With The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973), Sorcerer (1977), Cruising (1980), and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), to cite some of his most famous films, William Friedkin has made a deep impact on contemporary American cinema, establishing himself as one of the most talented and uncompromising of the New Hollywood filmmakers. As well as reaching critical and commercial success, he invented a new approach to the cop, horror, and action films, pitching their tones between hyperrealism and hallucination; all told, he traumatized several generations of viewers and cinephiles, and influenced a fair number of young directors. From The French Connection to Bug (2006), he has consistently explored his themes of choice: madness, Hell, the narrow borders between reality and nightmare, good and evil. And he’s often taken the risk of going too far and confusing the audience, as evidenced by the fiasco of his masterpiece Sorcerer and the polemic surrounding the production and release of Cruising.
Though famous for his masterly action scenes, Friedkin has never claimed to be a genre director. He has directed several psychological dramas, such as his early works, the Harold Pinter adaptation The Birthday Party (1968) and The Boys in the Band (1970). It is clear that his two most recent films, Bug and Killer Joe, display a kind of symmetry with these first films. Theatre + humour noir + sexual violence is the winning recipe for Killer Joe, Friedkin’s new sucker punch of a film, and shows that far from quieting down with age, he relishes taking viewers on an emotional rollercoaster ride.
Six years after the formidable Bug, which revived cinephiles’ interest in his work, Killer Joe confirms the filmmaker’s theatrical tendency; in fact, Friedkin, in between directing numerous operas across Europe, staged a string of productions by playwright Tracy Letts. After the paranoid craziness of Bug, a film almost entirely concentrated within one motel room, Killer Joe is a murderous family game that also unfolds for the most part in a single setting: a seedy trailer. It’s not the action scenes (filmed on location) that give the film its impact, but the extraordinary energy of the verbal confrontations between five insalubrious characters, all of them “dirty, ugly, and bad,” in the enclosed space: this familial conspiracy story soon veers into violent and obscene farce. Free of studio-imposed constraints, as well as audience expectations—Killer Joe was produced by Frenchman Nicolas Chartier, previously an instigator of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008), and it will have a limited theatrical release in the US—Friedkin has doubtless found an opportunity in Letts’ stories to make his most personal films that allow him free rein to explore his penchant for extremely black humour and extreme situations that reveal our basest impulses.
A survivor from the ‘70s, but still possessing an incisive mind and talent, Friedkin does not hide his disaffection with the present, and especially current film production. He makes a point of stressing his isolation and marginalization within contemporary American cinema, a club to which he has lost all desire to belong. His last two films are highly symptomatic of both a misanthropic turning and an increasingly paranoid and claustrophobic view of the world, but also of a filmmaker at the top of his form who delights in using his chamber films as explosive lessons in filmmaking thrown in Hollywood and puritan America’s face.
Cinema Scope: It seems that your two last films, Bug and Killer Joe, emphasize the claustrophobic dimension of your cinema.
William Friedkin: The films of mine that I am most a fan of that I have made over the years deal with people in claustrophobic situations, like The Birthday Party: it’s my favourite, and it all takes place basically in one room. About one third of The Exorcist takes place in one room. The Tracy Letts films that I have done are really brilliantly written, and they are about themes that I’m drawn to: paranoia and obsession. And they play out in tight spaces, not in open country, the Wild West, or even in the streets. If you look at The French Connection, even though it is shot all over New York, it is basically a claustrophobic film, these guys are locked in their own world.
Tracy Letts is the best playwright in America today, without a doubt. His last play won the Pulitzer Prize. People now recognize him. He writes for himself. He feels no obligation to an audience, the actors, or the director regarding what it is about. And now people understand totally. They get it that it’s focused on the oppression of the weak by the strong, the oppression of organized religion.
I feel the same. I am very happy if people like my films, or if they go to see them. If they don’t, it’s not my problem. I never felt that about any of the films I made that were huge successes. It’s not that I don’t care about the audience; it’s that I don’t wish to depend on the audience. I know what the audience wants: superheroes, videogames, and stupid comedies. Maybe I could make a hit, but I couldn’t even watch it. I don’t want to make a film that I can’t watch.
