Directors lucky enough to live into their mid-70s can be excused for taking it easy, resting on their laurels or concentrating their energies on relaxed and inconsequential movies. But William Friedkin’s 70s have turned out to be one of his most energetic decades. With 2006’s Bug and the new Killer Joe, both adaptations of plays by Tracy Letts, the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist has thrown caution to the wind, turning out the kind of gleefully provocative work more often expected from an artist a third his age. Killer Joe, in which a trailer home full of dirt-poor Texans hires crooked cop Matthew McConaughey to bump off a relative for the insurance settlement, is a bloodstained smile from a mouth full of crooked teeth. With a new movie to promote and plenty to get off his chest, Friedkin talked to The A.V. Club about the darkness in the heart of man, why he doesn’t blame Matthew McConaughey for making romantic comedies, and suing Universal and Paramount for the rights to his film Sorcerer.
William Friedkin: Oh, I lost a bet! To a guy named Sir Evelyn [de] Rothschild. He’s from the English branch of the Rothschild family. And the loser had to dress up as Ali G. I wasn’t going to do it, although I love Ali G and admire him. Which is why I wasn’t going to do it. But Sir Evelyn had the outfit sent over, including all the bling, and his wife came over to my house with a camera. So I had to do it. Then I was transferring a bunch of old shots from my computer to my iPad, and I saw a few of these things, and I just decided to put them on Instagram. But I had lost a bet.
AVC: Quite a few heads exploded when that photo showed up on the Internet.
WF: Well, I love Ali G. Especially the television show that he did. It was sheer genius.
AVC: Da Ali G Show works by playing off people’s preconceptions and upending expectations, which is also true of the two movies, Killer Joe and Bug, you’ve made with Tracy Letts.
WF: Well, I love his work! I think he’s the very best dramatist in our English language today! You know, one of the very best. If not the best. And I really feel that I’m on the same page with his view of life. I worked with Harold Pinter in the late ’60s, and I felt the same way about Harold as I now do about Tracy.
AVC: Gina Gershon enters Killer Joe bottomless and framed from the waist down, which is not something you could be quite so specific about in a play. That was his idea, and his insistence?
WF: Not his insistence, but I mean, why would you go against that? I will admit that I spoke to a couple of actresses before I approached Gina, and their first questions to me was, “How are you going to handle the nudity and the sexuality?” And that was basically the last question! I figured they could read English as well as I could. I wasn’t going to “handle” it. I was going to portray it as the writer wrote it. What constitutes going too far? I really don’t know. I absolutely don’t know. Read Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, and ask yourself if it goes too far—or just far enough. The important thing is not “Does it go too far?” but “Is it effective?”
AVC: It’s like opening a slow movie with a six-minute shot: It tells viewers right at the beginning what they’re in for, and either you get on board or you might as well leave.
WF: Right. That’s what he had in mind. Letts. And I understand that there were a lot of really good actresses that would be bothered by that.
AVC: Some of it stems from the source material and your admiration for Tracy Letts, but over and above that, there seems to be a real feeling of liberation to these last two movies.
WF: Oh, I never felt restricted in any of the films I made. Like The Exorcist or The French Connection. We used the N-word in The French Connection, not because I’m prejudiced, but because that’s how the cops talk. Even African-American cops use the N-word when addressing an African-American suspect. I never shied away from reality.
AVC: Sure. But Killer Joe and Bug are farther out than...
WF: Farther out than what Hollywood’s making, yes. I’m not interested in what Hollywood’s making! I don’t want to see them! I couldn’t possibly stay awake on the sets of any of these Spandex movies. I couldn’t do them with a straight face. You know, really. I’m not putting them down—it sounds like I am—but I’m not, they’re just not for me. I don’t care how much this one or that one pushes the envelope. It’s not something I’m interested in.
AVC: It’s interesting that you put it in terms of not wanting to be on the set, rather than not wanting to watch them. You came out of live TV and documentary initially, and even a movie like The Exorcist is shot with a certain fluidity, without a lot of standing around and waiting for lights to be set up.
WF: My earliest influences were comic books, obviously. I love comic books, but I never thought of making a film out of one. I love videogames, too! I still play videogames. There’s become a certain sameness about them; the only thing that seems to have improved is the technology. But I don’t want to make something like that as a film. I think they’re fine as what they are. I tried to watch some of these comic books, and I just can’t. I can’t do it! It’s not that they’re bad. People think they’re great, so they must be great—because I don’t think the audience is wrong, usually. But you can differ. You know, people vote for some of the strangest people imaginable that I couldn’t vote for. They’re willing to send them to run our government, run our lives, you know? That’s a stronger decision than making a Spandex movie, voting for some guy who, you know, sounds like a dork and a liar to run everything! So I don’t feel myself politically engaged or engaged with contemporary culture.
