Opening this weekend, in limited release, is director William Friedkin‘s controversial thriller Killer Joe. Based on the play by Tracey Letts, the NC-17-rated film centers on a son (Emile Hirsch) and his father (Thomas Haden Church) who hire a cop moonlighting as a hitman (Matthew McConaughey) to murder their mother in order to get her insurance policy. The film also stars Juno Temple as Hirsch’s sister and Gina Gershon. Loaded with great performances and an insane third act, Killer Joe is definitely worth checking out. For more on the film, here’s the trailer, a clip, and my interview with Hirsch.
The other day I sat down with Friedkin here in Los Angeles. During the extended interview we talked about making Killer Joe and its intense third act, his favorite movies, film versus digital, how filmmaking has changed over the past decade, deleted scenes, casting Killer Joe, his upcoming memoir, Connections, and a lot more. Hit the jump for more.
What are you some of your favorite movies, that when they come on cable, you just can’t turn away from? Do you have a few favorites?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I watch the same movies over and over again on Blu-ray or DVD. Singing in the Rain, Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paths of Glory, All about Eve, An American in Paris, H.G. Clouzot’s Diabolique, Antonioni’s Blow up. I don’t wait for them to come on cable. I don’t know what’s on cable and I wouldn’t watch a film on cable. But, I have a good system where I watch DVD and Blu-ray. I don’t see anything that comes out first run. Not only from America, Hollywood, but overseas. Whereas I used to look forward to everything from the French new wave, the Italian neo-realists and then much later Fellini, Antonioni, Ettori Scola, Peitro Girmi; and then in France Alain Resnais and Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Breathless; and Costa-Govras, Z. I watch these films over and over. I’ll get in the mood for a certain film. Sometimes its an MGM musical like the bandwagon, which I just watched the other night. And I just love it. I know them. They’re like old friends. I go back and read the same books over and over. I’ve read “The Great Gatsby” about twenty times. I continually read Proust,”A la Recherché du Temps Perdue”. And I continually identify with all of the emotions in Proust’s writing; to me its genius. It’s almost a religious text.
I’ve found as I’ve gotten older – For example, when I saw Casablanca when I was younger, I sort of understood it, but after I had fallen in love hard for the first time and I re-watched Casablanca, it has a whole new meaning.
FRIEDKIN: Yeah, the chemistry of those people. That was a play, you know. It was a play called “Everyone Comes to Rick’s”. And it was an unsuccessful play. But the whole situation is in the play. The characters, the place, Rick’s cafe American, the story, everything is in this play, which didn’t run a week on Broadway.
You mentioned you revisit films. As you get older, you look at things from the perspective of where you are in your life and you get something different every time you watch it or re-read it.
FRIEDKIN: Yeah, based on your experiences and how they line up with those of the characters that have influenced you.
One of the things that are very exciting about movie making today is that technology has leveled the playing field so that anyone with a passion can make a movie. Can you talk about how things have changed for you, and filmmaking in general, over your long career? What’s exciting about today?
FRIEDKIN: What’s exciting about today? When I was young and trying to make film – I was a live television director before I made films. When you made films you were limited in your dreams and ambitions, you couldn’t accomplish a fraction of what they can accomplish today. I couldn’t go out and buy a camera when I was younger. Now a young person, male or female, who wants to be a film maker can buy a camera for very little money, can shoot something, edit it at home on a computer, and put it on YouTube or some other website and have it seen. And this often leads to a career. That didn’t exist when I was younger. Filmmaking is a collaborative medium. No matter how few people work on your film, or how many, it’s collaborative. Unlike, if you’re a writer you’re staring at a blank sheet of paper and you’ve got a pencil or a pen, and your imagination. Same if you’re a painter, you’re standing in front of a blank canvas. If you’re a film maker you have to work with other people, communicate to them, get your ideas across to them so that you can communicate with some sort of audience.
When people meet you do people want to talk to you about the same movies? Or do people ask you about something obscure?
FRIEDKIN: It depends on the interviewer.
I mean the general public, like if you’re standing in line in Starbucks.
FRIEDKIN: I don’t go to Starbucks, or any of those other places. I drink a coffee called Stumptown from Portland, and it’s the best coffee I think I’ve ever had. I love coffee. I import it also from Vera Cruz, Mexico from Columbia. I get coffees from around the world; Jamaica, Blue Mountain coffee is fantastic. I’ve been to Starbucks.
Do find that when people meet you, do they ask you about certain films from the early seventies or is it a wide eclectic range?
FRIEDKIN: I get asked about a lot of my films by various people, it depends. Most critics want to talk about The Exorcist or The French Connection, or Cruising. Sometimes The Boys in the Band, often To Live and Die in LA. But mostly The Exorcist or The French Connection. Especially The Exorcist because it has a continuing dialogue with the audience, there’s new people see it all the time. It’s never out of release.
Jumping in to Killer Joe. When you first read the material was it an immediate reaction of “Oh my God, I really need to tackle this?”
