Director's Chair: William Friedkin - 'Killer Joe'
Issue: June 1, 2012

Director's Chair: William Friedkin - 'Killer Joe'

HOLLYWOOD — Even if he never directed another film, William Friedkin would always be remembered as one of the greats thanks to two iconic and highly influential films — 1971’s thrilling The French Connection, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director, and 1973’s chilling The Exorcist, still considered by many to be the greatest horror film of all time. But while never prolific, Friedkin has never stopped working, and his eclectic credits include such films as Rules of Engagement, To Live And Die in LA, Cruising, Bug and Sorcerer.

His latest, Killer Joe, is a twisted crime thriller/black comedy starring Emile Hirsch as Chris, a 22-year-old who finds himself in debt to a drug lord. To solve his problem he hires a hit man, Joe (Matthew McConaughey) — a creepy, crazy Dallas cop who moonlights as a contract killer — to dispatch his mother, whose $50,000 life insurance policy benefits his fragile sister Dottie (Juno Temple). 

Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Friedkin (pictured below right, on set) talks about making the film, his love of post, and why he’s such a big digital fan and is not sad to see the end of film.

POST: What do you look for in a project, and what sort of film did you set out to make with Killer Joe?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: “This was based on a play by Tracy Letts, who also wrote Bug for me, and we’re on the same page in our world view. I’m always interested in people whose backs are against the wall, who do very strange things to try and escape their fate. Those kind of characters — with equal parts good and evil — and stories always attract me. All my films have been about that constant struggle, for our better angels to thrive over our demons. I love his writing and it always starts with the script and the story.”

POST: Tell us about the shoot. How long was it and why did you shoot in New Orleans, not Texas where the film is set?
FRIEDKIN: “It was just 19 days. I rarely do more than one or two takes. There’s something radically wrong if you have to do more. That’s not just because I’m trying to move fast and save money, but I believe in spontaneity more than in perfection. We shot in Louisiana for the tax incentives and I found very similar locations to the ones in Dallas where much of this is set. I wasn’t out to make Dallas a character as I did with New York in The French Connection. I was more interested in the characters. And we didn’t really shoot much in New Orleans apart from the stages. We shot in smaller towns.”

POST: Talk about the look of the film and working with DP Caleb Deschanel, whose credits include The Natural, Being There and The Patriot.
FRIEDKIN: “We shot it on the Arri Alexa and were one of the first films to use it. It was also the first time for Caleb, but we all did a crash course on it. It gives you great results in the DI, and I just did the 35mm at Technicolor, for the few theaters left that play 35mm, and it looked as good as the digital we did at Laser Pacific [now owned by Technicolor], so I’m a big fan. We got the sharpest possible focus on the characters’ eyes, and that for me was the key to the whole movie — to see into their souls and eyes when they’re lying and vicious.”

POST: Your editor was Darrin Navarro who edited Bug for you. Tell us about the editing process. Was he on set?
FRIEDKIN: “No, I don’t like to cut while I’m shooting. I’m so tired by the end of the day that I just need to crash. When I first began directing, I had editors show me a rough cut and I couldn’t focus on it. So Darrin didn’t show me anything until after the shoot. Of course he saw all the dailies and made his notes. He began as an assistant on several of my films and he’s great to work with. He’s very receptive and intelligent. 
“He had a lot of misgivings about the sexual and violent nature of this material, since he has a young daughter, but he realized it’s a great script and he contributed in all areas — not just in editing it but in post, which he supervised right to the end.”

POST: Do you like the post process?
FRIEDKIN: “Love it! It’s my favorite part and what I most look forward to and enjoy the most. If I could have made as much money becoming an editor as I did as a director, I would have become an editor. Seriously, I love editing and the post process. To me, the filming is nothing more than materials for the real filmmaking — the cutting. Most of the creative work I do is with the editor, and the post sound and mixing.”

POST: Where did you do the post?
FRIEDKIN: “We did most of it at Laser Pacific — all the color timing and digital work, and we just rented cutting rooms in Hollywood and cut on an Avid.”

POST: How many visual effects shots were there? 
FRIEDKIN: “Not many, and the ones that look like visual effects shots — such as all the lightning shots — were real, shot on 16mm, which we made look amazing in post by heightening the flashes and enriching the blacks. The actual effects shots were things like mattes where we shot from inside a dark room to a very hot, sunny exterior with backgrounds that just blew out. So we had to do some enhancements in post, and then Digital Post Services in Louisiana did some work. We also added some red flashes to all the gunshots at the end.”

