New Beverly Cinema concluded their month long tribute to Oscar winning filmmaker William Friedkin with a double feature of “Bug” and “Killer Joe,” movies which allowed him to escape the pressures of big budget filmmaking by going the indie route. Both were based on plays written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts who also adapted them to the big screen, and he was the guest of honor at the New Beverly for this final night of Friedkin. Following “Bug,” he participated in a Q&A with Brian J. Quinn, host of the Grindhouse Film Festival. Quinn’s first question was how Letts first came up with “Bug,” and Letts took us back in time to when the play was first conceived and of how Michael Shannon was involved.
“Where it came from is what I’m puzzling about myself right now,” Letts said. “I had written ‘Killer Joe’ in 91, it got produced in 93, and that production wound up going to the UK. The Gate Theatre in Notting Hill (where it was put up) asked us for another show. The group for ‘Killer Joe’ were interested in working again, so I wrote quickly and I wrote the role of Peter for Mike (Shannon). Mike had played Chris in my production of ‘Killer Joe’ and was such a great actor. We took it to the Gate Theatre and the play wasn’t worked out. It took a long time and a lot of productions for me to work out some of the problems with it, but Mike played Peter not only in the London production but in the subsequent production in Chicago where I continued to work on it. And then the play went to the Barrow Street Theatre in New York in 2005, and Mike had been with the play for a number of years at that point.”
“Bill Friedkin saw the play in New York and he called me out of the blue,” Letts continued. “I had never met him or spoken to him and I thought it was a prank actually, but he had seen the show. He actually said, ‘I don’t actually think this is a movie. I just wanted to tell you that I am a fan of your writing and I think it’s great.’ And he called the next day and said, ‘Maybe it is a movie. Why don’t you come out here to LA and talk to me’ So I flew to Los Angeles and I met Bill at his home for the first time. He said, ‘I think it is a film. The more I think about it, it seems very cinematic to me.’ I said I would love to work with Bill Friedkin but it’s a claustrophobic piece. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense to open it up and have these disturbed people out in the world. And he said, ‘First, do no harm. I love the play and I have a way to make the play cinematic, so let’s work on the screenplay.’ And we did.”
Now while Shannon is well known these days for his work in movies like “99 Homes” and “Man of Steel,” he still had yet to make his big cinematic breakthrough. That would come a few years later in Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road” which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but there was no forgetting who he was after watching “Bug.” Of course, getting the actor cast in the movie was a challenge, but Letts explained how Friedkin championed for him.
“Billy fought really hard for him,” Letts said. “The people who were financing the film had no interest in using Mike, but Billy just insisted. He had seen Mike do the play live, he knew how powerful Mike was in the role, and he knew the role was written for Mike. And Billy actually had a lot of experience casting a lot of unknowns in movies: William L. Petersen in ‘To Live and Die in LA’ was his first big break, Linda Blair and Jason Miller in ‘The Exorcist.” I’m really glad he did (fight for Mike) because among the many pleasures of the film is the fact that Mike’s extraordinary stage performance was preserved on film. The freak out scene where he’s flopping and having a seizure on the bed, he used to do that on stage eight times a week.”
“Bug” was not a big hit when it arrived in movie theaters back in 2007. Part of this was due to competition from summer blockbusters, but it was also the result of what Letts called a terrible marketing campaign. While “Bug” looks like a horror movie, it is at its heart a psychological thriller and a character study. Still, studio executives in their infinite wisdom were convinced they knew what they were doing.
“Lionsgate decided that they were going to do a big opening and they were gonna just try and lure the kids into it like it was ‘Saw’ or ‘Hostel,’” Letts said. “They opened us up on 1,600 screens and they opened it in the summer opposite ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’ on Memorial Day weekend. Billy had begged them not to do this. We said please don’t open this movie on 1,600 screens. We said this was a terrible mistake; we should open it small and let it build its audience. But they just insisted and ran these terrible trailers on TV with the announcer going, ‘They live in your blood. They feed on your brain.’ So the horror movie kids came in and they hated it, and the people who would have enjoyed the movie didn’t come because they thought it wasn’t their cup of tea. So it just died a terrible death unfortunately.”
Letts also talked about Friedkin and of how he makes a movie. Because this was a low budget feature, its shooting schedule was very short and Friedkin was in no position to be like Stanley Kubrick or David Fincher and do 70 takes of the same scene. Letts also took the time to demystify Friedkin’s reputation.
“Billy shoots quick,” Letts said of Friedkin. “He starts work early in the morning at four o’clock, he’s done and goes home. He brags about the fact that he only shoots one take. That’s not quite true. He will shoot something else if light falls into the shot. Mike used to ask him for another take and Billy said, ‘What, you got stock in Eastman Kodak?’”
“Bug” proved to be an emotionally raw cinematic experience and is almost as unnerving as Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” Both Shannon and Ashley Judd give some of their best performances ever, and Friedkin succeeds in stretching this play beyond its claustrophobic staging to give us something which slams us back into our seats and never lets us go for a second. It was a real treat for the New Beverly audience to have Tracy Letts come down and talk with us. In his heart he still feels like a Chicago theatre guy more than anything else, but along with Friedkin he made a pair of movies which fearlessly went against what was mainstream, and we need movies to go against the grain every once in a while.
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.