'Exorcist' Director Reveals the Struggle to Make the Classic Film
With a new memoir and a 40th anniversary Blu-ray on the way, William Friedkin remembers how Warner Bros. refused to hire him, the fight to cast Ellen Burstyn and the shocking confession that got Linda Blair the part.
This story first appeared in the May 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I was in San Francisco on my last night of a press tour for The French Connection in 1971. I'd finished my interviews for the day and saw this package I had just thrown into my bag, with the name "William Peter Blatty" on the return address -- the manuscript for The Exorcist. I opened it and started to read the novel. After the first 20 pages, I canceled my dinner plans. I read the entire book that evening.
A few years earlier, I'd been at Blake Edwards' office to meet about directing a movie version of Peter Gunn. I didn't care for the script at all and said so in rather graphic terms. As I was leaving Blake's office to go to the parking lot at Paramount in front of the big sky-drop where Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea, along comes this fellow who introduced himself as Bill Blatty. I didn't know he'd written the script, but he said: "Thanks for doing that. We all think the script needs a lot of work, and I'd told Blake that. I appreciate it that you were honest, even if it cost you a job." We hadn't seen each other much for several years after that.
But when I called Bill and he told me some of the background of how The Exorcist had come about and that he'd made a deal at Warner Bros. to write the script and produce it, he asked me if I'd be interested in directing. He had not seen any of the films I had made before sending me the book, but the reason, he said, was: "You're the only director I've met who hasn't bullshitted me. I really appreciate that, and I think that's the kind of relationship I need to get this story made the way I'd like to see it made."
Then came a long campaign of Blatty fighting for me and the studio pushing back. Warners had sent the script out to three other prominent directors: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols. They all responded in the negative, for various reasons. Kubrick said, "I only like to develop my own stuff" -- he changed his attitude about that when he did The Shining, but that was his excuse. Arthur Penn had just done Bonnie and Clyde and said he didn't want to do anything else about violence, especially with a child. Nichols thought it was going to be impossible to pin this story on the acting of a 12-year-old girl. None of that stuff bothered me because, frankly, I was so overwhelmed by the power of this story, and I didn't stop to think about the problems involved with making it.
Blatty, who was very good on the air and [after Exorcist became a best-seller] had become something of a celebrity on the talk-show circuit, kept threatening Warners that he'd go on Johnny Carson and tell Carson's audience that Warners was going to hire a director he didn't want.
Then, finally, The French Connection came out and was an instant success. (Why? I don't know.) Blatty was called into a meeting at Warners with Ted Ashley, Frank Wells and John Calley, the triumvirate who ran the studio. "Is this about Friedkin?" Ashley asked, and Blatty said, "Yes." Ashley said, "Bill, we've seen The French Connection, and we want him more than you do now." That was the way it went.
Frankly, they thought Blatty and I were crazy and that there was nothing they could do with us. Once the ship had launched, they discussed getting rid of me, but it would have unraveled the whole project. The cast was mine. Jason Miller [who played Father Damien Karras] had never appeared in a film -- he was a playwright. I was hiring priests and doctors to play parts. I went to Iraq for three months to film the opening scenes, with no help from the State Department. I remember Ted Ashley saying, "If you go over there and you get killed, it's your own fault."
The studio wanted Audrey Hepburn, Jane Fonda or Anne Bancroft -- all very good actresses -- to play the actress whose daughter becomes possessed in the film. I would have loved to have any of them. But Audrey wanted to shoot the film in Italy, where she was living with her husband, an Italian doctor. Although I was a great admirer of the Italian filmmaking industry, that didn't feel like a good idea. Anne Bancroft was in the early stages of pregnancy and wanted to do it, but we would have had to wait a year. Jane Fonda, frankly, turned us down. She sent us a note saying, "Why would I want to appear in a piece of capitalist, ripoff bullshit?" A few months ago, I had dinner with her and I reminded her of that, and she said: "Wow, did I say that? It feels like another person." I had also met Carol Burnett at a party and thought she was a very intelligent person, not the silly dingbat she played so well on TV. I proposed her. Blatty thought it was a great idea, but the studio hated it and dismissed it.
Meanwhile, I was getting phone calls from Ellen Burstyn. She had had some decent but not starring roles, but there was something about her tone of voice that I responded to. I agreed to meet with her at a house she was renting in Beachwood Canyon. "Do you believe in destiny?" she asked me. "Yes, I guess so," I said. "Well, I'm destined to play this part," she said. And then we started to talk. She told me about her Catholic girlhood, how she left the church after a bad experience. But she had a quality which to me is the most important thing about an actor or actress, and that is intelligence. I felt she understood the story and was very keen to do it. So I lobbied for her, even though Ted Ashley said, "Ellen Burstyn will play this role over my dead body." But she became the last woman standing.
