A Changing Zeitgeist: William Friedkin on Killer Joe (and Everything Else)

The director doesn't like superhero movies, says that digital filmmaking is better than the alternative, and discusses all the sex in his latest film.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


I was naive enough that I actually worried about getting through a thirty minute interview with William Friedkin, the director of such classics as The Exorcist, The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. Little did I know that the Oscar-winning director loves to talk, and not just about Killer Joe, his latest release, opening this weekend. In fact, I completely failed to keep the conversation related to the crime thriller, based on the play by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Letts.

That's okay. Hearing Friedkin and his editor Darrin Navarro spitball about topics ranging from digital filmmaking (which Friedkin says is superior to working with actual film), the issues Neil Gabbler recently raised about the younger generation of filmgoers and why Friedkin doesn't like any of the recent spate of superhero movies was entertaining enough. I think you're going to dig it too.


William Friedkin: So you’re from CraveOnline.


CraveOnline: I am from Crave Online.

William Friedkin: Is it what men crave or what everybody craves?


It should be what everybody craves, but…

William Friedkin: What do men crave?


They crave Killer Joe.

William Friedkin: Great. I hope so!


I’m in charge of the film channel over there, and we’re ostensibly supposed to be all The Dark Knight and blah-blah-blah, but I think it’s important to cover all the great movies and all the interesting movies out there.

William Friedkin: Not just spandex.


Not just spandex! I love spandex as much as the next guy…

William Friedkin: I don’t. I don’t like spandex.


You don’t like superhero movies at all?

William Friedkin: One or two, you know, but not a steady diet. They’re not for me anymore. I don’t care how good it is. I knowwhat’s gonna happen. There might be drama in one scene or something, but you know it’s going to be resolved. I guess this is about he retires because he’s seen too much violence or something…

Darrin Navarro: Oh, is this the new Batman?

William Friedkin: And then he comes back. Of course he comes back in a batsuit! Why do you have to wait 40 minutes?


This one is kind of interesting because it’s an indictment of why anyone would become Batman in the first place when they’re already a billionaire philanthropist. You can change the world in practical, immediate ways, and instead can put on a batsuit and beat up thugs?

William Friedkin: Isn’t that what Ted Turner does?


That’s exactly what Ted Turner does.

William Friedkin: Doesn’t he put on some kind of a spandex suit?


I heard he doesn’t fight crime, though, just… things going on in basements.

William Friedkin: [To Darrin] – I have no interest in seeing it, do you?

Darrin Navarro: A bunch of my friends worked on it, so yes I have a heightened interest in it. And the truth is I liked both previous versions of that movie. I’m with you. I don’t love all superhero movies, but the Dark Knight series I’ve been into, yeah.


Have you seen either of the previous ones?

William Friedkin: No.


It might be worth looking into.

William Friedkin: I tried to watch The Avengers and I couldn’t.


Fair enough.

William Friedkin: It is for tens of millions of people, just not for me.



William Friedkin: I mean, I used to love comic books and video games. I used to love them, but that’s not all I want out of a movie. And that’s all there is, basically.


What would you focus on if you made a superhero?

William Friedkin: I wouldn’t.


But you said you used to…

William Friedkin: I used to like Archie comics!


I’d love to see William Friedkin’s Archie.

William Friedkin: I loved Archie and Veronica and Betty. [To Darrin] – Did you ever read Archie comics?

Darrin Navarro: Josie and the Pussycats, yeah.

William Friedkin: They were wonderful! But I don’t want to direct or see a movie about Archie. They made a movie about the Three Stooges, which I wouldn’t see if you paid me a fortune. The Three Stooges were great.


I will say this: they actually did the slapstick better than I ever thought they would. The timing was incredible.

William Friedkin: I know, but that’s not The Stooges. Those guys, it came from who they were, out of vaudeville. These guys developed their personality out of the zeitgeist of their time. Today it would be an imitation of that for me.


And it is. It is, basically.

William Friedkin: I’m bored by movies. I love old movies… by old I mean films that I keep going back to.


Have you read that article in the Los Angeles Times last week about the younger generation?

William Friedkin: Neil Gabbler… was it Sunday’s?

Darrin Navarro:I saw a follow-up article on IndieWire where the guy was reaching out to young people, and I have kids who are about that age and are saying “Please prove this article wrong. Send me your comments!” and got a sheaf of comments.


But these are the people who would read IndieWire.

Darrin Navarro: Yes they are.


