Inspired at a young age by Citizen Kane, William Friedkin went on to become one of the most celebrated filmmakers of Hollywood's artistic Renaissance of the '70s. Best known for The Exorcist and The French Connection, Friedkin also helmed To Live and Die in L.A., Sorcerer, Cruising, The Boys in the Band, The Birthday Party, The Hunted, Jade, Rules of Engagement, The Brink's Job, and The Night They Raided Minsky's, among others. He has also directed memorable episodes of C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation, The Twilight Zone (1985) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. In 2006, Friedkin adapted Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts' Bug into a film; now, he's made Letts' Killer Joe into a film starring Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon. I interviewed Friedkin at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where he spent the day regaling film writers with tales from his career, past and present. The first question below comes from a Killer Joe post-screening Q&A at the AMC Metreon, where Friedkin had just recounted how playwright/screenwriter Letts described Temple's character Dottie as "the keeper of all feminine rage...the keeper of all pent-up rage."
Groucho: Speaking of rage, I have a question about the ratings system.
William Friedkin: Yeah.
Groucho: In 2012, the way the state of the media is, do you think there's much reason to have this distinction between "R" and "NC-17," and what was your experience with that on this film?
William Friedkin: The ratings system is basically a joke. It's a private joke. Having said that, I'll tell you that I believe that "NC-17" is the correct rating for this movie. We're not targeting teenagers. I don't want young teenagers to see this film. At the same time—a few months ago, I met this young guy J.J. Abrams...you heard of him? Well, if you haven't— (Gestures to the door.) I met him at a dinner. And he told me that his father took him to see The Exorcist when he was seven years old. And I asked him if it had ruined his life, and he said, "Obviously not." So there are people that can handle it. But I'm not targeting them. But the ratings board: first of all, we have no idea who these people are; they're anonymous. Y'know, we don't know where they come from or how they got there. Is it a political appointment? We don't know their names...If you go out, and you commit murder—you walk out of this theater and you commit murder, and you're caught, you're going to have a jury trial. And you will see the faces of the jury in front of you. You won't know their names; they're "Juror No. 1," "No. 2" and all that. But you'll see the people that are making a judgment about whether you'll live or die, or stay in prison the rest of your life, or not. The ratings board—we have no idea who's making these decisions...The point is that their judgments are subjective. It's like what that Supreme Court judge said a number of years ago, Potter Stewart. In a famous pornography case that came up before the U.S. Supreme Court, somebody asked him after the decision came down how he would define pornography. And he said, "Well, I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." Y'know? And that's the rating board! Now you will never see an "NC-17" on a major studio's film, because the ratings board is part of the self-governing process of the Motion Picture Association of America. Instead of having the government come in and tell you who may or may not see a film, or what should be taken out of it or all this crap, the industry does it themselves, and people in the media trust them. Y'know. They say this film is a "PG" or an "R," then the newspapers that will take the ads, or the theaters that would play the film or not play it, trust this self-governing body of the Motion Picture Association of America. But there's nothing finite. There's nothing on a piece of paper; there's not one piece of paper that says, "If you do this in a film..." that that will be the rating. They just know it when they see it. Now, if it was up to them, I would have had to cut this picture beyond recognition. And I just—I'm too old to do that. I'm too old to get down on my knees and let 'em give me the chop, y'know? That's the film I wanted to make, for whatever reasons, and that's the film I made. There's not a frame taken out of it. But most of the films you see from the major studios that are an "R" and you're seeing things like anal rape, or vengeance where somebody cuts somebody up like meat, and they come out with an "R" rating, those films have been through the mill of the ratings board, and they make concessions to them. Y'know, they take out eight frames here, four frames there, two frames there, and just to bow to these guys: "Yes, I acknowledge you, that you have the right to censor my film." And I don't acknowledge them. Y'know? I just—I think it's an arbitrary process that is from a self-governing body. On the other hand, this film deserves an "NC-17." The way it is up there now, it does. I don't want kids to see the picture. They will see it. That's the whole hypocrisy of it. They will see it at home. Y'know? When it'll be playing on Video On Demand, and they'll sneak in while Mom and Dad are checkin' it out with a bucket of fried chicken. What else...?
WF: I told them yesterday, they’re allowing ten minutes and the people up here are deeper and more intelligent—
G: Then, say, an L.A. junket, right?
