DVDTalk chats with William Friedkin and Emile Hirsch
Nearly 50 years after his directorial debut, Academy Award-winning filmmaker William Friedkin is still at it. Director of such classics as The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer, he teamed up with playwright Tracy Letts in 2006 for Bug, an adaptation of Letts' play about a potentially disturbed veteran settling in a sleazy motel with a frustrated, lonely bartender. The collaboration between Friedkin and Letts continues with the new film Killer Joe, which stars Emile Hirsch as a man who hires a professional killer (Matthew Mcconaughey) to take out a member of his own family, and gets more than he bargained for. Friedkin and Hirsch sat down in Seattle for a roundtable that covers Killer Joe, French Connection Blu-Rays, and Pacquiao.
William Friedkin: The number of punches landed...he was constantly the aggressor, the last six rounds were boring beyond belief...We left before the decision! This was a slam dunk! There should be a federal investigation.
Timothy Hall, Seattle P-I: So, what do you think happened?
Friedkin: I think it's a set-up for a rematch.
Spencer Fornaciari, MacGuffin Podcast: Didn't they already start advertising? They have a day picked out?
Friedkin: Yeah, November!
Seattle P-I: They've got a date already for a rematch.
Friedkin: November! And that's not easy to do. You gotta book some arena, usually the MGM Grand, and now they've got a date in November...
Look, nobody's around to fight Pacquiao. There's not gonna be a -- after this fight, which was so lame, no one would want to pay-per-view to see the next slaughter. He slaughtered this guy!
MacGuffin Podcast: That was just it, I was saying before, what does this do to a potential Mayweather fight? This seems like it would take a lot of steam out of it.
Friedkin: There's not gonna be a...
Seattle P-I: There's not gonna be a Mayweather fight. Because Bob Arum hates Mayweather.
Friedkin: Well, Mayweather's in the can. He's not gonna be available for awhile. And I don't know why they don't wanna fight. I know Bob Arum very well, the promoter, and he keeps telling me Pacquiao's desperate to...it'd be the biggest gate ever!
Seattle P-I: I think it would be! Gosh, that's terrible.
Anyone want to start?
Friedkin: Go ahead.
Tyler Foster, DVDTalk: I was wondering what your process is with Tracy. Does he change anything about his plays for the screen?
Friedkin: Well, yeah. We changed everything about Killer Joe. I mean, the play is set in one place. The film...the play doesn't have a chase scene. You don't see any other characters, there's no other locations, and when you do that, you have to reconcieve the whole piece. And so, yes he does. He re-thinks it as a screenplay.
DVDTalk: If you have the freedom to change what you want, to tweak it for the screen...what is it that made Killer Joe and Bug stand out as as movies to you? What made you think, "this will be a movie," vs. one of his other plays?
Friedkin: I share his worldview in both of those pieces. We both see the world as kind of absurd, and we see human behavior as often frightening and perplexing, but we still think of it as absurd, and not something seriously. The think about Killer Joe is, if you take it too seriously, it will really disturb you, but if you see it as a dark comedy, it's more easily grasped. This is true of Harold Pinter's work, and Samuel Beckett, and some of the great writers of our time.
DVDTalk: Have you considered working on something just for a movie, not one of his plays?
Friedkin: We've talked about that, yes. I hope we will. Have to see the script, but we're on the same page, in terms of our worldview.
MacGuffin Podcast: Building upon that, you talk about it being so different from the play, because it's not all set in one place, and it's a much broader environment, but one thing we were talking about after the screening is how the last scene felt so theatrical in nature, in one confined room, people rotating within that room. Is that something you thought about changing to make it more grandiose or cinematic?
