'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.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Hi everyone. I'm Stephen Galloway and welcome again to The Hollywood Masters filmed on the campus of Loyola Marymount University. I'm really thrilled to have our guest, one of the great American film directors. I don't know if he agrees with that assessment, we'll see. I think of his work as defined by paranoia, darkness, and I think the very way he uses the camera is completely unique to him. All these things he may disagree with. He's done classic things that have become completely part of our culture. We all know The Exorcist, The French Connection, Sorcerer, To Live and Die in L.A., recently some very dark films, and we're going to show you an excerpt from one of them later, Killer Joe. He's also recently written his autobiography, The Friedkin Connection. I've now read it two and half times. It's really terrific. I'm going to do something I haven't done before. I'm going to read you something from the opening before we bring him out. He talks about his mistakes. He talks about having the chance to get a free [Jean-Michel] Basquiat painting and throwing it away; having the chance to produce Star Wars and saying no; having the chance to be an owner of the Boston Celtics, and turning that down. Then he says this: "I've burned bridges and relationships to the point that I consider myself lucky to still be around. I never played by the rules, often to my own detriment. I've been rude, exercised bad judgment, squandered most of the gifts God gave me, and treated the love and friendship of others as I did Basquiat's art and Prince's music. When you are immune to the feelings of others, can you be a good father, a good husband, a good friend? Do I have regrets? You bet." I'm delighted to welcome William Friedkin.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Thank you. Thanks a lot. I have to tell you that I have bronchitis tonight. So if I go off on a coughing or a sneezing jag, I hope you'll understand. It's like an epidemic of it out there. I've had this now this is the fourth week. I have to tell you, I don't know if you're aware but, I gave a commencement speech here about ten years ago and I was given an honorary doctorate by Father Lawton, who was formerly the head of the school. So you could call me Dr. Friedkin. You can, too.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: That sounds like something from The Exorcist.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Dr. Friedkin?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It does. Let's go back to the beginning. You say in your book you did not have success in your DNA.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Let me have a sip of this. I know this won't play on the streaming cast, but nevertheless. Rich, hot, steaming, delicious, flavorful tea. No, there was no art in my family, no music. My mother and father were immigrants from the Ukraine and they came over at the turn of the 20th century during one of the many pogroms that took place there. And there was no literature, or art, or music in my family at all. By the time I came of age to see movies--you know, not films, movies--it was just pure entertainment to me; nothing to do with cinema or art or anything like that. Just pure entertainment. I'm not sure that's not the best way to view a film anyway — as simply entertainment.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: When did that change?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: When I saw Citizen Kane. I was somewhere under twenty, maybe seventeen or eighteen years old. Someone told me that there was this great revival of a real film called Citizen Kane playing at a revival theater in Chicago. I put off seeing it. Then I saw in the newspaper that it was going to close in a day or two. So I went to see it at this little revival theater on the near north side. I was just stunned by the experience. It's, I'm sure, what happens to painters when they first stand in front of a Vermeer or a Rembrandt. I first experienced film as art. And I stayed in the theater for five or six showings that day. And I've since seen it hundreds of times. Because to me, it's still a quarry for filmmakers in that everything about it is as well done as can be done; I'm talking about the acting, writing, direction, cinematography, editing, the design, everything. It's a quarry for filmmakers in the way that James Joyce's Ulysses is a quarry for writers. Or, in my case, [Marcel] Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. Which I read continuously.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I didn't know that.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Well you don't know everything Stephen. That's why I'm here. It is for me to know and you to find out. Now you got to squeeze this stuff out of me, I'm not just going to throw it out there.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: We didn't squeeze. That came so easily. Did you read it in French?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I did. I starting reading it… I was married to a very famous French actress at one time named Jeanne Moreau. And she introduced me to Proust in French. Not to him, the gentlemen himself.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It would be difficult.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Yeah, he had long since left this mortal coil, but there is now a great new translation by a woman called Lydia Davis. I had started reading the English translation, the original one by a man called Scott Moncrieff. It's a little bit flowery compared to the way Proust actually wrote. Proust wrote a lot simpler. The Lydia Davis translation reflects that. It's a great experience.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Have you read Proust, any of you?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Is there anyone here who has tried to read Proust? I strongly recommend it. Have you? How far have you tried? Fifteen pages.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: By the way, you know that, I don't know that we've ever discussed this, but there have been attempts to film it. [Luchino] Visconti, who is maybe my favorite filmmaker, which you may not have known, tried to make a film, had the most wonderful screenplay written by one of the great Italian screenwriters, Suso Cecchi d'Amico. But couldn't get the money. Joseph Losey hired Harold Pinter to write it as a published screenplay. Both screenplays are published, one only in French, but couldn't get the rights from [Luchino] Visconti and it ended up being a film by Volker Schlöndorff.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: And it was called Proust in Love or something, the English title. But, and it was Swann's Way, largely, the first of six volumes, of seven volumes. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in film. Proust's writing is extremely cinematic. You have to work at it. You know, it's not going to lay down in front of you. You've got to give yourself to it, which I think is the mark of a great film. To me a great film is one that makes me think about it afterwards. The first thing I get from great cinema is, I'll say to myself, self, as I often address myself.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Doctor Self?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Doctor Self to you and you. I'll say, what in the hell have I just seen? That occurred to me with Citizen Kane, and then a film like Blowup, and Belle de Jour. Have you ever seen Belle de Jour? When I first saw that and it ended, and the way it ended, I thought, what in the hell is this? But I couldn't get it out of my mind and I still haven't been able to after thirty or forty years. The same with [Michelangelo] Antonioni's Blowup. And both films sort of blur the line between reality and illusion.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Well don't all films, to some degree?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No. Most films are probably worthless in that regard.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Yours too?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Oh, absolutely. Beyond a shadow of a doubt.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Well I don't agree with that.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No but we're talking about works of art. We're not talking just about a movie that's playing this week somewhere.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Even though you did say three minutes ago that entertainment was a good way of judging a film.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: It might as well be because…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You shifted.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: But if you're going for anything else, other than entertainment today, the chances are you may be disappointed. And that's with the onset of digital cinematography and computer generated imagery where they can now do anything. And that's part of the problem. We can do anything. And I think the very best films were made when they had very little money but great invention, and great powers of invention, and everything was not at hand.