Interview: Killer Joe Director William Friedkin
We headed to a roundtable with the Exorcist and Killer Joe director.
Last Friday, we were lucky enough to be invited for a chat with a genuine living legend – William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, The French Connection, and the superb Killer Joe. sitting down with friends and colleagues from other outlets, we were introduced to the legendary filmmaker, who was perhaps the warmest, funniest, and most fascinating interviewee we’ve ever come across.
For half an hour (after which he was begrudgingly moved on, to a magazine called Empire he hadn’t heard of) Friedkin treated us to anecdotes, facts and eloquent discourse about the American ratings system. It was a real treat, and we could have stayed there for hours.
This is your second film adapted from Tracy Letts' work (after Bug) - what is it that attracts you to his writing?
We have the same world view - we see the world in the same way, as sometimes absurd. We see characters that embody both good and evil, and we don't see people as totally heroic or idealistic. I must say – and I hate to say this because it always gets misinterpreted, but if you've read any of the biographies of Hitler, you see that even Hitler had some… commendable things about him. And I can state them. Not that I want to - he's a candidate for one of the two or three worst people in history. Stalin would be up there, along with Attila the Hun. But there are things in Hitler's life that surprisingly make you understand that he was a human being, and not a devil, and not a creature from another planet. -not an alien, but a human being. What fascinates Tracy Letts and me about the characters that he's dramatised and that I've directed, is the very fact that there is the potential for great good and great evil in all of us, everyone at this table and outside in the streets and everywhere else in the world. And I think that given some wayward gene, there are very few of us that couldn't commit an act of violence, or an act of great charity.
You've stated in the past about how you see a thin line between the policeman and the criminal - how does that apply to the character of Joe Cooper, who is both a detective and contract killer?
Well, I know cops like that. They're in Chicago and New York - not in Dallas, Texas. But Tracy Letts and Matthew McConaughey both know similar characters. They're all around, by the way. There's a particular guy, he's a homicide detective in New York that I know, we call him Uncle Mort, who was for 20 years a homicide detective in New York City and also did hits for the Italian mob. I can't tell you I understand how that comes about, other than that I know that these people are capable of that, I've seen it. So yes, there is a thin line between the policeman and the criminal, that's very often crossed, and the best cops are the ones that most think like criminals. So yeah, I've met such people, and believe me that I can't say I understand from whence they came, what crooked timbre of humanity produced such a character, but I know they exist. I find them fascinating.
How involved were you in the appeal to the MPAA about the NC-17 rating you received in the US?
Well, we lost the appeal narrowly - 13 to nothing. The appeals board is different from the rating board. The ratings board are an anonymous group of people, nobody outside of their relatives knows who they are. They're anonymous, unknown - we don't know who they are, where they came from or what qualifies them to give a rating. It's all subjective. It's like what a former justice of the US Supreme Court said when a pornography case came up - he was asked to define pornography in an interview. Potter Stewart was his name, he said, 'I can't really define it, but I know it when I see it.' Okay? And that's what the ratings board does, they 'know it when they see it', whatever the hell it is that they're seeing. If you have any children you presumably know the names of their teachers at school, or even the principal of the school, you presumably know the mayor of your city, possibly some of you even know the name of the Prime Minister of this country. So you know where your laws come from, you know the names of some of the MPs, and you may even know your own MP. If you don't like what they are doing, you can send them a letter, and get to voice your opposition, and if necessary vote them out of office if enough people are like-minded. With the ratings board, we don't know who they are; we don't know if they are political appointees, how they got there, who put them there, but we do know that they do not have a manual that's as thick as this [picking up press notes]. There's nothing in writing that they have that defines what they base their ratings on. It's totally subjective.
Now having said that, I think they have distinguished Killer Joe with the most draconian rating. They've set it apart from the pack of those films that go out, and under the dark of night make little cuts and trims to turn an NC-17 into an R. In my case they wanted me to do much more than make trims. They wanted to do what the United States government said it was doing in Vietnam. Some of the generals said, 'We have to destroy the country, in order to save it.' And that's what the ratings board would have had me do to Killer Joe. In order to save it as an R rated film, which would have allowed 13 and 14-year-olds to come in - which I'm not interested in having see this picture - in order to do that I would have had to destroy the film. I just wasn't prepared, nor was my distributor prepared, to do that. And they do it why? Because they can.
