For such an unrelentingly graphic and blood-spattered NC-17 thriller, William Friedkin‘s Killer Joe is more romantic than one would expect. The filmmaker behind The Exorcist and Sorcerer (a movie he’s currently fighting to get back out to the public) has crafted, as he puts it, a romantic comedy for the new age.
That title isn’t a whole lot different than his previous collaboration with playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts, the even more claustrophobic and humanistic Bug. They’re stories of characters wanting more, but mainly love, which Dottie (Juno Temple) finds in the titular psychopathic (Matthew McConaughey).
Here’s what director William Friedkin had to say about making Cinderella for the 21st century, the importance of reading between the lines, and how one of cinema’s finest chase scenes was completely unscripted:
You’ve made a pretty unique romantic comedy.
You’re right! It’s a romantic comedy for the new age.
[Laughs] You almost took offense when I first said that, but the love stories in the movie are almost sentimental in their own odd way.
It’s not a joke. This is nothing I could use, in terms of directing it, but I always thought of the movie as a modern day Cinderella story, in that Dottie’s living with her wicked step mother and her evil brother and father, who probably have had sex with her — although that’s intimated, but not confirmed — and are pimping her out to her Prince Charming. It does have modern echoes of the Cinderella story. She finds her Prince Charming, but he happens to be a hired killer.
You’ve said before how you never quite know what a movie is, especially when making it. What tells you Killer Joe is a love story? Is it the response?
I’m never sure exactly what it is. There are levels below the surface, and that’s what attracts me. When I directed a work by Harold Pinter — which was one of the first films I made, many years ago — and now that I’ve worked with Tracy Letts, what I find in common between them, as writers, is that they write between the lines; it’s what’s in-between that they examine. There’s a lot unspoken. The actor has to fill in those spaces between the lines, and there are many ways to do that. The most important way to do that is to find the character within yourself, in order to portray them.
Also, you use memory to get to their emotions. That’s how I direct them: I’ll talk to them at great length before we ever start shooting the film, to see if we’re on the same page. I’ll try to discover what incidences in their life caused them to be scared, angry, loving, thoughtful, thoughtless, and all those things we’ve experienced. I’ll draw upon those secrets they convey to me without knowing it, and on the most simple level. Somebody can have the most traumatic moment in their life — the death of a parent or a close one — and I’ll often use that to trigger emotion. I’ll make a suggestion to them quietly and privately, like, “When you do this scene, I want you to remember how much you wanted to kill the school bully.”
[Laughs] So is it important to establish a personal relationship with your actors?
Yeah, you have to. Casting is the second most important thing you do. As a director, casting is, at least, 50% of the effectiveness of a film. If it’s miscast in any significant way, it’s never going to work, no matter what you do. I’ve had occasions where I miscast actors. I’ve also been very fortunate, where the movie Gods bring you the right actors. I certainly was fortunate in this case. I went directly to Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church, and they were my first choices. The others drifted into my consciousness, by various means.
Matthew McConaughey mentioned how dirty he felt after reading the script, and a lot of people have that reaction to the film. There’s a lot of humanity to the film, though, so do you find that “cynical” label maybe misleading?
Yeah, the movie’s cleansing. I think it’s cathartic, in many ways. It’s very hard to categorize. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but those are the kinds of films that attract me as a viewer. I understand these characters. The thing about Tracy Letts and I is that we have the same attitude towards them: we don’t mock them, judge them, and we don’t satirize them. These are just observations about these people and the choices they make. Tracy got the idea for this from a news article with the same scenario about a family in Florida: a father and son who killed the ex-wife and mother for a cheap insurance policy. To me, this was a story about people who were trapped within their own dreams of escape. Tracy has an eye for a certain segment of society which is broader than we think. People would like to think these sort of things don’t happen, but they do all the time.
Letts also writes, at least with Killer Joe and Bug, claustrophobic settings, which have always been a big part of your work.
Without a doubt, even in something like The French Connection. Even though that movie takes place all over the place and there’s the chase scene, it’s in apartments, done at metro stations, and it’s claustrophobic. I wasn’t conscious about that with the films I directed until a couple of years ago, that I was attracted to that sort of thing. Early on I related to Pinter’s characters, dialogue, and, as I say, what’s between the lines. I’m interested in not what the characters are saying, but what they’re not saying. The common perception about people is that we don’t communicate about the problems of society, but Harold Pinter’s idea was that we were communicating all too well. It’s hard to explain, but that’s what’s going on in a lot of social intercourse.
What’s your collaboration with Tracy like? Do you both work closely together or do you give him complete freedom?
It’s [intense] beforehand, trying to understand exactly what he had in mind. He was on the set for Bug once or twice, and he had a few comments. He was never on set for Killer Joe, since he was acting in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which they’re bringing to Broadway. Before we started shooting, he sent me an eight or nine page single-spaced letter with his thoughts, which I found so helpful I distributed to the cast and crew, trying to help them understand what he was getting at. It was very unusual, because Pinter would have never done that. If you ever asked Pinter what a line meant or what motivates his characters before we see them, he’d completely wave it off, saying he had no idea what they did before they came into a scene. To a great extent, Tracy doesn’t either. Both of them are in similar in how both of what they’re doing is automatic writing, but Tracy has a lot of insight into these characters.
How close do you stick with Mr. Letts’ writing? Were any notable deviations made on set?
