Long-time independent filmmaker Abel Ferrara was never one to pander to the expectations of either critics or general audiences. Even though the grindhouse film The Driller Killer (1979) is officially considered his first motion picture, his directorial debut was actually 9 Lives of A Wet Pussy, a 1976 porn movie he made under the pseudonym Jimmy Boy L, that not only starred his then-girlfriend, but also saw him stepping in for an actor who had unexpected performance issues during a hardcore sex scene. Following the aforementioned controversial urban slasher The Driller Killer, where Ferrara played the lead role under the name Jimmy Laine, the director made the exploitation thriller Ms. 45 (1981) as well as several other movies, before notoriously being the reason why Top Gun actress Kelly McGillis shaved her head and quit acting for a few years after being the lead in his 1989 film Cat Chaser.
Then, in 1990, Ferrara’s most expensive movie up until that point hit theaters. But shooting the $5 million neo-noir thriller King of New York turned out to be in no way an easy endeavor. According to the director himself, nobody wanted to come near the screenplay penned by Ferrara’s frequent collaborator Nicholas St. John, who had written scripts for most of his movies thus far. But then he finally caught a break during the premiere of his 1987 film China Girl in Italy, when the big Italian firm Penta Films approached him with an offer. In the director’s words, the Italians just produced movies without giving it much thought: “They’re not reading scripts like these retarded people out here, who give you notes on Page 12 saying, ‘Maybe this is a good place for the gangster to visit his mother.’ When we told ‘em we had Chris Walken committed, they wanted to kiss our feet. They love him over there, so they gave me the bread and I never had any hassles making the movie. Period.”
Apart from having Christopher Walken on board, Ferrara’s King of New York also stars Steve Buscemi in a supporting role, as well as several other actors who, although relatively unknown back then, would soon enough become stars in their own right: Laurence Fishburne (credited as Larry), David Caruso and Wesley Snipes. The movie follows drug lord Frank White after his release from prison where he spent a substantial amount of time. But as the prison gates close behind him, the gates of another establishment welcome him in. He is staying at the Plaza Hotel where he is to meet up with members of his trusted gang, with Jimmy Jump (Laurence Fishburne) at the forefront. White has absolutely no intention of denouncing his old ways, quite the contrary: his aim is to continue making drug money, kill off the competition and fund inner-city hospitals. But this somewhat Robin Hood-like character needs someone to stand in the way of his innovative business plan. And that someone comes in the form of three cops that badly want to see him go down–Dennis Gilley (David Caruso), Thomas Flanigan (Wesley Snipes) and Roy Bishop (Victor Argo).
A crucial part of what makes King of New York such an authentically gritty piece of cinema lies in the fact that Ferrara was adamant about filming on location. One of the director’s favorite scenes was shot in a slum neighborhood in Brooklyn, but since they were on budget and could therefore not afford drivers, the cast had to take the subway in order to reach the location. The director was waiting for them to arrive, hoping that they would not get mugged or lost in the process. As he recalls, every store in the neighborhood had bulletproof glass, which shop owners then had to take off so as to avoid reflection problems while filming. Shooting at the Plaza Hotel was a different story altogether. The place, owned by Donald Trump, had allegedly charged director Francis Ford Coppola $5,000 an hour, but lucky for Ferrara, he had something better than money. The filmmaker said that Ivana Trump was a huge Christopher Walken fan, so Trump agreed to give them the place free of charge, provided Ivana had pictures taken with Ferrara’s leading man.
This dichotomy in the form of champagne-drinking splendor at the Plaza on the one hand and merciless violence on the streets of New York on the other is what makes King of New York such a dynamic cinematic experience. This dichotomy is also mirrored in the psychological make-up of the characters, most notably Frank White himself. For it is safe to say that he is not your typical antagonist. The drug kingpin is the ultimate anti-hero, a man who legitimately wants to do good with the money he gains, but at the same time sees no problem in killing numerous people in order to attain it. As far as he is concerned, he is undoubtedly the good guy of the story, offing only those who truly deserve it –mobsters who were, in his own words, “running this city into the ground”. In his eyes, those people are the real scumbags and he is doing New York a favor by getting rid of them. Although he is in the same business as the lowlifes he despises, the fact that he has altruistic plans regarding his money investments seemingly sets him apart from those degenerates whose lives he takes with a little bit too much ease and nonchalance.
