Dream diaries

Abel Ferrara on fear tales, huskies, Simon McBurney and Willem Dafoe’s family in Siberia

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Abel Ferrara on Willem Dafoe in Siberia and getting help from dreams: “We definitely did … Absolutely. Willem, too.”
Abel Ferrara on Willem Dafoe in Siberia and getting help from dreams: “We definitely did … Absolutely. Willem, too.”

In the third instalment of my conversation with Abel Ferrara from last summer, he opens up on positive practice, the role of Willem Dafoe’s family in Siberia, the huskies, the Magician Simon McBurney, fear tales, and the collected memory of the world.

Abel Ferrara with Anne-Katrin Titze on the Brothers Grimm and fear tales: “These kind of basic stories just ride across. It’s a collected memory of the world.”
Abel Ferrara with Anne-Katrin Titze on the Brothers Grimm and fear tales: “These kind of basic stories just ride across. It’s a collected memory of the world.”

Like a fairy-tale villain, Clint (Willem Dafoe) falls from the darkness of a cliff, confers with a Magician (Simon McBurney) about the inferiority of the black arts, and listens to what a fish in a pan has to say. “You stuck yourself at the end of the universe and you can’t see your selfishness, arrogance, and above all, ignorance,” Clint is being told.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “Ten truths must you find during the day; otherwise you will seek truth during the night, and your soul will stay hungry. Ten times must you laugh during the day, and be cheerful; otherwise your stomach, the father of affliction and gloom, will disturb you in the night.” Abel Ferrara puts these words into the mouth of a man in a tent in the desert, when we reach the belly of Siberia.

From New York, Abel Ferrara joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on how he sees the world and his films.

Anne-Katrin Titze: For me, what became the core of the film, in a way, was in the tent, the teacher quoting Nietzsche. I love that quote and the ten truths that you must find every day, otherwise your soul will stay hungry and you’ll be haunted throughout the night. And ten times you must laugh. That’s really what the whole Siberia is about, isn’t it?

Abel Ferrara on the huskies and Willem Dafoe: “Willem has some pretty blue eyes, but those dogs gave him a run for his money.”
Abel Ferrara on the huskies and Willem Dafoe: “Willem has some pretty blue eyes, but those dogs gave him a run for his money.”

Abel Ferrara: You know, it’s the practice. Positive practice. It’s the idea that your thoughts are as powerful as your language, you know, your words, then your actions. Your actions stem from your thoughts and your words. That is all you really have. And when you take that positive mindset into clarity, then sleep is a part of it. Not only because of the dreams you have, but because it resets the computer.

It’s very personal for me, because when I stopped doing drugs and alcohol, the first thing I did was be able to sleep. That was the first gift I got back. And I kept that up. To sleep at night. The sleep nature meant you to sleep. And the idea that you look for those things, you put a number on them, as simple as that, and you check.

In the Buddhist practice it’s called the six times list, you’re just going over it during the day. Positive things you’ve done and negative things. First you go - Whom did I harm? What did I do wrong? But you also think about the positive. Nietzsche had it. I don’t know if he was a Buddhist.

AKT: Do you keep a dream diary?

AF: No. Do you?

AKT: Only sometimes.

Huskies with Clint (Willem Dafoe)
Huskies with Clint (Willem Dafoe)

AF: My movies are basically my dream diary.

AKT: That’s what I thought. Some of those things, maybe you got help from your dreams.

AF: No, no, no, we definitely did, you know? Absolutely. Willem, too.

AKT: The fact that he plays his own father, the scene in the cave, impressed me very much and at the same time, I was amused. I thought it was such a brilliant idea to give him that shaving cream beard.

AF: Yeah right, to disguise him!

AKT: It’s so perfectly simple and funny.

AF: It’s a total honest memory. That’s how he remembers his father. Because the guy would be shaving and talking and taking phone calls, so he would always be partially shaved, walking around in his underwear with a razor in his hand.

Abel Ferrara on Willem Dafoe shaving in Siberia: “That’s how he remembers his father.”
Abel Ferrara on Willem Dafoe shaving in Siberia: “That’s how he remembers his father.”

Willem has a big family, the father would be constantly talking to the wife, eight kids. He was a doctor, so he had a whole non-stop circus going on. He’s had a practice in a small town and his children and whatever. He was just basically locking in on a primal memory of your father.

AKT: Did he hesitate to do that? To play his father?

AF: No, I mean, who else is going to play his father? Who could possibly play his father better than him?

AKT: Did you ever meet his father?

AF: No, but I had videos of him. I knew Willem when his father was still alive. He’s in 4:44 [Last Day On Earth], actually. So Willem always videoed his father and I’ve seen him that way. I think I’ve talked to him on the phone.

AKT: Willem has competition in this film from five tremendous huskies. They are fantastic.

AF: They’re beautiful, right?

AKT: Did you actually travel with them? To the desert?

AF: No we got different dogs in Mexico, but they’re the same breed. We couldn’t take the dogs with us, but they’re pretty much the same dogs. When you’re working with the actual animals, they have such personality, it’s very hard to switch. After a while you really get to know who’s who and each one gives you something different.

Clint (Willem Dafoe) in the cave
Clint (Willem Dafoe) in the cave

AKT: One in the snow looked at the camera, winking at us.

AF: They’re awesome, the look of those eyes. The eyes on them! Willem has some pretty blue eyes, but those dogs gave him a run for his money.

AKT: So you had three sets of dogs?

AF: No, there were the ones in the snow and then the stuff in Mexico was another group.

AKT: Simon McBurney as the magician was an interesting element, very Faustian.

AF: It’s Jungian. It’s Jung, it’s The Red Book stuff. It’s locking into the Jung influence of the movie.

AKT: And also classic fairy tales, no?

AF: Yeah, absolutely.

AKT: The sentence “You were always a burden to your father”, that is almost verbatim the beginning of one of those tales about a boy who went out in search of fear. I don’t know if you are familiar with those fairy tales that are all about boys in search of fear.

AF: I’m familiar with fear tales but not that one.

Abel Ferrara: “Siberia is basically exile for me.”
Abel Ferrara: “Siberia is basically exile for me.”

AKT: The beginning of the tale is that the brother is the one his father loves, and he is the burden. And then he goes out and encounters a hanging man in a cave.

AF: Wow! You see how it works, man! These kind of basic stories just ride across.

AKT: It’s one of those collected by the Grimms.

AF: It’s a collected memory of the world.

AKT: That we all have, that we all share. Same with the talking fish. It gives it a kind of depth that everybody can identify in some way. Is it the Siberia of the soul or how did the title come about?

AF: Siberia is basically exile for me. But it’s also such a shamanistic, mystical place, especially for a non-Russian. It’s so mythical.

Read what Abel Ferrara had to say on Abel Ferrara’s Cinema Village.

Read what Abel Ferrara had to say on going to Siberia, Willem Dafoe, Christ Zois, his latest projects, and so much more.

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