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Interview: William Friedkin on ‘Sorcerer,’ The ‘Killer Joe’ TV Show And Life Beyond “Macho Bullsh*t Stories”

Interview: William Friedkin on ‘Sorcerer,’ The ‘Killer Joe’ TV Show And Life Beyond “Macho Bullsh*t Stories”

At 78, William Friedkin is experiencing a new lease on life, career-wise. Most enticingly, when we spoke with the genial, anecdote-laden, Oscar-winning director at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, he let drop that he’s in contention for what has to be one of the choicest TV gigs on offer: season 2 of “True Detective.” 

But that possibility is just one of many that have opened up for him over the last couple of years, a factor, we’d suggest of two main elements. Firstly, Friedkin’s last two feature films “Bug” and “Killer Joe,” both based on source material from writer Tracy Letts, have seen the director pick up some of the best notices of his post-’Exorcist’ career (and nabbing a peri-McConnaissance McConaughy for the latter can’t have hurt). And secondly, his years-long battle to see “Sorcerer” restored has culminated in a triumphal series of festival screenings and widespread critical reevaluation. Suddenly everyone’s all “Oh yeah, ‘Sorcerer.’ I always loved that movie.”

It’s not often that a film goes from being the buried black sheep of a director’s back catalogue (coming immediately after the insane one-two punch of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” it has till recently been regarded as a rather precipitous fall from grace for Friedkin) to being not just reclaimed, but the subject of a three-way wrangle between major studios over the reissue. But to hear Friedkin tell it, that’s how it shook out. So while we went on to discuss his upcoming Mae West project, just what the story was with Nic Cage collaboration “I Am Wrath,” and the TV show possibilities for “To Live and Die in LA” and “Killer Joe,” we started with ‘Sorcerer’ and the unique way that Friedkin himself almost willed its revival into being.

It must be intensely gratifying to see “Sorcerer” so comprehensively reevaluated. How do you account for it?
The industry has changed—that’s why there’s a new perception of “Sorcerer.” All of the critics, the film historians, the people who wrote in the daily and weekly newspapers have all changed. The zeitgeist has changed. The audience has changed, and they’ve heard a lot about “Sorcerer” through social networks that didn’t exist when we made the film.

I mean, nobody conceived of a “future life” or a “shelf life” when I made that film. You made a film and it was disposable, unlike a painting. Or a novel which may have had some impact in its day and then grew in stature as people realized they weren’t writing novels like that anymore. You know Charles Dickens wrote for a daily newspaper and now his works are in finely bound editions, as well as paperbacks.

His stories were just regarded as serials back then.

Yes, and they were “just” stories but damn good ones and well-written. We now realize with the passage of time that what Dickens did was literature, not simply filler in a daily paper. So for a film like “Sorcerer” which is 37 years old to be celebrated in first-run theaters—I went to a showing at the Chinese Theater!—that is because of a perception it has picked up along the way. I imagine the critics that didn’t like it back in the day if they saw it now…they still wouldn’t like it! But they’re gone.

“Sorcerer” has kind of outlived its critics?

Well, I wouldn’t go that far! But there is certainly a different reaction by this generation. This generation has seen everything because of the internet and TV. And there were TV screenings of “Sorcerer” all along, so some of them saw something in it…chose to go a little deeper

Do you think perhaps its relative obscurity almost helped the fervor of its new fans? People had a sense of personal discovery?
Oh, I’m sure. And I’m obviously pleased about that—I fought for its rerelease. What happened was, both studios that made the film, Universal and Paramount, they were each sold three times since I made it. When that happens all of the records go underground. The new young attorneys that come into the companies, they bury all of the old stuff, especially stuff that didn’t work. And they don’t know where it is.

So I came along and sued them both, not for money but just for the purpose of discovery—who owns these rights? Maybe I own the rights! And that scared them, so they had to go into those caves where they buried the documents and they finally found the documents of ownership.  And then Warners wanted to take the whole thing over but it turned out that Paramount still retained European and other rights, and Universal only had a 25-year lease on the film, which Warners then took over. It took well over a year of lawyers stalling though…

Are there other films of yours you’d attempt something similar with?

Probably not. No. I mean, no, it’s not a pleasant process to go through. But “Sorcerer” means a lot to me. In my view it’s the best film I’ve made.

You are, however, involved in the possible reworking of “To Live and Die in LA” into a TV show. What’s the status on that project?

I’ve turned down every proposal for it. I don’t want to replicate the movie but I’m not uninterested in having something that has the same vibe, the same feel, but not the same characters. Recently there was a TV version of the film “Fargo“—different characters, a different plot but with vague echoes of the old film, and it’s wonderful.

