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Exclusive: William Friedkin Talks Making 'Killer Joe,' The Problem With Exorcism Movies, 'Sorcerer' & Much More

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist July 26, 2012 at 11:59AM

Deep fried, dangerous, obscene, hilarious and hugely entertaining, while not for the faint of heart, William Friedkin's "Killer Joe" proves the director hasn't lost the energetic spirit that put him on the map in the 1970s with films like "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist." And indeed, it might be his most controversial film since that latter pic. The film's violence and nudity might have made some folks at the MPAA squirm, but it was undoubtedly a climatic sequence involving fried chicken that pushed them over the edge.
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Killer Joe Emile Hirsch Matthew McConaughey Juno Temple Gina Gershon
What is your process when you and Darrin are in the editing room?
You have to make choices. Even though we shot very few takes there were a number of takes and there's a number of places where you can go even within the confines of the script. You can invent moments, you can emphasize this or that character because they're all shot in the whole scene. Usually they're all covered and you have to make the decision as to what you want the audience to see at any given particular time. So yeah, there are a lot of decisions in the editing room. Darrin and I will discuss these things, we'll talk them over and I'll often say to him, 'Which one of these takes do you like better?' I'll get his opinion and we'll look at it, analyze it from various perspectives, and we'll reach a consensus eventually of where to put the knife, so to speak. And how much of something to show and how little. I'm often guided by his opinion. It's nice to have another pair of eyes on the stuff that you're making and it's not easy for me to do that with the producers, who are not all that interested in what the final product looks like. They're interested in how much it costs, basically. That's always been my experience with studios or producers. So you need someone else whose opinion you value looking at it with you. We would disagree from time to time but I think the film that's out there, we both pretty much are in agreement with. I don't know if it could have gone a lot differently. It might have.

You've said that Matthew McConaughey's performance in the film reminded you of Robert Mitchum in "Night of the Hunter." Were you looking at noir films as a guide for what you're trying to achieve?
Well it's in the script but he could be played by any number of good actors. Tommy Lee Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Jeff Bridges, you know? Many, Josh Brolin, James Brolin who's a good looking guy, he's a friend of mine, he would have been wonderful, I think. I saw McConaughey on an interview show where he was himself, and I was very impressed with him. I saw how his natural charm and good looks would be a major plus with this character rather than it being some grizzled old polar bear or something. But I didn't see that frankly in any of the other films he was in.

Killer Joe Matthew McConaughey Emile Hirsch
But you knew he could do it?
I hoped so. But once I saw that interview I pretty much thought that I could create a mood for him to feel free enough to create within the context of that role, which is what I look for in a performance, [I look for] spontaneity, and I try to make the film the way he did the interview, very spontaneous. Don't worry about the exact lines. He knew the lines, they were easy to remember. So then he just had to play them, and playing them meant being free to reach into himself and find Killer Joe, which is certainly there.

Juno Temple said she sent an unsolicited audition. What was it about her audition that made you think she was the one that you were going to cast?
Well she was great. She did the audition with her ten year old brother and it was exactly what I was wanting, exactly. And I didn't know her, I had never seen her films and didn't know she was British. I knew nothing about her, my casting director played me this tape, unsolicited. And that's it, she was just right. She did the sex scene with Joe, the dinner scene and the seduction, and the camera just got her. I never saw her brother, he was off screen reading it. He was ten.

Her accent was perfect, I didn't know she was British. She was in England and I didn't know she was English. Then she came to meet me at my house and she has this thick British accent. But I heard her accent and it was a perfect Texas accent. Now McConaughey and Thomas Haden Church are both from Texas, and I said, "Listen if you hear her say anything that doesn't sound right, tell her or tell me." And they never did, she had it down perfectly. I had never seen her in a film before that.

William Friedkin Jason Miller The Exorcist
So you kind of lucked out, you saw McConaughey on TV and got this unsolicited tape -- did you feel like the chips were falling in your favor from the start?
It's always the movie gods that either give you or don't give you the right things. Sometimes you want to use certain people and they’re not available or don't want to do it. In this case I got five leads in the movie that all really wanted to be there. "The French Connection" was a movie god, so was "The Exorcist," you know? Jason Miller plays the young priest in "The Exorcist," he had never been there. He only had small roles on TV, he was a writer, he was a playwright. I saw his play and I just wanted to meet him to talk about the play because the characters in the play were all sort of lapsed Catholics and that was the character in "The Exorcist." I met with him to talk to him about his play, not to make a film about it, but I was curious because I had read that he had studied with a priest at a Catholic University in West Virginia and had dropped out after three years and didn't make it. I was interested in that because that is what the character in "The Exorcist" was. The guy had a crisis of faith.

For something like Killer Joe, what is the challenge with this kind of material or do you view it as a challenge?
The biggest challenge is to stay awake on the set. I'm serious. The stuff that puts me to sleep I figure is boring and so I cut it on the set. And then it's another challenge to stay awake in the editing room. I'm not being facetious, you know, a lot of this stuff I've heard before or seen before or I don't know a way out of it so I'm constantly looking to be provoked or provoke myself. That's the biggest challenge. Well, the challenges involved in directing a film are first of all to find a piece of material that you're compatible with, and then to get the right cast, and then to create an atmosphere where that cast can feel appreciated and feel that they can be creative and they're not being judged. So I don't operate like a dictator director. I will suggest movement, I will suggest the way that people move around in front of a camera or don't move, but I'll never tell them how to say a line. We'll discuss at some length what the whole thing means and what's behind the lines, or what is in the spaces between the lines and sometimes the most dramatic moments are in the silences. So I'll try to build in those silences, which the actors have to fill. When you say pause here or whether there's silence in there, it doesn't mean they can go out and have a Coke or something, it fulfills those moments. Very often the best film acting is done between the lines.

This article is related to: William Friedkin, Killer Joe, The Master, The Exorcist, Sorcerer


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