William Friedkin is a director who's never failed to ruffle a few feathers. Best known as the director of The Exorcist, The French Connection, the imperiled Sorceror, and the contested Cruising (protested by gay rights groups everywhere), he's also one of the last "great" directors of his generation to be producing work that still feels alive and exciting. Killer Joe, arguably the most chilling of his films since The Exorcist, opens Friday around the Bay Area. I had a chance to speak with the legendary director after a screening of this new NC-17 rated Southern Gothic, starring a revelatory Matthew McConaughey convincingly playing against type as a snake-smooth Southern contract killer.
After the film's screening, Friedkin was on fire in the Q&A, crying foul on everything from auteur theory to the Hollywood ratings system to the reason he cast Gina Gershon as the film's trailer park femme fatale. Friedkin's no-holds-barred musings the next morning at the press day could fill a few volumes, and indications are that they will when his memoirs are published some time next year. In the meantime, here are a few choice snippets from our conversation to get you amped for the film's weekend release.
On working with Gina Gershon:
"I thought about her immediately, because she's both sexy and intelligent, and those are the qualities that we needed. She's obviously playing below her own intelligence level in this film–they all are–but these clowns that they're depicting are human beings, and they can't be judged by the actors. The actors have to find those people in themselves, somewhere, and what I do as a director is to help them to find them. So yes, I always felt that Gina had a lot more to offer than was in some of the film roles she got. She's smart and tough and that's why a lot of the casting directors or… directors don't like to work with her. They'd rather have someone who's malleable. And I'd rather have somebody who knows and has experience with the character."
On Twilight and Hollywood today:
"I don't like anything that's happening in Hollywood now. [In the Twilight films] they don't know what they're doing. They're clueless. You know, it's a clueless thing to me… I don't get it, what the f--- they're talking about it. I don't like watching it. But that's just me. I saw the first one, and it was enough. That was it. It's like, Pepto Bismol. You'll do whatever is necessary not to use it again!"
On directing violence in film:
"I would tell them the point up to which I wanted them to go, so nobody really got hurt. Right up to that point. And they're professional enough to know how to do it. I've seen situations where actors have hurt other actors and went too far. They've cut loose so far from the artistic distance that's necessary to not really hurt somebody, but to look like you do. So they knew how far to go. When McConaughey handles Gina Gershon, he knows how far he can go without even causing her a scratch,. And she knew how far she had to go in terms of what she had to put up with to play that woman. I only cast people that are intelligent enough to understand that, and that we're not going to do this in a subtle way, we're going to do it… It's a dish best served raw."
On filming Jade in San Francisco and the chase scene:
"It was the best experience I've ever had making a film. The very best. As good as Killer Joe was. And Jade is a film that I love, much more than many of the more successful films I've made. I think it has the best chase scene I've ever shot. It's a chase of inches, in Chinatown during a New Year's celebration. I love the film Bullitt, and I love Steve McQueen, but I'm not too crazy about the chase scene in Bullitt. The chase scene is the only kind of a scene you can't do anywhere else: You can't do it on the stage, you can't do it in a novel, you can't do it in a painting, you can't write a chase as visceral as what you see on film. It's the one piece of pure cinema–to me. Especially when they're well done, like in The Bourne Ultimatum, the original Italian Job and the Buster Keaton movies. That's about it. Like I said, I loved Bullitt… but the chase… I've said this to McQueen. I've had this discussion with him, because once he introduced me at a screening, and he introduced me as the man that made the second greatest chase scene ever, and I said: 'Bull shit.'"
Killer Joe opens this Friday in theaters around the Bay Area.