Independent Film Quarterly
Excerpt from an interview with Abel Ferrara
I've inserted responses to Abel's disrespectful remarks about the woman who contributed so much to his career. - RL
IFQ: Did you co-write Bad Lieutenant?
AF: Well, when you work with Zoë (Lund) you're fighting a losing battle from page one because she'll out write you 20 pages to a line any day of the week. It (her loss) really is tragic. I mean, she died... I wouldn't say young because she lived to be forty, which is a miracle in itself. I dunno, she had a death wish right off the bat...
RL: When Zoë wrote a screenplay, she had a vision of the entire film in her mind. She would always include character scene descriptions far above what was normally expected in a script. Directors prefer to work with a script which is a simple dialog outline, permitting them to fulfill their creative urges by painting scenes on a blank canvas. Hence Abel's feeling that he was "fighting a losing battle". Zoë's specifics about scenes left less for the director to do, tending to channel shooting in a way that many director's egos resisted.
Concerning the co-writing of Bad Lt.: Zoë fought for (and won) top writer's billing for the film credits. She always maintained that she wrote it in spite of Abel, not with him. I lived with her during this period, when she would work at the terminal all day, and bring script updates over to Abel at night. She usually returned very late, frustrated with the process. One night she came home particularly stressed, reporting that while she tried in vain to get him to pay attention to the work, Abel kept offering her $100 to touch his cock, just once! Yeah, a losing battle, alright.
Anyone else would say she did die young, at 37 (not 40). It was no miracle. Yes, she was a junkie for years, but she had no death wish. She used heroin in a very controlled, disciplined way. No binging, no playing with overdose risks. She died after moving to Paris, where she got into shooting cocaine with her coke-dealing boyfriend. And her death was not due to any death-wish or overdose. She was prevented from seeing a doctor for her chest ailment, which turned out to be a staph infection, because the man she had gone to live with was afraid their identities might be discovered, leading to their arrest. She finally went to the hospital, too late to save her life, against his protests.
Zoë had addressed this common "death wish" prejudice in a letter to the NY Times OpEd page in 1991, where she wrote (addressing the head of Phoenix House):
IFQ: You seem to have absorbed an energy from her work and subsequent projects have a feel that is similar to your collaborations with her.
AF: Yeah, she robbed us blind when we first met though, so I guess it evens out. She'd have a hundred thousand in her pocketbook and take you for your last quarter. I mean she was wonderful, she taught us a lot.
RL: It's easy to slander someone who has died, regarding events purported to have taken place over 20 years ago. I recently came across Zoë's contract for Ms. 45, which reads, in part:
Zoë was just out of school, had no money, and did this film (which finally lent some credibility to Abel as a filmmaker) for under $3.50/hour - less than minimum wage! The contract also mentions "2% of the gross receipts gained from distribution or sale of Ms. 45 anywhere in the world", but I know of no such monies having reached Zoë over the years, despite the film's status as something of a cult classic. The words "robbed us blind" are easy to toss around, but bear no relation to The Truth.
When Abel approached Zoë with the idea for Bad Lt., it was to be an urban tale about a bad cop and his bad activities. Period. Zoë always had a thing about forgiveness. Her unpublished novel is entitled "490", a reference to the 70x7 times Christ said you should forgive an offender. She came up with the entire theological aspect of Bad Lt., his mystification by the nun's forgiveness of her rapists, the final lecture he gets from Zoë (the junkie) which sinks in during his ensuing heroin nod. And he finally gives the kids who raped the nun his coke money, and forfeits the reward money he could have gotten for turning them in, which would have enabled him to pay his gambling debt. So by setting the boys free, he winds up dying for their sins. Viewers with the attention span to get this meaning from the film are intensely affected by the profound nature of the transformation we witness in the Lieutenant's character, his "salvation".
Zoë was paid something around $5000 for writing the script, and whenever she tried to get a higher rate, Abel threatened that the film simply would not get made if she demanded more money. So she completed it for whatever they would offer, out of love for the project and her work. I know from many people I've spoken to over the years that Bad Lt. is a very popular video, yet her annual royalties from video sales and rentals were a slap in the face, normally something in the $10-20 range.
It's enlightening to compare Abel's current remarks about Zoë with what he said in a profile written by David Morgan that appeared in the British film magazine EMPIRE in 1993. When asked how he worked with Zoë on the screenplay, Ferrara's response was "I'd tell her a bunch of shit and she'd make sense of it". That sounds more like Zoë's characterization of Abel's contributions to the "co-writing" process, though it exaggerates his portion of it.
In the same profile, the writer asked Zoë for her opinion of Abel. Her response reflects her mixed feelings toward Ferrara:
"He has always been a close friend despite the fact that there are times when I have wanted to decapitate him. He can at times be quite sadistic - not in any sort of exciting way, just in a mundane and hideous fashion - even to his own detriment. He'd be the first to cut off his own nose to spite his face if it gave him a sadistic thrill, but at the same time he can be fired up by the essential questions like those asked by Christ and LT. And he is very courageous: we all intended to go all the way with the movie and unlike many directors he went all the way with it, and didn't censor or self-censor in any way."
Zoë was able to tell it like it was, while still including anything positive she could.
Continuing with the Independent Film Quarterly interview:
IFQ: That's harsh. Maddonna once called you a scumbag.
AF: (Laughs) Yeah, that's cause she loves me!
RL: Madonna co-starred in Abel's Dangerous Game (1993). IMDB describes the plot as follows:
Eddie's wife was played by Nancy, Abel Ferrara's wife. The making of Dangerous Game acted upon the daily life of the real-life protagonists of this little tale. According to Zoë, who spent time with the crew, Madonna endured some of the same kind of treatment as Zoë had under Abel, and was much less accustomed to being treated less than ideally. Abel dismisses her reaction in this IFQ interview in his typical fashion.