William Friedkin - Featured

Interview: William Friedkin

After the one-two punch of The French Connection in 1971, for which he won the Academy Award for best director, and The Exorcist in 1973, filmmaker William Friedkin established a name for himself that few others could aspire to even in the great American filmmaking decade of the 1970s. Over the ensuing years, Friedkin would garner a reputation as a director who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted from his cast and who would only work on a project if his heart and mind were truly in it. His name is often spoken of in the same breath as Peter Bogdonovich, Martin Scorsese, and his good friend Francis Ford Coppola when people talk about one of American cinema’s most revered decades.

Now in his mid-70s, Friedkin has survived one heart attack, three divorces, and numerous legal woes, making him seem darn near invincible. Even on the phone from his office (while battling a chest cold, the result of weeks of near non-stop publicity appearances), Friedkin still exudes a type of older Hollywood charisma and intellect that’s definitely missing in most people I talk to these days. His candour, wit, humility, and charm are top notch, and it’s that same manic energy that translates so well to his latest project, Killer Joe.

His second collaboration with playwright Tracy Letts following 2006’s Bug, Killer Joe tells the story of the Smith family, a down on their luck and money bunch of trailer trash on the outskirts of Dallas, who hire the titular hitman (Matthew McConaughey) to kill their mother/ex-wife in order to collect on some insurance money. When Joe finds out they can’t pay the money, he refuses to leave, taking the young daughter of the house as a “retainer” until the job is done or he gets what he wants.

We were honoured to talk to Billy Friedkin for close to an hour (and we probably could have gone longer if both parties involved weren’t sick at the time) about his relationship with Tracy Letts, why he loves his writing so much, how Matthew McConaughey caught his eye, his film’s NC-17 rating in the States, what’s missing in films today, and the status of two old favourites not yet available on DVD in North America.

Dork Shelf: Here you’re re-teaming with Tracy Letts after you guys did Bug and after you’ve done quite a bit of directing for the stage and particularly quite a bit of opera. Is it more rewarding of challenging to bring that same sort of theatrical closeness and intimacy to a movie going audience?

William Friedkin: Well, certainly it all depends on the writing. Everything stems from that, and I just find that Letts and I happen to have the same world view, and he writes about things that people, emotions, and actions that people don’t like to think exist, but they do. He writes about the good and evil in everyone and I think that’s a subject that’s incumbent upon writers and filmmakers to explore. It’s often only explored today in comic book movies, you know? Where the violence and the sexuality are to such a degree where it’s just not believable. I tend to drift toward things that are more part of the fabric of human life; part of the crooked timber of humanity. I find that Tracy’s dramatizations of these characters and situations is on the money with my own.

DS: Do you ever think there’s the possibility to go a little bit bigger than it needs to be when you’re dealing with this kind of material? Is it a constant fight to sort of pull back on the theatricality of it?

WF: Pull back to what? I mean, I don’t know that. I put as much of that on the screen as I thought was necessary based on what’s in the script. I’m not trying to either overdo it or rub people’s noses in it, but this is a violent, out of control family, and there’s two ways to show violence on the screen. One is to do it very subtly and to pull back on the closed door, and the other is to do it raw and unflinching, which is what his writing demands. He wants people to understand who these people are and how far they’ll go.

The other thing is that there’s a quote by T.S. Eliot that goes something like this… This isn’t accurate, but I believe it, and it says “Until you go too far, you don’t know how far to go.” And I try to go as far as I think is called for. I don’t think that you can show violence in a way that is raw and unflinching and keep pulling back. I mean, we DID pull back. It reads a lot worse than it is in the film. And if I had pulled back 90%, it STILL would have gotten an NC-17.

DS: Who got the ball rolling first to get this film off the ground, was it you or Tracy?

WF: He wrote the screenplay and sent it to me, then I went out and found the producer and the distributors and the cast.

DS: And were you the first person he came to on this one because you had worked together before?

WF: No! His former agent, whose name I forget, but he was Tracy’s agent, could never get him a job. But Tracy was loyal to him and he had a pre-option on it I think for a couple of years at least, and he couldn’t get it off the ground. Then he finally said to Tracy that he couldn’t put it together, and that’s when Tracy wrote another screenplay and sent it to me and he said, “Look, would you be interested in this?” And then he told me the background with this other guy, whose name I really do forget… he was with the Morris office. So there was another guy that was trying to produce it and he had interest from several people, but he just could never get it together.

DS: This year has kind of been Matthew McConaughey’s year, but mostly because he’s been working with directors like Richard Linklater with Bernie, Stephen Soderbergh with Magic Mike, and here with you, that can find ways of putting his natural charms to darker use. Was there ever anything in his previous films that ever stood out to you or was it just a matter of meeting with him to know he was right for Joe?