You'll never see a major studio film with an NC-17. They've all gone in the dead of night and made a handful of little trims that have shown the ratings board that they are prepared to bow before them and recognise their superiority and legality, which they are not - they are not a legally binding anything, it's a self-governing body of the member companies of the Motion Picture Association of America. Having said that, it's better than what they had before, which was a literal censorship code - the Hays Code. Those guys could actually cut a movie before it went out. They'd read a script and they'd say, 'Well you have these two people in bed together in this scene' and the writer, or the studio head, or the producer would say, 'Yeah, but they're married,' 'I don't care, we can't show two people in bed.' They would literally cut scripts before they were made. So at least this thing, whatever it is, doesn't do that.
Could you tell us a little about the process of bringing a play to the screen? Is it a challenge to keep things cinematic when adapting a play to the screen?
I don't think anyone ever asked that of Raoul Walsh [sic] who directed Casablanca, which was a play called Everyone Comes To Rick's, which was totally set in Rick's Cafe. Everything was done on a sound stage on one of the greatest American films ever made, everything but the last shot which was at Burbank Airport. Even the Paris flashback was done in front of a rear screen. It's a play! It happens to be a play with finely-wrought characters, wonderful dialogue, humour, pathos and everything else. So was a film called A Few Good Men, that was a play. I dunno if anyone ever asked that chap how difficult it was. How difficult? You're getting a great piece of material to adapt to a different process, that's all. And so it requires a bit of opening up, but I wouldn't have done it if I thought it was rubbish. Most of the earliest sound films were either plays, or written by playwrights, because there was nobody around who had written movies when they were first doing sound. It’s a very common question that you’ve asked - how do you adapt a play to the screen? Well, first it has to be a damn good piece of material, with interesting characters, and then you have a leg up. But I've done films that have come from every imaginable possible source. Like news stories, novels, my own imagination, books about actual facts, and some were plays. I've tried to make them cinematic.
Those of us who have a warped sense of humour will find a lot to enjoy in Killer Joe - did you encourage the cast to use their natural sense of comic timing?
No. I encouraged them to play it real, that's what most really great comedy is about, the fact that you believe in these characters. They're not passing judgement on the characters they're playing, they're not saying 'look at me, I'm a clown' - unless you're Jerry Lewis, you know, someone like that. The dark humour that comes out of, let's say, farce or absurdity is done by characters playing it for real. As in Dr Strangelove - I believed all those characters that Peter Sellers played, including Dr Strangelove, who is very reminiscent of Henry Kissinger, who I happen to know. So no, you encourage them to make it real, and to keep it real. The humour is built in, it's in the piece. It couldn't work if the characters aren't believable. For example, when Charlie Chaplin played the Little Tramp, you believed this guy was a little tramp. You weren't thinking actor, you were thinking, this guy is the little tramp. Laurel and Hardy, they weren't like that. Abbott and Costello, the Goon Show, those guys were making it real, and that's why it's funny. That's what I did with my cast.
Was Matthew McConaughey your first choice, and what did you see in him?
Well, my first choice was Woody Allen but he wasn't available. (Laughter around the table) I don't believe in typecasting. McConaughey is from that area, he was born at the Oklahoma/Texas border, he knows those characters, his accent is right and natural. He's a very good actor, people didn't realise that because in Hollywood terms he's so good looking. If you are a good looking actor who manages to get to Hollywood, all they want you to do is show up. They don't want you to act. You just have to take off your shirt and be convincing as the lover of some lovely actress. That's all that's called upon from many of the great stars. But like McConaughey, what they wanna really do is act, find a role that challenges them and that can challenge an audience. The studios don't want them to do that. You know, they make a fortune - McConaughey was making $10 million a picture just playing a good looking dude who got the girl. A lot of actors, like DiCaprio's trying to stretch out, we'll see if he can. McConaughey obviously could and had the chops, but that's his desire. He can still go on and make those romantic comedies looking the way he does. But that isn't really what he wants to do, or who he is, and I knew that.
You have something of a reputation for putting actors through their paces - how do you do that?
By creating an atmosphere where they can feel free, not feel judged, but feel free to create, and feel like they're on the same page as me, the director, and the writer of the script. Once you're able to give an actor or an actress that, and even members of the crew, and they feel free to make a mistake, they do their best work. That's what I've found, by trial and error.
Killer Joe is described on Wikipedia as an 'American crime/comedy/drama/thriller/film'. How do you balance those genres without creating a clash for the audience?
