Killer Joe, the twisted new thriller from director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection), hits cinemas in the UK this week.
It tells the story of ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper, a Dallas detective who earns cash on the side as a hitman. His services are procured by Chris (Emile Hirsch), a lower-than-low-level drug dealer wanting to off his mother in order to cash in on her life insurance possibility.
Trouble is, Joe demands advance payment, which Chris can’t afford. In steps Chris’ young, damaged, virginal sister Dottie (Juno Temple), who’s offered as a retainer in a bargain with Joe. Needless to say, things don't quite go to plan…
Guaranteed to stir violently animated post-viewing debates, the film is at turns sadistic and brutal, and gasp-out-loud funny, with Friedkin ratcheting up the tension towards an unbelievable climax.
The smart, talkative Chicago native spoke warmly about the movie in his captivating trademark drawl, covering everything from filmmaking inspiration, movie censorship, working with McConaughey and Temple, and the controversy that frequently surrounds his work.
Read the full William Friedkin interview below.
How did you decide to make Killer Joe your next film?
“I love Tracey Letts’ [screenwriter and playwright, Killer Joe] work, and we have the same worldview. We see the world in the same way. So when he sent me the screenplay I was quite ready for it.
“And, it’s sort of a reaction, in a way, against the kind of films that Hollywood’s making. It’s certainly not a send-up to the audience, but it is something of a send up to the Hollywood kind of product, which for the most part today I just feel completely disconnected from.
“I think that the films that we make in America today are for teenagers; they’re comic books and videogames.”
Killer Joe’s open to quite a broad range of interpretations…
“Everything’s open to interpretation. What’s important to me, after you see a film, is a kind of catharsis. Not resolution, but you’ve had an experience, it’s been intense. And that’s what I want out of a film. I may be in a minority in wanting that.
“A lot of people just want pure escapist entertainment, and that’s great. That’s fine too, but it’s not what I’m interested in.”
Had you seen the play before you got the screenplay?
“I saw it later. There happened to be a small production of it in Los Angeles, in a little out-of-the-way, 40-seat theatre, and it was very good. Very well done.
“But no, I wasn’t that familiar with it until I read his screenplay.”
Were you at all nervous at how cinemagoers might respond to the nature of the characters and some of the more controversial content?
“No! You can’t be nervous about something you’re going to do. It had great appeal for me. I thought it was wonderful, and was happy to be making a film of it. I wasn’t nervous about it at all.
“You never know how people are going to react, but you always hope they’ll appreciate what you do, or at least be moved by it in some way. Because that’s what I want from the experience, to be moved.”
The film was given the NC-17 certificate in the US, do you still get bothered by censorship or do you have more of a laidback attitude now?
“No, I wear the rating proudly. I think it has distinguished the film from the pack, and there was no way we could have gotten a lesser rating other that to destroy the film. To do what the American generals said we had to do in Vietnam which was to destroy the country in order to save it.
“I would’ve had to destroy Killer Joe in order to save it. Cut it to ribbons. And I just didn’t feel comfortable about doing that.”
Your films have often attracted controversial reactions. Does part of you enjoy it when you stir up feelings like that, or do you get a bit bored with it?
“No, I’m happy when people talk about the films I’ve made, when they’re moved to some emotion by them. That’s why I make them, because they provoke an emotion in me and I like to share that. That’s all.
“I don’t expect sheer love from the audience after they see a film of mine. It’s not like Spielberg, who makes a film like E.T. and becomes beloved. That’s not my nature. By the way, I think Spielberg’s a great filmmaker.”
Can you elabourate on the comparisons you made between Killer Joe and a fairytale narrative?
“Well it’s sort of loosely made based on the Cinderella story. Every little girl everywhere in the world dreams of becoming Cinderella some day, and being swept off her feet by Prince Charming. Taken out of her dire circumstances where her parents don’t understand her, and there’s an evil stepmother.
“And every little boy, at one time or another, dreams of being Prince Charming and taking his loved one out of their circumstances and turning them into a princess.
