The Crooked Timber: A Conversation with William Friedkin

William Friedkin on Killer Joe

"From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." —Immanuel Kant.

Even before I knew what a cinephilic sensibility was, mine was being shaped by the evolving filmic projects of William Friedkin and their focus on humanity's crooked timber.  As a participatory member of the Gay Movement of the early 70s, I resisted the scriptural representation in Friedkin's The Boys In the Band (1970) and—a decade later—Cruising (1980), but was undeniably swept up in the Catholicized hysteria surrounding The Exorcist (1973), which I managed to catch at its Bible Belt premiere in Little Rock, Arkansas.  The French Connection (1971) challenged Peter Yate's earlier Bullitt (1968) with its iconic car chase and Sorcerer (1977) dazzled me with its suspenseful virtuosity and has continued to intrigue me with its court battle over copyright.  To Live And Die in L.A. (1985) introduced me to the talent of such actors as William Petersen and Willem Dafoe; but, it wasn't until Bug (2006)—Friedkin's first collaboration with author Tracy Letts—that I was drawn back into Friedkin's work.  With Killer Joe (2012), his second collaboration with Letts (and a film that Eddie Muller categorizes as "redneck grand guignol"), Friedkin confirms his contemporary presence and his evolving command of the cinematic landscape.  As Tim Sika phrased it in his introduction to the film's recent word-of-mouth screening in San Francisco: "Friedkin's contributions to film history, film language, film commerce, film conversation, film culture, film art have been—in a word—inestimable."

My thanks to Kelda McKinney and Allied / THA for the opportunity to sit down with William Friedkin during his San Francisco press junket.  This transcript is cobbled together from our one-on-one conversation and some of Friedkin's comments at the Q&A session conducted the evening before.


MICHAEL GUILLÉN: During last night's Q&A session following the film's word-of-mouth screening, you did a good job of defining for your audience what your role is as a director.

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: It's the truth!  I could bullshit you but that's really what it is.  There's a lot of bullshit written about directing—the auteur theory and all that, with its genius intelligence that ignites everything you see on the screen—but, what directing really is and the first thing a director does is to pick the piece of material you want to do.  That's the most important thing.  The next important thing is casting it.  If the casting is off in any way, it's not going to work.  I don't care how good the material is.  Then the next thing the director does is to provide an atmosphere where the actors and the crew, the people who actually make the film, can feel free to do their best work and to not feel that—as the director—you're going to be judgmental.

So when I cast somebody, I have a long conversation with them.  Not unlike what I imagine psychiatrists do.  I've never been in therapy, but I understand that—if you see a psychiatrist—he asks you to talk about what's bothering you, and so you do.  When I meet with an actor, I'll try to get on the same page with this actor.  Once I am, and once he knows what I'm looking for and we understand what the story is and what the underlying meaning is, then I'll just give them the stage movements on the set.  I'll say, "You go over there.  You come here.  You walk over there.  You sit down here."—whatever the hell it might be—and then we shoot it.  Because I believe more in spontaneity than perfection.  If I were doing Shakespeare, I would probably rehearse it for two or three weeks and do 16 takes of everything; but, for a contemporary drama, what I'm looking for—the only thing I'm looking for—is spontaneity.

We didn't rehearse.  I don't like rehearsals.  I used to rehearse.  I rehearsed The Exorcist for five weeks in a little room above a restaurant in New York City.  I could have put it on the stage.  By the time we started to film it, it was dead.  It just laid there.  I had rehearsed the life out of it.  When we started the film, I remember saying to the cast, "Forget everything we've done.  Forget every movement and everything I told you and let's just start fresh.  You guys know the lines.  Do them as close in proximity as you can but don't just come out here with memorized lines."  Ever since then, I have not rehearsed.  What's important for me is that—when you look at a scene on the screen—you believe it.  The key to that is casting, obviously.  If I've miscast a picture, I can have all the spontaneity I want and it's not going to matter.  It won't work.

