William Friedkin Talks About 'Bug'

Maui Time | May 14, 2007
A motel telephone rings loudly. It keeps ringing and ringing. The grating sound of the old-style bell characterizes a relentless unseen invader terrorizing us from a hidden location. A middle-aged woman finally picks it up and yells at the caller whose identity she thinks she knows, but there is no response to confirm her suspicion. Perhaps she's wrong, perhaps she's more than just "wrong." It's this kind of dark unrest that permeates every second of William Friedkin's first film since The Hunted (2003).

Friedkin ratchets up suspense and terror to an almost unbearable level with his adaptation of Tracy Letts' auspicious Off-Broadway play Bug, about a couple of outsiders consumed by paranoia. The psycho-satiric dramatic material is like a Sam Shepherd play amped up on an amphetamine and steroid cocktail that Friedkin mixes with cunning potency. Ashley Judd chews scenery and spits it out as Agnes, a lower class loser holed up in a desert motel single-room where she's a sitting duck for her abusive former beau Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), recently released from two years in prison.

Emotionally damaged by the disappearance of her young son some years ago, lonely Agnes welcomes the live-in romantic attention of Peter, a self professed Iraq war veteran (circa 1990) (magnificently played by Michael Shannon in the role he created onstage in New York and London). Between threatening visits from Jerry and earsplitting hovering helicopters, Peter discovers "bugs" he calls aphids that he is certain were planted under his skin as part of a military medical experiment. It isn't long before the bugs also invade Agnes' physiology, and the couple descends into a bizarre reality consumed with a panic-stricken fear boiling from their insides out.

It's not the first time William Friedkin has entered the realm of adapting stage plays. In 1968, he graduated from directing thousands of television shows and documentaries to the big screen with Harold Pinter's black comedy The Birthday Party. Two years later, Friedkin made an unprecedented splash with a film version of Mart Crowley's portrayal of contemporary homosexuals, The Boys in the Band. However, it was in 1971 with The French Connection, that Friedkin pooled together his filmmaking experiences to create a gritty policier that set the bar for how car chases would be filmed for generations to come.

Born in 1935, and raised in the slums of Chicago, Friedkin was William Peter Blatty's first choice to direct a film version of his novel The Exorcist. The 1973 movie is widely considered the scariest horror film ever made, and its enormous success at the time went straight to Friedkin's already bloated ego from so many Oscar nominations from both French Connection and Exorcist. In the years that followed, the visionary director would suffer reality-checking blows. His Exorcist follow-up Sorcerer was an updated, and over-budget, take on Henri-Georges Clouzot's Wages of Fear that holds up today much better than its imperceptible initial release indicated. Cruising (1980) was a provocative Al Pacino vehicle shackled by a studio-edit job that negated Friedkin's intent with the story. The director is screening a remastered cut of Cruising at this year's Cannes Film Festival that could set the record straight.

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) is arguably Friedkin's last great film, and seems to support his theory that directing films is a "young man's game" for energetic and ambitious, if not talented, filmmakers.

At the instigation of his friend Zubin Mehta (the famous Conductor), Friedkin has shifted his focus in recent years to directing operas like "Wozzeck" in Florence, Italy in 1998, and "Samson et Dalila" for the New Israeli Opera.

I spoke with "Billy" Friedkin in the library dining room of a sleek purple and blue yacht floating beside a pier at last year's Cannes film festival where Bug won the International Critic's Prize.

CS: I suppose you saw Bug during its original theatrical run in New York.

WF: A friend of mine in New York, whose opinions I respect, said, "You ought to try and see this. It's playing in a little theater off Broadway and I think you'd like it." And, I went to see it and I felt an immediate congeniality with it, in that it was dealing with things that I found very disturbing and some of which hit close to home in terms of irrational fear and paranoia, which I'm as guilty of as anyone else.

CS: There are a lot of implications in the movie about the fascistic brand of surveillance that Americans are under every second of their lives now.

WF: You can look at the film as a metaphor for what's happening in America, but I honestly never thought about that in making the film. I thought about those people in that situation and I recognize them. Even though I don't know whether anything that they say in the film is reality. But I think most people live in separate realities. I think most people have different, often inflated views of themselves. On the case of the character Peter, I think he's completely under the spell of his illusions. I don't know if he was a veteran at all, let alone a product of a medical military experiment or whether he's escaped from a medical facility. I don't know who Dr. Sweet is. They present themselves in one way, but I'm sure you've had experiences of people who you thought were this or that, and they turned out to be someone completely different. And also, sometimes you don't know who you are in a relationship, and later you look back and say, "How could I ever have been susceptible to something like this?" So, I think that "separate reality" is what interested me the most.

