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Exclusive: William Friedkin Talks Making ‘Killer Joe,’ The Problem With Exorcism Movies, ‘Sorcerer’ & Much More

Exclusive: William Friedkin Talks Making 'Killer Joe,' The Problem With Exorcism Movies, 'Sorcerer' & Much More

Deep fried, dangerous, obscene, hilarious and hugely entertaining, while not for the faint of heart, William Friedkin‘s “Killer Joe” proves the director hasn’t lost the energetic spirit that put him on the map in the 1970s with films like “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.” And indeed, it might be his most controversial film since that latter pic. The film’s violence and nudity might have made some folks at the MPAA squirm, but it was undoubtedly a climatic sequence involving fried chicken that pushed them over the edge.

Branded with an NC-17 rating, the film — which boasts a marquee-worthy cast including Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon — will be making its way around the country in limited release via the film’s distributors LD Entertainment, who haven’t flinched from the challenge of marketing this dark and twisted yet funny and enjoyable picture. Friedkin himself is helping to get the word out, and we were lucky enough to talk with him last week about the movie.

Candid, generous with his time, and filled with a plethora of stories from throughout his career, it was a pure pleasure to chat with Friedkin, who was joined by his editor Darrin Navarro, who has worked with the director on his films since “Jade.” In addition to talking “Killer Joe,” the conversation moved toward the state of exorcism movies, his work on his memoirs, a look back on “Cruising” and “Sorcerer,” his desire to do a James Bond film, and much more. Aside from some edits for clarity and flow, we’ve kept the full Q&A of our talk below. Meanwhile, here’s our review of the film from Venice and an exclusive clip of the film we recently acquired. Read on…”Killer Joe” opens this Friday, July 27th. 

After you directed “Bug,” did you know that you wanted to do something with screenwriter Tracy Letts again?
I didn’t know that but I think he’s only written five plays and I directed one of them on the stage, the play called “Man From Nebraska.” I just liked his writing but I don’t think I’m the right director for all of his plays, although I have enjoyed them to different degrees.

Did you think about maybe going off and doing an original screenplay with him? It seems like your sensibilities are somewhat similar.
We might do that some day. But if I didn’t do it it means I didn’t think about it, you know? I just tend to try to go one day at a time.

So let’s get to the film then. Where do you draw the line between being provocative and daring, or is there a difference between the two?
I don’t think about that. I basically go with the screenplay, with what’s in the script. If I had a problem with it, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t know that you do draw a line. People that draw a line, I mean, I had talked to a number of actresses, well just two, before Gina Gershon and they’re very well known actresses, and very good but they wanted to know how I was going to handle the nudity and that meeting was over. I was going to handle the nudity by having them nude. So I was not prepared to make a film like this and draw the line anywhere.

I guess what I’m asking about is in terms of tone, because the film to me succeeds in striking a very fine balance of being very wild, very out there but without ever tipping too far over. How did you manage that balance?
A lot of people think it does go too far, I would imagine. Don’t you think? It’s disturbing to a lot of people.

Darrin: Yeah, it is…interestingly what I’ve found, and this is a totally unscientific survey, but my observation has been, and this has been surprising to me, that women embrace it by and large, and men seem to be the ones who express the most unease with the nature of the material, and I haven’t really gotten at the root of why that is, but after a number of my women friends see it, and men actually, I want to explore that question further. But certainly there are people who do feel it goes way over the top and others who either love it for that reason or who just don’t feel that.

William: You never know, you can’t please everybody, all I can tell you is probably the most beloved film of all time is “Gone With The Wind” and I really don’t like it. You know? I don’t care for the picture, but I’m certainly in the minority. So I just don’t know, I don’t try to draw a line. I know the ratings board would have cut the hell out of this picture if they could have, they would have released it in tatters, or not at all.

