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William Friedkin is no stranger to courting controversy… and he's more than OK with that. The 77-year-old Oscar-winning director of The French Connection and The Exorcist returns with the Southern-fried black comedy/thriller Killer Joe, which is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. Matthew McConaughy stars as the titular police detective who moonlights as a hit man and accepts the job of killing a desperate drug dealer's mother so that the dealer, Chris (Emile Hirsch), can collect her insurance policy. Chris doesn't expect Joe to hold his younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), as a retainer in this NC-17 adaptation of the play by Tracy Letts that also stars Thomas Hayden Church and Gina Gershon.
We sat down for a lengthy conversation with Friedkin during which he talked about assembling the perfect cast for Killer Joe, why he doesn't want anyone to walk away from his films feeling indifferent, why he won't do an Exorcist sequel, and what exactly went wrong with that first French Connection Blu-ray.
Movies.com: Matthew McConaughey wasn't cool with Killer Joe initially. What changed his mind?
William Friedkin: He's been quoted as saying that when he read the script for the first time, he threw it across the room in a trash basket. He felt like taking a shower with a wire brush. Then, somebody who works with him had seen the play years ago and said, "You'd better look at this again. It's about people that you knew growing up. You will know this world." So he took it out of the trash and said, "All right, set up a meeting with Friedkin." He wanted to make sure we were on the same page. We met and he said, "OK, great. Let's go."
Movies.com: Gina Gershon's Killer Joe character had to go to a pretty dark place for this role, and she passed doing the play because of having to do the chicken scene every night onstage. Did she require more direction and encouragement from you?
Friedkin: No. What I do as a director is create an atmosphere where actors can find these characters inside themselves. I create an atmosphere where they don't feel like they are being judged or I am judging them. Gina knows who this woman is and what her needs were—she understood greed and someone bereft of morality. She was able to find that within herself as most good actors are able to do. She won Best Supporting Actress award in Toronto. I had met with a couple of other well-known actresses, and their first questions to me were, "How are you going to handle the nudity and the chicken-bone scene?" I didn't feel like I needed to explain that to anybody—it was in the script.
Movies.com: Juno Temple is someone who was not even on your radar for the part of Dottie in Killer Joe. Did she win you over immediately?
Friedkin: I had never heard of her. I had Jennifer Lawrence wanting to do it and Evan Rachel Wood and many other young women. My casting director sent me an unsolicited audition on video by Juno doing the seduction scene with her 10-year-old brother. I immediately felt like she was it, and I cut off all other negotiations and gave the part to her without meeting her. Then we brought her to L.A. and she had this thick British accent. I told Thomas Hayden Church, who is from Texas, to give me a sign if her Texas accent was ever off, and he never did.
Movies.com: You have said to cut Killer Joe to an R rating would have destroyed it. Did you feel any pressure from anyone to cut it to an R?
Friedkin: Yes, of course. The distributor wanted to cut it to R. The uncut film was reviewed favorably in Toronto, Venice, SXSW and New Jersey. Then they took it to the ratings board, not suspecting that we'd get an NC-17. There are films out there that are far more disturbing in terms of violence and sexuality than this film, like the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. A major studio will never get an NC-17 because they own the ratings board. I was actually ashamed that I even attempted to remove some frames. There was nothing that could be done because the board regarded the film as "abhorrent."
Movies.com: There is still a rated-R version of Killer Joe that is going to be released on disc. Did you cut it or did you surrender that task to someone else?
Friedkin: I didn't make that—my wife [Sherry Lansing] did. That was largely for Walmart and Redbox, who will not carry an NC-17 movie. I've never seen it and never even asked my wife what she has done. I will never look at it and never promote it, and my commentary is not on it.
Movies.com: You took a big risk with a movie and play written by Tracy Letts that you knew could not possibly have mass appeal. You have said that you didn't want people to walk away from this movie feeling indifferent about it. Was it just important to you that the people who did see it have a very strong reaction?
Friedkin: People go to the movies to feel some emotion, whether it is to laugh, cry or to be frightened. You don't go to a film and hope to come out, saying, "Wow, that was interesting." No, you want to come out saying that it blew you away. That's what it is all about.
