directors, Interviews, Movies

Interview – A vulgar display of power

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN TALKS ABOUT Killer Joe, HOLLYWOOD’S INFANTILISM AND THE MYSTERIES OF THE MPAA

I participated in a round-table interview with the legendary American film director William Friedkin back in the summer of 2012 when he was visiting our shores to promote his film Killer Joe, a dark crime drama that set off alarm bells at the American ratings boards and received an NC-17 certificate (it was released in the UK uncut with a more than justified BBFC 18 certificate). After his previous film Bug, Killer Joe continued an exciting return to form by one of the key directors of the 1970s.

Usually these things are pretty unsafisfying affairs, you get maybe 20 minutes with the ‘talent’ in a room with a bunch of other people, all fighting to get their question in. There is no real rapport or opportunity to establish a conversation of cross examination. And then to cap it all off, some blogger drongo who sat in the corner meek as a mouse and didn’t ask a single question types the whole thing up and presents it as an ‘exclusive’ personal interview as though they thought up all the questions themselves (whether clever, stupid or contradictory). It’s rarely a fun way to spend an afternoon.

For this (and other) reasons, I pretty much gave up on doing these things a while back. Transcribing interviews is a pain in the arse at the best of times. Having said that, the 25 odd minutes I spent in the company of Friedkin were an absolute joy. The man was razor sharp and possessing of a wonderfully dry sense of humour, and deeply knowledgable and enthusiastic about films and filmmaking. At the same time, Friedkin is not short of an opinion,

and does not suffer fools (whether that be the blogeratti – yours truly included – asking questions, or the PR intern trying to hustle him out of the room to talk to more important people – i.e. print).

One of a new wave of American filmmakers who were given the keys to Hollywood in the early to mid 70s, Friedkin is a mercurial and erratic talent. Beginning his career as a documentarian, he made early ripples with a UK film of Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party in 1968, and then the adaptation of gay-themed play The Boys In The Band in 1970. But it was the following year’s The French Connection which blasted Friedkin into orbit garnering Academy Awards for best picture and best director. The cultural and social revolution of the 1960s had left Hollywood looking square and the Studio heads were aware they had lost the ability to predict public tastes. At the same time the end of the Hays code allowed filmmakers to be more daring than ever before in terms of themes, language, sexuality and violence (more on this in a minute). When Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider became a huge hit in 1969, Hollywood executives were non-plussed. Here was a film they didn’t understand, that violated the basic principles of good filmmaking (as they understood them), and yet audiences dug it baby. Ultimately Hollywood was, is, and always will be a profit driven industry. If this was what made money, then okay, the studios would invest in this new breed of young directors.

With The French Connection Friedkin followed the lead of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) in introducing the style of the French New Wave to US cinema, but he also brought his documentary sensibilities. This led to a film that to this day is viscerally exciting and palpably real. What Friedkin did next changed the landscape of the modern horror film in one fell swoop. There is little more that can be said about The Exorcist, but it remains one of the most powerful, complex and stunningly made of all horror films. Every film that followed dealing with themes of demonic possession looks like a pale imitation. It has simply never been bettered, and I doubt it ever will be.

For Friedkin the next ten years were difficult, his reputation never quite recovered from the twin failures of Sorcerer his 1977 remake of The Wages of Fear, and the notorious gay S&M themed serial killer thriller Cruising in 1980.

If his subsequent career has never topped the heights of The French Connection and The Exorcist, well frankly who could? There has still been excellent work, To Live And Die L.A. (1985) for instance, one of the most underrated thrillers of the 1980s. Also his relationship-drama-come-horror film Bug in 2006 is very interesting. Killer Joe was a blistering return to form however, and felt like the work of a first time director, not a 76 year old veteran.

So with great excitement I joined seven other internet scribes in a room in a swanky central London hotel to await an audience. There was also a certain amount of trepidation. Any film fan worth their salt has read Peter Biskind’s account of 1970s Hollywood Easy Riders, Raging Bulls in which Friedkin does not come out smelling of roses. Biskind describes a man with a massive ego and a sadistic approach to getting performances from actors (notably Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist). Friedkin has of course dismissed Biskind’s account as garbage and gossip mongering.

So yeah, you could say I was nervous waiting for the man’s arrival (from this point on, I haven’t bothered updating the original text)…

Friedkin enters the room, asks our names and proceeds to shake everyone’s hand in turn. “It’s a pleasure, I hope it will continue to be a pleasure, make your questions interesting and fascinating so I’ll stay awake. And nothing is off limits, you can say or ask me anything that you like.” He tells us before cutting off the first question before the first syllable is uttered with a smirk, “Oh I’ll never answer that!”

