As both an actor and playwright, Tracy Letts is something of a modern legend, especially in Chicago. His plays include "Bug" (which he later adapted into a movie directed by William Friedkin and starring the play's lead actor Michael Shannon), "Superior Donuts," "The Man from Nebraska," and his currently running adaptation of Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters" at the Steppenwolf Theatre, where Letts has been an ensemble member for 10 years. But it was his 2008 play "August: Osage County" that generated the most acclaim, earning him a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Original Play (a work that was first performed at the Steppenwolf as well). Letts has adapted "August" into a movie as well, which will be directed by John Wells (THE COMPANY MEN) and star Meryl Street, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, and Chris Cooper, among others.
As an actor, Letts' credits on stage, screen and television are too many to mention, but he has been nominated for countless stage acting awards. His most recent stage appearance was in Steppenwolf's 2010 adaptation of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?" opposite Amy Morton. But the reason he and I sat down for a half hour recently was the release of the film version (which he again wrote, with Friedkin directing) of KILLER JOE, starring an dangerously electric Matthew McConaughey. KILLER JOE began life as an early 1990s stage play, whose cast included Michael Shannon (whose role in the film is played by Emile Hirsch), and features a classic Southern Gothic tale of murder and lust, twisted around to tell the tale of a disreputable family and the hitman they bring in to solve their financial woes. But when their plan misfires, it's the hitman who becomes the real problem.
Letts and I discussed the dark corner of his mid-20s head where the story of KILLER JOE originated, his working relationship with Friedkin, the film's slightly ridiculous NC-17 rating, and his concerns about the fate of the film version of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. He's a great conversationalist, and much like his writings, he doesn't hold back. Please enjoy the hell out of my talk with Tracy Letts…
Tracy Letts: I’ve had to deal with two critics today who wrote terrible things about Killer Joe when it was a play, and they're now interviewing me about the movie. I didn’t know how to deal with that, so I just brought it up to both of them. I was like, “Do you remember when you wrote this about the play?” And they sit there and go, “Yeah.” It’s an uncomfortable moment [laughs].
Capone: Well, I never saw the play, so that spares us that indignity.
Capone: I really did like the movie, and I’m a huge fan of the BUG film as well.
TL: You know, we knew when Lionsgate fucked up the marketing of BUG so bad, Billy [Friedkin] and I were pulling our hair out, and he was like, “Oh, they’re making a terrible error.” We both felt like these things find their audience ultimately. Maybe not in the way you want them to. You’d like them to find their audience in an initial run in movie theaters, but with BUG, it’s taken a while for people to come to it through DVD, and now it really has found an audience. I find a lot of people who have seen and admire the movie a lot, people who maybe missed it the first time around because of the way it was marketed.
Capone: I know a lot of people who are now getting into the works of Michael Shannon, and I always point them to that film as a good place to start.
Capone: That’s a benchmark for him. Now that you’ve worked with Mr. Friedkin a couple of times, when you finish writing an adaptation, hand it over to him, what is your role from that point forward with him in terms of finished film?
TL: It’s a continual collaboration in that Billy will tell me, first of all, he’ll respond to the screenplay, and he’ll say, “This works, and this doesn’t work, and I think you should change this, and you should consider changing that.” That collaboration continues through the casting process. Now, there are certain realities of the business--the way people deal with agents and the kinds of people you need in your movie in order to get people to see your movie. So, I’m not exactly in a position to cast the film, but still, it’s a collaborative discussion with Billy about who might be good, who won’t be good. So I play some small role in that. If nothing else, just to bounce ideas off.
Billy sent me five different photographs of dogs they were considering casting for T-Bone, the dog that lives in the trailer next door [in KILLER JOE]. I said, “Billy, I don’t know, you pick the dog. Pick the meanest motherfucker you can find, I don’t know.” He sent me photographs of all the locations, sent me photographs of sketches, costumes. Billy’s very collaborative in that way. I’m aware that Billy’s ultimately the final arbiter of that, being director of the movie, and being William Friedkin in particular.
