I was itching to pick Tracy Letts' brain about Bug long before he won the 2008 Pulitzer for his new play August: Osage County. The film flashed into theaters two years ago, flummoxing and enraging audiences who'd seen the trailer and looked forward to gorging on horror movie junk food, only to be served a full-course meal they weren't hungry for. I was entranced and repulsed by Bug, and everyone I've watched it with has been similarly impressed. So what the hell happened?
I spoke to Letts at length about this and more. An actor as well as a playwright, he has an natural appetite for horror and tragedy, and of course the easy humor that by necessity accompanies both. While Bug's off-Broadway run is ancient history, you can still catch his Pulitzer-winning play August: Osage County on Broadway if you hurry. You think parasites and conspiracy theories are scary? Wait till you meet the matriarch of the Weston family.
TB: I’d planned on just talking to you about horror, but your recent Pulitzer Prize is sort of the elephant in the room. What has the last month been like? Do you feel a lot of pressure now?
TL: It hasn't really affected me; to receive the Pulitzer is very confirming. People who talk to me about the play I’m working on now say, “You must really feel a lot of pressure!” But it’s really the opposite. The pressure is off. It feels great.
TB: While you were adapting Bug from stage to screen, did you find any particular movies inspiring?
TL: I don’t know that I found other movies "inspiring." Certainly there’s a tradition of the paranoid movie, and that’s a very small niche-- you know, like The Conversation or even The Parallax View. Bug is such a bizarre little dude, a bizarre animal, a very strong cup of coffee, and I never saw it [becoming] a movie. The whole thing was staged on a single set, just a few actors. It was really Mr. Friedkin who said, “I think this is a film, and I also think you don’t have to do much to it in order to make it a film-- just a straight filmic adaptation within these claustrophobic parameters.”
TB: So he'd seen the play?
TL: He saw the play in New York, and called me. Obviously I was delighted-- I mean he’s William Friedkin. I was very excited to work with him, he’s a very geneous collaborator, and he’s become a good friend. I think the world of him.
TB: Bug is horrifying on many levels, but it was sold to audiences as a hardcore horror film—which wound up confusing a lot of people and interfered with how it was received. I found this very unfair to the film and to your script. Care to comment on this?
TL: It was the worst campaign in the history of motion pictures. It was just an absolutely abysmally conceived and executed plan. When they first talked about opening the thing on 2000 screens, Bill and I both said, “You’re crazy! Why would you do that? This is not that kind of movie, this is a small picture, you need to open this in New York and LA, and put it on the festival circuit to let it find its audience. But they had this plan in mind to open on all these screens and con kids into thinking it was Saw or Hostel to bring them into the theater. As a result, people who would have enjoyed the film didn’t go see it, because they were put off by the marketing campaign, and kids who were enthusiastic to see the movie advertised were furious. “Why are these people talking?” They didn’t understand that there would be these long scenes of dialogue, so they felt cheated. Because they were cheated!
I was very upset at the time-- but you know, after a little time goes by, people don’t remember marketing campaigns. Eventually this movie will find its audience. And I think it has already started to-- I‘ve started to hear from those people who see the thing on DVD and say, “Wow, I don’t know how I missed this.”
TB: Do you think theatre or movie audiences are harder to shock nowadays?
TL: I guess movies are harder to shock people with; we’ve pretty much given them everything we can give them. There’s something about the visceral experience of seeing live performers that movies will never be able to capture, but then you also can’t exactly build huge oil derricks in the theatre either, so they’re just two different experiences. I think people are more willing to go to live theatre not knowing what they’re going to see. We don’t do that with movies.
TB: Do you have plans to write any more screenplays?
TL: I believe August: Osage County is going to become a movie at some point, and I’ll be intrigued to see how that goes. I love movies, I’m a movie buff-- I have a stupid DVD collection that has gotten out of hand. So I’m interested in working with film. I don’t know if you’ve ever spent any time on a movie set, but they’re just the most boring places on earth, so that’s one of the advantages of being a writer at least.
TB: Can you tell me why you love horror or think it’s important?
TL: Oh-- I don’t know! I don’t know that I can! [Laughs.] I think the reason I can’t is that it appeals to a sort of primordial instinct in people, so it’s tough to identify what it is I like about it-- but I like pretty much everything about it! I love cheesy horror as much as I love well-made horror, so I’m pretty democratic in my love at least.
TB: Have you found any recent movies to be satisfyingly scary?
TL: No! [Laughs.] The simple answer is no. I was into J-horror when that started to appear, then they all got remade and watered down. Something always reignites (horror) though, just when you think it’s played out. Wait-- the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, of all things! I thought that was really pretty good. I don’t know that here’s acres of social commentary, but it was a pretty good scare.