13 Things We Learned from William Friedkin’s ‘Bug’ Commentary

"One of the questions of the film, is 'are there any bugs?'"

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits a lesser seen William Friedkin film with his commentary for 2006’s Bug.

The late, great William Friedkin is no stranger to our little Commentary Commentary column with past visits covering The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973), Cruising (1980), and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). He even did a fan commentary for 1943’s The Leopard Man. He may narrate at times, but his thoughts on the film, filmmaking, and the intentions of the filmmaker are rarely less than engaging.

While known for some truly influential and unforgettable classics, Friedkin also directed movies that garner far less admiration and conversation. His penultimate theatrical feature, 2006’s Bug, is one such film thanks in large part to its limited locales and darkly somber tone. The film still isn’t available on Blu-ray in North America, but Australian label Imprint released it last year with some worthwhile special features including a new commentary track by a pair of film historians. For this entry, though, we went straight to the source and listened to Friedkin’s own commentary for the film.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…

Bug (2006)

Commentator: William Friedkin (director)

1. “With Bug, I tried to deal with the subject of the mask of sanity.” He wanted to make a film about someone who seems normal actually containing the seeds of evil. He says this is like all of his films in dealing with “the good and evil which is inside each of us, the constant struggle for our better angles to prevail over our demons.”

2. The opening sequence with Agnes (Ashley Judd) might seem random, but the introduction of her air conditioner, the fan, and the coffee pot “will later play a significant part in unraveling the mysteries of Bug.” I’d argue that they don’t? (But I wouldn’t argue it with Friedkin himself.)

3. The motel in the film is an actual motel. They didn’t dress it up — down? — at all, and there were people living there who didn’t feel out of place against Agnes and her bleak paranoia.

4. “Are these shots from the air merely a kind of angel’s view, or do they belong to, let’s say, a surveillance helicopter?” He suggests an unknown, but I’m curious how many viewers were wondering the same thing.

5. He points out that Peter (Michael Shannon) is a drifter who goes from one place to the next, but the big question is “where does he come from?” It’s clear that Friedkin sees the film’s first act as setting up not just story, but mystery, as to its characters, their pasts, and their futures.

6. Friedkin first saw Shannon performing in a stage play, and he came to feel that the actor “could bring something to this film that no star, no young actor established or with a bigger name, could bring.” He adds that sometimes an actor who inhabit a role so strongly that they become inseparable from it, and that’s how he feels about Shannon as Peter. “It’s not an actor playing a part, it’s someone living through this part.”

7. He first met Harry Connick Jr. at a party in Las Vegas just a few months before Bug began filming. “I spoke to him briefly, and I realized there was another and deeper side to Harry Connick than most people had ever seen and that you never see in his music performances.” Friedkin felt that the performer understood the criminal mind and the dark side of human nature. He probably should have just watched 1995’s excellent serial killer thriller Copycat to get that particular 411.

8. “One of the ideas behind Bug is that people are not, in any way, precisely as they seem to be at first meeting.” He adds that all of us carry multiple layers, secrets, and mysteries, but I’d add that most of them aren’t as interesting as the ones explored in movies. Similarly, he suggests that all of us carry a loneliness, and that sometimes it’s strong enough to allow another person’s influence, world views, and paranoia to become our own.

9. He sees the initial sex seen between Agnes and Peter as the moment of infection. “It is as though Peter has infected her, and infested her, with his own deep-seated paranoia, and they begin to connect not only on a physical level, but on an emotional level as well, as the two merge into one.” It’s followed immediately by Peter finding a bug in the bed that neither we, nor Agnes, actually sees. Soon both Agnes and viewer alike will start to believe.

10. A stranger arrives at 1:11:50, and Friedkin it isn’t clear even to him at that point, if this guy is a real person or a figment of their collective imagination. Dr. Sweet is played by Brian F. O’Byrne who’s “one of the very best actors working today.” Friedkin’s uncertainty as to Sweet’s existence never wavers. “All great writing, certainly is me as a viewer and I hope you, the question of what is real? What is reality?”

11. He finally mentions writer Tracy Letts ninety-four minutes in, saying that Letts’ screenplay “portrays this other side, this other world, that we all inhabit to one degree or another, a world that sets us apart from everyone else, but that sometimes brings us together with someone else who’s able to share this vision, and it can lead very often to a deep and abiding love — or to violence, destruction, and death.”

12. “The smoke detector’s gone, remember that,” he says as the motel room is engulfed in flames and the film ends. Hey, I laughed.

13. The film’s end credits include two brief scenes/shots, but Friedkin is long gone by then meaning he has nothing to say. Sticking with the film’s and filmmaker’s approach to the reality of the whole film — ie, the events we witnessed in the room may or may not have happened — these two bits might mean absolutely nothing on their face. The best theory I’ve found is over on StackExchange where someone suggests that the shots are meant to remind viewers of the two things that sent these characters down their respective, and then shared, deadly spiral. For Agnes, it was the disappearance of her son, so we see his toys, his bike, and hear an unanswered phone. For Peter, it’s the mental illness that was created, or at least exacerbated, by his time in the military.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“That’s a very nice logo. Makes more sense than a girl standing there like a statue or something.”

“The mask is now removed.”

“Each of us creates a world that is contained within us.”

“One of the questions of the film, is ‘are there any bugs?'”

“Under ordinary circumstances you or I might be put off by someone who becomes obsessed with bugs on the second date.”

“There are many meanings to this title, and none that will be completely right or wrong.”

“Frankly, as the maker of this film, I have no idea if Peter’s story is true or not.”

“What Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon have done in creating these characters, is to open a portal into the mind’s eye of the completely, criminally insane.”

Final Thoughts

As he has done on occasion, but never to this degree, Friedkin spends a large chunk of this Bug commentary essentially narrating what’s happening on the screen. He does use it sometimes as kick-off points for observations on character and intention, so it serves a purpose… sometimes. Unfortunately, this is easily the worst case example as the filmmaker just can’t stop himself from telling us what we’re seeing. Not why we’re seeing it, not what it took as a film production to bring it to life, not what the greater themes might be — just what we’re seeing. So yeah, the Bug commentary ain’t a great listen!

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.