By Yun-hua Chen.
At the beginning [of the pandemic and lockdown], I wouldn’t have had the nerve to [make a film on it] because I didn’t know what was going on, the amount of tragedy, the amount of suffering going around, and I was trying to just deal with what it was. Then came a moment when you had to live with what is going on, and for me, that’s making a movie.”
In an eerily empty Rome, shot during the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020, Abel Ferrara’s Zeros and Ones casts Ethan Hawke as the faces of troubled souls, the twin brothers who are caught on opposite sides of an undetermined holy war. One of the twin brothers is an American soldier stationed there, who journeys through hidden dwellings, dimly lit underground space, and deserted streets to gather intelligence, hide from enemies, and look for the vanished brother whose only trace of life is a long monologue under the gun recorded by a phone. In the backdrop of our now all too familiar routines of temperature check, negative/positive test, and use of masks, images within images, a vital form of information, are shot, shared, viewed, and analyzed, while Vatican is being bombed.
Film International had the pleasure of talking with Abel Ferrara about films, filmmaking and his apocalyptic vision.
What fascinates you most about the male psyche and troubled souls?
[Laughs] That is a good question. Well, I am male and a troubled soul, so you know, it’s like a personal journey for me.
Wilem Defoe plays different versions of himself in Siberia; Ethan Hawke plays twin brothers in Zeros and Ones. Is it also male psyche in multiplication?
[Laughs] You know, the relationship between the actor and the director is what film is about. That’s the dynamic, so you cannot have one without the other. What you are saying is this is both of them coming to terms with the character, and then the character really is where they intersect, and with the film, with their understanding of the material. That gets you, the character. And then, when the character takes the life of its own, those guys are left behind.
It’s not the first apocalyptic film or post-apocalyptic film that you have made, but this one is also about our shared experience of the pandemic. To what degree would you say that this pandemic was a source of an inspiration for the setting of the movie? Is the pandemic a blessing in disguise for your creativity?
There is no way to look at this tragedy that way. My creativity is going to be what it is, no matter what I do, or what happens outside. So, a blessing in disguise was that we were able to make this film, that we were able to actually go out and say, ok, we are going to make a film now. At the beginning I wouldn’t have had the nerve to because I didn’t know what was going on, you know, the amount of tragedy, the amount of suffering going around, and I was trying to just deal with what it was. Then came a moment when you had to live with what is going on, for me, that’s making a movie, so we did it. And then if there is any silver lining, it’s the beauty of a city being empty. The ability to shoot with just us and that world. The kind of intensive work that could be done – it’s not distraction, it’s just work. And, we were forced work remotely and finding real benefit in it. Maybe it’s just the necessities of modern invention, I guess.
You mentioned Rome being completely empty, which is a very unusual backdrop….
You are never going to get it or any city like that. When would you ever see these images that you see around the world during the pandemic, like, I don’t know, during the siege, during the war or during what? I mean, right now, the pandemic is still now, and I don’t want to get ahead to talk about this as if it were the past because it is not. It’s still happening.
Given that in the film there seems to be a recurring theme of old conflicts with underlying religious, cultural, intercultural overtones, would you say that Rome is a perfect backdrop for this kind of discussions?
Rome is one of those cities, a traditional CIA city, the last good hotel rooms before you get to the front, wherever the front might be. This concept is real. It’s a genre. It’s an old movie thing. Soldiers, war, threat of war, espionage, exotic people, people living in and benefiting from the situation. Like, when we say it was a 3000-year war, it’s like the concept of a holy war.
Handheld camera, which is used a lot in this film, feels like a witness or another character to the events. What do you think?
Sean Price Williams was the Director of Photography. That’s part of his style. He also does this unfocusing, so it’s got a very personal view, very organic, the feeling that he is in there. I am not the biggest fan of it, but when he does it, he does it. When you got a great camera there, it could be great.
How do you integrate your Buddhist belief and your apocalyptic vision?
That’s my practice. That’s what I believe in. Nothing’s an accident. Fate doesn’t exist. We create our own destiny. You know, you have your thoughts, you have your words, and you have your actions. And that’s it. And what’s going to happen is going to be based on it, and you could change it. And you’d better be aware of it. You’d better believe in it and be mindful. “Mindful” is the new catchword. You’d better be conscious. And that’s going to be your reality.
You have been very prolific all along. What is the drive for you?
I like working. Working is integrated into my life. We are lucky enough to be healthy. We are lucky enough to have a way of our own. We are lucky enough to be living in a time where everyone has the means of production even on a phone. You can make a film on a phone, you know, with your computer. These are common tools. So, there is no real excuses not to shoot.
Did the way you make films change after moving to Europe?
Moving anywhere is going to change how you work and how you do things. We are our own kind of filmmakers. Zeros and Ones is right on my window. Piazza Vittoria, that’s where I live. I made a documentary about it. It’s a question of how Europe is different from the United States. There’s a big difference. Filmmakers are regarded as artists in Europe and there is respect. Respect means giving the word, giving the creative views. There is the tradition of it, the sacredness of it of how it’s kept. If you walk on the street, you’d get it. You know, a lot of countries still haven’t figured it out yet. Self-expression, I think it is essential to any quality of life. We have to nurture it, believe it, but it takes a while to understand that. Europe is just much cooler for filmmakers.
The beautiful long monologue of Ethan Hawke in Zeros and Ones, how much of it was improvised?
We were working on it, and he is a writer too. It was the last scene we shot, so we had time to work it, get to it and understand where we were going with it. We just kept shooting the whole night and making it better. We went along with the concept that we are in there.
Films are the language of the world. Everyone speaks it. Everyone gets it. Everyone knows it. If you use internet, everyone shares it. That’s how the language is spoken. And that’s beautiful.”
The only place where the images turn colorful is when the character is forced to make a sex video….
He is constantly using different cameras and different lenses, and he is kind of shooting like a surveillance camera. Essentially, it’s like that by chance. He didn’t worry about what the colors are going to look like. They were looking for information. So, in a situation like that, you are not going to take color temperature. We are in art. We just went with art and worked with editors. The color scheme, you can manipulate this. It’s the beauty of the digital, the beauty of zeros and ones. You play with their computation, and you have all kinds of wonderful things, but you’ve got to feel the colors, the color change and the mood. This is what filmmaking is about: the color, the light, all the computation.
How do you envision the post-pandemic film scene?
We just keep going. The means of production is available to so many more people, and the internet is the place to connect the whole world. These are all positive things. Keep it free and everybody realizes that we share, that all this is us. There is no possession of it, no manipulation of it, no censorship of it. But that’s the battle. Films are the language of the world. Everyone speaks it. Everyone gets it. Everyone knows it. If you use internet, everyone shares it. That’s how the language is spoken. And that’s beautiful.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.