With the release of Killer Joe
was delighted to get the chance to sit down for a lengthy chat with William Friedkin
– one of the few remaining legendary directors. He picked up an Oscar for 1971s The French Connection
and shocked the world with The Exorcist
in 1973. He’s back with Killer Joe
, a vivid southern gothic tale of murder, deviance and a surprising number of laughs.
In this extensive, uncut interview we talk to the 76 year old filmmaker about his process, getting to grips with digital shooting, the MPAA
and, of course, Twitter
!MINOR SPOILERS BELOW!CLICK: Hi, welcome to Dublin!
WF: I’m sorry everybody’s been late. I was supposed to be on break now but there’s no problem. I’ve got two after you and I don’t leave here til 6.30 so I’ve got plenty of time!CLICK: Have you been to Ireland before?
WF: No. And you know coming like this is not coming to Ireland. What I’m seeing are the walls of this room and then the room I have upstairs. I know a lot about Dublin especially and the history of Ireland and the history here and where things are. I can find Grafton Street if I need to or the Ha'penny Bridge and various other landmarks. The courthouse. I know where everything is though and I love the history of the city and feel. I was thinking as I drove from the airport that I would like to come and just spend some time here.CLICK: Tell me how you got involved with Killer Joe.
WF: Tracey Letts who wrote it wrote a film for me called Bug which I made about five years ago and then a couple of years ago he sent me the screenplay for killer Joe and because I really admire his work and think he’s a sensational dramatist I read it and I loved it because he and I basically have the same world view. We see the world through the same prism.CLICK: Was he shopping that script to a lot of people?
WF: There were some other people who had bought it but they weren’t able to set it up. And he then rewrote it and he sent it to me. And said maybe I’d be interested.CLICK: So you had to try to get it financed?
WF: I had to go out first. In parallel you have to cast the picture in trying to finance it. Which is a strange sort of thing. It’s like trying to tap dance with both feet tied.CLICK: Do you have to cast it with names to prove it can be commercial?
WF: That’s not what it’s all about but you have to have somebody in a film that’s going to cost over a certain amount. Somebody that people have heard of. But not the wrong somebody, you know. I can’t be someone who isn’t right for the role.CLICK: Did you work with Letts on the adaptation at all?
WF: Yea I made several changes and additions. Like there’s no chase, in his script. And several other things. I moved a few locations to different places. The original death scene that he had written where they kill the mother was supposedly done on a railroad track, with her car placed right on the tracks at night. Which it turned out was a very common way of people dying in Texas. Guys would just go and fall asleep at the wheel on a railroad track. And that was the original death but we couldn’t get a train company to go along with it. So we changed it to him setting fire to a car in an empty parking lot.CLICK: Do you enjoy collaborating with a writer?
WF: Yea collaboration is what it’s all about. In any of the other arts you work along, pretty much. If you’re a painter you’re standing alone in front of a blank canvass with some brushes and paints. If you’re a writer, you sit either in front of an empty sheet of paper or a computer or a typewriter alone. And then you have your imagination alone from which you draw your work. Or your research is there for you if its non-fiction. As a director it’s all about collaboration, all of it. And once you recognise that, you realise what’s important about getting the film made. It’s about communication; with the people you’re working with so you can communication to a wider audience.
CLICK: Matthew McConaughey seems like an unusual choice for this film, how did he get involved? Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe - a unusual choice Enlarge
WF: Well he had read the script, his agent has sent it. And the first time he read it, he says in an interview I read recently and he told me this when we first talked. He said that he was disgusted by it; he thought it was vile and he wanted to throw up. And then it stayed with him and he realised that it was wildly funny and absurd. And he read it again and he found himself laughing his ass off at it. So he asked if I’d meet with him and I learned that he comes from that area, that part of Texas where the story takes place. So not only was his accent correct but his knowledge of the people in and around that area was keenly observed. And then I realised, having seen a number of his peripheral films, that he was a very good actor. But! He’s a great looking guy by Hollywood standards. And if you’re an actor and they think you’re good looking, or odd looking they want to cast you in the same role over and over. They don’t need you to act; they just want you to show up! And in the case of a romantic comedy, take off your shirt and make convincing love to the female lead.CLICK: He doesn’t seem to mind it!
