In a recent interview, Permanent Plastic Helmet found the charismatic director of classics like The Exorcist and The French Connection – and brilliant new thriller Killer Joe – in a playful but outspoken mood. Peering though trademark outsize glasses and looking unmistakably Hollywood (albeit from a different age), Friedkin elucidated on a number of topics, from his directorial process, to censorship, to typecasting. He also went in-depth on Killer Joe, a twisted, trailer-trash noir about a greedy family who enlist a dirty cop to do their bidding with disastrous consequences.
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Killer Joe marks Friedkin’s second collaboration with playwright Tracey Letts after 2006’s baroque, little-seen Bug, and he is full of praise for the man whose play he describes as “a gift from the movie gods”. So what is it about Letts’ work that attracts him to it? “We have the same worldview – we see the world in the same way: absurd. We see characters that embody both good and evil. we don’t see people as totally idealistic. There is potential for great good and great evil in all of us.”
Friedkin’s canon is riven with darkness and moral ambiguity, and it seems he relishes the challenge of dealing with the darker side of humanity in his work. He even has some surprising words for one of history’s greatest tyrants: “I hate to say this because it always gets misinterpreted, but if you read any of the biographies of Hitler, you see that even Hitler had some commendable things about him and I could state them. Not that I’d want to. He’s a candidate for one of the worst 2 or 3 people in history, but there are things in Hitler’s life that surprisingly make you understand he was a human being, not a devil or a creature from another planet. Not an alien”.
Not quite Hitler, but nevertheless capable of monstrous acts, dirty cop Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) joins a long line of ambiguous anti-heroes in Friedkin’s work, from The French Connection’s Jimmy Doyle to Cruising’s Steve Burns and To Live And Die In L.A.’s Richard Chance. So how did Friedkin feel about the character? “I know cops like that [Joe] in Chicago and NYC. They’re all around. There’s a guy I know – a homicide detective in NYC – we call him Uncle Mort, who for 20 years was a cop but also did hits for the Italian mob. I can’t tell you I understand how that comes about other than I know that these people are capable. I’ve seen it. Yes there is a thin line; its very often crossed. the best cops are the ones who most think like criminals. I’ve met such people, and believe me I can’t say I understand from whence they came… what crooked timber of humanity produced such a character but I know they exist. I find them fascinating.”
Though well acted by the entire ensemble (Juno Temple is a revelation as the virginal “retainer”, while Gina Gershon’s shameless hussy reminds us what we’ve been missing), it’s McConaughey as the eponymous Joe who steals the show. Exuding a palpable glee at shaking off 15 years of easygoing, undemanding romantic leads, a startling McConaughey grabs the role with both hands. What was it about the unlikely Texan that intrigued Friedkin?
“I don’t believe in typecasting. McConaughey is from that area. He was born at the Oklahoma/Texas border. He knows those characters, his accent is right and natural. He’s a very good actor. People didn’t realise that because in Hollywood terms he’s so good looking. If you’re in 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 really wanna do is act in a role that can challenge them and find an audience. The studios don’t want that. They make a fortune. Matthew was making $10m a picture just playing a kind of good looking dude who got the girl. A lot of actors like Di Caprio are trying to stretch out; Matthew obviously could, and had the chops. That’s his desire. he could go on and make those rom coms, looking like he does. but that’s not what he wants or who he is.” And was McConaughey Friedkin’s first choice? “It was Woody Allen, but he wasn’t available!”
The cast, as is pretty much par for the course in a Friedkin film, is put through their paces, and the director is clear that it’s important to make actors feel comfortable. “I create an atmosphere in which they [the cast] can feel free to create, be on same page with me – the director – and the writer of the script. Once you’re able to give an actor that, you’ve given them an atmosphere, even the crew. Once they feel they’re free to make a mistake and create, they do their best work. That’s what I found by trial and error.”
Killer Joe, despite its darkness, is a very funny film, though Friedkin asked his cast to play it straight. “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, you know, someone like that. The dark humour that comes out of, let’s 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, it’s in the piece. It couldn’t work if the characters aren’t believable. For example, when Charlie Chaplin played the Little Tramp, you believed this guy was a little tramp. You weren’t thinking actor. Laurel and Hardy, they weren’t like that. Abbott and Costello, the Goon Show, those guys were making it real, and that’s why it’s funny. That’s what I did with my cast.”
Though not overly interested in discussing how he managed to balanced Killer Joe’s various genres (“I think that’s a good question for the writers of the New Testament!”), Friedkin is particularly engaged on the subject of censorship. This an issue with which Friedkin is intimately acquainted, having caused a storm of controversy with The Exorcist in 1973 and been forced to make 50 cuts to 1980’s Cruising to secure an R rating. Though the majority of Killer Joe could hardly be described as family friendly, it’s one prolonged moment of Southern-fried freakery toward its conclusion which likely secured the film’s NC-17 rating; a rating which Friedkin appealed. “We lost the appeal narrowly”, bemoans Friedkin, “…13 to nothing!”
“The appeals board is different from the ratings board”, says Friedkin, “An anonymous group of people. Nobody outside of their relatives know who they are. We don’t know who they are, where they came from, what qualifies them to give a rating. In my case they wanted me to do much more than make trims. they wanted to do what the US govt said it was doing in Vietnam. They said we have to destroy this country in order to save it. And thats what the ratings board would have had me do to Killer Joe.”
Has, as suggested in Kirby Dick’s film This Film is Not Yet Rated, the MPAA stacked the deck against independent films? “Violence is more acceptable to the MPAA than sexuality because they are always uptight. Interestingly though they will find a way around these problems for a major studio film. For example, the recent adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which has a very graphic anal rape scene later followed by a vengeance scene, that was one of the most violent scenes I have ever seen. There isn’t anything like that in Killer Joe. They are against the independent films and why? Because they can be. They perceive violence in the studio movies as cartoonish when it happens in a film like The Avengers, so they get away with the murder of thousands in the film. If the violence is too real for them they slam it, especially with independent films.”
An animated Friedkin continues, “You’ll never see a major studio film with an NC-17. They’ve all gone in in the dead of night and made a few trims and shown the rating board that theyre prepared to bow toward them and recognise their superiority legality (which they are not) they are not a legally binding anything, its a self-govering body of the member companies of the MPAA.”
Yet an element of circumspection sneaks through when the director remarks, “It’s better than what they had before which was a literal censorship code; the Hays Code. Those guys could cut a movie before it went out. They’d read a script which has two people in bed together. The studio head or the writer or producer or whatever would say “but they’re married!”, and they’d say “I don’t care. We can’t show two people in bed together!” They would literally cut scripts before they were made. at least they don’t do that.”
Furthermore, Friedkin laments the passing of the Hollywood in which he came of age as a director. “There were socially conscious films, some were cathartic films that didn’t provide easy answers to life and didnt have a guy with a letter on his chest flying around solving crimes. It wasn’t the dress-up costume show of Hollywood today. Studios are more interested in a sure thing which means a comic book or videogame adaptation. That’s what Hollywood movies are”. His frustration with the modern-day Hollywood scene is clear to see, and it’s refreshing to hear.
As our allotted time draws all too quickly to a close, Friedkin spends his last couple of minutes discussing the contemporary directors he admires. “Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers. And, eh… who else?” After a pause. “Well, the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson!” But after some pondering time, “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, he’s still alive, I’m a great admirer of his work.“ And with that, our interview with a true cinematic feather-ruffler is over. How enjoyable it was.
Killer Joe is in cinemas now.