After the recent cult hit Bug, Killer Joe is the second film by William Friedkin to adapt a play by Tracy Letts. Once again, it’s pretty intense stuff. This – and some specific, controversial moments – led to the film getting an NC-17 rating in the US. When we got to meet and chat with Friedkin last week, a lot of the conversation was taken up with his opinions on censorship. There’s more, though. Much more. Some of it is quite astonishing, and there’s plenty of references to history, film history, and some big ideas. Friedkin’s clearly a thinker.
So here’s some of what he told us (well, told Patrick Dane. Dane was our special envoy in this case. And a very good job he did too).
The Best Cops Think Like Criminals
Well, I know cops like that. They are in Chicago and New York, not in Dallas, Texas. But Tracy Letts and [star of the film] Mattew McConaughy both know similar characters. They are all around.
There is a particular guy that I know. We call him Uncle Mort. For 20 years he was a homocide detective in New York City and 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 of that. I’ve seen it. And yes, There is a thin line between a policeman and a criminal that is very often crossed and the best cops are the ones that think most like criminals. So I have met such people. I don’t understand from whence they came. What crooked timber of humanity produces such a character? But I know they exist. And find them fascinating.
The Plays Of Tracy Letts
We have the same world view. We see the world in the same way. Sometimes it’s absurd. We see characters that embody both good and evil. We don’t see people as totally heroic or idealistic.
I must say, and I hate to say this because it always gets misinterpreted, but if you have read any of the biographies of Hitler, you learn that even Hitler had some commendable things about him. I could state them. Not that I want to, you know he is a candidate for one of the worst two or three people in history. Stalin would be up there and possibly Attila the Hun. But there are things in Hitler’s life that surprisingly make you understand that he was a human being. Not a devil, not a creature from another planet, not an alien but a human being.
What fascinates Tracy Letts and me about the characters that he has dramatised and that I have directed is the very fact that there is the potential for great good, and that’s great good in all of us. Everyone here, everyone outside on the streets and everywhere else in the world. And I think, given some wayward gene, there are very few of us that couldn’t commit an act of violence or an act of great charity.
Balancing Genres, Tones And Mood
I think that is a good question for the writers of The New Testament. How did you balance all of this crime and demonic possession and goodness and super natural and other worldliness and humanity and charity and violence and “I come not with peace, I come with a sword”? First of all you have to recognise the mix and not be intimidated by it.
I just had a story and a set of characters. I loved the story and I tried to cast it as well as I could and the cast was basically a gift from the movie gods. I have films that I feel, in hindsight, I didn’t cast well for some of the roles – or at least not as well cast as they might have been. I don’t feel that with this picture.
Obviously that is why I am sitting here in the blogosphere. I wouldn’t be talking about it in any positive way if I felt I had fucked it up. One of the reasons that you don’t fuck it up is you have a good cast. And I did have a good cast. Believe me. They embody their roles. And Possibly Gina Gershon will be known for one scene in this picture. I won’t mention which one.
…Which Brings Us To That NC-17 Rating
Violence is more acceptable to the MPAA than sexuality but they are always uptight about one thing or another. Though they will find a way to get around this in one way or another with a major studio. For example, the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo shows [spoilers!] a very graphic scene of anal rape followed by a vengence scene where the young woman cuts this guy up. That’s one of the most violent scenes I have ever seen. I don’t have anything like that in Killer Joe.
I don’t know if you have seen Prometheus but that has some of the most violent scenes I have ever seen. [Spoilers!] An alien impregnating people through their mouth. The alien is really convincing and graphic and it’s a very violent scene. But it was made by a major studio and doesn’t get an NC17.
Well we lost the appeal narrowly against the NC-17 by thirteen to zero.
The appeals board is different to the ratings board. The ratings board are 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. It’s all subjective. It’s like what former Justice of the Supreme Court Potter Stewart said when a pornography case came up. He was asked to define pornography in an interview. 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! What ever the hell it is they are seeing.
If you have any children, you presumably know the names of their teachers of the school or even the principle of the school. You presumably know the mayor of your city. Possibly you even know the name of the Prime Minister of this country. You know where your laws come from. You know the names of some of the MPs. You may even know your own MP. If you don’t like what they are doing you can send them a letter, often even get to voice your opposition and if necessary vote them out of office, whenenough people are like minded. But with the ratings board, we don’t know who they are.
