'The Exorcist' Director William Friedkin: "I Didn't Set Out to Make a Horror Film"

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William Friedkin

The 80-year-old Oscar-winning director will be honored a day before Halloween at the staircase from the film in Washington, D.C.

William Friedkin never held back while making the The Exorcist. But he feared the movie would be banned and was surprised when the quintessential horror film received an R rating. After all, even Warner Bros., the studio behind the film, expected an X.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter just days before Halloween, the Oscar-winning director of what many consider to be the scariest movie ever made talks about modern horror films, his disdain for Exorcist sequels, his upcoming honor and more. 

"I thought it was a film about the mystery of faith ... but I didn't set out to make a horror film," says Friedkin, who turned 80 in August. "But by now, I have accepted that it is [a horror film]."

The 1973 movie about a head-spinning, green vomit-spewing, violent, foul-mouthed demon possessing a child has become a cornerstone of pop culture and key to the horror genre. Fans — including celebrities — regularly talk about the film with Friedkin, and almost 43 years after its release, it is still being celebrated. On Friday, Friedkin and Exorcist author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty will speak in Washington, D.C., when the infamous staircase from the film is commemorated with a large bronze plaque. 

"It means more than an Oscar," says Friedkin, who won an Academy Award for directing The French Connection and was nominated for The Exorcist, of the plaque. "That is something that will be up there in public forever."

Friedkin and Blatty will be joined atop the staircase in Georgetown for the commemoration by Mayor Muriel Bowser and Georgetown University president Jack DeGioia, among other city officials, Friedkin tells THR

The shot of priest Damien Karras — portrayed by stuntman Chuck Waters for the scene — taking the bloody tumble down the staircase at the end of the movie was just one of the many graphic scenes Friedkin was sure would get his film an X rating. 

"I never thought we'd get an R," Friedkin says. "Even Warner Bros. expected an X rating, which is why they pre-booked it in only 26 theaters for six months." The film opened on Dec. 26. It was slated to open sooner, but a long and grueling production schedule — much of which was related to the numerous special effects, all done mechanically — pushed the release back.

By some miracle, mostly thanks to Dr. Aaron Stern, the man who oversaw the ratings board at the time, the film was rated R after its initial submission. Friedkin, Warner Bros. and everyone else involved were floored, the director says. 

Stern personally called to share the news. "He says, 'Mr. Friedkin, I've just seen The Exorcist, and I think it's a great film. I'm going to give it an R ... I'm not going to ask you to cut a frame.' "

An X rating, as far as Friedkin was concerned, might as well have been a total ban, and apparently Stern agreed, he says. 

"I think this movie should be widely seen ... I don't think the film should be banned," Stern said, according to Friedkin. 

Though dark, violent and disturbing, The Exorcist is dear to Friedkin, who while not Catholic, made the film as "a believer."  

"Life is such a gift and and yet a mystery, and I don't think we make movies about that stuff anymore and that is what The Exorcist is about," he says. 

A horror film aficionado, Friedkin says they don't make them like they used to, but that is not to say a gem doesn't come along from time to time. 

The Chicago native has a short list of horror films he loves, which include PsychoAlien, Rosemary's Baby, the Swedish original Let the Right One In, Babadook, The Blair Witch Project and the first Paranormal Activity. Except one or two others, that's it. And don't get him started on the sequels to The Exorcist

"I find them unbearable," he says. As for a reboot, it's just a matter of time, he says. "There are very few films that have escaped that ax."

Friedkin says he's always wanted his work to deeply affect audiences, adding that the most degrading comment someone can make is to call one of his films "interesting." 
 
"That's damning with faint praise. I don't want it to be interesting, I want it to have a visceral impact," he says. "The Exorcist is special to me because it did have that impact and I think it continues to, to a great extent."
 
While watching his horror film for the first time in years on Monday, Friedkin says he was struck by a realization: "I honestly thought it was very well made film. This works. I don't ever remember saying that to myself. I thought, 'Jesus, this is a finely oiled machine.' I'm really proud of this." 
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