With both movies, I was not on the set. And I think that’s probably for the best, because decisions have to be made in the moment. Again like I say since he’s the boss, a writer is, in some ways, kind of useless on the set. Billy shoots very fast and doesn’t have time for a lot of debate or theoretical discussion. So, he shoots the thing, and I’m not there. Then as soon as he gets a rough assemblage of the footage, he has me out to Los Angeles, and we look at it in an editing room and spend some time going over it. We’ve worked with the same editor on both movies now, Darrin Navarro, and the three of us sit in the editing bay for a couple of days, and kick some ideas around in the editing room.
Capone: There is a time-honored tradition in Hollywood of writers getting treated like shit for the most part, and obviously, Billy has never really been adhere to that tradition. But it sonds like when he involves you in that early process, he’s wondering, “How did you see this?" Then once the shooting starts, he says, “OK now, let me just take what we’ve made together and do my job, and I’ll bring you the final product.” That’s not the normal process, I don’t think.
TL: I don’t think it is either. That's exactly right. He talked a good game of being respectful of the writer. And, of course, a title card that reads, “William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST” is evidence of that. But I'd spent enough time in Hollywood to know that there’s a lot of bullshit. What Billy did was back up all that talk. Billy said to me when I first met him on BUG, “Here’s what I’m going to do,” and then he did everything he told me he was going to do. That’s not the way Hollywood normally works.
And, in fact, the first time he had me out to look at the footage of BUG, and he screened the movie for me, I sat by myself in an editing room, and when it was over, he came in and he said, “What did you think?” and I said, “I think it’s great.” He said, “Do you see anything you’d change?” and I said, “Yeah, I see some things.” “Run the film.” And that started the editing process right there. No, writers don’t get treated like that, even A-list writers don’t get treated like that.
Capone: Diving into the character some, it is interesting that Killer Joe, the character, is the only one in this story who has a definable moral code. He has a set of rules and he pretty much sticks by them. He’s adaptable, but he pretty much is the most morally immoral person in this story. Everyone else is just flip-flopping, changing teams, and lying. It’s an interesting way to present a villain.
TL: Right. Well, I guess I was playing somewhat with the idea of what a villain is. I mean, there’s something kind of Greek about the idea of, "Yeah you can invite a monster into your house, but you have to deal with the consequences. Killer Joe even says at one point in the movie, “caveat emptor, [let the buyer beware],” you know? "You brought me in here, essentially, and so now you have to deal with the ramifications of bringing me in here." Yeah, he’s the guy who introduces order, structure, rules into these people’s lives who live in, not even so much chaos as it is, a formless void.
Chris is the one person who seems to be…maybe he senses some morality in the ether, but he can’t quite grasp what it is. Because they’ve got no spiritual food. And suddenly this guy walks in and says, “this is going to be this way, and this way, and this way.” Of course, when the mask comes off of all of that order and structure, there’s a real monster underneath it all. Playing with that idea of the black hats and the white hats in the material has always been an interesting idea to me. It’s really causing the audience to, in the chicken leg for instance, think “Jeeze! That’s really brutal, she doesn’t have that coming. But she did, actually, kind of put everybody’s lives at risk. What is the proper response to that?” And, “Oh, I’m uncomfortable with the sexual nature of this, and the fact that her husband isn’t coming to help her.” Playing with a lot of expectations makes people very uncomfortable for a lot of reasons, I think.
Capone: She is deserving of some punishment for this betrayal. And his brand of punishment is an original thought on his part, I’ll give him that.
Capone: Shocking a film audience these days is a difficult if not impossible task. What does that do for you, what are you trying to accomplish with your brand of shocking material?
TL: Billy said to me, “You know, you will never again shock the audience; you will never tap into the zeitgeist; every taboo has been challenged now in film." Other than, I suppose, real murder or something, maybe we’ll be there in a couple hundred years.
Capone: Fingers crossed.
