Spinning Platters Interview: William Friedkin on “Killer Joe”

by Jason LeRoy on August 3, 2012

William Friedkin directs Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple on the set of KILLER JOE

“Fire away. Anything. Don’t be polite.” William Friedkin is feeling pretty candid these days. Maybe it’s because after nearly six decades in the business, the Academy Award-winning director of such classics as The French Connection and The Exorcist has nothing left to prove. Maybe it’s because he’s been working on his memoirs, due next year from HarperCollins, and is still in confessional mode. Or maybe he’s just well past the age where you stop giving a fuck what anyone thinks about you (he turns 77 this month). The night before our conversation, Spinning Platters attended a screening of his gleefully sadistic new movie, the NC-17-rated Killer Joe, followed by a moderated Q&A with Friedkin that quickly turned into a rowdy one-man show. Refusing to be seated, Friedkin stood in front of the jam-packed theater for nearly an hour and pontificated at length about his career, the controversy over Killer Joe, and anything the audience wanted to talk about. He even volunteered questions he figured we were too sheepish to ask (“Who wants to hear how I discovered Linda Blair?”). When he was informed that the theater needed him to wrap up, he was unfazed. “Why, what are they gonna play? Isn’t it too late to start a movie?”

We reconvened for a more intimate talk at the Ritz Carlton the next day, but Friedkin was feeling no less loquacious. Whether the topic was his favorite restaurant in San Francisco (“The Tadich Grill is the only place I want to eat when I’m here”), the chilly temperature in the men’s room (“I could’ve shot The Exorcist in there! I could see my breath!”), or our faces when he was rattling off an impressive list of the operas he’s directed (“You guys are looking at me with blank stares”), Friedkin has no shortage of opinions on any broached subject. His comfort with discussing just about everything is probably a virtue when promoting a film as graphic as Killer Joe.

Based on the acclaimed play by Tracy Letts (with whom Friedkin previously collaborated on a film adaptation of Letts’ play, Bug), it is the uncommonly sordid and pulpy story of a remarkably stupid family of Texas dipshits (played by Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, and Juno Temple) who hatch an absurd plan to bump off Church’s ex-wife for the insurance money. They hire a crooked cop who does contract killings on the side, known as Killer Joe (a better-than-ever Matthew McConaughey), to do the job. But when they find themselves unable to pay him, he comes to collect in other ways. And as expected, our conversation with Friedkin veered off in a number of unpredictable directions, covering topics such as the virtues of Chris Christie, how Twilight is like Pepto-Bismol, and Friedkin’s deep and abiding love for Jade.

You don’t believe in rehearsing actors for films.

No, it’s hateful.

But with opera?

You rehearse like mad! You have to. With a film, if I can get an actor to say approximately what they’re supposed to say, but sound real instead of like they memorized it right before the camera rolled, that’s great. The script is not sacrosanct, unless it’s Shakespeare or one of the classics. In opera, some of these works have lasted 150 or more years. You don’t change a note of the music or a word of the libretto. If you do, they don’t work.You can’t use the music like it’s jazz. It ain’t jazz! It’s a completely different discipline, but I approach it in the same way. Except with opera, these singers have to know precisely where they’re going to be for every specific note of the music. So I’ll work on that carefully, but I will draw on the same things with them — their sense memories and their experiences — that I draw on with film actors. The great singers I’ve worked with want the same things the really good actors I’ve worked with want, which is a psychological underpinning for their characters and a staging that works. The only difference is you have no camera, but you have the same problem: you have to focus the audience’s attention on what you think is important.

On the topic of working with materials written for the stage, this is your second film adaptation of a Tracy Letts play, which he adapted into the screenplay. Is the script more sacrosanct when you’re working with the playwright directly? What happens if you decide that something doesn’t work for the screen?

Everything worked. But Tracy is a smart enough playwright — he’s a fine actor too, he’s playing the lead in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on Broadway this fall — he knows that once the actors get a hold of the material, it’s theirs, it’s not his anymore. He created it, but it’s like giving birth. They come from you, but at a certain point they’re on their own. They go out into the world, and you have nothing to say or do about it except try to be an example. That’s true of a writer and his scripts.

You give your Killer Joe actors the opportunity to play much richer, darker material than some of them have gotten to play recently, specifically Gina Gershon, whom Hollywood has never known what to do with. How did you cast her?

I thought about her immediately because she’s both sexy and intelligent, and those were the qualities that were needed here. She’s obviously playing below her own intelligence level in this film, which they all are. They’re all much more intelligent than the clowns they’re depicting. But these clown are human beings, and they can’t be judged by the actors. The actors have to find those people in themselves somewhere, and what I do as a director is I help them to find that. I always felt that Gina had a lot more to offer than in some of the films roles she got. She’s smart and tough, and that means not a lot of casting directors or directors want to work with her. They want someone who’s malleable, but I’d rather have somebody who knows and has experienced the character.

I was wondering about the intelligence of the characters, because toward the end it seems like the intelligence starts coming out a bit more.

Well, the facts start to come out. As the facts some out, we all tend to get smarter. Look at politics! The more you hear — let’s take the guys running for president. They each have a certain presentation. They present themselves not only as perfect humans, but guys who have solutions. And they’re just schmucks like us! They don’t know what to do, they’re grasping at straws. But they would never just come forward to a television camera or a journalist and say, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m gonna try to do the best I can. I don’t know how to handle the economy. I think if I could find a way to get more jobs it would help, but I don’t know if that means taxing people or cutting taxes to promote opportunity.” They don’t say that. They say, “The other guy’s a schmuck! He’s a liar! He wasn’t born here! He’s a Mormon! He wears magic underwear!”

