John McNaughton Talks Reteaming with Michael Rooker 30 Years After Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

About to embark on an adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the director ponders how true that is of Rooker.

In the autumn of 1985, I was looking for an actor to play the lead in my first film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. One day there was a knock at the door. I got up and opened it. There stood Michael Rooker, dressed in character. I couldn’t believe it. He was perfect. As I let him in, I said a little prayer to myself. “Oh God, please let him be able to act.” After the interview, Michael left. I waited until I felt he was out of earshot and called the line producer, Lisa Dedmond and said, “Book this guy, do whatever you’ve gotta do. He’s going to be a movie star.” It’s a story I’ve told a million times.

CUT TO: October, 2016. The film we made 30 years ago is being re-released. It’s been restored and remastered and is having a big premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival where it was first shown in 1986. Michael Rooker and I have remained friends over the years and see each other when I’m in L.A. or he’s in Chicago, but we’ve never worked together again since we made Henry. Pity.

Life is mysterious. A few weeks after the festival, I got a call from Michael. He asked if I’d ever read a short story by Flannery O’Connor titled “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Indeed I had, some years ago. O’Connor has long been a favorite writer of mine and I am a huge fan of the only film adaptation of her work I’m aware of, Wise Blood, a late-career masterpiece directed by John Huston.

We talked about the story and especially the character called the Misfit, an escaped killer on the run. Michael told me producer Ed Richardson, who owns the screen rights to the O’Connor story, had contacted him and asked him to play the Misfit. Michael called me because he wanted me to direct.

Ed Richardson sent me the screenplay and a binder of research materials. Benedict Fitzgerald wrote the screenplay. He also wrote the screenplay for Wise Blood, a good sign. The O’Connor story is only 15 pages and much new material had to be invented to flesh it out. A tall order considering Ms. O’Connor’s stature in the world of American literature. In the wrong hands, it could so easily become a travesty.

I always read screenplays with a great deal of trepidation. It’s rare to get a really good one. I remember many years ago getting a call from Martin Scorsese, after he’d seen Henry. He had really liked the film and had a script he wanted to send me to direct. He would produce. Of course, this was a dream come true, a chance for me to work with Martin Scorsese who was my idol, and once again I said a prayer to myself, “Oh God, please let me love this screenplay for I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t.” Fortunately the script was Mad Dog and Glory by Richard Price, and it was great.

And so once again I approached the script with caution and said more or less the same prayer. I loved the story but would I love the screenplay? Mercifully, I did.

I just listened to a recording of Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” at Vanderbilt University in 1959. I’d forgotten how funny the story is, however dark it may be. It’s so interesting to hear her play to the audience and get them to laugh at material they might be afraid to laugh at if read by another.

Thirty years ago, at the first public screening of Henry, I don’t remember anyone laughing. After the final fade to black, there was stunned silence. But last year at the Chicago International Film Festival screening, the audience laughed throughout.

Thirty years is a long time. Michael Rooker is currently appearing as blue-faced Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which was no. 1 at the U.S. box office for two weeks running and grossed more than $525 million in its first weekend of worldwide release. According to Paul Tassi, writing about the film for Forbes, headlined his review, “Michael Rooker, not Chris Pratt, is the true star of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” Not bad for a boy from Jasper, Alabama.

Michael Rooker and John McNaughton on the set of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

It always helps when your lead actor is on a hot streak. As we set out to make A Good Man is Hard to Find, Michael’s current visibility works in our favor. Everyone loves a winner in our business and finding the money becomes less difficult, if not exactly easy.

Next on the agenda is to cast the co-lead character of the Grandmother. The story ends with one of the darkest scenes in modern American literature. The Misfit and the Grandmother’s paths cross at the unlikely intersection of horrific violence and divine grace. Ms. O’Connor explained that in her stories, “violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.”

So who will play the Grandmother, a genteel southern woman of a certain age and era with the strength to face off with the Misfit? It’s a plum role for the right actress.

There are so many good choices I can think of. So many great actresses who have built a body of work over the course of their careers. It’s time to start polling the agents to see who might be interested.

One thing I’ve learned over the course of my career is that every project develops a persona or a spirit and if the spirit is good, it will attract the right people, as when Michael Rooker knocked on the door that fateful day back in 1985.

In my experience, one great actor attracts another and I’m curious and excited to see who will respond to the challenge inherent in the role of the Grandmother.

Grand Mother. It’s a powerful title if broken apart into two words. It loses the common connotation of a little old lady and takes on a magisterial dimension. The Grand Mother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” achieves the majesty bestowed by a moment of divine grace in the final scene of the story, in which the Misfit says of her, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

The first time I read the story, I was so shocked by the events of the final scene that I didn’t quite comprehend what the Misfit meant by that line. Not that it’s so difficult to understand, but more that I was so benumbed by what had happened immediately before the Misfit spoke it. In fact, it’s almost funny in the darkest sort of way, and at the same time profound.

“The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut in the preface to his volume of uncollected stories, Bagombo Snuff Box, and many would consider “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to be the greatest of her stories.

As it was immediately clear to me that Michael Rooker was the perfect actor to play Henry on that day 30 years ago, it is equally clear that he’s the perfect actor to play the Misfit today.

Thirty years is a long time. Too long. Time to go back to work because, well, a good man is hard to find.

John McNaughton has been directing films for 30 years, starting with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and including The Borrower, Mad Dog and Glory, Wild Things, and most recently, The Harvest.