In theaters today from LD Entertainment is Killer Joe, an insanely fun and disturbing movie directed by the man behind The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer, To Live And Die In LA and Bug – William Friedkin. The film stars Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon and is based on a play by Pulitzer and Tony Award winner Tracy Letts.
I recently spoke with Friedkin about crafting Joe, his sixteenth film, and his decision to make it outside of the studio system. We also talk about the film business in general and which of today’s filmmakers he finds inspiring. Oh, and he also weighs in on the futility of even comparing movies like Citizen Kane and Vertigo. It’s a long interview (we even talk Near Dark) but, when you get a chance to speak to someone with this kind of body of work, you want to go for the big picture.
“When 22-year-old Chris (Emile Hirsch) finds himself in debt to a drug lord, he hires a hit man to dispatch his mother, whose $50,000 life insurance policy benefits his sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris finds Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a creepy, crazy Dallas cop who moonlights as a contract killer. When Chris can’t pay Joe upfront, Joe sets his sight on Dottie as collateral for the job. The contract killer and his hostage develop an unusual bond. Like from a modern-day, twisted fairy tale, “Killer Joe” Cooper becomes the prince to Dottie’s Cinderella.”
Let’s start with Killer Joe. I saw the movie a few months ago and I was pretty taken by it.
You wrote about it, didn’t you?
I did, yeah. Actually you and I did a Twitter interview.
That’s right, I remember it now.
I know you had worked with Tracy Letts before in Bug, but when you started on Killer Joe did you find yourself beholden to the stage play at all?
Well, I’ve done sixteen films. A few of them are plays. I’m not sure how many, maybe four. But when I’m going to do something that’s as well written as the two plays I’ve done by Letts, the first thing I keep in mind is the surgeon’s credo which is, “do no harm.” I didn’t want to make films of those works and change them around or make them something they weren’t. I was interested in them as they were and I wanted to be as faithful to them as I could. I love Letts’ work as I did Harold Pinter’s work some 40-odd years ago and I wanted to give him the same respect. He’s one of the best writers in the English language.
A lot of people are fixating on – and this is something I’m guilty of as well – the more provocative and controversial elements of the film. But it’s also a really fun movie, and a really funny movie in a lot of ways. You see it that way as well, right?
Yes. It’s a fantastic example of black humor. It’s a very dark comedy. It’s a human comedy and it’s a comedy about the crooked timber of humanity. It’s real. I tried to make it as believable and realistic as possible. And I don’t mean underlying humor or going for jokes, I mean the situation is so absurd that much of it is of course funny.
It is absurd. And I think it’s actually relatable because as absurd as it is, people can extrapolate outwards from their own mistakes, and the way they’ve compounded them, and project them onto this.
To a great extent, that’s what it’s about. It’s about people trapped by their own dreams and caught in their own reality, unable to break loose. Especially the Emile character, whose problem kicks off the whole story. I don’t know if you’re aware of it but Letts got the idea for the film from a news article about a case that was virtually identical that took place in Florida. A father and a son hired a hit man to kill the ex-wife and mother for a very small insurance policy. And that struck him as both ironic and a situation filled with dark humor. They were trying to escape their reality and every step they take takes them further into Dante’s inferno.
Speaking of Emile Hirsch, which project of his convinced you that he could step into the inferno like that?
I saw four or five of his. Including Alpha Dog, Milk and Into The Wild and I thought he had a quality very similar to Montgomery Clift and James Dean. He was really likable and vulnerable at the same time.
When I spoke with McConaughey he said he was tired of doing things he had done before. That he wanted to see what he could do tomorrow.
That’s true. When he first read it, he didn’t like it or get it. But it stayed with him. And when he picked it up again he got it, he got the humor in it. And we had a long meeting and realized we both saw the material the same way. He not only had a background where the story takes place, but he understood those characters and he knew them. He related very well to it once he realized that the story was being done in an absurd and comedic way. When he read it first he didn’t see the humor and of course was disgusted by it.