Friedkin: That's not a place you want to go. Because some of the greatest films ever made were plays, and no critic or essayist at the time wrote about the fact that they were plays, like Casablanca was originally a play. It's generally considered one of the first or second best American films ever made, on every critic's poll... It was a play called Everybody Comes to Rick's, and most of Casablanca -- most of it -- is set in Rick's Cafe American. The film A Few Good Men, which I think is a great film, was a play. Cabaret was a play. So many films that have won the Academy Award were not only plays, they were musical plays, like Sound of Music and My Fair Lady. Many of the greatest films ever made were based -- films are based on a number of things. They're based on newspaper articles, novels, some of them are original, they come from many sources, and a piece of material attracts me because what it is, not what it was.
I don't remember ever seeing in the old days, and I've read a lot of film reviews from the '40s or '50s, anyone speaking about the fact that Casablanca was a play, or A Few Good Men. In fact, it was an unsuccessful play. Someone at the Warner Bros. story departments saw the play script in New York and sent it to Hollywood, and they started to develop it, they had a whole bunch of writers, and came up with this incredible movie.
Seattle P-I: For you, Emile. Your character in the film, he spends a lot of the time...it isn't like he's trying to get out of his situation, but he's constantly moving, this fast talker, this fast-moving guy. Was that hard to get into?
Emile Hirsch: There was a...the nature of Chris, the desperation, and the kind of twitchy...wanting to get out of his situation was something that was sort of a challenge for me to get into. I'm probably not like that character very much. [laughs] I would like to think that I wasn't playing myself, fully. So, there was, and I worked with Billy pretty closely. We were constantly tweaking the physicality, and making sure that he was enough of a con man, and that this was just...the way that Chris was, is his adaptation to this world, you know. He's... [Hirsch looks at Friedkin.]
Friedkin: He's trying not to say "you know." [laughs]
Hirsch: Yeah, I watched an interview of myself recently of a couple years ago, and I must've said "you know," like, fifty times. It's the new "like." [laughs]
Seattle P-I: It is.
MacGuffin Podcast: I have to pay attention to myself doing that.
Hirsch: Well, "you know" is trickier than "like." Because "like" is more of a spike.
Friedkin: We need a springboard before we get the next thought. That's where that comes from. When you're asked a question, you don't really have the answer at hand. So, you need some kind of a springboard, and that's what "you know" is, or "um."
Hirsch: But to answer your question, it was a challenge, but Billy aided me...and the text, really, also, informed me more than anything. The part is written so clearly. It was a great blueprint for an actor to just build it.
Friedkin: There's a great scene that Emile has where he comes into the room for the finale. He comes in, and you know he's got a gun. You've seen him get a gun. And his entire attitude from the time he comes in, and when JOe comes in, you know what's on his mind, which is, he's going to kill Joe. He has to. And he plays that without telegraphing it. But you see his anger building up, you see his courage building up, and you realize that he's there to do violence. It's a wonderful piece of acting, because you can read his thoughts even though you're not aware of them at the time. But you know he has a gun.
Seattle P-I: What was crazy for me in that scene is that, everything that's just happened in that room was so absurd, and there's still remnants of it, and he doesn't even blink. He just comes in, sits at the table. He's not noticing any of this!
Friedkin: Well, I can't believe that any of you guys don't have this sort of thing in your own family, or among your friends. I don't mean perhaps that severe, but irrational behavior is all around us. People doing weird, self-destructive things is the norm!
For many years, that wasn't portrayed in American drama. American families were portrayed as nuclear and very happy. And we now know that a great many American families are dysfunctional, and that's what Killer Joe is about, a dysfunctional family.
Hirsch: I also think when Chris comes into that scene, with Sharla's bloody face, and the remnants of the chicken bone scene, I think he's so one-track mind about getting Joe, he almost has the blinders on. [laughs]
DVDTalk: Also for you, Emile, what I think is interesting is that even though your character is the catalyst, your character sets everything in motion, I wouldn't say Killer Joe is following your character's journey as a focus. I was wondering if that causes you to change the way you look at a script, if you're just a piece of the puzzle vs. the character who's driving the story.
