For film buffs it has been apparent for years now. Werner Herzog is turning into Abel Ferrara and vice versa. The crazed German who pulls boats over mountains and the crazed American who pulls audiences over red hot coals (The Driller Killer, Bad Lieutenant) are exchanging identities.

Herzog followed his Ferrara spinoff, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), with a slew of crime/murder projects, fiction and non-fiction, culminating in his 2011 death row documentary Into the Abyss. Ferrara, conversely, seems to have requisitioned Herzog’s identity to make an arthouse-style end-of-the-world movie, 4.44 Last Day on Earth.

In it, a painter (Willem Dafoe) and his Buddhist girlfriend live their last hours in New York. There is a small cast, lots of philosophical gab, some dark Dadaist comedy, and for the last scenes an apocalyptic sky skilfully derived from YouTube footage of the aurora borealis. Boutique art cinema? From a director once thought of as America’s favourite and most prolific barbarian?

Pressed on the Herzog kinship, this unlikely American Germanophile – smoke-haired, big of jaw, with features a bit Cro-Magnon (in a nice way) – says: “I grew up watching Herzog, Fassbinder and Wim Wenders. Herzog was actually in one of my films, Dangerous Game, in 1990. We used a clip from the Fitzcarraldo documentary [Burden of Dreams].”

Yet Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant sequel produced bad blood on its release, with the Bavarian claiming never to have heard of Ferrara while Ferrara screamed plagiarism.

“My problem was not with Werner but with the producer, Ed Pressman. Harvey [Keitel, star of Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant] and I thought we had a deal with him. You don’t want me to direct the sequel? Fine. But what about everyone else who worked on the first film and got paid coffee and doughnuts? You couldn’t find a job for them in a picture with a bigger budget …?”

Blood under the bridge. These days, Ferrara’s fury with Hollywood is contain­able, especially since he has been filming in New York and on the east coast, where many of his best films have been set (King of New York, The Funeral). 4.44 Last Day on Earth has received less generous reviews from some. But it still has the manic charm and whirligig ideas of authentic Ferrara, including a standoff between art (Dafoe) and Buddhism (Shanyn Leigh as his girlfriend) as the true faith with which to fight death and apocalypse.

It seems an incongruous fit with the Abel Ferrara we thought we knew: the Driller Killer director who emerged from the primal, primeval “video nasty” age in the late 1970s.

“We were gratuitously violent,” he agrees when I bait him with that overused phrase. “But you have to realise [that] at that point in our lives we were really angry. We were fighting against the system. That was our reason. But you start putting up those violent images and you can’t just disavow them and say ‘Hey, nothing to do with me.’ How many crazy people saw Taxi Driver and felt good about it?” (One at least: John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.)

“At the same time I’m a film-maker. I’m about my characters. It’s not like I come up with these things myself and then make my characters deal with them. It comes out of them.”

To play these characters, Ferrara gathered a remarkable, loyal acting troupe willing to work for modest fees: Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe. (Next up will be Gérard Depardieu in a sex scandal project “inspired by” Dominique Strauss-Kahn.) “Certain actors wanna get paid, they think working in a low-budget movie is being ripped off. But for others it’s like, ‘Yes, let’s do it’.”

Other actors, including the late Chris Penn (Sean’s brother), who won a Venice Best Actor prize for his volcanic turn in Ferrara’s Mafia drama The Funeral, were “friends” in another arena of life. It’s no secret that Ferrara fell foul of drugs in the 1970s and 1980s. “It was the lifestyle we lived in Hollywood, making a lot of money.”

He forgives and forgets yesterday’s sins, including his own. Today’s sinners are another matter. These, for Ferrara, are the pirates and bootleggers of the DVD and download era, trampling over an artist’s right to own, control and live from his art.

“The point is, I live in New York downtown. Somebody steals a car, there’s five cops there. Somebody breaks into a house, there’s 10 cops. It’s not like it’s Dodge City. But somebody robs my $5m movie, nobody f***ing cares. I say to these kids: ‘It’s the same as breaking into a DVD store and stealing a movie.’

“Right now my editors are in LA sending a print of 4.44 back and forth on the internet. If there’s a problem with subtitling or the soundtrack, they can download stuff. Some kid, doesn’t know what he’s doing, hacks into that, lifts it out and he has our movie. Well, thanks, dude, I’m out here starving. We’re struggling artists.

“We want the rights to our work. If you make a film that means anything at all, whether it’s King of New York or Bad Lieutenant or Last Man on Earth, it exists for eternity. Or till the metaphorical 4.44.”

Abel Ferrara doesn’t quite look like a struggling artist. The crisp white shirt and Adriatic backdrop rather spoil the image. But he does look like a man who’s been fighting the system for 40 years and may still have another 40 in him.

‘4.44 Last Day on Earth’ is on release in the US

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