WF: Yeah. Than an L.A. junket or guys who are just there for the booze and sandwiches, you know?
WF: So take what you need.
G: Thank you very much. So one of my least favorite criticisms to ever read about a movie is this nonsense about dismissing a movie because it’s "stagy." Which is not to say that anybody is saying that about Killer Joe, but some reviewers would say, for example, that Twelve Angry Men cannot be a good film because it all takes place in one room.
WF: Oh, fuck them!
G: Yeah. That’s what I mean.
WF: You know, the point is some of the greatest films ever made had their origins as plays. Like Casablanca, which was a play called Everyone Comes to Rick’s. An unsuccessful, unproduced play. But a play nevertheless. And that play has all the characters, all the situations and the setting of the film. There’s Streetcar Named Desire. Cabaret. A Few Good Men.
WF: The list is endless of really fine films that were made originally as plays.
G: Right. I agree completely. And of course you’ve made several films based on plays.
WF: Because the scripts were good. My first impulse to make a film is the script or the story. I’ve made sixteen films. Eleven of them have nothing to do with plays. Some of them are stories from real life that attracted me. They’re original screenplays. Others are based on novels or whatever.
WF: You know films come from many sources. Some are as I say original, and some were, you know, films like Cruising, which was basically out of the headlines.
G: Yeah. Well I wanted to ask you about that specifically actually—the notion of—it seems like so many of your films—Cruising, The French Connection, The Exorcist, The Hunted—have this correspondence with some real-life figure, that you anchor the film—
G: Or sought to anchor the film in some real-life correspondence. You could even maybe pair up an actor with this real-life figure and say, "Hey, this guy can kind of give you a sense for what it’s really like." Is that something that you actively seek out? You even mentioned for Killer Joe that there’s a New York homicide detective who, on the side, was a button man or whatever, right?
WF: "Uncle Mort." Yeah. He used to babysit with my three-year old. He was for twenty years a homicide detective. And he did hits for the Genovese and Columbo family. And he was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. And I liked him; I never saw him do a hit. I knew that only by reputation from reliable sources. And he introduced me to the guy who was the head of the Columbo and Genovese families who was very helpful to me in making Cruising, because he owned all the clubs. But I don’t do it consciously, Peter. It just evolves. I’ll get interested in a person—or like, what interested me about the French Connection case were the two cops. Before that, to me, it was just another police procedural that took ten months to unwind ten years before I made the film. But when I met Eddie Egan and Sonny Grasso, I saw a movie. And I made the movie based on them—with the case only as background.
G: Well, it certainly works. I mean all of your films have that strong sense of character. They’re not just about story mechanics...they really feel lived in.
WF: I appreciate that. That’s what I go for, I guess. But everything I do is instinctive. It’s not part of a master plan.
G: On that note, you’ve talked about providing an atmosphere for actors to do their best work. And I’m curious specifically what you might do to set the tone on the set or maybe at the outset of a production to make that happen.
WF: Keep it light.
WF: You know, let them know that it’s not brain surgery. You know, that their lives don’t depend on this thing working, that they’re free to create and to give of themselves which is actually what a character in a film is. It’s the actor drawing on his or her own character traits and personality and their own fears. And in order to do that, they have to feel that they’re not in an atmosphere where they’re gonna be prejudged.
WF: You know, they know that when I cast them, I believe that they are the one for that role. Now there might be, I don’t know, maybe dozens of others that could do it and do it differently. But when I settle on someone, I let them know—
G: They know you have their full confidence.
WF: Yeah. I’ve got their back and they’re who I want. And then I work on them, I think I said last night, like a psychiatrist would. I try to find out details about their own lives that would allow me to draw on sense memories they have: of when they were humiliated, or when they humiliated someone or what amused them, or what made them violent.
G: Now you speak with such authority about—you have the lingo of acting, but did you ever study acting—
G: Or did you read up on it? How did you come to all that?
WF: No. I never studied filmmaking. I had a half-hour lesson in filmmaking at an equipment rental house before I went out with this cameraman who was a live TV cameraman, and I was a live TV director—worked my way up from the mailroom. No, I never had any training in any of that. But I have absorbed a lot of it from, let’s say, the films that I’ve seen.
WF: And you can look, for example, at all of Alfred Hitchcock’s work and you can learn how to make a movie. Not to imitate Hitchcock, but his work is a textbook of how it’s done.