CS: Michael Shannon's character foreshadows an evaporation of civil liberties and global safety.

WF: He says, "We're not safe anymore, not on this planet." It's as though there was a time when people were safe, but not anymore. Now the machines are everywhere. A lot of people feel, in America, that the Government regards them as the enemy. The Government listens to our phone conversations and monitors our Internet traffic. I don't ever remember anything that severe in America. Watergate, which I lived though, was pretty bad but I thought of it as an aberration. And now I think it's gone so much farther.

CS: Do you see any way of reversing the trouble America is in today?

WF: The only way would be, as before, is for some sort of leadership to come along that has the vision to change things. I read in the Financial Times an interview with Romano Prody, Italy's new President, and he said, "I'm going to change everything. We have to rid ourselves of the whole Berlusconi era." He didn't say, "Basically, we have a strong structure."

I think if some charismatic leader comes along, as did Franklin Roosevelt, and has a vision for where the country should be and was able to refocus the country's ambitions and goals -- that's the only way it’s going to happen. If we get more of the same old guys that are in Congress now, or mere party politicians, there's no chance.

It always takes a visionary leader who realizes what's wrong. I think most of the people running for high office today, on either side, don't [realize what's wrong].

CS: Did you make many changes from the play to the screenplay for Bug?

WF: Not really. We adapted it, and I moved some scenes out. In the play of course, there's just that one small room. But, I didn't think it was broke and needed to be fixed. I was attracted to it in every way, including the claustrophobic aspect of it. So many of the films that I've made outdoors, so to speak, are with chase scenes or crowd scenes that are very claustrophobic as well.

CS: The sound cues play a special role in the mood of the piece. How did you approach the soundtrack?

WF: I always regard the soundtrack as separate. I always take up the soundtrack, not necessarily the dialogue, but often even the dialogue, after I've shot the film. That was true in this case. I use sound as though it was a canvas. I like to paint with sound, with various aural textures, that I hope will enhance moods. It's all very experimental. Some stuff works, some stuff doesn't. But I start to think about the soundtrack even exclusive of any music. There's not a lot of music in this. There's some behind the end credits, and there's a few things playing as source on a little radio or in a bar, but that always comes later. It comes from my interest in dramatic radio. As a kid I used to love live radio. This was before television.

CS: Ashley Judd is terrific in the picture, what made you cast her as Agnes?

WF: I knew her, and I thought about her immediately. I knew she was highly intelligent, and that's the first thing I look for -- intelligence in actors. She understood the piece and her character, so I didn't have to say a lot to her. She had a few very technical questions about how I was going to do it. I rehearsed very little. I would rehearse up to a point where I thought they [the actors] might be off in a tangential direction, and I would bring them back. And then, I said a few words to provide a psychological underpinning to their characters and provide a staging that worked.

CS: Both Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon give very risky performances. How did you foster that on the set?

WF: The director's first job is always to create an atmosphere where the actors can be free to be naked, and that's what I did. The set was quiet and private. It was real. They were always in the midst of a very tightly organized motel room, so they always felt they were in that space. The cameras were more often than not far away on longer lenses. That's something I learned a long time ago -- you stick a camera in someone's face, you're not going to get an intimate performance that doesn't feel as though it was done for the camera.

CS: Did you storyboard the film?

WF: Yeah, this is the first film I've ever storyboarded. I never do, not even for the big chase scenes that I've done. I never storyboarded them. I would always see the locations of the set in advance and formulate an idea about what to shoot but I never did, or had anyone else do storyboarding. I have a book full of pictures I made of this, that I made from beginning to end, and I probably only varied from it slightly as we went along. I had to, because we shot the film in 20 days. I had to predetermine exactly what I needed and not bother with anything else.

CS: You shot the film near New Orleans didn't you?

WF: [We shot] in a little town called Metairie, just about a half hour out of New Orleans in a high school gymnasium where the set was built, and then out near Mammoth, California was the exterior.

CS: Were you filming when Katrina hit?

WF: We finished about three weeks before Katrina, but we had tropical storms all the way through shooting. Most of the people on the crew had serious damage to their homes and lives. The hotel where I stayed was almost destroyed.

CS: I found myself wanting to grab these characters that we watch slipping away from us.

WF: So much of it is a parallel to ordinary life. Even though this thing touches on separate realities, I think there is a reality that for anyone who is going to see the film and get involved in it -- you do latch onto for awhile and you want somebody to save them.

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