Hirsch: I mean, I've done several ensembles before, and I always have a really good time. I think that acting and making movies, it's always a team anyway, so for me to get a chance to say Tracy's words with Billy... When I read the script, it doesn't feel like an ensemble. Everybody felt like the lead in it.
Friedkin: Well, actually, Sharla's the catalyst. If you really examine the story, she set the whole thing in motion, knowing that Chris was such an ass... [laughs] ...that once the bait was out there, he'd bite.
MacGuffin Podcast: Something I was thinking about after you talked about your love of Citizen Kane...Citizen Kane was, in its own time period, kind of a gritty film. It pushed society, it really fought against Hearst, and both of you guys have thrived in grittier films. What is it that attracts you to those parts, what is it that you find most interesting? Is the realism? Why do you choose to do those things as opposed to something like Madagascar 3, which is sure to make $250 million dollars, vs. trying to find something that's interesting to you.
Hirsch: General sensibilities. I would think that, you know, if we were painters, our paintings might be slightly on the darker side. We probably wouldn't paint unicorns. Our unicorns would probably be...
Friedkin: ...be fucking!
Hirsch: Fucking! With AK-47s, on the top of Mount Everest!
MacGuffin Podcast: I think that'd be a pretty awesome painting.
Hirsch: Well, then, there you go! You've answered your own question, with your own sensibilities.
Friedkin: Citizen Kane is more than a film. It is something that synthesized everything that had happened in cinema up to that point, up to 1941, and it pointed the way toward the future. There are very few other films that can be spoken of in that way. It also contains the very best of all the disciplines of cinema. Acting, writing, directing, cinematography, editing, lighting, music. It just synthesizes everything, and it's Mount Everest to most filmmakers. Not just American filmmakers. It was not succesful in its day.
Why don't we look for work like Madagascar 3? [gestures to Emile] He could probably do anything he wanted to do. I don't want to do the films similar to what you've mentioned because I think there's enough of them. There's plenty of them. There's plenty of films based on comic books and video games, and I don't want to make or see a film that's based on a comic book or video games, although I like them both. But most of American films are just that, now, so you would hope that critics and audiences would embrace something that's different, but for the most part, people line up to see the same picture over and over and over again. To me, cinema is a dying art form, in many ways. Technically. People are watching films on their iPhone now, or on an iPad, or on a computer. Or on their television screens -- new films!
MacGuffin Podcast: I think part of what makes Citizen Kane so interesting is the story of Welles getting it made, and fighting against Hearst. Essentially, as you said, it was a failed project at the time. In some ways, it felt like he was throwing away his career to make that movie. Do you have any sense that when you guys go out to make these films, you're just doing it because you believe so strongly in it that you don't even care what happens?
Friedkin: I don't care. I honestly don't. We all hope that every film we make is successful with the public, but there's no guarantee of that, so you're attracted like a magnet to certain material.
Hirsch: Absolutely. I completely agree with Billy. As long as it's NC-17 and not triple-X!
Friedkin: Well, they've gotten rid of the X. NC-17 is the new X. It has the same effect as an X rating. It's just a fancier nomenclature.
Hirsch: Which is kind of strange, if you think about NC-17. Because when you're 17, you're still not legally an adult!
Friedkin: But this means that no child can come in. Nobody 16, let's say, even with a 17-year-old.
Hirsch: But if you're 17, you can, though!
DVDTalk: NC-17, you have to be 18. R, you can go if you're 17.
MacGuffin Podcast: But doesn't it say "Under 17"?
Friedkin: "No child under 17" is what an "NC-17" literally means.
Hirsch: So there's a one-year window for 17-year-olds.
Friedkin: It's complete bullshit. It has no legal standing whatsoever. The MPAA is a self-governing body. If a 13-year-old gets into see the movie -- and we're not targeting 13-year-olds with this picture -- but if they get in, nobody's gonna get arrested or charged or anything else. Nobody knows, as I've said, who these people are on the ratings board. Do any of you guys have kids?
