Abel Ferrera And Ethan Hawke On Going To War For Art In Zeros And Ones [Interview]

Abel Ferrera's "Zeros and Ones," a thriller filmed in the heart of the pandemic, is in many ways a novel beast of a film. Dark, gritty, often told in close-ups, the film sees soldier J.J. (Ethan Hawke) digging into the dark underbelly of Rome to find his revolutionary brother, Justin (also Hawke), an idealistic radical who may hold the key to stopping the deadly attack. 

It's a tense film with a singular vision from director Ferrera, and one that took full advantage of the eerie emptied streets of the early COVID-19 crisis. It also takes some bold stylistic moves, bookended by a pair of mini-interviews with Hawke talking to the audience: mirrored monologues that sit interestingly against the film itself. I sat down with Abel Ferrera and Ethan Hawke to chat about "Zeros and Ones," its novel thematic bookends, the symbolism of the story's signature threat, and more.

'It came from the pandemic'

"Zeros and Ones" is so interesting in that it begins with Ethan talking directly to the audience and framing the story that way. In the conclusion he notes that the film's kind of connected to what we've been going through over the pandemic. I know the film itself was shot during the pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about that connection and what the film means to you?

Abel Ferrera: It was conceived [from] some of these ideas I've been having for a long time ... espionage, counter-espionage, "what's the truth?," you know, who you are, what you play ... then I never really could put it together. But then with what came down, so suddenly, and so harsh, and so violently, all of a sudden Rome just totally changed for me. I was editing a film and going back and forth to the editing room, that was the world that it was. Then the film came to me, something I had been working on a long time, it came from the pandemic. We shot it pre-vax, we were into the protocols, were into protecting each other. It was scary. But we did it because it was at the moment where we all felt we just had to move on, to go forward in that situation.

It was really haunting with those images of the relatively empty city streets, I love that. Ethan, you talk about two opposing outlooks looks at the at the end of the film, and in the movie you play both this hardened soldier with a mysterious background, and you also play the revolutionary, idealistic brother. What drew you to the film, and how was it embodying that those two characters?

Ethan Hawke: Well, what drew me to the film is Abel. I had seen "Tommaso," the last film that he had completed with Willem [Dafoe], and I just thought it was one of the most marvelous recent films, I'd seen. Abel and I had been circling each other for years wanting to work together, and I felt really inspired by his work with Willem and what they were able to accomplish. He presented me with this idea, and it felt like he was creating an avenue for us to kind of go to war for art, that whatever happens ... vaccinations, no vaccinations, COVID, no COVID, we had a responsibility as a community to talk about our environment and what was happening, and make art. Abel was willing to go to bat for art ... He was creating a situation where we could try to make something about what we were experiencing. And I think we all just looked at it as an adventure. An adventure for art, so to speak.

'We weren't exactly sure what we were going to do every day'

Abel, I wanted to ask you about the cinematic choices because it's very gritty, almost apocalyptically dark, and then there's a lot of close ups. It's really puts you in that chaotic mindset, and I just wanted to ask you what your inspiration was for shooting it that way.

Abel Ferrara: ...That's a good question [laughs]. Ethan, why don't you answer that one?

Ethan Hawke: There's something funny about that. Sometimes we would stumble on a shot and Abel would go "Nah, it's too beautiful! Get rid of that s***. I don't want that." There was something that Abel had in his head that he was looking for. [To Abel] And I don't even know if you knew exactly what it was, Abel, until you saw it. You knew what it was not. And you and [cinematographer] Sean [Price Williams] had an exciting collaboration. [To me] You know, as a performer you're often part of a trinity of a director talking to a DP and talking to you. It's kind of a ... it's kind of like the...

Abel Ferrara: The Holy Trinity, it's the Holy Trinity.

Ethan Hawke: It's like being in a band together, you know, that's what it felt like. And there was something very, very clear that he wanted from me, and things he didn't want from me. And there were things he wanted from Sean and things he didn't want from Sean, and what parts of the environment were interesting to him and which parts weren't... [they] were all some part of the mystery that is Abel.

Abel Ferrara: Sean Price Williams ... did "Good Time," he's done a bunch of things. He's working his own thing, just directed a movie ... He was working with us on our sets since he was in school, you know, so he's coming out of the group, and he's working his own end of it, but we're all working the same palette of how we want to go about it. You're shooting in a city 3000 years old, you're shooting in a city that no light is put up ... nothing is just thrown up, everything that's there is there with thought behind it, and how it looks, so you're already in a magical kind of place. 

And I think that there was a lot of natural lighting ... a tiny fluorescent tube to the side of your belt seems like you're not lighting, but [Sean's] watching. And we'll watch him. He doesn't use an assistant, at least on this one. So it's him with a camera, Ethan in front of them talking to him, and me talking, it's a three-way thing. I'm shooting now with a normal film crew, it seems so strange ... and this was a first for me, but I'm sure Ethan liked it because I liked it, too. It was very personal and very there.

