William Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director of “The French Connection,” The Exorcist” and now “Killer Joe”—about a violently dysfunctional Texas family—was courtly and chivalrous at the Four Seasons hotel recently, moving a comfortable chair over for me and offering coffee before tucking into his English muffin and eggs.
But he began the conversation with a surprising revelation about his penchant for extreme plots and characters: “I could have been a very violent person,” the 76-year-old filmmaker said of his childhood. “I had no sense of right and wrong.” Despite the influence of Hebrew school and his loving parents, Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, he said, “my peer pressure was such that I was involved in armed robberies as a young teenager.”
Casual violence erupted throughout his neighborhood on the north side of Chicago; while his own home was peaceful, domestic beatings were de rigueur in the building in which the Friedkins lived in a one-room apartment. Police brutality also was common on the streets, and father-daughter sex was rampant in outlying areas where residents had relocated from the South, the director said.
At Hebrew school, Friedkin himself was bullied by an older boy who every day would “seek me out, push me around and in general, give me a hard time,” he said. “I remember having great anxiety over this and I never talked to my parents about it, because I felt ashamed. Then one day I remember waking up in the morning and thinking, ‘I don’t have to take this anymore.’ I had been watching wrestling on television, so when this boy approached me after school, took my books and tossed them, I immediately grabbed him, put him in a headlock, and banged his head against the pavement. I had the distinct desire to kill him. I remember this as though it was yesterday: I wanted to see him die, but I was pulled off of him. And so I understand that [murderous] instinct. Over the years, it has made me realize that there is good and evil in all of us.”
That’s part of the reason Friedkin was drawn to “Killer Joe,” an adaptation of the 1993 play by Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay. “It offers some insight into the crooked timbre of humanity,” he said. “Tracy and I share the same world view, in which we perceive a lot of human behavior as absurd, paranoid, schizophrenic and shocking.”
“Killer Joe” spotlights a trailer trash clan portrayed by Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon (as the flawed dad and stepmother) and Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple (as their equally-compromised children). The action kicks off as they hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) – a Dallas cop who moonlights as a hitman – to kill the kids’ biological mother for the insurance money. As collateral, they offer up the virginal Dottie (Temple) to Joe as a “retainer;” a twisted love story ensues, as does pedophilia, blood, gore and an unspeakable sexual act with a fried chicken leg.
“I’m attracted to characters whose backs are against the wall, who perceive they have few alternatives except to act in absurd and often self-destructive ways,” Friedkin said. “I’m not drawn to calm little pieces of material, where nothing especially dramatic occurs. And I’m not drawn at all to romantic comedies or the things that have become staples of American television – I can’t even watch them, and I don’t believe them at all. Series like ‘Father Knows Best,’ for example, I think are really pornographic,’ with the false impression they give of the American family.”
Friedkin’s own childhood family was intensely Jewish; his parents kept kosher and observed all the holidays. These days, he said, “I don’t dispute the teachings of Moses, and I feel very close to God when I’m in Israel. I’m a Jew, and that’s it. In my heart I believe completely in The Ten Commandments, but I also believe we are all imperfect and at times we just can’t cut it.”
When Friedkin was 13, he said, he and two friends decided to rob Goldblatt’s department store in Chicago, just for kicks. “I had a zip gun, as did my compatriots; we didn’t need anything, but we thought it would just be fun to rob a department store,” he said. “But the house detective caught us. It was shortly after my bar mitzvah, and my mother was called down to the store. I loved my mother deeply and I saw that what I did made her cry – she was sobbing. I realized how I had let her down and I stopped my [criminal activities] cold; that was it.”
Friedkin found a more suitable outlet in the movies, and was so smitten by “Citizen Kane’ that he eventually pursued a career as a filmmaker.
While he is best known for “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Exorcist,” (1973), his movies have also included 1985’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” and 2006’s “Bug,” based on Letts’ 1996 play, which won the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Friedkin has also been well received as a director of operas, including a production of “Samson and Delilah” that was performed in Tel Aviv.
“Killer Joe” is, in its way, operatic: “It reminds me of Alban Berg’s opera, “Wozzeck,” which I directed, in that it’s a kind of very claustrophobic chamber piece, and that it ultimately ends up as a tragedy – and most of opera is tragedy,” Friedkin said.
The jet-black comedy virtually explodes into graphic images of sex and violence, [SPOILER ALERT] including that cringeworthy chicken leg scene, which actress Gina Gershon, as the film’s evil stepmother, enacts near the end of the movie.
McConaughey reportedly was so disgusted when he first read the script of the film – which has received an NC-17 rating—that he had the strong urge to take a shower; his friends convinced him to take the role, in part, by emphasizing the movie’s dark humor.
Gershon “understood the dark side of her character,” Friedkin said. “At first she didn’t want to go there, as there were times that were very difficult, not only for an actress but for a human being.”
How did Friedkin direct the most intense sequences? “I tried to create a relaxed atmosphere on the set, and give the actors the sense that they weren’t going to feel judged or humiliated, but rather a freedom to create,” he said.
He added that Letts based his play on a real murder that took place in Miami years ago. “The film is set in a contemporary world, and nothing shocks me in this world,” he said. “That’s why I was able to approach this film.”
“Killer Joe” opens in Los Angeles on Aug. 3.