POST: Tell us about audio and the mix. How important is it in your films?
FRIEDKIN: “My earliest influences were from dramatic radio, which really no longer exists. As a kid growing up in Chicago, there was no TV — just radio, and these great dramas had amazing sound effects that drew on the listener’s imagination, which is the most important thing any artist can draw on. I know how much sound effects influenced Orson Welles when he created Citizen Kane, since he also did radio shows and really understood the power of that. So I see the soundtrack as a totally separate process from the film, and for the last dozen of my films I’ve done all the sound in post — and not just Foley and so on, but everything. 
“In the scene where Joe blows up the car, I took out all the ambient sound, and just left the Foley noises in. I think that works like a close-up on a camera — it focuses your attention. I did the same on The French Connection. We went out and created all the sounds for that chase after we’d shot the film. On this I did all the mixing at Todd-AO with sound editor Aaron Levy. He did Bug, and is the best mixer I’ve ever worked with.” [Levy mixed using an Avid ICON 24-fader D-Command.]

POST: You did the DI at Technicolor [Laser Pacific]. Are you a big DI fan?
FRIEDKIN: “Huge! I love it. The image is so clean and looks just like what I see through the viewfinder when I’m lining up a shot. There’s no dirt or scratches or splices or deterioration, and sadly 35mm has a death notice on it from the day it’s born.” [Bryan McMahan did the DI grading, with the film-out done at Technicolor Hollywood. They also provided the digital cinema master.]

POST: So you think film is dead?
FRIEDKIN: “Yes, I’m afraid it is. We know that Eastman Kodak’s no longer making 35mm, and even when 35mm is stored as carefully as possible, it still deteriorates. Look what happened when Paramount went to their vaults to make the Blu-ray of The Godfather. It had completely deteriorated and they had to spend over a million dollars to restore the negative. Of course, we don’t know how long digital will last since it’s still so young, but we do know that 35mm doesn’t last.”

POST: Will you shoot digitally from now on?
FRIEDKIN: “Absolutely. I love the digital cameras. The newer ones are so full of bells and whistles it can take a bit of getting used to, but once you do, the results are magnificent.”

POST: You started directing back in the ‘60s, and now filmmaking has been going through this big digital evolution. What’s your take on it?
FRIEDKIN: “By the end of this year, over 80 percent of theaters will have converted to digital exhibition, and the only way you’ll still be able to see a 35mm print will be at some art cinema, a university or teaching program. It’s like the change in music, from vinyl to CDs and then MP3 files. Film may stick around in little pockets, but the fact is, it’s gone. I also know for a fact that the studios are trying to get rid of 35mm as quickly as possible, and I’m happy about the change. I love CDs as opposed to LPs. A lot of purists don’t like CDs and prefer to hear all the scratches and flaws on a vinyl record. I don’t. I far prefer to hear a clean recording. And in terms of image, I’ve worked with prints for over 40 years. I’ve printed all of my films and worked with all the color timers, and they’re geniuses. But look what you have to deal with each time in the process itself.
“You have the water that goes into the developer, and that water supply from the Valley is changing constantly — by the second. The power for the printer fluctuates all the time, too. So you’ll often, for no reason, suddenly get blue frames or green frames while you’re making your prints, and this just doesn’t happen with digital. Once you decide on the look of those frames, whether you want it sharp and colorful or desaturated, that’s it. It’s not going to vary. 
“I remember that we had so much trouble getting a decent print of The Exorcist. I wasn’t happy with the print so I moved the negative over to the old MGM lab, and we had a timer there, Bob McMillan, who’s timed so many great-looking films — Days of Heaven, Close Encounters of the Third Kind — and he was like a master painter. He basically painted each frame and did a brilliant job. That’s why the film turned out looking so great. But without an artist like him, you’re facing all these variables. That’s why I embrace all the new technology and digital cinema.”

POST: What’s your view of Hollywood today?
FRIEDKIN: “The zeitgeist is changing again. It changed when I came along in the ‘70s, and the older style of films like The Sound of Music were on the way out. Easy Rider changed all that, and then Star Wars had a huge impact. Ever since, that’s been the template — extravagant special effects, in service not of plot or characters, but of the entire visual experience itself. It’s all about the huge visual and aural experience now.”