It doesn’t take a lot to get William Friedkin rolling, but get him talking about Chicago—where he was born in 1935 and grew up at the corner of Gunnison and Sheridan in Uptown—and the anecdotes roll into each other.
“Just down the street Studs Terkel lived, and he and I were very good friends. We used to play in Nelson Algren’s poker game every Friday night. Algren, who wrote a definitive novel about a poker player, The Man with the Golden Arm, was a lousy poker player. I used to win that game regularly.
“This one day that we finished playing, I lost. I lost a week’s pay. I was then directing live TV at WGN. And there was a massive snowstorm. [Studs and I] came out, and my car was covered with snow. We pushed all the snow away, got in, it wouldn’t start. And we had no money. And we walked about 60 blocks to get home, through this freezing cold weather, in the snow. He knew something about almost every corner, every neighborhood. It was all interesting, but I’m freezing my ass off.”
Friedkin pauses for a second. “I decided then and there I had to get out of Chicago.”
He hasn’t lived here since, although he occasionally comes back to grab a sausage and beer (“It’s like the Proustian madeleines”) and, more recently, to shoot the shit with Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer-winning August: Osage County playwright whose Bug served as the basis for Friedkin’s 2006 film. The two have reunited to adapt Letts’s Killer Joe, for which Letts has again written the screenplay; the movie opens in Chicago August 3 after a release in New York and L.A. this week. The three of us are sitting at a hotel restaurant in Toronto during the film festival.
The plot concerns father-son Texas trailer trash (Thomas Haden Church and Emile Hirsch, respectively) who decide to kill mama for insurance money, hiring the eponymous hit man (Matthew McConaughey) and offering Hirsch’s character’s sister (Juno Temple) as a retainer. The scenario may be outlandish, but Friedkin and Letts don’t think there’s anything excessive about it.
“Killer Joe is almost like a school production compared to what’s happening in the world,” the director says. “Violent, angry eruptions, like the girl who killed her baby and got away with it in court. This is a constant. Some of them are well-publicized, and others are on page 37. But this goes on, man.”
“I remember my dad coming to see Killer Joe at the Next Lab in Evanston in its very first production,” Letts says. “Seated 40 people in the theater, most of them North Shore theatergoers. At intermission, we walked out, and people were talking about the play. My dad looked at me and looked at them and said, ‘They don’t know it’s real.’ ”
Friedkin, who stares you down through the same aviator glasses he wears in set photos from The Exorcist, is a joshing but confrontational—and arguably hyperbole-prone—conversationalist. (“You can challenge us,” he tells me at the outset. “It would be much more interesting if you did.”)
But don’t try, as I did in our long and wide-ranging chat, to defend Tippi Hedren’s performance in The Birds. (“There are people who love Charles Manson!” Friedkin scoffs, adding that he met Manson Family member “Tex” Watson’s wife at a prison while scouting a location for 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A.) Or Marnie: “A lot of people thought Hitler was right!” Friedkin says. Will he allow that it’s a flawed film? “You think Hitler was flawed?”
By the way, Friedkin met Hitchcock after he got a gig directing the last episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. “He gave me his hand and it felt like a wet—it was terrible. He was sweaty. He said, ‘Mr. Friedkin, usually our directors wear ties.’ I thought he was putting me on. I said, ‘Well, I guess I left mine at home.’ And he turned and he walked away.” Five years later, Friedkin confronted Hitchcock after winning a DGA Award for The French Connection: “ ‘How do you like the tie now, Hitch?’ He didn’t remember it or me.”
Friedkin is quick to add that watching Hitchcock’s movies is a film education in itself. Also, he’s no stranger to having the occasional dud. He doesn’t rue the critical dry spells he’s experienced. “I can’t help that, they were wrong!” Friedkin says. “Some of my best work was done in the early ’90s. I love Rules of Engagement. I love it—and Jade. And The Hunted.”
He won’t defend everything he’s done, though: “Not everybody likes his children, either. You prefer some to others, some not at all.”
“Give my regards back home,” he says shortly before leaving. “Do a good job. Don’t fuck this up.”
Killer Joe opens August 3.