With Killer Joe, I would only do a second take if the camera fell over or if the actor had a heart attack.  I don't own stock in Eastman Kodak, fortunately.  When I started directing, I would do as many takes as any other damn fool, y'know?  Hoping for a miracle on about take 19.  When I got in the cutting room I found that what I would wind up using in the film was the first printed take.

I direct a lot of operas as well and I find that the great opera singers in the world that I've been fortunate enough to work with want the same thing that really good actors want, which is a psychological underpinning for their character and a staging that works.  One of your responsibilities as a director is to decide where the camera should go in order to focus the audience's attention where you'd like it to be.  Sometimes some of the really great directors like Stanley Kubrick will do a 12-minute scene without a cut and just let the audience find whatever they want.  I've never reached that sort of nirvana where I can let the scene just happen, though I'm still working towards it because I think it's the best way.

For example, Killer Joe has a lot of sex and violence.  There are three ways to depict sex and violence in a film.  The first way is not to do it, don't bother, don't go there.  The second way is to do it very subtly; to stop at the closed door, so to speak, and leave it to the audience's imagination.  That's a good choice.  The third way is to serve it up raw.  That comes from the writer.  In the case of Killer Joe, that comes from Tracy Letts.  That's what he wants and I recognize that.  He doesn't want to rub your face in it, but he sees how violent and dysfunctional and from what a dark place these people come from.  The film is really about the crooked timber of humanity.  That's sort of the film's underlying meaning.  Although I can tell you that now, I'm not judging these characters when I'm making the film.  If an actor's playing Hitler, he can't pass judgment on Hitler.  He's got to play Hitler.  He's got to find Hitler inside himself.

GUILLÉN: I'm intrigued by your refutation of the auteur theory.  Don't you feel that there is a signature to your work that carries throughout your films?

FRIEDKIN: If there is, I'm not aware of it.

GUILLÉN: You don't have a sense of that?

FRIEDKIN: I really don't.  I've heard others comment on it but I don't recognize it.  Various subjects interest me.  All of my films are eclectic.  I don't really make the same film.

GUILLÉN: You're no stranger to San Francisco?

FRIEDKIN: No, I really got my start in San Francisco.  The first film I made was a documentary, which in 1962 won the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival.  While I was here, I saw a play at the old Actors Workshop and it was a production of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, which probably influenced me more than any other single piece of material.  I wound up directing a film of The Birthday Party (1968).

GUILLÉN: What caught my attention with Killer Joe was its editorial rhythm.  I'm aware Darrin Navarro was your editor, but how involved are you with the editing process?  Did you get in the editing room with Navarro?

FRIEDKIN: Totally!  Darrin Navarro certainly has his own ideas, but I decide where to start and stop every frame.  I usually have the whole film in my head before I make it, but then I discover it in the cutting room.  Very often, when you're in the cutting room, the film speaks to you, if you'll listen.  The film will sometimes say things like, "I am not this.  I am that.  Get rid of this scene; it's too long.  Cut here."  The film actually talks to you.  I took nine scenes out of The French Connection that I had shot because—when I got in the cutting room—I recognized that they were just scaffolding and that they were just there to illustrate the contrast between the French guy and the New York cop.

Editing is my favorite part of filmmaking and I supervise every frame of what's in the picture.  I make the decision.  My collaborator in the cutting room certainly has a voice and has had many suggestions that I've used and are in the film because I don't operate it as a dictatorship; but, to me, editing is where the film is made.  Everything else is raw material for the cutting room.  All the shooting is nothing moreorless than raw material for the cutting room.  A lot of actors don't like to hear that, but that's what it is.  The film takes its life in the editing room in the same way that a child is formed through a sexual act between a man and a woman, by the grace of God.  The film is born in the cutting room by the actions of whoever's editing the film.

