The cast and director of Bug recently assembled at a Manhattan hotel to answer some questions about the new horror-drama, which I saw and praised on this site. Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon star as two small-town Midwestern people whose lives intersect one night at her trailer-park home and the match-up creates a sort of perfect storm of paranoia, discomfort, and ultimately, terror. She fuels his pre-existing fears about being followed by a shadowy government agency, while he perversely fills for her a deep-seated need to be taken seriously and to be listened to. It's hard to explain the movie any more specifically than that -- you have to see it. William Friedkin had the press eating out of his hand, photographers wasted everyone's time by insisting on, like, ten minutes of posed photos, and Judd talked a lot about her process of mental preparation. Here is a sampling of the various questions and answers asked by all the assembled journalists -- enjoy.
Was it an easy decision, for you to sign on for this one?
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 was 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, 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's response to Michael. He was very clear and impassioned and firm that Michael was the actor for the film, as he had been unabashedly the actor for the play. I was really impressed with how Billy was just not willing to negotiate around that, and helped me be very comfortable talking with the financier of the film about how Michael was also who I would want to play with in the movie, so there was a lot that I really liked. There was a good backbone and positive energy surrounding the project, and my agent, when she sent the script to me to read, she said 'you might not want to go there' and immediately that intrigued me. I don't think she was intentionally using reverse psychology, but that's the affect it had and I think I became willing to take the part on before I had in fact read it. There's a part of me that gets really competitive with my own creativity, like 'Oh, you think I can't do that? Really ... '
Did you feel you were coming to the part at a disadvantage, with your co-star having done the play?
AJ: I felt I was at a real advantage, because Michael clearly knew the material inside and out, had a very well-developed and evolved relationship with the material. Billy had seen it, he responded so passionately, and we began acquiring the rights, and there was a tremendous and respect there, and I felt I was able to just slipstream in there.
Talk about pre-production, going into rehearsals.
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. They wanted us to let the space reflect our organic relationship with our characters. [To William] Remember how it was really messy at first, and I was like, 'excuse me, I'm not a slob. I'm a loner, but I'm not a slob.' It was a hovel at first, so we were in there a couple of days beforehand and cleaned all that out, and I was able to very carefully edit, choose, personally select everything in the room. That was pretty neat, so rehearsal was more about, like, the feeling, tone of the character in the film and then when it came time to shoot, we did our job.
This film is sort of Midwestern, but do you want to do more Southern stories?
AJ: I love where I'm from. I relate to stories from all ages and socio-economic classes. Ya-Ya was very much a Southern film. I just read a script, somewhat to my chagrin, that takes place in East Tennessee that I'm really interested in, and it's an old archetype in me, the South, and I hope that I continue to have a lot of opportunities who tell different parts of the Southern story.
What made you want to take on a character so unlike yourself?
AJ: That's the excitement and the challenge. How do I get myself from where I sit right now with what I know and how I feel, with what the character knows and feels on the page, in a very three-dimensional and dynamic performance. The process for me is simply about surrendering and being willing. I would sit around before I went to Louisiana to do the film and joked with my sister and give a funny, off-hand summary of the film, which is so bizarre, and she'd say 'how are you gonna do that?' and I'd say 'I have noooo idea.' But I had every confidence at the same time that I could do it, because it's a magical process and again, all it takes for me is the surrender and willingness, and it comes together.
Having done the play beforehand -- was that an advantage for you?
MS: It was an advantage to the extent that I felt like I knew how to tell the story from the stage, but I don't have as much experience in film obviously as either Ashley or Billy, so I was counting on them, particularly Billy, to help me along. It's very nerve-wracking ... with a play you get the benefit of getting to do it over and over again, change, work on things from night to night. In a film, you're just trying to get everything exactly right and then never do it again, so it's kind of nerve-wracking in that regard.
I would just like that it's important to me to express just how willing Ashley was when she came to do this movie ... there was no trepidation in how dedicated and focused she was in what she did. There was no 'I'd like to make it this way or that way ...' There was no, like, 'I'd like to make it this way or that way.' She was very respectful and very professional about it.
What was the atmosphere on the set like?
MS: There was kind of a matter-of-factness to it. I think a lot of that depends on how much time you have to do something. I think on these movies where you have six months to shoot there's more of this set culture cultivated, but when you have five weeks to tell a story like this, there's no time to monkey around. We had huge page counts every day. We were knocking out a lot of material. We'd do a really intense scene, and we'd go eat some carrot sticks, and come back ... 'you having fun?' 'yeah, I'm having a good time..' 'let's do another five pages.' So it was like, you just had to be pretty disciplined. There wasn't a lot of going to the discotechque.
