a bookmaker. It was his life, and this film is part of his story. I grew up with it and have hated betting ever since. I have never practiced. I love sports but I can’t bet, because my father’s addiction was really difficult for my mother and the whole family to manage. He was the kind of guy who doubled the bet every time They say that the second best feeling for a bettor after winning is losing. It’s endless, and that’s what I wanted to show.
There are obviously a lot of drugs in bad lieutenant. It’s no secret that you were a heroin addict…
Well yeah, it’s almost a documentary on what I was taking at that time.
Were you also making the film to scare yourself? To show you how far you could go if you didn’t quit heroin?
No no no. It was what it was, what do you want me to tell you? We didn’t analyze films that way, we made them without asking any questions. The observation of our little gang was that we had friends who were addicted to heroin. Alcoholic friends. Friends who took cocaine. Crack. Friends with a gambling addiction. Sex. So the joke – and actually it’s not a joke, but for us it was at the time – was to imagine a guy who would combine all that. A guy thoroughly in all addictions, foot to the floor. But with a cop badge that would serve as a sesame. He could do whatever he wanted. Addicts are normally afraid of the police. Not him.
We read everything about Harvey Keitel at the time of filming, especially about his heroin addiction. The legend even says that, for the shoot scene, he really got an injection…
No, I don’t think so… But no, he was very… very… you see… No, he wasn’t taking drugs… Well, ask him, not me, crap !
He was really a follower of the Method on bad lieutenant ?
You already told me that just before the interview. Where do you get that he would have been in the skin of the character during all the filming?
From a number of articles. But I ask you the question, maybe I’m wrong.
Harvey is an actor. And his way of playing is very similar to him. (long silence.) It’s a difficult question. Did Harvey stay in character? In my opinion, the question is rather: “How much of the character came from Harvey?” But is it so important after all?
You have to understand that we did everything by feeling. With my cinematographer, Ken Kelsch, we improvised in the field. Like the scene where Harvey masturbates in front of the two kids: it was a Friday night in New York, we were trying to find a place to film, it was starting to rain, it stopped… But we didn’t stop. took the lead, I just told him to put the camera on the actors and let them work. I wanted to give them freedom, to see what was going to happen. We like to shoot fast and simple with Ken, it pisses us off to wiggle our ass.
This masturbation scene is surely the most striking of the film, the one that is imprinted on people’s minds.
Yeah, the public reception has been very mixed. It remains an infamous scene, so inevitably, it can cause rejection. At the beginning, people mostly thought it was long. Nine minutes… (Laughter.) We shot the whole reel, we used it all up. At the time, it was common, we weren’t shooting with video cameras yet. But it works precisely because it lasts. I wanted real people, real time. Harvey knew one of the two young actresses, I believe it was his daughter’s babysitter. I asked him: ” Are you sure you want to shoot this with her? It didn’t seem to be a problem for him. My co-writer Zoë Lund, who also plays the woman Harvey does drugs with, was with us that night. On the other hand, you should not count on her in the morning. (Laughter.)
Harvey Keitel wasn’t your first choice for the role.
No, actually. I wanted Christopher Walken, with whom I had filmed Kings of New York. But he finally told me he couldn’t do it. Well, he could have… It would have been a very different film! He told me : “ Jesus is an overused literary device. That’s a funny way to put it. Anyway, I got the message. But we were stuck. When Walken refuses your film, who do you take? Harvey Keitel is a nice fit, except I didn’t know him. Actor Victor Argo, whom he was very fond of, played matchmaker and gave him the script. He ended up accepting.
It is said that he procrastinated quite a bit before accepting.
But who cares! Walken and Keitel were just a little older than me, a generation above. And I respected them to death, they were masters for me.
Why was the subject of redemption so interesting to you?
Where is redemption in this film?
Keitel’s character seems to be trying to save his soul…
They tell me that all the time. Think a little bit: after beating his face and hurting himself non-stop for I don’t know how long, he finally sees Jesus. OK. But what are we actually talking about? From a vision? From a dream? A drug trip?
Regardless, his mind tells him to move on.
He wants to change?
But where do you see it changing?
In at least two scenes, when he…
Give the kid the money.
Yes, and in the sequence with the good sister. He wants to save his soul.
Yeah. It’s not exactly redemption. Finally, let’s hope he has changed.
Wasn’t it your goal to make the viewer feel that there was hope for them?
Hmm… (Silence.) It’s a shame, because we could turn bad lieutenant 2 and it would be a damn interesting movie.
What would it say?
There are plenty of possibilities. The guy only got shot once at the end. 50 Cent was shot nine times and he’s still alive! We could start the film in an ambulance, it would be between life and death. Or we could kill him and the movie would take place in the afterlife.
You seem to have already thought about it.
But no man, we’re just fucking talking… But hey, Harvey is still here, most of the people who made the movie with me too. I always realize… The idea of a bad lieutenant 2 is not completely outlandish.
Really want to see this.
If I realized it! I’m not sure you’d be tempted if another stuck to it. No more than if a fucking screenwriter hired by Edward Pressman wrote the script [Pressman a produit en 2009 une sorte de remake de Bad Lieutenant se déroulant à La Nouvelle-Orléans, avec Nicolas Cage dans le rôle principal et Werner Herzog derrière la caméra. Ferrara ne lui a jamais pardonné.] (Silence.) But you know what pisses me off the most about this restored version of the movie?
We still can’t use the song Signifying Rapper of Schoolly D who was in the original edit. It breaks my heart, and it’s Jimmy Page’s fault. He sued us and Schoolly because the song is inspired by Kashmir. The movie was a hundred times better with Schoolly’s music. I sure could pay and get the rights, but I don’t want to give Jimmy Page that fucking satisfaction. No fucking question…
On DVD and Blu-ray from Wild Side.