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"I don't mind if you take a shot of me eating," William Friedkin tells the photographer between bites of an avocado sandwich. "People know I do that."
Friedkin and I are downing a quick dinner in the green room of West Los Angeles' Skirball Cultural Center, an hour or so before he takes the stage to introduce a screening of the John Huston classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The screening is part of the ongoing series "Cinema's Legacy," in which established directors are invited to present a film that inspired or influenced their own filmmaking careers. When the American Film Institute, which organizes the series, asked me if I would moderate the evening, I happily accepted, knowing full well that Friedkin would be doing most of the talking.
Several times over the years, I've seen him discuss his own movies in front of different audiences, and on each occasion he has held them rapt and left them wanting more. On the set, he may be legendarily demanding and difficult — not for nothing did he earn the nickname Hurricane Billy — but give Friedkin a stage and a microphone and he is witty and devilishly charming, a consummate Hollywood storyteller, and as firm a believer as John Ford in the relative value of truth and legend.
In a somewhat offbeat pairing, the screening of Sierra Madre is to be preceded by a trailer for Friedkin's own latest film, Bug, which Lionsgate will release the weekend of May 25, just as the third installment of Pirates of the Caribbean sets about plundering the nation's box offices. Not surprisingly, given how much movie fortunes depend on the fickle tastes of teens and 20-somethings with money to burn on a Saturday night, Bug is being marketed as something of a horror picture, "from the director of The Exorcist." And, to an extent, a horror picture it is, albeit one of the psychological rather than satanic variety.
Adapted by Tracy Letts from his off-Broadway play of the same title, Bug may best be described as an apocalyptic folie à deux between an abused, down-at-heel bar hostess (Ashley Judd) and the mysterious drifter (Michael Shannon) — possibly a Gulf War deserter — who enters her life and slowly pulls her into his deeply conspiratorial worldview. Set predominately within the confines of a fleabag Oklahoma motel room, it is a movie about paranoia as contagion, in which little of what we see on the screen can be taken for granted.
For his part, Friedkin says he has no idea how much of what happens in Bug is "real" and how much is the shared delusion of its central characters. More important, he says, is that the actors "have their own reality and aren't playing a metaphor. One of the things I was very clear about was that they had to believe everything that they did and said."
Fortunately, Friedkin chose the right actors for the job. Reprising the role he created for Bug's original London production, Shannon projects an unnerving mixture of all-American innocence and simmering rage, like the boy next door who grows up to become the psycho next door. But it's Judd who makes the biggest impression, as Friedkin taps into a hardness, a desperate quality in the actress that has been left unexplored by her cottage industry of wronged-woman potboilers.
"The first thing I look for in an actor is intelligence," Friedkin says. "I don't really care what they have or haven't done before, so long as they're physically right for the part, or can be, and they have the intelligence to dig in and find out who the character is. That's a long-winded way of saying that Ashley is not those characters she plays in the women-in-jeopardy movies. She's just making a living. If you do one thing that's successful in this town, then that's what they want you to do every time out."
Directors, of course, can become typecast too. The first time I met Friedkin, the year was 1995 and he was doing publicity for Jade, a silly "erotic thriller" penned by Joe Eszterhas in the era when the studios were paying the writer millions for ideas scribbled on the back of cocktail napkins. It showed. Jade was far from Friedkin's best work, but it did contain one of his great sequences — a perversely slow car chase set in the midst of San Francisco's Chinese New Year parade. I said as much in my review, and a few days after it was published, Friedkin phoned up to say he thought I'd been fair.
In the dozen years since, Friedkin has continued to toil on a series of middling Hollywood projects (the best of which, the Tommy Lee Jones–Benicio Del Toro pursuit thriller, The Hunted, shares some of Bug's lean intensity). When he saw Bug during its New York City production at the Barrow Street Theatre, Friedkin knew almost immediately that he wanted to make it into a film, but was equally sure that no studio would go anywhere near it. So he set up the project independently, much as he did early on in his career when another edgy off-Broadway show, Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, had similarly stoked his creative fire.
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