L.A. Film Festival: William Friedkin’s ‘ferocious sensibility’

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William Friedkin could easily be in the victory lap phase of his career, accepting lifetime achievement awards, attending retrospectives of his work and basking in the ongoing adoration of having once made films such as “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection.” Yet at 76, he seems as scrappy and engaged as ever, with his new film “Killer Joe,” opening July 27, arguably his wildest yet.

Friedkin, who is serving as the guest director for this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, will appear Friday night for a Q&A and screening of “Killer Joe,” an adaptation of the play by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Tracy Letts starring Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church and Juno Temple.


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A two-fisted tale of dumb deals, double-crosses, murder, barter gone bad and love gone sour, the film flirts with trailer-trash hicksploitation in its outrageous exploration of the darker side of the human soul.

Both “Killer Joe” and Friedkin’s previous film “Bug” (also a Letts adaptation) were financed independently, and it does seem that he and the Hollywood studios have parted ways for now –- “Killer Joe” was financed by Voltage Pictures, the company also behind “The Hurt Locker,” and is the first release for distributor LD Entertainment.

“It’s not like a divorce,” Friedkin said of his current relationship with the major studios, “possibly a trial separation.”

Greeting a journalist for a recent interview in a T-shirt, chinos and sneakers, looking like a filmmaker a fraction of his age, Friedkin was ready with a pointed opinion on just about any topic thrown his way. He recently has taken to Twitter -– “I like it more than Facebook,” he said -– and has more than 3,000 followers. Asked why he chose to shoot “Killer Joe” using a digital format, he said “35 millimeter is overrated and I’m not sorry to see it go.”

Regarding the NC-17 rating for the film, which was awarded for the movie’s overall tone, he offered, “The ratings board is a joke.”


“He is a purposeful provocateur,” said David Ansen, the artistic director of the L.A. Film Fest, which is sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. “I wrote a little tribute to him where I say he never met an envelope he doesn’t want to push. There’s always been controversy about his movies and he seems to relish that. He has a truly dark, dark vision. It’s beyond film noir, it’s almost like black hole cinema. He’s got a very ferocious sensibility.”

“Killer Joe” certainly displays that ferocity, particularly in a climatic scene inside a Texas trailer home. The film, which cost around $5 million to make, was shot in less than three weeks last year in New Orleans. It centers on a hired killer (McConaughey) who wants to leave town with the young woman, Dottie (Temple), who was promised to him as a retainer after her family is unable to pay him for services rendered. As he unravels layers of deception, he unleashes a violent humiliation upon the family matriarch, a wicked stepmother-type played by Gershon.

With a story line that sees a young woman bartered as tender to a hit man and an act of extreme sexual violence, charges of misogyny have been leveled at the film ever since its unveiling at festivals in Venice and Toronto last year. The same accusations have long followed the play, which was first staged in 1993.

While Friedkin has never shied away from including explicit sexual imagery and powerful moments of violence in such films as “Exorcist,” “Cruising” and “Jade,” he says he’s never intentionally set out to make movies that specifically explore the dynamics of aggression and power.

“I’m not conscious of that,” the filmmaker said. “Now ‘Killer Joe,’ like my other films I’ve made, is about life, death, sin, sex, torment, retribution, all the classic themes that make drama. ... Mostly the films have to do with either sin and redemption or sin and punishment.

“What I do hope to accomplish with any scenes in the films I’ve made is a kind of maximum tension and intensity,” Friedkin added.


For Letts, who adapted his play for the screen, that explicit intersection of sex and violence in “Killer Joe” was intentional. “It’s supposed to be upsetting,” the playwright said in an interview last fall during the Toronto International Film Festival. “For me it is a reflection of the world we live in. I think the women have it kind of tough.”

The film is designed to evoke complex reactions; festival audiences met “Killer Joe” with nervous, rowdy excitement and stunned silence. A Variety review described Friedkin’s adaptation of the “aggressively sordid story” as “generally gripping... before devolving into an over-the-top splatterfest.”

Even McConaughey in a recent interview with The Times said the film was “real hard-core.”

“‘Killer Joe’ is funny, in addition to being sort of horrific and scary,” Ansen said. “It’s on that edge. I think he means for us to both be horrified and to laugh, which I don’t know if all audiences are going to get that.”

The man who began his career making television documentaries recently did fly north to accept a lifetime achievement award from the Seattle International Film Festival. “I don’t for a minute really believe I deserve these awards … but I accept them based on the venue and if I have the time.”

Given his schedule, finding time isn’t always easy. Friedkin has spent the last two-and-a-half years working on his memoir, “Connections,” set to be published next year, and he’s also weighing his next directing project -– either a production of the opera “The Tales of Hoffmann” or a film currently titled “Trapped” based on his own original story. “These are things I’m interested in,” he said.

“There’s no reason why I should be a filmmaker,” Friedkin continued. “I never studied film, I never went to college. I just got into film because at that time my own interests coincided with that of the general public and the audience and I was young. I managed to hang on out of equal parts ambition, luck and the grace of God.”


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