Killer Joe – Behind The Scenes with director William Friedkin

The director of The Exorcist & The French Connection was in Dublin this week to promote his new movie KILLER JOE, caught up with him in the Clarence hotel.

It seems rather unjust that the name William Friedkin doesn’t get quite the recognition it deserves these days, but in a career spanning 45 years and 16 films, this director’s influence on contemporary cinema cannot be ignored. Whether it was winning an Oscar for introducing Gene Hackman to Gallic drug cartels in The French Connection, or for putting that pesky Pazuzu on the map courtesy of Linda Blair in The Exorcist, Friedkin has left an indelible mark on almost every movie genre and challenged audience and critic expectations at every turn.

Now he turns his eyes to modern film noir with the dark thriller Killer Joe, with a career-defining performance from Matthew McConaughey and already courting controversy for its stark violence. The film, rated 18 by the Irish Film Censor for containing scenes that “may disturb viewers, regardless of age” is uncompromising and shocking, and may turn you off chicken drumsticks for life. In the US, the film has received the dreaded NC-17 rating, but will be released in its original form, whether audiences are disturbed or not. What does he make of these ratings?

“I don’t share their opinion of the film, but I don’t think it’s an improper rating given who and what they are – we don’t know who the hell these people are! You know, let’s say there are people in a class at school, presumably the parents of those kids know who the teacher is and what he or she teaches. And if they have a problem with what is being taught, they know where to go to talk about it. If they continue to have a problem, they’re free to move their child to another school. In the case of the ratings’ board, we don’t know who the hell these people are; we don’t know how they got there. We don’t know if it’s a political appointment or what. The ratings’ board is all politics, but we don’t know who the hell they are, and that puts a creative person at a slight disadvantage…”

Killer Joe sees Friedkin reunite with American playwright Tracy Letts, the two having previously brought Letts’ play Bug to screen in 2006 starring Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd. Having previously worked with Harold Pinter, and turned his attention towards directing operas, what is it about theatre that strikes such a cord with him?

“Not every playwright, not every opera… you know. I can’t name 20 other writers I would have loved to work with. In the case of Pinter and Letts, we have basically the same worldview. We see the world through the same prisms, or at least I’m very much in sync with their attitudes about human nature.”

A bleak worldview at that, a film in which sons want to kill their mothers, cops are killers for hire and nothing is as it should be. Was it hard for Friedkin to find balance in this helter-skelter world?

“No… it’s truthful. I’ve seen it and I’ve observed it in similar, slightly different forms. It’s something that I recognise and understand, that I find to be true in human nature. My films have for the most part reflected my own attitudes about life, whether they came out of my own imagination, from a novel, from a non-fiction book or from a play – they come from many sources but all of them share in common the fact that they reflect my view of the world. Which is claustrophobic, you know, and involves people whose backs are against the wall, and who have few alternatives.”

Killer Joe sees Friedkin, very much an actors’ director, bring together an ensemble cast of Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Hayden Church and Matthew McConaughey, as the eponymous Joe. The eclectic bunch of indie favourites, rom-com fodder and rising stars is quite the mix. How does Friedkin go about casting his movie?

“Instinctively. The first thing I look for is intelligence, their ability to indicate to me that they understand what the film is about and that we’re on the same page in terms of how to present it. I cast out of instinct and I try to find out as much as I can about the people that I cast – in a way similar to what a psychiatrist does with a patient. I attempt, without squeezing information out of them, to determine what will push this actor’s buttons. What is that’s disturbing you? What makes you angry? Or sad… or joyful… or violent? In the course of a film, once I’ve learned that about the characters, I can quietly push those buttons.”

A tense set, then? “Not at all… I don’t run an uptight set. I try to run a set where everyone, the actors and the technicians, feel free to contribute and create. And out of that, the actor, for example, will not feel that he or she is being judged, or that I’m judgemental. I’m there to support them.”

But a tight ship, too, as Friedkin favours shooting in one or two takes. “When I was starting out I did as many takes as the next guy… 20 or 30 takes, hoping for a miracles on take 25. But I found when I got into the editing room, that it was the first printed take I went with, the one which had spontaneity. I found over the years that I’m more interested in the spontaneous than perfection. And if you get the actors ready to perform, ready to act, focus their minds on what they have to do, then it’s always gonna be the first take… if the actor’s prepared, and I try to work with people who will prepare.”

Unusually, Killer Joe opens with the words “William Friedkin’s Version of…”, so is he leaving it open to be remade?

“They’ll do it anyway, whether I leave it open or not. Most of the films being made today are either based on comic books, video games, romantic comedies or remakes. That’s it. There are very few original independent films that bring about a catharsis. Or cause someone to think or be provoked in any way – to have a response.”

And what does he make of Hollywood today?

“These days… most of the films are opium for the eyes, you know. An excuse for people to sit there, and… shovel popcorn, and… look at a guy with a big letter on his chest, flying around solving the world’s problems.”

Words – James Dempsey
Catch Killer Joe in Irish cinemas from June 29th