A Killer Epic: Famed director William Friedkin riffs on film, philosophy and life as his Killer Joe opens at the Osio.
Thursday, August 16, 2012
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing can be made,” says director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection), channeling the philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Friedkin was in San Francisco recently for a screening of his latest film, Killer Joe, and the Weekly had the chance to listen in on a post-film Q&A, and meet him in person the next day.
The movie is classic Friedkin (see also Cruising or To Live and Die in L.A.) in that it examines a seamy fold of America’s underbelly without pulling a punch. An adaptation of the play of the same name by Tracy Letts (who also penned the script and won the Pulitzer Prize for writing August: Osage County), Killer Joe tells the chilling tale of the intersection between a dirty cop who moonlights as a contract killer (Joe Cooper, brilliantly portrayed by Matthew McConaughey), and a perpetually destitute trailer park family (Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple and Thomas Haden Church) that finds need for his services. It is a world that most of us don’t know, but know of, a story of have-nots with so little hope and joy in their lives that monster trucks become entertainment, and the difference between right and wrong blurs like a signal on the UHF dial.
In person, Friedkin looks a decade younger than his 76 years, and his wit still whips. In the post-film Q&A, he kept a packed-house audience rapt for thirty minutes until the staff shut him down. Here are some of the highlights:
On shooting Killer Joe in 20 days, relying almost exclusively on the first take:
“I believe more in spontaneity than perfection… When I started directing, I would do as many takes as any other damn fool, hoping for a miracle on about take 19. And when I got in the cutting room, I found that what I would wind up using in the film was the first printed take.”
On when he asked Linda Blair during casting, what sort of bad things the character did:
“She said, ‘Well, she hits her mother across her face, and she pushes a man out her bedroom window, and she masturbates with a crucifix,’” [Friedkin employs a dramatic pause].
“And her mother’s smiling, and I said, ‘Do you know what that means?’ And she said ‘Yes, it’s like jerking off isn’t it?’” [Laughter, another dramatic pause].
“Her mother’s still smiling, and I said, ‘Have you ever done that?’ And she said, ‘Sure, haven’t you?’ And I hired her. I knew in that moment that her mother was cool, that she was cool… and I knew that the experience of the film was not going to destroy her.”
In an interview with Friedkin the next day, he got more personal about himself, and the film, with the Weekly:
On Tracy Letts’ script:
“To me it’s an honor and a privilege to be around a piece of material like that, instead of a comic book, or something with an alien mowing down a thousand computer-generated people.”
On Matthew McConaughey:
“I chose him because of his charm, because he had grown up in East Texas, and he knew those characters. And he was not shy about portraying the darkest possible side of himself… he continually surprised me with how good he is in this picture. Scene after scene after scene, I thought his choices were impeccable.”
On the ugly truth in Killer Joe’s world:
“[The characters] are people without alternatives, their backs are up against the wall and they have no exit. So they do desperate things that lead to desperate consequences.
On why he gravitates towards dark subject matter:
“Because that’s probably who I really am. My cheerfulness is external… I’m really very concerned about this presidential election, because I think both candidates are inadequate to the task. I think the country’s in danger. But I don’t go around, I don’t say that. I don’t think I’ve said that to anybody, but that’s how I feel… I think America’s in deep shit.
On growing up in a rough neighborhood in Chicago:
“I learned a lot about the lowest rungs, so I do have genuine compassion and a desire to do something about it, but knowing that nothing can be done… We’re all creatures of fate. We have nothing to say about how we come into this world, or about how we’re going to leave it.”
KILLER JOE (3½) • Directed by William Friedkin • Starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church • Rated NC-17 • 103 min. • At Osio Cinemas