Letts, Friedkin connect in dark McConaughey starrer 'Joe'

At the time William Friedkin was bringing Harold Pinter’s menacing masterwork “The Birthday Party” to the bigscreen in 1968, playwright Tracy Letts was just a 3-year-old toddler living in Tulsa, Okla. But more than 40 years later, the two have become close collaborators, refocusing Friedkin’s interest in the dark side of humanity and filming Letts’ powerhouse plays for a wider audience.

“I’m really on the same page as Tracy,” says Friedkin, whose adaptation of Letts’ “Killer Joe” will premiere at Venice and Toronto. “We see things the same way,” continues the veteran helmer of “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection.” “That’s not to say we’re paranoid schizophrenics, but I’m drawn to the fact that Tracy doesn’t sugarcoat his characters: they’re not all good, or all evil.”

In 2006, Friedkin directed a film version of “Bug,” based on Letts’ play about a pair of drug-addled lovers holed up in a motel room. That pic, released by Lionsgate, grossed $7 million domestically. Friedkin also staged a version of Letts’ “Man From Nebraska,” so it was only natural that he helm Letts’ newest project.

After Voltage Pictures came onboard to finance and produce, along with ANA Media, the producers began looking for cast. “There was a lot of interest from the acting community,” says Ana Media’s Scott Einbinder.

When Matthew McConaughey accepted the pivotal part of Killer Joe Cooper, a cool, predatory hitman hired to kill the family matriarch for her life insurance policy, the small-budget project quickly pushed forward.

Voltage partnered with equity investor, Worldview Entertainment, and closed some foreign presales at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, but U.S. rights — along with a number of territories — are still up for grabs, according to producer Nicholas Chartier.

Shot in less than 30 days in Louisiana, the film also stars Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon and Juno Temple.

“The most challenging part of it was to try to put together an ideal cast,” says Friedkin, “to get five people who are on the same page together at the same time.”

But McConaughey was in many ways the linchpin.

“Very often that role has been done by an older, gruffer character actor,” says Friedkin, “but I didn’t want a dirty old man playing that part; I wanted a character that was more appealing.”

Though McConaughey is more known for romantic comedies, Friedkin says he was particularly appropriate for the title character because he’s from the part of Texas where the film is set. “He knew these people,” says Friedkin, “he knew how they talked, and he understood their underlying philosophy.”

“I’m not that guy,” McConaughey says of the character, but he agrees with Friedkin’s assessment. “I spent time in a trailer park as a child.” McConaughey adds that Texas, with its open spaces, has “more room to lead a dual life without getting found out.”

McConaughey says he was attracted to the script’s blasphemous humor and wickedly dysfunctional family.

For the film’s backers, it is this delicate mix of darkness and comedy that defines the new movie. And after “Bug,” with its extreme scenes, such as Michael Shannon yanking out his tooth, Chartier believes viewers are going to be surprised by “Killer Joe’s” humor. “It will definitely provoke some reactions in terms of its tone,” says Chartier. “But isn’t that more fun?”

For Friedkin, the film’s comedy comes out of an emotional truth, however. “I approached it realistically,” says the director. “The behavior may be outrageous and unusual, but I think Letts writes about human nature.”

“I guess it could be defined as a black comedy, not unlike the best of Harold Pinter’s work,” he continues. “But Pinter never set out to make his characters funny.”

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