In William Friedkin’s newest film, Killer Joe, Matthew McConaughey plays the titular Joe, a dirty cop who moonlights as a hitman. Emile Hirsch plays Chris, the kid who hires Joe to kill his mom, so he and his sister can collect on her life insurance policy and Chris can pay off his gambling debts. Sound pretty straight forward? When you add the childlike sister Dottie (played by Juno Temple), the moronic father Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church), and the conniving stepmom Sharla (Gina Gershon), you end up with a black-as-pitch crime-comedy that defies genre labels.
We spoke with McConaughey and Hirsch about their reaction to the unconventional script, working with Friedkin, and audience reactions.
What comes to mind when you think about your favorite William Friedkin film, outside of this one of course?
Matthew McConaughey: The first half of The Exorcist sticks with me and creeped me out wonderfully; it let my imagination run wild and scared the snot out of me because I believed it was real when I first saw it.
Emile Hirsch: The French Connection for me. I remember that I somehow got this video store to rent it to me when I was way too young to be watching it (laughs). I had a weird relationship with the video store clerks in Santa Fe, New Mexico; when I'd go in, they were always like 'Oh hey, there's that kid! Hook him up, again!' So yeah, I watched The French Connection and it was crazy; I had no idea what I was in for.
And working with him now- the instincts are all still there? Where to put the camera? That kind of stuff?
MM: He moves really quickly; he and Caleb Deschanel were so great- they've worked together before in fact. Plus we worked a lot of that out beforehand too during our rehearsals at the trailer. That was a big challenge- how do we make this environment, this tiny trailer, more dynamic because we have to be in the living room a lot, in the kitchen a lot- so we'd do blocking on the weekends. Once we'd get to the trailer during the shoot, we didn't spend long there; one or two takes and we'd be done.
How long of a shoot was it then?
EH: 28 days long, I think. The pace that Billy likes to work at is just really, really fast; I think he enjoys it more that way, both technically and creatively. I think it's like he enjoys the adrenaline rush that he gets when he's shooting, almost like high-stakes gambling or something. Kind of like he's going 'all in' on the first hand of poker.
Can you talk about what your first impressions were of the Killer Joe script, especially considering the fact that I don't think we've seen either of you in a project before quite like this one?
MM: My first read, I was disgusted. I just remember throwing the script in the trash and going and taking a shower, wishing I had a steel brush. But then I have some people that I work with whose opinion I really value who had read the script around the same time so I asked them what they thought. They were in love with it; they were laughing at the humor even though I didn't understand why they would be laughing at this stuff. So I took a breath and read it again; I gave it two days and as I was reading it, I started to chuckle at some of the things and I really began to see the hilarity in the script.
But it wasn't until I laughed at it and found the humor that I also found the humanity in the story too; that's when I really became attracted to this world and to the role of Joe. Then I met with Billy for an hour and he was so precise about what he wanted to do with it and what the tone of it was; that's when I got in and went to work on it.
EH: My agent sent it to me when I was working on a movie in Moscow so I read it in a trailer in Moscow and had no idea what on earth I was even reading. I just remember it was a bunch of pages with the words "Killer Joe" on the front; I also remember just thinking from the beginning that it was going to be this hardcore drama because of Tracy Letts. I just associate his name with drama immediately.
So I began reading it and everything but then there were these weird, odd little moments where I was just thinking 'Man, I don't know if this is supposed to be funny but it's funny' and that was really great. Then I thought maybe I had just been in Moscow too long or something where maybe I was losing it (laughs) but I knew there was something brilliant to this script.
So then I went and looked up a review online for the play; a review from the New York Times that was very favorable from years back. In it, the reviewer was saying how the play was hilarious so I realized then that yes, this was a comedy of sorts. But it definitely made me cringe too- the chicken bone scene really. You're reading this thinking it's a straight-forward drama but then there's this chicken bone scene and it's so weird; it's almost like you can't even believe this scene would ever be in a drama but there it is. There was definitely a side of me that took glee in the craziness of it too, though.
MM: And Tracy's writing has a different meter altogether; I didn't understand it at first. If you don't get it, it's almost like you could think it wasn't well-written; there's all these little pauses where no one is having a linear conversation. You know- question, answer, question, answer. But with Tracy it's like- question, pause, answer to a third question that hasn't even been asked yet; that was a lot of the stuff with Joe and Dottie too so I didn't really get those pauses at first where the character was comfortable in these pauses either. It's like a song though once you get the rhythm.