AVC: Killer Joe isn’t depressing, but it’s certainly pessimistic about the state of the culture.
WF: I wouldn’t say pessimistic as much as, perhaps, cynical, and viewing these situations with irony. The thing that I most admire in a cultural work or a work of art is irony. Not sentimentality. Whenever something gets too soppy, I’m out. And that includes painting and literature, it includes everything. I think guys like Charles Dickens and Scott Fitzgerald told it like it was.
AVC: There’s, if not theatricality exactly, a kind of creeping anti-realism in the film. You let us spend a lot of time with Juno Temple’s character and even see her naked before she suddenly announces that she’s 12 years old.
WF: No, she’s not 12. That’s the passage where in the sex scene with Matthew. He says to her, “How old are you now?” and she says, “Twelve.” And he says, “So am I.” And she’s referring to the first young boy that she ever loved, that she tells Gina about in the pizza joint—Marshall, the fat kid, the fat kid where they never touched, they never said anything, but she knew that he loved her. Gina asks her, “How did you know?” and she says, “Because he loved me with a true love.” So when Matthew rekindles that in her, she’s referring to Marshall. “How old are you now?” “Twelve.” That’s a reference to Marshall, not to how old she is. Juno had turned 21 when we made the film. She has a scene with Matthew where she says, “When I was 16 years old, Chris and I used to watch Mommy and Daddy fight,” you know. So she talks about when she was 16. She doesn’t say, “Now I’m 21,” but it’s assumed that she’s playing her own age.
AVC: Aha. I just took that to be another level of depravity in the film.
WF: No, there’s no levels of depravity in the film.
WF: Depravity is in the eye of the beholder! Look, you’ve got to wash your mind out here, Sam!
AVC: Apparently so.
WF: I don’t see any depravity. I don’t see any things that aren’t happening right now probably a few minutes away from where you live! And probably in one of the hotel rooms of this building that I’m in. I think there are things that are bad and wrong that people do when they hurt other people—certainly physical or mental cruelty. I think there’s a lot of bad things that they do. But consensual sex is not one of them, unless it’s with a minor.
AVC: I was thinking more of arranging to have someone murdered for the insurance money.
WF: Well, the mother sounds like an awful person to me. Robert Blake beat the electric chair because his lawyers convinced the jury what a horrible person his ex-wife was. They wanted to see her dead. You know, she was a con woman—you know the background of the Robert Blake/Bonnie Lee Bakley case?
WF: His lawyers’ strategy was to make Bonnie Lee be such a horrible person that they actually let Blake off for murder. I don’t know why they—well, I do know it’s very tough to prove first-degree murder in any instance.
AVC: That goes all the way back to The People Vs. Paul Crump, a documentary you made about a wrongly convicted man on death row in Illinois. Through The French Connection and your version of 12 Angry Men, that concern with the perversion or failure of justice goes all through your career.
WF: Yes. Absolutely.
AVC: And Killer Joe as well, of course—not that there’s any justice in the world of this movie. You never see Killer Joe investigate an actual crime.
WF: No, but he certainly has a sense of morality. He’s probably the only guy with any sense of morality in the piece. He has his own sense of morality and of what’s right and what’s wrong. And the rest of them don’t seem to.
AVC: Matthew McConaughey is such a fascinating choice for the role of Killer Joe. There’s no question now that he’s perfect for it, but it certainly wasn’t the kind of part he’d been playing at the time.
WF: No, because he made a fortune playing in romantic comedies. If I was that good-looking, I would have done the same thing. If you’re that good-looking, they just want you to be that good-looking and make love convincingly to the leading lady. I don’t blame him for doing that. He’s now taken control of his career and is trying to do other stuff.
AVC: Did the fact that Matthew McConaughey and Thomas Haden Church are both from Texas, where the story is set, contribute to you casting them?
WF: Yeah, it certainly did. They understood those people and that place. Juno is British, but she auditioned for the film. She sent in an audition tape that was unsolicited, and I thought it was great. I didn’t know anything about her. I had never seen her in a film before. I just saw that audition that she did with her 10-year-old brother playing Joe. And it just knocked me out. I was considering three other women at that time.
AVC: Dottie is a delicate part. She’s certainly unusual, and it’s implied she might be brain-damaged from her mother attempting to suffocate her as an infant.
WF: No, she’s not brain-damaged or crazy at all. She’s totally honest. When most people say exactly what’s on their mind, without any censor, people think they’re crazy. It’s wonderful. I think that Dottie is delightful. Because she’s truthful from within her perspective. I remember once I saw an interview with Jimmy Carter’s mother, when he had just become president of the United States. Do you remember Ms. Lillian?