What is your process when you and Darrin are in the editing room?
You have to make choices. Even though we shot very few takes there were a number of takes and there’s a number of places where you can go even within the confines of the script. You can invent moments, you can emphasize this or that character because they’re all shot in the whole scene. Usually they’re all covered and you have to make the decision as to what you want the audience to see at any given particular time. So yeah, there are a lot of decisions in the editing room. Darrin and I will discuss these things, we’ll talk them over and I’ll often say to him, ‘Which one of these takes do you like better?’ I’ll get his opinion and we’ll look at it, analyze it from various perspectives, and we’ll reach a consensus eventually of where to put the knife, so to speak. And how much of something to show and how little. I’m often guided by his opinion. It’s nice to have another pair of eyes on the stuff that you’re making and it’s not easy for me to do that with the producers, who are not all that interested in what the final product looks like. They’re interested in how much it costs, basically. That’s always been my experience with studios or producers. So you need someone else whose opinion you value looking at it with you. We would disagree from time to time but I think the film that’s out there, we both pretty much are in agreement with. I don’t know if it could have gone a lot differently. It might have.

You’ve said that Matthew McConaughey’s performance in the film reminded you of Robert Mitchum in “Night of the Hunter.” Were you looking at noir films as a guide for what you’re trying to achieve?
Well it’s in the script but he could be played by any number of good actors. Tommy Lee Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Jeff Bridges, you know? Many, Josh Brolin, James Brolin who’s a good looking guy, he’s a friend of mine, he would have been wonderful, I think. I saw McConaughey on an interview show where he was himself, and I was very impressed with him. I saw how his natural charm and good looks would be a major plus with this character rather than it being some grizzled old polar bear or something. But I didn’t see that frankly in any of the other films he was in.

But you knew he could do it?
I hoped so. But once I saw that interview I pretty much thought that I could create a mood for him to feel free enough to create within the context of that role, which is what I look for in a performance, [I look for] spontaneity, and I try to make the film the way he did the interview, very spontaneous. Don’t worry about the exact lines. He knew the lines, they were easy to remember. So then he just had to play them, and playing them meant being free to reach into himself and find Killer Joe, which is certainly there.

Juno Temple said she sent an unsolicited audition. What was it about her audition that made you think she was the one that you were going to cast?
Well she was great. She did the audition with her ten year old brother and it was exactly what I was wanting, exactly. And I didn’t know her, I had never seen her films and didn’t know she was British. I knew nothing about her, my casting director played me this tape, unsolicited. And that’s it, she was just right. She did the sex scene with Joe, the dinner scene and the seduction, and the camera just got her. I never saw her brother, he was off screen reading it. He was ten.

Her accent was perfect, I didn’t know she was British. She was in England and I didn’t know she was English. Then she came to meet me at my house and she has this thick British accent. But I heard her accent and it was a perfect Texas accent. Now McConaughey and Thomas Haden Church are both from Texas, and I said, “Listen if you hear her say anything that doesn’t sound right, tell her or tell me.” And they never did, she had it down perfectly. I had never seen her in a film before that.

So you kind of lucked out, you saw McConaughey on TV and got this unsolicited tape — did you feel like the chips were falling in your favor from the start?
It’s always the movie gods that either give you or don’t give you the right things. Sometimes you want to use certain people and they’re not available or don’t want to do it. In this case I got five leads in the movie that all really wanted to be there. “The French Connection” was a movie god, so was “The Exorcist,” you know? Jason Miller plays the young priest in “The Exorcist,” he had never been there. He only had small roles on TV, he was a writer, he was a playwright. I saw his play and I just wanted to meet him to talk about the play because the characters in the play were all sort of lapsed Catholics and that was the character in “The Exorcist.” I met with him to talk to him about his play, not to make a film about it, but I was curious because I had read that he had studied with a priest at a Catholic University in West Virginia and had dropped out after three years and didn’t make it. I was interested in that because that is what the character in “The Exorcist” was. The guy had a crisis of faith.