It's an instinctive process.  I don't know what the rhythm of the film is going to be until I get in the cutting room and the film speaks to me.  I told you, the film talks to me.  Do I mean that literally?  Yes!  In the way that some people can get, let's say, a literal sense from an object or a talisman, something they touch.  For example, I carry this around with me everywhere.  [Friedkin removes an object from his pocket and sets it on the table.]  It's an encased image of the Virgin that was given to me by a woman from the chorus of an opera I directed set in a convent: Suor Angelica by Puccini.  This object gives me great peace and contentment.  I listen to it and I feel its presence.  I try to carry it everywhere.

In a similar way, I listen to my films.  I'll put two shots together and run them back and they don't work.  And then I'll take two frames off, or add some frames, or recombine them or move them around and suddenly it will work like a crossword puzzle.  Or it doesn't work.  I look at it afterwards and I've made a mistake.  I'm human too.  I've made a lot of mistakes in my choices and I pay for those mistakes dearly whenever I see my films, like when I finish cutting them or in the mixing room.  I watch it over and over hundreds of time to do the sound mix.  Last night I saw about the last six or seven minutes of Killer Joe while waiting to go onstage and, y'know, all I can see now are mistakes that I've made.  I don't see the power anymore.  I'm immune to that.  Or the humor.  I hear the audience laughing in the places that I expected they would laugh.  I even hear the restraint behind some of their laughter and the giving up of restraint in others; but, the choices that I make for how audiences finally see the film and how it all comes together are in the cutting room.

It's like trying to capture fireflies.  They light up for an instant.  When I was a kid we had fireflies in the park where I grew up.  They were right there in front of me and I'd reach for them and try and grab them and I never could.  That's what you're doing in the editing room.  You're trying to reach for moments that work together and combine them in a harmonious way.  That's the most exciting part of filmmaking.

GUILLÉN: Let's discuss some of your editorial choices for Killer Joe.  Where I especially felt the film's editorial rhythm was in the scene where Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) and Dottie (Juno Temple) are readying themselves to have sex and he's removing several items off his person.  You kept cutting to the items he's removing.  Why all those close-ups of objects?

FRIEDKIN: Because Killer Joe and Dottie are both, in a way, stripping down their defenses.  Not just her.  In the script he merely asks her to take this off, take that off, leave your socks on, take your brassiere off, take your panties off, whatever it is.  While she was stripping down, it was my choice to have him turn his back on her and put it in his imagination while he too is stripping down his defenses: his badge, his gun, his beeper.  All of the things that define him and protect him physically, he removes just as she is removing her safeguards and defenses.

GUILLÉN: I'm fond of the connective tissue between an original manuscript and its filmic adaptation.  Clearly, with this project, the screenplay came to you?  So the play had already been converted into a screenplay?  How faithful were you to Tracy Letts' screenplay?

FRIEDKIN: We made some changes, Tracy and I, once I got involved because I had ideas.  As I told you I work with my editor in the cutting room, that's how Tracy will work with a director.  In his case he's only had two films made from his work and I've made both of them.  The way we work is that he is the creator, he created this material, I come in to interpret it, but I have a voice in what it's going to be.  Obviously, I'm on the same page with him but there are certain things I feel need to be done to make the movie.

For example, the chase scene with the motor bikes is not in the script.  It's something I wanted to add.  I saw the locations and the possibility of doing something like that so I emailed him.  He was appearing in a play at the time.  He wasn't on set for any of the shooting.  He was doing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Chicago with Steppenwolf, which he's taking to Broadway this Fall with that company.  But I emailed him and I said, "I would like to expand the script.  I'd like to have a chase in the film, a small one involving Chris (Emile Hirsch) and these bikers."  He emailed me back, "Chase away."

As another example, Tracy originally had a different kind of murder scene and the killing of the mother.  He originally had them take her body to her car and push it onto a railroad track in the path of an oncoming train.  There have been a lot of killings in that way in that part of the country: where people get drunk or are purposely positioned on a railroad track at night in a car.  But we couldn't get permission to use a train to do that so I invented the death scene.  I told Tracy what I could do.  I emailed him and said, "I can't get the train.  We can't do it.  But here's what I can do.  I can have them take her body to where they'd placed her car at an after-hours bar that was now closed and put her in there and blow up the car to make it look like an accident.  To make it look like she was smoking and drinking at the same time and had maybe spilled some ash into alcohol and blew herself up."  That wasn't in the script.  It was a scene I invented out of necessity.