Movies.com: Did you know Killer Joe would be as controversial as it was?
Friedkin: Almost every film ever made has dissenters. There are people like me who don't like Gone with the Wind. The world loves it. I knew Killer Joe would be controversial, but I was hoping that the vast majority of people who posted their responses would love it. I imagine there were many people who hated it as well.
Movies.com: Is there a film of yours that you'd like to revisit with a director's cut or perhaps even a sequel?
Friedkin: No, I'd never do a sequel to any of the films that I've made. I've never even seen the sequels that have been made to The Exorcist or The French Connection. I've said all I've had to say about them. I could rip myself off, but I have no interest in doing that.
Movies.com: Your movie Bug was also originally a play by Tracy Letts. Is he a kindred spirit?
Friedkin: He absolutely is a kindred spirit and we have the same worldview. Early in my career, I made the film The Birthday Party with Harold Pinter. I learned almost everything I know about drama from Pinter, and Tracy is like a direct line from Pinter. Tracy and I are going to work on an original next.
Movies.com: The Exorcist is still considered by many to be the scariest movie of all time. There have been countless exorcism movies since then and all have been compared to The Exorcist and all come up short. What is it they are missing?
Friedkin: I think there are four or five Exorcist sequels, and I've never seen a frame of them. I've never seen these other films, like The Last Exorcism or The Exorcism of… somebody. I just don't know.
Movies.com: Since you made possibly the scariest movie of all time, would you ever consider doing another epic horror film?
Friedkin: Killer Joe is really disturbing, but you can't call it a horror film, really. There are a lot of horror films that don't trouble me at all. Bill Blatty, who wrote the novel and the screenplay, and I never spoke about "horror" once during the making of The Exorcist. To us it was a film about the mystery of faith. We knew it would be disturbing, but we didn't think we were making a horror film. In fact, it's based on a true story and I have access to the aunt of the young man who was the subject of the case in 1949. I've never mentioned his name, but he's still around and, as far as we know, he has no memory of what occurred. He's back in that area of Silver Spring, Maryland.
Movies.com: Will we ever see a complete director's cut or extended cut of Cruising with Al Pacino on Blu-ray?
Friedkin: I had to do frame cuts to get that film out with an R and mask certain shots with smoke in a room. The film was originally made by United Artists, and they are long defunct. We can't find the rest of the footage! Whatever they did with outtakes or prints, nobody knows. Warner picked [the movie] up and would put it out.
Movies.com: The French Connection was the first R-rated film to win an Oscar, and you won an Oscar for Best Director. How did you react to the criticism you got from people about how you chose to color correct it for its first Blu-ray release?
Friedkin: We discovered that the problem was in the mass printing. The masters that we color-timed are wonderful. Then we bought some prints at Best Buy and other places, and the prints were all over the place—grainy and f**ked up. There are four or five stages a movie goes through to become a Blu-ray, and they are made by four or five companies. There are changes made at all the stages. We made a new one—a 4K—for Fox this year, in which, hopefully, they tell me it won't happen again.
Movies.com: In general, do you feel like it's a director's right to be able to revisit his work and modify as he sees fit?
Friedkin: I do a lot of that. I made two cuts of The Exorcist—one with 12 minutes restored in the year 2000. It made a fortune… again. If I had the opportunity, I would recut all of my films because you change your attitude about these pictures, what's in them and who you are. At a certain point you have to stop.
Movies.com: Will you ever try 3D, all digital or even 48 fps?
Friedkin: I love the new technology. I don't bemoan the fact that film is finished. It had many flaws, not the least of which is that you could never produce an exact copy in the printing process. It involves chemicals, which uses the water supply, and there are different amoebas floating around in the water that affect the color dye. Pretty soon everyone will stream from somewhere, but I love Blu-ray. I don't want to watch a movie on my iPad or my iPhone, which people are doing—Lawrence of Arabia on an iPhone!
Movies.com: What is next for you?
Friedkin: I just finished my memoirs for HarperCollins. It took me three years to write. It's called The Friedkin Connection and it is coming out April 9.