William Friedkin: “I don’t look for perfection in my films, I look for spontaneity”

Generous, energetic, timeless, and no-nonsense film director William Friedkin, at age 36 Academy Award winner as Best Director for one of the all-time favorite screen classics “The French Connection” (1971), wrote in his in-depth autobiography “The Friedkin Connection” (2013): ‘The films I once loved are still old friends. I visit them often and discover something new about them each time. Occasionally a film moves me in the same way as those that inspired me, and this gives me hope there will be others. Someone will surely come along and use the new technology in as innovative a way as Orson Welles did with what was available to him in 1940.’

Friedkin, William - The Friedkin Connection
The autobiography of Mr. Friedkin: ‘The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir’ (2013)

Referring to and infatuated with “Citizen Kane” (1941), one of the films he saw repeatedly, Mr. Friedkin (born in Chicago, August 29, 1935) became a prominent filmmaker of his generation in the 1970s and, along with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, and Francis Ford Coppola; several of his films that were released over the years were critically acclaimed pictures.

Invited as the guest of honor at the 2012 BIFFF (Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival) to introduce ‘Killer Joe,” his latest film at the time, Mr. Friedkin was the key figure of this BIFFF press conference of April 2012 at Tours and Taxis in Brussels. Not a one-on-one interview due to his short stay and the limited time frame in Brussels, but fascinating nonetheless to hear him talking about his life, work, and career.

Mr. Friedkin, how did “Killer Joe” come about?

The writer, Tracy Letts, is one of the best young American writers, and I feel very close to his worldview: he and I share a worldview. He grew up in the area where this film takes place. I didn’t. So he understood these characters and these people. I grew up in Chicago, which is a different place, and yet, there were the same kind of situations there. I’m attracted by the extremes of human behavior; I’m not interested in making a film about someone who just gets up in the morning, makes a cup of coffee, goes to work, has no problems, has a beautiful family, and takes care of them. There isn’t a lot of drama in that. I’m interested in unusual human behavior, so Tracy and I are on the same page. Why can’t people get along with each other? It is an interesting subject for drama; this earth is a paradise, and we just can’t seem to keep the peace.

William Friedkin poster BugWhen did Matthew McConaughey get involved in the film?

When I first met him, I realized that he’s not the guy most people know him for. He’s very good-looking, so they cast him in romantic comedies. But he isn’t that guy; he’s a good old boy from Texas, and he knows these characters, how they live, breathe and think. I had met him on a social level, and I decided to cast him because he was the guy. He’s not the guy in the romantic comedies: that guy is just an image of him. The guy he is is Killer Joe [laughs]. Maybe you remember a film I made, called “Bug” [2006]? There’s an actor in “Bug,” named Harry Connick, Jr. He’s a big sort of a musical star in America. He once played a similar character in “Copycat” [1995], but he’s basically known as a Broadway musical star; he makes record albums, singing all kinds of songs. I met him in Las Vegas, he was there with his wife, a very beautiful woman. So I’m sitting there with my wife and the two of them at this table, and he says to me, ‘You know, I’m really a big fan of yours. If you ever have a part for me in a film, I’ll do anything you want me to do.’ I never thought I could cast him. But then, his wife started to talk, and she was asking me a whole bunch of questions about “The Exorcist” [1973], you know, ‘How did you do this and how did you do that,’ and this and that. So I was answering all of her questions, and at one point, Harry Connick, Jr. leaned across the table, he took my hand, looked me right in the eye, and he said, ‘Bill, don’t you think you’re spending too much time with my wife?’ I looked at him, and he was pitch-perfect as a threat. And I said, ‘Oh Harry, I apologize.’ And he burst out laughing—that was the character I was looking for; a guy who could be evil in one second, and the next second, tell you a joke or something. And I cast him on the spot for “Bug” as the heavy, without auditioning, and it was just because of having encountered him that way and seeing how effective he was in jumping in and out of the role. Matthew McConaughey has that same quality.

