There's no business more fickle than show business, so there's no greater testament to the career of director William Friedkin than the simple fact that he's still going strong in his fifth decade in Hollywood.
The Oscar winner has had a unique, star-crossed run since he got his filmmaking start in 1965. The 76-year-old has made indelible classics ("The French Connection," "The Exorcist") and grandiose flops ("Cruising," starring Al Pacino, set in the world of Meatpacking District gay S&M clubs).
Friedkin's latest, the NC-17 "Killer Joe," is an adaptation of a Tracey Letts play about sleazy Southerners (Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church) who hire a hitman (Matthew McConaughey) to murder their mom/ex-wife. It's hyper-melodramatic fare about the trashiest of trailer-trash existences.
We spoke with the director about the movie, which opens Friday, and more.
Your actors, particularly Gina Gershon and Matthew McConaughey, have to do some pretty gruesome things in this movie. How'd you approach them about it? First of all, they're adults, so when they read the material they have some idea of what it is and how you're going to do it. I went to two other women, they're great actresses, and they're first question to me, each of them, was, "How are you going to handle the nudity and the sexuality?" And that was the last question. Handle it? I don't know what you mean. We're going to do it.
The NC-17 rating has a stigma attached to it. Did you ever think about that? Was there ever any resistance on the part of the studio LD Entertainment? I never met with the ratings board, but the studio did. First of all, we talked about making a few cuts. It was obvious that wasn't going to work. ... So then we got that rating and the distributor appealed it, and we narrowly lost the appeal, 13-0. ... I would have had to destroy it for the ratings board, and we decided not to.
What about your experience with the MPAA on "Cruising"? With "Cruising," where I went back 50 times to the ratings board, I put in stuff I knew they would want out. So I kept whittling away at it until they ran out of gas. And "Cruising" was made for a major distrbutor. ... No major distributor will get an NC-17 today. They just won't. They'll either make a few bows and nods toward the ratings board and make some cuts, or they'll by hook or crook get an R.
What's the secret to avoiding caricature in a movie like "Killer Joe"? I think that the writer's observation of those characters is really deep, with great understanding. I don't think he's writing down. He finds the behavior of these people as absurd as I do and as I'm sure you do. But that doesn't mean they're not human. And that doesn't mean that he's passing judgment on them.
Matthew McConaughey has been taking a lot of interesting roles lately. Do you think he was underrated in the past? I don't think he was underrated at all. He's an obviously conventionally great-looking guy and if you're great-looking in Hollywood's terms ... they tend to want to typecast you. And if you're as good-looking a guy as he is, they tend to want you to do the same thing over and over again, which is show up, look good, and make love convincingly with the leading lady. He made a fortune doing that. That was the work that was out there, and actors have to work.
Is there a similar expectation for filmmakers? Yes. Sure there is. But not by me. I haven't even seen any of the sequels to "The Exorcist" and I have no interest in seeing them. I have no idea if they're good or bad or what they are, but I don't want to see them.
How have you managed to avoid being pigeonholed as a certain type of director? A lot of different things interest me, start with that. The other thing is, I think that the careers that I admire most in other filmmakers are those guys who were never defined. Guys like Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder. ... As I grew up I always felt that if I ever could be a filmmaker I'd love to be able to do all kinds of things, like those guys were able to.
Do you share the general assessment that the '70s was a golden age for Hollywood?No, we all had similar problems. [Steven] Spielberg was getting fired off of "Jaws." [Francis Ford] Coppola was getting fired off "The Godfather" every other week. They wanted to fire me off "The French Connection." It was hardly a golden age to us. I remember getting a phone call from the producer of "Raging Bull" during the production asking if I'd be interested in replacing [Martin] Scorsese. And I, of course, wasn't and I don't know what their problems were, but this was common in the '70s. ... I don't know how it was a golden age other than there were some really good films made in the '70s but also in the '40s and '50s in America and around the world.