A movie that has been doing the Festival circuit but not getting nearly the attention it deserves is Tracey Letts’ play turned film “Killer Joe”
Directed by William [Billy] Friedken (“The Exorcist”) and starring Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple and Emile Hirsch, “Killer Joe” is just your typical totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park Cinderella story that also includes a murder and a chicken bone.
You might wonder why I would include the chicken bone in that description. You won’t after you see the movie. That is one messed up chicken bone, and a scene surely to go down in pop culture history – not since Daniel Day Lewis ‘drank your milkshake’ has one scene burned in your mind so brilliantly upon exiting the theatre. Whatever you’re thinking it might be, I guarantee you it will live up to your expectations.
We spoke with stars Gina Gershon and Emile Hirsch about said chicken bone scene, merkins, working with one take only, and which character is a Joseph Gordon Levitt fan at a roundtable at SxSW in March. “Killer Joe” is now showing in a limited run in the US.
How do you find the difference between premiering the film at a festival like SxSW versus an everyday premiere, is this the ideal setting for a film like this?
GINA: I don’t know, I think if you’re just a random person going to a movie theatre, you don’t have anything at stake. You’re also here with other journalists and other people.
EMILE: I think it’s a double edged sword, I think you get advantages of people who want to be pumped [at a festival] and then sometimes when you’re in a movie theatre with a random audience, there’s no pressure so it’s just a free for all. I bet with a film like “The Hangover” the audience in the middle of nowhere would have laughed a lot harder than they would have at the premiere. At the premiere it’s like agents checking their Blackberries.
GINA: I want to see it with the audience where people are yelling back at the screen, I think that would be a super fun audience like ‘Oh no don’t do it. Don’t you eat that chicken bone’. I’ve only seen it twice with an audience and once alone, and the reactions have been so different, people laughing in different places.
EMILE: When Billy first showed me this movie, I don’t know what this says about me, or if I was nervous, but I started hysterically laughing at the chicken bone scene, and the laughter carried through to the fight, and maybe it was an uncomfortable laugh, but it was like hysterical, weird laughter.
GINA: I think with the chicken bone and fight scene, I think because it was so intense and visceral on set, every time I see it my stomach cramps up, I literally start getting this weird response that I remember I had that day. And we only lived through it once.
EMILE: But the memory lives on, like dragging a dog back to the vet, “Just get in the car Rex”.
I really liked how you both got down and dirty, you really just looked horrible by the end.
GINA: I looked pretty bad at the beginning of the film as well, it’s okay, you can say it.
Is it okay to talk about the opening shot of you?
GINA: You mean my fabulous merkin shot? In fact I’m insulted no one has brought it up yet [laughs].
I was going to ask you if that was a stunt merkin.
GINA: No it was a real merkin that I had designed. You know in all seriousness I think these people, what I love about them, they’re really primitive. Very raw people. And actually the merkin thing was a real discussion, because Billy was like, ‘I don’t need it’, and not to get too personal, but I wanted the biggest, wildest, craziest looking, you know…bush – sorry – because they’re not waxers, they’re not going to be groomed in that way. And it’s funnier. You know, the bigger the bush, the funnier the laugh it’s going to be. Thank you for noticing. But it really starts the movie off in a shocking and fun way.
You look discombobulated, and then you look more attractive, and then by the end you’re just….covered in blood. And I like that, not trying to be pretty all the time.
GINA: No you can’t worry about that. I think the only time I ever tried to look good, was when I was in the hotel room with Rex, because it’s the only time she’s really happy and is making an effort, you know she’s with a guy. The rest of the time she’s just trying to get through.
EMILE: Plus it’s not hard to look bad, and be willing to take risks to look bad, when you have [Billy] Friedken standing over you with a bucket of blood, dumping it onto you himself, like ‘More Moe’. He loved splattering the blood on himself.
GINA: I remember we weren’t even going to have hair and make-up, because Billy was like ‘No we don’t have time for hair and make-up’, but we needed some, because I wanted to make myself look as raw and gnarly as possible. I was like, ‘Trust me a little blue, and pink make-up, it’ll make me look hard’. I think she was trying to look nice but our aesthetics are different. I don’t mean to judge her [laughs].
Some of the tougher scenes, did you do multiple takes, or was it all a one take thing?
GINA: We were lucky throughout the whole thing to get a second take. I think I asked [Billy] for a second take once and he was like ‘Oh really?’. And I did it again and he was like ‘See it was the exact same as the first, let’s just move on’ [laughs]
EMILE: He definitely prefers one take and most of the time he would use the first take, but I remember where I come in after the chicken bone scene, I was waiting outside to come in, and all of sudden I knew there was a glitch in the matrix, I knew that when I walked in I wasn’t going to remember my line. And they said ‘Action’, and I was just ‘Bluegh’. And I’d just had three days off, and Billy was like ‘That’s the last time you get three days off!’
