The (sort of) truth behind the two versions of Abel Ferrara’s “Welcome to New York”

Includes conversations with Abel Ferrara and Vincent Maraval [Wild Bunch]
Film will come out in one theater only in San Francisco

Today, after a six month-press war launched by filmmaker Abel Ferrara against his chief financier, Vincent Maraval (French distributor Wild Bunch’s head honcho) and IFC Films, the R-rated cut of Ferrara’s originally unrated “Welcome to New York” is opening theatrically—to Ferrara’s chagrin—in the US.

It is, however, only showing at one theater: The Roxie, in San Francisco.

Elsewhere in this country, the 108-minute version (trimmed from 125 minutes) can be legally viewed solely on VOD, though IFC stated, in an email to Screen Comment, that further theatrical venues and release dates in the US are to be determined. The paucity of theaters showing the film may have something to do with Ferrara’s suggestion, in a September 2014 Hollywood Reporter article, that the IFC Center in Manhattan be burned down for betraying him–a threat that alarmed IFC but that Ferrara now says was only “metaphorical.”

A still from the film

A still from the film

The director’s cut of “Welcome to New York,” which premiered last spring at Cannes, is an unapologetic excoriation of former I.M.F. director and French presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn (played by a gargantuan and often naked Gerard Depardieu). Strauss-Kahn was accused in May 2011 of sexually assaulting Sofitel hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo. Shortly after, French journalist Tristane Banon broke her silence about a similar incident she alleged happened in 2002. Diallo’s criminal charges were dropped that August, due to reported holes in her testimony (though the two parties settled a civil suit in December 2012). But the director’s cut nonetheless depicts Strauss-Kahn as a remorseless, violent sex addict who undoubtedly did the deed. And Strauss-Kahn (though his identity is thinly veiled on screen under the fictitious character name Mr. Devereaux) sued Ferrara for defamation in May 2014; the suit is still pending in France.

It was also in May 2014 that Maraval, in a Le Journal du Dimanche interview, first hinted that potential changes might be made to Ferrara’s cut. “There are indeed two or three scenes that bother us, [that are] perhaps too long in the first part,” he said. “But we love everything else and it will not affect the work of Abel Ferrara.”

As it stands, the R-rated cut certainly contains more than two or three alterations to the first act. The edit that caused the most furor concerns the scene of the maid’s rape. In Ferrara’s version, the assault is played out objectively, in real time. In Maraval’s, the scene cuts out just before the physical attack, later presented as a flashback from the maid’s point of view.

Vincent Maraval (Wild Bunch)

Vincent Maraval (Wild Bunch)

“We’re talking about a guy [Maraval] who thinks somebody’s innocent versus a film that says somebody’s guilty,” Ferrara told Screen Comment during a phone interview on March 14th.

Maraval, in a phone interview four days later, disputed this claim. “You see the beginning of the scene in the normal chronological order, and it repeats when she testifies to the cops,” he said. “We suggested it, not to change the vision of Abel, but because we wanted to keep up suspense. We felt that to keep the full Abel version after [the first] half hour was not a good idea, so we proposed to [show] the end of that scene later and keep the suspense up longer.” (Ferrara’s typically vitriolic response to this, over e-mail, was: “Anyone touching our film is a criminal.”)

By September 2014, the R-rated cut had been finalized by Maraval after, as Maraval claimed in various reports, Ferrara refused to deliver his own R-rated version for the US market. In a flurry of updates this month from The Hollywood Reporter, Indiewire and other publications, Maraval claimed that Ferrara contractually agreed he would lose final cut if he did not follow through on this action and that IFC needed an R-rated release to recoup on its sizable investment in the film (reportedly over half a million, though this has been unconfirmed by IFC). Ferrara responded that he only consented to an R-rated version for IFC’s deal with Showtime, but never for that version to be screened in theaters or on-line. And though the IFC Center has screened controversial unrated films before such as “Nymphomaniac,” IFC Films, in its first official public statement last week—a response to Ferrara’s stated intent to send a cease-and-desist letter–said that it needed the edited version for various economic reasons (which it declined to elaborate on). The company also stated that, like Maraval, it unsuccessfully tried to persuade Ferrara to put together his own R-rated cut. Ferrara fired back, in a March 23 Hollywood Reporter story, that “there were many… meetings with IFC,” but, when he was informed of the rating stipulation, “that’s when my conversation with them ended and it became an issue for the lawyers.”

Without actually seeing the contracts that passed between the involved parties, no journalist has been able to extract concrete answers about who, exactly, misled whom, and to what extent. But whether one considers Ferrara’s outcry that the film has been altered “politically” to be exaggerated, it is a fact that far more than sexual content has been excised from Maraval’s version (to Ferrara’s disgust, the condensed version has already come out on Blu-Ray, DVD and VOD in select European countries).

