If William Friedkin had retired in 1973, he’d still be remembered today for creating two of the most successful and influential films of that revered film decade with The French Connection and The Exorcist. Yet, while he may never have reached those incredible heights of success again (and really, most filmmakers are lucky to even do it once), the man can be counted on for expertly crafted thrillers like Sorcerer or To Live And Die In LA. In recent years, Friedkin has dedicated his talents to an unexpected late career shift as an opera director. Though his filmmaking focus is always entertainment, it’s very much for an adult audience and not necessarily Hollywood’s current demographic of choice. Fortunately, that hasn’t mean that the director is entirely absent from filmmaking these days.
Friedkin has made two films in the last five years that are intense and insane colorations with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tracy Letts. Together they adapted Letts’ gripping insect infestation/paranoid delusion play Bug in 2006 and this year they have returned with Killer Joe. The film premiered at The Toronto Film Festival and is a Southern Gothic comic thriller about blackmail, murder, and fried chicken forced entry starring Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple, and a psychotic Matthew McConaughey. Though not for the squeamish, this tale of insurance fraud and infidelity is one of the most batshit insane and pleasant surprises of the festival. Collider got the chance to chat with the legendary director about his latest film and dig out a few thoughts on his long career. Hit the jump for all the details.
William Friedkin: Well, we had a good collaboration. I loved Killer Joe. I’m sort of on the same page with Tracy and his worldview, so a couple of years later we got together and said, “Let’s try to make this” at the end of 2008, which was a couple of years after Bug. I love his work as I loved Harold Pinter’s, I did Pinter’s The Birthday Party and he’s just a unique a voice as Pinter.
Do you get involved much in the writing when adapting for the screen?
Friedkin: No, I mean I give him notes and he gives me notes. I say “We don’t need this or that” or “What about a little more of this or less of that.” Stuff like that, but I don’t write it as I didn’t with Pinter. But, when I get a cut of the film I invite him to come in and critique it, you know from the standpoint of what he envisioned.
I read a quote from you in the press notes that says “There’s a thin line between good and evil and there is the possibility of evil in all of us.” You’re referring to this movie, but it seems like it could apply to almost all of your movies and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that interests you?
Friedkin: Exactly. It’s unconscious to me, but I have noticed it and only recently. I’ve started writing my memoirs for Harper Collins. I live in the present, but to write your memoirs you have to go back and as I examined all of the films that I chose to do. Not the things that someone asked me to do at the beginning of my career, but the stuff I chose to do all deals with that. I can’t tell you why, I don’t know. I believe it’s true that there’s good and evil in everyone and it’s a constant struggle to have your better angels prevail.
Friedkin: He read the script. You know, his agents sent it to him not thinking that he would do it, but he loved it and they called me and said that he’d be interested. I didn’t know if he could pull this off or not, but then we met and talked for a long time. He had come from that part of Texas where the story is set, he knew that lifestyle, he grew up that way. He had the accent, that sound. At the time he happened to be a movie star, a big movie star, but one who wants to act. And if you’re a movie star, the studios don’t want you to act. They just want you to show up and look good and chase girls and have a lot of laughs. That’s what he did for a long time. But I think he’s great in the picture. He’s fantastic and scary. He takes you to places that very few actors to take you to.
Did you enjoy being able to subvert his image at all?
Friedkin: Sure, but you know I took him to places, I don’t know if you ever saw Night Of The Hunter with Robert Mitchum?
Friedkin: Right, the only movie he ever directed. Well, Matthew’s performance reminded me a lot of what Mitchum did in Night Of The Hunter where he’s seemingly a nice guy, very thoughtful, concerned, a good looking guy, a preacher. This guy is a detective and really he’s a killer. A stone cold killer. So I had a lot of that in mind in terms of the transition that occurs in Killer Joe.
I was kind of surprised by how funny the movie was and all of the actors in it have a comedy background, at least a little bit. So I was curious how important that aspect was for you, even though obviously it’s a fairly dark and intense movie overall?