For something like Killer Joe, what is the challenge with this kind of material or do you view it as a challenge?
The biggest challenge is to stay awake on the set. I’m serious. The stuff that puts me to sleep I figure is boring and so I cut it on the set. And then it’s another challenge to stay awake in the editing room. I’m not being facetious, you know, a lot of this stuff I’ve heard before or seen before or I don’t know a way out of it so I’m constantly looking to be provoked or provoke myself. That’s the biggest challenge. Well, the challenges involved in directing a film are first of all to find a piece of material that you’re compatible with, and then to get the right cast, and then to create an atmosphere where that cast can feel appreciated and feel that they can be creative and they’re not being judged. So I don’t operate like a dictator director. I will suggest movement, I will suggest the way that people move around in front of a camera or don’t move, but I’ll never tell them how to say a line. We’ll discuss at some length what the whole thing means and what’s behind the lines, or what is in the spaces between the lines and sometimes the most dramatic moments are in the silences. So I’ll try to build in those silences, which the actors have to fill. When you say pause here or whether there’s silence in there, it doesn’t mean they can go out and have a Coke or something, it fulfills those moments. Very often the best film acting is done between the lines.

In recent years, films like “Sorcerer” and “Cruising” have all grown in critical appraisal. Do you think that those films were misunderstood at the time?
Well, there’s always a zeitgeist and it’s ever changing. Some films are right in tune with the zeitgeist and others aren’t. There’s nothing you can do about it. When I read the script of “Star Wars” I never thought anybody would go to see this picture from just reading the script and so I never know how any of my films are going to be released or accepted. I wasn’t totally dumb, I knew that “Bug” would have a limited audience, it’s so insular and claustrophobic and it’s about so much other than its plot that I felt it could be a little hit you over the head to the audience, but a lot of people who see “Bug” really appreciated it and I appreciate that. I don’t think the same of all of my films either, I don’t think they’re all of the same quality. Not because I didn’t try to make them as well as I could or intentionally didn’t do this one as well as that one, no, I had a reason for doing every film I’ve done with the exception of the very first one [“Good Times“], they were not for money. The first film I ever did was to just become a film director. I had no particular feeling for the subject or story. The movie was with Sonny and Cher but it automatically made me a feature film director. Whereas today you could go out and buy a camera today and shoot your own film. You don’t need to have someone to commission you to make a film anymore. The equipment is available and operative, you don’t need to go to film school for four years to figure out how to shoot a picture today on digital cinematography and get it posted on YouTube and somewhere else so that’s changed everything for people wanting to make films, they can now do it. I couldn’t, I had to go through a long apprenticeship before I could direct a film.

There have been some legal troubles around “Sorcerer,” is that going to be resolved? Are we going to see that film eventually find a proper home?
I hope so. I sued Universal and Paramount to determine who owns the rights because, through their legal affairs department, claimed they didn’t own the rights and I don’t know what’s happened, I think it has fallen between the cracks. So I’m suing these guys to save the afterlife of the film. Until last year it was run all of the time for groups that wanted to run it and Paramount made a new print last year of “Sorcerer,” a beautiful new print, and now this year people come in and have said, “Can we run this as well?” and the response they’ve gotten is, “We don’t own it.” We don’t know who does, and so I’m assuming that they’re not lying to me and maybe it’s possible that I own it, that the copyright has fallen to me but I wouldn’t bet on it, but they don’t seem to know or want to say who owns it and I find that very strange. And this isn’t everybody at that studio, it’s the legal department. But I think they’re all probably under instruction to get rid of 35 millimeter.

That’s true, digital is on the way, where do you stand on that divide?
There won’t be 35 [mm] being made, the raw stuff, it won’t be made after this year. I think precious little is being made now. There are a lot of die hards but I’m not one of them, it’s progress. I liked CDs better than I liked 33 and a thirds. I think the sound is better on a CD. A lot of people prefer 78 or 33 RPM, I don’t and I prefer the digital equipment to 35 millimeter, I think it’s a natural evolution.

