'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.
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.