A lot of the issue is the mainstream audiences, I feel. I was working at a video store years ago, ten years ago, and someone asked me “There’s a really old movie I’m looking for”. So I start walking towards the classics section, and they say “It stars Brad Pitt and Ed Norton”. And this was only three years after Fight Club came out. That was really old to this fourteen-year-old.

William Friedkin: I’m not surprised at any of that.


I’m not surprised either, but…

William Friedkin: Let me tell you, it’s a meaningless story. People still read Charles Dickens, but he’s not on the top of the bestseller list. People still read Proust, you know; they read The Great Gatsby. They read a lot of things, but they’re not at the top of the bestseller list. People still go to museums and look at paintings by Vermeer, and Rembrandt, and Van Gogh in great numbers, but not as much as they go to see Warhol or Damian Hurst. There is a different zeitgeist. It’s sort of meaningless to say they’re not watching… because of the availability of almost everything on DVD or Blu-Ray, young people are seeing more of the classics than they ever did in my day. And I am too!


I would argue that they certainly have more access to them, but I find that if you ask someone “Have you seen or Notorious or Lawrence of Arabia?” they’re more likely to say “I’ve seen bits of it.”

Darrin Navarro: But was there a generation – en masse – that was ever into old movies for a generation or two? That was never true. I don’t know how this generation is markedly different.


It’s an interesting observation, though. What I think we’re more concerned about isn’t that they’re not seeing them, but that they think they’re actually bad. There are people who actually think that because they’re in black and white, because they have different pacing because they’re made in the 40s, they are actively bad.

William Friedkin: Yeah, but there are people who voted for Richard Nixon, too. Twice. And there are people who vote for absolute idiots to run the country. So what do you do about that? The really top intellects of our country don’t run for political office. They don’t want to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.


And when a reasonably smart guy does get elected president he gets accused of elitism because he has a degree. Because he’s smart. As if that’s an insult.

William Friedkin: Daniel Moynihan, an interesting senator from New York once coined the phrase "Defining Deviancy Downward.” [Editor’s Note: It’s actually “Defining Deviancy Down.”] I think the culture has been defined downward. I don’t see great art being made today on the level of the Renaissance, you know? I don’t see great novels being written as they were in the 19th century, and the early 20th century. I don’t see great movies being made today as I feel they were in the 40s, 50s and 60s. I just don’t. But it’s all personal.


It’s changing styles if nothing else. When you say there haven’t been great paintings on the level of the Renaissance… the way people paint now is on an entirely different level and style.

William Friedkin: The way they paint now is a reaction against what they can no longer do. If you can’t paint a Rembrandt portrait, or make a portrait as good as he could, you make an all-black canvas. Other people look at contemporary art and they see things that I don’t. That’s just my opinion. I’m actually interested in a lot of the work of Franz Kline, who did black scattered lines on a canvas. But some of his stuff I found very powerful; they remind me of the Industrial Age. But I don’t think they’re on the level of f*ckin’ Rembrandt or Vermeer. So there is a changing zeitgeist, that’s all.



William Friedkin: I mean, Van Gogh never sold a painting to anybody, and his brother was the dealer to the impressionists. He was the art dealer for all the impressionists and he couldn’t sell a Vincent. And now you can’t buy a Vincent for less than 50 million dollars. So what’s changed? But you say fewer people see it? The Vincent Van Gogh “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” sold about thirty or forty years ago for 80 million dollars. And that tells me a lot about the real value of art, which is not often in their own time.


That’s very true.

William Friedkin: Citizen Kane was a failure at the box office. Not every critic at the time liked it. Of course, the Hearst press was told to put a hit on it, and they did. But it’s generally agreed that Citizen Kane is the greatest movie of all time by critics – by scholars. Whether it is or not, I don’t know.


It’s certainly “great”.

William Friedkin: Not to everyone. I could show it to my kids and they wouldn’t get it because they grew up with Star Wars and Batman. They wouldn’t get it.


Fair enough.

William Friedkin: But that’s not my problem. I’m not interested in being in tune with the culture, or them being in tune with me. We all live in our own selves, so to speak. We all have our own private impulses, and likes and dislikes. A lot of the people who are considered great icons of the culture I have no interest in. I don’t feel like I’ve lost out, you know?


Who are you interested in?

William Friedkin: You mean today?


Yeah, today. Like filmmakers, for example. Are there any films you’ve seen that you’ve liked?

William Friedkin: Yeah, well… Michael Haneke, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers, I think are very interesting filmmakers today. There are others… I’m sure Darrin can name others. Those guys come immediately to mind. I think they make films for adults of all ages. So yeah, I would see anything those guys do, even if I haven’t liked everything they’ve done.


But you can respect what they’re doing.