Did you have any concerns yourself about whether or not the audience would be able to find the humor in this?
EH: Well, part of me thinks that the unknown of it; the being able to puzzle over it a bit at first is part of it because the confusion over whether or not you're supposed to be laughing at the things you laugh at in this movie is a draw, I think. It's what drew me in; I don't necessarily mind that at all.
MM: It's very deliberate, the humor, and the film is very deliberately and cheerfully amoral.
How hard was it to find humanity in characters that are not exactly great people- a hired hitman and a drug dealer willing to barter his sister for sexual favors?
EH: I almost saw them all as a group of these wicked sinners and Joe is kind of like one of Hell's Keepers coming to punish all of them for their misdeeds or something. I think a lot of the brutality and some of the more controversial aspects of the movie are the only thing I think that makes this movie palatable to a certain audience is that these are such wicked characters who have brought all of these awful things down upon themselves.
It's kind of like street justice that they're getting; if they were all just great people the whole time, all those things would be a lot harder to take.
MM: For me, as far as humanity, there are things that I worked on for the character of Joe that I really liked; I liked that he was all about structure, all about order and if he doesn't have that then he's all out of whack so he either handles it by stepping out of the situation or using his own street justice kind of way to resolve things.
Some people may say that his sense of discipline was a little askew; I wouldn't say it was 'eye for an eye'-
EH: More like (chicken) bone for a bone (laughs).
MM: Yeah. But underneath all of that is what for me as an actor taking a look at the character and asking 'What's Joe looking for?' And that was family; that's when he finds humanity. That's when he found Dottie; I just saw him and Dottie as sort of these two outcasts who are kind of loners in their own universes and the rest of the world just doesn't add up for them. But they find each other inside this abyss so they want to preserve this time.
Joe's violence comes from their lack of order. Joe's violence comes from a 'let's get things back in order' mentality so Joe is being very moral in his mind.
EH: I think that Chris is one of those people where the faster he talks, the dumber he seems; he talks faster than he can think but the big joke is that he thinks he's really sharp. He thinks he's got it all figured out and that almost makes him seem even dumber when people see the kinds of decisions he makes. But when he has a guy like Ansel to bounce ideas off of, he seems like a genius.
And Billy would constantly be coming up to me, like in the scene we did in the strip club, and take me aside and say "Now remember, this guy (Ansel) that you're talking to? You're talking to a fucking idiot (laughs) and I would be in the mind frame of Chris and be all "Yeah, yeah- he is an idiot. I got this Billy, don't you worry." So in a way, I guess Billy tricked me too.
Because you both are from the Southwest, what would you say it is about the Southwest that brings out characters like these? You rarely see trailer park tales of incest and intrigue set in Boston.
MM: I've been asked that question many times and I've had some good answers but one is not coming to my mind right now. But, you've got- and this is whether or not just how much you see this as a horror film- but you have fear from a movie like The Shining where it's like 'Yell as loud as you want, no one will hear you' but set that in the South. When you're in a trailer park and you hear domestic violence going on next door, you don't go over there- you mind your own business.
Mean Streets is another one; that violence comes from being in the middle of that city. It's so compact that it has to be that 'dagger to the gut' moment during the passing of the masses moment, it's not anything like The Shining. And there's something definitely to the geography, the wide-open spaces and the rural areas of the South where a lot of great drama comes out from all of that. A lot of great writers and a lot of great storytellers have come out of all of that. We grew up storytellers, that's what you did; you'd all get together at dinner every night and tell stories. Most of them, if they weren't true, they should have been.
What has the public response been to Killer Joe? Sometimes when you have brutality and sexuality mixed together, the response can get sketchy.
MM: I really thought that this was going to be more of a 50/50 split right down the middle where some people abhor it and some people love it; but I've noticed that about 80 to 90 percent of people both abhor it and love it. But what is interesting is that 100 percent across the board, including the people I've talked to today, that even if the movie wasn't for them, Killer Joe stuck with them regardless. They had a visceral experience with the film which is something I would say is great to get out of two hours of a movie, at the very least.