Seattle P-I: No. Our friends do.
Friedkin: Okay. I'm sure your friends know who their teachers are, who the school board members are, who the principal of the school is. You know who the mayor is, you know who the governor of this state is, so you know where the laws come from. We don't know! I've been in this business 45 years. I don't know who the hell the ratings board are. They're an anonymous group of people sitting somewhere in a room deciding on what parents may or may not do with their kids.
DVDTalk: I think the worst part is that the theaters don't...theaters are still nervous to play unrated movies or NC-17 movies, and I think if they all just agreed that that was okay, the stigma would go away, but they don't.
Friedkin: Some do. Some don't give a damn about the rating. Others do, for other reasons, like the Regal theaters are owned by a very prominent billionare named Philip Anschutz, who is sort of a right-wing, born again Christian, and there are a number of theaters that won't play an NC-17 for those reasons. Some don't even play an R, if it's like a hard R. But you can't name a major studio film that gets an NC-17 because the MPAA is owned and operated by the major studios, and what they do is behind closed doors, they will shave out some frames of what has been shot and cut in order to pay homage or satisfy the ratings board so they get an R.
DVDTalk: And it's like, what's the difference between six frames and five frames?
MacGuffin Podcast: It's not even that that bothers me! It's like, violence, they'll let you go to town as long as you don't see people bleeding.
Friedkin: They were bothered by the violence in Killer Joe. Seriously bothered by.
MacGuffin Podcast: But it's like, you say "shit" twice and you go from a PG-13 to an R.
Friedkin: They don't have that as a written rule. There's no book! I'll tell you very honestly. If there was a guide, like there are laws, you know, when you get in your car and drive, you have to follow certain laws, and they're written out. You know what they are. You know what the speed limit is, you know you have to stop at a stop sign, you know you have to signal left turn, right turn, whatever it is. These are written down. If you break those laws and get busted, you get to pay a fine. That doesn't exist in the ratings. If such a thing existed, and I thought it applied to Killer Joe, I never would've made the film. Nor would the financiers have backed it, nor would anyone have distributed it. Why would you do such a thing? We never imagined it would get an NC-17, but frankly, I don't care, because I have no respect for the ratings board. It is a draconian rating, there's no question about that, but I don't respect what they do. I think it's a shuck, you know? It's a shuck and jive, and people pay attention to it for some reason I don't understand. At the same time, do I think that this film should be seen by a lot of 13-year-olds? To some extent, yes. There's a lot of people 50 and over that shouldn't see it. There's a lot of people who will see it and think we're all misogynists for making it. They're just wrong. They're just absolutely wrong.
DVDTalk: I do think it's interesting, because they were saying at one point that when you go before the ratings board, you would be able to cite precedent, you would be able to cite another film that got a certain rating that as evidence that your film should be able to get the same rating.
Friedkin: That's what they always do, when you get a severe rating. It's done with the R mostly, because there are very few NC-17 films anymore, but you do cite precedent. I didn't go to the ratings board on the appeal, but the distributor did, and Tracy Letts did, and it didn't help for them to say that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo shows a long scene of anal rape, and then the violent retribution that takes place afterwards, which got an R rating.
DVDTalk: Yeah, that's exactly my point! They said that, and it doesn't even apply. I was thinking of a documentary, I think it was called The Hip Hop Project. It had 17 f-bombs in it, but it was "socially relevant," so they gave it a PG-13.
Friedkin: That's bullshit! Socially relevant? To who? To an anonymous group of people you don't know. If you had a son or a daughter, and their teacher told them, "You know, it would be a good idea if someone went out and killed the President," and this child came home and said that to you, you'd be outraged! You'd be shocked, and you'd know where it came from. If someone said, your child should not be reading things like Henry Miller's novels, or even try to read James Joyce, even though they're considered classics, you'd know who said that to your child, and you'd make the decision whether they should read this stuff or not. But you don't know who the ratings board is, or what they recommend that you do or don't do. You have no idea. So why would you pay any attention to it? But people do.
