Having directed The Exorcist and The French Connection, two movies from the ’70s that have had a major impact on many filmmakers and films to this day, William Friedkin is arguably one of the most imaginative and influential filmmakers currently working. His latest movie is Bug , a creepy social thriller based on the Tracy Letts’ stageplay, starring Ashley Judd as a small town waitress who gets involved with a potentially crazy ex-soldier, played by Michael Shannon, recreating the role he played on stage. The movie watches as these two fractured people spiral down a bottomless pit, believing that the government has planted bugs in them and doing whatever it takes to get them out.
Friedkin is fairly well-rounded, not only having made some classic films but also having directed opera and theatres, and though he may seem a little eccentric at times–before we talked to him, we watched him take charge of a large press conference with his stars–he’s still one of the most outspoken and eloquent filmmakers when talking about his craft. Not only that, but he also looks unbelievably young for his age, so one wonders if he was only 15 years old when he made all those classic films of the ’70s.
ComingSoon.net: You directed one of the most famous and influential horror films of the last century, so where does “Bug” fall into that genre? William Friedkin: I think that “Bug” will create its own audience as “The Exorcist” did. I think it will recreate the audience for edgy films and redefine it. I think it’s a great moviegoing experience, different. They will never have seen anything like it. The story is powerful and the performances are powerful. It’s not some schlocked out, just trying to drum up business as a gorefest, but it’s very edgy and disturbing.
CS: Where did you first see the play and what kind of impact did it have on you? Friedkin: I saw it here [in New York] a couple years ago. I was just on the same page with the writer. His worldview was something that I understood, and that doesn’t happen to me often. All of these films come from different places. It could be a novel, it could be an anecdote, it could be something overheard, which is what “To Live and Die in L.A.” was, stories that this ex-secret service agent used to tell about the strangeness of what went on in the secret service and the strangeness of that life. One day the guy is protecting the President of the United States and the next day he’s chasing a guy in a very bad neighborhood for a counterfeit credit card charged with $50. These films and ideas come to you from the ether.
CS: As you watched the play thinking it might make a good movie, what were you thinking that you might be able to add visually by making it into a movie? Friedkin: First of all, it’s power as a dramatic situation is what impressed me, and then the fact that a lot of the things it was saying were things that I understood and could relate to.
CS: It also seems very well timed with what’s going on in the world these days. Friedkin: Yeah, people are all irrational now. There’s irrational fear everywhere and paranoia. We no longer believe that the government can or will protect us. People don’t feel safe in their homes or the subway or anywhere, and it does seem to be a world unbalanced, which I thought this script captured perfectly.
CS: When did the play debut? Friedkin: Oh, I don’t know. I saw it two years ago.
CS: But it was something that was first staged in the last five years? Friedkin: I think even before. It was in London and in Chicago.
CS: Why did you decide to keep Michael Shannon on from the play? Friedkin: He’s the only one, and I thought he was perfect. There were a couple of big name actors that wanted to do that part. It’s a great role, and a couple of them tried to buy it for themselves. I felt that he was born to play that part, that he was just perfect.
CS: How did you wind up with Ashley starring opposite him? Friedkin: I went to her first. I knew her socially only, I’d never worked with her, but I met her on many occasions and I thought of course that she was outrageously beautiful, but she didn’t have to be beautiful to do this. It was her intelligence, and that’s what I look for first in an actor, intelligence, the ability to grasp the situation and the talent to transform it into something that’s true.
CS: This was Ashley’s follow-up to “Come Early Morning” and while that was already a transition for her as actress, this performance takes her to another level. Had you had a chance to see that movie before making this? Friedkin: Oh, no. They were still editing, but I knew her and I knew what she was capable of, which I thought was a hell of a lot more than what she had done. I think it’s the best thing she’s ever done. If you don’t agree, you can call me and chew me out.
CS: Once you got the rights to do the movie, how did you work with Tracy as he adapted his stageplay into a movie script? Friedkin: We talked about it, and I felt that the claustrophobia was very important to retain but that we had to show other aspects of her world to set that world in some kind of reality, supposedly in an Oklahoma town at a motel, but I wanted to show where she worked, her grocery store and have some other sense of rooting her in the real world.
CS: Was a lot of the adaptation adding the stuff at the beginning before the two of them end up in the motel room together? Friedkin: No, throughout. He reworked the piece for film, and he took out a lot of measure. He cut stuff, he added stuff, moved stuff around, eliminated stuff that we could just show.
CS: He’d obviously had a play that’s been playing very successfully for a long time, why did he decide he wanted to change it so much for the film? Was it just a chance to do another version of it? Friedkin: He had no aversion to approaching it from another standpoint, which meant another medium. I don’t think he was interested in rewriting it for the stage, but to adapt it for another medium was something that interested him very much.
