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SXSW '12 Interview: Matthew McConaughey & Tracy Letts Talk Working With William Friedkin & NC-17 Rating For 'Killer Joe'

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com March 13, 2012 at 1:05PM

"Killer Joe" is a film primed to mark a comeback for its director and star. Not only has William Friedkin made his best movie in decades with the sordid Texan crime tale, but Matthew McConaughey continues to add to his recent renaissance of fascinating work that has seen him team with with filmmakers like Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh and Jeff Nichols.
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Killer Joe Matthew McConaughey

"Killer Joe" is a film primed to mark a comeback for its director and star. Not only has William Friedkin made his best movie in decades with the sordid Texan crime tale, but Matthew McConaughey continues to add to his recent renaissance of fascinating work that has seen him team with with filmmakers like Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh and Jeff Nichols.

"Killer Joe" wowed audiences on the Lido and at TIFF over the last six months (read our Venice review here), but came back to home territory this week for SXSW, and we sat down for a roundtable interview with McConaughey, along with Tracy Letts, who adapted his own acclaimed play for the screen, and whose Pulitzer Prize-winning "August: Osage County," starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, will be filmed later in 2012. Read highlights below, and you'll be able to check out "Killer Joe" for yourselves when it's released later this year. Some major spoilers follow.  

The Script Was Inspired By Letts Living In Dallas In The 1980s And By The Work Of Jim Thompson
"Killer Joe" became Letts' big calling card on the stage when it debuted in 1993 (with a cast that originally included Michael Shannon, in the role now filled by Emile Hirsch). And as the writer describes, the material came from a variety of inspirations: his own experiences, true stories, and crime fiction. "I lived in Dallas for a couple of years in the mid '80s," Letts told us. "Dallas cops were in the news round then, busting heads. I had a tough time in Dallas, that hard-scrabble existence, it can be a really hard city for the have-nots. I lived in a trailer myself when I was a kid, for a while, and I was familiar with certain aspects of the lifestyle. The original story this was based on was about a Florida family, but I found it transposed to Dallas quite easily. I'm a big fan of Jim Thompson, the great alcoholic crime writer from Oklahoma, he wrote 'The Grifters' and 'The Killer Inside Me,' he was some of the inspiration of this. It seemed to fit with Dallas well, they behaved in a way that I thought people from Dallas could recognize. I think it helps that Matthew's from Texas, and brings a real authenticity to this. Thomas [Haden Church] is from Texas too."

Killer Joe Emile Hirsch Juno Temple
McConaughey's Enjoying The Latest Phase Of His Career
With "Bernie," "Magic Mike," "Mud," "The Paperboy" and more on the way, McConaughey acknowledges that he's moving into a new phase of his career. "Yeah, it's another chapter. After 'The Lincoln Lawyer,' I had so much fun doing that, and it got some traction, people seemed to like it, and I was able to get things up. I've got four more coming after this that are a little odd and out of the box." And part of that was being approached for "Killer Joe" by the director. "Billy Friedkin came to me," McConaughey added, "and then we met, and we had a great sit down, one of the best director/actor meetings I've ever had. I wasn't familiar with the play. Tracy and I met for the first time last night."

But before then, McConaughey accepts that he didn't instantly adore the material. On first reading the script, the actor said that, "I felt icky, disgusted, and thought 'I'm not touching that, it's just gross'. And then I forget who I talked to, they were like 'No, dude, it's totally hilarious, what are you talking about?' So I sat back down the next day and read it. It matters when you read, just like it matters when you go see a movie. And then I understood the story a little better, and I had my laughs, which helped me understand it tonally better. And then I met with Billy, but I knew there were certain roles that come off the page. You can taste it. I didn't know what that taste is going to be, I haven't made choices yet, but that guy has an engine, and it's gonna be fun to go and drive that."

Friedkin Might Be 76, But He's At The Top Of His Game
At one time one of the most successful directors in the world, with back-to-back smashes in "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist," Friedkin has had a more up-and-down ride in subsequent decades. But the filmmaker found success with another Letts adaptation, "Bug" starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon in 2007, and the writer has nothing but praise for the way they collaborated together. "I think he's working at the top of his game right now. He's an old man, he doesn't have time for bullshit, he's just out there, he's running and gunning and doing it, and for me, it harkens back to guys like Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray. Billy does one take and he's moving on to the next thing."