WF: He made a ton of money doing it. And who’s to scoff at that! But he reached a point in his life when he wanted to take control of his career. And he’s done a couple of films since Killer Joe where he takes far more chances. Many more chances. And is playing against the type that he sort of typified.CLICK: Do it was a confluence of him changing his focus and you looking for that charismatic character?
WF: Yea Killer Joe has to be charming. He can’t be some evil fearsome guy twirling his moustaches! And pointing a six shooter! He’s got to be. He’s a businessman.CLICK: And not a bad guy either, of all the characters he’s arguably the most honourable and forthright.
WF: AbsolutelyCLICK: It’s a complicated set of character which must have been what attracted you to it!?
WF: Exactly. Most people are complex.CLICK: But most characters in movies aren’t!
CLICK: You also got Juno Temple who is still relatively unknown, what was that audition like? British actress Juno Temple plays a pivotal role in Killer Joe Enlarge
WF: I’d never heard of her! I never saw any of the films she'd done before. I didn’t know her father was Julian Temple. I had three other young women whose name you would know. I was going to go with one of those three and my casting director told me out of the blue that this young actress from Great Britain has sent in unsolicited an audition tape that I’ll put on your computer and you might want to take a look at it. I looked at it and she did an audition of two of the scenes, without a script, with her 10 year old brother reading Joe. And she did those scenes with her 10 year old brother…CLICK: The extreme scenes?
WF: Yea! And I thought she was terrific. I mean just exactly what I was looking for, her accent was perfect. And I thought ok we’re through, let’s hire her. And then she came over to see me, she came from the UK and she’s got this thick British accent!CLICK: She’s got a great accent in this; I don’t know where it came from!
WF: I don’t either! She’s just a really good actor. I had never seen one of her films, wasn’t aware of them. I have become aware of them since. But she saw herself in this role and stepped up.CLICK: This is the first time you’ve shot digitally, how did you find that process?
WF: It’s troubling. The digital camera runs via a coaxial cable to monitors. The director and the DP are watching what’s being shot over these monitors that are connected. And very often the cables would fritz out or screw up and a technician would have to run in and stop everything and fix the cable. Or if we dragged it through the mud it would get all fucked up. And it was a difficult process. I still managed to shoot the film quickly and on schedule but! When you get into the colour timing of the film, you have so much more latitude than you have with film. That it makes it all worthwhile. It’s amazing.CLICK: So you would do it again?
WF: I have to! There’s no film anymore! Eastman Kodak’s out of business. They’re bankrupt! By this time next year, no 35 mm will be manufactured anymore. It’s all over!CLICK: And do you think that’s a bad thing?
WF: No, its progress! You know. This safety film that we’ve been using for film replaced celluloid. Film started on flammable colloid stock that used to burn up in the projector. And it’s very difficult to achieve a decent 35 mm print. And it picks up dirt – the first time you run it it picks up dirt and scratches and sometimes it breaks and you have to splice it. And none of that happens with digital.CLICK: You worked with Caleb Deschanel, an amazing cinematographer, was he used to digital at all?
WF: No he did a tutorial, as did I before we shot. We came to understand how the camera worked and what its advantages and limitations were. We both realised that… we had a few glitches but by and large we knew that the end result would be worth it.
CLICK: You opted to not fight the NC-17 rating, why? Emile Hirch in a shot which demonstrates the vivid photography of Killer Joe Enlarge
WF: Because they’re full of shit! No the rating’s correct too. I don’t target 13 year olds or 16 year olds to see this movie. I don’t think the ratings incorrect. Its draconian, it limits you and limits your audience but it’s not an incorrect rating.CLICK: So you’re more in agreement with the ratings over here then where we have a regular 16s and 18s?
WF: This should be an 18 plus which it is over here and throughout Europe and in the rest of the world.CLICK: But in America some cinemas won’t take an NC-17 right?
WF: Yea. No, the ratings board is extremely problematical in that they don’t have a rule book that’s as thick as this [holds up a sheet of paper]. There’s nothing that you can read that says: if you do this or that thing you will get an NC-17.CLICK: It’s subjective?