And I’m trying, with a very good writer named Bobby Moresco who wrote “Crash” and produced “Million Dollar Baby,” I’m trying to come up with something new that would justify that title.

So TV seems like what you’re gravitating toward at the moment…

Long-form TV is much more interesting than cinema to me. It explores much more edgy subject matter and doesn’t hew to any rules of censorship.

Hence the possibility of a “Killer Joe” TV series too?

We’re trying to develop that too, but I’m being very cagey about it in that I won’t just put it out there.

Would Tracy Letts be involved?

As an executive producer. He’s not going to write episodes. He doesn’t know any more about those characters than I do in terms of what else you would do with them. But I’ve entertained this interest and if we can come up with a concept that doesn’t damage the original film I’d be happy to see something come of it. Obviously “Killer Joe” is an easier thing to consider because the character is clearly a detective in Dallas who is also a hired killer.

It seems to me it might also be easier to do a “Fargo”-style translation of “Killer Joe” than “To Live and Die in LA”—it has such a specific, lurid tone, and takes place in such a particular world.

It think you’re right. I agree with that, absolutely. And there’s so many murders for hire in Texas! These guys, rich men, millionaires and billionaires, who for one reason or another had their wives and mistresses murdered, went to trial and got off. There’s a very famous lawyer, quite up in years now, who defended a lot of these guys, his name is Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, and the mythology was that these millionaires would come to him before they killed their wives to get legal advice from him on how to do it: where they had to be, what alibis they needed. They never did it themselves of course, but there was a rash of it.

The character of “Killer Joe” would be in that world. But what it’s about really is what all of my films are about: the coexistence of good and evil in everyone. No more so than in a detective, a police official who is also committing crime. There’s a great Italian film dealing with this issue that they’re showing here…

“Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion”
It’s a great movie! Elio Petri. I love his work and especially that film. A police inspector in Italy who murders people and frames other people for it—that is an interesting approach to the existence of good and evil within.

We spoke to Nicolas Cage some time ago, and he mentioned hoping to do “I Am Wrath” with you, which since fell through. What happened there?
That was never…I was given that script by Nicolas Cage, I never agreed to do it, absolutely never. The script was horrible! One of the worst scripts I’ve ever read! But I like Nic Cage, and he came to me and I sat with it to see if there was anything I could do with this and I came to the conclusion: why bother?

But I would love to work with him. I think he’s a very interesting actor. But he came to me with this and I said, I’ve seen this picture! This is “Death Wish”! It’s already been done and done well with Charles Bronson and the guys who wrote “I Am Wrath”—which is a horrible title—were basically recycling “Death Wish.”

But you are definitely attached to a Mae West biopic for HBO.
That’s being written now by man called Doug McGrath who wrote, with Woody Allen,Bullets over Broadway.” And there’s a wonderful Broadway musical he wrote called “Beautiful” with Carole King‘s songs. He’s writing a brief period in the life of Mae West, which we’re doing with Bette Midler. I believe that’ll probably be the next thing I do.

Yours might not be the first name one would associate with a Mae West biographical film?
Actually I made a similar film early in my career called “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” which was based on incidents that happened to Mae West but it was about vaudeville in the 1920s on the Lower East Side of NY. That is a period that fascinates me, and she fascinates me as a character.

What draws you to her?
She was a very strong woman who took charge of her career in a time when men ran everything and told everyone what to do. Mae West was a star in vaudeville and she was asked to do straight plays on Broadway, all the great Broadway producers sent her scripts, but she didn’t like any of them. So she decided to write her own script, for herself. And she thought: what is it that most people think about all the time and she came to the quick conclusion that it was sex. So she wrote a play called “Sex,” which you could not advertise at that time.

Could you even use the word?
You could use the word if you were referring to the male sex or the female sex, you couldn’t use it in a sexual context. You couldn’t put it on a billboard or on the side of streetcar, or a taxicab. It was verboten, and she writes this play and stars in it. And she was arrested on the stage, and taken to jail, and she went to prison in her silk underwear, with three open limousines filled with white flowers, trailing her to Riker’s Island prison.

She had dinner there every night with the warden and his wife, but then she was in the prison population with these women who were convicted of crimes, and they of course were fascinated by her. And she entertained them and she listened to their stories and came out with a new insight, and resumed the play and it was a huge success…ran for a year.

She was very simply herself and in those days everybody worked for somebody else. She created her own persona—now that’s sort of common among women who are entertainers like Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, people who reach that degree of success: they call their own shots. Nobody tells Streisand what to record…[But back then] Mae West was singular as a performer in the reinvention of herself, and I’m fascinated by that. I’m not interested in just a lot of macho bullshit stories!

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