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Have you changed your mind about a film?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: In what respect?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: That you hated then loved, or the other way around.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Well I don't see a lot of new films today, to be very honest with you.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Ever?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Seldom. Seldom--maybe I see six or seven a year. My wife was up here a few weeks ago, I guess — Sherry Lansing — is still a great fan of the movies. I used to be, but certainly not as much anymore. I've taken now to watching a lot of the shows that you can stream or binge view on television, the cable shows, or stuff on Netflix or stuff like that, I think is more interesting than most of the films.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But don't you think that it's interesting that some great films, is that you come to them, maybe with rules and formulae that you have in mind, and what makes them great is that they break those rules? And I think of some of the films that have most marked me is the ones I didn't initially always like.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Well, I may differ from you in the sense that I don't come to a film with any rules. I just want to be swept away. I simply want to be overwhelmed by the ideas, by the performance, by everything else in combination. Because film is the most collaborative art form there is. And you know why? You want to be a painter, all you've got to do is fill a blank canvas yourself. If you want to be a writer all you needed was a blank sheet of paper and a typewriter. Now you don't even need the paper if you have a computer. But you create this work of art, you the painter or the writer. But in film we call it "The Five Ton Pencil". You're working with literally hundreds of people; people who have great skills and who contribute so much to every film that's ever been made—
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And yet a great filmmaker puts his stamp on the film. How?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Not necessarily. Look, it's possible, I suppose for a student of film, a film historian, to look at a piece of film and say Orson Welles directed that. Or possibly Federico Fellini. But Joseph Mankiewicz? That would be a lot different. Or even [Luis] Buñuel's film of Belle de Jour, which to me is a masterpiece, a great, great work of cinematic art. And yet it's filmed so simply. But behind it, behind the simplicity and the lack of style, the lack of technique, is the sensibility of Buñuel, one of the creators of surrealism. There's no more surrealistic film imaginable than Belle de Jour, or if you really get into it, more disturbing than that. It's way out on the edge. It's about human desire. And it's about the difficulty of achieving a sexual relationship between a husband and a wife and the extent to which they both go to make that work. And, boy, it's graphic without being upsetting. Although there are parts of it that could upset people.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It's not very graphic. One of the things that makes it so great is his Buñuelwho takes what would, in somebody else's hands, be a tawdry subject
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Yeah.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: …and strips it of those elements. When he made that film his friends said, are you out of your mind? This is pulp fiction. Not that Pulp Fiction. A different pulp fiction. Why are you doing this? And what he did, he takes a story of the woman of the bourgeoisie who works on the side as a call girl and he took all sexuality out of that.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: You know what's happening though. You know what's going on with her at all times.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But he does it in such a way, that the very thing that subject is about is not what you feel in the film and that's what gives it this disconnect that makes it a great film.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Well, I won't dispute that. But I still do not believe that it is so profoundly stylistic that you could look at that, even having seen Buñuel's other films and said, this is definitely a Buñuel film. Whereas you can with Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, even films that Orson Welles didn't direct but just appeared in you can see his touch in The Third Man, which he was an actor in for a brief period of time. But the whole film reeks of Orson Welles, even when he's not on screen. So there are great stylists.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you ever meet Orson Welles?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No I never met Orson Welles. And I'm glad I didn't.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Why?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Because I heard he was a miserable son-of-a-bitch.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: It wouldn't be too good for two such people —
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I was going to say —
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: — to meet over a meal.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: — are there people going around saying the same about William Friedkin?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Probably. Undoubtedly. You might, perhaps, after this evening.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I told you, you got to keep me awake 'cause I'm on antibiotics. You're doing a good job.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Are you falling asleep? I want to go back to what you said about rules.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I don't have any rules. I want to be… I don't want answers. I don't want a film to give me answers, only questions. And the films I just named, like Blow Up — Blow Up is like a murder mystery with no solution. There is no solution and after you've seen the film — how many of you have seen it? Let me see your hands if you've seen it. Yeah. After you've seen the film, you don't know what the hell to make of this, except you've been totally involved if you've given yourself to it. The same with Belle de Jour. When it's over, the last shot, what the hell have I just seen? That's what I'm looking for. And I don't get it a lot today. You get other things, certainly.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: When have you have it recently?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: What's a film that really captured…? I love the film Prisoners. I thought that's the film last year that moved me the most in all respects: performance, direction, cinematography, the story which ends on an ambiguous note, it's filled with surprises. It's very involving and very disturbing. And that's what I look for. I no longer expect to find the kind of comedies that I once loved, like The Marx Brothers, or even The Three Stooges, or early Woody Allen. Those are comedies. But you don't go to Woody Allen anymore for comedy. He's basically not doing the kind of slapstick satires that he once did. He's doing more serious films.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Does it bother you when you read about Woody Allen and his personal life? Does that impact how you view his films?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I don't read about Woody Allen's personal life. I've known Woody Allen for fifty years. And I think I know about as much about him as there is to be known. I'm not talking about specific incidents in his life. I don't know anything about that. I know what you're alluding to. But that seems to me to be, I don't know, a he-said she-said kind of situation.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But is there a point where morality gets in the way? Leni Riefenstahl: great director or not?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: She made at least one great film, Triumph of the Will, which is Nazi propaganda. But it's a great film as a piece of filmmaking. Do I agree with what she's propounding? Absolutely not. Nevertheless it's a very powerful film. In its day in the early 1930s it influenced a great many people, millions of people, to follow this little madman into hell.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So I'm always troubled by this thing — is it a great film if morally what it's putting across is so antithetical to- —
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: To what?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: — to —
