Interview: Killer Joe Screenwriter and Playwright Tracy Letts

As adapted by Tracy Letts from his 1993 play and directed by William Friedkin, the unsettling, brutal, but mesmerizing film noir Killer Joe presents a grim (and often darkly funny) portrait of a poor Texas family that hires a professional hit man, only to find their deal with him increasingly complicated and twisted.

In life-threatening debt to a drug lord, Chris (Emile Hirsch) convinces his comically dim father Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church) they could reap an insurance-settlement windfall if something happened to Chris’ mom, Ansel’s ex wife. But when they contract murderous cop Joe Cooper (a revelatory Matthew McConaughey) to kill the woman, Chris’ dreamily disconnected sister Dottie (Juno Temple) and Ansel’s conniving second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) are also drawn into the plot.

Killer Joe is Friedkin and Lett’s second collaboration after 2006′s equally compelling Bug, also based on a play by Letts. The playwright, who received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for August: Osage County, sat down to talk with several other writers and myself last month in Chicago (where Letts lives and continues to work with the Steppenwolf Theatre). We talked about his feelings toward his amoral characters, the new film’s tremendous cast, and his working relationship with the legendary Friedkin (The Exorcist).

Of course we also discussed, in a spoiler-free manner, the play and film’s infamous final scene (which earned Killer Joe an NC-17 rating not due to the extremity of its violence, but its disturbing nature).

Killer Joe opens this weekend in select theaters.

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Killer Joe is such a bracingly pitch-black vision of humanity.

Tracy Letts: It’s based on a play that’s 20 years old now, and I was reading a lot of good, strong, black, very hardcore noir at the time; dirty, southern noir, including Jim Thompson [The Killer Inside Me], who is a great pulp-fiction writer originally from Oklahoma, as am I.

One of the principal aspects of that kind of noir is people who want things really badly—who want and need and feel things really strongly, and yet who make some terrible decisions in their attempts to get them. I think something about that is very human, something we can all identify with. Those moments in our lives when we have wanted something and done absolutely the wrong thing to get it.

These characters in Killer Joe are working poor. I hear them described as “trailer trash” or “white trash,” but truth is they are working poor, they have jobs. Yet they don’t have any kind of spiritual food, and so what they believe is going to fix their problem and situation is simply to acquire money. And they’re willing to make some terrible compromises in order to get it. The fact that they live in a kind of moral vacuum is frightening, but in both the play and the film we never wanted to step back and point our fingers at them and say, “Look at these people!” We felt like they are us; they’re a manifestation of us; the fringe of our society making some very bad decisions.

The story is based on a true story of a murderous Florida family, and I transposed it to Texas because it made perfect sense. But the true-life story was a mother and son who were going to kill the father; they were all drug dealers together. And then the father and son discovered that the mother was stealing cocaine, so they decided to kill her instead. It was just sort of the ease with which they changed their minds about which family member was going to die, that sparked my thinking about how you gotta get to get pretty far down when family ties mean so little to you.

When you went to write the screenplay 20 years after the play, how did you feel about going back to the characters?

Letts: I still have great sympathy for them. I always did. I don’t know that others do, but I actually find them kind of touching in their own way. You write something like this and you hope it will have some lasting power, but what you don’t anticipate is the way it travels through life with you and decades later it is like this weird child you had 20 years ago. It’s so odd that I still have a relationship with this thing and that I can sit and watch that movie and go, “Oh, man, that is some crazy shit. What was I thinking when I wrote that?” There’s some crazy, fever dream stuff going on up there. But I have always liked the characters—as bad as they get, at their absolute worst, I still see something sad at the core of them.

There is that moral ambiguity in making the characters sympathetic. You don’t see any real heroes or villains here.

Letts: I never wanted to make the characters black hats or the white hats. I never wanted to make an easy statement about that. The truth is that coming to this trailer, Joe represents a certain order in the chaos. There are some rules of behavior that he clearly establishes. He’s a man of order, and these other people aren’t.

So when he introduces that kind of order and structure into their lives, there’s a sense of, “Is this a good guy, is this a bad guy?” To have a moral code, as skewed as it may be, as long as you have one, is that the starting point? So I always wanted the material to ask those questions and engage in that conversation without supplying easy answers as to who’s the good guy, who’s the bad buy, who’s made the right or wrong decisions, who’s in power and who’s not?