WF: You know? A guy who’s studying medicine has no immediate experience of how to perform brain surgery. But they read about it. They watch it.
G: They shadow.
WF: Yeah, and if they have any aptitude for it, eventually it may be recognized and they can do it.
WF: I’d hate to be the first victim of a new brain surgeon.
WF: But many people are.
WF: But no, I never went to college for anything.
G: Yeah. Hm. You know, escapism is not your bag. As a filmmaker, you’re confrontational. You relate to maybe a certain bleak absurdism that’s found in Tracy Letts' work and Harold Pinter, going back, right?
WF: Uh huh.
G: What or whom do you credit for helping you to form your world-view or develop that kind of sensibility?
WF: Growing up in the streets of Chicago in the 1950s when all of the characters I depicted in my films were known to me. They were either in my family or in my apartment building or in my neighborhood or at my schools. And so that whole panoply of human nature was something that I had experienced. So it doesn’t shock or surprise me that a detective is also a hired killer. It doesn’t shock or surprise me that people will do almost anything to escape their dreams. To escape the results of their dreams. Or to escape their imprisonment. Because all of us are imprisoned in some way in our own personalities. And we all have dreams and some of our dreams are so deeply felt that if we could accomplish them, we’d do almost anything. And we see this happening every day, either personally in our lives or we read about it in the newspaper, or you’ll see some guy on television who’s just gone out and murdered a dozen people and all of his neighbors say, "But he was the nicest guy in the world."
WF: So I realized early on that all of us were capable of good and evil. That it’s within all of us. And that’s how I approach the stories I do.
G: Shakespeare always wrote about that duality of human nature and the "grace" and "rude will" inside of everybody—that capacity.
WF: Well, the great dramatists always recognized that. Oedipus Rex is not a murderer, but it’s in his DNA.
WF: His self-destructiveness comes from his nature—it comes from his own true nature. And yet, there’s a sense that it’s imposed on him by some superior force over which we have no control. It wasn’t his fault that he had a sexual relationship with his mother.
G: Right. Right. Something like Oedipus or Titus Andronicus—which I thought of while watching the film—that pushed violence in the classical era, and now of course it seems like we have to push it further to get an effect from the audience, perhaps. But does that sort of in-your-face violence help to take the audience somewhere they wouldn’t otherwise be prepared to go in looking at human nature?
WF: Well, they get enough violence in all the mainsteam first-run PG pictures. But it’s not violence against real people. They’re cartoon figures or video game characters.
WF: So they don’t talk about violence in those pictures.
WF: It’s just taken for granted that no character’s real. They’re all about vampires or aliens or monsters or demons—
G: Yeah, well that’s the real obscenity is the violence with no context, right?
WF: Yeah. And it’s just taken for granted and shown to children who become on an easy basis with it at an early age. But the stories I make tend to have a human foundation. And so when you see graphic violence and graphic sexuality it becomes more shocking. I know that. It’s not my aim to shock. I don’t want to be shocked. I do want to be challenged when I go to see a movie. I want to be emotionally challenged and affected by what I see. And it’s often—it’s very hard to do that today subtly. You know, Harold Pinter—the violence in Pinter’s The Birthday Party, which is a psychological violence, is every bit as disturbing as the physical violence in Killer Joe.
WF: So there’re many ways to do it. But it depends on where it’s set and what its intentions are overall.
G: And in the presentation, the patience of that initial sexual encounter between Killer Joe and—
G: It’s so potent. And it’s a different sort of moment in the film. But speaking of the craft of the film, when you take out the music and the ambient sound—
WF: Oh, yeah.
G: Before the explosion of the car, that’s really—it’s such a powerful moment. The audience—they all get so quiet too, you know, when they sense something is going to fill this space.
WF: To use sound in that way, is the equivalent of a close-up with the camera. It’s focusing the audience’s attention on the details—not the ambience.
G: Well, also the very opening moment of the film with the Zippo lighter—when it comes back in, it’s this cue to the audience: this is a turning point.
WF: Exactly. You’re a very shrewd guy.
G: (Laughs.) Well, I try.
WF: I think you know that.
WF: But that’s cool. I appreciate that. I appreciate an intelligent interview, no matter what form it takes—whether it’s someone who hates the film or got something out of it. I appreciate your intelligence.