William Friedkin: Yeah.

Darrin Navarro: All the three he mentioned… Paul Thomas Anderson is remarkable. Hou Hsiao-hsien is a Taiwainese director I have a great deal of respect for; and a director I work with from time to time named Asa Jacobs, who I think is probably one of the great independent American directors right now.


Nice. Have you guys worked together before?

William Friedkin: Yeah. Darrin edited Bug, and Darrin worked as an assistant on some of the other films I did over the last ten years or so… ten, twelve years. But he did the last two pictures I made.


Are you really involved in the editing room, or…

William Friedkin: Sure. That’s where you give birth to the film. Everything else is raw material for the cutting room. That’s all it is. It’s raw material, good or bad. But it gets shaped there. It either becomes alive or dies.


Killer Joe actually started out as a play. Did you actually see the play before the film came up?

William Friedkin: Yeah, in a fifty-seat theater on east Sunset Boulevard. But a lot of great movies started as plays.


Damn right.

William Friedkin: Casablanca was a play called Everyone Comes to Rick’s. It’s all in the play, everything that’s in the film, but it didn’t it didn’t have Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, or Claude Rains or Paul Henreid. And if you look at the film, it’s mostly done on one set, which is Rick’s Café. Now it’s all over Rick’s Café, and outside of Rick’s Café, which was on a set. A Few Good Men was a play. A Streetcar Named Desire, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? Cabaret… Films come from many sources. And I’ve made only sixteen films in a long career – forty-five years, at least – and they come from various sources. Some come from actual stories, some come from novels; a few come from plays. The earliest screenplays were written by playwrights when sound came in


Who else were you gonna go to?

William Friedkin: Yeah! Those were the guys who knew how to write story and character. And dialogue. But to me, the greatest films I’ve ever seen are silent films. Buster Keaton… I don’t know how they did that stuff! I have no idea.


The General was insane.

William Friedkin: The train chases in The General… I have no idea how they accomplished that.


There’s the one shot where he’s riding the front of the train and there’s a log in front of the train. He has to hit it with the other log, and that was a real log! If he had missed that it would’ve hurt him. It would’ve been dangerous.

William Friedkin: In Seven Chances or The Goat, I forget which one, he’s dodging a bunch of falling rocks, and they’re real. They’re real! And he’s tumbling down hills! He tumbles down a hill in one shot onto a tree, a gigantic tree that then bends and slingshots him onto the desert floor. And he did all that.

Darrin Navarro: Steamboat Bill Jr. with the whole front of the house falling and he’s standing right where the window is and it just leaves a hole for him…


I would be just terrified.

Darrin Navarro: Just fearless.

William Friedkin: I don’t know how they did that stuff. Until the digital age, they had no shelf life. You couldn’t see a Buster Keaton film except at a museum.


I was lucky because when I was in film school, they showed a D.W. Griffith film, and they showed it on nitrate, in my class. And it was amazing. And they had to say, “You’re going hear a whirring noise. That’s the blast doors on the projector because this is the most volatile substance we can possibly imagine. If you set it on fire and throw it in a bucket of water, it’ll still be on fire. Sooo… don’t fall asleep.” It was Way Out West, that’s what it was.

Darrin Navarro: I thought it was illegal to show nitrate now.

William Friedkin: This was a number of years ago, though.


This was about eight years ago, I think.

William Friedkin: I don’t know who shows it anymore. But now, you know, nitrate’s going. It’s gone. They’re not making it anymore.


Yeah. Someone should make a movie on nitrate now. Imagine how insane that would be.

William Friedkin: And celluloid is gone!


That hurts me, by the way. I feel like it’s a very different aesthetic.

William Friedkin: You won’t notice it in a year. You won’t notice it. It’s gone! Would you rather hear a CD or would you rather hear a 78 rpm [record]?


Here’s a question from a conservationist’s perspective: the constant upkeep and upgrading of digital files is, in many respects, actually more expensive than keeping the original print.

William Friedkin: Sounds better, though. I used to listen to all the Miles Davis recordings and they were on acetate. And there was all this record scratch and you sort of psychologically dialed that out. But now there’s no scratch, it’s just the pure sound, and that’s what I want. I have Caruso recordings on 78 rpm where you can barely hear him. It’s all needle noise and crap. Why do I want to listen to Caruso like that? Now they can take his voice out of that, and isolate it and you can hear it as he sang [it]. I’m all for that. I welcome that. I have never been able to get a perfect 35mm print of anything I’ve ever done because of the constantly changing composition of the water that goes into the developer, and the electricity that goes to the printer. They fluctuate. So we constantly look at a reel of 35 and it’s green or blue, and the next reel comes off as yellowish; it’s a trial-and-error process. It’s one thing for film historians and critics to say “Oh, I miss 35.” Not for me, as a guy who saw my films through to the printing stage. It’s not pleasure and I don’t miss it.