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: To our standards? To yours? Or mine? Or his?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Yes?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And by the way I'm all in favor of films making you question morality.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Ah, we've made some progress.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: We're going to make more because we're coming back to you.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Look, it's all subjective. Something that you may — I may get a message from these flowers here that is totally different from the art director's intention.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: They're plastic.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: They are plastic and it looked to me —
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you know?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Yes, of course. But it looked to me —
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: No you didn't, you thought they were real. Come on.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No, I thought it was a funeral. I thought somebody died.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Especially when I saw you walk in all dressed in black.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It's blue.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Is it blue?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Yes, that's your sense of darkness.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I must be getting older.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: We're all getting older and at exactly the same pace.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I don't want to impose my morality on anybody in an audience or anywhere else.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Yes you do because when you made —
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No I don't.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Hold on, because here's the proof. The first thing that put you on the map —
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Which map?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: My little map.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No, start defining these things. What map are you talking about? I didn't know there was a map.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: This narrow-minded audience map—the Hollywood map. You made a doc. You're a young man, you're coming out of high school, you're not going anywhere, you get a job for a television station and you hear about a guy on death row and you decide to make a documentary about him, The People vs. Paul Crump. At the time you believed he was innocent. But you admit in your book that it benefitted you to believe that.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: You could put it that way. I put it differently in my book as I will put it to you now, Stephen. I believed, because this man as a result of my film--he was going to the electric chair—and when I met him, he had been at least seven years, maybe nine years on death row. And when I met him, I did believe in his innocence, but more importantly, I believed that his life was worth saving. As did the warden of the Cook County Jail in Chicago where he was. The warden had executed two people before Paul Crump and he didn't want to execute a third. So he allowed me to make this documentary on death row. As a result of the documentary, the Governor of Illinois--who later went to prison himself on criminal charges, his name was Otto Kerner, he was a big figure in the Democratic Party and on a short list to be a presidential candidate—he was the governor of Illinois and he pardoned Paul Crump to life imprisonment without possibility of parole as a result of seeing my film. And sent me a note to that effect. He told me that his parole and pardon board had voted two-to-one to let this guy go to the electric chair. So then Crump stayed in prison for, I don't remember how many years, at least twenty more, maybe more. Finally another governor, another parole and pardon board that had no memory of this incident, decided to let Paul Crump out of prison with the proviso that he confess to having committed the murder. And he did. He confessed. So the point in my book where I say, am I now absolutely certain of his innocence? No I'm not. But that wouldn't matter to me. He was a life worth saving. I think it's incumbent upon us--
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Well, let me read the evidence.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: The evidence of what?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Your own words.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Please, you're going to love this.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You know I admire Billyso much, that's why it's fun to do this 'cause I could give him a hard time.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Go ahead. And you be the judge of whether I contradicted myself.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: "Was it that the state wanted its pound of flesh, or was he in fact guilty of murder? I tend to believe now that he was, but in 1962 I had to believe he was not." But here's where you go on to say: "A more troubling question for me is whether I would have made the film if I knew then that he was guilty. I was looking for a subject to film; he was looking for a get-out-of-jail card. I don't dwell on the question because it would mean we both gamed the system. Paul got his freedom, I got my career."
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Isn't that great? Jesus Christ! Who wrote this?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: By the way, it's so well written.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: It is. It's stunning. I'm absolutely flabbergasted.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It is. But it does contradict what you just said.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No it doesn't.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How ambitious were you?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I do say in there, I'm now convinced that he may have been guilty. He may have been guilty. So what? His life was spared. That to me, is… I was an instrument of God in my view in saving his life.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you believe in God?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Absolutely. I believe in God. I don't belong to any particular religion, but I believe in the teachings of Jesus as they're set down in the New Testament. I don't feel close to God in either a synagogue or a church or a mosque. But I can't help but believe in the teachings of Jesus. I think they're almost impossible to live up to, but they are a wonderful ideal. I've always sort of inherently believed that, Stephen, without any evidence. But what my life is about, what The Exorcist film is about is the mystery of faith. That mystery and all of life has been a great mystery to me. I raise the possibility there forty-five or fifty years after I made that film, that this fella whose life I saved from the electric chair, may have been guilty. He confessed to the crime in order to get out of prison. I think I would have done the same thing. If I was in his shoes and I had done as he had, forty years in a maximum-security prison, I would have confessed to any damn thing to get out.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But that's not the point.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Well what is the point?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: The point is that you say, Paul got his freedom--
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: You're going to read it again? I like it when he reads it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: [LAUGHTER] By the way, it's great to read. It was very well written.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Oh, it's good stuff.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It is and that's a great story. You got your career. It put you on the map.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: What map?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: That we were talking about.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I wasn't in Hollywood. I made that film in Chicago.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: By the way, tell them not me.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Well I am talking to both of you. Unfortunately, this chair is angled toward you.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: We can turn it.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: And if I turn to the farthest group of people on the left, I'm off mic. Other than that, I can go like this and talk. Oh, that's good.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It led to you getting documentary work for David Wolper, who then was a big television guy. It led to your making your first films. And led to your directing for Alfred Hitchcock and you did meet Alfred Hitchcock.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Yes I did.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Tell us about Alfred Hitchcock.