Seattle P-I: I was gonna say, one of the things that I loved about Killer Joe was the use, or the lack of background music during the scenes, which adds a lot of tension to it. I remember when I first saw The French Connection, during that whole chase scene, there's really no music, it's just tires and screeching, and you can hear the train, and I love the fact that you do that with your films. Sometimes I'll watch a movie, and it'll be a great scene, and all of a sudden, here comes this goofy music in the background.
Friedkin: Well, that's the director's attempt to tell you how you should feel emotionally, and I don't think it's necessary. I think that's done by the script or the actors. I don't feel you need to guide people's emotions with music, although there are many great scores in films, like Citizen Kane. It's a fantastic score. It pretty much tells you how to think about the scene. It pretty much tells you where your emotions should be, but it works. There are exceptions, and that's one of them. There's another film called All About Eve, where the score is just magnificent.
DVDTalk: I do write for a DVD website, so I wanted to ask: you were saying last night at the Q&A that you don't revisit your films very much.
Friedkin: Not at all.
DVDTalk: But I notice you do make sure they get presented well on video, so that's important to you?
Friedkin: And in theaters.
DVDTalk: Because I know you went back, you did the original French Connection Blu-Ray where you tweaked the colors, and recently they put out a new one where you worked with the cinematographer to go back to the original look of the film.
Friedkin: Well, the original Blu-Ray, the master was fine. The master were as good as the one that's out now. But the prints, the release prints were terrible. In fact, if you rented the Blu-Ray of The French Connection, the original one, there was a warning from 20th Century Fox in the cover, inside cover, that said "This film may not play well on your playback machine. If it doesn't, go to w-w-w-something, we'll send you a test disc and you can tune your set." What a bunch of shit. When we found that out, we were all furious, because the master was perfect. It was in the release prints that they fucked it up. I do care about that. Somebody spends ten bucks or something to see a movie, they should see it the way the filmmakers intended.
MacGuffin Podcast: I think we're getting the sign to wrap up.
Friedkin: Oh, that's all right, go ahead. You must have something.
DVDTalk: I have another question, if you don't mind.
Friedkin: Go ahead.
DVDTalk: Last night, you also cited John Frankenheimer as one of your contemporaries on Playhouse 90, and I know you were on the Blu-Ray/DVD of Manchurian Candidate, you did an interview. I just thought it was really fascinating that you considered him a colleague, but you had no interest in seeing the French Connection sequel that he did?
Friedkin: No. I wrote him an eight-page letter. Handwritten, single-spaced, on both sides -- this is before we had computers -- begging him not to do it, because he was one of my idols, and good friends. And I said, there's just no way you can come out! People start comparing your film to the original, and the original has already been called a classic and won an Academy Award. There's no way you can win. It's seldom that a sequel can top the original. I think perhaps Godfather II is the only exception I can think of. It's as good to me as the original, anyway. But sequels generally aren't. Sequels are only made for money. There's generally nothing new to be said about them.
DVDTalk: And I would definitely say that about French Connection II. It's well made, but I do think it's funny, that The French Connection is a true story about this guy who couldn't catch the criminal, and then they make a sequel where he can fly to France get him. It's like wish-fulfillment.
Friedkin: Well, it was made for money, and I try not to do that.
Hirsch: I didn't even know they made a French Connection sequel.
Friedkin: Yeah, French Connection II. And they did some other TV spin-offs, and shit like that. The Exorcist, I think there's three or four.
MacGuffin Podcast: Yeah, plus the prequel.
Friedkin: Plus rip-offs. I don't see any of them. I don't even try. I'm aware of them. That's about it.
Killer Joe is already playing in Los Angeles and New York, and opens in more cities this weekend. Mr. Friedkin also recently joined Twitter.
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DVDTalk chats with William Friedkin and Emile Hirsch