Friedkin: Well, the play and the film script is leavened by humor, not comedy. Not Abbot and Costello, The Three Stooges, or The Marx Brothers or even Jaques Tati. But it’s leavened by the human comedy. It’s not about jokes or prat falls it’s really the human comedy and you know that’s something that Letts does very skillfully, it’s sort of unintentional humor, but the audience often gets it. They often get the joke.
Friedkin: No, no. Because I’m much closer in spirit to Killer Joe and Bug. We’re on the same page with that. I thought August: Osage County was a great play, but it isn’t in my bushel basket as a director.
Okay, how would you describe that bushel basket then?
Friedkin: Well, more directly onto the dark side and the thin line between good and evil. August: Osage County is more along the lines of something that an early Arthur Miller would have written, you know, a family drama. It’s great, it’s brilliant. But I didn’t think it lent itself as much as Killer Joe or Bug does to a film. This is not a criticism of it, it’s probably considered Tracy’s best play. It’s just not for me.
Is it difficult for you to plot out these stage adaptations visually as a movie since you’re often working with a small number of people in a single location? Does that make it tough to keep thing interesting visually?
Friedkin: Well, I tend to like films that are claustrophobic. Much of The Exorcist is set in her bedroom and almost half of it is in one house. I did The Boys In The Band and The Birthday Party, and 12 Angry Men all in on a single set. I think there’s as much drama and conflict afforded by that than there is through a more expansive setting where people can get away. The characters that I’m attracted to are people who can’t get away. They can’t escape themselves.
Friedkin: I don’t worry about it. It’s a film I wanted to make. Everything is subjective. People will react based on their own background and life experience. But every film is subjective. You know, some of the biggest hit films in the world are not things that I gravitate towards.
What sort of relationship or even interest do you have in the Hollywood system right now?
Friedkin: The sort of things that are the staple of Hollywood right now like films based on comic books or videogames or toys don’t tend to attract me. I’m not talking about their quality or lack of it or whatever. I thought that the Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr. was really good. But much of it is not for me, I’m not the audience for that. When I was working in the Hollywood system from the 60s into the early 90s, I was very much in tune with what they were making. That’s just changed.
Is there still any sense of community between all of the 70s directors as there was at the time or did that fade over time?
Not at all?
Friedkin: No, we’re all scattered around. I still really love and revere Francis Coppola who’s a friend of mine, but he lives in the Bay area and I live in Los Angeles, so we don’t see each other often, but occasionally. Now, he’s around here somewhere with his new movie, but I don’t know where.
Do you ever get nostalgic for that time?
Friedkin: No, it was not all that’s been written about it. There were different kinds of films begin made than now, sure. But the main difference between then and now is that the studios were run by people who had made films often as producers or even writers ran studios back then like Darryl Zanuck or Dorry Sherry. Now the studios are run by ex-agents, lawyers, and businessmen. That’s the main difference. It’s not really being run by filmmakers and the studios are owned by gigantic corporations so the focus is very different.
Friedkin: I don’t know. Everything depends on the script to me. If I’m attracted to one I’ll do it. I’m sure there are many new things that could be done in that genre. I’m thinking about something now, but I haven’t worked it out enough to discuss it. It is in that genre, but doesn’t involve the supernatural.
Are things less tense between you and William Peter Blatty now that the alternate version of The Exorcist is out there?
Friedkin: Oh sure and look, I used to say to him, “You’re a sore winner.” He made a fortune on the film. When I did make those cuts and make the ending more ambiguous, he didn’t agree with it, but the whole idea of a feud between us is all trumped up. He wrote in a copy of his novel that he gave me and I still have, “To the only director whose made a better film than the novel.” That’s how he felt and then over the years it became interesting and controversial to say that we feuded, but he did come to me in the year 2000 and said, if you can find that footage would you restore it? Because the studio told him that they’d re-release it. So I said, “Well let’s look at the footage together,” we did and I said, “Yeah, we can do another version, I’m fine with that now.”
Well, thanks for keeping both versions out there unlike a certain other director.
Friedkin: Oh yeah, of course. It’ll always be thus. And there are fans of each one. There are people who think it’s much better to have everything we shot in there and others who like the original. I don’t want to deny either audience.