Willem Dafoe’s Last Day on Earth

Published March 12, 2012


According to the Mayan calendar, the world will end on December 21, 2012. This oft-referenced date, however, was not the inspiration for Willem Dafoe’s latest movie, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, which premiered at the LES (Lower East Side) Film Festival on Friday Night.  “Their calendar isn’t necessarily my calendar!” Dafoe said at the Crosby Street Hotel after party.  “This is only a guess, but I think this was inspired by Abel [Ferrara]’s sobriety.  He had a shift in how he thinks and lives his life.  As you get older, you can imagine the end of the line in a different kind of way.”

While the title suggests a sci-fi action doomsday movie similar to 2012, 4:44 is the antithesis; a contemplative and profoundly emotional film.  Most of the action occurs inside the Ludlow Street loft that Dafoe’s character shares with his artist girlfriend, played by Shanyn Leigh (Ferrara’s real-life girlfriend).  Due to the dissipation of the ozone layer, scientists have determined that life on earth will end that day, at 4:44 a.m.  The movie’s intrigue thus lies in how people choose to spend their dwindling hours.  In between intensely intimate lovemaking scenes, Dafoe and Leigh’s characters argue, order Chinese food and Skype friends and family.  Leigh paints, obsessively, a symbolic serpent devouring itself.  Dafoe’s character, a recovering addict, goes out to score drugs but reconsiders. Some neighbors get drunk; others commit suicide.

In the loft, a TV broadcasts local news that is hauntingly reminiscent of 9/11, with scenes of people praying, gathering, or going about their normal business. Another TV shows conversations with the Dalai Lama, mythologist Joseph Campbell and other spiritual leaders. “I thought of 9/11, but also a kind of malaise and depression and change that is happening in New York, culturally,” Dafoe told us. “I grew up as an adult in a New York where it was more like the Wild West; it’s harder to do crazy things now.  There aren’t that many people that are game for experiments any more.”  Dafoe co-founded the experimental theater company, The Wooster Group, in Soho in the late 70’s. 

Writer/director Abel Ferrara’s lush, impressionistic cinematography and introspective premise lingers days after screening.  “I’ve worked with Abel three times. The more I work with him, the more I trust him,” said Dafoe.  “He presented me with a scenario, these little islands of activity, and we fleshed them out in the shooting. There was some written dialogue [and] there were some places where we departed and improvised. I think back story can help guide your choices, but when you’re playing a scene, you’re not making choices, you’re just intuitive.”

4:44‘s Lower East Side setting makes it a natural fit for the LES Film Festival. Proving that LES is indeed more, the LES Film Festival features the work of talented low budget filmmakers, showcasing their films in Lower East Side venues, including the Sunshine Cinema, Crosby Street Hotel and Grand Opening performance space on Norfolk Street.  Although 4:44 exceeded the $200,000 budget limit of most LES films, it was chosen for a LES premiere because it captured the Festival’s spirit. By Hollywood standards, “4:44 is still considered to have a lower budget.  The premiere was a good opportunity for young filmmakers to be inspired by a bigger filmmaker who is still committed to making low budget films, in that gritty LES atmosphere and DIY attitude,” said Festival co-creator Damon Cardasis.

Cardasis co-created LES with fellow screenwriter/director Shannon Walker.  “We created the Festival because we’d made our own film, called March, for $10,000, which I directed and Shannon wrote,” said Cardasis.  “We figured there were other filmmakers out there like us that wanted to have their work shown but sometimes it’s very difficult in the bigger festivals.  You’re up against competition that has an entire studio behind it or millions of dollars, so it’s kind of a David and Goliath situation.  We wanted to give the little man a voice.”

Cardasis and Walker curate the Festival along with co-directors/creative team, Tony Castle and Roxy Hunt, who also run their own film/video production company, BFD Productions.  Castle and Hunt, who both attended University of Colorado at Boulder, met NYU alums Cardasis and Walker during their “interactive dinner party” at Grand Opening, where the Festival screened its films last year. When the four curators screen submissions, their criteria include “something that speaks to us and gives us a gut reaction of ‘I want to show this to people,'” said Hunt.  “Would you be proud to show this to a bunch of people and do you want to see it again and again?” As for what distinguishes LES from other NYC film festivals, Castle said “it’s a bit [of an] ediger, more accessible, fun event. And it’s BYOB so it really changes the stuffy atmosphere of a film festival.”