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Well I'll tell you about the two very brief meetings I had with the master. And by the way, all you need to do is see Hitchcock's films and study them and you'll catch on how to be a filmmaker. Not simply the suspense films, but he was a master at handling every kind of scene, love scenes, double entendre, humor, some of his stuff is very funny, even within the darkest of his films like Psycho. I was invited by a man named Norman Lloyd, who produced The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He's still with us, thank God, he's ninety-nine years old. And he was an actor, he worked with Orson Welles and Hitchcock. He worked in the Mercury Theater for Orson Welles and he worked on Hitchcock's films and later he was one of the producers of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which was at one time called Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was on for ten years. When it came around to the last episode, it was going to go off the air, one of my agents at the William Morris office showed that documentary that I made about this gentleman on death row to Norman Lloyd. Norman Lloyd said, this film has more suspense in the first ten minutes than anything we've done all year. He invited me to come down and to direct the last episode of the The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. And it happened to be a script that was written by a guy who became a very fine screenwriter named James Bridges, and there's a theater at UCLA, the movie theater is called The James Bridges Theater now. Bridges later went on to write The China Syndrome and a couple of other really good films that I can't recall at the moment, but they were very strong in their day and memorable. He wrote the script that I did, which was called "Off Season". It was an hour TV show. The actor in that show was John Gavin, who is the guy in Psycho who winds up taking down Norman Bates [Anthony Perkins]. If it wasn't for John Gavin, people would still be checking in to The Bates Motel. But John Gavin had to approve me because he was in that show. We were filming at The Bates Motel itself on the lot at Universal [Studios]. He looked at my documentary and he approved me to direct this and I did. And I had a really rough time with it 'cause I didn't know what I was doing. I had no idea what I was doing. Norman Lloyd said, "I'm going to give you one piece of advice," which I immediately proceeded to ignore. He said, "Because you're young—you're really a kid—and all these guys are veterans on this crew" — the camera man had won the Academy Award for photographing The Country Girl with Grace Kelly—very experienced crew. He said, "So what you have to do is you've got to win their confidence immediately. So choose, when you're blocking your shots:" — and I wondered what the hell he was talking about because I never blocked shots — he said, "When you're blocking your shots make sure you choose the simplest set up you can do and get it one take. If it's a close up of a glass of water that you have to make, shoot that first, do it in one take and move on. And then the crew will be convinced that you know what you're doing." And I thought, that sounds like a load of shit. So I set up a six-page shot that went across two sets. You didn't do six-page shots in those days, you did two or three lines at a time, then covered it then moved on. But I did this shot and time was going by and going by. There were murmurs on the set. But I got through that day and the next day Norman Lloyd saw the dailies on that shot and he came down to the set and I sort of have peripheral hearing and I was standing there blocking another shot with the actors. And the cameraman was about six or eight feet behind me and I heard Norman Lloyd come up and whispered to him. He said, "Jack, that shot that you guys made, it's fantastic, it's just beautiful." And the camera man that fought me on it, who said, "Geez, kid, let's just break this up so we can get the hell out of here," he said to Norman Lloyd, he said, "You like that shot?" [Norman Lloyd] said, "I loved it." He said, "It was my idea." And that was my first lesson in Hollywood.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Good lesson.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: But about two days later, Norman Lloyd brought [Alfred] Hitchcock to the set to meet me. It was as though the waters had parted. Hitchcock sort of waddled into the studio surrounded by a retinue of men in black suits but white shirts.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Blue suits.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No. these were black. It was the Universal couture and it was the style of dress at Black Rock, which was what Universal was called. And they come in with Hitchcock,and Norman Lloyd brings Hitchcock over to me, and I had on a t-shirt and probably these same pants. Or something very much like them. Hitchcock came over without a smile on his face. He put out his hand like this. It's as though I was supposed to kiss it or something. I took his hand and it was wet, sort of like a wet fish. And I said, "Oh Mr. Hitchcock, what a great honor it is to meet you. I've learned so much from your films." And he said—he didn't even acknowledge that—he said, "Mr. Friedkin, usually our directors wear ties." And I thought he was kidding me. I said, 'Well I guess in my haste to get down here — " By the time I had finished the sentence he had left. I didn't see him again until four years later. It was four years later at the Directors Guild of America Awards. I had won that award for The French Connection. The banquet was at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It wasn't in an auditorium like this, it was all tables and people had drinks and dinner and then they put on an award show. And while I'm up there receiving this award, I see Hitchcock at the table right down front with his whole family and all of his agents and I saw him and when I finished my acceptance speech, I had on a rented tuxedo with one of those snap-on bowties, and I walked down the center steps instead of to the side and I went right over to Hitchcock's table and I had this award. And I snapped my tie at him. And I said to him, "How do you like the tie now, Hitch?"
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: He didn't smile. Nor did he remember. But I did. I carry that with me for four years.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: But I worship this guy as a filmmaker, you know? He has written the book. It's that simple.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I want to show us a clip from The French Connection. You know the clip. This is the most extraordinary car chase. We're just going to watch part of it then we're going to talk about it.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Where do you see it?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Well you can watch there.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Oh, it's up there. Oh, I see.
[CLIP THE FRENCH CONNECTION]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: That's really, it's pure filmic experience. You couldn't do that in another medium.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: That's true. I think I said that in my book.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I know I heard it somewhere.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: That's true. I couldn't tell you the page this time. So here's one of things that's interesting about this film. First of all, you'd done four films before that.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Yeah.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Some pretty good films too. And then, here you are, in your early thirties and you can't get a job, for what? Two years?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Something like that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What did you think of your life at that point? Did you think, I'm never going to work again?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No, you just keep going. You just keep plowing ahead. That's my advice to all of you, whatever your ambitions may be. The young woman who interviewed me for the LMU Magazine asked me, what would you say is the most important thing for a young filmmaker, what quality should they most have? And I said, endurance. And a belief in yourself. With that goes the ability to take a hit. 'Cause you're going to get it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But you lost that belief in yourself at some point.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Not really. I knew that I had lost touch with the public, and by extension the critics. But I've never lost belief in myself to this extent. I have never not believed that I could visualize a film in my mind's eye and not go out and make it. If I ever reach that point where I didn't think I could realize the film that I have in my head I would have to stop at that point. And I'm not ready to stop on my own. It's going to take that act of God to stop me. If that happens in the near future, you'll remember I said it here.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Then these could be real, you know. My memorial. I took the hits. There's that line in Frank [Sinatra's] "My Way". "I took the blows and carried on and did it my way."
