'Exorcist' Director: It Worked Because 'I Made That Film as a Believer' (Video)
William Friedkin reveals the film's star was an atheist, discusses how his belief in God helped make the movie a hit, and says he risked lives shooting "The French Connection" chase scene.
1973's The Exorcist, the first horror film nominated for best picture, earned $441 million because its creator believed in God, said director William Friedkin.
"I made that film as a believer," he said March 26, speaking to students at Loyola Marymount University's School of Film and Television. "What [the sequels] attempt to do is to defrock the story and to send the thing up."
But Friedkin revealed the man who played the demon-fighting title role, Max von Sydow, was an atheist.
During one scene, when his character, Father Merrin, is conducting the exorcism, "He says at the top of his voice, 'I cast you out, unclean spirit, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.' When we came to that moment, Max froze up. We had this false ceiling that had to crack. We had six ceilings made and we went through six takes that day and he couldn't do it. He couldn't get those words out. I stood there, kind of paralyzed. I ordered six more ceilings and we came back a day later. Same result. On the third day, I called Bill Blatty, who wrote the novel and the script. I said, 'Please look at these [takes].' He sat down in a room and he looked at them and he said, 'You're right. They're awful. He doesn't believe what he's doing.' We were going to rewrite the script and have von Sydow die in that moment. We went in to see von Sydow, who was a very simple man. I said, 'I'll bring Ingmar Bergman in here to direct this scene with you.' He said, 'No it's not a matter of Bergman. I just don't believe in God.' "
Friedkin told him: " 'Max, you played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told!' He said, 'Yes, but l played him as a man. I did not play him as the son of God or a man of God; I played him as a man.' And I blurted out, 'Well why don't you play this guy as a man? Just play him as a sickly priest trying to do his job.' A half-hour or so went by, he came out of his dressing room, dressed and ready."
The filmmaker said he never contemplated making a sequel, nor any other horror film: "I would never go back and do another Exorcist. Or anything with demonic possession or exorcism in it. I did it. I couldn't do it any better than that."
The director, whose other films include The French Connection, Sorcerer and Killer Joe -- which helped usher in star Matthew McConaughey's career rebirth as more than a handsome devil -- was taking part in The Hollywood Masters interview series, conducted by THR's Stephen Galloway. Others in the series include directors David O. Russell, Alfonso Cuaron, John Singleton, Judd Apatow, former Paramount chief Sherry Lansing, Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn and Hunger Games writer-director Gary Ross.
Friedkin worried about casting Linda Blair as the young girl who becomes possessed by a demon and who goes through the exorcism.
"I was in despair, in my office in New York where we filmed the interiors, and where we edited the film — it was at 666 Fifth Avenue, that was the address. My secretary buzzed me and said, 'There's a woman out here named Eleanor Blair and she doesn't have an appointment but she's brought her daughter with her who's 12 years old.' She walked in the door and I knew instantly she was the one. She was very cute, smart, adorable. Not beautiful, but really very giving and open and just a lovely young girl. I said, 'Linda, do you know what The Exorcist is about?' She said, 'Yeah I read the book. It's about a little girl who gets possessed by the devil and does a whole bunch of bad things.' And I said, 'Like what sort of things?' She said, 'Well, she hits her mother across the face and she pushes a man out of her bedroom window and she masturbates with a crucifix.' And I looked at her mother, who was smiling. I said, 'Do you know what that means? To masturbate?' She said, 'It's like jerking off, isn't it?' I said, 'Have you ever done that?' She said, 'Sure. Haven't you?' And so I hired her. Because I knew that she could handle this material with a sense of humor. And every day on the set I made it like a game for her." Friedkin says he is still in touch with Blair. "Of course. She's now  years old. She's done more films than I have."
A full transcript follows on the next page.