You’d be hard pressed to find a modern genre fan (or any cinephile out there really) who isn’t familiar with the work of iconic filmmaker William Friedkin and for very good reason…
The man just knows how to get under the viewers’ skin.
That is an ability that hasn’t wavered once in Friedkin’s long career which spans well over four decades now. With an incredible filmography that includes movies like The French Connection, Sorcerer, Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., Jade, Bug and of course, The Exorcist, it’s apparent that Friedkin has never been one to shy away from creating impressionable and brutally honest portraits of humanity that stick with you long after the credits stop rolling.
And once again the filmmaker is poised to leave audiences shaken to their core with his latest project Killer Joe (review) which has Friedkin once again bringing another grungy and dysfunctional story by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts to the big screen (they previously collaborated on Bug).
Being released with an NC-17 cut in limited theaters this Friday, July 27th courtesy of LD Entertainment, Killer Joe stars Gina Gershon, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple and Matthew McConaughey as the titular character.
Set in the dingy backdrop of an East Texas trailer park, Killer Joe follows a young, down on his luck drug dealer named Chris (Hirsch) who is so deep in with the local gangsters in the area that he convinces his trailer trash family that they should kill his mother in order to collect on the insurance payment and get their ticket out of their desperate lives.
But when Chris hires local hitman Killer Joe to take care of the hit, he doesn’t realize just how complicated things can get when committing murder and insurance fraud; soon enough, Killer Joe finds himself entangled in the lives of the twisted family, particularly Dottie (Temple) who catches the eye of the charismatic killer, and things begin to spin out of control in unimaginable ways.
In anticipation of Killer Joe‘s upcoming release, this writer recently had the opportunity to sit down with Friedkin and speak with him at great length about his latest film as well as more on his struggles with the MPAA and his ‘one take’ approach to filmmaking.
Because we had such a lengthy time to speak with Friedkin, below is just part one of our interview with the legendary director. Make sure to check back here tomorrow for part two and later this week for more from the cast of Killer Joe as well.
Dread Central: Can you start off by telling us more about what drew you to the story of Killer Joe; I would imagine you carefully consider the project you get involved with so what was it about this story in Killer Joe that just felt like it was the perfect next project for you?
William Friedkin: It was because it was so different than Bug; it was Tracy’s voice really. He has one of the most powerful voices in American drama. It’s not just me who thinks that because he’s won a Pulitzer Prize. He’s a wonderful writer and I find that I view the world in the same way; now that’s not to say that I would want to make a movie out of every single one of his plays. He’s written five and these are the two I’ve felt closest to.
Dread Central: Did you offer any input during the script process at all?
William Friedkin: He wrote a script and sent it to me; I loved it. There were a few things in it that we couldn’t do though. Originally, Tracy had the matricide scene with Joe driving the mother’s car onto the railroad tracks one night after he killed her where a train would come by and wipe her out. We just couldn’t get a train line anywhere- not Texas or Louisiana- we really would have gone anywhere but we just couldn’t get that.
Apparently it’s a very common form of death in Louisiana and East Texas, where people get drunk and pull up on the tracks, a train comes by and whacks them because they had no idea where they stopped their car. It actually happened right across the street from one of our locations just a few weeks before we shot the insurance office scenes.
But because we couldn’t get a train for that scene, we had to adapt it a bit to where we incinerate the mother in her car late one night after she leaves a bar. So that worked out okay. I also added a lot of what you see when Emile was being chased by the motorbikes and made it into a chase scene which wasn’t the way Tracy original had written it. But everything else is his language, his characters, his invention.
Dread Central: I’d love to hear more about your casting process on this; I don’t think I’ve seen a better ensemble this year than what we see in Killer Joe.
William Friedkin: When I was casting, I was looking for authenticity and intelligence; of course you want a bit of physical compatibility with the parts too. But I have always thought that Emile was one of the best young actors working around with a real Montgomery Clift and James Dean kind of vibe so I knew I wanted him.
I had never heard of Juno before though; my casting director got an unsolicited audition tape from her with her 10-year-old brother reading as Joe and she was just wonderful. I didn’t know anything about her though, I didn’t even know she was English even. I had meetings with three other young women for this role and they were all good but I saw this audition with Juno and I was blown away. I didn’t even realize until after our first meeting that her father was a famous director (Julien Temple) and that her mother (Amanda Temple) was a producer who also worked on the script for Thelma & Louise. So Juno ended up being a gift from the movie God.
With Matthew, I had watched him during an interview and I saw him- not the actor playing a role but just ‘Matthew’ and it then occurred to me that because he was from Texas and did have the right accent that it would be very interesting to have this guy who isn’t known for this kind of work play Joe. Because Matthew is so charming, I thought it would be an interesting direction to take the character of Killer Joe in because then he could be this charming stud as opposed to some old grizzly bear kind of guy which is how I was originally setting out to cast this.
So we sent his agent the script and Matthew did not like it at all the first time he read it. In fact, I know he’s said in interviews that Killer Joe disgusted him. But then he started to think about it and saw the humor in the script and that’s when he really began to understand the project. He said to his agent then ‘Maybe I ought to talk to Friedkin’ and we had a couple of meetings.
