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William Friedkin was a 34-year-old director best known for television and documentaries when he was asked to helm the movie adaptation of Mart Crowley's off-Broadway sensation The Boys In The Band, which was one of the first plays to deal openly with the angst and aspirations of gay men. Friedkin brought his skills as a documentarian to bear, turning a chatty play into a vibrant movie drama that evokes New York in 1970 as much as it captures the pain of living as an outsider. With The Boys In The Band now out on DVD, Friedkin spoke with The A.V. Club about adapting theater to film, dealing with a controversial subject, and the legacy of Crowley's play.
The A.V. Club: The Boys In The Band doesn't really feel like a "filmed play," even though it all takes place in one apartment over the course of one evening. How did you keep it from looking stage-y?
William Friedkin: I tried to keep the actors moving a lot. I let the camera follow them. You know, even on the stage, things can get a bit static. Two guys might wind up standing in one place, then two guys might join them. I purposely set out to keep the actors moving, especially at the beginning. There are really three sections to that film. There's the beginning, which is sort of up and bright and set during broad daylight. Then there is a middle section that begins to turn a little darker at twilight. Finally, the final section is in the rain and in the aftermath of the rainstorm, which was all done on a soundstage. There is less movement in that final section. In the final third of the film, it settles down to just studies of the faces of these guys, as they play "the telephone game." I broke it down in that way to make the first part and the middle part constantly in motion, and the third part settled down.
AVC: That also creates a real sense of the space these characters live in, with all the different nooks and crannies in that apartment, because the audience isn't just looking at it from one or two angles the whole time.
WF: I don't know if they mention this on the DVD, but that was Tammy Grimes' apartment. Tammy Grimes was a friend of Mart Crowley's. He took me to her apartment and she agreed to let us film there. I actually filmed a lot of the beginning stuff on her terrace, and then we copied the terrace and the apartment on a sound stage. I tried very hard to put the story in the real world, not in the world of a play.
AVC: Was it difficult to win over the cast with your ideas, given that they'd been doing it onstage for so long?
WF: First of all, that cast is what Mart Crowley wanted, and I thought he was right. These guys were so good, and they didn't have any star baggage to bring along with them. It wasn't like a star turn for anybody. Then again, we still had to rehearse for a couple of weeks, because they had to get out of their system playing it to the last row in the balcony. We had to rehearse at great length to make it more subtle and make the playing of the scenes just to one another, which is the opposite of what you are doing on a stage. You are always cheating for the audience.
AVC: Were they resistant to that at all?
WF: At first, yes, but then they understood it and they got it. I let them come to the dailies, and they could see what was happening.
AVC: On the DVD, you mention that if you had to do it over again, you might coach Cliff Gorman to dial it back a little bit.
WF: Yes. He is the only real flamboyant character, and I think I let him go a bit too far. But he was a great actor, and his was the showiest performance when it was onstage. So there was this sense of not wanting to diminish that. Today, I think it's just a matter of degree. If you'd say that on a 10 scale, he was playing it up around nine, I would pull it back to five or six today.
AVC: Though Gorman's character is really flamboyant, other characters are far more subtle about their homosexuality, and some are downright macho. Obviously, these are Crowley's characters, based on his own experiences with the range of people in the gay community at the time, but how much personal experience or connection did you have with that community, prior to taking on this assignment?
WF: I had many gay friends, but the way we lived at the time, you would never even use the phrase "gay friends." You just had "friends." There was still the closet, of course, and a lot of people I knew were in the closet, so I understood that. The screenplay and the play were so outrageous at the time, and it's really hard to understand that today. Gay people were just not being portrayed in film—in anybody's film, foreign or domestic, and certainly not in a way that was not judgmental, but simply was laying down the scene, saying, "Here are these people, and this is the way we live now." That wasn't being done. Today, gay characters appear in everything, and there is no mention made of it, really, unless it is a script point or something. So much progress has been made in the 38 years since that film came out. Now, obviously, not enough progress, because Prop 8 here passed.
AVC: Were you an opponent of Prop 8?
WF: Absolutely. I voted against it. I was amazed to see so many groups worked so hard to try and pass it. You know, Obama won by 52 percent of the vote, and I think Prop 8 lost by 52 percent of the vote. But to go back to your previous question, I knew a lot of the guys who were portrayed in Boys In The Band, and of course, Mart Crowley wrote from his own experience.
AVC: Given that, what was your take on the subsequent controversy in the gay community, among people who've called the play too much of a downer? Do you think they have a valid point, or are they missing the big picture?
WF: I would say all that's changed now. Go on the Web and look at the reviews of the film by gay critics that were posted even in just the last few days. All of the articles and reviews over the last few years have been a complete turnaround. At the time, there was a lot of criticism of the film, especially because it was assumed that this was some effort to keep gays in the closet. But it was falsely assumed. For the most part, I remember audiences just enjoyed it for what it was. They laughed, and then they were very moved by it. That's the brilliance of the writing. It's an absolute genius script. But there were a lot of protests against it. Not that many people, but the opinion-makers. A lot of the gay opinion-makers at the time came out against the film. Some of them, their reasons may have been pure. They felt that if you're going to have gay characters on the screen, just put them there, but don't make a movie about "gay life."
AVC: You recently made another filmed play, Bug. Can you compare the process of putting together Boys In The Band with the process of putting together Bug?
WF: Cinema Center bought the rights to Boys In The Band. They, along with Mart Crowley, came to me. It was done, and we didn't have to go around and try to get it made. With Bug, I went to one studio, which I thought was right for it at the time. I had no great difficulty getting that made, either. The guys who ran Lionsgate thought it was an interesting, quirky thing. I felt very strongly about it, that it was a film that captured the paranoia of this age as well as anything I've seen. I had more trouble getting The French Connection sold. The French Connection was turned down by every studio in Hollywood, twice. And really only one studio wanted to make The Exorcist.
AVC: It seems strange that an action film and a horror film would be passed over in favor of these quieter chamber-dramas.
WF: You really couldn't tell anything from the script of The French Connection. It wasn't mainstream. There wasn't a guy in a white hat, you know. The Exorcist, of course, was something that all the studios thought would get busted before it ever opened. When Warner released it, they released to only 26 theaters for six months, because they thought if they went too wide and went into places like the South, and parts of the Midwest, and conservative bastions, they'd get busted. So the studios were more afraid of The French Connection and The Exorcist than they were of Boys In The Band and Bug.
AVC: When you were making The Boys In The Band, were you thinking of it as a mainstream film, or something more in tune with the new underground cinema? Where was your head at?
WF: Oh, underground, certainly. Or independent, really. It was not made by a major company. Cinema Center Films was a new company, and they were owned by CBS. They were clearly taking a chance with releasing that film. No one expected it to be a massive crowd-pleaser. If made for the right price, they thought it would be a wonderful film to have on their schedule. I think all the majors turned it down.
AVC: Did you see yourself as being part of the new breed of filmmakers that emerged in the late '60s and early '70s?
WF: Others have, but I've never thought of myself in those terms at all. I just never thought about stuff like that. My friends, many of whom were filmmakers, guys like Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich At the time, we didn't think about trends or the '70s or changing American film or anything like that. We were just trying to make the films that we could get made, and to push the envelope. We didn't realize how far we had pushed the envelope. That all came later. That all came from books and articles about the golden age of the '70s. Believe me, to a lot of us, it was no golden age. The studio heads were very powerful then. They would fire guys right and left. They would look at your dailies and tell you what was wrong with them a lot of stuff that doesn't go on today. Young filmmakers who are successful today, they don't often have that to put up with.