Killer Opener: William Friedkin on Killer Joe

The 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival will open with a punch to the gut on 20 Jun with <i>Killer Joe</i>, <b>William Friedkin</b>'s blackly comic slice of American gothic. We spoke to the New Hollywood firecracker ahead of his trip to Auld Reekie

Feature by John Nugent | 04 Jun 2012

“This is not a film to be enjoyed, John!”

I’m barely into my first question to William Friedkin, and already the veteran director is calling the shots. In opening our hour-long conversation, I explain how much I enjoyed Killer Joe, his new unsettlingly funny thriller set in the American Deep South, before being appropriately admonished. “You’re not supposed to enjoy the film, it’s supposed to stir you up!”

Touché. Friedkin, an unconventional director who never yells ‘cut’ or ‘action’ on set, nor uses storyboards, has never been one to make easily digestible slices of simple entertainment. Even now, at 76, he maintains a resolutely provocative approach to his work; throughout a lengthy and largely illustrious career the American director has been keen to challenge, rile, and often disturb his audience, and to hell with the consequences. He is something of an enfant terrible of American cinema and shows no indication of operating otherwise.

Born in Chicago in 1936, it was an early viewing of Citizen Kane that ignited the young Friedkin’s passion for film. His career began in television, jobbing at local stations and on live broadcasts. This period included a stint directing on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, where the famously dapper British luminary rebuked him for not wearing a tie. (Friedkin carried a bow-tie with him for years afterwards, in case he ever ran into Hitchcock again.)

But it was with The French Connection (1971) that the world first came to know the name William Friedkin. A furious, skittish depiction of crime and policing in the dirty back streets of New York, it won Friedkin a directing Oscar and international praise. He followed it up with The Exorcist (1973), perhaps the most notorious and admired horror film ever made. Together they came to define Friedkin’s career and helped establish the new wave of angry, politically conscious, cine-literate American film-makers who invigorated Hollywood in the 70s. (Friedkin pinpoints Easy Rider as the film that galvanised his generation – “It changed the zeitgeist in this country tremendously.”)

His success lagged in the following two decades, accumulating a string of box office flops, most notably the controversial leather-bound gay serial killer thriller Cruising (1980). But the advent of home video and the benefit of retrospect have allowed for favourable reappraisals, and today his body of work is justifiably revered. A recent return-to-form, in particular the acclaimed Bug (2006), has helped his critical rehabilitation.

Time and age have not dulled his work rate or extinguished the fire in his belly, and Killer Joe, a sweaty, claustrophobic tale of violence, sex and betrayal, is as dark and provocative as anything he’s made before. Omnipresent in a Friedkin film, it seems, is this exploration of the thin line between good and evil – is this, I ask, a fair assessment?

“Yeah,” he agrees. “Well, I believe that that’s true of all of us, not just fictional characters. I know for example that I have a good and an evil side that are constantly at war with one another. The characters that interest me are, in that way, ambiguous. I just don’t believe in superheroes, and American film has fed people a steady diet of that since the beginning of cinema. And I think it’s kind of a false premise.”

Such ambiguous characters can be tough to love. Killer Joe features a hick drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch), who, with his trailer-dwelling father and adulterous stepmother (Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon, respectively), hires detective/contract killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConnaughey) to murder Chris’s estranged mother.

Is it hard to balance audience empathy with such amoral characters? “Amoral is okay,” Friedkin retorts. “I mean, most people are amoral. In every walk of life. You see people step on their own grandmothers to succeed, if they have to. And morality often depends on the situation that you are in. Very often, what we see in public life and private life is situational ethics.”

The morality question triggers a lengthy denunciation of American foreign policy over the last forty years, with Friedkin lambasting the ethically dubious conflicts in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. “What is the moral justification for Iraq?” he asks at one point, and I momentarily wonder how rhetorical the question is.

But he is not being tangential. His anger and frustration at these amoral, or indeed, immoral wars, feeds into his craft; his characters’ errant motivations are, he hopes, reflective of contemporary political motivations. “I don’t want to lead people to believe that Killer Joe is a direct metaphor [for the recent wars]. But the actions of those characters are pretty much about the power-plays that exist in the broader reaches of society.”

His longstanding suspicion for authority endures. Just as Gene Hackman in The French Connection portrayed a distinctly ungallant brand of law enforcement, so Killer Joe – the cop who moonlights as a killer – works as sultry warning against trusting “those that we elect to high public office.” And he doesn’t view the premise as far-fetched: “You can read about it all the time! This is going on in the streets of LA right now. We in the US live in a very casually violent society.”

The graphic depictions of violence and sex in Killer Joe led American censors to demand cuts or bestow an NC-17 rating (the most restrictive rating possible). Friedkin took the rating. “I would have to cut it up into guitar picks to satisfy the ratings board!” He recalls back in 1973, when the founder of the MPAA’s rating board, Aaron Stern, gave The Exorcist an R rating with no cuts, “because he thought it was an important film and should be seen...Today, the culture is more conservative.” He bemoans the “arbitrary” system in place. “Borat is one of the dirtiest films I’ve ever seen and it got an R! How do you give that an R and Killer Joe an NC-17?”

He claims ignorance and a certain detachment from current Hollywood output. “The young film-makers of my generation were largely influenced by classic literature and their own life experiences. Today’s film-makers are largely influenced by comic books, videogames and television sitcoms, it seems.” He laments the current obsession with sequels and remakes, especially those of his own films. There have been two sequels and two prequels to The Exorcist. Friedkin has never seen any of them and has never made a sequel, despite considerable interest. Even today, people write to him asking to remake his 1985 thriller To Live And Die In L.A. He cites a “paucity of ideas” in Hollywood for the trend.

Having worked in the business for close to fifty years, has the enfant terrible any plans to retire? “No! No. I’m in God’s hands.” The late cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who worked until his early 90s, once said: “with any luck, I'll drop dead one day on a film set”. Would he wish for a similar fate? “No, I’d rather die peacefully in bed! But frankly, I’d rather not die at all. To those of my enemies who might wish otherwise: I have no plans to die.”

Killer Joe will open the 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival on 20 Jun and opens nationwide 29 Jun