Thomas I just went after because he is the real deal; I’ll let you in on a little secret- as a director, I want to have people I don’t have to direct. I just want people I don’t mind being around, people I can have fun with and then just watch them nail it on set. I can’t pull it out of somebody if it’s not there. Nobody can. I didn’t want a picture that felt ‘acted’ either; I prefer spontaneity which is why I only do one take unless we have a technical problem. I mean, usually the second take was better but I wouldn’t have done it unless we had an issue.
I have found over the years that I prefer spontaneity to perfection when you’re doing a contemporary story. When you’re doing Shakespeare, it has to be perfect or it won’t work. But in a contemporary story, what I’m looking for is a reality; the camera is not there, this is happening right in front of me.
Dread Central: I’d like to talk a bit more about the humor of Killer Joe; I don’t think I’ve felt so bad laughing at the movies ever as I did laughing at some of the parts of this movie. It certainly crosses some lines.
William Friedkin: You know, Heather, my son’s fiancé thought that this movie was misogynistic. I did not know what the word meant, so help me God. I’ve always heard that word but I wasn’t sure what it meant. So then I found out that it meant someone who hates women so I said to her, ‘Is that how you see me? That I hate women?’ She said no but she still thought the movie was against women; I don’t think of it that way. I don’t see it as brutalizing a woman; I see these people as characters, not as types of ‘genre people.’ I don’t think in terms of feminism or color or race; I just don’t see people that way.
I see them as people, as individuals and I think that everything that happens to Sharla (Gershon) is inevitable; she’s the crux of this whole plan and what happens to her seemed to be logical but disturbing. I think that a lot of people can identify with that scene because we’ve all gotten caught in a lie. If you get caught in a lie and it’s clear in front of you that are lying, what you see from Sharla in that final scene is the usual reaction.
What’s interesting though is that I was in San Francisco a few days ago to do a Q&A for this movie and while I was waiting, I heard a couple of ladies of talking to each other. One looks at the other and says ‘Oh yeah, I’d definitely go out with him even though he’d probably kill me’ and other one says ‘Yeah, I think you’re right’; and then they both laughed. So yeah, there are two ways of looking at this picture, definitely.
Dread Central: As a storyteller, do you ever struggle to keep the humanity to unlikable characters at all?
William Friedkin: Well, who are likable characters? Priests? Football coaches? (Laughs)
Dread Central: (Laughs). So true. But I know that when I spoke to Gina in Austin, she mentioned that she didn’t see these people as being bad because there are no real bad people, it’s just more about people’s misinterpretation of another’s bad deeds.
William Friedkin: Well of course her character is a bad person (laughs) but I love that she thinks that she’s not. That’s great; she should! I never judged Sharla. These people, especially Sharla, are all trapped by their own dreams. All of them. It comes from the idea from Truman Capote’s unfinished novel “Answered Prayers” that says ‘Be afraid of answered prayers. You often get what you pray for and it really isn’t what you want.’
So these people are trapped by their dreams and they’re desperately trying to get out of that trap so they’re doing whatever it takes in an extremely claustrophobic setting to get out. So they do extreme things; that’s Sharla, that’s all. I have great compassion for Sharla; I wouldn’t want to be Ansel (her husband) but I do sympathize with her.
Everyone’s been Ansel (Haden Church) though; we’ve all had people game us at one time or another. So I’ll tell you, I think there’s a lot of identification with all of these characters for a lot of people out there. When I was much younger, I had the impulse to kill somebody. I was in a fight and I got this guy in a headlock and I was just bashing his head against the sidewalk. I don’t know what it was that restrained me; he was a bully and it was only the grace of God that kept me from killing him because I was too young to think about the consequences.
So I can relate to that in terms of wanting to kill somebody or not caring if somebody dies badly. So I know that impulse and if I didn’t know that impulse, I don’t think I could have directed a lot of the pictures that I’ve done.
Dread Central: How huge of a hurdle is the film’s NC-17 rating for you? Had you considered cutting Killer Joe for an R rating at all?
William Friedkin: You know, the Ratings Board was freaked out by the film; that was pretty clear. There was no way we’d be able to cut this for an R rating. I think there are far more envelope pushing movies than anything you see in Killer Joe; there’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which has very graphic anal rape and then her vengeance on him is one of the most brutal things I’ve seen. But they’re a major studio; a major studio isn’t going to get an NC-17 rating because the studios control them. The ratings board is an arm of the Motion Picture Association of America which is made up of all the studios.
The board used to be very liberal; both The French Connection and The Exorcist got immediate R ratings with no cuts. Now with Cruising I had to go back about 50 times with 50 different edits to get an R, but I wasn’t prepared to do that with Killer Joe. I knew that if we had done what they would have wanted, it would have ruined the picture and made it sort of pointless.
Fortunately for me, the distributors screened the movie in Toronto, Venice and Austin and the film got positively reviewed out of all of those; had they gone back and made cuts after those screenings, I would have denounced it because it wasn’t the film we made.
Look for more with Friedkin very soon!
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