You can’t play the jokes. You’ve got to play it straight and you’ve got to reach inside yourself for the characters. That’s what the very best actors do. They have to find the emotions of their characters within themselves. If a guy is making it up or trying to pass judgement on a character, it isn’t going to work. Even if you’re playing Hitler! You can’t play Hitler and pass judgement on him, you’ve got to find Hitler within yourself.
I write for a horror site, so I see a lot of stuff that tries to provoke me but can’t. And I walked out of your film actually disturbed. Obviously it culminates in the final scene, and it’s a scene you can’t relay the impact of by describing it. Can you talk about putting that together?
There’s no conscious attempt on my part to upset people. Clearly we knew it was going to provoke strong reactions of various kinds. Everything that goes before that scene leads up to it. It’s a film about a lot of things, primarily greed and vengeance. And that scene is a scene of humiliation that is visited on Sharla not only by Joe but her husband, whom she’s really betrayed. And he has mixed emotions. He has a great love for Sharla, but he’s hurt and embarrassed. So all the emotions are real and it’s all an extension of what’s come before, including Dottie’s rage and anger that has been suppressed throughout. She’s had to live with her father and brother, who are basically animals. And her mother tried to kill her and she remembered it. She’s very outspoken and straightforward, and when she lets all that rage out it of course remakes the family. She decides to remake this dysfunctional family in her own image.
She gets rid of her brother, who needs to be put out of his misery. She gives her father something back for what he may have done to her. And she lets Joe know that she’s going to be an equal partner wherever they go.
I wanted to talk about To Live And Die In LA. I rewatched that a few months ago and was surprised by how many elements it had that I associate with someone like Shane Black, whose work came a couple of years later. Lethal Weapon came out in 1987, I think. How do you feel about being one of the progenitors of that aesthetic?
I know that the film had, and continues to have, a great impact. Especially on filmmakers and critics and cinephiles. I’m aware of that. And I’m aware of many cases where they’ve ripped off parts of it. But that’s okay because I was influenced by films too, and films beget films. And they inspire filmmakers and it’s a question of how unique a filmmaker can be and not simply copy their influences. It’s best when they exceed their influences. Which I think is something Kathryn Bigelow has done. She made one of the best action films ever made in Point Break.
And one of the best vampire films ever with Near Dark.
Near Dark is terrific. She’s a really great filmmaker. One of the best films of the last few years was The Hurt Locker. She took genre films, like vampire films and action films, and did something completely unique even though I know she was influenced by a lot of people. She actually came to the set of To Live And Die In LA. She was a good friend of the production designer of the film and she came to set several days. And I met her. She had made one or two films at that point that hadn’t made a big impact, but we formed sort of a mutual admiration society. I can’t wait to see what she does next. Unfortunately, I forget to mention her when people ask me about today’s filmmakers. She would be at the very top. I always mention the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson, but I need to bring her up more often.
Speaking of other filmmakers – there was some commotion today when a publication mentioned Vertigo as being the best film of all time rather than Citizen Kane. I know you’re a fan of both of those films, what do you think about those kind of comparisons even being made?
I don’t know. I just think that all such lists are a folly. They’re all completely subjective. Those two films are so different that they’e almost incomparable. You can’t make anything other than a very subjective judgement on that. If they’re going to make those kinds of lists, they should just make them but not put the films in any kind of order. I’m not a fan of lists or rating this over that. I certainly don’t believe that Vertigo is as well made as Citizen Kane, nor as influential. You have to remember that the techniques that Citizen Kane embodied in the 1940’s when he made it, he took every invention that had gone before and gave it a new spin and synthesized all of that. His film pointed the way to the future. So it had far more influence than Vertigo will ever have. Vertigo is a great movie, but it’s not as influential. And it’s not as influential as Godard’s Breathless was. Breathless was extremely influential. And Vertigo is just something that has grown in appreciation and popularity over the last few years because of its proximity to Hitchcock’s own obsessions. And a lot of contemporary writers have pointed out how this film, more than any other Hitchcock film, and he has one of the best bodies of work out there if not the best, is the closest to his own obsessions. So that’s all I can say about it. I love the film and continue to watch it, but I don’t rank it above many of the other films I continue to watch. I don’t rank it above An American In Paris or Singing In The Rain.