All they do is attack each other and lie, and this is true of all politicians at all levels everywhere. With the possible exception — possible, I say — of Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, who tells it like it is. The teachers union says, “Why do we make so little money and get so few benefits?” And he says, “Look, you don’t have to do this job if you don’t want to! Do something else! We don’t have any money! The state’s broke!” And whether you like this guy or not, he tells it like it is. I don’t know if he’d be a better presidential candidate than anyone else, but at least he tells it like it is. No one else does. I don’t hear anybody who’s challenged by their questioners come back with the truth. Have you ever interviewed a politician? It’s all bullshit.

I’ve interviewed the actors from Twilight, which is probably similar.

Well, I would imagine. They don’t know what they’re doing either.

They have the same rehearsed talking points and canned answers as politicians.

They’re clueless. I don’t get it. I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, and I don’t like watching the movies either. I don’t find them watchable.

Have you actually tried watching them?

I saw the first one, and that was enough. It’s like Pepto-Bismol. You’ll do whatever is necessary to never have to use it again. [laughs]

You mentioned that you don’t like anything that’s going on in Hollywood right now.

Very little. Some guy flying around with a cape and a letter on his chest solving crimes all over the world? Batman and Superman and all this other bullshit. Maybe it’s well done, I don’t know. People treat it like it’s of some cultural import, and to me it isn’t. It’s pure entertainment, but not for me.

During your Killer Joe Q&A last night, you repeatedly deflected questions about your quote-unquote intentions with this movie by saying that you were not the movie, drawing that distinction between yourself and your work. Have you felt over the course of your career that people have projected the content of your films onto your identity?

Yeah, people think I’m anti-gay or misogynistic or whatever else they might think from the stories I do. I don’t compare myself with him at all, but I wonder if they thought that about Shakespeare. I wonder if they thought he was a murderer, or so jealous that he killed his wife, or any of the other crap you get nailed with because of subjects that interest you. I don’t brutalize people! I’m not the cop in The French Connection. I find those guys compelling as dramatic figures. Drama is based on conflict, and the stories that draw me are stories with conflicts of extremes. I hate to say it to people — “I’m not prejudiced in any way” — it sounds stupid. So I don’t say that I’m not anti-gay. If people think that I’m anti-gay, fuck them! They can think whatever they want about me. I’m not anti-greasy food either, I just don’t happen to eat it if I can help it. I have been accused of being the characters of my pieces, often those who have been anti-gay or anti-African American or just anti-human. I’m not Killer Joe, but I understand where he’s coming from, because all of those sentiments are things that I entertained at one point or another growing up as a kid in Chicago.

You mentioned that you don’t agree with auteur theory, in which people read films as conduits for the beliefs and philosophies of the filmmaker.

I just gravitate toward works that interest me for reasons that are inexplicable. I try to understand the characters and their motivations, and I try to represent them in a way that is nonjudgmental. Often I fail at doing that. Sometimes I succeed.

You said “brutal” earlier, and that’s certainly a word that could be used to describe Killer Joe. How did you approach filming those more brutal scenes without rehearsing?

I would tell the actors how far I wanted them to go: up to the point where nobody really got hurt, right up to that point. They’re professional enough to know how far that is and to know how to do it. I’ve seen situations where actors have hurt other actors from cutting loose so far from the artistic distance that’s necessary to not really hurt somebody, but to make it look like they are. The actors in this movie knew how far I wanted them to go. So when McConaughey mishandles Gina Gershon, he knows how far he can go without even causing her a scratch or a twisted ankle. And she knew how far she had to go and how much she had to put up with to play that woman. I only cast people who are intelligent enough to understand that, and to understand that we’re not going to do this in a subtle way. It’s a dish best served raw.

We’re showing a completely dysfunctional that has had their dreams shattered. They have no real way out except to go the stupid way that they go, because they have no real control over their instincts. They live in a world where there is no distinction between right and wrong. And I have to show that, because that’s the setting. The setting is not geographical. It’s not an accurate depiction of Harry Hines Boulevard in Dallas, Texas. It’s accurate in the geography of the human soul, and what I like to refer to as “the crooked timber of humanity,” which is an Immanuel Kant phrase that I find to be a wonderful description of all of us. “Out of timber so crooked as human beings are made, nothing straight can be fashioned.” Or words to that effect. [laughs]

Finally, I wanted to ask you about your experience filming your 1995 erotic thriller, Jade, in San Francisco.

It was the best experience I ever had making a film. The very best. And Jade is a film that I love much more than a lot of the films I have made, even the very successful ones. I love the cast. I think it’s the best chase scene I’ve ever shot, a chase of inches through Chinatown during a Chinese New Year celebration. It’s so obvious to come to San Francisco and jump the hills; I couldn’t resist it myself. But the core of the chase scene is Chinatown, and to me it’s one of the best things I’ve ever filmed. The chase scene is the only kind of scene you can’t do anywhere else — you can’t do it on the stage, you can’t do it in a novel, you can’t do it in a painting, you can’t write a chase as visceral as what you see on film. It’s the one piece of pure cinema to me, especially when they’re well done, like in The Bourne Ultimatum, the original The Italian Job, and in Buster Keaton movies. Not so much the chase scene in Bullitt. That’s not even in my top ten. I’ve said this to [Steve] McQueen. He introduced me after a screening once as “the man who directed the second greatest chase scene of all time.” And I said, “Bullshit!” [laughs]

Killer Joe opens in San Francisco today.

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