While New Hollywood brat packers Scorsese, Demme and Spielberg have mellowed into award winning establishment figures, William Friedkin, the enfant terrible of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls era, has stuck to his guns and is still making movies that are as wild as ever.
His latest, Killer Joe, is a fairytale-noir set in a gothic Texas that’s dripping in sex and greed. Chris (played by Emile Hirsch) is a small time drug dealer who gets in debt to the local crime lord and in a desperate attempt to pay the money back convinces his trailer trash family to make a pact with the devil in the form of hit man ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper (a coldly brilliant Matthew McConaughey). Chris’s plan is to have Joe kill his mother so that his spacey little sister Dottie (Juno Temple) can collect on the life insurance. As is often the case with insurance fraud on film (see Double Indemnity, with which Friedkin’s film shares some DNA), the plan goes awry and the film descends from this murkily immoral premise into a black hole of violence and degradation. But even at its most visceral, the darkly humourous script from Tracy Letts (adapting his own 1993 play) makes for rather twisted fun. While in Edinburgh for the UK premiere, Friedkin spoke to i-D online about the film…
This is your second feature based on a Tracy Letts play. What draws you to his work? I love his writing. I think he’s the best dramatist in America today, and getting better all the time. The people who give out the highest prize for drama, the Pulitzer committee, agree with me. But we have the same world view. We see the world through a similar prism.
And what is that prism? Well, we see good and evil in everyone. People aren’t just heroes or villains, we see these qualities in everyone – man and woman. Lawman and criminal is often the same person, it’s not black and white, and we see the world in kind of absurd terms. I guess it’s a defence mechanism, a way of dealing with the absurdity that’s all around us, like the stupid wars that America goes into that crunches up our youths. It’s difficult to accept all of that as reality.
And what specifically about Killer Joe attracted you? There’s nothing like it. If you asked me how I would characterise it, I would have to say it’s a comedy, a black comedy. Some people have called it a film noir – I won’t deny that. Other people have called it a horror film. I don’t quite see that, but some people see it in those terms. I’d discourage anyone from advertising it that way, it isn’t.
To me, it’s almost like a Shakespearean tragedy. You’ve the feckless eldest son who wants to commit fratricide, there’s an ambitious Lady Macbeth character pulling the strings and there’s Juno Temple as the kind of Ophelia figure… I can see that. More than likely it has its origins in the Cinderella myth. To me every little girl wants to be Cinderella, and sometimes for a long time after they grow up they want to have a Prince Charming come and sweep them off their feet and take them out of the dreadful world in which they live. And in this case, this young girl, whose horrible brother and father are trying to pimp her out to a hit man, finds her Prince Charming, but he just happens to be a hired killer. And every little boy wants to be Prince Charming, he wants to find his true love, whether it be male or female, sweep that person off their feet and live happily ever after. It’s the common childhood myth and this is a twisted version of that.
And for your twisted version of Prince Charming you have Matthew McConaughey. Why did you chose him for the part of Killer Joe? There were a lot of other actors that I considered – Billy Bob Thornton, Kurt Russell – but with McConaughey, here’s a guy who is totally charming to begin with but with a dark, lethal side that he’s never been asked to portray before. He’s so good-looking that as an actor, when you’re good-looking and you get to Hollywood, they don’t want you to act. They just want you to show up, look good and romance the leading lady. So he had seven or eight years of doing only that and now he’s decided to exercise his acting muscles; he’s now doing serious roles and he’s got the chops. He he also grew up in that part of the country where this story is set, so he really knew and understood these people.
There were some mixed reactions to the film in the screening I was in. It seems like all your best films split the audience in some way… I don’t know why people respond to my films as they do. There are different responses, and I encourage that and I love that. I don’t make a film that is meant to say ‘here’s the message folks’ at the end, ‘be nice to your aunt.’ There are no messages in my film. People take from them what they bring to them. For example, in The Exorcist, if you think that the world is a dark and demonic place where the devil rules you can take that from The Exorcist. But, on the other hand, if you think there’s a force for good that is constantly at war with the forces of evil within all of us and that sometimes our better angels triumph over our demons you can get that from The Exorcist.
You’re most associated with being part of the New Hollywood wave of the 60s/70s. Did you realise you were a part of something special at the time and do you have an affinity with any filmmakers today? Not at the time. I don’t see myself as part of any movement of any kind. I won’t sign a petition for anything. But I respect not only my contemporaries, but the guys who came before and taught us everything we know. As for films today, frankly, I don’t think they’re as good as they were then. Frankly, I think that most of the films today are simply comic books and video games, they are for teenagers. There aren’t many films with adult subjects out there, but I’m not a part of a movement that’s trying to change that. You’re not going to change it; it is what it is. There is always something called the zeitgeist, and you’re either part of that or you’re not. And it doesn’t matter if you are or you’re not. If you can keep making films, that’s the main thing. I hope for the largest possible audience but I know that unless I make The Avengers, I’m not going to get that.
Killer Joe is showing in UK cinemas now.
Text: Jamie Dunn