FRIEDKIN: Yeah, Tracy Letts sent me the screenplay. I read it and I said, yeah okay, if I can cast this and find a producer, I’ll do it. The casting process was rather lengthy, almost a year to try and cast it.
Without revealing anything, there is some interesting stuff that happens in the third act. The material is adult, if you will. Can you talk about the challenge of filming that kind of material?
FRIEDKIN: We don’t approach it differently than any scene. The more difficult scenes are the more one-on-one emotional scenes that need a truthful and realistic resonance. They’re more difficult than the chicken bone scene, much more difficult. Because what a director does, basically, first the most important thing is choose the material that you want to live with for over a year. The Exorcist took three years from the beginning to the very end. The French Connection took two, this one took almost two. So, I’ve only made sixteen films in forty-five years and I’ve worked almost all the time. Trying to get them made, the various stages you go through to make them, and then the press around the world. So the first thing you do is choose the material that you want to work with that long, you have to have a compatibility with it. The next most important thing is the casting, and that’s the most delicate thing you’re going to do. The third thing a director does is– well, you have to have a vision for the film, but to provide an atmosphere on the set where the actors and the crew can feel comfortable, and free to do their best work. To feel that they’re not being judged, that they’re free to create. Creating that atmosphere on the set is the next most important thing the director does, and that covers about ninety percent of a director’s work. The rest is to find the film in the cutting room and to make sure that the choices you make are telling the story.
Often a lot of things change while you’re making a movie, from when you first got the script and got involved with Killer Joe, to where the final film ended up, how close is it to what you first signed up for?
FRIEDKIN: Very close, but I added a lot of things and subtracted a lot of things out of necessity. The original murder in the film, the matricide as Tracy Letts wrote it, was they put her in her car and parked it on a railroad track at night. There are a lot of deaths that take place in that part of the country, Louisiana and Texas, where people get drunk and park on the railroad tracks. There’s quite a lot more of that sort of killing than you would imagine, whether its murder or accidental. And that’s what he first wrote. That Joe kills her, takes her body, puts it in her own car, and they drive it over the railroad tracks and leave it. You see a train smash it. We couldn’t find a railroad company that would let us do that. So I had to reinvent that scene based on what we could do. Put the car in an empty parking lot outside a bar, after hours, and make it look like she was smoking, got drunk, and had alcohol all over her, and dropped her cigarette into it and blew herself up in her car. I had to invent that. Tracy Letts wasn’t around, he knew about it, he approved when I told him what I had to do; because I couldn’t get permission to do the other thing. So that’s a change from what’s in the script. The little chase scene involving Emile Hirsch and the bikers I put into the film, it wasn’t in the script. But his dialogue, I didn’t change a word of it.
I’m always curious about deleted scenes.
FRIEDKIN: Not in this film. There were nine scenes deleted from The French Connection that I shot. Because when I got into the cutting room, it occurred to me that they were scaffolding, that they didn’t belong in the finished film. They were just illustrative of the contrasting characters of the cop and the drug smuggler.
With your previous films, have all the deleted scenes been released on Blu-ray or DVD?
FRIEDKIN: Yeah, pretty much, those that can be found. There’s about forty minutes of Cruising that nobody can find. Warner Brothers tried. It wasn’t originally a Warner film, it was a United Artist film and they’re gone. The studios, very few of them have any sense of their legacy or the history of the films that they have made. Not a lot of care is taken either with preserving outtakes, or even conserving the cut negative. The Godfather, when they went to make the Blu-ray a couple years ago, they went into their vaults for the negative and all those deep rich blacks had faded and looked like milk. They had to spend well over a million dollars to restore the negative of their most iconic film.
Well, thank god they did.
FRIEDKIN: Yeah, but the technology exists to do it. If it hadn’t, we wouldn’t have those films. Because of this great technology people are able to see Buster Keaton’s films, and Chaplin’s. You wouldn’t be able to see that stuff if it wasn’t for DVD and Blu-ray. Not even the art-houses run that often enough, and the buster Keaton films in particular are masterpieces.
A lot of people remember Chaplin more than Buster Keaton, but he was amazing.
FRIEDKIN: Well he made the best chase scenes ever put on film.
It’s also stunning because he did it before there was a template to follow.
FRIEDKIN: Yeah, he invented it. Buster and Chaplin were two of the guys who created the language of film, as was D.W. Griffith.
Jumping back into the casting of Killer Joe. You put together a great cast. Can you talk about the challenges of getting everyone to sign on? And also who was the first person to jump in and say “I want to do this”?