And that is yet another aspect of Ferrara’s King of New York that would ultimately turn it into a classic–its action-packed screenplay filled with ruthless violence that has a sort of comic book-like quality to it. In his depiction of New York’s drug scene in the early ‘90s, the death rate seems to go up at every turn and there is hardly any room for negotiations, tactics or mind games–if you asked the king of New York himself, those would probably just be a waste of time. And if time is money, then why squander it in vain by playing a metaphorical game of chess, when there are much neater and more straight-forward solutions at hand. So, the question we as the audience will be forced to consider during the film’s 103-minute running time is whether anyone is going to make it out of this movie alive.
As Ferrara put it in an interview for Interview Magazine in 2013: “King of New York is so lovely. We only murder every motherfucker in that movie. Because when I made that film, that’s how I felt. I love it when they say, ‘Can’t you make King of New York II?’ And I say, ‘Well, the only person that’s left is the 75-year-old lawyer. Every other person in that movie is dead. Every single human being in that film is dead.’ The only one that tops that is the last movie I made, where we kill everyone on the planet. In 4:44, we kill every single human being—and not only that, but I didn’t even realize it until I was making the movie, we destroy every work of art. It’s not one of those things where, like, all the people are dead, then the Earth resuscitates and they find the Mona Lisa. No. Everything gets burned. Every work of art—all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies are dead, all of the fucking Louvre is gone, every fucking scratching on a cave wall, every little kid’s little fucking drawing of their mother and their house. Gone. Zero. That’s where we’re at. Better than King of New York, right? I’m growing as an artist.”
When King of New York first hit theaters, it did rather poorly, grossing only $2.5 million at the box office. Critics were also not very keen on it, which could very well be attributed to Ferrara’s reputation and his complete disregard for Hollywood’s norms or standards. All of that changed with the emergence of the home video market, which enabled the film to not only redeem itself, but to also attain cult status among cinephiles. And Ferrara himself would go on to become renowned as a talented and ballsy filmmaker who readily defied the mainstream, with subsequent projects like the 1992 feature Bad Lieutenant (one of Martin Scorsese’s top films of the ‘90s), the 1993 drama Dangerous Game starring Harvey Keitel and Madonna, the vampire horror film The Addiction (1995) and the crime-drama film The Funeral (1996) that was nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Director. His later work put aside, King of New York will forever remain a true ode to the crime-thriller genre, a bloodstained love letter to the Big Apple, a dazzling portrayal of New York City’s unflattering underbelly, filled with characters that do not adhere to our preconceived notions of good and evil. With electric and committed performances from the entire cast, Ferrara’s movie is an unapologetic and somewhat tragic story of a man who is, for all intents and purposes, the lesser of two evils, but considers himself not to be evil at all.
Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Nicholas St. John’s screenplay for The King of New York [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
A conversation with legendary film director Abel Ferrara on his films and his carreer, recorded by celluloid Filmmagazin at the Locarno Filmfestival 2011 on August 5th, 2011.
Abel Ferrara talks about directing.
Advice for young filmmakers from director Abel Ferrara.
Bronx native Abel Ferrara directed his first low-budget feature in 1979 and, in the three decades since, has cemented his status as a legend of American independent filmmaking with his signature uncompromising portraits of men and women in conflict with their inner demons: Ms. 45, King of New York, Bad Lieutenant. As he comes to the New York Film Festival with his intimate end-of-the-world tale 4:44: Last Day On Earth, Ferrara will discuss the breadth of his remarkable career and his return to New York filmmaking after an extended stay in Europe.