G: Well, you probably appreciate it because you’ve been an interviewer yourself. The great Fritz Lang interview you did that’s out there, it’s wonderful stuff.
WF: Well, I thought it was something that needed to be done, and I happened to be around. I read in the paper that he was still alive and I contacted him through the Director’s Guild.
G: That’s so important to do that.
WF: And he didn’t want to see me at first. He didn’t want to talk about any of his early films. He hated them all. He thought they were sophomoric. And he says that in the interview. And they were all taken away from him in the cutting room. He never saw his version of Metropolis or M presented to an audience. They were other people’s versions of his great work.
G: Well, this takes me back to you and the—I’ve been enjoying over the last decade or so the reissues that you have—as you should, you have protected your films and you’re getting them into a form where they can be preserved in the digital age here. And I’m curious what the status is with Sorcerer, because I know you’ve been working to get your hands back on that.
WF: I sued Universal and Paramount because, for decades, while there’s a terrible VHS of it out, there’s no DVD. But for thirty-odd years, both studios which jointly financed the film had been allowing film societies, film clubs, universities—everything from Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard to the AFI and the Cinematheque and local—it ran at the Berkeley Archive—
G: Yeah, yeah.
WF: And up until a year ago, when Paramount made a new print that was beautiful for the Cinematheque—American Cinematheque—and I went to the screenings that were sold out—lines around the block—and it could have run for weeks or more. And I went there and did a Q and A. And then shortly after that, it was requested by Lincoln Center and a group called Cinefamily, and they both got letters from Paramount and Universal’s young lawyer saying, "We no longer own the rights, and we don’t know who does." And so I had to sue them to determine the ownership. They’ve done that with other films, like Blade Runner—has run into that. And a film that Phil Kaufman up here made—
G: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or no?
WF: No, not that one.
G: The Right Stuff?
G: Something earlier.
WF: Something he made up North with a—
G: Great Northfield Minnesota Raid?
WF: No, not—I’ll think of it. [Ed. Friedkin refers to The White Dawn, once distributed by Paramount.] But Lincoln Center tried to get that. With the same result from Paramount. They don’t know who owns it or where—so I’ve sued them. The lawsuit was initially heard a couple of weeks ago at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Los Angeles, and they moved it to a settlement conference in November. And if we are unable to settle this issue in November, it goes to trial in March of 2013.
G: Something tells me that they won’t let that happen.
WF: I don’t think so, because of the subterfuge—
G: Because they don’t like—
WF: That these companies have used—
G: Yeah, they don’t wanna expose themselves.
WF: What they did was they put the film into an offshore company where they put hundreds of titles that they jointly owned to shelter revenue. That company was called CIC [Cinema International Corporation]. It was jointly owned by Paramount and Universal. And now it’s extinct. They were only granted the right to distribute films overseas, not in the U.S. But they had the copyright. Now they’re out of business. They’re gone. And the young lawyers who work at these companies have no idea what’s in the paperwork or what exists-- so they simply send a form letter saying, "We don’t know where it is, or who it is, or what it is," and so I’ve brought this lawsuit into being to determine that.
G: Their own shenanigans put it in limbo.
WF: Well, I’ve said in the lawsuit that if—I’m not doing it for money, I’m doing it so people can see it—
G: See the film! Yeah.
WF: And that want to see it. And that, if there is any money that comes to me from it, it will go toward film preservation and restoration.
WF: And I’m serious about that. And so we’ll see where that goes. Why they’re even defending it at this point, I don’t know. They might find some trap in the legal system that allows them to do this. But to me, it’s a kind of murder. You know, they’re eating their young.
WF: And they’re doing this to a lot of films, and I’d like to see that stop.
G: I hope you get it cleared and you come back around with it...take a victory lap with Sorcerer, and then get it on Blu-ray.
WF: Well, there’re many companies that want to do that. But they’re hampered by the fact that these guys are sitting on their—
WF: Their absolute lack of knowledge about it.
WF: And this happened only a year ago. Before that, as I say, they were making new prints for legitimate organizations that wanted to run it—for which I received no revenue at all. Just a lot of letters and a lot of interest—and it’s being studied in universities and at film courses.
G: Well, it has been fantastic to talk to you, Mr. Friedkin.
WF: Thank you. Call me Bill. Thank you Peter. Great interview. I appreciate it. Anytime.
G: Thank you.