CANNES, France -- Abel Ferrara's new film, "Chelsea on the Rocks," represents a kind of homecoming for the Bronx-born director and longtime chronicler of the New York City underbelly. Ferrara, best known for urban tales of damnation such as "Bad Lieutenant" and "King of New York," moved to Italy several years ago, fleeing a city transformed by the Rudolph W. Giuliani regime and the Sept. 11 attacks, not to mention a cultural and economic climate that had grown more hostile to maverick filmmakers.
His last two movies, "Mary" (2005) and "Go Go Tales" (2007), were European productions. "Mary," the story of a Jesus-themed film project and a pointed riposte to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," was shot mostly in Rome. "Go Go Tales," a good-natured screwball comedy as well as a personal manifesto of artistic tenacity, is set within a Manhattan strip club, built from scratch on soundstages at Rome's Cinecitta Studios.
"Chelsea on the Rocks," which had its premiere as a special presentation at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday night, is a documentary about the 125-year-old Chelsea Hotel, the spiritual home of Manhattan bohemia, where Jack Kerouac wrote "On the Road," Andy Warhol filmed "Chelsea Girls" and the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, to death. It's Ferrara's first proper New York movie since 2001's " 'R Xmas."
"It's a tough town, but it's home," he said by phone from New York on Thursday. He had been due to arrive in Cannes earlier in the week but at that point had already missed two flights. (He eventually arrived on Friday, in time for his news conference.) Ferrara said he was busy in the States trying to get a new fiction feature, which he described as "a Catholic western," off the ground. "It could be my version of 'The Searchers,' " he said.
The "Chelsea" project was initiated by producer Jen Gatien, who was hoping to make a movie to commemorate a turning point in the history of the Chelsea -- last June, the hotel's manager (and patron of its artist-residents), Stanley Bard, was forced out by new management. Gatien approached Ferrara as an interview subject; he offered to go further and serve as director. "I watched how these guys were shooting it," he recalled, "and I said, 'Listen, this is something you gotta do right,' so I brought my crew in."
Ferrara said he never intended to make a conventional documentary: "We're not conventional people." Amid the expected interviews with current and former tenants, including Milos Forman, Dennis Hopper and Ethan Hawke (who directed his own film about the place, 2001's "Chelsea Walls"), "Chelsea on the Rocks" mixes in archival footage (featuring Janis Joplin and William S. Burroughs) and re-enactments (Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, played by Jamie Burke and Bijou Phillips).
"I could only get so far using interviews," Ferrara said. "I'm comfortable with getting at the truth through fiction."
Ferrara has known the Chelsea well all his adult life, but he decided to move in for a few months while making the film. "There's a difference between just visiting and actually living there," he said. "A lot goes on in the place after lights out."
"Chelsea on the Rocks" is still without a stateside distributor, an increasingly common state of affairs for Ferrara. He's considered a major auteur in Europe, but his films since "The Addiction" (1996) have not opened theatrically in the U.S. or only received the smallest of releases. "The distribution business is a punk business," he said. "But I can't get hung up on it."
"Chelsea" is something of a companion piece to "Go Go Tales," an allegory about the price of independence that also addressed the toll exerted on would-be iconoclasts in a changing New York (Ferrara's alter-ego, played by Willem Dafoe, is a strip-club owner suffering a major cash flow problem). But "Go Go Tales," in its heroic insistence that the show must go on, is not melancholy so much as defiant.
Ferrara was likewise keen to avoid nostalgia or mournfulness in "Chelsea," despite the hotel's uncertain future (the management company that removed Bard from his position was itself recently ousted). "The Chelsea Hotel's an alive, vital place," he said. "It's not a historical monument. There's no use sitting around and crying about change. There's no sympathy in New York. You either change with the times or you get out of town."
Ferrara's name came up earlier in the festival when the trade publications confirmed reports that "Bad Lieutenant" (1992) would be remade with Werner Herzog directing, Ed Pressman producing and Nicolas Cage in the title role (originated by Harvey Keitel).
Mere mention of the project set him off on an extended -- and only partially printable -- rant. "These people should die in hell, all three of them," he said. "It's so disrespectful." He added, referring to his delayed arrival in Cannes. "And it's a good thing I'm not there. If I see them I'll strangle every one of them."