So there are many instances like that where the film departs from the script.  All of my choices—like the stripping down that you asked about—were choices I made but I feel that I remained faithful to the script and these characters.

GUILLÉN: I was also fascinated with how the dog—who was usually barking at Chris—would go silent whenever Killer Joe was around.  Was that in the script?

FRIEDKIN: Yeah.  The dog senses power.  The dog also senses weakness, as you known an animal will.  But you can stop an animal just by pointing at him with a certain attitude.  You make the animal feel fear by showing that you're not afraid.  You can freeze that animal.  I've done that myself.

GUILLÉN: As a commentary on the personalities of both Chris and Killer Joe, I found a lot of humor in the dog's individual (and timed) reactions to them, which in turn caused me to reflect on how much humor I found throughout Killer Joe, as I do in many of your films.

FRIEDKIN: It's inadvertent.  No, it's built in.

GUILLÉN: It's circumstantial humor.  Even The Exorcist had scenes which struck me as quite funny though most, I know, found them horrifying and might argue with me.  So what is the role of humor for you in emphasizing suspense or horror?  How do you balance what's humorous with what's deadly serious?

FRIEDKIN: Those things, you come to realize, are a necessity in a story that's as dark as The Exorcist or Killer Joe.  The audience needs an outlet for their pent-up anxieties and one excellent outlet for anxiety is laughter.  You sometimes laugh inadvertently to show yourself that this particular scene in a movie isn't really getting to you.  I've noticed that in a lot of the audiences for Killer Joe and The Exorcist, there's inadvertent laughter that serves as a kind of release.  But Tracy Letts knows that too and he built that into Killer Joe.  A lot of the tension and release that was in The Exorcist wasn't built in but they occurred at the same places every single time.  So I learned and perceived that when it came to the Killer Joe script.  It's something that Tracy realized as well.  Audiences have a need to relieve the tension no matter how high the filmmakers pile it on.

GUILLÉN: May we discuss some of your earlier films?

FRIEDKIN: Sure.

GUILLÉN: Both Boys in the Band and Cruising were considered controversial in both gay and straight camps, for varying reasons.

FRIEDKIN: Well, yes, both Boys in the Band and Cruising have homosexual characters; but, Boys in the Band for me, pure and simple, was a great love story.  It was very funny at times and tragic at other times.  In other words, it's a great piece of material that I loved.  It was never about gay life or the gay lifestyle.

Cruising was a murder mystery set in the S&M world and it was based on a series of murders that had happened.  In fact, I have a short degree of separation from the actual murders of Cruising.  There's a scene in The Exorcist where there's an arteriogram.  They're trying to determine if the arteries of the little girl's brain are damaged and it's one of the scenes that most people find the most frightening in the film.  It was done at NYU Medical Center by an actual neuropsychiatric surgeon and his assistant.  These guys were real.  They weren't actors.  The assistant was a guy named Paul Bateson.

About two or three years after The Exorcist came out, I'm reading The New York Daily News and I see Paul Bateson's picture in the paper and there's a long story of how he's suspected of having murdered eight or nine people in the S&M clubs in downtown New York.  His lawyer's name was in the article and I called his lawyer—Bateson was at Riker's Island, which is a holding facility where he was awaiting trial—and I asked his lawyer if Bateson would see me.  Word came back that he would.  So I went to Riker's and saw Paul Bateson.  I asked him if he had murdered these people and he said, "Y'know, I remember murdering this one guy Addison Burrell", who was the theater critic for Variety.  Bateson picked him up in a place called The Mineshaft in lower Manhattan, took him home, they took a lot of drugs, you know the drill, and he wound up hitting him over the head with a frying pan he remembered, and then cutting him up and putting the parts of Burrell's body in body bags that were found in the East River.  Though Bateson worked with a brain surgeon, he himself was not a brain surgeon because the body bags all had little indications that they were from the NYU Medical Center and that's how the police tracked him.

