Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Kentucky Fried Friedkin

On Friday 22 June, I headed over to the BFI Southbank for a screening of Killer Joe followed by an on-stage Q&A with William Friedkin hosted by Mark Kermode. Unless something pretty astonishing and unforeseen comes down the pike in the next five months, Killer Joe is already a lock for my favourite film of the year, and it’s a joy to behold a film as raw, visceral and vibrant as this coming from a 76-year old filmmaker.

Regular readers of the blog should know my tastes by now. My cinematic appetites lean towards the pulpier end of the spectrum so, for me, the canon of All-Time Great Directors are masterful genre practitioners like Landis, Carpenter, Walter Hill and William Friedkin. (Let’s throw in Brian De Palma to make it a solid fistful of five filmmakers). So it goes without saying that I was vibrating with excitement at the prospect of hearing the great Billy Friedkin regaling an audience with his no-bullshit opinions. As expected, he didn’t pull his punches. He talked freely about things he didn’t like - “I hate 3D...who needs it?” and the things he loved (proclaiming Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba “the best horror film I’ve ever seen”). Friedkin also describes himself as a “Ripperologist” and he discussed his abortive attempt to bring James Maybrick’s Jack the Ripper diaries to the screen in a film that would have been called Battlecrease.

Here are some of the other conversational detours that I found particularly interesting.

On Alfred Hitchcock:

Following on from the success of his award-winning documentary The People vs. Paul Crump, the producer of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Norman Lloyd, invited him to direct the final episode of the show - the episode Off Season that aired on May 10th 1965. (Norman Lloyd may be better known as Hitchcock's Saboteur and, more recently, as Dr. Auschlander on St. Elsewhere). Here’s Friedkin on what happened next:

“One day Mr. Hitchcock came on the set, and he just came on the set in those days to read his introductions, he didn’t direct any more of the shows or even look at the scripts, but they brought him over, a phalanx of guys in very dark suits, these were the Black Suits of Black Rock, which was Universal Studios, and they came as a giant phalanx and in the centre of them was Mr. Hitchcock and they brought him over to me and Norman Lloyd introduced him to me and I was dressed not quite as good as I am now. And Hitchcock put out his hand - it looked like a dead fish - and I think he expected me to kiss it or something, but I took his hand and I said: “Oh, it’s really an honour to meet you, sir” and it was. And he said: “Mr. Friedkin, usually our directors wear ties”. And I thought he was kidding and I made some lame remark. I said: “Well, in my haste to get to the set, I left my...” and by the time I’d finished he’d gone.

And five years later, I won the Director’s Guild Award for The French Connection, and it’s done in a big ballroom with people having dinner and wine and all that and then you get up and they present these awards, and when I got up to accept my award, I saw right down in front of me at a table, in the front, Mr. Hitchcock and his entire family and his retinue of assistants and I was sort of distracted in my acceptance speech, but there were some steps leading right down, you weren’t supposed to take those steps, you were supposed to go off into the wings and be interviewed. I had a rented tuxedo on and one of those snap-on bow-ties and I went right down to Mr. Hitchcock’s table. I had this gigantic award and I snapped my tie at him, and I said: “How do you like the tie now, Hitch?” And of course, it was very disrespectful. But he simply stared at me, he had no memory of what I was referring to. Of course, I had carried it with me for five years, and it was only a cheap closure after five years.”

Nevertheless, Friedkin still referred to Hitchcock as the Master. “There are many others considered Masters, but I don’t think there’s ever been a director more influential than Mr Hitchcock.”
On Cruising:

The ratings board took forty minutes out of the film in order to get an R rating, which the studio had to have, and now recently that studio, which was United Artists that no longer exists, so Warner Brothers acquired the home video rights and they looked everywhere imaginable for the footage that was cut, anywhere that it might have been, and they couldn’t find it, or I would’ve put it back into the Blu-ray of Cruising which Warners released. I had to go back to the ratings board fifty times before they gave me an R rating. We just wore them down.

There were scenes that were not really S&M porn in the film that were also cut. The cuts to Cruising were draconian, and there’s the intimation at the end of the film that the Al Pacino character, who plays an undercover detective who goes into the S&M world to try and find a killer, there’s the intimation at the end that he may be one of several killers, that he may have flipped out and lost it and become one of the murderers, and I only discovered that in the cutting room. It’s not in the script. When the film was finished and I showed it to Pacino, he said: “You didn’t tell me that I might be one of the murderers!”. And I said: “What did you need to know for? I don’t know myself, it’s just an intimation”. And, really, films speak to you in the cutting room. They tell you things about themselves that you don’t know going in and I discovered that aspect of Cruising only in the cutting room.