WF: It was nothing in any of the films that he had done that I had seen. I never saw Dazed and Confused, but I think he was probably in his early 20s or something when he came on the scenes, but there was nothing that I had really seen him in that did it. I had seen him on an interview program here in the States. It was either Larry King or Charlie Rose. It was some in-depth interviewer, and he was talking to Matthew just about who he was. Matthew wasn’t playing a part. He was talking about his upbringing, which is in the same part of the country where this story is set, and he seemed like a fascinating guy.

Up to that point, I was going to cast one of the old war horses. One of the old grizzly bears. You know who they are. (laughs) I don’t need to name them, but a guy who was really more or less disgusting. (laughs) He had years on his face and he looked like he could be a degenerate, and when I saw Matthew in this interview I thought, “No, this is the way to go.” This guy could charm the mustard off a hot dog, and he’s great looking, and it would be very unexpected for him to explore this, and I saw in this interview that he had not only the background to understand these characters, but also the intelligence.

So I sent the script to his agent. I gave up any attempt to go another direction, I sent it, and Matthew hated it. He was just disgusted by it, to use his word. But he thought about it and he kept thinking about it. He couldn’t get it out of his head, and then a lot of the things seemed darkly funny to him. So he read it again and he called his agent and he said, “I better take another look at this and talk about it.”

So we met up at his house and we spent almost two hours together, and we talked about it, and we were on the same page as to how to do it, and I felt having met with him and his understanding of the character – and he obviously had the right accent, as well – that it was right. And he decided he wanted to do it, and that was it.

DS: The conclusion of Killer Joe is probably going to get talked about more in terms of its shocking content, but what’s really fascinating about it is that it’s a very lengthy  sequence of people talking out the remainder of the film, which is something you rarely see in films these days. As someone who does very few takes now, what’s it like trying to pull together something like the final sequence of this film?

WF: Well, it’s brilliantly written. Start with that. If it was just one scene where the dialogue and the depth of character weren’t as well handled as he handles them, I wouldn’t have been attracted to the material to begin with. Some of my favourite films are my favourites because of how they’re written, because of the dialogue. Dialogue is almost a lost art in America film today. Guys don’t say anything with any substance anymore. It’s all about the plot. It’s all about what they’re going to do, and most American films today are variations on comic books and video games. And this is a story about people, and people tend to TALK to one another, and there tends to be a lot of conflict out of dialogue. The films that have left their mark on me are films with great dialogue, so I don’t see that as a drawback at all. For me it’s a plus.

And what that’s like and what it does is provide an atmosphere for the actors and the crew to do their best work. That’s what it’s like to do scenes like that. You provide an atmosphere where you feel like they can explore these aspects of their character in a safe way. You know, as an actor instead of having to actually do this stuff in life. So you provide and atmosphere where they can use their sense memories to reach down and find these characters within themselves, and in a place where they know they’re not going to be judged. And I’m not going to be judgmental, but I’m going to be supportive.

DS: It does amount to what’s probably the best final fifteen minutes of a film this year, by far.

WF: I appreciate that, Andrew. I really love the script. That’s my biggest attraction to it. This is a kind of redemption for these characters, but it’s definitely twisted. All of Letts’ stuff is really very well observed, but twisted, and I knew these people growing up. I knew this kind of family dynamic. It was not the thing that we were fed on with fiction growing up. We were fed on a version of the American family that was totally functional. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the paintings of Norman Rockwell, but those are a classic depiction of the American family as being a totally happy unit where everyone loves each other, and celebrates the holidays together, and they’re all patriotic, and they love their country, and they love each other, and as you get older and grow out of that , you see that that’s not the primary dynamic. You see that people are basically to a great extent, twisted, and it’s reflected in the family dynamic first even though it’s often overlooked.

DS: Do you think there was ever one film in your career where you felt the shift between making films with numerous multiple takes and instead going with fewer, more immediate ones?

WF: Well, my style overall changed when I made The Birthday Party, which Harold Pinter wrote, but with regards to the takes, that came later. I’ve actually only made 16 films in my career, in about 45 years. In my early films like everyone else I would do 15 or 20 takes, hoping for a miracle around take 15, and I found when I got into the cutting room was that the best take that I chose was often the first printed take. After my first three films, with The French Connection being my fourth, by then I realized that it was all about preparation. It was all about casting the film right, all about realizing I was on the same page with the actors, then not allowing them the freedom to discover theses parts while we were shooting. They had to discover these characters before. I had to cast them right because if I didn’t do that it wasn’t going to work under any circumstances. If I have the wrong actor I could do 342 takes and it would never come off. You do have to have the right actor in the role, and that often comes as a gift from the movie God. You do have to have the right actor, and if you get on the same page with him, then you get a shot at getting a performance like McConaughey’s in this film.