I think it’s almost harmful to compare films. If there were five films made about Hamlet, the same subject, the same story. Your own opinion about which one is the best would still be completely subjective. So films that are as different from one another as Vertigo and Citizen Kane shouldn’t be judged against one another. Filmmaking is not a competition. I don’t know any of us, Evan, that feel in competition with one another. It’s not like a road race or a swimming meet or a tennis match. Competition is when two guys get in a boxing ring. Filmmaking is not a competition and I really resist all efforts to make it one.
No one’s even talking about it now.
I think the same is true about The King’s Speech, which won the year before. It’s a lovely little film but… I don’t know. I don’t even vote for those things even though I’m in the Academy. I did vote for The Hurt Locker.
The sixteen films that you’ve done have all been bold. They’ve had strong points of view. But your last few films you’ve worked outside of the studio system. Do you feel that it’s become more constrictive of bold voices?
The studio system is now totally voted to simply getting people in seats. For the most part it’s comic books and video games. There’s a built-in audience for that, it’s in the zeitgeist. As are vampires etc… That’s what the diet is of the studio system.
But you can’t really criticize it either. You have to remember that it is, by definition, a money-making industry. And they have every right to make films that they think will sell. It’s like the auto industry. The cars that you see on the road the most are the ones that people want. So you can’t criticize public taste. I don’t think that Hollywood studios control public taste, I think they simply feed it. I think they give people what they want to see. And what they want to see is different than when I was making films in the 70’s. That was a different time. The guys who ran the studios loved all kinds of movies, and they wanted to provoke audiences as well. They wanted to deal with mature subject matter as well as some lame-o stuff.
But now it’s all just, “get the money.” It’s all formulaic. And I include films from other countries in that assessment. They’re not doing comic books and video games, but they’re still doing formulaic films for the most part. And the films that inspired me and my generation, from France and Italy especially, were really great works of art that defined cinema. And that’s not coming out of France and Italy anymore either.
Do you see any great works of art coming from anywhere?
As I say, I like the Coen Brothers. I don’t know that I can process them yet, but I’ve enjoyed a lot of their films. And also Paul Thomas Anderson. I can’t tell you that I think There Will Be Blood is a great movie or that Punch-Drunk Love is a great movie. But I thought at the time, I haven’t seen it since, that Magnolia was a great movie. If you can make one of those you’re pretty d*mn good. He stretched the boundaries. With all of his films, actually. He took Adam Sandler [in Punch-Drunk], who I have never been interested in as an actor, and made him credible. They’re really unusual and extraordinary movies.
But who knows how I’ll feel about them in the future? The other day I watched Death Wish again. The first one. And it didn’t hold up, it just really did not.
I think Magnolia holds up. It’s able to feel like a 3rd act for 3 hours and 14 minutes.
It’s pretty good! It’s pretty d*mn good I must say. And it’s different. I give it points for that. It’s not a formula movie.
Speaking of not being formulaic, what’s coming up for you?
I’m looking at three or four things that are of interest to me. I’m not sure what I’ll do next. I’ve been working on my autobiography, which I’m almost finished with. So I’m working on that but I haven’t zeroed in on what film I’m going to make next. I know this, I don’t want to take a step backward. I don’t want to take a step backward from Killer Joe. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do that, to step back and to a more commercial film. But I think if I possibly can, and I don’t know if I can, I’d like to stretch out a little further. I’m not talking about just sex and violence, but in terms of forms and substance.