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May 2006
Bug | An Interview with Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon and Director William Friedkin

An Interview with Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon and Director William Friedkin
By Nicole Schmuelian

BUG represents the return of director William Friedkin to the horror genre. It’s based on the play of the same name by Linda Letts. Friedkin’s last horror film was the classic, “The Exorcist”. Within the film, the waitress Agnes (Ashley Judd), lives in fear of her violent ex-husband Jerry Goss (Harry Connick, Jr.), who has been let out of jail. Agnes meets Peter (Michael Shannon), and he becomes her protector and lover. Peter begins to talk about the war in Iraq, UFOs, the Oklahoma City bombings, cult suicides, and secret government experiment on soldiers. He is contending with an apparent infestation of parasites and insects. Oddness darkens into madness. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Judd, Shannon, and Friedkin talk about their characters and the horror genre.

Did you feel like you had an advantage or disadvantage going into this movie? Michael Shannon having done the play, Ashley having never done the play?

Michael Shannon: It was advantage to the extent that I knew how to tell the story on the stage. I don’t have as much experience in film as much as Ashley or Billy do. So I was counting on them, particularly Billy to help me along. It is very nerve-wracking with a play you get the benefit of getting to do it over and over again: to change, to work on things night to night. With a film you are just trying to get everything exactly right and then never do it again. So it is kind of nerve-wracking in that regard.

Ashley Judd: I felt I was at a real advantage because Michael clearly knew the material inside and out. He had a very well developed, evolved relationship with the material. Billy had seen it he responded so passionately and immediately began acquiring the rights. So there was a tremendous enthusiasm and respect there and I felt like I was able to just slip stream in there.

How long was the actual filming process? What did the actors do and what you did, as a director with them to get what we saw on screen?

William Friedkin: As a director you just try to create an atmosphere for them to be comfortable that’s it. The film took 20 days I think 21 days because the last day we had a fire on the set. So we had to come back and re-shoot the last day. There is often a fire on the sets that I film on. It’s not intentional but sometimes things go wrong. We had a fire so it was 21 days. I just provided an atmosphere for them to create. You can hear directors say they did this or they told this guy that it’s all a bunch of bullshit. Mainly you try to get out of their way and keep the camera in a place where it can see them.

MS: What Billy also did was do us a service by shooting in order. Which I think helped me and Ashley didn’t a great deal. We obviously didn’t really know each other before the movie. So the relationship as it was building was very organic because as we were getting to know each other our characters were getting to know each other. That helped a lot.

Shooting in order helped to build the tension in the movie itself and what about your previous landmark movies that have a lot of tension as well. How do you compare you experience with this to The Exorcist and French Connection?

WF: The French Connection is the only exception to the rule that you have to have a great script. We had no script for French Connection, but I knew the story and the guys who played the parts new the story. Everything else that has worked even moderately starts with a great script. This is the vision of the writer Tracy Letts and I am simply a vessel from through, which it passed. It’s his vision. Now I happen to be on the same page as him or I wouldn’t have done it. It is Letts vision his view of the world, which I think we all say there is some truth in what he has written. There is a truth that aught to be shown and portrayed. Now I am not going to tell you what I think that is because like anything else it is part of a broad landscape but there is truth in what he has written. Ashley, Michael and I have responded to that. My god I recognize these people in myself. That is sometimes frightening to know. It’s like when Gustave Flaubert was asked, “did you know such as a person like Madame Bovary?” and he said, “Madame Bovary is me.” I think when you do something as serious as this is you find a part of yourself in it.

How do you go aboutchoosing roles? What particularly attracted you to this role?

AJ: It was very easy for me to decide to do Bug. Billy had been good enough to send the script to my agent. Bug also had in common a producer who was producing Come Early Morning, which is the film I shot right before Bug. So there was a streamline simplicity to the process. Of course Billy’s wife was my mentor early in my career and really provided my big break in Hollywood. So it seemed like there were a lot of auspicious things that were coming together around the script. I really loved Billy response to Michael. Billy was very clear and firm that Michael was the actor for the film as he had been unabashedly for the play. I was really impressed with how Billy was just not going to negotiate around that. It helped me be very comfortable talking with the financier of the film about how Michael was also who I wanted to play with me in the movie. So there was a lot that I liked. There was a good backbone and positive energy surrounding the project.