McConaughey concurred, saying, "He's got more energy than anyone else on the set. He's as lucid as all get out, he knows exactly what he's doing." Indeed, of all the filmmakers he's worked with, McConaughey compares him most to one of his contemporaries. "Billy's similar to Steven Spielberg in 'Let's get everyone up to speed, let's get the energy up in this scene,' And then, he gets the camera going, to capture the energy right away. You'd improvise to get up to speed, so to speak. [John] Sayles knew five edits ahead and five edits behind, cutting in the middle of the scene. Rick [Linklater] is more like 'Let it flow.' You don't know if he loves it, doesn't like it. He's like 'Yeah, maybe 20% less concentration.' This was a vital, intense experience. Time is precious when you're working on a budget like we've got and a schedule like we've got. We weren't getting up on set and opining through the dialog. You do have to do that a lot, but you don't want to be doing that on the day. So we had a few rehearsals on the Saturdays leading up, we'd play around with places, and Caleb [Descanel, the DoP] would come down. Then when we showed up, it'd be one take."

Killer Joe Matthew McConaughey Emile Hirsch
McConaughey Approached The Character By Filling In Some Of The Blanks
A policeman who doubles up as a hitman, 'Killer' Joe Cooper is the most indelible characters in Letts' script, and quite unlike anything that McConaughey's ever played before. But rather than playing him as a villain, the actor tried to find a vein of humanity. "Joe's an island," McConaughey said. "He's an outsider. Family was a big thing, that was always a big thing, for me. That was where I would go to, if I wasn't sure how to approach him: go to family. What he had, what he didn't have, what were Joe's relationships before Dottie? Probably 30 second hook-ups along the side of the road. So that scene with Dottie, we thought let's be very deliberate, very gentle, very slow, very soft, very sensuous. He's a virgin at that point, almost. The big sweeps, the first two acts, everything's quiet underneath. Internal, internal. So when he does snap, it's a big slingshot, a big 180, and then it just freighttrains. And then he has to get it together, get civil about it, now they're all together again, family. That's his fairy tale, and then that goes wrong, or doesn't, depending on how you take the ending. An outsider without family. But order, I love order. Joe's clinical about the order of things. He's very clear about the instructions, here's the rule, here's how we engage, here's what you will know and won't know. That was fun to play."

They're Fully Prepared For The Reaction That The Intense, Sure-To-Be-Controversial Ending Will Get
Ever since the film premiered in Venice, the climactic scene, a confrontation between all the major characters, which features a piece of fried chicken being put to unforgettable use, has been one of the most talked-about. According to McConaughey, all involved knew the significance, but were keen not to let it dominate the shoot. "A scene like that... you don't get too into it in rehearsal. On the day, I just said to Billy: 'Joe's in control of this thing, let me quarter-back it.' And half way through, if Joe throws in something like 'Reach around and grab my ass,' I don't know if that was written or not, it's coming out on the fly. And knowing that dialog well enough to make sense, cos he's calling order to this situation. You just go for it. I think we did it once, maybe twice. We didn't over-rehearse it."

It's a claustrophobic scene, one which never leaves the trailer, and it's the moment that perhaps most betrays the theatrical origins. But according to Letts, it was always a deliberate choice in the adaptation. "My feeling was the more we traveled outside the trailer, the more the sense in that last scene would be 'Why can't we leave right now?' Well, we're not letting you, we're going to force you to stay in this very uncomfortable small space with us right now." As for the moments that have caused division and controversy in audiences: well, that was the intention. "You find yourself looking at Sharla [Gina Gershon's character]. On the one hand, she deserves what's coming to her, on the other hand, this is awfully rough. And you find yourself with some sympathy for that character. Because I think she's drawn a bit more in depth. Gina brings a lot to the table, she's not just a woman that deserves to get punished. I hope that the male/female politics are out there for you people to look at and consider, but I think that's one of the reasons it starts to feel ugly and messy at the end. Is it just horrifying, or is it a little titillating, or is it deserved?"

Both Letts and McConaughey Are Hopeful That The NC-17 Rating Might Be Overturned
The film made headlines a few weeks back as the center of the latest rating-based controversy, after being slapped with a rare NC-17 rating, which severely limits its box-office potential. But Letts tells us that the process of getting it overturned is already underway. "We're trying to get into that, we're going in to appeal the decision in a couple of days. They can be a little cagey about telling them what bothers them about the movie. We're not really sure if it's the general milieu, or if it's individual shots and scenes."

McConaughey is baffled, and feels that, if the MPAA were to see it with a crowd, they might make a different decision. "I don't know how it goes either, but I understand you could maybe show the same film, same guys but different day, where there's enough levity along the way in the middle of the most violent stuff. It felt like an R to me, last night. It's got enough of a wink to not be an NC-17."

Reporting by Cory Everett

This article is related to: Killer Joe, SXSW Film Festival, South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW), Matthew McConaughey, Tracy Letts, Interviews


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