Friedkin and I are downing a quick dinner in the green room of west Los Angeles' Skirball Cultural Center, an hour or so before he takes the stage to introduce a screening of the John Huston classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The screening is part of an ongoing American Film Institute-sponsored series in which established directors are invited to present a film that inspired or influenced their careers. Several times over the years, I've seen him discuss his own movies in front of audiences, and on each occasion, he has held them rapt and left them wanting more. On the set, he may be legendarily demanding and difficult not for nothing did he earn the nickname Hurricane Billy but give Friedkin a stage and a microphone and he is witty and devilishly charming, a consummate Hollywood storyteller, and as firm a believer as John Ford in the relative value of truth and legend.
In a somewhat offbeat pairing, the screening of Sierra Madre is to be preceded by a trailer for Friedkin's latest film, Bug, which Lionsgate will release just as the third installment of Pirates of the Caribbean sets about plundering the nation's box offices. Not surprisingly, given how much movie fortunes depend on the fickle tastes of teens and twentysomethings with money to burn on a Saturday night, Bug is being advertised as something of a horror picture, "from the director of The Exorcist." And, to an extent, a horror picture it is, albeit one of the psychological rather than satanic variety.
Adapted by Tracy Letts from his off-Broadway play of the same title, Bug may best be described as an apocalyptic folie à deux between an abused, down-at-heel bar hostess (Ashley Judd) and the mysterious drifter (Michael Shannon) possibly a Gulf War deserter who enters her life and slowly pulls her into his deeply conspiratorial world view. Set predominately within the confines of a fleabag Oklahoma motel room, it is a movie about paranoia as contagion, in which little of what we see on the screen can be taken for granted.
For his part, Friedkin says he has no idea how much of what happens in Bug is "real" and how much is the shared delusion of its central characters. More important, he says, is that the actors "have their own reality and aren't playing a metaphor. One of the things I was very clear about was that they had to believe everything that they did and said."
Fortunately, Friedkin chose the right actors for the job. In the role he created for Bug's original London production, Shannon projects an unnerving mixture of all-American innocence and simmering rage, like the boy-next-door who grows up to become a serial bomber. But it's Judd who makes the biggest impression, as Friedkin taps into a hardness in the actress that has been left unexplored by her cottage industry of wronged-woman potboilers.
"Ashley is not those characters she plays in the women-in-jeopardy movies," Friedkin says. "She's just making a living. If you do one thing that's successful in this town, then that's what they want you to do every time out."
Directors, of course, can become typecast, too. The first time I met Friedkin, the year was 1995 and he was doing publicity for Jade, a silly "erotic thriller" penned by Joe Eszterhas in an era when the studios were paying him millions for ideas scribbled on the backs of cocktail napkins. It showed. Jade was far from Friedkin's best work, and in the dozen years since, he's continued to toil on a series of middling Hollywood projects. When Friedkin saw Bug during its New York City production at the Barrow Street Theatre, he knew almost immediately that he wanted to make it into a film but was equally sure that no studio would go anywhere near it. So he set the project up independently, much as he did early on in his career when another edgy off-Broadway show, Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, had similarly stoked his creative fire.
"I frankly am not on the same page with most of the films that are being made by the studios now," says Friedkin, 71. "I certainly can't think of any that I wish I had directed. This is not to degrade these pictures they're making today, like Spider-Man 3. I'm just not seeking them out, nor are they seeking me out."
That's not to say Friedkin doesn't have his suitors. In 1998, at the behest of the conductor Zubin Mehta, Friedkin agreed to direct a production of Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck at Florence's Teatro del Maggio Musicale. He's been actively staging operas ever since, including an acclaimed double production of Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Puccini's beloved farce Gianni Schicchi in 2002.
Of the latter, Friedkin notes that it is actually part of a trilogy of one-act operas by Puccini, collectively known as Il Trittico and intended to be performed together over the course of a single evening. Recently, he says, Los Angeles Opera artistic director Placido Domingo proposed the idea of doing just that, with Friedkin directing the two parts he didn't stage the first time around. And as for Gianni Schicchi? None other than Woody Allen will take the reins. "They haven't announced it yet, but we're going to do it in September of 2008," Friedkin says with a sly chuckle. "Now let's see if his is as funny as mine!"