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I've never liked that song.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: That's the national anthem of America.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Well, there you go. So, here's what's interesting beyond what you went through at that early age, not being able to work: all the things you wanted in this film, you didn't get. You wanted Jackie Gleason for the leading role.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: True.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You wanted Francisco Rabal for the role that Fernando Rey made famous. You weren't interested in an unknown actor named Gene Hackman.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: True.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Working with him and you weren't getting the performance because he was uncomfortable. And yet that film is as good as anything made in the 1970s.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: It's weird isn't it? It's pretty strange that it turned out that way. And that's all I can say as a spectator. Now, of course, these chase scenes that they do today are far more elaborate than that. The only difference is, we had to do everything you see and they don't anymore. They can generate it on a computer. But it looks pretty great, I'd say—the chases I see now. But all the stuff on the street, I had no permission to do any of that. For most of those shots, we drove the car at 90 miles an hour for twenty-six blocks with no crowd control, no traffic control. The only thing we had on top of the car, which you couldn't see when we made the point of view shots, was we had a police gumball on top, a siren, and a flashing light. Other than that, we just blew through twenty-six blocks of traffic at 90 miles [per hour]. Could you imagine trying to get permission to do that? I couldn't.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You couldn't to get some of your crew to do it. You did it yourself.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I made the over-the-shoulder shots because the director of photography and the camera operator were family men, they had kids, and I was single. And it was the stuntman who drove the over-the-shoulder shots, a guy named Bill Hickman. On the floor next to me was an on-duty New York City policeman named Randy Jurgensen. He's told the story many times himself. He was there, all padded up, as I was. He had a badge in case we got in trouble.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But you could have killed somebody.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Possibly, yes.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you know that at the time?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Yes.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Was that the right thing to do?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No, I wouldn't do it today.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: At what point did you cross a line where you say, I'm not going to do this any more?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I guess I became an adult. I sort of matured.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: At what point did you become an adult?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: To the extent that you see me now, and no further. No, I didn't care. I have always valued human life and my honest feeling is that there is not one single shot in any movie ever made--and I'm not exaggerating when I say this--that is worth a squirrel getting a twisted ankle and yet, what I had then to compensate for that was total belief that nothing was going to go wrong, that I could pull this thing off. And it was only that faith, that belief, and my belief in my colleagues that they could pull this off with me. That's all. Given that faith, which I may have even further, I would never do such a thing, anymore, no matter what.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Let's go back to the squirrel and the twisted ankle. Do you really believe that?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Yes. Do have someone's life endangered? For a shot in a movie?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Abstracting that, to art in general. The Taj Mahal, would you say the same thing of that?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: It's a beautiful building. Did people die in the making of it? I suppose they did. They died in the building of the Temple of Solomon. Is it worth? I don't know. You'd have to ask their families that question.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But I'm asking you.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I would say no.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Not one life.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: At this point in my life.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But you hesitate.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Look, here's why—at this point in my life: Vincent van Gogh gave his life to his art and got nothing back in return. He died without having sold a painting. These paintings today sell for $125-$150 million. He couldn't sell one. His brother Theo was the dealer for the Impressionists, and he sold a lot of Impressionists, but he couldn't sell a Vincent [van Gogh]. Why? And now why today? And Van Gogh died, I believe, at the age of forty-four. He only painted for ten years. You guys remember Johnny Carson, who used to do The Tonight Show? Or is that before your time? I remember one night coming home. I was living in New York and I turned on the TV set. Johnny Carson was on, he was doing one of his monologues. And that was the night that a Vincent Van Gogh painting sold to a Japanese collector for $85 million. Here was Johnny Carson and he was saying, do you know that a painting sold today for $85 million? It's the largest price that has ever been paid for a work of art. Of course the artist was Vincent van Gogh. He said, but what most people don't know is that when van Gogh made this painting, he was in a mental institution. And the reason he was in a mental institution is because he said, one day I'm going to sell a painting for $85 million. Now I think that's perfectly illustrative of how the mystery of fate works. What's different today about a van Gogh than it was in 1890 when he died? Not that long ago. He made over 3,600 works: oils, watercolors, drawings, prints. Not a one of them sold.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: The mystery of life or faith? They are two different things.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: They are sort of connected, I would say.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Are they?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Yes, I think so. We have no control over our fate. You can walk out of this building and get hit by a car and not expect it. Or there's a f—ing earthquake and we all go down.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: What do we have to do with an earthquake? I didn't do it, God. Yeah, but you're going to pay for whoever else did it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So not to totally escape the squirrel with the twisted ankle. What is the price you're prepared to pay for great art? Because you've offended some people--
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Good.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: --you've hurt some people's feelings.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: It's good for them.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You have slapped people in the face to get the right performance.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I wouldn't go there. That's very unfair.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: That's totally unfair. I would have to go into such a long rap, that you don't even—these guys would be falling asleep by the time I explained what you're getting at. Let me say this, I do believe that anything a director does to get a performance from an actor is fair as long as you don't hurt that actor or cause that actor anything like major discomfort or even minor discomfort. But I think that anything you might do to shock an actor into a certain type of performance is fair game. We are working in an unreal world, there's a camera on me from over here. In a film, if I was sitting here and talking to you over there, you might be sitting there but the place where we were supposed to be wouldn't be in front of me. It would be an empty soundstage usually. I'm looking at you, and I'm looking at a bunch of stagehands smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, walking around, scratching their asses, whatever it may be. I'm not looking at where we're supposed to be. You as a director have to overcome the actor's disbelief in the moment. And there are many techniques that do that. When you say I have slapped an actor, I think on three occasions I did, and they all thanked me for it.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: And one of them was the Catholic priest in The Exorcist who was not an actor but had to give the last rites to his friend who died from the big fall from the house. And in the scene, father Bill O'Malley—who was not an actor, he is still alive, I believe he's at Fordham now—I chose him to play that role. I had met him through Bill Blatty who wrote The Exorcist, and I thought he was the guy that Blatty had created in The Exorcist. He had never been an actor. It was his first and only film. He might have done some plays at school. He had to break down and cry at three o'clock or four o'clock in the morning on a freezing cold night when the crew had worked for 16 hours that day and he had to give the last rites and, according to the script, burst into tears. He couldn't do it. He couldn't get there. There was nothing I could say to him that could get him there. He had no technique. So, I resorted to something that I read that many directors have done before me over the years. I told the crew to just hang on for a moment and be ready to film. I lifted him to his feet and I hugged him by the shoulders. I said, Bill, do you love me? He said, yes, you know I love you Bill. And I said, do you trust me? He said, of course I trust you. And I said, okay, we're going to do the scene now. And I looked away, and as I looked away I cracked him full in the face. I gave the sign to the camera man and I pushed him to the ground. And I said action. And he did it and burst into tears.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Wow.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: And afterwards, he hugged me and thanked me. And he will to this day. You may contact him. My office has his phone number. If he doesn't say, I love…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I was thinking, I love you I don't know if I trust you… Let me show you a clip from The Exorcist and then we'll talk about it.
