William Friedkin has been directing films for roughly 45 years. You wouldn’t know it to look at him. You’d likelier guess that he was born around the time his first feature — the 1967 Sonny and Cher vehicle “Good Times” — was made. Maybe it’s just his enthusiasm and energy.
Assuming you’re not one of the few who caught “Good Times,” you’re likelier to have become aware of him in 1971 when his gritty, low-budget cop film “The French Connection” was a huge surprise hit; or the following spring, when it received nine Oscar nominations, five of which (including Best Picture and Best Director) it won. He followed it up two years later with “The Exorcist,” which was an even bigger hit and became the most iconic horror film in decades. Since then, he’s made roughly a dozen more movies, including his latest — the riveting, violent, sardonic “Killer Joe.” Like its predecessor, “Bug,” it’s from a screenplay by Tracy Letts, based on Letts’ own play.
In “Killer Joe,” Matthew McConaughey plays the title character, a ruthless hired killer who gets hired by a not very bright Texas boy named Chris (Emile Hirsch) to kill Chris’ mother for insurance money so he can pay off gambling debts. He has no cash to pay upfront, so Joe insists on holding, as “collateral,” Chris’ sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). Not surprisingly, things do not go perfectly.
Speaking with Friedkin recently, I asked him about Letts, these two projects, and adapting stage plays in general.
Andy Klein: Early in your career you made “The Birthday Party” and “Boys in the Band,” both theatrical adaptations, and then didn’t work from stage material for another 36 years, until you made “Bug.” Is there a reason?
William Friedkin: Just that they were great screenplays with wonderful characters and menace and humor. Material comes
from different places, but in those cases it happened to come from a play. I’ve done 16 films, and they come from novels, original ideas and events … and, in those cases, plays.
AK: But suddenly two films in a row from the same playwright?
WF: It’s just that Letts is the first playwright I’ve felt this way about since [Harold] Pinter. I was on the same page with Pinter and now again with Letts. I just love the characters and the stories and the dialogue. We sort of share the same world view.
AK: Your generation [including Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich] were successful right as the old studio system was crumbling.
WF: That was the ‘70s, which many critics now refer to as the “Golden Decade” of Hollywood. And we were all getting fired every day. Coppola was being fired off “The Godfather.” I had a phone call from the producer of “Raging Bull” while it was being filmed asking me if I wanted to replace [Martin] Scorsese. That was a common thing then. For us, it was certainly a lot of fun; and, as I look back on it, there were some very good films made, but it wasn’t a golden age to us at the time. It’s much easier for the guys today working on a $300-million movie, where they have everything they want. Anything a filmmaker can dream up can be done today.
AK: Theoretically things have changed, yet the same sort of restrictions prevent scripts from getting made today, for reasons of bad taste or budget or whatever.
WF: Taste doesn’t enter into the equation. There is no taste; it’s always in the eye of the beholder. The guys who ran the studios in the ‘70s, they had a certain taste, and that’s why so many films got made — different kinds of films, mostly adult films. The Heads of Production did what they wanted to do and just hoped that their own taste would be in sync with the public’s. But I see it from a different prism now. In the ‘70s and before, there was nothing to compete with. There wasn’t so much cable and television and home video and video on demand.
AK: You worked in TV a little?
WF: A lot. I did live television for about eight years. In Chicago, from 1956 to about 1964. I came right out of high school into live television. For the first seven or eight months I was in the mail room. That’s the way you learned and moved up.
AK: Is there any equivalent to that now?
WF: No. Now you can go out and buy a camera and make something. And you can get it shown. You can make your own film or whatever you call it and put it on YouTube or any number of other sites. That’s different than my time. I had to go through a long apprenticeship. The other crafts, like camera and editing, had long apprenticeships.
AK: At the very end of the credit crawl for “The Dark Knight Rises,” it says, “This movie was shot and finished on film.”
WF: Well, that might be the last such credit, because 35mm [film] won’t be manufactured after this year. Eastman Kodak is bankrupt. Nobody else is going to pick up the slack. The technology is changing; and I welcome the change.
AK: What do you think is lost, if anything?
WF: Nothing. The cinematographer’s art is not lost in the digital world. I like what cellphones produce. I take pictures with cellphones, and I like them. It’s changed a lot of the concept of what is the art of photography. It’s what’s in front of the camera, not the camera itself. That’s it: It’s progress. I welcome it. I think these media are wonderful, and, if you’re in the creative end of the business, they afford you far more opportunities than any of the stuff did before.
Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” opens Aug. 3.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).