Scope: What about American cinema today?
Friedkin: Clint Eastwood gave an interview the other day where he talked about the difficulty he had getting Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) made. The studios didn’t want to make them, and they were done with outside financing and the studio as distributor. He said he went to one studio head that he worked with—he didn’t name him but I imagine it’s the guy at Warner Brothers who just left, Alan Horn—and he said to Eastwood, “We don’t make dramas anymore.”
I feel the studios are certainly in touch with a possible audience that is in America between 18 and 29, and they keep feeding that machine. Do you think Haneke is thinking about the audience when he is making Caché (2005)? I don’t think so and it’s a great movie. Most films that I admire should not be watched with your mind, but should be watched with your emotions. I think that a movie should at least attempt to move an audience. Now the audience wants instant gratification. That is not an audience that I am seeking.
So I have to find a smaller audience, or not make films. I still love films but not the stuff that is for the most part being made here. I just think there are some very talented directors here, but not like when I wanted to make films, dozen of people all over the world whose films I couldn’t wait to see like Antonioni, Fellini, Kurosawa, Rossellini, the French New Wave…We waited every day for a new film.
While talking with Friedkin, we are interrupted by two female diners, both around 50 years old. They have been listening to our conversation and insist on giving us their opinion as to what they believe a good film to be: an entertainment that offers you a good time and makes you forget your everyday concerns, a film like The King’s Speech (2010). They are interior designers. They have no idea who they are talking to, and will never know. One of them is particularly vehement.
Lady: When I go out of the theatre after a movie, I want to feel good, not to feel scared or miserable.
Friedkin: Did you ever see The Exorcist?
Lady: Yeah, it scared the hell out of us.
Friedkin: You don’t want that? You don’t want to be really frightened by a film?
Lady: That was great, clever, that makes you think.
Friedkin: What does it make you think?
Lady: Of the Devil.
Friedkin: But you don’t need a movie to think of the Devil!
They finally decide to leave us alone. Friedkin, who has remained patient and polite throughout, rejoices.
Friedkin: That will be marvellous in your interview. It makes my point. These perfectly normal American women probably have an education, and are gainfully employed, but I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. The movies they liked, “feel-good movies,” are fucking awful, beyond stupid, like Sex and the City (2008) and Bridesmaids.
Scope: Do you think that it is possible to change the rules?
Friedkin: Killer Joe is very much against the grain. There are a handful of films that I can name that changed the rules: the first one was The Birth of a Nation (1915). Not only in telling an epic story that was controversial and attracting a big audience, but it changed the style in which films were made. The next film was Citizen Kane (1941); it changed films completely in terms of the narrative possibilities. After that was Godard’s Breathless (1960). When I made The French Connection I was conscious of Godard and the jump cuts.
What today? I don’t know. It’s more than likely that a film like Killer Joe, an American- made movie with a big movie star, is too tough for an American audience. I don’t want to make films for these stupid women; I don’t care what they like or don’t like. I don’t respect their opinion; that is not an audience that wants to be challenged; they just want to “feel good.” And what “feeling good” means is looking for stuff that is opium for the eyes, and nothing for the mind. Killer Joe is very much a challenge to an audience, and I know that. And I don’t expect a great audience for this picture, but it doesn’t matter to me. I would be happy if there were, but I am not going to change it.