[CLIP THE EXORCIST]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I want to come to Linda Blair in a moment but I think what's incredible there is, if you hadn't had Max von Sydow, what would that have been because he adds such authority to it and dignity. Was it easy to get that performance from him?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No, not at one point. The backup was Paul Scofield who is a pretty damn good actor himself. You ever see a film called A Man For All Seasons? That was Paul Scofield.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: He was the backup? And he was prepared to do it?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Oh yeah. And, in fact, Blatty wanted him more than he wanted Max. I just felt for a whole variety of reasons that Max was the greatest film actor in the world at that time. And that Scofield was just a great actor, primarily a great stage actor. But Max had done all these incredible Ingmar Bergman films.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But why did you have trouble getting that performance?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: At the point that you came in, where he's coughing, and 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. Everything he did before that, we would do in one take. He was great. Everything he had to do, he knew his lines. I'd tell him, you just come in the door, that's all I'd say, and you say this here, then you go there. Whatever. No direction, he just did it. And we came to that moment and he froze up. We had this false ceiling that had to crack. It was a fake ceiling that was made of cardboard and it was cracked by a special effects man on cue. 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 watching the man who I thought was the greatest film actor in the world at that time, be unable to do it. This went on. 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, Bill, you're not going to believe this. Bill was living in Georgetown then. He said, what do you want to do? I said, please come. We were shooting this scene in New York on a soundstage. I said, please come in here and I printed about thirty takes. I don't think any of them are any good. I'd like to know what you think. Please look at these. He sat down in a room and he looked at them and he came out. And he said, you're right. They're awful. He doesn't believe what he's doing. And I said, okay let's go in and talk to him together one time. We were going to re-write the script at that point, which was already made famous in the novel which was a bestseller by the time I made the film. We were going to rewrite it and have von Sydow die in that moment when he's coughing and not get on with it for several more minutes as he does. We went in to see von Sydow who was a very simple man, Swedish, great stage actor, spoke a lovely European English. Very clear. He had nothing in his room. Most actors have their dressing rooms adorned with photographs or bottles of champagne from well-wishers. He had nothing. It was like a monk's cell. And he sat there and he was still in makeup and costume. We started to talk. I said, Max—his name is pronounced 'Mahhx'—Max von Sydow, but I'm not going to do that here all night or we'll never get out of here. I said, Max, I don't know what to say anymore. I've run out of things to say to you. But the scene isn't working. He said, I know that. I said, look, I don't know what to do, I don't know what to say to get us to move on. I'll bring Ingmar Bergman in here to direct this scene with you. I'll ask you to call Bergman and I'll ask him to come in here and finish this scene with you. He said, no it's not a matter of Bergman. Those were his words. And he was sort of dismissive like that. I said, what is it? He said, I just don't believe in God. I said, Max, you played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: 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 just played him as a man. And I blurted out, well why don't you play this guy as a man? Why don't you just think of him, forget his office, forget the power that he claims he derives from God. Just play him as a sickly priest trying to do his job. It was the lamest direction I've ever given. The lamest. And he said, okay let me think about it. A half-hour or so went by, he came out of his dressing room, dressed and ready, and that was the take you just saw. What can I tell you? I have no explanation other than that. You see, I made that film as a believer. What [the sequels] attempt to do is to defrock the story and to send the thing up. I don't know how many sequels there've been. One of them, Bill Blatty directed himself, but he didn't set out to make that as a sequel to The Exorcist. That was a novel he wrote called Legion after The Exorcist. The studio wanted to call it The Exorcist 3.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Was there talk at some point though, that you were going to do another Exorcist?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No I would never do go back and do another Exorcist. Or anything with demonic possession or exorcism in it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Why?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I did it.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I couldn't do it any better than that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But interesting, your films have got darker and darker and darker and more demonic in a way.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I don't feel The Exorcist is a dark film. The girl is saved--
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: --It's not a comedy.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: You figured that out.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: How many years have you been writing film criticism? Now, you've come to that conclusion. Okay, you're right it's not a comedy.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I could be wrong. Tennessee Williams, when he saw A Streetcar Named Desire was laughing hysterically, somebody told him shut up. He said, but it's funny.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I remember that the original advertisement for the film I directed called The Boys in the Band, which was about gay life in New York in the 60s, the original ad was 'The Boys in the Band is not a Musical'. And no, it was not a musical, that's true. And The Exorcist is not a comedy. But in the end, the girl is saved, no longer possessed.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I wonder how much you thought at the time, maybe you didn't know it was going to be such a gigantic hit.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No, of course I didn't.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How old Linda Blair was when you cast her?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Twelve.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: An enormously difficult part to cast. Did you wonder how this would impact her life?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Yes. She was the only one of several hundred girls of roughly that age whose life I felt would not be impacted by it. And I thought, we reached a point where there were at least 2,000 girls, either put on tape, across this country, or auditioned by various casting directors and not put on tape, photographed or whatever. We couldn't find anybody. It was a part written for a twelve-year-old. I started to think maybe we could find a sixteen-year old girl who looks younger, or a fifteen-year-old. And we started to try and look for a young girl like that. Nobody. One of the main reasons was, in my meetings with several hundred of them, which lasted moments sometimes, I felt their lives would be impacted. Then one day when 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. They have since taken down that number, I guess someone figured out it had another meaning. But that's where we made The Exorcist at 666 Fifth Avenue. Which was the Warner Brothers headquarters then.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Yes. I was sitting my desk in a kind of deep despair. 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 twelve years old. Would you see her? Took me a split second to say of course. She walked in the door and I knew instantly she was the one. Before we said hello, she came in the room and it was, I knew she was the one. She sat down, the three of us sat together in my office. I came away from my desk and sat with the three in three chairs. I said, so Linda, 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. I said, you did? I said, what is it? She said, well, 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. So I proceeded on. I said, do you know what that means? She said, what? I said, to masturbate? She said, it's like jerking off, isn't it? I said, have you ever done that? I looked at her mother who is still smiling. 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. She will tell you today that she never knew precisely the implications of what she was doing in the possession scenes. She would just follow what I told her to do. I would literally do something I never had done before. I gave her line readings. I told her how to read the lines and I assured her and her mother there would not be her voice in those scenes and it wasn't.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Have you stayed in touch with her?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Of course. She's now [fifty-five] years old. I haven't seen her for a little while now. I've been traveling a lot and busy.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did it impact her life?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: She's done more films than I have. She was one of the leads in the road company of Grease. Many other things on stage, I don't know how many films she made. She's now extremely active with PETA.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you ever talk about how she felt as an adult looking back on that? And whether she was happy she did it or not?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: She's very happy she did it. You guys, you can read all that. You can Google everything she's ever said in hundreds of interviews about pretty much what I'm saying to you now. And of course, she realized as she got older, that she was part of an extraordinary motion picture, which I have no hesitation in saying it is.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did the subject matter torment you at all?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You didn't have--