TL: But pretty much every taboo has been crossed by now, and Billy’s the one who crossed a lot of them as long as 40 years ago. I do think in some ways the culture’s become more conservative in the 40 years since Billy created THE EXORCIST, as evidenced by the ratings board, for instance, which gave THE EXORCIST an R the first time it was ever presented to them, and it’s given us an NC-17 from the beginning. I think in that conservative culture, you can’t necessarily shock people, but you can challenge their expectations, challenge their firmly held beliefs of right and wrong, white and black. I hope that KILLER JOE operates in that place of moral ambiguity, where people really have to question themselves.
When I first wrote the play and received the first of a few feminist attacks for my misogyny, and at first you take that and you go, “Wow, am I really?” And then after a while you say, “Oh no, actually, this is interesting. This kind of thing can work as a kind of Rorschach test." And you find people projecting their own hang-ups, agendas onto the piece. Some people get mad by it, some people get titillated by it, some people get bored by it. I suppose it can run the range of emotions.
Capone: I laughed at it.
TL: Some people can laugh at it; it does have a lot of laughs.
Capone: The also noticed about Joe is in almost every scene but the last one, when he enters the room, things get very quiet. The yelling stops, all eyes and ears are on him, but he doesn’t talk very loud. Did you want things to go still when he walks into the room?
TL: I think that was always there, even with the play, that idea of the dog that barks at Chris but doesn’t bark at Joe. There is something about him that is perhaps a little scary, or a little unsettling, or just a little demanding of respect that you sit up a little straighter when this guy walks into the room. People get a little shy about expressing themselves when he’s around.
Capone: The deal that he makes with them for the girl as his retainer, that is the classic deal with the devil. You think you’re making a good deal. And of course, it doesn’t work out, and the devil knows it’s not going to work out because what he really wants is that thing that object he's bargained for. You wrote this when you were 25?
TL: I wrote it in 1990, when I was 25 years old.
Capone: What were you so angry about at 25? What was going through your head that you had to get out at 25?
TL: [laughs] Man, that is a really good question, because on some level, it’s a reflection of just an artistic sensibility and a dark streak in me. I was reading a lot of Jim Thompson at the time and some Faulkner, and it’s a reflection of some of those interests. On the other hand, there’s no denying that I look at it now 20 years later and go, “Wow!” Some of it does feel like a fever dream that I had a long time ago; some of it is really like, “What were those preoccupations that had you so angry and dark.” I don’t know. The simple answer is, or maybe the too easy answer is, I don’t know.
I suppose like all of us, I was carrying over some childhood shit, some family shit, some shit from my past that had to express itself in some way. So I found the forum of this very hardcore noir story--a good container for the expression of that stuff. I think that’s one thing that artists do, they find a way to release those things in yourself. I’ve heard Bill say any number of times, “If I wasn’t a film director, I’d be a serial killer.” You find a way to express something, you don’t worry about how appropriate it is to express it; you’re going to express it through this medium, through this forum. I think that’s what I was doing. As for the specifics of what that was coming out, I won’t get into all of that.
Capone: When you’re writing, when you’re going through that process, does it feel like these darker thoughts are leaving? Is it therapeutic, is it a release, or is it just an expression?
TL: I’ll say this, this play premiered August 3, 1993. I got sober August 27, 1993, and I’ve been sober almost 19 years now. I don’t know if that answers your question.
Capone: I think it might. Congratulations. I love that the film pays tribute to the almost lost art of just putting two or three people in a room and talking, not being in a rush to get to the next scene, and letting a tension build from dialogue. In a theater setting, that's all you've go, but why submit yourself to a film version of something that an audience might not really appreciate in its time?
TL: Well, my favorite, some of my favorite scenes in movies are long scenes of dialogue. I love TWELVE ANGRY MEN; I love ANATOMY OF A MURDER; I love older movies that were unafraid to let people talk for a while. Perhaps that’s part of the uncomfortable part of it, transposing a work from the theater into a work for film. To me, it’s kind of a happy accident in that it’s like, “Well, I actually like this not only on stage, but I like it in a film too.” I like to see people talk, I like to see scenes played out over time, I like to put some of the power of a scene in the hands of the actor.
