'Exorcist' Director Reveals the Struggle to Make the Classic Film

8:00 AM PST 04/26/2013 by As told to Gregg Kilday
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Courtesy Everett Collection

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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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