Zeros and Ones Abel Ferrara

“We ain’t got a movie star, we ain’t got shit. The film starts with the movie star,” Zeros and Ones director Abel Ferrara said in a post-screening Q&A at Locarno in Los Angeles.

In Zeros and Ones, Ferrara gets his movie star requirement twice-over, as Ethan Hawke stars in two lead roles: one as a military operative stationed in Rome and the other as his brother, a revolutionary with an ambitious plan to blow up the Vatican. While this sounds like a plot fit for a James Bond film, here the narrative is abstracted to the point of near-incomprehensibility. It’s an approach that can take an adjustment period for an audience. But once one is tuned into the rhythm of the film, the ride can be quite pleasant. Simply let the film’s grainy images and Joe Delia’s score wash over you.

A fan of Ferrara’s work, Hawke first appeared in 2010’s Chelsea on the Rocks. He even plays the final song that appears in the film.

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 out. Ferrara’s unconventional methods, at all stages of the moviemaking process, are not for everyone.

“With all the relationships I have with actors, they almost got to see the movie. You dig?” Ferrara said in the Q&A Friday.

So instead, Willem Dafoe, a frequent Ferrara collaborator and close friend (the two live across the street from one another in Rome), stepped in to replace Hawke.

After Hawke saw the final film and understood what Ferrara was going for, he decided, again, he wanted to work with Ferrara.

Dafoe was sent the Zeros and Ones script first but he “wasn’t too jazzed about it,” Ferrara said. The shooting schedule was also tricky. The film was shot during the height of the pandemic, and Dafoe’s schedule didn’t allow for him to get potentially 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 trademark run-and-gun style. This meant zero shooting permits.

The one time the production got shut down by the police “was the very last day when the sun came up” cinematographer Sean Price Williams said. He was present at the virtual Q&A with Ferrara, Williams, associate editor and star Stephen Gurewitz, and Delia (who first worked with Ferrara on 1979’s Driller Killer).

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Locarno in Los Angeles director Jordan Cronk (bottom), leads a Q&A with Zeros and Ones collaborators Joe Delia, Stephen Gurewitz, Sean Price Williams and Abel Ferrara. Photo by Carson Lund

Williams worked with Ferrara and his tight group of collaborators on the 2008 documentary Chelsea on the Rocks, but he said he got fired from that production. “You got a coat out of it,” Ferrara joked about Williams’ firing.

It worked out though, as Williams was later brought on to work on another Ferrara documentary, 2010’s Mulberry St. 

Zeros and Ones marks Williams first foray into narrative moviemaking with Ferrara, and he said the shooting process wasn’t all that different from the documentaries.

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Williams said the idea behind the distinct look of Zeros and Ones was to start anew during the pandemic. It was shot in extremely-grainy hyper-digital low-light.

“It was this idea of not working with any of the cameras that we had been working with before the lockdown — the ALEXA or any of these boring standard cameras anymore.”

Williams had shot a movie in France on the Digital Bolex. “I was very excited about this camera. I got my own. 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 beautiful camera,” he continued. “It broke down in the middle of shooting and then it would occasionally pop back up and work again.”

When the Digital Bolex was out of commission, Williams used a Blackmagic that someone on the crew owned.

Also read: Abel Ferrara: Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker

Ferrara made sure the Locarno in L.A. crowd knew they had viewed the film is in its intended impressionistic, often barely visible form.

“We sent this [digital cinema package] from Rome, bro. Whoever’s in a seat there tonight, you ain’t gonna see it like this — very rarely,” he said.

Ferrara added that distributor Lionsgate had significantly lightened the image for the Blu-ray release — something he and his team are not overjoyed about.

“We work our Rembrandt game for five months, pulling our fucking hair out, and then we get to Kodachrome in the end,” he said, referencing the Kodak film stock.

Abel Ferrara’s Zeros and Ones, is out now out on blu-ray, from Lionsgate. Main image: Ethan Hawke in Zeros and Ones, from director Abel Ferrara.