Not a lot. What I do is create an atmosphere on set for actors to feel completely free to create and find these characters within themselves. I’m not looking for perfection or word-for-word presentation of the dialogue. They can make the words their own. If it’s off a little here and there, as long as it’s essentially on the nose, that’s it. I’m more interested in spontaneity than perfection, and in order to get that, they have to know the script damn well. They’re not memorizing it by that point, but becoming the characters. As a director, I provide an atmosphere where they don’t feel judged and they can create.
Has that always been your process? Or does it change from film to film?
It totally differs. The French Connection had no real script, but it won the Academy Award for screenplay. I had the two actual cops on the set. I had traveled with them for about three months, gone around on their tours of duty, and they gave me a .38 caliber pistol to carry, to feel how they felt when they went into one of these black bars. I did that close to three months. Then I sent Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider to do it, and they did it for a month. They continued to do it while we were filming, so they could absorb the attitudes of their prototypes: Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, who are Popeye and Cloudy in the film.
On the set, for example, when Hackman was frisking a suspect, I told Eddie to show him how to run this frisk. Eddie would give him a few pointers. Eddie and Sonny were on the set and, basically, they’d supply the dialogue. I would pass it along to Scheider and Hackman. They both had enough observation of their counterparts to create the characters. The dialogue was spot on in terms of police lingo, because the cops were on the set at all time. There was no script, not even a scenario or outline. The film had a tough time getting going, because there was no good script.
The best script we had didn’t have a chase in it. Along with the producer, we made that up. About a week before we started shooting we agreed to take a long walk around New York city from my apartment down to the battery, which was over 100 blocks. We agreed to keep walking in one direction, not turn back until we spit-balled ideas for the chase. I think we walked for about 55 straight blocks. We were exhilarated, because we let the city work into our consciousness, with the rumbles of the city, smoke coming out of the ground, and the countless pedestrians.
What first occurred to me was I had to do something completely different from the chase scene in Bullitt, which had come out a few years before. It was considered one of the best movie chases, so I felt I had to do something different. I love Bullitt, but I don’t think the chase scene is that great. It’s iconic, but all they did is clear the streets of San Francisco and have stunt drivers roll over the hills. Basically, there was no one in danger on the streets. I wanted to put pedestrians and other drivers in danger. We never wrote this out. I went around with this character, named Fat Thomas, who knew the city better than anyone I had ever met. He took me around places the story took place, and I selected those locations for the rest of the story and chase. I let the city talk to me about what the chase should be.
You mentioned The French Connection winning an Academy Award for screenplay. For you, do awards or acclaim apply at all to whether a film works?
You never know when a movie works. Works means working for the audience, and not just on a noticeable scale. I don’t set out to make cult films, but a lot of my films are that. I set out to make mass entertainment, but on my own terms. I knew how difficult it would be for Bug, The Birthday Party, Killer Joe, and a couple of other films to find a mass audience. That’s not what the zeitgeist is looking for, and I knew that. Success is hard to define. The only definition of success in Hollywood is box-office. They couldn’t care less about one single review. Reviews are the number of people who go to see the picture. My standard of success is much different: if it works for me, and not just the ones I make. Not a lot of films work for me today. I think I see five or six films a year, at the most.
What I want more than anything from a film is surprise. I want to be surprised, taken to the edges, and provoked, which I don’t get from a lot of pictures. Most films made in Hollywood are either comic books or video games, and they hold no surprises. Right now, to me, I think this era will be viewed as an exercise in new technology: high-definition cameras, prints, and computer-generated images. If you take those elements away from most modern movies, you have nothing. I don’t care how well done those superhero movies are, there’s usually no real characters. Possibly Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight is the closest thing you see to a fascinating character portrayal that was unexpected. The rest of it is all by the numbers.
You did a more commercial film a few years ago with The Hunted, which was pretty divisive. Having just seen that film myself, I’m wondering what are your thoughts on it now?
I liked it a lot. I think the storyline gets a bit thin after a while, but I enjoyed working on that. There were two completely different approaches to acting, with Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro. I don’t know whether I was able to meld them together into a satisfying hole. It was unlike, let’s say, Killer Joe, where all the actors are on the same page and there’s a harmonious presentation. In jazz, from a group to a trio, the various members who are making up the notes, as they’re going along, are playing in harmony. They’re all improvising in the same tone, which is what I look for in a film. I don’t think we got that in The Hunted, although I think there’s some nice moments.
Is it ever beneficial having a set where everyone isn’t on the same page, where the environment can be more intense or uncomfortable?
I don’t think so. I think one of the most important things you’re doing as a director is casting. You’re looking for characters who can play together, who have a similar approach. Tommy Lee and Benicio are the opposite. Tommy Lee is so prepared that, if he’s cast right, you just have to tell him where to go. Benicio, on the other hand, wants to go all into the backstory and psychology of the character, which the writer hasn’t even thought about himself. Benicio needs that as a support system, and Nick Nolte was the same way. Nick Nolte wrote a 300 page novel about his character, and then he would give it to the director, asking for comments. When I did a film with him called Blue Chips with Nick, he gave me a novel about his character. It had a lot of interesting things, but I couldn’t validate any of them, so I just said, “Oh, yeah, this is great, Nick!” He felt confident he was on the right track. I have no idea how he used that stuff, but I was confident he did.
Killer Joe is now in limited release.