Pacino was very difficult to work with, he was unprepared. That was part of his modus operandi. After the success of The Godfather, he felt that the way to make a film was to learn the lines just before you shot the scene and to go out and do it about twenty or thirty times until magic happened. And sometimes magic would happen, but by that time the other actors in the scene who were prepared were dead. They had lost their mojo. Pacino would get happy around Take Thirty. By the time I came to direct Killer Joe, I made it very clear to these actors that I was a one-take guy. I would only do Take Two if a light fell into the shot or the camera fell over or if an actor died and we had to replace him. I’m not interested in perfection in cinema. In the films that I make, and I haven’t done Shakespeare, I’m much more interested in spontaneity and I found when I made my first films, I would do twenty or thirty takes just like the next guy hoping for magic to happen, and I found when I got to the editing room that the take that I wound up using was the first printed take. That’s where the spontaneity was. All the rest were just repetitious. Long before I got to Killer Joe, I made it a point: No Second Takes. You have to approach this stuff like it’s live. So we never did more than two takes. If a shot was out-of-focus, and I even allowed some of out-of-focus shots into the film, because I thought the performances were good and I didn't reshoot them, but I believe in spontaneity over perfection.

On Drive:

There are a lot of films that owe a debt to To Live and Die in L.A.  Have you ever seen Lethal Weapon 3, where they did the same chase? And other films. The last Bourne film which I very much liked, I think it’s The Bourne Ultimatum, it did the wrong way chase, it was very well done. A lot of it was done with CGI. We had to do everything in the chase scenes that I filmed because that other stuff didn't exist. Drive was a film that I felt that I had seen before. I wasn't that impressed with it, to be honest with you. I met the young director before he did the film [Nicolas Winding Refn] and he gave me the DVD of To Live and Die in L.A. to sign. This was at Cannes when we ran Cruising [in the Director’s Fortnight in 2007]. I guess he’s a very talented young man, but I think I had seen Drive many times. I thought he owed a greater debt to that film Melville did with Alain Delon, Le Samouraï. I thought that the tone, the mood, the shots, the kind of laid back approach to it was much closer and owed a much deeper debt to the film Le Samouraï by Jean-Pierre Melville, a great timeless movie to me.

[It’s good to know that Friedkin’s opinion of Drive tallies with mine.]

On To Live and Die in L.A.:

I worked with the cinematographer who shot the chase in To Live and Die in L.A., not the rest of the film, that was Robby Müller, but the young man who shot the chase, I put him in charge of the cinematography for that because he was, though he had never been a Director of Photography, he was a Camera Operator, he was more comfortable shooting a chase scene than Robby Müller was. He really needed a perfect light to frame his shots, and when you’re doing a chase you’re shooting in all direction at all times, but the young cinematographer who shot the chase with me was a young fella named Bob Yeoman, who has now done all of Wes Anderson’s films including the most recent one, Moonrise Kingdom, and that was his first job and I felt he could do it. The production designer of To Live and Die in L.A. was a woman called Lilly Kilvert and I had made The French Connection which had a macho sort of a reputation, and I didn't want To Live and Die in L.A. to have that same sort of feeling. I didn’t want it to be quite so macho, I wanted it to be kind of sexually ambiguous and I chose women in very important roles in that film.

On 35mm vs digital:

Killer Joe was shot on a new camera called the Arriflex Alexa. It’s a digital camera, but Caleb Deschanel’s lighting is film-style lighting, and even with digital equipment, if you film the scenes like a film, it’s gonna look like a film, only you have more depth and more latitude in colour timing and in density, than you have with 35mm film. And, in any case, unfortunately and sadly, 35mm film is over. It’s a thing of the past.

The manufacture of a 35mm print was very, very difficult once the labs got rid of the three-strip process. It used to be three strips of film that would be combined to make a colour print. It was a yellow strip, a cyan print and a magenta print. These were the original negatives: yellow, cyan and magenta. And they have produced copies that are still magnificent, like the MGM musicals that were shot in the three-strip Technicolor process, and those films still look great today, but when the labs converted to single negative film, those films have a shelf-life and they fade. A couple of years ago, when Paramount wanted to make the new Blu-ray of The Godfather, which is their crown jewel, they went into the vault and the negative had completely faded. All those deep rich blacks that Gordon Willis had lit were gone and were the colour of milk. They had faded to milk and they had to spend close to $2 million to digitally restore the film to get what was ultimately a beautiful Blu-ray copy. But printing itself, in the one single negative process, had many flaws. For example, on The Exorcist, I would reject 25 or 30 reels to get one reel, and The Exorcist is twelve reels, and each reel is printed separately. Each reel is roughly 1,000 feet of film. You print them separately, and what happens when you print a reel of film in, for example, Technicolor in the San Fernando Valley outside of Hollywood, the chemistry in the water is constantly changing. The water that is the developer, the amoeba are constantly changing and the electricity that is going to the printer is constantly fluctuating, even unnoticeably, but it is fluctuating, and so a print would come off that was green, and the next roll was blue, and you’d have to go back, and they’d have to retool and compensate for the errors that the technology itself had built in. Now, that’s no longer the case with digital. Every single copy will and should look the same.

If you want to watch a little bit of the Q&A, some of the footage is available to view at the BFI website here.

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