Ethan Hawke: It's a kind of filmmaking that inspires me because we weren't exactly sure what we were going to do every day. It was a little bit like a band going into a studio, knowing kind of what they wanted to play, what instruments they were going to use, but not really [knowing] the melody or the lyrics. It's a very creative place to be. And we interacted with our environment and tried to work from this blueprint that Abel had created for us, and tried to be, you know, his left and right arms, to be an extension of Abel's imagination. That was the goal. And that's my favorite way to work.

'Troubled times make for more interesting art'

Ethan, in the last few years you've had a lot of characters that are men who are both principled and violently out-of-sorts with their times, like in "First Reformed," the brother here, and in "The Good Lord Bird." Why do those sorts of characters inspire you right now?

Ethan Hawke: We're all a product of our generation, right? We're only as good as our peers, as what audiences want, what people are thinking about, what audiences are demanding, and what is happening around us. The benefit of troubled times is they make for more interesting art, right? The conversation gets interesting because people have a need for serious conversation. I don't know, I feel like these roles are just a product of a more interesting time, or maybe of me growing up. There's a great line ... I think I'm misquoting Paul Newman, but he said that we all long for a happier time when we knew a lot less, meaning it was only happier because we were dumber. The more you know, the more troubled the world is. And so this nostalgia for the past and stuff is fake news, you know?

I can definitely see that. It's really an interesting trajectory.

Ethan Hawke: I like it, too. I mean, there are certain inevitable downsides with growing up and getting older, but there's certain benefits. Playing substantive characters that have a lot on their mind. Makes my life more interesting.

It's certainly refreshing. Abel, I wanted to ask you about the plot choice to have a threat to the Vatican. Is there any particular symbolic value for when you were constructing the plot of the film around that?

Abel Ferrara: The idea of blowing up the Vatican ... Yeah. You know ... I mean, you have to blow up something! You're gonna blow up the World Trade Center because you think that building represents capitalism and this and that ...  some 3000 year war, some big religious ... some apocalyptic confrontation ... whether it's there, it's not, to the minds of people it's something that's under threat. Being manipulated ... maybe the threat's real, maybe it is not a threat ... so the Vatican kind of symbolizes Christianity, [or what] the war on terrorism is about.

Ethan Hawke: It connects present day war with the wars of the past, too, that's what it always does in my mind... seeing us as a continuation of a series of dominoes that have been falling for a long time.

'The movie is kind of shattering apart all this dualistic thinking'

Yeah, definitely reminded me subtly of "Kingdom of Heaven" and all those sacred areas with a deep history of conflict. One more brief question for Ethan... for both the characters that you play, what do you think motivates them?

Ethan Hawke: A sense of purpose. I think most of us ... when you reach a certain maturity in your brain, it can happen at lots of different ages, we long for a sense of purpose. And, you know, quite literally my brother gets a sense of purpose from the uniform, from the military, from being of service to others and feeling a part of that, and I could use that for one character and then, you know, there are others of us who try to gain a sense of purpose by telling the truth and being thinking outside the box of a uniform. They're both seeking purpose.

Abel Ferrara: Perfect.

Ethan Hawke: Well, that was my take, they are two sides of the same coin. One of the things I love about the movie is It kind of takes apart dualistic thinking ... people are thinking you're either this or you're that, it's always left or right, north or south, black or white, left or right. Life is a lot more complex than that. And so the movie is kind of shattering apart all this dualistic thinking, binary thinking, if you will ... I find that really interesting, and that works well for where I'm at right now.

Abel Ferrara: I agree with what he says. You know, with these reviews, especially the blog reviews, they keep talking about his 'twin brother,' you know, [but] I never in my life thought that it's got to be his twin brother ... I know we never discussed that, we never said "this is your twin."

Ethan Hawke: But I also know you well enough that you don't think that literally. Your brain doesn't work that way.

Abel Ferrara: Yeah, no it never occurred to me. It's funny. Now, I mean, we could have discussed [but] it wouldn't matter one way or another.

Ethan Hawke: We discussed it only...

Abel Ferrara: ... in terms of your own brother, that was the shocker of the casting.

Ethan Hawke: But I also brought up to you once the idea of getting somebody else to play the revolutionary brother. You were like "absolutely not."

Abel Ferrara: "Who can play Ethan's brother?" [laughs] We have enough problems, to find somebody to play this ... how could anyone play his brother, who can play his brother better than him?

Ethan Hawke: But it's a good question. And I know why people think it, but the key to me in being Abel's actor is that's just not the way his brain works. It doesn't work literally like that.

"Zeros and Ones" is available now on Apple TV+.