Zeros and Ones: Ferrara on his Locarno Fest Winner, a Ethan Hawke Pandemic Thriller

Abel Ferrara on His Ethan Hawke Pandemic Thriller ‘Zeros and Ones’

Ethan Hawke in Abel Ferrara's thriller
Locarno Film Festival

Abel Ferrara has made a career as one of the industry’s leading provocateurs. His latest film, Zeros and Ones, stands out for being deliberately set during the pandemic.

The movie stars Ethan Hawke as American soldier stationed in Rome, caught in the midst of an apocalyptic siege, wandering empty streets that feel eerily familiar.

In between the action, Hawke’s JJ sanitizes his hands, changes masks, and is not amused when two characters reassure him, “Don’t worry, we’re negative.”

The maverick director discussed taking a Willem Dafoe break in working with Hawke, and his “need” to make a film during the pandemic.

Ethan Hawke sees the film as “Abel’s hit on what we’ve been going through.”

I couldn’t help it. If you’re a filmmaker how do you avoid it? Even if you try to avoid it, it’s gonna be in the movie. This was an idea I had before the pandemic; the pandemic elements are just part of a city under siege. How do you shoot Rome like that? It was given to me.

In the darkest moments, there are things that are positive too. I’m a moment-to-moment filmmaker. These films are personal, they’re very much where I live. I’ve lived in Rome for 7 years, I’ve shot that neighborhood, I know the effect the pandemic has had on that neighborhood. These are real people from that neighborhood in the movie. That’s how I shoot.

Most filmmakers have avoided the pandemic in their projects?

It’s human nature to want to forget it.  I needed to make a film, I needed to shoot. That was the real underlying point of this film. At that point, after 10 months of lockdown, I needed to film, so I figured out how to keep everybody safe and alive, including myself. The protocols I was reading from the unions and from L.A. or London, I don’t buy them.

Why not?

Because you can’t make a film that was written before this, and then try to figure out how to shoot it. You’ve got to be part of the event. In my film, the actors wear masks, there are no extras, people are washing their hands. We shot the film very quickly, there was very small crew, there wasn’t anything that could have contaminated. If I wrote a script about some gigantic costume drama years before the pandemic and tried to come up with 400  protocols to make that safe to shoot, it’s not gonna happen. My first responsibility as the director is to make sure no-one gets killed. I’m talking about going back to action, car crashes, pre-CGI, shooting guns off. As fake as that is, you can really hurt somebody, the act of making films pre-CGI is pretty dangerous, and this is even more dangerous. Ss a 70-year-old, I’m in the real danger zone.

Apocalyptic films in DNA? “Zeros and Ones” extension of yourself?

It’s an apocalyptic moment in history. We’re in the middle of this pandemic. The fact that people think it’s over is some kind of needed groupthink. Everything’s fine, we can have this festival. Things have relaxed a little bit, but if this isn’t an apocalyptic moment in my life I don’t know what is. It’s up there with Vietnam, I was a kid then, the World Trade Center, 9/11, there have been a lot of terrible things that have happened. But this has been a wake-up call. I’m a Buddhist, so this is call karma. Ever country is working on weaponizing viruses. It’s the karma from that. It’s the Chinese this time, or someone does it because they want to. Let’s hope that’s not what happened now, let’s hope it was an “accident.” The fact that’s even on the table as a worldwide concept is horrifying. I’ve got a six-year-old daughter, you’ve got to be kidding.

She’s in the film too.

Yeah, my daughter’s an actress.

Happy about that?

It’s the family business. I don’t want to leave her home. If we go to work, if we go somewhere, we’re not going to leave her with a stranger, with a baby sitter, with her grandmother. She’s part of the film. The fact she’s great in front of the camera is a gift. Willem is her godfather. She just works on it, very few people can be filmed. Every father thinks her daughter is very cool, but mine is.

Collaborating with Ethan Hawke for the first time?

Ethan’s cool. I’ve known him since he came to New York. We have kindred spirit. We know the same people, he’s a good friend of Willem’s. I’ve seen his stuff, he’s a musician too, he’s special. He related to the material, and there wasn’t a lot of material. The script was…

Bare bones?

Is 18 pages bare bones enough? Ethan says, “I got a script, but I don’t know if you’d call it a script.” It was the people, it was the events. Once I knew it was him, we took it to the next level.

Film ends on a dawn–hope to cling to?

Everybody’s waiting for that moment, the moment of normal reality that everyone was sick of two years before. Now, going to a bar and ordering a coffee is a surreal, life-changing event which we took for granted. If there’s anything beautiful that comes out of this, it’s the gratitude. Just walking through the park, just not wearing a mask, to take life as the gift that it is. The simplest thing can be taken away like that, there’s no guarantee all of this is there forever. This has put us in this global consciousness. It don’t matter where you live, what your ethnicity is, how much money you got, who your governor is, everybody is living on the same planet and we’ve got to get it right. If this is a man-made virus, that’s a pretty sorry fucking comment to make on all of us as human beings.