I read recently that you are writing your memoirs for Harper Collins and I’m just wondering how that’s coming along.
I finished it, I turned it in and they love it. Then I read it and I don’t love it so I’m going to New York tomorrow to work for about eight or nine days with my editor and try to put back in some of the things that she cut. She sent me a wonderful note saying, “Congratulations the book is great and it’s one of the best things of its kind I’ve ever read” and than I started to look — I’d been away from it for a while, I wrote it in longhand over two or three years — and I looked through it and I was appalled at a lot of the stuff that I had in there. It was overwritten I felt, so I got in touch with her and I said, “I’ve got to come in and see you because I think, you know, I’m not as sure as you are that this is the final form.”

Did you surprise yourself by anything you remembered?
There were a lot of things. I went back and interviewed a lot of people that I had worked with in the past, like Bill Blatty and Norman Lear who wrote “The Night They Raided Minskys,” and their perspective on things as well as their specific memory of certain events was different from my own. It’s like if you and I were sitting on opposite sides of a table, we’d be seeing a different picture. Let’s say there was a vase of flowers in front of us and we would be seeing it from a different perspective. I found that that was the case with the stories in my book. Now I didn’t keep any diaries over the years, I wrote everything from memory, so then when I interviewed several people I tried to reflect whatever, it was an open question, I tried to reflect their perspective on these matters as well.

What are we going to learn about you that we don’t know?
That’s for you to find out, you have to be specific. You’ll find out that I am not my films, for one thing, I really am not any of the characters, but all of the characters or most of them in the films fascinate me one way or another, but I’m not those characters but yet I’ve had a lot of the same impulses over the years. I’ve had the impulse to kill people, I’ve never done it, but I have had the impulse, especially when I was younger. So I understand the impulse and I understand the fact that there’s a constant battle between our inner angels and our bad spirits from control over our natures, I do understand that.

Speaking of angels and demons, there’s been a lot of exorcism films in the last few years.
They’re all shit!

What are the exorcism movies doing wrong?
I don’t see those so I shouldn’t comment. Well I’ll tell you one thing they’re doing wrong, exorcism is rare, very rare. There were three cases that the Catholic church acknowledged in the 20th century in America. In other places in the world there are guys, not necessarily priests, ordained by the Catholic church who are doing three or four exorcisms before breakfast, but exorcism is a very, very rare procedure and not easily sanctioned by the Catholic church. That’s one of the things we try to point out in the film, that it was not commonplace and that demonic possession still, to a lot of people, seems like religious bunk. But I’ve read the New Testament, I continue to read the New Testament and it just casually mentioned Jesus from time to time would drive out evil spirits and perform exorcisms, and in almost every case, in every case where it’s dwelled on, he tells his disciples not to talk about it, not to mention it. Not to go around and tell people about it, because he did not want to be thought of as a magician, or a trickster. So look, evil exists within all of us, I’m certain it exists within you, I know it exists within me so there is a constant struggle to get rid of that evil that is within each of us and sometimes it’s a losing battle. Most of the people who kill people, serial killers or mass murderers, they’re not members of the mafia or something, they’re guys who just flip out and lose it and then their neighbors say geez he was a nice guy, I never would have thought this guy could be the Yorkshire Ripper, or the BTK killer. That guy was very well known in his community, wife and kids, he was a deacon in the church, he was a dog catcher, he was a traffic cop, he was very well known in the community, he had a secret life. Look at Jerry Sandusky. I mean where does that come from? This guy was deeply respected all around Penn State. And then you read that Joe Paterno sanctioned it, didn’t say anything? Yeah, there’s good and evil in everybody. And a lot of the times that evil is allowed to run free because it isn’t convenient for somebody to blow the whistle or perform an exorcism.

I’ve read that you’ve always wanted to do a Bond film.
I was asked to do a Bond film many years ago but they didn’t want me to shoot the action. They wanted me just to shoot the actors. They had three or four crews that went around shooting the action scenes. And that’s all I would have wanted to do in a Bond film was the action.