FRIEDKIN: Well, McConaughey. I must say, I saw an interview that he had given on television. It was either Johnny Rose or Larry King, somebody like that, and I saw McConaughey talking about himself, not playing a part. He was talking about himself, his boyhood in east Texas, his family life, and the life around him. I was very impressed with him. I hadn’t thought of him before that. I was thinking of one of those dirty old men, one of those grizzly old guys to play this part. And I thought as I watched Matthew, first of all he’s from that area, he has the sound and from what he was saying he knew the people from East Texas, and what that area was like growing up. I thought it would be very interesting, not to have some big old grizzly bear playing Killer Joe, or a guy known for evil roles, but have this guy who could charm the mustard off a hot dog. I thought that would be very interesting, so I sent him the script. When he first read it, he was disgusted and he threw it away. Then he started to think about it, and in reflecting on it he thought a lot of it was absurdly funny. So he read it again, and he called his agent and said, “Maybe I ought to meet with this guy, Friedkin.” We had a meeting and we realized we were on the same page about how to do it. He worked for a lot, a lot lot less than he gets to do a romantic comedy. He decided to take control of his own career. Because, in Hollywood you get typecast. You either look handsome or beautiful or funny or evil, and they tend to want to keep you doing the same thing. Especially if you’re a good looking guy by conventional standards, as he is, they just want you to be in romantic comedies and convincingly make love to the leading lady.
With Juno Temple, there were three other young women I was considering. You know who they are; you would know them very well. They are three of the most important young actresses today. I met with all of them. And during that period Juno Temple had sent me, unsolicited, she sent to my casting director an audition tape, with her ten year old brother playing Joe. I looked at this tape and she was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t know who she was, I had never seen any of her films, and I didn’t know what films she was in. But this tape was perfect. So I told the casting director, “That’s it. That’s who I want.” The producer was appalled because he wanted any one of these other young women, he was appalled. She came to LA, I met her and she has this thick British accent. I didn’t know that. She auditioned doing a Texas accent. McConaughey and Thomas Hayden Church are from that area, I asked them to listen carefully to how she said every line, and if her accent goes off let me know. Never did. I was shocked when I met her to find out that this was a British girl. I hired her off this audition and later found out that she had a number of very interesting parts in British films.
Thomas Hayden Church I went to, he was the guy, that was it; and Emile Hirsch. Gina Gershon also, there were other people who I wanted before Gina, who are some of the most distinguished actresses in this country. Of course most of the actors and actresses who are serious want to be in a Tracey Letts work, because he’s probably one of the two or three – if not the best dramatist working in America today. These women asked me how I was going to handle the sex scenes, the nudity and the violence, and that was the first and last question. This is in the script, and I wasn’t going to do it behind closed doors. I was going to show what Tracy Letts wanted me to show. Gina is a very courageous woman, a wonderful actress, who understands this character and has enough sense memory of being relationships like that, when I went to her it was automatic. I love her work. I think she’s beautiful, sexy and smart.
I agree. I want to ask you a film nerd question. What Camera did you use to shoot this film?
FRIEDKIN: Aeroflex ALEXA. It was the first time it’s been used on a feature film. It had been used for commercials and other situations where they were letting certain camera men test it, and they gave it to Caleb Deschanel to use on our feature. We had a lot of problems with it in production, but the end result is beautiful, it’s everything I could have wanted. In post production it gives you deep rich colors if you want them, or you can go desaturated, or any way you want.
A lot of directors now, like Roger Deakins who is using the Arri Alexa on the new James Bond, a lot of directors are using digital cameras and throwing on seventies lenses to give it another look. Did you use one of those?
FRIEDKIN: No I wanted the clean crisp sharp look of digital. I’m a big fan of it, as I am of the CD. I don’t need to go back and listen to vinyl or seventy-eight rpms. I don’t want to hear Caruso’s voice [imitates a scratchy, distorted recording] if you can get rid of all this crap and hear the pure voice, why wouldn’t you? So I’m a big fan digital recording of sound and image. 35mm has been a pain in the ass! That’s what’s never mentioned. You can’t get a perfect print because of the change in the makeup of the water, of the developer, which is changing constantly and the electricity to the printers which is fluctuating, imperceptibly, constantly. I spent much of my time with all of my films trying to get a decent reel. One reel would come off blue another one green and it was all trial and error. It took me three months to get a decent print of the exorcist. We only released in 26 theaters so I had that luxury time. I’ve never had a perfect 35mm print of any of my films until the digital world came along.
FRIEDKIN: Well, that’s my opinion. I know there’s a lot of guys who say “I’ll never shoot digital.” Well then they might as well hang it up and tear up their Director’s Guild card, because 35mm isn’t being manufactured anymore. Eastman Kodak is bankrupt.
What else have you been developing or reading? What do you have planned for the future?
FRIEDKIN: I’m writing my memoirs. I’m going into New York Thursday to work with my editor at Harper Collins to finish the book. It will be out next spring. All my films have found me, I don’t go looking for them.
What is the title of your memoir?
FRIEDKIN: Connections; it’s a loose reference to The French Connection, but its more about the people and events in my life that led me from one pole to another.
So it covers everything?
FRIEDKIN: Yeah, it’s Harper Collins, it will be out next spring.