WF: It’s all subjective but by a group of people who are anonymous; we don’t know who they are. I can name, to you or anyone else, the name of every judge on the United States Supreme Court. The people who decide what the law is. I know how they got there – I know this guy was appointed by a republican, etc. It’s all political but we know who they are. There’s one justice called Anthony Kennedy who is the swing vote – he can go either way. Unless he persuades someone else. And we know who they are. If you’re a parent you know the name of your child’s teacher, you know what they are teaching and if you don’t like it you can go to the teacher and talk to them. But with the ratings board, we don’t know how they got there. We know it was political. But their judgements have no legal standing, they’re a self-governing body of the MPAA and they will not give an NC-17 to a member company of that group. There will be little concessions made to them – a few frames here and there…CLICK: Darkening is an interesting one
WF: Darkening or bits of smoke over a shot. I’ve done that with Cruising, where I went back 50 times before I got an R.CLICK: Was it worth it?
WF: Well I’m happy the film was out but without their interference and small-mindedness and their censorship which is what it is. They hate that word. If they read that I’ve called them censors they will freak out.CLICK: We don’t have a censorship board here in Ireland, they rate movies but don’t cut them.
WF: Well our board says they don’t censor either. But as you pointed out if you get an NC-17 you’re not going to play in certain theatres and advertise on certain papers or TV stations. And that becomes censorship. You’re also taking away from the parent the responsibility to decide for himself what his 16 year old son or daughter should or should not see. And there’s a lot of stuff out there playing with an R or even a PG that I think is too strong for young people.
CLICK: We talked about the rating – do you worry about the commercial potential of Killer Joe? Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church in Killer Joe Enlarge
WF: I don’t worry but I’m conscious that it could certainly affect the commercial potential. But on the other hand the NC-17 basically distinguishes the film from all of those other ‘hard R’ pictures that compromise.CLICK: It’s almost like free advertising?
WF: In a way, you wouldn’t have asked me the question you know. You might have asked – ‘did you ever think you’d get an NC-17 and did you have to change it?’ And I can answer you honestly no I didn’t change a frame of it because I’m too old to bow down before this anonymous board of censors.CLICK: We’ve talked about working with new technology, what’s your opinion on 3D movies?
WF: Oh I don’t like them.CLICK: You don’t like how they’re presented or you wouldn’t want to make one?
WF: I would never make one and I try not to see them. I have seen a couple, they hurt my eyes! But also to me frankly the art of film is the illusion of depth in a 2D medium. Same as the art of painting. You don’t need to see it sticking out. You don’t need to see a Rembrandt sticking out of the frame, do you?! And to a certain extent it was calling upon your imagination. And I think the 3D is taking away from the imagination and making you look at stuff differently and concentrating on stuff that isn’t important.CLICK: I noticed you have quite an active Twitter (follow him here!), do you operate it yourself?
WF: Yea absolutely. I spend about a half hour a day seeing what people think. A lot of it’s rubbish. A lot of it’s insane! And some of it is very enlightening.CLICK: Do you enjoy interacting with fans?
WF: Yea I do. Because I like the social network. I don’t think it’s the be all or end all but its several thousand people who I would not be touch with in any other way. And many of them are interested in asking me stuff, as you are. And I’ll often ask them stuff.CLICK: And you’re also on Instagram?
WF: Yea I’ve been transferring my photos through my computer to my iPad and that’s a slow process and while that’s going on I’ll grab one and just shoot it through Instagram. Which is quicker. And I do them at random, there’s no purpose to it.CLICK: I saw your Ali G one went up the other day.
WF: Yea that was a bet that I lost.CLICK: To who?
WF: Sir Evelyn de Rothschild. The bet involved the other person dressing up in a costume of the winner’s choice.CLICK: And it was Ali G?
WF: Yea because I had introduced him to Ali G when he was on TV over in England.
CLICK: Finally, are you working on anything else? William Friedkin lost a bet, dressed as Ali G. Of course... Enlarge
WF: Just my memoirs. I finished them only recently and turned them in to HarperCollins in America. They’re to be called ‘Connections’ and they’ll be out next year. And there’s going to be a website where people who when I describe a scene will be able to push a button and see a clip of that scene.CLICK: Like a digital version of the book?
Yea .CLICK: Cool. And I did hear about something about Dimitir with William Peter Blatty?
WF: Blatty’s Dimitir no. rumour! I’ve read it and people… there’s other rumours that The Exorcist is going to be a TV series and that’s a false alarm too.CLICK: You’re not involved with that?
WF: No one is; it’s not being done!Killer Joe is in cinemas from the 29th of June and we’ll have our full review up soon.