William Friedkin poster Killer JoeWhat was it like to work with your leading actors Matthew McConaughey and Emile Hirsh on the set?

Great! You see, I believe in spontaneity. I like it. I don’t believe in perfection; nothing is perfect in life. So knowing that, I don’t look for perfection in my films, I look for spontaneity. I would never do more than one or two takes unless a light fell down or the camera tipped over. Matthew McConaughey is from that area in Texas where the film takes place, so he knows how his character behaves and talks. He knows it better than I do. One of the important things for me as a director is not to direct. Sometimes a director likes to put his stamp on a film, or put his stamp on a story, and I would just like to tell the story. Look, I once made a film called “The Hunted” [2003] with Benicio Del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones. Two different styles of acting; Tommy Lee Jones was a brilliant guy who comes to work totally prepared. He knows his role, he knows his character, and all I do is, I’ll say to him, ‘Look, you come in that door, you walk over here, you pick up a microphone, you talk to these people, then you go sit down over there, and after a while, you get up, you look at the bar, you walk over and have a drink.’ And then he’d say, ‘Let me see if I got it straight. I come in over there, I go here, pick up the microphone, I talk to these people, then I sit over there, then I walk over, look at the bar and have a drink.’ That’s right, and he says to the assistant cameraman, ‘Son, come on over here. Put a mark over here, put a mark right there, and put one over there. Okay, I’m ready.’ And that’s it, we do it, it’s a take, and it’s perfect because he’s cast right. Benicio Del Toro will say, ‘Why do I come in over there? Maybe you could find me laying on the ground over here, or, I don’t think I’d walk over there. Maybe I go up here and turn my back and look over there.’ And then he’ll say, ‘How would my character think about his father when he was twelve years old?’ You just have to make up a lot of bullshit. Some actors need that, and some actors are just cast right and ready. Benicio is just as good as Tommy Lee, but their process is completely different. So, like Nick Nolte, who I worked with [“Blue Chips,” 1994], what he used to do, he would give his director before shooting a 300-page novel that he had written about his character, and he’d say, ‘Okay, read this and let’s see if we’re on the same page here.’ And I remember reading it—I couldn’t make head or tail out of it, you know—and I’d see him the next day and I’d say, ‘It’s great, perfect! So you come in over here, walk over there…’ [laughs]. So you got different styles of acting, meaning casting is so important. It’s virtually everything. If you have someone who really is not correct for the role, it won’t work out. You can tell him everything he wants to hear about how he felt when he was eleven years old or what he did just before he came in the scene, it won’t matter. Actors are either cast right, or they’re not. On some of the films I made, I was very fortunate to have a really good cast, and that’s why some of those films worked out pretty good.

William Friedkin poster The Exorcist 2When you’re through casting, are you also through most of your rehearsals?

Yes. I mean, I rehearsed “The Exorcist” for a month in a little room upstairs of a restaurant where I used to eat in New York. I had “The Exorcist” to a point where I could have put it on the stage: it was so set, everything was set, all the actors knew their lines, all the stagings seemed to work. And then we started to shoot it, and it was dead, it was frozen. And I said, ‘What am I doing? I killed this thing!’ Then I said to the actors, ‘Forget everything we did at the rehearsals. Now let’s start improvising the dialogue, let’s start improvising the movements, you now know your characters, so you are now free to do as you feel, and I’m not gonna hold you to what we did before.’ It freed them up, and if you look at the film, it looks very realistic, even to this day. So I don’t like to rehearse a lot. If I was doing a play, I would. If I was doing Shakespeare or some classic text, I would rehearse it a lot. But with the kind of films I make, which are mostly trying to be realistic and spontaneous, I don’t want a lot of rehearsals. What I’ll do, is talk to the actors, here’s what the thing is about, here’s your character and what’s the relation to this person,… The actor has to understand two things: what he or she wants in a scene, and how to respond to what the other person does. That’s all he needs to know. Then he must give a spontaneous reaction. The best acting is reacting because most scenes are dialogues between people. They’re not, as in Shakespeare’s plays or some of the great operas, arias or solos. They’re actors responding to what another character has said or done. The best actors I’ve ever seen are the best reactors who can respond to something that they have just said or heard as though for the first time. That’s what I look for.

