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The Fretts on Film Interview: William Friedkin on His NC-17 Thriller “Killer Joe”

July 25, 2012

If you put a gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you who gives the best performance in the lethally great new thriller Killer Joe. As the eerily calm Dallas cop/hit man Joe Cooper, Matthew McConaughey continues his career renaissance, hot on the boot heels of Bernie and Magic Mike. (And with roles in Mud and The Paperboy—the new films from Take Shelter‘s Jeff Nichols and Precious‘ Lee Daniels—the onetime punchline could be this year’s Jessica Chastain, dominating the cinema landscape.) Juno Temple is simply astonishing as the woman-childlike object of Joe’s twisted affections, and Gina Gershon reinvents herself with a jaw-droppingly vanity-free turn as her evil stepmother. The always-praiseworthy Thomas Haden Church does a perfect brain-deadpan as Gershon’s dimbulb husband, and Emile Hirsch again ventures into the proverbial wild, proving he’s one of his generation’s most exciting actors.

But the real star of Killer Joe is William Friedkin. Now in his late 70s, the legendary director of The Exorcist and The French Connection is back in top 1970s form with this, his second adaptation of a Tracy Letts play (after Bug). With a big assist from cinematographer extraordinaire Caleb Deschanel, Friedkin creates a film that dances on the borderline between hypnotically horrifying and hilarious. No wonder the MPAA slapped Joe with an NC-17, and not just because it exhibits the most Bush seen in Texas since Dubya was governor. I caught up with the fearless filmmaker after last night’s sold-out screening of Joe at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Was it always the plan to release Killer Joe with an NC-17 rating?

That was the decision of the ratings board. I never thought we’d get an NC-17, but I think that it’s the correct rating. We’re not targeting teenagers, and this will keep teenagers out. Now it’s not to say that they won’t see it on Blu-Ray or DVD. They’ll see it. And a lot of them will sneak in the theaters, going in with fake IDs. But I don’t bemoan the rating. It’s limiting. It limits your advertising and the theaters it’ll play in. But it’s not an incorrect rating.

Do you know what the ratings board objected to?

I don’t know specifically. You can pretty much imagine what they objected to. We tried to get an R rating. We made an attempt. We appealed it. Then we did make some cuts. Because they don’t tell you. They don’t want to be thought of as censors, so they’re not going to say, “If you take this out, you’ll get an R rating.” There’s no piece of paper, nothing. But we thought if we made certain judicious cuts, we’d get an R, and we didn’t. We would’ve had to cut the guts out of the film.

So did you put everything back into the film after that?

Of course! There’s nothing cut. The film the way it exists is an NC-17 in their eyes. They have that job—I don’t. So I can’t criticize. If it wasn’t for [LD Entertainment]’s David Dinerstein and Mickey Liddell, some other company that was looking for a quick buck would’ve cut the shit out of it and put it out. Because that’s what they really wanted. The ratings board was not going to give this film an R rating.

A “Killer” Combo: Gershon and Friedkin

So why is LD willing to put it out with an NC-17?

They’re an independent company. They’re not a member of the Motion Picture Association of America. And those companies that are members won’t get an NC-17. The ratings board is a self-governing body of the MPAA. They’re subjective, and you don’t see a major-studio-financed film come out with an NC-17. Now Shame did, but that was a pickup by Fox Searchlight. And that’s even rare, that it wasn’t given an R by making a handful of cuts. And that’s often what does it—a handful of meaningless cuts that is just a bow towards the ratings board. Like to Her Majesty the Queen. You don’t really give a damn about her, but you bow to her because it’s customary. She’s just another yenta like all the rest of ’em. If I dressed that funky, nobody would bow to me. But you bow to them, and you get an R. We tried to get an R, and we couldn’t do it.

Have you had to cut things before to get an R rating for other films you’ve made—The Exorcist or The Boys in the Band?

Cruising. I never had to cut a frame from The Exorcist, because the board was liberal, but now they’re conservative. I had to cut 40 minutes of Cruising, but I knew I would. I put in 40 minutes of hardcore pornography and knew they would cut it and leave the rest alone.

Well, I loved Killer Joe. Thanks a lot for doing this.

Thank you. Tell people what a good movie it is. Don’t fuck us up!

What’s your favorite Friedkin flick—any Sorceror or To Live and Die in LA fans?

From → Interviews, Posts

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