TORONTO—William Friedkin has been making movies for more than 40 years, and now, at 77, he says he will keep making them because he won’t give up on the ultimate challenge: to make a movie that could be compared in a positive way to that of one of his filmmaking heroes. He’s done pretty well along the way, though, with an Oscar nomination for directing The Exorcist and a win for The French Connection.
Although the past two decades have seen him moving between films like the Tommy Lee Jones vehicles Rules of Engagement and The Hunted and episodes of CSI, his career also includes The Night They Raided Minsky’s, The Boys in the Band, and the classic suspense film To Live and Die in L.A. His latest film, Killer Joe, opens Friday (August 10) in Vancouver.
At last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Friedkin said that he sees Killer Joe, which tells the story of a desperate man (Emile Hirsch) who hires a hit man (Matthew McConaughey) to kill his mother for insurance money, to be in the tradition of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.
“There are no heroes in this film and there were certainly none in Citizen Kane. The main character is the embodiment of goodness and kindness and compassion and evil, and he evolves throughout the film. That is a quarry for filmmakers from everywhere in that it contains the very best in all of the cinematic disciplines, composition, lighting, screenplay, story, acting, cinematography. It is all done at the highest level in that film. No one can do it that well. They haven’t yet, but those of us who are still doing this job are still trying. That is what keeps me going. I haven’t made a film that could latch [on to] the bootstraps of Citizen Kane.”
Killer Joe is based on a 1998 play of the same name. It wasn’t a hit, but Friedkin liked the material, something that he says is very rare for him. He says it came to him as a screenplay but that the form in which he receives material is less important than the story it tells. “It was a screenplay, as was Casablanca, which was derived from an unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s and all the characters were there. They only changed one character, who was an American woman, and they thought: ‘Why would an American woman be stranded in Casablanca?’ So they changed it to a European woman and they cast Ingrid Bergman. Everything that is in that movie is from an unproduced play. It’s the material. It could be a novel or an original script or an adaptation of an event that occurred, like The Exorcist. I have been directing for 40 years, and I think I have made 16 films because I am not that attracted to what they are making, especially today.”
If there is a skill Friedkin acknowledges he has brought to his work, it’s his sense of casting. He does admit that his instincts are not always right. There was the time that everyone wanted one actor and he had him further down on his list. However, it all worked out pretty well.
“I had a perfect cast for The Exorcist, and they are all identified with their roles and they came to me somehow in a mysterious way, each of them. But when I was casting for The French Connection, I didn’t want Gene Hackman. There were six other guys we went to. He wanted to do the part, but once he got it he didn’t want to go there. He didn’t want to play a guy who used the N word like that and beat up suspects and was such a hardhead, so he fought against it. I had to constantly remind him who he was playing and what. Ultimately, he was great, and I have a gold statue at home because of him. So he was a gift against my better judgment.”
Watch the trailer for Killer Joe.