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

By Harry Haun
25 Jul 2012

"Killer Joe" is another tale — another motel, in fact — predating Friedkin's theatre-going experience and bringing Letts to Manhattan audiences for the first time.

The 29th Street Rep got off the first shot at Killer Joe in 1994, busting its budget on blood bags which were liberally splattered all over the set. Four years later, a starrier revival sat down at the Soho Playhouse for an open-ended run; among the name-brand bodies that fell during its respectably long engagement were Scott Glenn, Amanda Plummer, Sarah Paulson, Lori Petty and, in their New York stage debuts, Michelle Williams and the aforementioned Michael Shannon.

Those last two would look right at home among the stellar cast now being assembled for the film version of Letts' Tony-winning "August: Osage County" (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, et al). He has already turned in his screenplay and will leave the directing to John Wells of "ER" fame.

The Texas trailer trash in "Killer Joe" is less delusional and more frontal than the Oklahoma trailer trash in "Bug." Happiness is not remotely a thing called Joe here; rather, the title character is a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a murderer and has the ear of a young druggie wanting to kill off his mom for her insurance money and offering his sister for sexual sacrifice as a kind of retainer for the service.

How, one wonders, did Letts become so intimately acquainted with trailer-park low-life? "Well, they're all me, some version of me," he 'fesses up. "I grew up in southeast Oklahoma. My parents were college English teachers, and I felt like I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. Actually, when I was a kid, I once lived in a trailer park. Some of those characters come from my own experience — and, as far as the terrible things they do as well as the noble things they do, they're all part of me somewhere."

Matthew McConaughey and Emile Hirsch in "Killer Joe"
photo by Skip Bolen

Longview's Matthew McConaughey has the title role, and Laredo's Thomas Haden Church plays the druggie's dimwitted dad. "The authenticity of the Texas actor and the Texas accent was really helpful," Letts conceded about that comfortable casting. Of late, McConaughey has been embracing his seedy side like the Holy Grail, and he seems to be taking a perverse pleasure in pulling out all stops for this assignment.

Age hasn't mellowed Friedkin's flair for unbridled violence. The man who once had a demonically possessed Linda Blair masturbate with a crucifix comes up with some unsavory business with a drumstick that could set KFC sales back a couple of years.

This return to form, in Letts' view, is just a man enjoying what comes naturally to him. "He's such a master with that camera. He's done this so long now, and, because he's 76 years old, he just doesn't have a lot of time for B.S. That's why, when he's on the set, he's all business. He doesn't keep a trailer on the set, for instance, because he said, 'What am I doing? Am I going to go lie down? I'm working. If I'm at work, I'm working. If not, I'm going to go home.' He keeps a real energy and enthusiasm on the set. He knows where the camera goes. He's going to give the actors one take, two at the most — and, as a result of that, everybody on the set is really cued up and attuned to what's going on because nobody wants to screw up. It seems to me that he has always been a very vital filmmaker. There's a lot of life in a William Friedkin movie."

"One take, two at the most" — really? Keeee-rect! "Michael Shannon used to ask for a third take, and Friedkin'd say, 'What? You got stock in Eastman Kodak?'

"There's a story that Caleb Deschanel told — he was [director of photography] on 'Killer Joe' — and he remembered a shot they did of a truck pulling up. You could see the reflection of the camera in the truck so Caleb said, 'We got to shoot that again,' but Billy said, 'No. We're moving on.' Caleb said, 'We have to shoot it again. You can see us and the camera crew in the side of the truck.' And Billy said to him, 'Caleb, don't you think movie audiences are sophisticated enough now to know that movies are shot with movie cameras?' And he moved on. Caleb said, 'Of course, he was right. By the time all the stuff gets edited down, if it's in the movie at all, you can't see it.'"