“What a director’s doing at all times in a film is creating an atmosphere where the actors feel free not only to perform,” William Friedkin explained, “but to expose themselves in some way.”
That’s especially true for his psychological thriller Bug, which opened last Friday. A harrowing tale of suspicion and delusion, it requires stars Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon to get physically and emotionally naked as they succumb to irrational fears of government surveillance.
Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick, Jr., Lynn Collins
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 25 May 2007 (General release); 2006)
Friedkin is no stranger to challenging fare. At 36, he was one of the youngest directors ever to win the Academy Award, for his bruising 1971 hit The French Connection. With his followup, 1973’s The Exorcist, he created an unforgettable horror milestone and a global box office smash.
Although he began his career with a musical starring Sonny and Cher, Friedkin’s forte is shocking stories of confusion, mindless violence and forbidden desires. Sorcerer, a South American adventure with doomed men transporting explosives over treacherous mountain roads, and Cruising, with Al Pacino as an undercover cop pursuing a murder in New York City’s gay S&M underground, were so successful in making viewers cringe that they frightened away the broad audiences that embraced his earlier films.
Friedkin experienced a career resurgence with 1985’s sunstroke noir To Live and Die in L.A., 2000’s military courtroom drama Rules of Engagement, and the theatrical reissue of the recut Exorcist.
He has proven himself a master storyteller in all forms, from an acclaimed TV adaptation of Twelve Angry Men with Jack Lemmon, James Gandolfini and George C. Scott to his staging of Richard Strauss’ Salome for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, which will be in the repertoire for the next 10 years.
Friedkin encountered Bug on stage and instantly responded to its film potential, he said. Written by Oklahoma playwright Tracy Letts in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, the story follows lonely loser Agnes (Judd) and her anxious suitor Peter (Shannon) into the depths of psychological dependency and paranoia. Surrounded by threats ranging from Agnes’ violent ex (Harry Connick Jr.) to a manipulative government psychiatrist (Brian F. O’Byrne) to Peter’s obsession about genetically engineered “aphids” in his bloodstream, the two are enigmatic representatives of the fearful state of modern society.
“I could really tap into his world vision, which is something I see everywhere I go,” Friedkin said.
The 9/11 attacks “had a profound effect on changing the way we live and putting us under tighter surveillance,” he added. “What the characters in the film are going through has a lot to do with the way the world is today. People have irrational fear and feel the government is unable to protect them, and may even be the enemy.”
Friedkin has certainly earned the right to rest on his laurels, but he said the story demanded to be put onscreen.
The film’s third act has the couple walling themselves off from the outside world in a single room covered with tinfoil. Shooting in that environment was a nightmare, Friedkin said.
“It had to be constantly repaired, and it reflected everybody who was there, including the crew. But the main technical problem was to keep the pace up and watch these actors transform words on a printed page into flesh-and-blood characters that go through pain and anguish and great humor. It’s the same alchemy that occurs when you get a great musician with a music score. Those notes are just scratches on a piece of paper. Then Pinchas Zuckerman starts playing them and it’s art.”
The same goes for a script in the hands of a visionary filmmaker.