When my agent sent the script to me to read she said, “you might not want to go there.” Immediately that intrigued me and I don’t think she was intentionally using reverse psychology but that was the effect it had. I think I became willing to take the part on before I had in fact read it. There is a part of me that gets really competitive with my own creativity like “Oh you think I can’t do that? Really, Okay!” I was always attracted to very intense things as a child. I think when I was little I wanted to grow up and be intense (laughing), my mission in life. I thought that the characters were extremely real, very grounded, clearly wounded. They were very lonely people with a lot of dark secrets, that they feel compelled to protect, and all the insanity and unmanageability that comes out of those kinds of secret.

Did you find the process difficult of actually taking the character where she needed to go?

AJ: No. Did I? (To William)

WF: She didn’t seem to. She seemed to understand everything. We didn’t rehearse a lot we just talked.

AJ: I really loved that this little set was built inside a high school gymnasium in Metairie, Louisiana. We had the opportunity to go to the gym while the set was being built and the props were being chosen. A lot of the set design wasn’t complete yet and they wanted us to reflect our organic relationship with our characters. Remember how it was really messy at first and I was like, “excuse me I am not a slob, I am a loner but I am not a slob.” It was a hobble at first, and so we were in there a couple of days before and we cleaned the entire place. I was able to very carefully edit and choose; personally select everything in the room and that was pretty neat. So the rehearsal was more about the feeling tone of the character in the film and when it came time to shoot we did our job.

MS: It really is about figuring out where to start. Once you figure out where to start the thing it has an inherent momentum to it.

WF: We talked about the physical problems of doing it.

AJ: (Interrupts) In such a small space.

WF: They own the characters; once you get ready for the cameras the writer doesn’t own them anymore the director doesn’t own them. They own them. The first quality I look for in an actor is intelligence. Now I am sitting next to arguably one of the most beautiful women in the world but that is why she is in this movie, it didn’t need a beautiful women. It is very difficult to take that beauty away from her because it is deep it is inside. But what she had was knowledge of how to portray this person and find those qualities in herself. It is what Michael had; he is not beautiful she is. Intelligence is all, in other words they understand what they are doing. Then there is not intellectualization of it, it simply okay I get it, lets go. I would try to do everything in one or two takes which they weren’t crazy about because actors love to do, they’d do it all day. If I had said to them “lets do this one scene all day” they’d love it. What I found is when I get in the cutting room of something it is usually the first or second take that has the spontaneity. That is what I am interested in, is spontaneity much more so than perfection. Unless it is Shakespeare or something where the words have to be exact. If they look like they are in character to me it’s a take. Then the script girl might say to me, “Well they didn’t get these words right” and I would thank her and say, “Yes, but it looked real to me.” There is no improvisation in this, Tracy Letts wrote everything that is there and if you messed with it by improvising you would screw it up. Yet they could come to it fresh.

AJ: In fact I did this one little Arkansas thing because I did Come Early Morning right before Bug, in an accent on word and it is the one change Tracy Letts requested to be made to the film. I did a nasal vowel. Also we did rehearse and when we were hanging around the sets it was being built with our DP who is also our camera operator and that was helpful. The camera was dynamic it was hand held down low and it was in these funny positions. It became the third character in the room; it was a really living entity.

Were you nervous with anything in the script? Did you want to change anything in the script because it made you uncomfortable with the script? Did you have a fear that people would compare you to the person who played your character on stage?

AJ: I was really comfortable with the script and I wasn’t bright enough to me intimidated or scared that people might compare me to whomever did it on stage. That’s the excitement and the challenge like wow how do I get myself from where I sit right now with what I know and how I feel, to what the character knows and feels on the page in a three dimensional and dynamic performance. The process for me is simply about surrendering and being really willing. I would sit around before I went to Louisiana to do the film and joke around with my sister. I would give her a funny off-hand summary of the film, which of course is so bizarre and she would say, “hw are you going to do it?” I would say, “I have no idea.” I was confident at the same time that I could do it because it is a magical process. Again all it takes for me is that surrender and the willingness and then everything comes together.

MS: It is important to me to express just how willing Ashley was when she came to do this movie. There was no trepidation in how dedicated or focused she was on what she did. She was very respectful and professional about it.

AJ: I would never try to cut the material down to fit me. It is up to me to grow to try to fit the material.

Ashley what is the attraction for you southern gothic type films?

Michael: This is Oklahoma, the Midwest.

AJ: We did a small geography lesson and established that you’re scared (laughs). I love where I am from. I relate to stories form all ages and socio-economic classes. You know Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, was very much a southern film. I actually just read a script that takes place in East Tennessee that I am really interested in. It is an old archetype in me, the South and I hope that I continue to have a lot of opportunities to play characters who tell different parts of the Southern story.

BUG opens on May 25th, 2007









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