William Friedkin interview: Killer Joe, the MPAA and more

With Killer Joe out in UK cinemas today, we met with its director William Friedkin to discuss violence, the MPAA, and much more...

For most readers, we suspect William Friedkin will need little introduction. Best known, perhaps, for movies including The Exorcist, The French Connection, and at a push the quite underrated thriller To Live And Die In LA, Friedkin was among a generation of filmmakers who pushed the boundaries of 70s and 80s American cinema.

Now, Friedkin’s back with Killer Joe, a confrontational, uncompromising collision of thriller, drama and black comedy which has earned critical praise and a certain amount of alarm for its prolonged, frequently unsettling violence. Nevertheless, it boasts some fine performances from a sterling cast, which includes Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple and Gina Gershon as a group of people who find themselves in the presence of Matthew McConaughey’s decidedly amoral Joe.

With Killer Joe out in UK cinemas today, we were lucky enough to sit with Friedkin for a round-table discussion about his latest film, its NC-17 certification in the US, casting McConaughey in an unusually nasty role, and much more… 

Killer Joe is the second film you’ve worked on with screenwriter Tracy Letts. What attracted you to his writing? 

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We have the same worldview. We see the world as absurd and we see characters that embody both good and evil. We don’t see people as totally heroic or idealistic. I hate to say this, because it always gets misinterpreted, but if you’ve ever read any of the biographies of Hitler you’ll see that even Hitler had some commendable things about him.

I mean, he’s a candidate for one of the two or three worst people in human history, but there are things in Hitler’s life that make you understand that he was a human being and not a devil or a creature from another planet. What fascinates me about the characters Tracy’s dramatized is the fact that there’s the potential for great good and great evil in all of us. There are very few of us who couldn’t commit either an act of great violence or an act of great charity.

You’ve said before that there’s a very thin a line between cops and criminals.

Yeah, the best cops think like criminals.

How does that apply to the character of Joe Cooper in Killer Joe?

Well, I know cops like [Joe], although they’re based in Chicago and New York and not Dallas, Texas. But Tracy Letts and Matthew McConaughey know similar characters. They’re all around, by the way.

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For example, there’s a particular guy in New York that we call Uncle Mort. Now, for 20 years this guy was a homicide detective, but at the same time also did hits for the Italian mob. Now, I can’t say I understand why he does that, but I know he – and people like him – exist and I find them fascinating.

Killer Joe was rated NC-17 in the US. Did you appeal that rating?

Well, we lost the appeal narrowly. 13-0! [Laughs] The appeals board is different from the ratings board. The ratings board are an anonymous body of people. We don’t know who they are, where they come from, how qualified they are. It’s totally secret. Now, I’d imagine you all know the name of the Prime Minister of this country and at least the name of your MP. If you don’t like what they’re doing you can send your MP a letter to voice your opposition and – if necessary – even vote them out of office.

With the ratings board we don’t know who they are, we don’t know who put them there or even if they’re political appointees. What we do know is that they do not have a manual that defines what they base their ratings upon. It’s all totally subjective! It’s like what Potter Stewart, a former Justice of the US Supreme Court, said about defining pornography one time. He said: “I can’t really define it, but I know it when I see it!” And that’s what the ratings board does.

They know it when they see it! Now, having said that, they’ve distinguished Killer Joe by giving it the most draconian rating. They’ve set it apart from the pack of those films that go out under the dark of night that make little cuts and trims that turn an NC-17 into an R rating. 

In my case they wanted me to do what the United States government did in Vietnam. As the US generals at the time said: “We have to destroy the country in order to save it.” And that’s what they wanted me to do to Killer Joe. In order to save it as an R rated film, which would have allowed 13 and 14-year-old children to come in and see it, I’d have had to destroy the film. And I just wasn’t prepared – and nor was my distributor – to do that. Having said that, the current system is better than what we had before the MPAA.

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The old Hays Code [which was set up in the 1930s] was a literal censorship code. Those guys could cut a movie before it went out or read a script and say: “Well, you have these two people in bed together,” and the studio head would reply: “But they’re married!” But you couldn’t show that, so scripts would be censored before they were made. So at least this thing, whatever it is, doesn’t do that.

You open Killer Joe with a scene of nudity and close it with a scene of prolonged sexual violence. Do you think there’s an issue within American film culture that violence is acceptable, but that sexuality isn’t?

Violence is definitely more acceptable to the MPAA than sexuality. They’re always uptight about one thing or another, but they’ll always find a way to get around that with a major studio. For example, the US remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo shows a very graphic scene of anal rape followed by a vengeance scene where the victim takes revenge on the rapist. Now, that’s one of the most violent scenes I’ve ever seen. I don’t have anything like that in Killer Joe.

Or have you seen Prometheus? That has some of the most violent scenes I’ve ever seen. A graphic and hugely realistic alien impregnating people through their mouths! But it was made by a major studio and doesn’t get an NC-17. Listen, the MPAA is financed and underwritten as a self-governing body of the member companies of the MPAA. My distributor is not a member of the MPAA and nor are most independent distributors.

The MPAA do this [give NC-17 ratings] to show that they can and to prove that they’re watchdogs, but they don’t do it to their own. Some of the most violent and sexually graphic pictures come out of that ratings board with either an R or even a PG-13 or PG-rating. But going back to what you said: yes, generally sexuality troubles them more than violence. Why is that? Because they perceive violence to be cartoonish, especially when it happens in something like the Avengers.