CS: You obviously built their motel room on a soundstage… Friedkin: It was a high school, the high school gym.
CS: When you have that sort of a claustrophobic set for the majority of a movie, how do you keep it from turning into a filmed stageplay with the actors doing their dialogue and interacting like they would in a play? Friedkin: Well, it isn’t. What makes a great film is a great script. You start with a great script, and then you go to a great cast. Now, a lot of the time, that doesn’t mean anything today, it’s the special effects, but what I’m interested in are the screenplay and that the actors transcend their roles or become inseparable from them. “The French Connection” is the only exception to the rule that you have to have a great script. We had no script for “The French Connection” but I knew the story and the guys who did the parts knew the story, they went out with these cops. Everything else I’ve done that’s worked even moderately starts with a great script. This is the vision of the writer, Tracy Letts, and I’m simply a vessel in which it passed.
CS: Were things like him pulling his teeth out, was that already in the play? Friedkin: Not in the same way. We didn’t take a play and film it, that’s not what we did. It’s a film. It’s a completely different set of problems. There’s no fourth wall on the stage where the fourth wall is the audience, so everything is pitched a certain way. There’s very little intimacy that’s really possible that film can give you. We set out to make a film, not to film a play.
CS: How did you work with Michael on that? Obviously, he had been performing the role on stage for a long time. Friedkin: That doesn’t help you at all. His was the most difficult aspect of it, because he had to reconceive it. The other people had never played it, so they could discover it fresh. He had to reconceive it, take it down, make it more intimate, make the guy more likeable at the beginning. He had to formulate an entirely new way of looking at this thing, to make it much more real. The movies are capable of more reality than the theatre, because you are within the four walls, and the place is rooted in reality. The stage is its own world, which largely consists of the audience conceding a great deal more than they would concede to a film of make believe.
CS: You mentioned that he had to tone his performance down, but some actors would say that they have to play things a bit bigger in order to work on screen. Friedkin: No, absolutely not. Not with this. This had to be a lot more intimate and he had some problems rethinking it in that sense, but I think his work is great. He’s a marvelous actor.
CS: I want to ask you about the marketing of “Bug” as a horror movie. Except for a few gory scenes and its thriller tone, it really isn’t horror in my opinion. I think if some people go in expecting a horror movie about bugs that get into people’s skin, they might be disappointed to find its really an edgy drama. Friedkin: It’s not a genre film, but marketing works in mysterious ways. They have to find a genre for it. “This is a comedy. This is a melodrama. This is a love story. This is a horror film. This is an adventure film.” “Bug” doesn’t fit easily into any of those categories.
CS: You’ve been in the business for over thirty years and one would presume you know something about what sells by now. Friedkin: Well, I think the studio, they care very much about the film. That’s the way they want to sell it. When they sent it out early on, they had people look at it. There were all sorts of people who looked at it, including magazine people like Fangoria, and they called it a horror film, and then a guy who saw it at Cannes, Steven Schaefer, said it was a horror film. Then the guy at the Chicago Tribune said it was the most disturbing horror film he’s ever seen, so they said, “I guess it’s a horror film.” That came from a lot of sources, which amazed me, but not really, because people need to get a handle on something. It’s not a genre film, but they have to put it somewhere or they don’t know how to market it.
CS: In some ways, it is a horror film, but it’s more of a real world psychological horror film of what might happen or what’s out there. Friedkin: Yeah, well the horror film has changed today to where it’s mostly about somebody cutting people up with a saw. [There probably was no pun intended there.] But the horror films of the ’70s and earlier, they were character dramas that worked on every level, like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Alien” and even before that, films like “Diabolique” and “Psycho” which were presented as very real and possible situations.
CS: “Psycho” is a great example, because it isn’t even really a horror film for the first 40 minutes or so. You just think you’re watching a movie about a woman Friedkin: Who’s embezzled money, stole some cash.
CS: I’m glad you brought this up, because I wanted to ask you about the evolution of the horror film since your day. Friedkin: It’s changed completely. There’s two kinds of horror films: there’s fantasy, something like “Alien,” or reality, which is “Psycho,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Diabolique” Today there are almost no reality-based horror films. They’re all just splatterfests.
CS: How do you feel about the movies being made today? Are there any movies these days that you admire or like? Friedkin: No, no. Well, there’s a foreign film called “Cache” which I saw about a year or so ago that I thought was great, but that’s the only one that comes to mind. I saw a film called “The Lookout” recently, which probably no one saw. I saw it and thought it was fantastic, but I don’t see a lot of other films. Sometimes I watch old films. I got a great system and a lot of the great stuff’s on DVD.