You don’t make too many films. “Bug” [2006] was the last film you did before “Killer Joe.” Is there a reason for that?

I think I made about fifteen or sixteen films in over forty years, and I’ve been announced for many films that I didn’t do. You know, I don’t see a lot of movies. But in about fourteen years, I’ve done twelve operas. I just finished an opera in Vienna, ‘The Tales of Hoffman,’ and just before that I did ‘The Metropolis Case’ in Florence, Italy. So I am not interested in doing or seeing a lot of films, you know. In the 1970s, I only made a few films—the famous seventies of Hollywood. Everyone thinks that was a golden age for young people in Hollywood, but all of us were getting fired every day. Francis Ford Coppola was fired when he made “The Godfather” [1972], they wanted to fire me when I did “The French Connection” [1971] and “The Exorcist” [1973], but we all just went on with our movies. It was not however a blissful time, but we had everything we wanted. A lot of the reasons that I have not done too many movies is because it’s a pain in the ass. You have to fight people who don’t know anything at all about how to make a film, who are giving you this advice and that advice—then I’d rather stay home and read Proust.

William Friedkin poster The French ConnectionHow do you compare the movies from the 1970s to films that are made now?

In the 1970s, we really had tight budgets and a lot of control. You couldn’t do what they do now: they’d shoot forever, use computer-generated images all over the place, fix this or that on a computer. You have to remember that we had to do everything live, like the chase scenes that I directed in “The French Connection” or the scenes in “The Exorcist,” we had to do that stuff. If I would shoot it now, I would do it on a computer. Graphically, it would be a lot more interesting and a lot more expensive, but what happened in those years in Hollywood is that they thought that, because we were young, we knew something that they didn’t—the guys who ran the studios. So they let us do this film and that film, but then they tried to control us, and the whole thing became a game of how we could get away from them and not listen to what they would tell us. But I must add that the people who ran the studios in the seventies knew what they were doing. By keeping us down, they helped us find simpler solutions. Also, films were more directed toward characters and situations, not special effects, not video games, not comic books. Most of the films today, as you know, are inspired by comic books and video games. Some of them are very interesting, although it’s not really my generation. Occasionally I see films that I really like, but it’s not something that I would want to do.

William Friedkin poster SorcererWhat was it like to make “Sorcerer” [1977]?

Very, very difficult. Half of the people on the film got sick, had malaria or gangrene. In many ways, the film was cursed. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Things would just fall apart like a house of cards. And then we had to come up with another solution. But I still love the film, it still has a huge following around the world, and I’m planning to do a new Blu-ray of it. I’m showing the film at festivals and at universities all over the world, and it still plays in art-houses. But, you know, I don’t live in the past. I live from day to day. In fact, I’m lucky to have this cup of coffee now. It will probably take me four to five months to make the Blu-ray of “Sorcerer.” I just finished the new Blu-ray of “The Exorcist,” a brand new one with incredible additional material, including the story of the actual case. That comes out in the Spring of 2013. You make these Blu-rays and DVDs one frame at a time, you color time them because they all come of an old negative when you have this tremendous latitude to restore it to the color that you originally intended. The Blu-rays that I make now are to me the way the shots looked when I looked through the camera. That never happened with 35mm. Every time you put a 35mm film on a projector, it gets scratched, it gets dirty, sometimes it breaks or gets spliced. A lot of people think that “The French Connection” was supposed to look scratched and dirty, with splices all over it, but it wasn’t. That was a mistake. Now, the new versions of these films look exactly as I had intended them for the audience. Strangely enough, I don’t make films for myself; I try to make them for an audience, but only on my own terms. I’m sort of a weird guy; I’m not your average audience. I wish I was, but I know I’m not.