So if they came to you today and asked you to do second unit, you’d be there?
Probably, if the ideas were original, oh sure. I love the action in the Bond movies, that’s what they’re all about, not some guy in a tuxedo saying shaken, not stirred. Anybody can direct that. The action scenes are amazing in the Bond films. Mr. Broccoli called me, after “The French Connection,” and invited me to do the next Bond. I don’t remember which one it was [ed. likely “Live And Let Die“] and I said “Oh yeah, thank you, absolutely.” Then in the course of the conversation he told me he had three or four crews doing the action scenes, I wouldn’t have to worry about those, so I politely declined.

You did some “CSI” a year or two ago, there’s a lot of directors doing stuff on cable, does that appeal to you?
If I liked the script. I did “CSI” because it was Bill Peterson and he came to me to do his last show. I had never seen the shows. It was on for nine years then and I’d never watched them but he and I remained friends and he said he was doing his last year and would I come in and do the last show and I did it. They sent me some videos of some of the other shows and I got the idea. Then I had a lot of fun doing it, it’s a great crew over there, wonderful crews putting this stuff on. Then they invited me, after he left, to do the 200th episode with Laurence Fishburne, which I did and really enjoyed.

So it doesn’t matter to you if it’s film or TV, it’s the story?
And the characters or, you know, I’ve got to relate to something and I don’t care. If I found a play that was being done in a church basement I would do it if I liked it.

Your last couple of films were independents, was that a conscious choice?
What studio would want to do “Bug” or “Killer Joe”?

Is that the reality of the situation in terms of getting original material done, the studio’s not going to do it?
Well Darrin, why don’t you tell him the story that you told me.

Darrin: Oh yeah, I met with a director a couple of weeks ago who had a great script, it was some sort of Elmore Leonard crosses and double crosses nonlinear narrative, really, really good script, and he told me the history of how he had taken it around to the studios. He’s written, you know, he’s a first time director but he had written a screenplay because he had made studio films in the past and he was basically getting a lot of lip service from executives until one woman just told him directly, “I’d rather go see the movie that this script is going to be than any of the movies that we’re putting out this year, but I have strict orders from the parent company about what we can spend money on and what we can’t and we can’t spend money on this.” What they’re spending money on of course are superhero films and found footage films. Whatever there is that the trend is, or very few trends now, it is only that that they’re putting money into. A film like this that would have easily been made into the studios, maybe even ten years ago, now have to be made as independents and I think they’re budgeted at a million dollars. I’ve done a lot of work in the independent world, but the truth is the movies that I’m working on, when I started falling in love with movies, the late ’70s and ’80s, the kind of movies that I’m making now, strictly in the independent world and would only be considered in the independent realm, used to be made by the studios. “Being There” today would be an independent film, no question. You talk about a movie like “Bug,” in the mid ’70s one of the studios might have made it, but not now, not a chance.

William: The other thing is, even the independent world has made a lot of strides — a movie like “The Hurt Locker” won an Academy Award over “Avatar” — but it’s not the same as it was when I began, when people like John Cassavetes was making independent films, he had to mortgage his house every time he wanted to make a film. Orson Welles had to go make a lot of money as an actor that he put into the films he really wanted to make, which wound up taking years to make and sometimes never got finished. So there weren’t a lot of guys doing independent films before this recent decade. It’s a lot easier to raise money for an independent film today then it was in the days of Cassavettes.

As a filmmaker, how does that shift really affect you?
I don’t want to make films for the studios, if they don’t want me to make their films. I don’t want to make a film about a guy in a cape and a spandex shirt, you know and tights flying around and solving the crimes of the world, I have no interest in stuff like that, or a video game. You know I’m not saying they’re bad, they’re just not interesting to me…Look at the films that are being made, obviously a lot of people want to make them and see them but the films that were being in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s were quite a bit different. You know, “Star Wars” changed the whole paradigm.

When you watch current films…
I don’t.

There’s nothing out there that interests you?
Very few things. I’ll definitely want to see Paul Thomas Anderson‘s film called “The Master,” and whatever the Coen Brothers do I’d probably be interested in. Not too many others.

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