Sometimes I think that the power that an actor has is actually underrated in movies, that in fact, they can carry a lot of tension and humor themselves without a lot of cutting or explosions or CGI or anything, actors can do an awful lot. When they’re good actors with good material, hell yeah, let them talk for a while, and allow a scene to play out with rise and fall and building of tension and release of tension. Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon and Thomas Haden Church are really good actors. And they get a chance to show it in a way that they might not in some other movies, because they’re given the opportunity to play a scene--that final scene may be 12 pages long, rather long for a movie.
Capone: Speaking of McConaughey, I don’t know how involved you were in that casting decision, but he is on this incredible roll right now and has been for about the last year, just surprising us with every new part. Were you aware of any hesitation on his part to take this role?
TL: He told me the story about when he first read the script, he threw it across the room and said, “This is terrible. This is disgusting, I don’t want to do this.” Then he ran into a friend who had seen the play, and he mentioned it to this friend, and his friend said, “Ah, you’re going to want to take another look at that. I think you should look at that again. I think you’re not getting some of the humor out of the first reading, and maybe you should go back and look at it.” So, he went back and looked at it and said, “Oh.” He kind of got the joke the second time in a sense. He was very interested to work with Friedkin, so he called Billy up, and they had a meeting about it.
Yeah, clearly he’s at a point in his life where he’s interested--he doesn’t need more goddamn money--in exploring different sides of himself, different challenges as an actor, and we’re all the better for it, because I haven’t seen those fucking romantic comedies. They weren’t made for me. I was never the target audience for that. They didn’t make them for me. The people who did, went to see them saw them, and now he’s giving a little something that the rest of us who liked him in movies like LONESTAR and DAZED AND CONFUSED, and now we can say, “Yeah, we always knew this guy was good,” and now we get to see him do some good, interesting stuff.
Capone: You told the story the other night about how you were basically forced into presenting yourself to the MPAA to try to get the rating overturned. That sounds like one of the most humiliating experiences I can imagine, especially when you know you’re right.
TL: Yeah, it’s not humiliating so much as frustrating. Kind of the frustration of an injustice being done.
Capone: The humiliation, for me, would come from knowing that you were putting your heart into this argument that you knew just looking at the room was going to fail you. You said the group you spoke to was made up of Hollywood types. Why would they want some tiny little film that’s going to take a screen away from one of their bigger movies? Why would they want to give that movie a break at all?
TL: I naively never believed it would get an NC-17. When Bill was shooting the movie, he intentionally shot Matthew in such a way that you don’t see Matthew’s full-frontal nudity because Billy was trying to avoid an NC-17. It wasn’t Matthew covering himself up, the scene calls for Joe to be naked; Matthew wasn’t worried about it. Billy shot it in such a way, he was like, “We don’t want to get an NC-17.” I was like, “You’re crazy! This isn’t going to get an NC-17,” I was so naive. So, we get the rating, and then I naively believed, “Well, they’re going to overturn it because Matthew’s in it.” I really thought Matthew would be our ticket to getting the thing overturned.
Man, they had made their minds up about it for so long, and you then realize, “Oh, it’s actually not about anything specific in the movie; they object to The Movie. They object to it in total.” I’ll even tell you this, I said to them at one point, “It feels like we’re being punished for doing this well.” They said, “Well, the fact that the violence is personalized is definitely one of the reasons.” I said, “In other words, if the violence was impersonalized or depersonalized, you wouldn’t care.” They said, “Well, no, we wouldn’t.” They were very upfront about that. They said, “If this is just a guy dying like in SAW, we don’t care.” I said, “So, in other words, because we’ve taken the trouble to develop these characters and give them some depth, we care about them, and the actors are doing a good job of portraying them, that’s the reason you feel that.” They admit it, they said, “Yeah.”
Capone: Wow. Ten-to-zero vote against you, huh?
TL: Yeah. Ten to zero.
Capone: The controversy hasn’t lessened since the film started playing festivals. The underlying benefit is that people are still talking about it, which I guess the goal of any play or film.