You never shot a film in CinemaScope. Is there a reason for that?

Very few people shoot in CinemaScope now. CinemaScope is dead as a medium. There’s Widescreen now with 70mm and IMAX, of course. But most of the films I made are about two guys sitting in a room. Who wants to see that in IMAX? If I were doing “Lawrence of Arabia,” I would shoot it in IMAX. But the films I make are intimate. They’re about people in claustrophobic situations. They’re not about the universe. So I don’t do it because the subjects that interest me the most are people who live without alternatives . They are locked against a wall somewhere, and have to figure out a way to get out. That’s my own life; I find myself constantly entrapped by my own mistakes and stupidity, so I relate to other people in drama who are in the same situation. Even if you are married and you have a lot of friends or relatives or whatever, we all live alone. We all have to look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning, and very often, we don’t like what we see. Sometimes when you do like what you see, you’re kidding yourself. But that’s my subject, basically. Claustrophobic situations that don’t lend themselves to Widescreen. I have seen some films in Widescreen though that I really do like.

April 10, 1972, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. William Friedkin receives his Academy Award as Best Director for “The French Connection” from Natalie Wood and Frank Capra

What’s your opinion, as a filmmaker, of the digital era we’re living in, with film that is disappearing?

There won’t be film a few years from now, other than in revival cinemas or at universities where they might still be showing 35mm films. Eastman Kodak has stopped making 35mm film. Everything will be digital; even DVD or Blu-ray are on their way out. People are getting their stuff either by streaming it, or from a satellite, or iCloud. It’s called progress. You know, people used to listen to recordings by Enrico Caruso [1873-1921], the great opera singer. The recording technique was so bad, here’s how a Caruso song sounded. You’d hear needle scratches [he makes all kinds of noise], and then they got rid of that. They went to thirty-three and a third LP. And now you listen to a recording: it’s clean, it’s perfect, and it’s what the artist recorded, without the interference of the technical situation. So I welcome that, and I don’t miss 35mm at all. I never had a perfect print in any of my films because of the imperfection of the process. When you develop a film in Hollywood, the composition of the water from the Valley changes all the time. Then the electricity to the printer varies or fluctuates, so you can get a print of a film that eight frames are blue, the next twelve frames are green, and you keep going through it over and over again to try and smooth it out, and it never is. For example, for “The Exorcist,” to get to about four thousand prints, we must have thrown away twenty thousand because they were so imperfect. And now we time a film frame by frame, and you can say, ‘Oh, this needs to be a little bit bluer or greener.’ So no, I don’t miss the old technology, I don’t miss seventy-eight rpm records, I don’t miss the old recordings which used to be on wire—Caruso even recorded on wire recordings. So I’m not a purist… ‘Oh, what a great loss. I can’t hear the needle scratch anymore, I can only hear the dude’s voice!’ [laughs]. But this is the way it should be. The drawback is that a number of films now are made only for the technology. Only. Just to show what we can do. We can transform a truck into a monster. And look at how much money some of these films make, it’s unbelievable.

William Friedkin during his visit to Brussels in 2012 | Leo/Film Talk

The explosions in “Sorcerer” are real. Would you do it again?

Well, let me tell you this, I wouldn’t have done it mechanically if I could have done it digitally. But we had to do it mechanically. A lot of lives were put at risk. I’ll tell you, there’s no movie ever made that is worth a squirrel getting a twisted ankle, and I’ve done movies when people’s lives were in danger when I was much younger and dumber than I am now. There are better and safer ways to do it. Now we really consider safety first, and that’s as it should be. Because you can get these special effects without putting people’s lives in jeopardy. The films I made, especially “The French Connection”—other than the grace of God—people could have been killed. So digital technology is certainly not an enemy of the filmmakers. It’s a most reliable and safe friend.