DS: Do you think that prep time is one of the things that has led you to make so few films over your career and does it surprise you that so many other directors can just rush out and make sometimes multiple films over just a couple of years?

WF: No. No, that’s not it at all. There’s just not that many things that attract me to want to make a film about! I don’t just want to make a film to make money. I could work every day if I really wanted to do that. And the zeitgeist has changed the face of the Hollywood film, which is where I come from. It’s completely changed. As I said earlier, it’s all video games, and comic books, and stupid romantic comedies, and I’m just not interested in that. I don’t see them. I think I’ve seen two films this year so far, and I liked one of them. No, I don’t see this stuff. I know what’s going to happen before the film even comes on the screen. I know that the good guy, who’s often wearing spandex or a letter on his chest or some tight clothing or a mask and a cape, is going to go around and cure the evils of the world. Knowing that I have nothing invested in that. I did when I was a kid, though. When I was a kid, they weren’t making these films as good as they are now, though. They were just these stupid films with people hooked on wires that you could see with people just flying around. When I was a kid I loved this kind of film, and now I just don’t, but now they’re IMMENSELY popular. I don’t make a lot of films because I simply don’t relate to the ones that get over, the ones that are popular all over the world.

DS: It seems like the healthiest way to work if you want to stay in this type of business.

WF: It’s all I could do! If I was doing a film that I didn’t believe in, I couldn’t stay awake on the set! I don’t know, but you have to have a certain mindset when you go in to do a film. It’s kind of like how you have to think when you’re writing a piece, If you’re writing down below your level, it isn’t going to be all that interesting. You’re going to maybe give it the best you can, but it’s going to be dull. You have to be inspired by something to write a piece that’s any good, and that’s like how I have to be inspired by a film to make something good out of it. I need to relate to or be inspired by it.

DS: That’s very true. I can safely say that I’ve abandoned and walked away from far more things than I’ve actually published.

WF: That’s because you want to write about something that challenges you. I actually just finished my memoirs here for Harper Collins. I was in New York and I worked with the editor, who was wonderful, and I changed the book considerably and it will be out next year, but the challenge to me – because I never kept diaries – was making aspects of my life that were basically forgotten about interesting on the page. That was a huge challenge to me; to find some deeper meaning than just the externals of what happened.

DS: And that’s especially hard when writing about your own life because you’re robbed of any real sort of outside perspective and you realize that you just have to get to the meat of everything and find what works.

WF: Well, these are things that happened, but you’ve got to be careful that you’re not in it to settle old scores or to do self-promotion. That’s very difficult. And I wrote my book in longhand in these Moleskine books, and then I’d write about 50 pages that way and then dictate it into a micro-cassette recorder and get it typed. Then I’d make about 8 or 10 passes at that before I would send it. Then I would send off about 30 pages at a time to my editor, and that was a lot. It took me about two and a half years to do this, and it was very difficult because it was challenging, but I stayed with it for the same reason.

DS: We touched upon it briefly that the NC-17 rating was appropriate for Killer Joe. Do you think that rating is still the kiss of death at the box office that it once was? Do you think if that rating was around back when you first started making films that it would have influenced you at all?

WF: It’s definitely not better. It’s still the equivalent of an X. The thing about the X rating was that it would usually imply pornography, and along came some adult films that were very graphic, especially in terms of sexuality. So they created this “no child under 17 even with a parent” rating. But it’s basically an X rating, just a little more classy sounding. How many can you really name from the past, say, five years?

DS: Really just your film and Shame.

WF: It’s a burden. There’s no question. Most of the large and middle sized theatre chains will not play an NC-17 film, still. Many of the publications won’t take ads for an NC-17 film and it’s very difficult to get on radio or television. Now, we’ve managed to break through all of that, but not to an extraordinary extent, but there have been enough organizations and publications that have taken ads and allowed us to do interviews on radio and television. We’ve been all over radio and television here, and that usually doesn’t happen. This is one of the first films to break through, so people are watching it very carefully to see how it does. Because for the most part you have a strict and severe limit with who you can reach with that rating.

The film that’s considered the most successful financially with that rating was from a number of years ago, and that was Showgirls, which surprisingly also had Gina Gershon in it. So she’s sort of the queen of NC-17, and she’s in the largest grossing film with that rating which was about $21 million. You compare that to the largest grossest films and that’s not even a tenth or even a small fraction of what a film can do with unlimited ability to advertise and do public relations for.

