The Exorcist director slams trend for comic book stories in film

TORONTO: At the North American premiere of his new film “Killer Joe,” director William Friedkin has decried a trend in cinema of infantilizing audiences with stories ripped from comic books.

“It’s harder and harder to do [original adult material] in this climate of American film,” he said, “ … which is mostly concerned with movies that are comic books, and remakes.”

“Green Lantern,” “Thor,” “X-Men: First Class,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” are the latest Hollywood blockbusters based on Marvel or DC Comics heroes released this year.

The icon of 1970s cinema said his own classic films “The French Connection” (1971), which won him an Oscar for best director, and “The Exorcist” (1973) would not be made today by movie studios.

“The audiences have changed,” Friedkin lamented. “They are conditioned by television and television is aimed at the lowest common denominator... their expectations are lower.”

Also, “the studios, when I started directing, were run by people who had made films,” he continued. “Today they’re former agents or lawyers and [the studios] are owned by gigantic corporations that have to appeal to the lowest common denominator.”

“There’s less money in the adult market [now],” added Pulitzer prize-winning writer Tracy Letts who adapted his 1998 play for the movie. “The guys who run the show have figured out that they can make more money basically selling comic books to people.”

For “Killer Joe,” Friedkin cast Emile Hirsch (“Into The Wild,” “Milk” and Oliver Stone’s upcoming “Savages”) as a drug dealer who hires a cop moonlighting as an assassin (Matthew McConaughey) to murder his mother to collect on an insurance policy that will pay off his debts, and sells his sister (Juno Temple, who will also star in the next film in the Batman franchise, “The Dark Knight Rises”) as a sexual retainer.

Friedkin explains that he was drawn to the story because it is about “innocence, victimhood, vengeance and tenderness.”

The violence in the film is purposeful. “There’s violence throughout society,” Friedkin noted, adding: “There’s a thin line between good and evil and there is the possibility of evil in all of us.”

Hirsch recalled, during filming “the makeup girl would be dabbing me with blood with a paintbrush.

Friedkin would come up and go, ‘No! No! No!’ and grab her bucket of blood and douse me in the face with it and then go get another bucket of blood.

“I was just soaking with blood,” Hirsch says.

“There’s an intensity [in his directing]. He can be very volcanic. He’s a live wire. He enjoys extremes,” Hirsch said of Friedkin, recalling a gun being shot on set once “to shake up an actor.”

“They don’t call it shooting [scenes] for nothing,” he quipped.

“A general maxim for actors is that they’re self-loathing narcissists,” Hirsch added on the film’s violence, “so there’s a certain gratifying release when you see yourself getting pummeled [on screen] with a can of pumpkin.”

“Killer Joe” premiered last week in Venice before showing at the Toronto International Film Festival where it garnered strong reviews for, according to flicker magazine Playlist, “a director who hasn’t had much luck in the last 30-odd years.”

In 2008, a survey by entertainment retailer HMV crowned Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” the best horror film ever made, ahead of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980) and Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1980).

“After choosing his collaborators, all that a director does is provide an atmosphere for the actors to reach inside themselves and find the characters,” Friedkin said, downplaying a director’s contributions to a film. “… And the crew can contribute their best work. That’s it.

“Everything else is hype and publicity. ‘My vision, my style’ – What a load of bullshit,” he said. “I really object to it and condemn it.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 15, 2011, on page 16.




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