Back in the nineties I used to run into Abel Ferrara frequently, marveling at him as he lumbered around the hotel, a paper-bagged bottle of Bud in one hand, and usually accompanied by one or more beautiful women. A larger than life character if there ever was one, when I talked to Abel recently he said he had only just begun to read Charles Bukowski, which struck me as ironic, because he’s a Bukowskian figure to be sure. (In a story that may or may not be apocryphal, my friend said he ran into Abel in the Hamptons one time, and when he said he liked his movies, Abel punched him in the stomach!) Being a director rather than a writer, Abel’s got prettier women than Bukowski, that’s all.
Though I never spoke to him back then, I knew Abel by reputation, as I was a big fan of his gritty depictions of the dark side of New York, in films like The King of New York, The Bad Lieutenant, and my personal favorite, The Addiction.
If ever anyone could make a film that does justice to the Chelsea Hotel, it’s Abel. And so it was with a sense of excited expectation that I witnessed Abel, like a whirlwind force of nature, descending upon the hotel, barking orders to his crew in his thick Bronx accent.
The first time I ran into him on his present visit was when he was filming actress Elizabeth Pugh, who used to live down the hall from me. I was sitting out on the fire escape watching the sunset when Abel popped his head out the window and sat his ubiquitous Bud-in-a-bag outside to keep cool. “Come on out,” I said. But when he saw me he quickly retrieved his Bud. I guess I looked like somebody who might be getting rather thirsty.
The film is to be a documentary, replete with interviews of the famous and obscure denizens of this bohemian flophouse, past (we’ve seen Viva around the place recently) and present, but also with dramatized (perhaps fictional) scenes set around the hotel. Abel says it’s going to be a sort of love letter to the Chelsea.
Early one Sunday morning, running into Abel on my way out for coffee, I asked him what some of the dramatized stories were going to be about. “Well, gotta have Sid,” he replied. “Yeah, I had to have Sid in my book too,” I said. We agreed that the trick is to tell the story in a unique way, from a fresh perspective, instead of just recounting the same boring details of the slaying.
Early on in the shooting, Abel’s huge crew jammed into our tiny room to film Debbie and I in all our Bohemian splendor. When the equipment was all set up and Abel finally swept into the room, the first thing he did was to complement us on, of all things, making our bed—apparently some of the people he had interviewed before us hadn’t bothered! After that Abel was all over the place, running in and out, talking more than asking questions, and the interview seemed to have no rhyme or reason. But that was standard Abel, engaging and entertaining, and it was a lot of fun to work with him. As with all of Abel’s movies I’m sure there is method to the madness, and he’ll sort through all this material and give us an important and gripping historical record of the end of an era at the Chelsea Hotel.
Scenes from Abel Ferrara's Chelsea on the Rocks, a layered, lyrical portrait of the hotel- including 50 interviews with former and current residents, re-enactments and archival footage.