Friedkin is asked what attracts him to Tracey Letts’ work. “We see the world in the same way, as sometimes absurd. We see characters that embody both good and evil, and we don’t see people as totally heroic, or idealistic.” Friedkin pauses and gives us a rather extreme example of what he means. “I hate to say it because it always gets misinterpreted, but if you’ve read any of the biographies of Hitler, you see that even Hitler had some commendable things about him. And I can state them. Not that I want to. He’s a candidate for one of the two or three worst people in history… But there are things in Hitler’s life that surprisingly make you understand that he was a human being, and not a devil… What fascinates Tracey Letts and me about the characters that he’s dramatised and I’ve directed, are the very fact that there is the potential for great good and great evil in all of us. It’s in everyone at this table and outside in the streets and everywhere else in the world. And I think that given some wayward gene there are very few of us that couldn’t commit an act of violence, or an act of great charity.”

Friedkin is asked about the challenges of adapting a play to the screen, his answer to this innocuous question is a great example of his razor sharp sense of humour. He remarks that no-one ever asked the director of Casablanca this question. “[Casablanca was a play] called Everyone Comes To Rick’s which was totally set in Rick’s Cafe… everything was done on a sound stage… everything but the last shot which was at Burbank Airport! Even the Paris flashback was done in front of a rear screen.

“It’s a play! Happens to be a play with finely wrought characters, wonderful dialogue, humour, pathos and everything else.

“So was a film called A Few Good Men, that was a play, I dunno if anyone ever asked that chap [director Rob Reiner working from a script by Aaron Sorkin] how difficult it was. How difficult? You’re getting a great piece of material to adapt to a different process, that’s all. And so it requires a bit of opening up, but I wouldn’t have done it if I thought it was rubbish.

“Most of the earliest sound films were either plays, or written by playwrights, because there was nobody around who had written movies when they were first doing sound. So it’s a very common question that you’ve asked. How do you adapt a play to the screen? Well first it has to be a damn good piece of material, with interesting characters, and then you have a leg up. But I’ve done films that have come from every imaginable possible source. Like news stories, novels, my own imagination, books about actual facts, and some were plays. I’ve tried to make them cinematic.”

Friedkin has made a number of films dealing with policemen and criminals, of which Killer Joe is interesting because the central character is both a detective and a criminal. I ask him about an opinion he has stated before, that there is a thin line between the policeman and the criminal, and how this relates to the character of Joe Cooper played brilliantly by Matthew McConaughey. “Well I know cops like that. They’re in Chicago and New York, not in Dallas, Texas. But Tracey Letts and Matthew McConaughey both know similar characters. They’re all around by the way. There’s a particular guy, he’s a homicide detective in New York that I know, we call him Uncle Mort, who was for 20 years a homicide detective in New York City and also did hits for the Italian mob.”

It may be that he is talking here (or it may not) about either about Louis Eppolito or Stephen Caracappa, two NYPD detectives who were convicted of mob related activities in 2006. Eppolito is a particularly fascinating character, whose story bears a striking resemblance to the plot of Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s Infernal Affairs and its US remake, Martin Scorsese’s the Departed. Eppolito was the son of a member of the Gambino crime family who lied on his NYPD application and eventually became a detective. He wrote a book Mafia Cop: The Story of an Honest Cop Whose Family Was the Mob, had a minor career as an actor (notably appearing in Goodfellas) and is now serving a life sentence for labor racketeering, extortion, narcotics, illegal gambling, obstruction of justice, eight counts of murder and conspiracy to commit murder (I asked Mr. Friedkin about this point on Twitter, and he responded that neither of these characters were Uncle Mort, but that he was aware of them. I’ve left the reference as evidence that such people do very much exist).

“I can’t tell you I understand how that comes about, other than that I know that these people are capable of that. I’ve seen it. And yes, there is a thin line between the policeman and the criminal that’s very often crossed, and the best cops are the ones that most think like criminals. So yeah, I’ve met such people, and believe me I can’t say I understand from whence they came, what crooked timbre of humanity produced such a character, but I know they exist. I find them fascinating.”

Killer Joe whilst a very dark and violent piece of work, is also extremely funny. Friedkin is asked if he encouraged his actors to use their natural comic timing? “No. I encouraged them to play it real. That’s what most really great comedy is about. The fact that you believe in these characters. They’re not passing judgement on the characters they’re playing, they’re not saying ‘look at me, I’m a clown.’ Unless you’re Jerry Lewis, y’know, someone like that…

“The dark humour that comes out of, lets say, farce or absurdity is done by characters playing it for real. As in Dr. Strangelove, I believed all those characters that Peter Sellers played, including Dr. Strangelove, who is very reminiscent of Henry Kissinger who I happen to know.

