“We don’t have a movie star, we don’t give a fuck. The film begins with the movie star,” Zeros and ones said director Abel Ferrara during a Q&A after the screening at Locarno in Los Angeles.
In Zeros and ones, Ferrara gets his movie star requirement twice, as Ethan Hawke stars in two main roles: one as a military agent stationed in Rome and the other as his brother, a revolutionary with a plan. ambitious to blow up the Vatican. Although it sounds like a plot worthy of a James Bond movie, here the narrative is abstract to the point of being almost incomprehensible. It’s an approach that can take a period of getting used to for an audience. But once you get into the rhythm of the film, the ride can be quite enjoyable. Just let the film’s grainy visuals and Joe Delia’s score overwhelm you.
A fan of Ferrara’s work, Hawke first appeared in the 2010s Chelsea on the Rocks. It even plays the last song that appears in the movie.
A few years later, Hawke was in talks to star in Ferrara’s apocalyptic thriller 4:44 Last day on Earth, but he eventually backed off. Ferrara’s unconventional methods, at all stages of the filmmaking process, are not for everyone.
“With all the relationships I have with the actors, they almost got to see the movie. Are you digging?” Ferrara said in the Q&A on Friday.
So instead, Willem Dafoe, a frequent Ferrara collaborator and close friend (the two live across from each other in Rome), stepped in to replace Hawke.
After Hawke saw the final film and understood what Ferrara wanted to do, he decided, once again, that he wanted to work with Ferrara.
Dafoe received the Zeros and ones script first, but he “wasn’t too jazzed about it,” Ferrara said. The filming schedule was also tricky. The film was shot during the height of the pandemic, and Dafoe’s schedule didn’t allow him to potentially be stuck in Rome for an extended quarantine.
So this time, Hawke replaced Dafoe.
Zeros and ones is shot in an eerily empty Rome, almost exclusively at night, in Ferrara’s run-and-gun style. This meant zero shooting permits.
The only time the production was stopped by the police “was on the very last day the sun rose,” said cinematographer Sean Price Williams. He was on hand for the virtual Q&A with Ferrara, Williams, associate editor and star Stephen Gurewitz, and Delia (who first worked with Ferrara on 1979’s killer driller).
Williams worked with Ferrara and his group of collaborators on the 2008 documentary Chelsea on the rocks, but he said he was fired from that production. “You got a coat out of it,” Ferrara joked of Williams’ dismissal.
It worked, however, as Williams was then brought in to work on another Ferrara documentary, in 2010. Mulberry Street
Zeros and ones marks Williams’ first foray into narrative filmmaking with Ferrara, and he said the filming process wasn’t all that different from documentaries.
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Williams said the idea behind the distinct look of Zeros and ones had to start again during the pandemic. It was shot in extremely grainy, hyper-digital low light.
“It was this idea of no longer working with any of the cameras we used to work with before the lockdown – the ALEXA or one of those boring standard cameras.”
Williams had shot a film in France on the Digital Bolex. “I was very enthusiastic about this camera. I have mine. I sold Abe on this Digital Bolex thing,” he said.
But the Digital Bolex ended up being “a bit of a lemon”, he added.
“It’s still a nice camera,” he continued. “It broke down in the middle of filming, then it would pop up every once in a while and work again.”
When the Digital Bolex was down, Williams used a Blackmagic belonging to a crew member.
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Ferrara made sure the crowd from Locarno to Los Angeles knew they had seen the film in its impressionistic, often barely visible form.
“We sent this [digital cinema package] of Rome, brother. Whoever’s sitting there tonight, you won’t see them like that – very rarely,” he said.
Ferrara added that distributor Lionsgate had significantly lightened the image of the Blu-ray release – which he and his team aren’t thrilled about.
“We work on our Rembrandt game for five months, tearing our fucking hair out, and then we get to Kodachrome at the end,” he said, referring to Kodak film stock.
Zeros and Ones by Abel Ferrara, is now available on Blu-Ray, from Lionsgate. Main image: Ethan Hawke in Zeros and Ones, by director Abel Ferrara.