Fair enough. Did you shoot Killer Joe in digital?

William Friedkin: We shot with the Aeroflex Alexa. Had a lot of problems on the set with it, but it’s really very good in post. If you do what we did, which is go for full color. We didn’t try to distort the color at all. We just tried to make the shots look as graphic, and as true-color as possible without any manipulation.


I kind of miss that.

William Friedkin: What?


Everyone’s doing the digital processing, and after O Brother, Where Art Thou? everything has to have its own tint. 

William Friedkin: I don’t like that.


It can work in certain films…

William Friedkin: I hate it!


But every single time?

William Friedkin:The new Woody Allen film, which is all yellow, I couldn’t get through the thing.

Darrin Navarro: I haven’t seen it yet.

William Friedkin: It’s all yellow. I don’t understand it, but I guess he does. But they could have done whatever they wanted with that, you know? But no, I don’t like to see all these blue pictures or tinted pictures. I don’t mind some of that. That’s like painting, you know? And everyone who works on those has the right has the right to put it out the way they want.


I don’t know if you saw Payback, the Mel Gibson movie. The original theatrical cut, they kind of messed with Brian Helgeland’s print; made it all blue. And then he put out the director’s cut and the color timing was very natural and very colorful, and it was beautiful all of a sudden. It went from being oppressive to being a nice, watchable movie.

Darrin Navarro: There’s something about realistic colors which is actually more striking, because you’re in this sort of… you realize that you’re in this sort of artificial environment. You’re looking at something that’s particular, but when it comes across as lifelike, it’s almost more startling than seeing something that’s highly stylized. When I saw… We were talking about Gone With the Wind, you know you mentioned that you don’t like it very much, but I saw a 35mm print of it. It was a brand-new print, probably late 80s early 90s, and up to that point I’d only seen VHS or whatever. And it was like looking at Clark Gable’s flesh on the screen, it was just perfect. The colors were magnificent. It was one of the most extraordinary things I’d ever seen that would have gained nothing by being made to look sepia.


That’s very true. I just wanna keep talking to your guys about random stuff now. Out of curiosity, what was it about Killer Joe that made you so keen to make it? You don’t make movies every single year. You pick your projects.

William Friedkin: What was it about it?


Obviously it’s a good story, but is there something about it that made you go "I have no make this and not something else?"

William Friedkin: What is it about the New Testament that makes people want to read it?


That, I have no idea.

William Friedkin: Okay, well… Everything is a matter of personal choice. And it was something that appealed to me. There’s no point in saying why, you know? I thought it was great. And I thought this would make a great film, if I could cast it well and make it economically, this is something I would want to see. The only films I’d wanna to make are something that I’d like to see, if it was well-made. And that includes a lot of things that I don’t film. It’s like saying “What would make you want to see a film like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, where people get tortured for two hours?”



William Friedkin: What would make you want to see that? Nothing really, except the way it’s done. I’m not gonna go into a lot of bullshit about – it’s this, it’s that, it’s something else – it’s something that appealed to me as a piece of writing. As far as I’m concerned, [Tracy Letts] is one of the best dramatists in the English language.



William Friedkin: Well, that’s not just me, he’s won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, which they don’t often give to some assh*le. [Laughs] Or the next guy on the Writers Guild alphabetical list. The guy is considered one of America’s greatest living dramatists. Not just by me, and for good reason! That’s not to say that everybody considers him that. I don’t know what everybody considers, but I know that in that case my taste parallels the Pulitzer Prize committee’s.


I was talking to Matthew [McConaughey], and I told him how much I loved Frailty, and he said he thought it might have had something to do with him getting cast in this.

William Friedkin: Not really. I saw him on an interview show – it was either Larry King or Charlie Rose, I don’t know which one – and it was really him; he wasn’t playing a part. And he was very interesting and intelligent, and he described his boyhood in east Texas and how he grew up, and he was very insightful about it. I thought “This is great”. I was gonna go with one of the grizzled old bears to play Killer Joe… a guy much older, darker, whatever. And when I watched this interview I thought “This guy would be very interesting.” He’s charming, he’s good looking, he can talk the mustard off a hot dog, and it occurred to me while seeing him on the interview. So I sent his agent the script, he read it, and I read somewhere that he had read it and hated it, and tossed it, and then he kept thinking about it. He kept thinking about it and he read it again, and then he called his agent and said “Maybe I’d better meet with this guy Friedkin.” So we met a couple of times and we decided we were both on the same page with it.