I think that's a good question for the writers of the New Testament. Really, how did you balance all of this crime and demonic possession and goodness and supernatural and otherworldliness and humanity and charity and violence and 'I come not with peace but with a sword'? First of all you have to recognise it, and not be intimidated by it. Fortunately I hadn't read Wikipedia and so I had nothing to live up to. I just had a story and a set of characters. I loved the story and I tried to cast it as well as I could. The cast was basically a gift from the movie god. I've had films that I feel in hindsight that I didn't cast well, or some of the roles were not as well cast as they might have been. I don't feel that with this picture. Obviously that's why I'm sitting here in the blogosphere. I wouldn't be talking about it in any positive way if I thought I had fucked it up. And one of the reasons you don't fuck it up is if you have a good cast. And I did, believe me. They embody their roles. Possibly Gina Gershon will be known for one scene in this picture. I’m not mentioning which one.
If we go back to the time you made your name as a director, in the late '60s and early '70s, there isn't that choice of roles for actors anymore - is that part of the business model of Hollywood?
Well, Hollywood today, the studios are more interested in a sure thing, which means a comic book adaptation or a video game adaptation. That's what Hollywood movies basically are. Oh, and romantic comedies, and some raunchy comedies now like The Hangover. That’s what it is, when I started in the late '60s, early '70s directing films, there were all kinds of films being made. Some of them were socially conscious films, some of them were cathartic films that did not provide easy answers to life, didn't have a guy with a letter on his chest flying around solving crimes, wasn't a dress up costume show. They were films from the '30s, '40s, 50’s and on to the present era, that were of a wide variety, and largely for adults. Today, Hollywood films are largely for teenagers, fanboys and geeks. I don't say that derogatorily - geeks are self-described. There may be some in this room – no-one has to wear a badge affirming that they’re a geek. There are all sites now called “geek this” or “geek that”, most of the films are from, or aimed at that. That’s not derogatory anymore.
The film opens with nudity and ends with a prolonged scene of sexual violence - do you think the MPAA and American film culture has an issue with sexuality more than violence?
Violence is more acceptable to the MPAA than sexuality. They're always uptight about one thing or another, but they'll find some way to get around that with a major studio. For example the remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo shows a very graphic scene of anal rape, followed by a vengeance scene where the young woman cuts this guy up who did this to her. That is one of the most violent scenes I've ever seen. I don't have anything like that in Killer Joe. I don't know if you've seen Prometheus, that has some of the most violent scenes I've ever seen! An alien impregnating people through their mouth, and it’s really convincing and graphic and very violent, but it's made by a major studio and doesn't get an NC-17.
Kirby Dick's film This Film is Not Yet Rated asserts the MPAA has stacked the deck against independent films.
You know why? Because they can! They are financed, they are underwritten and supported as a self-governing body of the member companies of the MPAA. And for example my distributor is not a member of the MPAA. Most independent distributors aren't. They do this just to show that they... they're watchdogs, but they don't do it to their own. They'll find a way to make a few frame cuts, and then be able to say to the world, 'Well you should have seen this film before we had a look at it.' So that's why they are tougher on independents, because they can be. But they have no written set of rules, no guidelines for any of them. But some of the most violent or sexual films that I've seen come out of that ratings board with an R, or even a PG. Sexuality troubles them more than violence, because they perceive violence to be cartoonish - when it happens in something like The Avengers, it's not real people, it's supernatural people, it's aliens. So they get away with the murder of thousands of people in the film, but it's not believed. When they are confronted with something that looks like it could be real, that's usually in an independent film, and they slam it.
Which current filmmakers do you admire?
Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers. And, uh, who else... Well, the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson are the only ones who come to mind. I like Wes Anderson's work. I think he's an interesting and an original filmmaker. But I've been most influenced by many others like Hitchcock, Orson Welles, the French New Wave, and the English New Wave of the 1960s. Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger, those were the films that influenced me. The Italian neo-realists, and some of the American classic directors of the '40s and '50s like John Ford, of course, Joseph Mankiewicz, and the directors of the musicals, like Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen. I know Mr Donen, and he's still alive, I'm a great admirer of his work.
Are you going to work with Tracey Letts again?
I hope so – we don’t have anything in the works at the moment, but he’s to me the most interesting dramatist in America today I love his work and I’m on the same page with him.