“HE RESPECTS WRITERS,” playwright, screenwriter and actor Tracy Letts said of director William Friedkin. “No one in the movies has dealt with me as a writer so respectfully.”
Letts was onstage with actor Michael Shannon Jan. 9 at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, after a sold-out screening of Friedkin’s dark, disturbing psychological thriller, Bug. Originally released in 2007 and based on Letts’s play and a screenplay he adapted for Friedkin, the film tells the story of two lost, lonely people—played by Shannon and actress Ashley Judd—who meet, fall in love and then descend into a shared psychosis, convinced that tiny bugs engineered by the federal government are crawling out of their blood and overtaking their lives.
Friedkin, who made his name with The French Connection in 1971 (winning the Academy Award for Best Director) and The Exorcist in 1973, calls Bug a black comedy. But the film is an intense experience to behold, one that inspires visceral reactions in audiences.
Judd and Shannon both gave explosive performances for the film. Judd’s character Agnes, a drug-taking, booze-drinking waitress, is haunted by the disappearance of her son ten years earlier, when he was six years old. She is also being stalked by her dangerous, ex-con husband, played with menace by Harry Connick, Jr.
BLUE PERIOD: Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon's folie à deux reaches a terrifying climax in the movie Bug.
Shannon’s character Peter is a Gulf War vet who at first seems shy and tender, but gradually reveals his true, psychotic state. His paranoia transfers to Agnes and then feeds back and forth between them, building to a deadly climax. Most of the action takes place in the squalid motel room where Agnes lives on a desolate highway in Oklahoma.
Friedkin grew up in Chicago, and Letts and Shannon are both long-time veterans of the city’s theater scene. The play Bug premiered at a small theater in London in 1996 but was not produced in Chicago until 2001. In 2004, Friedkin saw a performance of Bug at a theater in Greenwich Village in New York. The next day, he called Letts.
“I didn’t believe it was him,” recalled Letts, who is now 54 years old. “I thought it was a joke. But Billy said how much he loved the play.”
Friedkin flew Letts to Los Angeles to talk to him about making the movie. “You worry about telling the story, and I’ll worry about how to shoot it,” Letts said Friedkin told him.
Bug was eventually filmed on a soundstage constructed inside a high school gymnasium outside of New Orleans. Billy fought for Shannon to play the role of Peter. Shannon was the only one in the movie who had also been in the play.
“And that’s how a couple of guys who were knocking around the non-Equity theater scene in Chicago wound up being part of this movie,” said Shannon, 45. “Bug is a love story,” he said, about “how intimate two people can become without destroying each other.”
Friedkin has a reputation for being mercurial and difficult, but “I was helped immensely by Billy, by his faith in me and his faith in the material,” Letts said. And while the film is mostly true to the play, “Bug and Killer Joe [Letts’s first play, which Friedkin made into a movie in 2012] look like Billy Friedkin movies to me, not like Tracy Letts movies,” Letts said. Friedkin’s “interests, obsessions and sick sense of humor come through.”
Much of Bug is shot from low camera angles, looking up from the floor at the standing actors, an effect that deepens the movie’s sense of skewed reality.
Bug opened in 2007 to terrible reviews and did poorly at the box office, Letts recalled. The film had been advertised as something akin to the Saw franchise—which of course, it is not.
“But the movie is going to find its audience,” Letts told the packed house at the Music Box, which had cheered as the closing credits rolled. “People will find their way to this film.”
Greg Beaubien’s first novel is the critically acclaimed psychological thriller Shadows the Sizes of Cities.