Bateson told me his story and about The Mineshaft and it turned out that a friend of mine Matty Ianniello—a big mafia figure who's still alive and nicknamed "Matty the Horse"—owned all the S&M clubs in New York.  In fact, he owned the Stonewall where gay liberation really started.  I asked Matty if he would give me permission to visit The Mineshaft and I did.  At the same time, I knew a police detective named Randy Jurgenson who did what Pacino does in Cruising.  Jurgenson was sent into the S&M world to see if he could find the killer because he resembled most of the victims.  That gave me the story of Cruising: the confluence of detective Jurgenson and what he did, Paul Bateson, and a murder mystery set in that world that was never solved.

What happened to Paul Bateson—as he told me at the time—was that the police offered him a deal.  If he would confess to eight to twelve of these murders, they would shorten his sentence.  I said, "Why?"  He said, "So they could get headlines that twelve unsolved murders were now solved."  I said, "What are you going to do?"  He said, "I don't know.  I'm not sure."  He got out five years ago.

Now, Cruising came out at the time that gay liberation was taking some very important steps out of the closet and it was not the best foot forward, obviously, for the gay movement.  I understand and recognize that now.  At the time, it seemed to me like a great murder mystery set in a world and a scene that many people, most people, gay or straight, were not aware of.

I have no apologies for any films I've ever made.  Some are good.  Some are horrible.  Shit happens.  All I can say to you is what the actor said who was playing Hamlet.  There's an actor who's doing Hamlet, possibly the greatest play in the English language, and he's getting booed.  Every time he comes out on stage and says something, he gets booed.  Finally, in Act Four, he stops the play, comes down to the footlights, he looks at the audience and says, "What do you want from me?  I didn't write this shit."  That's where I'm coming from: I didn't write this shit.  I just liked it, that's all.

GUILLÉN: Absolutely fascinating, thank you.  Sorcerer, I understand, is in a legal dispute over who owns the film?

FRIEDKIN: That's right.

GUILLÉN: Is there any indication of when that legal dispute might be resolved?

FRIEDKIN: The first court appearances took place about a week ago at the Federal Court of Appeals in Los Angeles.  They set a date in November for a settlement conference to be completed no later than, I think, November 26th.  If there's no settlement by then, it's calendared for trial in March 2013.  I thought there would be an earlier solution but the court kicked it over to the November settlement conference where we might spare the court the ennui of having to listen to this case.  But they scheduled it for trial if we don't resolve the issue at the settlement conference and I'm prepared to go to trial to determine the rights and to get the film back out there for people who want to see it.

GUILLÉN: And there are quite a few of us who want to see it!

FRIEDKIN: I know that.  I get a lot of mail about it.  I've said in my lawsuit that this is not about money.  If there is any money coming to me from the release of the film and from people screening it who want to see it—film societies, universities, whatever—if there's any money from that, I'll donate it to film preservation primarily, but also restoration.

GUILLÉN: Why it's such an honor to speak with you today is because I have literally grown up with your movies, which I've been watching for decades.

FRIEDKIN: You must be a very troubled man.

GUILLÉN: Not at all.  Your films have enrichened my life experience.

FRIEDKIN: Great.  I'm glad to hear that.

GUILLÉN: But I'm curious what it's like for you, as a filmmaker, to deal with the recent changes that have reshaped filmmaking; the digital revolution, participatory culture, and all of that?  Do you have any thoughts on the changing nature of spectatorship?  How audiences are changing in relation to content?  Are you aiming your more recent films towards a different kind of audience?