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Well I read the files of the actual case. There were three cases only in the 20th century in the United States that the Catholic Church in America authenticated. This was one of them. It took place in 1949 in Silver Spring, Maryland and it was a 14-year-old boy. Later when Bill Blatty, who was a graduate at Georgetown at the time, heard about this case, he wanted to write about it as nonfiction but he couldn't get any of the priests or anyone else who knew about what had happened there. By the way, the story of this case was on the front page of The Washington Post in 1949. It ran about 3 pages. You can Google it right now. You can Google it: "Washington Post 1949 Exorcism." Or just "1949 Exorcism" and that story will come up. It was written by a journalist called Bill Brinkley who later became a novelist. He wrote a novel, it was very popular, called Don't Go Near the Water. But he was a reporter for The Washington Post. He states frankly in this article that this young man whose name he doesn't reveal—nor have I ever—but we know who he is and where he is, that this young man was possessed. An exorcism took place. He was moved out of that district, out of the Washington Diocese to St. Louis, Missouri to Alexian Brothers hospital in St. Louis. The exorcism was performed there and was successful. The young man later went on to have a very successful career. He's retired now and he's moved back to that area, with no memory of what happened to him in 1949.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Now, do you believe that can happen? And if you do--
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I read it. I read the diaries.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you believe in the devil?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I believe that there is a force of evil in every single one of us. Just as there's a force for good. I believe that every human being from Mother Teresa to Nelson Mandela has both good and evil within them. As we all do. That's just a belief I had. And it's a constant struggle for our better angels --
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But not in equal measure?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Well, sometimes the evil side comes out. Now, if you look at history, there has always been an evil, destructive force that has attempted to destroy the work of the Creator. This is in every religion and it's virtually in every history. And sometimes it's not just a religious matter. You look at what Hitler and the Nazis did to the German people. A highly intelligent, skilled race of people, who wrote great music and produced great works of literature, who, as I said earlier, followed a madman into hell. And the only thing that explains the Nazis to me is demonic possession of an entire race of people. Why? You've seen speeches by this guy. He was a little fool. For a country to make, as it's policy, the destruction of a race of people, was completely insane. If they had simply, to put it bluntly, if they had simply hated the Jews and the Catholics and gay people, and rounded them up and put them to work in factories, they might have won the war. Because at the end they ran out of ball bearings and couldn't make enough weapons. They had killed about 6 million people and that was the national policy of national socialism. Now, this was the race of Mozart, and Goethe, and Thomas Mann, and --
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But to reduce it to demonic possession, first--
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I don't reduce it. You explain it to me. You give me another explanation for how that happened.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Well, I can't in one sentence.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Well, give it to me in two.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Give me 146 sentences. I've got time. I don't have to be out of here for three minutes.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: They do. They have their classes. And also it comes back to--
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Tonight?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Tomorrow, they go to bed early. They're not like us.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: So do I. I'm a ten o'clock Jew. Ten o'clock I'm down, that's it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Demonic possession would have to be defined. If you literally believe in the devil or a demon, but if you use it metaphorically--
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I believe in a force of evil—let's put it that way. A force of evil that has always existed. The memory of man runneth not to the contrary.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I want to talk about your next film briefly because you had this extraordinary high point--
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Aren't you going to let them ask me anything?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Yeah, I want to get a couple of clips in quick and then we'll go to their questions.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Clips? OK.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Don't you want them to taste some of the films they haven't seen?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Well clips are, I find them not very helpful because they're out of context.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Well, I agree, but--
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Then why'd you do it?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Because they get bored listening to me.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Well that's understandable.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And I think what's great about a clip—let's play Sorcerer—is it gives you a taste, if you haven't seen a film, most people have seen these films, makes you want to go and see it. Let's look at this clip.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: This is the film I'm most proud of.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: That you don't want them to see?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Not a clip.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Here it is.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: This is the only surrealistic moment in the film. The film ends on a note of surrealism.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: There's better stuff after that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You did Sorcerer. It failed, it was a flop. I guess on some level it changed your career. Why? Was it that you lost that contact with the public? Your judgment? Was it luck turning?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I have no idea--anymore than I know why some of my films were extraordinarily successful and other were not. This is the film of which I'm most proud. And it was dead. And bringing it back from the dead was the equivalent of raising Lazarus. 'Cause it was dead and gone. And now it's coming out on a Blu-ray from Warner Brothers April 22nd. It will be premiering at the Chinese Theatre where it failed in one week in 1977, April 12th. Then it goes back into theaters, on Blu-ray, streaming, television. All the media wrapped together, after being dead for 37 years. I really equate it to something like the raising of Lazarus, to bring this film back as a first-run kind of situation. Not as an oddity. Every single film I've made, except this one, I would change everything. If I had the chance, as I look at these clips, I would go back and change the script, the actor, the shots, the editing, I see them differently now, except for Sorcerer. I wouldn't change a frame of it. Though I wasn't able to get the cast I wanted, I think these guys were great. The thing that I've never talked about, the thing that made me want to make this film—there were several things that influenced me: one was The Wages of Fear, another was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, this is much more like that than even The Wages of Fear. There were many others. But it was a poem that I had read at the peak of my success. It was a poem by a completely obscure poet from Denver, Colorado named Thomas Hornsby Ferril. His one volume of poetry is out of print. I have a copy, which is probably the most precious book I have. He was a poet known mostly to other poets. I had heard about him through Robert Frost, who wrote the introduction to Ferril's book of poems. Ferril was from Denver, Colorado. In the introduction to Ferril's book of poems, Robert Frost says: "A man is as tall as his height /Plus the height of his home town. / I know a Denverite / Who, standing from sea to crown, / Is one mile, five-foot ten / And he swings a commensurate pen." And I thought, that's such a beautiful introduction by a poet to a poet that I read his poem. And he wrote a poem called "Words for Time" and in "Words for Time,"I remember where I was when I read this brief passage from it. It was a poem called 'Words for Time' and at one point he says:
What shall I tell the children about Time?
Children who have never counted …
the shoes of a single-footer horse
Surrey by goldenrod or pung by snow
But know the red light from the green
And when to go
And go so soon …
and toss the earth like a toy balloon.
Shall I tell them Time is countable repetition?
Tree-ring, heart-beat, Ocean's coral, accrual?