GINA: He really was like ‘By the time you get on set, I want to take a nap. We’re doing one take, there’s a game on at six and we’re out of here’. You think he’s joking but he’s not joking! But, you know, I think he was right. Certain scenes, obviously, I didn’t even want to think about them. I was just like, let’s do it, and I was going to do it all the way because I didn’t want to do it again. The chicken bone scene, I didn’t even want to think about it. Let’s just move on and never think about it again [laughs].
EMILE: Yeah, you know as actors, it’s pretty difficult material for everybody. We got kind of lucky because we worked with a director who only likes to do one take, but at the same time, it’s coming from material that has been tried and tested in Broadway. You should talk to one of the other Sharla’s [Gina Gershon’s character] who did it eight times a week, she was like ‘Oh you get used to that bone!’ [laughs].
GINA: I would never get used to the bone. When this was first presented to me, it was as the play, they came to me to do the play, and I got to that scene and I was like ‘There’s no way in hell I’m doing this eight times a week.’ We shot it in sequence – to Billy’s credit, and I guess we almost had to – and just those last few days when we shot that final scene, just living through it, by the end I just felt so shitty. So my hat’s off to them. But of course it bugged me that I couldn’t do it so when it came up again I was like ‘Finally I can do you.’ Because I don’t like being scared of things. But yeah, once with the chicken bone was enough.
Did you guys see the play before doing this film?
EMILE: Michael Shannon originated the Chris part that I play, and I was like ‘I don’t want to see him do it. He’s so good!’ I’ll end up doing like a weird Michael Shannon impression.
GINA: Tracey [Letts] writes such amazing characters. You could keep reading this and reading and it’s one of those onion parts: It just keeps revealing more every time you read it. And we had a great cast so you just trust that everyone is doing their thing, and Billy just infuses you with that ‘Go for it’ feeling, and he puts you in a safe environment because he’s taken care of everything else.
I loved your relationship with Thomas Haden Church. He’s so funny. And that transition when he realises you’re not the character he thought you were, and he wants nothing to do with you and is all ‘Go ahead’.
EMILE: You made your bed!
GINA: He’s so funny, isn’t he? All our characters made our beds, I look at it as a bit of a morality tale, you know, you do bad things and bad things will happen to you. Instant karma.
EMILE: Yeah, it’s the story of karma [laughs]
GINA: I think it should be rated G so all the children can see it! [laughs]
Do you think the long scenes and the one take shots made the film relate back to the play and evoke that stage to the screen feeling?
EMILE: There was definitely a feeling of live performance that’s probably similar to theatre, and Gina would know a lot more about this than me because I haven’t done a lot of theatre, but you feel like ‘This is your one take, this is your one shot to do it.’
GINA: Right after this movie I did another movie that was also, weirdly, was set in Texas and largely shot in a trailer, I sense a theme here, and it was very, very long scenes, but the difference was, we would do the long takes, and it made me realise, in order to do scenes like that, that long, you can act it but unless you have a brilliant director, it’s going to fall flat. There’s a reason, when you do a play, you can’t film it because it’s always feels very flat, and he [Billy] always moved the camera around in such a way that it kept it going and the energy was there. When I saw the other movie there were great scenes, great writing, and acting was great – naturally [laughs] – but it felt really flat because the camera didn’t move in a way to keep it kinetic. And I think that’s always the tricky part of making a stage thing into a cinema thing. Something doesn’t work.
EMILE: I loved the way he was moving the camera, and him and Caleb Deschanel, the cinematographer, is this baller, and it’s interesting how varied the shots in the trailer are. The classic story with Caleb and Billy, was this truck pulls in, and Billy yells ‘Cut!’ and Caleb goes ‘Billy we can’t use this shot, there’s reflections all in the truck and you can see the camera’, and Billy goes ‘Who gives a shit? They all know we use a camera on this movie. The audiences know that films are shot with movie cameras!’ He said that a couple of times, when people brought up continuity he goes ‘Who gives a shit?’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I don’t, not me.’ [laughs]
How old is Dottie [Juno Temple] in the film? Because she looks so young.
EMILE: She’s 20.
GINA: She’s 20 but in her mind she’s much younger. That’s why it’s so important that she gets out.
EMILE: I think the real point of Dottie is that she is a young women that really shouldn’t live in the trailer anymore, and she’s been stunted emotionally by these crazy people, and she lives in this little doll world but really she’s ready to be married and get out of there.
GINA: Billy always says it’s his Cinderella story, and with Matthew [McConaughey] coming and you see little castles in her room and there’s these references, to me she’s the hope of the movie. She’s innocent and she has a chance.
EMILE: I was just thinking of some of the posters on Dottie’s door, there’s Justin Bieber, but there’s also this hilarious poster of Joseph Gordon Levitt, and he’s like 15. I saw it last night and I was like ‘Hey it’s Joe! How did he get in there?’ [laughs]
“Killer Joe” recently screened at the Sydney International Film Festival, and is now showing in limited release in New York and L.A. Go see it if you can.