FRIEDKIN: No, I'm not aiming my films at anybody except, perhaps, people who are as curious as I am about the crooked timber of humanity.  I'm aiming away from teenage audiences, although I think there are many young teenagers that have every bit the intelligence to absorb the kind of films that I make as do adults.  Eventually, kids will see my films on home video or on video-on-demand or on cable television.  It's hypocrisy to think they won't.  But I'm not targeting teenagers with my films the way Hollywood is targeting them with everything.  Comic book and video game characters are not what I'm interested in seeing so there are very few films that I can see today.  There aren't many films made for me anymore and there used to be.  I couldn't wait for the new film from the French New Wave or the Italian neo-realists, Fellini and Antonioni and Godard and Truffaut and Clouzot.  I used to look forward to almost every film that was coming and I knew the filmmakers—if not personally—but, I knew about their lives, their interests and I'm less involved today with all of that.  The films that are being made today by Hollywood that are hugely popular are just not for me.  They're not of any interest to me whatsoever.  I don't put them down—they're hugely popular!—but they're not for me.

GUILLÉN: You stated last night that, generally speaking, all the scripts for your films—including The French Connection and The Exorcist—have come to you. You haven't sought them out?

FRIEDKIN: Generally not.  I did seek out Bug.  I had no idea what it was when I went into a little off-Broadway theater and saw it for the first time.  It touched me very deeply and powerfully and so I then sought out Tracy Letts with the idea of making a film of it.  Then a year or two later I got a call from Tracy saying, "I have another script.  Would you like to read it?" and I said, "Sure."  It was Killer Joe.  He sent it and I said, "It's great" and he said, "You want to do it?" and I said, "Sure, if I can cast it."  I went out and cast it and we made it.  We shot it in 20 days.

GUILLÉN:You've spoken about how important casting is to your role as a director.  What went into casting Matthew McConaughey?

FRIEDKIN: I cast Matthew McConaughey because I wanted a guy who was almost as goodlooking as I was.  No, here's the point about McConaughey: he spent all those years making a fortune doing what they call rom-coms.  If you're that goodlooking in Hollywood, they really don't want you to act.  They don't need you to act or play a character or anything.  They just need you to show up and convincingly make love to the leading ladies.  That's what he did for many years.  But he's got the chops.  He's got a lot more than that; but, he had to take over his career because the studios would never cast him in anything like Killer Joe and he wanted to act.  You can't act in most Hollywood pictures.  You just show up and it's the way you look—whether you look funny or are goodlooking or you look like the average person's idea of a bad guy.  You get cast that way and they don't want you to act.  But he's now done a number of films that have changed the course of his career.  I never saw any of McConaughey's pictures.  I first watched him when he was being interviewed by Larry King one night, which I was watching instead of reading Proust.  It was a long and interesting interview.  I had been thinking of real horses, y'know?  Guys like Billy Bob Thornton or maybe even Josh Brolin.  Guys who were known for playing bad guys convincingly.  I'm looking at McConaughey and it occurred to me, "That's the guy I want for Killer Joe."  He's charming.  He's seductive.  He's not some evil hunchback of Notre Dame, or something like that.  He's some goodlooking guy with a lot of charm and, believe me, that was not my first choice.  But those things get delivered to you if you open yourself up to them.

GUILLÉN: I was particularly impressed with Thomas Haden Church's brilliant portrayal of Ansel.

FRIEDKIN: That's guy great.

GUILLÉN: It's the supporting turn of the year, as far as I'm concerned.  When casting, why did you choose him?  How did you know he would be the right person for this role?

FRIEDKIN: Instinctively.  I had seen him, again, on interviews but also loved him in Sideways [2004]—it's all I had seen him do—but, instinctively I was drawn to him because I knew he was from (and still lives) in that part of the country where the film is set so he would know and understand these people.  And he did!  He and McConaughey come from that area of the country and they get it, y'know?  They don't need a tutorial in who those people are.  By the way, neither one of them are those characters, they're actors, but they have an innate understanding and experience of their characters.