Despite the relative public and critical indifference to most of his films from the ‘90s and first decade of the new century, the director’s prestige remains intact, as evidenced by the superb cast of Killer Joe, which contains some of the top talent in American cinema today, in unflattering or particularly shocking roles. Matthew McConaughey plays Joe, the corrupt cop with a sideline as a contract killer, a million miles away from the pretty-boy leading roles in commercial productions we’re used to seeing him in recently. He is accompanied by Emile Hirsch (Chris, the psychopathic, bad seed son), Thomas Haden Church (Ansel, the somewhat simpleton father), Gina Gershon (Sharla, the rather slutty stepmother), and Juno Temple (daughter Dottie, somewhere between Lolita and Baby Doll). They have a field day with all the insanity and perversity, clearly egged on by the director. Gershon, for whom this is a major comeback following her earlier stellar performances in Bound (1996), Showgirls (1995), The Insider (1999), and demonlover (2002), is especially brilliant and fully invests in her character. She is not the only one to appear naked in Killer Joe, a film that stands out as one of the most provocative American films of recent years, and relishes its abundance of risqué scenes.
Although Friedkin condemns the plethora of sex in some recent films, one could justifiably retort that his films have often been extremely graphic in their representation of sexuality, and particularly homosexuality.
Scope: What do you think of the near-pornography of Killer Joe?
Friedkin: A lot of people considered James Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer pornographic. I don’t believe in heroes or villains, bad guys or good guys, and especially not for drama. So why should I put that in a movie? In The French Connection, the cop is worse as a human being than the French drug smuggler. I don’t believe in the clichés of human behaviour.
In terms of cinema, like The Boys in the Band or Cruising, I believe that everyone has within him all of the male and female genes. When I made those films there were people who actually thought that gay life was evil. I saw The Boys in the Band as a love story—it just happened to be a love story about men. Cruising simply uses the background of S&M for a kind of a strange police procedural. I believe that most people are sexually confused.
As a young man growing up in Chicago, I started out fucking whores, black prostitutes that I would pick up on the streets, because it was simply a matter of getting off. Now I find a great sadness in the whole idea that someone’s daughter has to become a prostitute. I could not have sex with a prostitute if she was the most beautiful woman on earth. Once I achieved a little success I became attractive to women, and I fucked every woman I could. In the ‘70s, the directors had trailers on the set and they gave you blow jobs between shots. And I did this, everyone did, married men…I was single. It didn’t matter. Sexuality to me was not about love at all; it was to do with biology. The only love stories I have made are Bug, which is to me a strange love story, and about someone who is in love with another person and captures their paranoia, and The Boys in the Band. But I am not drawn to show sex on the screen; in fact I find it mostly humorous. Have you watched two people having sex? For good reason we call it “the beast with two backs.” It’s ridiculous! I don’t enjoy putting sex on the screen; in Cruising, the sex is sex without love; in Killer Joe it is a kind of love story.
Killer Joe is about the desperate need for family, not necessarily sex, but family. Dottie is in a dysfunctional family, where her brother Chris and her father Ansel tried to pimp her out. And her mother tried to kill her, and her stepmother Sharla is nice to her but she’s a slut. And Joe is a guy who only sees, like most cops I know, the dark side of human nature. Joe is interested in Dottie because if you listen carefully to what they say to each other early in the film, they both want the same thing, which is some kind of family. Tracy Letts’ work is about the search for family. In many ways that’s what The Godfather (1972) is about too: family.
Scope: Killer Joe is already famous for at least two highly unseemly scenes, the kind that you are the only one today who still dares film: an opening scene that ends with full frontal female genitals, and a rape scene that involves a chicken wing. Both are in Letts’ play…
Friedkin: I wrote to Tracy and I said: “If I show the woman in the opening scene the way you suggest it, we will probably get an X rating. How would you feel if I show her only from behind?” He wrote me an eight-page memo saying: “Don’t be afraid of the pussy. It is a signal to the audience to fasten their seatbelts; that this is going to be an unusual experience. Yes, it is set in a trailer, but there are going to be things happening in that trailer that you do not expect to see.”
I understood that very well, why there was a need to show her that way. My initial impulse was that it could be distracting, but then he reinforced this idea that it’s meant to be a comedy. The movie is a comedy, for the people that can get the jokes. But we have had great response from women, so far, to my amazement!
Interview conducted in Los Angeles on November 11, 2011, with Manlio Gomarasca.