William Friedkin talks to Ian Haydn Smith about his blackly comic Texas noir
Ian Haydn Smith: Killer Joe, like William Friedkin’s previous film Bug, is an adaptation of a Tracy Letts play. The film is an uncompromising and often shocking portrait of damaged souls in small town Americana. What attracts you to Tracy Letts’ work?
William Friedkin: In my opinion he is the best American writer right now. I worked with Harold Pinter for a year bringing ‘The Birthday Party’ to the screen and I hadn’t found a writer with similar skills until I met Tracy. He has a unique voice. He wrote the screenplay for me, adapting his play and when I read it I instantly wanted to make it. His view of the world is absolutely similar to my own.
Ian Haydn Smith: You are both averse to the simplistic paradigm of good and bad, preferring a more ambivalent approach to the morality of your characters.
William Friedkin: There’s good and bad in all of us. It’s a constant struggle for our better angels to triumph over our demons. Sometimes they don’t. There are examples throughout history of people giving in to their demons. And that’s who Tracy writes about. Some are successful in overcoming their worst aspects and there are the times when they’re not. Tracy’s work is similar to a Magritte painting, where strange elements are assembled together in the same frame. The characters in Killer Joe are all different but, in so many ways, their inconsistencies are harmonious. These people are a microcosm of the larger world. They are constantly fighting against their dark side.
Ian Haydn Smith: But innocence still remains.
William Friedkin: Oh yes. All the characters in Tracy’s play act out of some strange impulse. But to me, Killer Joe is a metaphor for the Cinderella story. Dotty believes that some Prince Charming will come to take her away to a better life. In the case of Joe, Dotty meets her Prince Charming – it’s just that he also happens to be a hired killer. I’m sure this happens to so many girls. They meet their Prince Charming and he turns out to be Charles Manson.
Ian Haydn Smith: The film could also be seen as a twisted family drama. The only real connection is the one between Dotty and Joe.
William Friedkin: It’s an odd connection, but it’s definitely there. The film is also a contradiction to the portrait of the ‘Father knows best’ American family. What we see now is this broken image, where father doesn’t know best. In the case of this story, the father wants to kill his ex-wife for the price of an insurance policy and is willing to pimp out his daughter to do it. What’s incredible is that none of this was made up by Tracy. He got this story from a newspaper article that appeared 22 years ago. We see such stories all the time.
Ian Haydn Smith: You don’t compromise with your films.
William Friedkin: I’m shocked at some of the responses to Killer Joe. These people actually exist. I feel like Harry Truman when he used to attend conventions and his supports would cry out “Give ‘em hell Harry” and his response was always “I don’t give ‘em hell. I just tell them the truth and they think it’s hell”. I see myself that way.
With thanks to Curzon Cinemas
Killer Joe screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 29 June. Book tickets here