William Friedkin directed both Bug and now Killer Joe. What’s been your working relationship and experience with him?

Letts: Bill is a great, funny, outrageous guy. He’s 76 years old and has a storied movie career, of course, but he has been so generous and gracious with me as a writer from the first moment I met him. It goes right back to The Exorcist; the title card reads “William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.” One of his first movies was an adaptation of The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter, and they stayed friends until Pinter’s death. So there’s a reason that writers like working with Billy—he shows a real respect for writers and the written word.

When he first showed me Bug in an editing room, he said, “What’d you think?” I said, “It’s great.” He said, “See anything you’d like to change?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Run the movie.” The editor re-ran the movie, and we entered into a collaboration about things that might be changed in the film.

So he is not some von Stroheim figure with a riding crop, bullying his way. He’s a gifted artist who knows what he wants, but also respects the collaboration of his fellow artists. I am so glad I have had a chance to work with him, because he is a no-bullshit guy. He moves that camera like a gun, like Samuel Fuller. He knows what he’s doing. I got nothing but good things to say about Bill Friedkin and my collaboration with him.

Matthew McConaughey’s performance in Killer Joe is surprisingly good.

Letts: We always knew he was actually good, right? When I first told friends that Matthew McConaughey was going to play this part, they were like “Oh shit, man.” I said, “I don’t think it’s bad news.” They started listing these romantic comedies, and I said, “I haven’t seen any of those. Those movies are not made for me. I wouldn’t go see them on a bet.” Nothing wrong with the guy making that money and those movies for people who want to see them, and clearly a lot of people do. But I’m not the target audience for those movies, I never was.

A lot of really good actors have made really bad movies. Nothing new in that. But I remember Lone Star, A Time to Kill, and Dazed and Confused—all of his best performances are set in the Texas and the South—and I saw The Lincoln Lawyer recently.

He’s really terrific in Killer Joe. He brings a really nice, timeless, Western quality. We were doing roundtable interviews at the South by Southwest festival, and a guy said, “Matthew, clearly you are not at all like this character, you have nothing in common with Killer Joe.” I’d just met Matthew, and I turned to him and said, “Is that true? You don’t have a little bit of the evil son-of-a-bitch inside of you?” He kind of smiled at me and said, “We just met.” Clearly he’s got some of that inside him, he’s got a dark side to him that likes to express itself, and it’s really interesting on film.

Gina Gershon is also stunning, especially in the film’s sure-to-be-controversial final scene. Having dealt with it being performed in the theater for decades, what are your thoughts about that scene, and how do you think movie audiences will respond to it?

Letts: The title of my autobiography is going to be Defending the Chicken Leg. Even in my theater world, which doesn’t reach as far out as the film world, that scene has always been a lightning rod for controversy and discussion. I couldn’t be in the room when they were originally rehearsing the scene in the first performance—I found it too upsetting to watch. Of course in the theater you have to figure out how to do it eight times a week—that’s not easy. But Gina is great. She had in fact been offered the part of Sharla in the off-Broadway production of Killer Joe and she said, “I don’t know how I could do that eight times a week.” But when she was offered the film, she said, “I can get through it once.” She’s amazing in the scene.

But it’s some of that fever dream stuff I was talking about. It’s brutal, it’s shocking, it’s horrible, and it’s horrifying, but also—and I will get in trouble for even saying this—I have had female audience members come up to me and tell me, “I found that kind of titillating.” And I’ve also had female audience members come up to me and call me every name in the book.

I’ve had people suggest that I should switch the genders and the women should play the men’s roles and the men should play the women’s roles, to which my response has always been, “What world are you living in? In my world, women have it pretty rough.” I think Killer Joe is a reflection of that. When it turns against the women, it turns against them in a very, very brutal kind of way. You don’t have to look very far around the world to see that it happens in much worse ways than in Killer Joe.

What do I think the reaction is going to be? I don’t know. Movies provide a sort of ironic distance. In the live theater, when that shit is happening in front of you, there’s a part of the audience that is so horrified, so intimidated. But in a movie theater there’s a bit more ironic distance, so perhaps some audience members will feel that at arm’s length they can laugh at it or point at it. But I hope that people are shocked. It’s supposed to be horrifying.

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