AVC: I do.
WF: Jimmy’s mother was very outspoken. An older woman, but not unlike Dottie. She was in an interview with Diane Sawyer or Barbara Walters, one of those network interviewers, and they said to her, “You know, we have a myth about our presidents, that they never tell a lie.” It starts with George Washington, who, when he was a boy and he chopped down the cherry tree. And his father came home and he knew there was going to be punishment, but he said, “I admit it, I chopped down the cherry tree,” and he took his punishment. So this interviewer said to Ms. Lillian, “Was your son like that? Did Jimmy ever tell a lie?” And she said, “Well, maybe a little white lie now and then.” And this interviewer said, “What do you mean? What is a white lie?” And she said, “Like if I was to say to you that I like your hair, and I think your dress is pretty.” That seems to me to be where Dottie’s coming from. She won’t say, “I like your hair and I think your dress is pretty.” She says things like, “Your eyes hurt.” She says what comes into her mind—not even a white lie—so people think that that’s crazy. Because the only way society works in our time is through white lies. We don’t say exactly what we mean to anybody or we’d all be at each other’s throats half the time. Letts writes characters who speak their mind, like Ms. Lillian.
AVC: It’s not necessarily how people think of you, but looking back over your career, you’ve directed quite a few films that started out on the stage.
WF: Well, I think I’ve only done five out of 16. I haven’t done a lot of movies, period, but the films I’ve made come from many sources. Some were actual stories and events, others were novels, others were plays, others were from my own imagination or research or something. So films come from many sources.
AVC: But in Killer Joe, for example, the entire last scene takes place in a trailer home, which gives it a somewhat stagey quality. Do you wrestle in adapting a play how much to keep it as-is?
WF: No. Look. You ever see the movie Casablanca? Ninety percent of the film is inside one set. Rick’s Café Américain. That’s from a play called Everybody Comes To Rick’s. All the characters are there, the setting, the situation. It’s a great movie, though. And in those days, nobody ever said, “Jeez, that came from a play.” Even from an unsuccessful play, which it was. A Few Good Men was a play. Great movie.
AVC: His Girl Friday.
WF: His Girl Friday, of course. A Streetcar Named Desire, [Who’s Afraid Of] Virginia Woolf, Cabaret. Now it’s almost fashionable for guys to say, “Well, it comes from a play.” But the original Hollywood screenplays were all written by playwrights. These were the guys who knew how to do drama.
AVC: Sure, but you don’t want to just put the camera on sticks and watch people talk at each other.
WF: No, they’re not photographed plays, obviously. Nor was Casablanca. The thing that’s iconic about a play like that or A Streetcar Named Desire are the performances. That’s what you remember, not the original source material.
AVC: On a different subject, what’s happening with Sorcerer? Last we heard, you were suing Paramount and Universal for not allowing you to screen the film, even as they admit they don’t know if they own the rights to the film or not.
WF: Oh, Sorcerer is now in the Ninth District Court Of Appeals in California. The judge who’s caught the case has ordered a settlement conference to be completed by November 26. And if there’s no settlement, then he has set a trial date for March of 2013. So we’re trying to settle it. And to me, settlement only involves getting the film out on DVD and Blu-ray and loaning it to all the film societies and universities that want to run it. I’m not looking for money from this, and I’ve said that publicly, as I’m saying it to you. If I say it to you, it’ll go public, right?
WF: You don’t just write this thing for yourself and your friends, do you?
AVC: No, I promise.
WF: So it’ll go public, then. Publicly you can say my attitude is, “Fuck those bastards!” I’m suing the bastards, and I hope they read this. I’m trying to, among other things, strike a blow for other films that find themselves in this situation. I happen to have the money, and I don’t give a fuck about them, so that’s why I’m doing it. If I respected them, I wouldn’t do this. I reached out to the head of Universal, and he said, “I’ll get right back to you.” A week later he kicked me off to some guy who’s the head of home video. He said, “What?! I don’t believe this! I’ll look into this right away!” and I’ve never heard back from him. So I had no choice but to sue them. I could lose. They haven’t settled yet. There’s always something that the guilty can hang their hat on in a lawsuit. They’ve got high-priced lawyers, I’m sure, looking for some little hook where they can get away with this and destroy the afterlife of a film I made more than 40 years ago.
AVC: You’ve made films that were successful and films that weren’t, but it seems like the failure of Sorcerer is particularly painful for you.