“So that’s a common myth that children have. To me, Killer Joe is a twist on that and this Cinderella finds her Prince Charming, but he happens to be a hired killer.”
Some people have read analogies of Greek tragedies into Killer Joe, did you see any of that?
“No, I didn’t see that in it. I don’t identify it with any particular Greek tragedy. I never thought about that. It’s just about what it is. It’s not a metaphor for anything else.”
And how was it working with Matthew McConaughey? Do you think he’s at his best when he moves away from the safer romcoms and plays sleazier, edgier characters?
“That’s what he wants to do: to act. And if you’re as good looking as he is and you make your way into Hollywood as an actor, all that they want or expect from you is to be good looking, show up, take your shirt off and convincingly make love to the leading lady. You don’t have to act. Because he was – is – so good looking, he made a fortune doing just that.”
Juno Temple also gives a standout performance in this film…
“She’s great. She’s sent in an unsolicited audition video, where she read some of the scenes, or acted some of the scenes with her 10-year-old brother. And, I’d never heard of her. My casting director brought this video in and said, ‘Why don’t you have a look?’
“I was going to go with one of three other actresses at the time, and then I saw her audition and I immediately said, ‘Let’s sign her.’ I hadn’t met her, and I’d never seen her in a film.
“I didn’t know who she was, until this tape came in, and then I found out who she is, and what she did was exactly what I was looking for.”
Do generally audition all the roles in your films, or do you often go after someone specific?
“No, I’ll often go after someone unless something happens like with Juno Temple where they’re just a gift from the movie god. And she was. I wish I could say I knew her work and I went after her, but that’s not the case at all.”
Matthew McConaughey said you had a real energy on set, how do you keep that going?
“By staying healthy. Clean living! I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink a lot. I’ve never done drugs, never even tried drugs and I try to maintain as healthy a regimen as possible.
“And it’s only by the grace of God that I’m still moving around and able to do that, because it is a young man’s game. I was very young when I started making television shows and then films.
“And, yeah, it takes a lot of energy, because you can’t have your energy flagging on the set at all, or the whole thing will go off a cliff.”
And do you still have your ‘two takes only’ rule when it comes to shooting?
“To me, it’s a one-take rule. Unless something goes wrong, like if a shot’s out of focus or moving too much, or a light falls down into the shot or something, somebody on the street makes a face at the camera… Otherwise I won’t do another take, because I believe in spontaneity.
“I used to do 20 takes like everybody else and I found in the cutting room that I would use the first printed take. And that’s where the spontaneity was, and I realised that I was more interested in spontaneity than perfection and so that’s what I go after now.”
And do you find that your actors respond well to that approach?
“Yeah, this group did. Some actors want to do endless takes, experiment, do the line readings completely differently, and what they’re doing is trying to find their characters as you’re making the film. And what I prefer is that the actors come to know their characters before we shoot the film.”
Are you still more inspired by music than by other films? And has the work you’ve done in opera influenced your filmmaking?
“No, the opera’s haven’t, but, yes, certain music has definitely inspired me more than films. The music of Stravinsky, for example, and Miles Davis.
“And I must say that for a time, the music that I listened to – which was across the board, it was almost everything – had an effect on me that would inspire me to make a film.
“I mean there was one film I saw early in my career when I was still directing television, Citizen Kane, and that made me want to be a filmmaker. Absolutely.”
You talked about Killer Joe being different to a lot of the Hollywood product that’s out there at the moment. Are there any films you’ve seen in the last couple of years that you’ve particularly enjoyed?
“I mostly watch older films that I consider classics. What have I enjoyed? I like Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. He’s got a new film called The Master that I’m anxious to see. And I like the Coen brothers’ films.
“But most of the films that I care about and see over and over again are older films, most of them from the ‘40s and ‘50s.
“And I love the old Hollywood musicals. I wish I could’ve made some of those, really. Instead I’ve gone off and done these misogynistic films about demonic possession and murder and sin and death.”
Killer Joe opens in UK cinemas on Friday 29 June 2012.
Read our Killer Joe film review.
What’s your favourite Friedkin film? Tell us in the comments section…