GUILLÉN: Which leads me to wonder about the fascination American audiences have with these kinds of characters caught in grand guignol scenarios.  Eddie Muller was just describing the film to me as "redneck grand guignol," something grotesquely American in its amorality, and in that respect reminiscent of Elia Kazan's 1956 adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll.

FRIEDKIN: Well, Baby Doll in its day was severely censored and edited.  It was disapproved by the Catholic Church, which brought in an audience.  While I love the work of Elia Kazan, I don't think Baby Doll is his shining hour because he couldn't express as powerfully as you can today the underlying sexuality of that film, or the violence, or the strangeness of the relationship between Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker, who was much younger.  They had to back away from it.  It was the times, y'know?  There's much more freedom of the screen today.  I think if Kazan was around today and re-made Baby Doll it would blow your head off.

GUILLÉN: Can you speak at all to what that prurient appetite is in American audiences for this kind of material and why they want to watch these kinds of—for lack of a better term—trailer trash narratives?

FRIEDKIN: Many don't!  There are many people who won't watch this kind of narrative.  But I don't know what you mean by "this kind" because I think Killer Joe is a unique and unusual story.  There are similar works—Baby Doll being one, the writings of Jim Thompson being another possible source—but, Tracy got this story from a news item he read about a Florida family.  He set it at the Texas / Oklahoma border because that's where he's from; but, this situation was in the newspaper.  I hope people are curious enough to see the film, but I don't know that there's an epidemic of people lusting to see it, no, I don't know that at all.

GUILLÉN: I guess what I'm sensing is that Killer Joe adheres to a tradition of Southern Gothic literature in its focus on grotesque characters.  Though on the periphery of that tradition, Killer Joe reminds me of the work of an East Texan author I much admire: William Goyen.

FRIEDKIN: Oh yeah, okay.  Faulkner wrote the same way.

GUILLÉN: I was feeling some of those influences in this narrative.

FRIEDKIN: I don't.  I have no other particular influence.  What influenced me was what was in the script, y'know?  I love the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles and others that I've mentioned but there's none of them in this, other than certain principles of filmmaking that Hitchcock nailed to the church door forever.  The principles of filmmaking are all embodied in the collected works of Alfred Hitchcock.  Whether you like the films or not, they are text books on how to make a film.

GUILLÉN: How would you characterize Killer Joe then?

FRIEDKIN: To me, it's a kind of a Cinderella story.  It seems to me that every little girl when they're very small want to be Cinderella.  They want to get out of their very difficult circumstances, even if they live in a nice house, because when you're a little kid, you always feel put upon.  Every little boy at a certain age wants to be Prince Charming.  He wants to find his princess and take her away to his palace.  In this case, Dottie is a contemporary Cinderella who finds her Prince Charming but he just happens to be a hired killer.  That's the metaphor we worked off of.

GUILLÉN: So speaking of Cinderella, how did you find Juno Temple?

FRIEDKIN: I was originally going to go with Jennifer Lawrence for the role of Dottie.  I hadn't signed her but I had a great meeting with her.  Obviously, it was before she did The Hunger Games [2012].  But Winter's Bone [2010] had come out and I thought she was fantastic.  She's smart and she was the right age, 21, and while I was meeting with her and other people you may know, Juno Temple sent my casting director Denise Chamian an unsolicited audition tape that she did with her 10-year-old brother.  I don't know how Juno saw the script.  I had never heard of this young woman.  Denise said, "Look at this."  I looked at her unsolicited audition and I said, "That's the girl.  That's who I want.  Sign her."  And we did.

She lives in England and came to America.  She came to my house to meet with me and she had this thick English accent.  Really as thick as it gets.  You needed subtitles.  But by the time we shot Killer Joe, her American accent was perfect.  Juno Temple was a gift from the movie gods.  Just what I was looking for, as was Linda Blair.  Would you like to know how I cast Linda Blair?

GUILLÉN: I've heard her version.  Tell me yours.