You did a lot of genres in your career, like action, comedy, thriller, horror,… What is your favorite genre?

I don’t have a favorite anything. The only favorites I have are Frank Sinatra as my favorite singer, Marcel Proust is my favorite writer, Johannes Vermeer is my favorite painter, there are many others that I love. One of the reasons for me to come over to Belgium is to see the work of René Magritte, Paul Delvaux, and James Ensor. He has influenced my work as much as anything, especially the operas I’ve done. In fact, I copied some Ensor masks for this last opera that I did in Vienna.

Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, Brussels (Belgium)
April 11, 2012

“Killer Joe” (2011, trailer)


GOOD TIMES (1967) DIR William Friedkin PROD Lindsley Parsons SCR Tony Barrett (story by Nicholas Hyams) CAM Robert Wykoff ED Melvin Shapiro MUS Sonny Bono CAST Sonny and Cher, George Sanders, Norman Alden, Larry Duncan, Kelly Thordsen, Lennie Weinrib

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (1968) DIR William Friedkin PROD Max Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky SCR Harold Pinter (also play ‘The Birthday Party’ [1967]) CAM Denys Coop ED Antony Gibbs CAST Robert Shaw, Patrick Magee, Dandy Nichols, Sydney Tafler, Moultrie Kelsall, Helen Fraser

THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S (1969) DIR William Friedkin PROD Norman Lear SCR Norman Lear, Arnold Schulman, Sidney Michaels (novel ‘The Night They Raided Minsky’s’ [1960] by Rowland Barber) CAM Andrew Laszlo ED Ralph Rosenblum MUS Charles Strouse CAST Jason Robards, Britt Ekland, Norman Wisdom, Forrest Tucker, Harry Andrews, Joseph Wiseman, Denholm Elliott, Elliott Gould, Jack Burns, Bert Lahr, Maud Adams

THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970) DIR William Friedkin PROD Mart Crowley SCR Mart Crowley (also play) CAM Arthur J. Ornitz ED Gerald B. Greenberg, Carl Lerner CAST Kenneth Wilson, Frederick Combs, Cliff Gorman, Laurence Luckinbill, Keith Prentice, Peter White

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) DIR William Friedkin PROD Philip D’Antoni SCR Ernest Tidyman (book ‘The French Connection’ [1969] by Robin Moore) CAM Owen Roizman ED Jerry Greenberg MUS Don Ellis CAST Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi, Frédéric de Pasquale, Bill Hickman, Ann Rebbott, Harold Gary

THE EXORCIST (1973) DIR William Friedkin PROD William Peter Blatty SCR William Peter Blatty (also novel ‘The Exorcist’ [1971]) CAM Owen Roizman ED Norman Gay, Evan Lottman MUS Steve Boeddeker CAST Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, William O’Malley, Peter Masterson, William Peter Blatty, Mercedes McCambridge (voice only)

SORCERER (1977) DIR – PROD William Friedkin SCR Walon Green (novel ‘Le Salaire de la peur’, a.k.a. ‘The Wages of Fear’ [1950], by Georges Arnaud; screenplay of LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR [1953] by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérome Geronimo) CAM Dick Bush, John M. Stephens ED Bud Smith MUS Tangerine Dream CAST Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou, Ramon Bieri, Peter Capell

THE BRINK’S JOB (1978) DIR William Friedkin PROD Ralph Serpe SCR Walon Green (book ‘Big Stick Up at Brink’s’ [1977] by Noel Behn) CAM Norman Leigh ED Bud Smith, Robert K. Lambert MUS Richard Rodney Bennett CAST Peter Falk, Peter Boyle, Allen Garfield, Warren Oates, Gena Rowlands, Paul Sorvino, Sheldon Leonard, Gerard Murphy