Here are the notable things that you flat-out won’t see in the R-rated cut:

1) Devereaux trying to buy off an interrogating federal aide with promises of oral sex from a prostitute; 2) an extended ass-slapping sequence during Devereaux’s graphic hotel tryst with a call girl; 3) a few extra shots of Devereaux and his coworkers smearing ice cream and champagne on a bevy of whores; 4) a hilarious clip of two escorts–who have just indulged in a menage a trois with Devereaux–crossing paths with a clean-cut family outside a hotel elevator; 5) Devereaux’s decision, after a prison strip-search, to not put his underwear back on; 6) the entire scene of Devereaux attempting to rape the aforementioned female reporter (as played by Ferrara’s wife, Shanyn Leigh, in the unrated cut); and 7) a remark about Devereaux’s wife Simone (patterned after Strauss-Kahn’s now ex-wife, Anne Sinclair) being a big Israel supporter. This, as well as a scene–in both versions–where Devereaux accuses Simone and her family of having amassed wealth unscrupulously during WWII, persuaded Sinclair to post an angry Huffington Post entry in May 2014. Sinclair, whose art dealer grandfather fled the Nazi occupation in Vichy, France, labeled the film anti-Semitic. Maraval, Ferrara and Ferrara’s long-time editor Anthony Redman (who is Jewish) all said to Screen Comment that this claim was false.

If neither version of the film delved all that deeply into the characters’ religious or political beliefs, why is Ferrara so incensed about the exclusion of the line about Israel?

“No one can touch my work,” Ferrara growled. “I don’t give a fuck what I do, or what I say. That’s my right. I don’t want to hear about specifics or particulars. What I do is my fucking God-given, unalienable right.”

Abel Ferrara

Abel Ferrara

Another lingering question is why any of Maraval’s changes, beyond the toned-down sex scenes, were seen as mandatory.

“We didn’t do the cut just for the MPAA,” Maraval said. “We came back to Abel with a cut because we were thinking it was a way to make the film shorter and more efficient and closer to the subject. Abel always had trouble with the lengths of his films and asked us to make a version closer to one-hour thirty [minutes].”

Maraval acknowledged that the R-rated version was not overseen by “a proper editor. It was just [executed] from notes we did.” Maraval added that he ultimately reached out to producer Adam Folk, who also worked on Ferrara’s 2010 doc “Mulberry St.” and 2011 drama “4:44: Last Day on Earth,” to perform the final changes.

Folk, contacted by phone, denied this, saying it was “an editor in France,” whose name he couldn’t recall, that finished the job. Redman, who said that he was consulted by the producers about doing the R-rated cut but refused unless Ferrara gave him approval, is so far the only credited editor on the film.

Folk admitted that he and Maraval corresponded during the editing process and that Maraval “felt the first act of the movie was too long and could have been shorter and paced differently,” declining to comment on his own consensus of the material.

Asked if Maraval may have felt inclined to cut anything too damning of Strauss-Kahn, especially after the defamation lawsuit, Folk replied, “I don’t think so. Through the whole process, any time there was a new cut to the script, we would send it to clearance lawyers, in case of [defamation] issues. They would give us notes and feedback about what we could and couldn’t do, and we were very careful about that.”

Redman disagreed. To his knowledge, Maraval “was afraid of the whole thing. From the very beginning, he didn’t want some kind of conclusive comment on what occurred in that hotel room. That was something he had been badgering Abel with from the very beginning, probably before we even started shooting.”

Maraval said that he and Abel “knew we were dealing with a sensitive issue. Not only the sexual things, but the topic was very hot, and we needed to be able to exploit the film. Now Abel wants to forget he signed that [contract] and he wants to direct himself into the doomed artist role, which I think is not accurate.”

The final mystery in this ugly saga is why a planned screening of the unrated cut at New York City’s Anthology Film Archives–a longtime supporter of Ferrara–never came to pass (a situation that was revealed in IFC’s official statement).

“I want a butchered version of my work with my name on it not to be shown throughout the United States. I am not clouding the issue by allowing the film to be played in one theater in NYC,” Ferrara stated in an email. Anthology declined to comment.

Maraval remains unsurprised by any refusal on Ferrara’s part, even of offers that favor his vision.

“For him to do something because he’s being asked to do something, in his New York artist’s mind, is compromise, so he’s refusing to open that discussion,” said Maraval.

“In general,” Maraval continued, “when he’s raising financing, he signs every deal, and then when he needs to finish his commitment, his answer is ‘Fuck you!’”

Why, then, has Maraval continued to work with Ferrara for years and years?

“Because I’m a fan,” he replied. “Because he has talent. Because the film is good. Because he never shoots us. Because we know it’s part of the circus, it’s his way to sell himself.”

Redman said he is confident that the unrated cut will eventually screen at Anthology, and Folk said he expects this version to be released soon in the US.

At this point, Ferrara seems bitterly indifferent about where, if anywhere, his truest version will screen.

“Our cut has been on-line at torrent download pirate sites, so anyone who is savvy enough to use the internet can watch,” he said via e-mail.

“Welcome to New York” comes out today in theater.