WF: All of my films are not successful. I don’t have the same affection for all of them. Sorcerer has been a noose around my neck since 1977, but I can’t let it die that way. The films that you make are very much like your children or someone you feel very close to. Not necessarily a relative. You would do everything you could to save them. And that’s what I’m doing. It’s all in God’s hands, and I know that. Believe me, when I heard that both studios were claiming that they didn’t own the film and they didn’t know who did, my first reaction was, “Oh, the hell with it. Let me just let it die.” And then something else kicked in, you know, where I can’t do that. So I have no idea how it’s going to wind up, but if it does wind up that either I can get them to put it out or somebody else, it’ll be out there for whoever wants to see it. That’s all.
AVC: It’s always been true, but it seems especially so now that a film is forgotten if it’s not in circulation on DVD, let alone available in a nice new 35mm print.
WF: There are no 35 prints. A 35 print has a shelf-life of about two years before it starts to fade and die. You take The Godfather, Paramount’s crown jewel. A couple of years ago they went to make a Blu-ray of it, they went into their vaults to get the negative, and it had all faded. In their own vaults! Because that’s the shelf life of a 35. I had a print of Sorcerer. We put it up on reels, projected it, and it was all red! But Paramount had made a brand-new print of Sorcerer a year ago for the American Cinematheque. Or “Cinema-drek,” I’m not sure of the pronunciation. They ran it there; it was a full house, and lines around the block. I was there; the print was beautiful; I did a Q&A. Now they say they don’t own the film and they don’t know who does. And I know what’s going on. I know what’s behind it.
AVC: Which is what, in your opinion?
WF: They’re trying to get rid of all 35s, by hook or crook. They don’t even want to have a bookkeeper up there logging this stuff in and out. What both studios did when they made it, they put it into ownership by an offshore company. It was a company called CIC, Cinema International Corporation, which was only licensed to release films overseas, not in the U.S. That company is out of business. They folded it and they now each have their own distribution, Paramount and Universal. That was like a tax-dodge thing, CIC. And now that’s gone, and I think they have a bookkeeping problem about admitting where the hell it is. A lot of films got caught up in this. A friend of mine at Lincoln Center tried to get Blade Runner and was told they didn’t own it and they didn’t know who did! It was weird, because I happen to know the guy who owns it. He’s a close personal friend. He’s a guy named Bud Yorkin, who with Jerry Perenchio put up the completion bond for Blade Runner. When the film was made and went $8 million over [budget], they had to come up with $8 million in return for which they owned all the ancillary rights: T-shirts, toys, whatever, video. They own the sequel and remake rights, so they’re developing a prequel to Blade Runner. But the studio won’t tell you that Bud Yorkin owns Blade Runner and they don’t.
AVC: You’re obviously enthusiastic about getting your films out on the DVD.
WF: I love it. DVD and Blu-ray is the real American cinémathèque. Without DVD or Blu-ray, millions of people will not have seen some of the greatest classics made around the world. All sorts of films, good or bad, they’re now available, and not only in an accessible format, but in a terrific reproduction. I love Blu-ray and DVD, and I watch them all the time. And I don’t know what’s playing at my local cinema. Or care.
AVC: So what was your reaction to the criticisms of the French Connection Blu-ray? You personally re-timed the colors for Blu-ray, and some people felt you’d defaced a masterpiece.
WF: Oh, The French Connection Blu-ray, the master that we made was absolutely perfect. Then when Fox took it out to reproduce it, mass production, it goes through four different companies. It got screwed up badly, and I didn’t know that. I had only seen the master; I never saw any of the playback copies. And Owen Roizman, the cameraman, got a copy at Best Buy and said it looked like shit! He denounced it. I said, “What are you talking about?” He brought his copy in, and we ran it next to the master, and he was right. The prints were badly made. So we remade them, he and I supervised a new version of the Blu-ray, which went into a Best Buy exclusive, for I think six months, and then it’ll go broad—it’ll replace the other one. What I learned was that Fox, when they put that DVD out, there was a little warning inside the box that said, “This may not play well on your home receiver. If it doesn’t, write to w-w-w dot so-and-so, so-and-so. We’ll send you a disc that will make your own playback receiver compatible.” This was like a caveat emptor. And Roizman was right. The copies were all over the place. That’s not a perfect process, either. We made new ones that should be great, because we had a different company do the mass release. They’re at Best Buy, and when their exclusive expires, they’ll be everywhere.
AVC: It’s interesting to know, because it’s often overlooked how much work has to be done, even with new films, to make them play properly on home video.
WF: Yeah, well, you have to adapt to the new medium. Look, I’m getting the high sign over here, Sam. It was a pleasure talking to you. I hope you’ll write a great article.
AVC: I’ll do my best, sir.
WF: I hope you’ll say that this is the greatest film ever made, that it tops Citizen Kane, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, The Godfather. You want to be honest when you write this piece. Or you can tell a little white lie.