STAGE TO SCREENS: Tracy Letts and William Friedkin Bring "Killer Joe" to the Big Screen

By Harry Haun
25 Jul 2012

To date, Letts has scripted all three of the films made from his plays, but that's not by any grand design. "They asked me to write the screenplay, and I said, 'Yes.' It wasn't about trusting anybody else. They said, 'Would you like to do it?' and I said, 'Sure, I'll take that on.' The adaptation is never going to be entirely faithful to the play, but at least I can be the one who's sorta picking and choosing what we're faithful to. I think I prefer that. The rhythm of a movie is very different from that of a play. They clip along at a pace in a play, but movies move slower and have the luxury of different locations. In 'Bug,' you can only open it up so much. Those characters are pretty much agoraphobic and aren't going to leave their motel room, but, in 'Killer Joe,' they're a bit freer to work their own nefarious ends outside of the trailer."

Not that it's a slam-dunk turning your play into a screenplay. "I suppose the challenge is what it always is: How do you tell the story, and how do you tell it more efficiently than you did in the play? You don't have all the dialogue that you have in a play in order to tell the story and maintain a sense of humor. Sometimes these things can really lose their humor in the translation from the stage to the screen. There's some strong stuff that happens in 'Killer Joe,' and the only way people can hang through it and have it be palpable for them is through humor. We wanted to make sure we didn't lose that very dark comic streak that runs in that piece."

Letts came to playwriting, and now screenwriting, as an actor — one of Steppenwolf's best. He made his Off-Broadway debut in 2005 in one Steppenwolf transplant, Austin Pendleton's Orson's Shadow, and he'll make his Broadway bow Oct. 13 in another, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Being otherwise engaged on stage saved him from being a protective playwright hovering over a movie set. "Two hats means I can't be in two places at once," he cheerfully notes. "I'm the kind of screenwriter you have to pay to be on set."