Why Willem Dafoe Felt They Were 'Flying By The Seat Of Our Pants' Filming The Exhilarating Siberia

Willem Dafoe

Willem Dafoe’s collaborations with filmmaker Abel Ferrara date back to 1998, when the two first met on New Rose Hotel. But these storytellers realized that they spoke similar cinematic languages, and it has led to multiple film collaborations over the years. Dafoe, in fact, has appeared in Ferrara’s last three pictures, and four of his last five, including Siberia, which is making its way to theaters. But when the Spider-Man and The Lighthouse star sat down with CinemaBlend to open up about the duo’s process, we learned that their chemistry allows them to move quick, which is friendly on the budget.

In Siberia, Willem Dafoe plays a bartender manning a tavern on the edge of existence. He counters his loneliness and isolation by communicating with his scarce patrons. But as the movie moves along, these interactions grow more surreal, and eventually Dafoe’s character is on a spiritual vision quest that has him traipsing through a dreamscape that only Ferrara could conjure. When I asked Dafoe how much of this surreal imagery they captured through experimentation, he laughed and explained:

This is a modestly budgeted film, so we’re not shooting a lot, and being able to cut it down. (laughs) The way we arrive at what we're going to do is quite intricate and quite unconventional. But once we get there, we have a good idea and it's kind of problem solving. And we're not shooting conventionally. So shots, once we get there, are designed and there was like no fat. No fat at all. There aren't scenes that aren't there. There practically aren't shots that aren't there. We were flying by the seat of our pants.

The way that Willem Dafoe describes it, though, this is par for the course in the working relationship that he has established with Abel Ferrara over the course of his career. Dafoe plunged into Siberia after working on both Tommaso and Pasolini with Ferrara, and when we elaborated on their approach to this loose narrative, the actor explained:

Different movies have different styles, and different budgets and all that sort of thing. But certainly coming off of Tommaso, a movie that we did together, we had a very loose style. That was much more verbal, and much more improvised, and much more … let's say naturalistic. Where this had more set pieces. It had more locations. We had to plan a little bit more.

When it came time to sitting down and planning out these dreams, Abel Ferrara apparently kept a lot of the details close to the vest. Understandably, as many of the locations and situations that Dafoe’s character finds himself in are defined by symbolism than narrative. He might be fending off a vicious bear attack in one scene, then praying to the enlarged belly of a pregnant woman in the next. Dafoe says that Ferrara lured him in with a specific pitch, telling CinemaBlend:

He set up the themes. Basically, there were certain images, certain fragments of images, situations that he wanted to explore, and he didn't really have a script. He just was obsessed with these things. He knew a couple of things. He knew a couple of locations, a couple of things he wanted to see. A couple of counters. And he said, ‘Is this a movie?’ And, ‘Do you want to do it with me?’ And I said yes, because we're close and I've enjoyed working with him. … (But) it was not a traditional script, as you probably can imagine, because it's not a traditional narrative or a traditional movie.

Siberia had its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival back in 2020, and is now making its way to wider theatrical distribution. Lionsgate recently released the film in limited theaters and for digital rental beginning on June 18. But if you happen to be in New York City, Siberia will begin screening at Cinema Village, which finally is reopening after COVID, on June 30.

Sean O'Connell
Managing Editor

Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. He's frequently found on Twitter at @Sean_OConnell. ReelBlend cohost. A movie junkie who's Infatuated with comic-book films. Helped get the Snyder Cut released, then wrote a book about it.