One of the models for the character of Father Merrin was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and priest, and if you look at the famous Philippe Halsman photograph of Teilhard de Chardin, you see Max von Sydow, or I did. At the time, Blatty said, "What about Paul Scofield?" and I said: "Great, but let me look into von Sydow. This guy is one of the greatest movie actors in the world." We sent him the script, and he immediately agreed. He had an innate warmth about him. His innate nature is apparent in all the characters he has played -- a man of great inner strength.
Thousands of girls auditioned for the role of Regan, but it seemed impossible. I began to think Mike Nichols was right and that you could not make the movie with a 12-year-old girl, so we started to audition young women who were 16 or 17 but looked younger. Then, one afternoon at my office at Warner Bros. in New York -- at 666 Fifth Ave., an address they have since obliterated -- my assistant buzzed me and said: "There is a woman out here named Elinore Blair with her 12-year-old daughter. Doesn't have an appointment, but wonders if you would see her." It wasn't my immediate reaction to say yes, but I said OK -- something like fate comes in. The moment she walked in the door, I knew she was the one. She was bright, effervescent. She had never acted before, but she wasn't afraid or intimidated.
So I said, "Linda, do you know anything about The Exorcist?" "I read the book," she said. So I asked, "Well, what is it about?" and she said, "It's about a little girl who gets possessed by a devil and does bad things." "What sort of bad things?" I asked. And she says, "Well, she hits her mother across the face, and she pushes a man out of her bedroom window, and she masturbates with a crucifix." I looked over at her mother, and her mother was smiling. I said, "Do you know what that means?" and she said, "Yeah, it's jerking off, isn't it?" and I said, "Have you ever done that?" and she said, "Sure, haven't you?" And that was it. I knew she would never be disturbed by any of it. I brought her back to L.A. to do a test with Ellen Burstyn, and there was an immediate rapport. I just cast my fate to the wind with that. Frankly, I became a surrogate father to her. In stills from the set, you will see us hugging. But I never treated her as a child. We trusted each other, and she was brilliant.
I made the thing like a big adventure game for her. There were times when I would say, "Now you are going to have to say these words, but I'm going to have another voice actually do them onscreen so it won't be you." She understood that, and I'd give her the piece of paper -- often that Blatty had written the night before -- where as the demon she is saying, "Your mother sucks cocks in hell," or something of that nature. And she would look at it and say, "Oh no, I can't say that," and we would go back and forth like that. I remember I put my face very close to hers and made it a game because I couldn't have her take all of this outrageous stuff seriously.
Almost everything that happened was part of the mystery of fate and gifts from the movie gods. I made the film with a strong belief in the veracity of the material and its deeper meaning. But I made it with a sense that if the world is ugly and violent and ultimately destructive, controlled by demons, you can get that out of The Exorcist, absolutely. On the other hand, if you believe there is a force for good that often, but not always, is able to push back against the forces of evil, you can get that from The Exorcist as well. And that was my original intention.
That's where Blatty and I slightly differed. He wanted the film to simply proselytize for the church. I think there is a pretty good balance between his approach and mine. Mine was not cynical, but neither was it meant to preach. Bill's primary intention was apostolic. Bill was not happy with the first cut that went out, made a fortune, with 10 Academy Award nominations and all that. He won an Academy Award for it. But we're, of course, very good friends now. We have the same sense of humor, the same view of life and human nature. Whereas he is an extremely religious, practicing Catholic, I'm not, but I strongly believe in the teachings of Jesus -- without subscribing to the principles of the Catholic Church.
We both shared the notion that The Exorcist was not going to be a horror film or a sendup but was going to be a film about the mystery of faith and the existence of good and evil in everyone. We never talked about this horror effect or that one. Having read a great deal of information about an actual exorcism case in 1949, I was convinced that what was claimed to have happened did actually happen. It was inexplicable in any other way as a case of demonic possession and exorcism. The '49 case was extremely well documented. So I set out to make the film more along the lines of a documentary, not a horror film. Over the years, I understand that people consider it a horror film, and that's where it lives in the public consciousness. But it has never been that to Blatty or myself.
William Friedkin's memoir The Friedkin Connection recently was published by Harper; the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., will host a special screening of The Exorcist in October; and Warner Home Video will release a 40th anniversary edition Blu-ray of the movie later this year. Max von Sydow will be honored at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood on April 27.