We don’t know if they are political appointees. Or How they got there. Or who put them there. But we do know they don’t have a manual that is as thick as this single sheet of paper. There is nothing in writing that defines what they base their ratings on. It’s totally subjective.
Now, having said that, I think they distinguished Killer Joe with the most draconian rating. They set it aside from the pack of those films that go out into the dark of night, make little cuts and suffer trims to turn their NC17 into an R. In my case, they wanted me to make much more than trims. They wanted to do what the United States Government said it was doing in Vietnam. Some of the Generals said, “We have to destroy the country in order to save it.” That’s what the ratings board would have had me to do to Killer Joe. “Save it” as an R rated film, which would have allowed 13 and 14 year olds to come in.
And the MPAA do this why? Because they can. You will never see a major studio film with an NC17. They have all gone, as I say, in the dead of night and made a handful of little trims that have shown the ratings board that they are prepared to bow toward them and recognise their superiorty and legality. Though they are not a legally binding anything. It’s a self governing body of the member companies of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Having said that, this is better than what they had before which was literally a censorship code. The Hays Code, it was called. Those guys could actually cut a movie before it went out. They would read a script and say “Well you have these two people in bed together in this scene.” And the writer or the studio head or the producer would say, “Yeah but they are married…” “I don’t care. We can’t show two people in bed.”
They would literally cut scripts before they were made. So at least this thing ,whatever it is, doesn’t do that.
Adapting A Play Into A Film
It’s a very common question that you have asked, “How do you adapt a play to the screen?” Well first it has to be a damn good piece of material with interesting characters. Then you have a leg up. But I have done films that have come from every possible imaginable source like news stories, novels, my own imagination, books about actual facts and some are plays, or were, and I tried to make them cinematic.
But I don’t think anyone asked that of Raoul Walsh who directed Casablanca [he means Michael Curtiz] which was a play and mostly set in and around Rick’s cafe. One of the greatest American films ever made was all shot on a sound stage except for the last shot which was at burbank airport. Even the Paris flashback was done in front of a rear projection screen. It’s a play! It happens to be a play with finely wrought characters, wonderful dialogue, humour, pathos and everything else.
So was a film called A Few Good Men. That was a play. I don’t know if anyone ever asked that chap [he means Rob Reiner] how difficult it was. You are getting a great piece of material to adapt to a different process. That’s all. So it does require a bit of opening up but I wouldn’t have done it if I thought it was rubbish.
Most of the earliest sound films were either plays or written by playwrights because there was no one around who had written movies when they were first doing sound.
Getting The Right Actors And The Right Performances
I encouraged the cast play it real. That’s what most really great comedy is about: the fact that you believe in these characters. They are not passing judgement on the characters they are playing. Just 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 you encourage them to keep it real, and make it real. The humour is built in, it’s in the piece. It couldn’t work if the characters aren’t believable.
For instance, when Charlie Chaplin played the little tramp, you believe this guy was a little tramp. You aren’t thinking, “actor”. You are thinking, “This guy is the little tramp.” Laurel and Hardy, they weren’t like that. Abbot and Costello. The Goon Show you had over here long before your time. Those guys were making it real. That’s why it was funny. That is what I did with my cast.
I create atmosphere in which they can feel free, not feel judged, but feel free to create. They feel they are on the same page as me, as their director, and as the writer of the script. Once they feel they are free to make a mistake and to create, they do their best work. That is what I have found by trial and error.
McConaughey is from the area that the story takes place in. He was born at the Oklahoma/Texas boarder and he knows those characters. His accent is right and natural. He is a very good actor. People didn’t realise that because, in Hollywood terms, he is so good looking. If you are a good looking actor who manages to get to Hollywood, all they want you to do is to 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 is called upon for many of the great stars.
But, Like McConaughy, what they really want to do is act, find a role that challenges them and can challenge an audience. But the studios don’t want them to do that. They make a fortune. McConaughey was making 10 million dollars a picture just playing a good looking dude who got the girl. DiCaprio is trying to stretch out and we will see if he can. McConaughey obviously could and he had the chops. He can still go on and make those romantic comedies looking the way he does but that isn’t really what he wants to do or who he is.
Killer Joe opens across the UK on Friday. It’s amongst Friedkin’s best, so make the effort.