Not Your Average Joe

William Friedkin on sex, violence, and 'spandex movies'

William Friedkin
William Friedkin

Film director William Friedkin doesn't back down from much. Whether it's a 12-year-old girl masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist or detective Popeye Doyle on a crazed car chase through the streets of New York in The French Connection – to cite two of his most memorable movies – Friedkin never pussyfoots around the subject matter. The situations in his movies can be intense and graphic, the characters raw and unvarnished. His films take us through an experience, one that usually rattles our nerves and quickens our pulse.

Friedkin's latest film, Killer Joe, has a couple of scenes that are certain to evince even stronger audience reactions. A story about venal, unsavory people, Killer Joe doesn't trump up the characters to gain audience sympathy. The Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) wrote the screenplay, which he adapted from an earlier stage version. It stars Matthew McConaughey as a Texas police detective and contract killer who is hired by a father-and-son duo (played by Thomas Haden Church and Emile Hirsch) to kill the father's ex-wife/son's mother for her measly $50,000 insurance policy. When the pair can't come up with Joe's payment, the hit man takes Dottie (Juno Temple) – a zoned-out baby doll: the daughter and sister (respectively) of the duo – as a "retainer." Trailer travesty has rarely seemed so glum. And absurdly funny.

The Chronicle spoke with director Friedkin by phone about his arresting new film, which opens in Austin this Friday. The filmmaker was eager to talk about his work and career. In fact, in a personal first for this interviewer, Friedkin requested that the film's publicists allow him more time with each caller, rather than less. Portions from that interview are published below.

Austin Chronicle: There are such extremes of comedy and shock in Killer Joe. How do you know when enough is enough?

William Friedkin: I'm not sure I do. I certainly rely on the writer. I start out by valuing his script and his writing. That's where I begin the journey. In terms of the violence and the sexuality, it sort of grows out of how much you think is appropriate and how much you don't. Obviously, those scenes could have run on and on and on, even longer. But I cut them off where I felt it was enough. It was just instinctive. Now many people think that it's all too much. A number of people think what's in the film goes too far: for example, the ratings board. They felt it was excessive. They, frankly, wanted none of it. There are only two ways to show sex and violence on the screen: one is to do it very subtly and stop at the closed door, and the other is to present it raw and unflinching – which is what Tracy Letts' writing is all about. He has very powerful feelings about the characters that he creates. He works a long time sculpting them. So when he had sent me this script, he had basically done the work of deciding how far you should go and where you should pull back. I basically follow his lead, as I do with the operas I direct. You know, I direct operas now. Clearly, Verdi, Puccini, and Richard Strauss and a number of the composers whose works I've interpreted, you don't change a note of music, you don't change a word of the libretto because it's been worked out for 150 years, and it works. ... I respect Letts as one of the best writers in America, and he has cast an eye on a particular corner of the country that I think is extremely accurate. And he doesn't want the presentation to be subtle. He wants you to experience it as he feels about it. I would say that he and I are on the same page. We both have the same worldview.

AC: Which is what?

WF: Well, we both see a lot of human behavior as ironic, absurd, violent, stupid – not all, certainly, but we see a lot of what goes on and what has always gone on in pockets of the universe as being not only ridiculous but often life-threatening as well as being humorous. Because these are people who are trapped by their own dreams. They're trying to escape the world in which they're in without any practical idea of how to do that.

Matthew McConaghey in <i>Killer Joe</i>
Matthew McConaghey in Killer Joe

AC: I have to ask about the casting in Killer Joe, particularly Matthew McConaughey who, in the last month or so, has gotten a lot of attention as a serious actor. How did you know he was capable of doing more than take off his shirt? The casting was done before the hype machinery had started.

WF: I had seen him in a couple of his early films, like Frailty, for example, which is much darker. But then what got me really interested in him, just around the time I starting to cast Killer Joe and was thinking about certain other, let's say, grubbier actors, grisly old men – I saw him on an interview; it was either Larry King or Charlie Rose. And he was on for about a half an hour and of course he was himself. He wasn't playing a role and I found him really interesting and intelligent, and I saw levels to him that I had not seen in his films, though I have to admit I had not seen most of those so-called romantic comedies. I also knew he's considered very good-looking by Hollywood conventions. And when you're considered good-looking, or funny-looking, or strange-looking, or whatever it may be, sinister-looking – that's all they want you to do. They want you to do that over and over again. As a guy who [is] very obviously handsome, all they need him to do in a Hollywood film is show up and convincingly make love to the leading lady. And so he made a fortune doing that. Ten or more years, perhaps more. But that's all he was called upon to do and now he's decided to take control of his own career and do the kind of work as an actor that he wants to do ...

The perception of him will change internationally because he is a really fine actor. Now, you have to have the roles, you know. You have to have those parts that show that. And there aren't many. Most of the films being made today are superhero films. They're spandex pictures. ... That's what they're doing in Hollywood now. That's basically it: guys with a letter printed on their chest and a cape, who can fly around and solve crime all over the universe. That's all there is. Some's a little better and some's a little worse.

AC: Another thing in Killer Joe that impresses me is the resolution, which I find common in most of your movies – not necessarily open-ended, but they're not neatly tied up in a bow.

WF: That goes way back, Marjorie. The ending of The French Connection, the ending of The Exorcist. People can take from that what they bring to it. If people think that the world is a dark, evil place where the devil lives, they took that from The Exorcist. Our intention was there's a place where very often our better angels succeed over our demons. ... I know the most impressive films I've ever seen are films that I still talk about the meanings. And that's 2001 and Citizen Kane, just to name two. And Blowup. There are many others, of course, but those are the ones I watch over and over again, and sometimes I get a little more insight to them, and sometimes I don't.

AC: With an NC-17 rating, it's also going to reduce the number of adults you're going to get into the movie. And there's more limited advertising you can do with it, and some people might just want to stay away from NC-17.

WF: It's possible. I don't know that, but I know that I made the film I wanted to make and people can always find a reason to not see it or to see it. They'll always find a reason. There are people like me who don't like Gone With the Wind. I find it boring; I find it like watching paint dry or listening to your hair grow. I don't care for that, though. I don't believe a frame of it. And yet it's considered one of the great classics of all time.

AC: I'm kind of with you on that as well.

WF: Yeah, but we're both in the minority on that. That's it. You can always find a reason to like or not like something. Yes, having an NC-17 limits your advertising and limits the playability; there's no question. But I'm quite willing to trade that in for the film that I wanted to make and that I hope audiences will see, [and] be challenged by.

Killer Joe opens Friday, Aug. 3, in theatres. See Film Listings for showtimes and review. For the complete unedited transcript of this interview, see the Screens blog, Picture in Picture.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Killer Joe, William Friedkin, Tracy Letts, Matthew McConaughey, Thomas Haden Church, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, The Exorcist, The French Connection

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