“So no, you encourage them to make it real, and to keep it real. The humour is built in, its in the piece.”

One of the most striking elements of Killer Joe is the performance of Matthew McConaughey. Starting with The Lincoln Lawyer McConaughey seems to have made a concerted effort to move away from the romantic leading man image that has made him a very bankable film star. Among the films breaking away from his previous star persona still to come are Lee Daniels thriller Paperboy, Jeff Nichols follow up to Take Shelter, Mud, and Richard Linkleter’s black comedy Bernie.

Friedkin is asked if the handsome star was his first choice for the part. “Well my first choice was Woody Allen but he wasn’t available. I don’t believe in typecasting” the director fires back. “McConaughey is from that area, he was born at the Oklahoma/Texas border, he knows those characters, his accent is right and natural.”

There follows a discussion of the problems inherent in being an actor who, in the words of Derek Zoolander, is also ‘really incredibly good looking’.

“He’s a very good actor, people didn’t realise that because in Hollywood terms he’s so good looking. If you are a good looking actor who manages to get to Hollywood all they want you to do is show up. They don’t want you to act. You just have to take off your shirt and be convincing as the lover of some lovely actress. That’s all that’s called upon to many of the great stars.

“But like McConaughey, what they wanna really do is act. Find a role that challenges them and that can challenge an audience. The studios don’t want them to do that. Y’know, they make a fortune, McConaughey was making ten million dollars a picture just playing a kinda good looking dude who got the girl.

“A lot of actors, like DiCaprio is trying to stretch out, we’ll see if he can. McConaughey obviously could and had the chops, but that’s his desire, he can still go on and make those romantic comedies looking the way he does. Bit that isn’t really what he wants to do, or who he really is, and I knew that.”

Another journo tells Friedkin hat he has done some Wikipedia research and found Killer Joe described as ‘an American crime/comedy/drama/thriller/film,’ he asks the great man how he balances those elements and prevents them from clashing?

“I think that’s a good question for the writers of the New Testament. Really, how did you balance all of this crime and demonic possession and goodness and supernatural and otherworldliness and humanity and charity and violence and ‘I come not with peace but with a sword’?

“First of all you have to recognise it, and not be intimidated by it. Fortunately I hadn’t read Wikipedia and so I had nothing to live up to. I just had a story and a set of characters, I loved the story and I tried to cast it as well as I could. The cast was basically a gift from the movie god.

“I’ve had films that I feel in hindsight that I didn’t cast well, or some of the roles were not as well cast as they might have been. I don’t feel that with this picture… I wouldn’t be talking about it in any positive way if I thought I had fucked it up. And one of the reasons you don’t fuck it up is if you have a good cast. And I did, believe me. They embody their roles. Possibly Gina Gershon will be known for one scene in this picture. I won’t mention which one.”

It is noted that the range of roles for actors in Hollywood productions has diminished since the late 60s and early 70s when he first made his name as a director. He agrees. So why is this?

“Well, Hollywood today, the studios are more interested in a sure thing. Which means a comic book adaptation or a video game adaptation. That’s what Hollywood movies basically are. Oh and romantic comedies. Y’know, and some raunchy comedies now like The Hangover.

“When I started in the late 60s/early 70s directing films, there were all kinds of films being made. Some of them were socially conscious films, some of them were cathartic films that did not provide easy answers to life, didn’t have a guy with a letter on his chest flying around solving crime, weren’t a dress up costume show.”

In the US Killer Joe was slapped with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA, a restrictive rating that was brought in ostensibly to remove the stigma of pornography carried by the former X rating. However in actuality the NC-17 as become a de-facto X rating, distributors complain that some exhibitors won’t book films with an NC-17 rating, Blockbuster refused to carry DVDs with the rating, some newspapers won’t carry advertising for product rated NC-17. Far from embracing the rating, director’s studio contracts usually oblige them to deliver an R rated cut. Killer Joe’s distributor LD Distribution appealed against the rating. Friedkin is asked how involved he was in this? “Well we lost the appeal narrowly” he pauses, “13 to nothing.” Friedkin is very happy to give us his thoughts on film censorship in the US.

“It’s like what a former Justice of the US Supreme Court said when a pornography case came up… he was asked to define pornography in an interview. Potter Stewart was his name.” Friedkin is referring to Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184, if you want to look it up. “He said ‘I can’t really define it, but I know it when I see it.’ Okay? And that’s what the ratings board does, they ‘know it when they see it’ whatever the hell it is that they’re seeing.