CRUISING (1980) DIR William Friedkin PROD Jerry Weintraub SCR William Friedkin (novel ‘Cruising’ [1970] by Gerald Walker) CAM James Contner ED Bud Smith MUS Jack Nitsche CAST Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox, Don Scardino, Joe Spinnell, Jay Acovone, Edward O’Neill, Powers Boothe

DEAL OF THE CENTURY (1983) DIR William Friedkin PROD Bud Yorkin SCR Paul Brickman (book ‘Deal of the Century’ by Bernard Edelman) CAM Richard H. Kline ED Bud Smith, Jere Higgins, Ned Humphreys MUS Arthur B. Rubinstein CAST Chevy Chase, Sigourney Weaver, Gregory Hines, Vince Edwards, William Marquez, Eduardo Ricard, Wallace Shawn, Ray Manzarek

TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985) DIR William Friedkin PROD Irving H. Levin SCR William Friedkin, Gerald Petievich (novel ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ [1984] by Gerald Petievich) CAM Robby Muller ED Scott Smith MUS Wang Chung CAST William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow, Debra Feuer, John Torturro, Darlanne Fleugel, Dean Stockwell, Robert Downey, Sr.

RAMPAGE (1987) DIR William Friedkin PROD William Friedkin, David Salven SCR William Friedkin (novel ‘Rampage’ [1987] by William P. Wood) CAM Robert D. Yeoman ED Jere Huggins MUS Ennio Morricone CAST Michael Biehn, Alex MacArthur, Nicholas Campbell, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, John Harkins, Art LaFleur, Billy Green Bush

THE GUARDIAN (1990) DIR William Friedkin PROD Joe Wizan SCR William Friedkin, Dan Greenburg, Stephen Volk (novel ‘The Nanny’ [1987] by Dan Greenbrug) CAM John A. Alonzo ED Seth Flaum MUS Jack Hues CAST Jenny Seagrove, Dwier Brown, Carey Lowell, Brad Hall, Miguel Ferrer, Natalia Nogulich, Pamela Brull

BLUE CHIPS (1994) DIR William Friedkin PROD Michele Rappaport SCR Ron Shelton CAM Tom Priestley, Jr. ED David Rosenbloom, Robert K. Lambert MUS Jeff Beck, Nile Rogers, Jed Leiber CAST Nick Nolte, Mary McDonnell, J.T. Walsh, Ed O’Neill, Alfre Woodward, Bob Cousy, Shaquille O’Neal

JADE (1995) DIR William Friedkin PROD Robert Evans, Gary Adelson, Craig Baumgarten SCR Joe Eszterhas CAM Andrzej Bartowiak ED Augie Hess MUS James Horner CAST David Caruso, Linda Fiorentino, Chazz Palminteri, Richard Crenna, Michael Biehn, Donna Murphy, Ben King

THE HUNTED (2003) DIR William Friedkin PROD James Jacks, Ricardo Mestres SCR David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths, Art Monterastelli CAM Caleb Deschanel ED Augie Hess MUS Brian Tyler CAST Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Connie Nielsen, Leslie Stefanson, John Finn, José Zúñiga, Ron Canada

BUG (2007) DIR William Friedkin PROD Kimberly C. Anderson, Gary Huckabay, Holly Wiersma, Andreas Schardt, Michael Burns, Malcolm Petral SCR Tracy Letts (also play ‘Bug’ [1996]) CAM Michael Grady ED Darrin Navarro MUS Brian Tyler CAST Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick, Jr., Lynn Collins, Brian F. O’Byrne, Neil Bergeron, Bob Neill

KILLER JOE (2011) DIR William Friedkin PROD Scott Einbinder, Nicolas Chartier SCR Tracy Letts (also play ‘Killer Joe’ [1993]) CAM Caleb Deschanel ED Darrin Navarro MUS Tyler Bates CAST Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Marc Macauley, Graylen Banks