So that film gets away with the murder of thousands of people, because it’s not believed. But when they’re confronted by something that looks like it could be real… which is usually in an independent film… that’s when they slam it.

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Killer Joe, like your previous collaboration with Tracy Letts [2006’s Bug], started life as a play. How much of a challenge is it to take a piece of theatre and make it cinematic?

I don’t think anyone ever asked that of Raoul Walsh who directed Casablanca! It’s one of the greatest American films of all time and yet everything was done on a soundstage, except for the final shot which was filmed at Burbank airport. Even the Paris flashback was done in front of a backdrop. It’s a play! But it happens to be a play with great characters, wonderful dialogue, humour and pathos.

So was the film A Few Good Men. That was a play too. I don’t think anyone asked that chap [director, Rob Reiner] how difficult it was to make that into a film. You’re getting a terrific piece of material to adapt to a different process. Yes, it requires a bit of opening up, but that’s all.

In many ways Killer Joe is as much a black comedy as it is a crime thriller. Did  you encourage the cast to play up the comedy in the piece?

No, I encouraged them to play it real. That’s what most great comedy performances are about. They’re not about passing judgment on these characters and saying, “look at me, I’m a clown!” Well, not unless you’re Jerry Lewis! Take Doctor Strangelove as an example. I believe all those characters Peter Sellers played in that film… including Dr Strangelove, who is very reminiscent of Henry Kissinger, whom I happen to know. But no, you encourage the cast to make it real.

The humour is already built into the piece, so you just have to make sure the characters are believable. When Charlie Chaplin played the Little Tramp you weren’t thinking ‘actor!’ It’s the same with Laurel and Hardy and Abbot and Costello. Those guys all played it real and that’s why it’s funny.  

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Matthew McConaughey is really playing against type here. What did you see in him for the role and was he your first choice to play the lead?

My first choice was Woody Allen, but he wasn’t available! [Laughs] McConaughey is from that area. He was born on the Oklahoma/Texas border, so he knows those characters and his accent is right and natural. He’s also a very good actor, but people didn’t realise that because – in Hollywood terms – he’s so good looking. If you’re that good looking and manage to make it in Hollywood then 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 and that’s all that many of the great stars are called upon to do.

However, like McConaughey, most of them just want to find a role that challenges them. But the studios don’t want them to do that because they’re making a fortune. McConaughey was making $10 million a picture just playing a kind of good-looking dude who gets the girl. A lot of actors are trying… I mean, DiCaprio is trying to stretch out and time will tell if he can.

McConaughey obviously could and clearly has the chops. He could still go on and make those romantic-comedies looking the way he does, but that isn’t really who he is or what he wants to do. 

Do you think there’s the same variety of roles out there for actors like McConaughey that were available when you first made your name as a director in the early 70s?

No, there aren’t.

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What’s the reason for that?

Well, in Hollywood today the studios are more interested in a sure thing and that means either: a comic-book adaptation, a videogame adaptation or a romantic/raunchy comedy. That’s what modern Hollywood movies basically are.

When I started directing in the late 60s/early 70s 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 and didn’t have a guy with a letter on his chest flying around solving crimes! There were films of a wide variety and they were largely made for adults.

Nowadays, Hollywood films are largely made for teenagers and fanboys and geeks! I don’t say that derogatorily, geeks are self-described. There may even be some in this room!

As a director, how do you approach getting the best out of your actors?

By creating an atmosphere where they’re free and not judged and where they feel that they’re on the same page with the director and the writer of the script. Once you’re able to give an actor or actress that freedom to work – and more importantly, the freedom to make a mistake – that’s when the cast and crew do their best work. That’s what I’ve found, anyway. 

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Killer Joe is a film that straddles lots of different tones and genres. How did you manage to juggle those shifts?

I think that’s a good question for the writers of the New Testament. [Laughs] “How did you balance all of this crime and demonic possession and goodness and supernatural other-worldliness and humanity and charity and violence?” [Laughs] First of all you have to recognise it and not be intimidated by it.

I loved the story and the characters and I tried to cast it as well as I could. And the cast was basically a gift from the movie gods. I have made movies in the past where, in hindsight, I feel I didn’t cast them particularly well. But I don’t feel that way with this picture. In fact, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it in any positive way if I thought I’d fucked it up! And one of the reasons you don’t fuck it up is you have a good cast who inhabit their roles and [on Killer Joe] I did.

Killer Joe feels like a very contemporary film. Which current filmmakers do you admire?

In today’s film making world? Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers are the ones who come to mind. I like Wes Anderson’s work too. I think he’s an interesting and original filmmaker. However, in terms of influences… well, people like Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, but also the Italian Neo-Realists, the French New Wave and even the English New Wave of the 1960s. Those were all big influences.

But then so were some of the classic American directors of the 1940s and 50s, like John Ford and Joseph Mankiewiecz, I’m also a fan of the directors of some of the Hollywood musicals, such as Vincent Minelli and Stanley Donen. I happen to know Mr Donen, who’s still alive, and I’m huge admirer of all his work.

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William Friedkin, thank you very much.

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