“If you… I mean you guys are all young folks, but it you have any children you presumably know the names of their teachers at school, or even the principle of the school, you presumably know the mayor of your city, possibly some of you even know the name of the Prime Minister of this country. So you know where your laws come from, you know the names of some of the MPs, and you may even know your own MP. If you don’t like what they are doing, you can send them a letter, often even get to voice your opposition, and if necessary vote them out of office if enough people are like minded.

“With the ratings board we don’t know who they are, we don’t know if they are political appointees, how they got there, who put them there, but we do know that they do not have a manual [he picks up the Killer Joe press notes] that’s as thick as this… There’s nothing in writing that they have that defines what they base their ratings on. It’s totally subjective.

“Now having said that, I think they have distinguished Killer Joe with the most draconian rating. They’ve set it apart from the pack of those films that go out, and under the dark of night make little cuts and trims to turn an NC-17 into an R.

“In my case they wanted me to do much more than make trims, they wanted to do what the United States government said it was doing in Vietnam. Some of the Generals said ‘we have to destroy the country, in order to save it.’ And that’s what the ratings board would have had me do to Killer Joe. In order to save it as an R rated film, which would have allowed 13 and 14 year olds to come in, which I’m not interested in having see this picture. In order to do that I would have had to destroy the film. I just wasn’t prepared, nor was my distributor prepared, to do that.

“You’ll never see a major studio film with an NC-17. They’ve all gone, as I say, in the dead of night and made a handful of little trims that have showed the ratings board that they are prepared to bow before them and recognise their superiority and legality. Which they are not, it’s not a legally binding anything.

“Having said that, it’s better than what they had before. Which was a literal censorship code, the Hays Code it was called, H A Y S.” Friedkin is talking about The Motion Picture Production Code, which was a set of moral censorship guidelines in force covering most American film production from 1930 to 1968. It was popularly called the Hays code after chief censor Will H. Hays.

“Those guys could actually cut a movie before it went out. They’d read a script and they’d say ‘well you have these two people together in bed in this scene’ and the writer, or the studio head, or the producer would say ‘Yeah, but they’re married,’ ‘I don’t care, we can’t show two people in bed.’ They would literally cut scripts before they were made. So at least this thing, whatever it is, doesn’t do that.”

I ask why he thinks the MPAA is more restrictive on sexuality than violence?

“Violence is more acceptable to the MPAA than sexuality. They’re always uptight about one thing or another. But they’ll find some way to get around that with a major studio. For example the remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo shows a very graphic scene of anal rape, followed by a vengeance scene where the young woman cuts this guy up who did this to her. That is one of the most violent scenes I’ve ever seen. I don’t have anything like that in Killer Joe.

“Sexuality troubles them more than violence, because they perceive violence to be cartoonish when it happens in something like The Avengers, it’s not real people, it’s supernatural people, it’s aliens. So they get away with the murder of thousands of people in the film, but it’s not believed. When they are confronted with something that looks like it could be real, that’s usually in an independent film and they slam it.”

I ask him if he has seen the excellent 2006 documentary by Kirby Dick This Film is Not Yet Rated? “No, I’ve heard about that, I’ve heard it’s very good.” In that film it comes over strongly that the MPAA has stacked the deck against independent films. I wonder why that is?

“You know why? Because they can. They are financed, they are underwritten and supported as a self governing body of the member companies of the MPAA. And for example my distributor is not a member of the MPAA. Most independent distributors aren’t. They do this just to show that they… they’re watchdogs, but they don’t do it to their own. They’ll find a way to make a few frame cuts, and then be able to say to the world ‘well you should have seen this film before we had a look at it.’ So that’s why they are tougher on independents, because they can be. But they have no written set of rules, no guidelines for any of them. But some of the most violent or sexual films that I’ve seen come out of that ratings board with an R, or even a PG. ”

Alas our time draws to a close, but Mr. Friedkin is happy to spend his last few free minutes before being whisked away fielding a few more questions. He is asked if there are any contemporary directors he admires. “Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers. And eh… who else?” There is a very long pause. “Well, the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson.” He lets this hang for a beat before another director occurs to him. “I like Wes Anderson’s work. I think he’s an interesting and original filmmaker. But I’ve been most influenced by many others like Hitchcock, and Orson Welles, the French New Wave, and the English New Wave of the 1960s. Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger… those were the films that influenced me. The Italian neo-realists, and some of the American classic directors of the 40s and 50s like John Ford of course, Joseph Mankiewicz, and the directors of the musicals, like Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen. I know Mr. Donen, and he’s still alive, I’m a great admirer of his work. ”

And with that, he is whisked away. Truly one of the most entertaining interviews I’ve ever sat in on, Friedkin should be given his own one man talk and film review show. Except that might interfere with producing more films like Killer Joe.

This interview was previously published on screenjabber.com

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