The film has a very… I mean, obviously it’s NC-17 but who gives a sh*t… It’s very sexual. It’s very open, sexually, in some very uncomfortable ways. In a way that a lot of movies aren’t.

William Friedkin: They’re not uncomfortable to me. Have you never seen nudity before in your life?


I’ve seen a lot of nudity, but here’s my…

William Friedkin: How much nudity have you seen?


I’ve seen quite a bit of nudity.

William Friedkin: Is it upsetting?



William Friedkin: Okay.


Although I haven’t really seen anyone sort of… force Gina Gershon to fellate a chicken leg.

William Friedkin: Well, it’s not in any other film I’ve ever seen, either. It’s an act of humiliation, and vengeance. I’ve never seen anyone do that either, you know? But it was an invention of Tracy Letts’ that seemed appropriate at the time. Most people aren’t bothered by watching anal rape in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or watching the vengeance that she exacts on the guy afterwards – which is more violent than anything in Killer Joe – and it has an R rating. And there’s nothing like anal rape in Killer Joe, so it’s all in the eye of the beholder.



William Friedkin: The ratings board didn’t seem to be bothered enough by it to give that an NC-17.


In fact, I think they use a clip from that scene at the Oscars for Noomi Rapace. There’s a bit from that sequence, obviously not the actual rape part…

William Friedkin: I didn’t see that. But I found that disturbing…


It certainly was.

William Friedkin: You  know, because… you see, anal rape is something you can portray subtly, if you choose to. You can portray it subtly, you can even portray it behind a closed door or, or a half-open door, if you want. But a woman sucking on a chicken bone you pretty much have to see it to know what’s going on. Now how graphically do you have to see it? That’s in the eye of the beholder. I don’t know how much of it, you know, gets the point across. Probably you could do it with a lot less of the footage than we used.


Well, you’re playing out the scene from beginning to end; you really didn’t cut away from it so I guess you’d have to shorten the scene in order to show less of it.

William Friedkin: Well, it’s all a matter of choice. There’s nothing that dictates how long anything is going to run. I’ve seen shoot-outs in films that run on for minutes, and then I’ve seen where they occur just… You know, critics, for the most part, seem to have a grand old time watching that Tarantino film were Ving Rhames gets f*cked in the a**. I think that a lot of critics aren’t bothered by that at all. Perhaps some of them are. But I don’t think of who’s going to be bothered by anything. That’s not one of my considerations. It’s not something I worry about, nor do I take a poll, nor do I show it to people and say “How much of this can you stand?” These are all choices, you know? They’re choices. If they bother somebody, how do I feel about that? Well I’m not happy about it, but it’s not gonna stop me from having lunch, or going out and having a drink or something like that, or changing the way I feel about the crooked timbre of humanity, which is what most of my films are about.


How old was Juno Temple supposed to be within this film? I couldn’t tell.

William Friedkin: Well, she’s 21.


So she is 21.

William Friedkin: And she talks in a scene, if you listen, she says “When I was sixteen years old, Chris and I used to hear our folks arguing” She’s supposed to be her age. Now, a lot of people get fooled when he says to her during a scene where he’s about to have sex with her, he says “How old are you now?” and she says “Twelve”. And he says “So am I.” That’s not a piece of dialogue for folks from Rio Lindo, California. [Laughter all around] That means that she has a fond memory of having some kind of experience with a boy her age when she was twelve. That she describes as the first person who ever loved her. And so she flashes back on that. And he says “So am I.” He’s twelve years old, too. It’s a very outrageous and courageous exchange, I think.


I think so, too.

William Friedkin: And a lot of people from Rio Lindo, California thought that it meant that she was twelve.


I just wanted you to confirm that.

William Friedkin: You didn’t know how old she was!


I wanted to confirm it. I suspected she was in her late teens.

William Friedkin: Well when she says “When I was sixteen…”


I knew she was at least sixteen.

William Friedkin: Right. But she’s actually 21 and we never have her say she’s any less than her own age. If she had been younger… let’s say she looks young. And let’s say there are a lot of people who might even think she’s supposed to be twelve. Let’s say that…

Darrin Navarro: A fully-developed twelve-year-old.

William Friedkin: For the sake of argument. If she was, I would probably be answering the questions of a judge right now. [Laughter all around] I’d probably be led away from this interview in handcuffs, if she had been twelve years old. No film that I can think of is worth doing that.