TL: It’s great, right, I mean that’s part of what you get when the filmmaking is personal and not just filling some sort of corporate identity. "This has to happen here, and this has to happen here.” It’s as quirky as people can be, and it’s filled with personality. I like the fact that people are talking about it, and I think some people are responding to something that doesn’t look like a lot of other things. That in and of itself is a reason for being, as far as I’m concerned.
Capone: Are you a little concerned about the fact that AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY in different hands than ones you are familiar and comfortable with?
TL: Yeah, yeah. The simple answer to that is Yes. I have a real comfort level with Bill because I trust Bill. My dealing so far with AUGUST, it’s a different animal. It’s a much bigger budget, and there’s much bigger cat. Chris Cooper and Juliette Lewis were just announced today. So, it’s a different animal and you find yourself trying to please more than one master. With Bill, I only had the one guy I’ve got to deal with. Having said that, John Wells, who’s directing the movie and who I’ve also had a number of meetings with, is lovely, gracious, and smart, and good writer. He said to me the first time we ever met about it, “You've already wrote the play, you’ve already got all of the awards on your shelf, that place is cemented. If the movie’s fucked up, I’m the one they’re going to look at,” and he’s right. He’s like, “I’m the one they’re going to point to if this movie is fucked up.”
Capone: When you’re adapting something that you wrote when you were 25, is it difficult to revisit your mindset at that age? Was that a tough process going back?
TL: It’s not tough because I know the characters so well and it’s character-based ultimately, at its root, even though it is plotty and there are plot elements. The truth is it’s about the characters and their interactions with each other. I think some people have an idea that with a playwright, you write a play and you put it in the mail, and then maybe some theater produces it. The truth is, I’m so involved in that process of the play for years. I’ve seen "Killer Joe" performed hundreds of times by a lot of different actors. So, I know those characters so well, it was pretty easy to actually go back in. The hard part for me, it’s not about killing my babies or losing lines or anything; I’m comfortable with that. Plays are primarily a talkie medium; movies are a picture medium. So making that switch for me is the tougher jump, but that’s what Bill’s for, you know?
Capone: Chicago theater has a long history of putting on some pretty hardcore productions over the decades, especially at Steppenwolf. Was that at all an influence on you knowing that, “If I write something shocking, someone in Chicago will get it, and put this on. I can get away with this here where maybe I couldn’t in New York. I don't have to hold back.”
TL: Yeah, sure because, at the point which I wrote it, I had lived here about five years, and I think I had become pretty well steeped in what we meant when we said, “Chicago theater” or “Rock and Roll theater.” So yeah, I wanted to write something that was just as rock and roll as Steppenwolf or anybody else. Just something that was really in your face. Hopefully, you don’t do that just to shock people--not that that doesn’t have any value in and of itself. The truth is, you do it in the hopes that people are going to sit up and watch your story. I’ll do anything to get people to pay attention to my story, whether it means shock them, or make them laugh. As long as I’m true to the characters, there’s nothing I won’t do to keep people’s interest. I think Ingmar Bergman, for God’s sake said, “Always be entertaining,” and that’s Bergman! The point is, if you don’t, if you’re not holding people’s interest, what the hell are you doing anyway?
Capone: You're taking your "Virginia Woolf" performance to Broadway this fall.
TL: Yeah, it’s very exciting, and very scary in a good way. Good scary.
Capone: Weirdly enough, the first two plays I ever saw professionally performed were Steppenwolf production, one was in D. C., and then the second was in New York.
Capone: In high school I saw "Streamers," with Gary Sinese. Terry Kinney directed.
Capone: And in New York it was the "The Grapes of Wrath" that won the Tony, also with Gary.
Capone: Well, thank you so much. I was wonderful meeting you. Good luck with the Weinsteins, [who are producing AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY].
TL: Thanks so much, Steve. I really appreciate it.
Capone: Yeah. Good luck with KILLER JOE too. I really hope people come out for it.
TL: I hope they find some theaters that will exhibit the film.
Capone: I feel like the tide is turning on that in your favor.