The Devil May Care

William Friedkin on Bug, Cruising and nights at the opera

"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 JonesBenicio 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.

It seemed only fitting, then, that when the film version of Bug had its world premiere, at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, it was presented not in the festival's tony Official Selection, but rather in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar, which is traditionally seen as a showcase for the work of vanguard younger directors. At 71, it was as if the Young Turk of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation was an enfant terrible all over again.

"I frankly am not on the same page with most of the films that are being made by the studios now," Friedkin says. "I certainly can't think of any that I wish I had directed. This is not to degrade these pictures they're making today, like Spider-Man 3. I'm just not seeking them out, nor are they seeking me out."

As Bug opens in the U.S., Friedkin will be returning to the Directors' Fortnight for a special revival screening of his most maligned and misunderstood film: 1981's Cruising, starring Al Pacino as a Manhattan detective who goes undercover to investigate a series of unsolved murders in and around the gay leather-bar scene. At the time, Cruising was widely attacked for its supposed homophobia and unflattering depiction of the gay lifestyle. Today, it has been somewhat critically rehabilitated, and if its colored hankies and studded bracelets unavoidably seem like fossils of a bygone cultural era, the movie's unabashed approach to its subject, its jarring narrative ellipses and its enigmatic resolution (or lack thereof) retain their unsettling power.

"The film doesn't turn away from the sexuality," says Friedkin, who notes that the Cannes screening will be followed by a theatrical re-release, complete with a new Dolby Digital sound mix, in select U.S. cities this fall. "That means it will still disturb a lot of people on both sides of the issue."

He does wish, though, that the studio (Warner Bros.) had been able to find some of the 40 minutes of deleted scenes that he was forced to remove from Cruising 26 years ago at the behest of the MPAA, all of which are now feared missing or destroyed. Most of that footage, Friedkin allows, "did not move the story forward at all. It was me filming in great detail everything that went on in the clubs: I filmed fist fucking, in such a way that it could be used as a manual. Golden showers. All of that."

But there is one scene he's particularly sorry not to have been able to restore: An alternate opening in which the movie's two abusive vice cops (including one, later revealed to be a patron of the leather bars himself, played by cult character actor Joe Spinell) engage in a game of "liar's poker."

"One cop says to the other, 'Whoever wins gets to beat the other guy on the ass with a billy club,'" recalls Friedkin, who based the scene on an actual incident reported in the New York papers. "So they play it out, and you see that the cop played by Joe Spinell has the winning number, but he claims he has a lower number and the other guy wins. Then Spinell says, 'Okay, you've got to beat me on the ass now.' And the other guy says, 'Yeah, right! Are you out of your fucking mind?' And Spinell says, 'No, a bet's a bet.' So, they get out of the car under this bridge, Joe takes down his pants and leans over the hood of the police car, and the other guy beats him hard while Joe sings 'I'm Going to Kansas City.'"

These days, it's a different sort of musical entertainment that occupies much of Friedkin's time. In 1998, at the behest of the conductor Zubin Mehta, Friedkin agreed to direct a production of Alban Berg's atonal opera Wozzeck at Florence's Teatro del Maggio Musicale. He's been actively staging operas ever since, in various cities around the world, including Los Angeles, where his acclaimed double production of Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Puccini's beloved farce Gianni Schicchi premiered in 2002.

Of the latter, Friedkin notes that it is actually part of a trilogy of one-act Puccini operas, collectively known as Il Trittico and intended to be performed together over the course of a single evening. Recently, he says, Los Angeles Opera artistic director Placido Domingo proposed the idea of doing just that, with Friedkin directing the two parts he didn't stage the first time around. And as for Gianni Schicchi? None other than Woody Allen will take the reins. "They haven't announced it yet, but we're going to do it in September of 2008," Friedkin says with a sly chuckle. "Now let's see if his is as funny as mine!"

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