CS: Will you be doing any more special edition DVDs yourself? Friedkin: “Crusin” is coming out. It will be shown at Cannes on May 23rd, and I’m going over there, and then it opens in theatres in September, then a couple of months later, it will be on DVD. Brand new prints, new soundtrack, and an incredible hour-long behind-the-scenes that this fellow Laurent Bouzereau did, the guy who does all of Spielberg’s “behind the scenes” and I did a commentary track for the picture, but his documentary is superb.
CS: One of my editors wanted me to ask specifically about “Sorcerer.” Friedkin: I have no immediate plans, but I expect so. I know “The Boys in the Band” is coming out on a DVD from Paramount.
CS: I’m also a big opera fan, so I was curious whether you’d ever consider staging one in New York. Friedkin: I’d love to. I’m hoping to do “Prince Igor” in St. Petersburg with Giergev and I’m planning to do two parts of Puccini’s piece “Il Trittico” this year, the first two, “Suor Angelica” and “Il Tabarro,” and the third part, which is called “Gianni Schicchi” which I’ve already directed, is being directed by Woody Allen. That’s going to be at the L.A. Opera.
CS: Would you ever consider doing a film based on opera? Friedkin: No, no, never. The twain shall not meet. Two different mediums, two different media, though they’re now showing live telecasts from the Met. I haven’t seen it but I’m told they’re very successful and that it works.
CS: Why did it take so long for “Bug” to come out? It’s been delayed a couple times. Friedkin: It won the critics’ prize at Cannes last year, and what happened was that Lionsgate had planned to release it in December, but then they started negotiating with this Wall Street company, who put up a couple hundred millions for Lionsgate to share in their marketing and production costs, so they decided to wait until they closed that deal, so they could open the film wider with the help of Goldman Saks, this Wall Street company. They come in and get half of their marketing costs.
CS: Are you at all worried about opening your movie against “Pirates of the Caribbean”? Friedkin: No, because the two films are different. If my movie was called “The Pirates of the Bahamas” I might be a little concerned. That’s not anything that is of more than passing interest to me. There are no safe dates for a movie. Every week, seven or eight films come out in this country. Some of them disappear, some of them hang around, some of them have a longer shelf-life, that’s all way beyond anything we have anything to do with. We love doing this. We’re glad that it’s coming out and that it’s going to be there. Do I think we’re going to be #1 that week? (pause) Yes!
And here’s a bit more non-exclusive stuff from Friedkin taken from the aforementioned press conference:
CS: What did you do to help make Ashley and Michael comfortable during the intensely dramatic scenes in “Bug”? Friedkin: As a director, you just try to provide an atmosphere for them to be comfortable, that’s it. The film took 21 days, because the last day we had a fire on the set, and we had to come back and reshoot the last day. There’s often a fire on the set of the films I film on. It’s not intentional, but sometimes things go wrong. (chuckles) I just provided an atmosphere for them to create. You can hear directors say “I did this” or “I told this guy that” but it’s all a bunch of bullsh*t. Mainly you try to get out of their way and keep the camera in a place where it can see them.
CS: What do you think draws people to such dark films? Friedkin: What attracts people to art in any form? There are a number of dark works that are intriguing because they reveal the constant struggle of good and evil that exists in all of us. I’m not just talking about where a guy takes a chainsaw and cuts somebody up for two hours and then the movie’s over. What you refer to as the dark side, I refer to as if it does have validity underneath the surface, it’s something that’s dealing with the thin line between good and evil that is in all of us. The character who seems to be the darkest at first, her ex-husband, is the guy that’s trying to save her. A lot of people don’t think about that aspect of it, but that’s what attracted me to this, aside from the great writing and the good roles.
CS: Would you ever consider doing a version of “Bug” on stage? Friedkin: I would probably do a production if the cast is as stunning as this one, but just to do it again Once you do something, you sort of get it out of your system. I did a Pinter play on film and I’d love to do that play again, somewhere, sometimes. If there ever was a sequel to this, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think there could be. Each of these films is a process of self-discovery, you get something from it, and then usually that’s all you need. I’ve never even seen any of the sequels to my films. I wouldn’t go back and do a sequel to anything that I’ve done.
CS: I heard you want to make a movie about Coco Chanel. Can you talk about why you chose her as a subject? Friedkin: It’s as much about Stravinsky as it is Chanel. 1913, they had an affair. He was married and had four children and she was quite free and out there, but so was he at the time. He had just written “The Rite of Spring” and it was a colossal disaster. It was denounced around the ballet world. It was a complete failure. And she had just created Chanel No. 5, which was a huge success, and she was a success. The film is about two people who had this passionate affair, but who were very creative people and knew what they were doing, but he lived with his family, his four children and his wife, in her country house, and while they were living there, they were carrying on this relationship. It has a lot to say about the creative life, too, which is what interests me. It’s very sexy, too, I hope unless you’re funny that way.