FRIEDKIN: We saw literally thousands of tapes of young 12-year-old girls for The Exorcist and it was impossible.  There was nobody.  I started to look at 16 and 17-year-old women who looked younger and that wasn't working out either.  I had just about given up.  I thought the film couldn't be made.  I was sitting in my office at Warner Brothers in New York, which was then at 666 5th Avenue.  I swear to God.  The building's still there but they've changed the address once they figured out what it meant.  But that's where we prepared and edited The Exorcist.

So I'm sitting in my office there and my assistant at the time said, "There's a woman out here named Eleanor Blair and she's brought her daughter with her.  She doesn't have an appointment but will you talk to her?"  I said, "Why not?"  They came in.  The instant Linda came through the door, I knew that this was the girl.  She sat down with her mother in a very tight space and I said, "So, Linda, do you know anything about The Exorcist?"  She said, "Oh yes, I read the book."  She wasn't quite 12, so I said, "What's it about?"  She said, "Well, it's about a little girl who gets possessed by a devil and she does a whole bunch of bad things."  I said, "Like what sort of things?"  She said, "Well, she hits her mother across the face and she pushes a man out of her bedroom window and she masturbates with a crucifix."  Her mother was smiling.  I said, "Do you know what that means?"  She said, "What?"  I said, "Masturbate."  She said, "Yes, it's like jerking off, isn't it?"  Her mother's still smiling.  I said, "Have you ever done that?"  She said, "Sure, haven't you?"

I hired her.  No audition.  There was no other young girl that could go there.  The important thing about that is that I knew in that moment that her mother was cool, that Linda was a straight A student in Westport, Connecticut, and I knew that the experience of the film was not going to destroy her.  If I had cast someone who obviously was going to be upset by the experience, the crew couldn't have functioned, the actors wouldn't have been able to work, and this girl, again, was a gift from the movie gods.  She came in at the end when I thought it was hopeless.

GUILLÉN: I understand that The Exorcist is going to be back in theaters next year?

FRIEDKIN: Next year is its 40th anniversary.

GUILLÉN: Do you have any expectations of how the film will be received by a new generation?

FRIEDKIN: The film plays great.  People from every generation since the film first came out get it.  The opening screening next year will be at the Smithsonian in Washington.  Then after its theatrical—which I imagine will be limited—it goes to a new 4K Blu-ray with a lot of new extras and part of my book.  I'm going to lend my memoir to be included in the package.

GUILLÉN: And the working title to your memoir?

FRIEDKIN: "Connections".  It's an allusion to The French Connection but also it's about the people that I've met along the way who have led me from one thing to the other.  It's about them as much as me and how I accidentally became a filmmaker.

GUILLÉN: Well, you have led me to wonderful experiences in the cinema house and I thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

FRIEDKIN: It's a pleasure to meet you.  Now that we correspond on Facebook, it will be as friends.

Responses

8 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • Checkpoint Charlie

    Great interview, just fascinating and exciting to hear he’ll have a memoir soon.

  • a Smith

    What an interesting interview; he seems to leave a lot to intuitive chance. I’m glad to have read this.

  • Michael Guillen

    Thank you, Charles and “a”; Friedkin is such a generous soul and I’m glad this conversation reveals so.

  • unoquehabla

    What a great interview. He seems to be such a nice and sincere guy. I had the pleasure (and the privilege) of traveling to San Francisco and watching “Killer Joe” this weekend. I live in Mexico and I’m almost sure I wouldn’t have had the opportunity of watching it here. I loved the movie! That “redneck grand gignol” epithet is nothing short of perfect.
    Thanks!

  • Bobby Wise

    Excellent interview. It makes me want to survey Friedkin’s entire career. I adore The Exorcist with a passion, so there’s no reason why I should ignore a filmmaker whose work I rate so highly.

  • Mac

    “You want bread fuck a baker.”

  • rado

    Thank you for this great interview. He is an incredible storyteller, each interview with him is amazing and this is no exception!

  • Michael Guillen

    Thanks guys!! Much appreciated.

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