DS: One of the things that I have to bring up before we finish up here was about how my boss wanted me to tell you that he thinks The Hunted is one of the most underrated films he’s ever seen.

WF: I appreciate it, and you can tell him that. I love the film, too, and it did really well! Again, that was not a film that didn’t have a hundred million dollar advertising budget, so for a film to break through today – not simply in the States, but all over the world – you need to spend a hundred to a hundred fifty million dollars, and the films that I’ve made don’t cost anywhere near that and they don’t have those kind of advertising budgets. But advertising is what drives those high grossing films.

I’m sure he’s also referring to the reviews, and I’m just not familiar with the reviews of The Hunted. I don’t recall them at all. I think that some were good and some were bad, but that’s true of most every film, Andrew. There are people that don’t like Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind. And I’m one of the one’s that doesn’t like Gone With the Wind. I don’t like it! I have no interest in it. I’ve seen it, but I never want to see it again, and the films I love I’ll watch over and over again on DVD and Blu-ray.

Now see, Citizen Kane is almost just as old, and to me it’s the greatest film I’ve ever seen, so it’s not the timing in which it came out. I think everything in film from this country is marked before Citizen Kane and after, because that film took everything that went before and synthesized all of the discoveries of film technique and it pointed the way to the future. So almost every film owes something to Citizen Kane.

DS: I know a lot of people ask you what the progress is regarding a potential DVD release of Sorcerer, but I was actually wondering about another title that’s had a similarly rocky road to release, and that’s Rampage.

WF: I don’t know, especially now in the wake of the Aurora shootings. It’s possible, but Rampage, much like Sorcerer, got caught up in the dissolution of the film company that made it. Rampage was made by the De Laurentiis Corporation under Dino De Laurentiis, and his company was gasping for breath and they died before he could release Rampage. From there it kind of went into a legal limbo for a few years. Then the Weinstein Company picked it up and they released it back when they were Miramax, and when they released it, they started to get into trouble with Disney, who owned the Weinsteins and who weren’t interested in films like Rampage being under the Disney umbrella. Then the Weinsteins would eventually lose their company, and Rampage remained in Miramax, which is still owned by Disney. So that’s what happened to Rampage. I don’t know what will happen to it. It’s possible that some day someone will come along and buy it from them, maybe someone like Criterion.

So you know that I am in court with Sorcerer now, right?

DS: Yeah, I heard about that. Is it an issue of two studios not knowing who owns the rights to the film anymore?

WF: What happened is that everything at every major studio is ultimately controlled through the legal department, and what happened was that Universal and Paramount co-produced Sorcerer, and they had an umbrella company called CIC: Cinema International Corporation. They released all of their pictures under one roof abroad, which extended to everywhere except the US and Canada. CIC was licensed only to distribute films outside the US and nothing domestically.

The film was owned by CIC because that’s what was jointly owned by Universal and Paramount, and then a few years ago, they broke that company up. The new ownership of both Paramount and Universal decided that they didn’t want to have their own umbrella company anymore and they broke up, and Sorcerer got caught in the cracks there. It’s owned by CIC. CIC was never licensed to do business in the US. And now they don’t exist anymore! Now the lawyers at both of these companies can’t figure out who owns the picture!

So I’ve stepped into the breach and I’ve sued them. It’s in the Ninth District Court in the States, and the judge that’s handling it for the Ninth District has ordered that there be a settlement by November 26th of this year, some kind of settlement, or he has set it over for trial in March of 2013. It’s not to anyone’s advantage to go to trial over something like this, and it involves what’s essentially an off shore company to hide things. We have the ability and what we’ve done is that we demand discovery and we demanded that they produce all of the documents from both companies relating to the distribution of Sorcerer. So unless they can wiggle out of that, and it’s doubtful that they’ll want to go to trial, but I don’t want to go to trial either if I don’t have to.

All I’m looking for is for them to let me take it to another company, and there are many who would put it out on DVD or Blu-ray, and I want to keep it available to the film societies and universities that have been running it for 30 years.

The reason I sued them was because before this they had always allowed it to be shown. It was shown last year to the American Cinematheque, and they had a sold out audience with lines around the block, they had to add an extra screening, and I went over there to do a Q&A, and it was great. Paramount had even made a new print, and then starting THIS year, both claim they don’t know who owns it and they won’t let anyone run it! So, I had to bring suit to try and get out of this limbo. It’s a precedent setting case, whatever it may be, and it’s in the hands of the judges now.

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