How did you get the actors worked up to the level of intensity required for this film?
WF: As a director, you just try to provide an atmosphere for them to be comfortable in, that's it. The film took twenty days, I think twenty-one days, because the last day we had a fire on the set and we had to come back to shoot the last day. There's often a fire on the sets that I've filmed on. It's not intentional, but sometimes things go wrong. We had a fire, and so it was twenty-one days, but I just provided an atmosphere for them to create. You can hear directors say they did this or 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.
How do you compare this experience to The Exorcist and The French Connection?
WF: Well, The French Connection is the only exception to the rule that you have to have a great script. We had no script for The French Connection, but I knew the story and the guys who played the parts knew the story. They went out with these cops. Everything else I've done that's worked even moderately starts with a great script. This is the vision of the writer, Tracy Letts, and I'm simply a vessel through which it passed. It's his vision. Now I happen to be on the same page with him, or I wouldn't have done it, but it's his vision, his view of the world, which I think we all say 'there's some truth in what he's written.' It's a truth that ought to be shown and portrayed. Now, I'm not gonna tell you what I think that is, because like anything else, it's part of a broad landscape, but there is truth in what he's written. We responded to that. I recognized these people in myself. That's sometimes frightening to know. It's like Flaubert, when he's asked, 'Do you know somebody who you wrote as Madame Bovary?' and he said 'Madame Bovary is me.' When you do something as serious as this is -- we're not just playing with this kind of a story, we believe it -- you find a part of yourself.
Talk about finding the right people for the roles.
WF: Sometimes you see a difference in people's performance, based on what the screenplay is. Ashley is different people in different films, so is Michael. It's all about the screenplay. There are films made because of an actor or an actress -- they are only made because this person will be in the film. Those tend to not live very long -- they are just about the actor. But she changes with the role. That's what's wonderful. We were talking earlier about the alchemy that exists between a performer and a script, between a musician and a piece of music ... the music is nothing but notes on paper until a musician interprets it. This is true of Mr. Letts' play. As great as it is, if the actors were not inseparable from these roles, I don't think it would be as good as I believe it is.
Did you see a political dimension to the film?
WF: I'll give you my opinion. I didn't look a it as being political at all, but you have to say, recently, major polls have shown that 35 percent of all potential Democratic party voters believe that Bush knew about 9/11 before it happened, and 15 percent of all Republican voters that were polled. So there is that idea out there -- that people no longer trust the government, or believe that the government can or will protect them, which is completely different from the America I grew up in. Now, Michael's character, who voices a lot of these ideas ... he has to play that guy as believing in them. His character believes everything he says, and it's very convincing in a way. It's the conviction of someone with passion, and I think that's what Ashley's character responds to.
That's the central situation of the script. Sometimes people who become emotionally attached to someone else, either in a relationship like that or through marriage or something, take on the ideas of the other person and make them their own. That really is at the bottom of this story, to me, more than anything. How it's possible for someone who is lonely and vulnerable and has had difficulty in their lives, attaching themselves to someone elses' view of the world.
Would you ever consider putting on a stage production of Bug?
WF: I would probably do a production, if the cast was as stunning as this one, but just to do it again ... once you do something you sort of get it out of your system. If there was ever a sequel to this ... I don't think there could be. Each of these films is a process of self-discovery ... you get something from it and usually that's all you need ... I wouldn't go back and do a sequel to anything I've done, but I did a Pinter play on film and I'd love to do that play again somewhere, sometime.
What do you think attracts audiences to dark themes in general?
WF: What attracts people to art, in any form? Have you ever seen the black paintings of Goya? You have to go to the Prado to see them, but it's an enriching experience. There are a number of dark works that are intriguing to people, because they reveal the constant struggle of good and evil that exists in all of us. If they're serious -- I'm not talking about where a guy takes a chainsaw and cuts somebody up for two hours and then the movie is over. No, what you refer to as the dark side I refer to as ... if it does have validity beneath the surface, it's something that is dealing with the thin line between good and evil between all of us. If you consider it, the character who seems to be the darkest at first -- her ex-husband -- is the guy that's trying to save her. A lot of people don't think too much about that aspect of it, but what attracted me to this, aside from the great writing and good roles, is that aspect -- it shows the good and evil that exists in all of us. The constant struggle of our better angels.