Oscar winning film director William Friedkin is best known for his box office hits The Exorcist and The French Connection and for the big-budget, Tommy Lee Jones-starring action-thrillers, Rules Of Engagement and The Hunted.
More recently, Friedkin, now in his late 70s, has turned his hand to directing film versions of the works of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Tracy Letts, first with the critically acclaimed Bug in 2006 and this year with the controversial Killer Joe, which has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK.
The plot of Killer Joe concerns a small-time drug dealer, Chris Smith, who finds himself seriously in debt to his supplier and hatches a plan to have his estranged mother killed in order to claim the ,000 life insurance due to be paid to his younger sister, Dottie. To do the job, he hires Killer Joe Cooper, a creepy, corrupt and crazy Dallas cop who moonlights as a professional hit man.
Unable to pay Joe’s fee upfront, Chris agrees to provide a “retainer” in the form of Dottie, with whom Joe has immediately become besotted. However, following the murder of his mother, Chris’ plan begins to unravel in a series of unexpected twists involving the interference of his father’s new wife, Sharla, and the development of an unlikely bond between Joe and Dottie.
A violent and darkly comic neo-noir thriller, Killer Joe gained instant notoriety upon its US release when it caused some consternation for the US censors who awarded the film an NC-17 rating, their most severe certification. As outspoken as ever, Friedkin pulls no punches when sharing his opinion on the decision of the Motion Picture Association of America.
“The ratings board is nothing but a superfluous, self-governing organisation that can only flex its muscles on a film like Killer Joe,” he says. “You never see a major studio picture get an NC-17. You just don’t! This film just freaked out the ratings board. I think it is a ridiculous organisation.”
Despite his best efforts to avoid the “adults-only” rating, the director decided there was no option other than to release the film in its original form, as he explains: “I tried to make some cuts but they were unacceptable, so I withdrew them. The cuts they wanted me to make were so draconian that I would have had to do what the American generals said they were doing during the Vietnam War. They said – we have to destroy the country in order to save it. That’s what I would have to do to Killer Joe. I would have had to destroy it, in order to save it. And I decided not to.”
Perhaps what it most amazing about Friedkin’s latest movie is the fact that even at this late stage in his career, in Killer Joe he has produced a work that ranks alongside his most famous earlier works as a truly thrilling piece of modern cinema. So, how has he managed to retain his enthusiasm for making movies?
“Filmmaking is a kind of voyage of exploration,” he says. “For me it has been an adventure and an education. I never had a higher education. I never went to university. I graduated from high school – barely – and went to work for a television station, making ‘live’ TV shows.”
It is undoubtedly this innate sense of adventure and exploration that led William Friedkin to direct what many people consider the greatest and most terrifying horror films of all time, The Exorcist. Looking back, how does he view the film today?
“I don’t see it as a horror movie,” admits the director. “It is about the mystery of faith, which everyone, including an atheist, is somehow concerned about. Even if you are an atheist you have to deal with faith somehow, even if it is to deny it. The mystery of faith has occupied the human race for thousands of years and The Exorcist deals with that. I am a man of faith. I don’t belong to any religion but I strongly believe in a god and in the teachings of Jesus and the examples of his life.”
But, despite his numerous successes, William Friedkin hasn’t always had the golden touch. He tells a somewhat rueful story from back in the days when he and fellow directors Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich had teamed up to form The Director Company.
“I had an opportunity to produce Star Wars,” he reveals. “Francis gave us the script of Star Wars at the time when no studio wanted to make it. Bogdanovich and I looked at the script and scratched our heads. I asked Francis if he was going to direct this film and he said, no but George Lucas was going to. Then, George had only made American Graffiti and I didn’t think he could bring it off. Well, I was wrong. I guess I made a little mistake.”
Little mistakes aside, with Killer Joe William Friedkin has proven he has certainly not lost any of his power to shock and entertain movie audiences in equal measure, and the film marks a remarkable return to form for a septuagenarian filmmaker who once claimed movie directing was “the provenance of younger guys.”
Killer Joe is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.