Shall I speak allegory: …
Time… is nick, is nurse, is pale avenger? …
Big Time, small Time, war Time, your Time?
Hickory-dickory Geiger Time?
The mouse ran up the isotope
Where you are, you shall burn up
In your hiding place or not!
And those words, which are excerpted from the epic poem put the whole notion of making the Sorcerer into my minds eye, a film about our complete inability to control our fate. And that's why many people found the film to be a downer. They thought of it as a downer. It was universally panned by the critics and rejected by audiences. And I can pretty much understand why. But over the decades, something seemed to be building. You know this. Something was building among a newer generation of critics in a bad version and members of the audience who had seen it and told their sons and daughters about it. And somehow or other, that really spread out to where the film is coming back to life.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Does that give you a sense of vindication?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: It gives me a profound sense of relief, if not closure. Because I don't know how the film will be received today. I played it in Venice where it received ac long standing ovation. But you never know. That's a peculiar, particular kind of audience. But I hope people will see it because it's the best film I've ever made and there is maybe a soupçon of an important story there. And, I hate to say, a message. I'm trying to communicate with the audience there about the mystery of fate. I wouldn't change a word of this film or a shot. It's the only film of mine that I could say that about.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you still feel that greatest film still lies ahead?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I hope so. Do I think it does? Stephen, I have no way of knowing that. But it would be difficult for me to come to an event like this. I would just drop out if I didn't want to make more and better films. One of the quotes I use at the beginning of my book is from Samuel Beckett and it's a very brief little four lines where he says: Fail again, fail better next time.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you think you've failed? Or when you look at your career, how do you feel about it now? Because the sense of failure runs through the book. Anyone here would be on cloud nine to achieve what you've achieved.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Thank you. I think I've failed and succeeded in perhaps equal measure, perhaps not. I'd be the last to be able to judge that. I have made some films I know that have stood the test of time, for at least thirty or forty years, which is not the test of all time. Some of the greatest films ever made aren't shown anymore. Should be. Now with the new technology, can be. This audience can go out and see the great films of [Charlie] Chaplin and [Buster] Keaton. I couldn't when I was growing up. We didn't have this technology. We didn't have Blu-rays, DVDs, we didn't have VHS. Now you can see all the masterpieces. Again, the young woman who did the interview with me, Vanessa, she went home with her kid? Good. I hope it's good.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: They're watching The Exorcist, the comedy version.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: A noble use of time. No she asked me, is it important for people to see the classics? I said, I don't know if it's important but it's certainly entertaining and informative to see many of the great films that have been made before our time. I think that this generation as I look out in this room, I think you have your own classics. You have your own sense of what films are important to you in your lives. They may not be the same as what was important to me in my life. So I don't really try to foist them on anybody.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What's interesting is when we speak, you're full of joy and humor, but your films have become increasingly dark
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Really? Not intentionally.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Really? Yes.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I don't…. I find Killer Joe to be a comedy.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: No, you specifically say…in your book that your films have become darker.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Well, they've become darker than the first film I made, which was with Sonny and Cher.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And by the way, you call him the only genius you've ever met?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No, I say I've worked with two geniuses in my life: Harold Pinter and Sonny Bono. And I explain why. I know that you're pressed for time so you don't want to know why. He was an absolute genius. Sonny and Cher in the middle to late sixties were a very popular rock 'n' roll act. Sonny Bono wrote all their songs. He could not read a note of music. If he saw it on a music staff, he couldn't read it. He had the music in his head. And this is how he would record: he would hear some music in his mind's ear. He would be unable to write it. He had an arranger he worked with named Harold Battiste. Sonny would hum a melody to Harold, he would go [sings] something like that. Battiste would rapidly take down notes and write a quick lead sheet. Then, they hired musicians and they went to a studio called Gold Star, which is no longer there, but which is where the 'Wall of Sound' was born, Phil Spector recorded there, The Beach Boys recorded all their classics there, and many others, Bob Dylan, they all did. It was a low-ceilinged room, unlike what a sound studio should be, so that you could separate the different sections of the band or orchestra, put screens around them and record them separately. Gold Star, you couldn't do that. All the music just went up into a wash. It was later called the Wall of Sound. Sonny would here this music. They would hire a band and in his band at the time was Carole King, Dr. John —Mac Rebennack was his real name — David Bromberg, a great guitar player, Glen Campbell, who later became a great singer and guitar player. They were all in this band that Sonny and Harold put together. There was no conductor really. Sonny would hear this music and he'd say, "One, two, three: violins — go!" And he'd point to the drums to come in, and the piano, he would just point to them. Then he would lay down a track and he would listen to it. Then he'd go back into the studio and he's say, now violins--play those notes a little faster; drums--play a little softer, guitars—little less melodic, a little more abstract. And he would literally sculpt the sound. The music wasn't written, it was sculpted by this guy. And he'd get a track, which would maybe take him four days to lay down a soundtrack he was happy with. At that point he would sit down in the studio with someone's brown bag from lunch and he would write a lyric, at that point. And the lyric was often something like, "They say we're young and we don't know / won't find out until we grow / but I don't know if all that's true / 'cause you got me and baby I got you." And this was the number one song in the country and he had at least eight to twelve others. He'd get the track and write the lyric and then he'd call Cher who was at home in the Valley in a tract house, he'd call her, send a car for her. She would come to the studio, the band was gone. He would take her in a little control booth. They had the track in their ears, and he would teach her how to sing the song. And she's always said and admitted than when she sang in the early days of her career, all she was doing was imitating Sonny. Out of this, he had the gift of music. I couldn't do that. Is there anyone here that could do that? Honestly, do you think you could? Not write out a piece of music. Take a band that's sitting there and create a music and a lyric. This is what the great opera composers had to do, but they didn't have to sing it too, and they didn't have to play it. They just wrote the stuff. Pretty great stuff.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I am going to show a clip from Killer Joe but I think it's fascinating to have had a career that's gone from Sonny and Cher to this movie. It's a pretty brutal clip from Killer Joe, so be prepared.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: And don't try it at home.
[CLIP KILLER JOE]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Somewhat muted applause.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: That's tepid applause if I've ever heard…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: No one knows quite how to react. I was thinking, do I show her giving the chicken leg a blow job or do I fade out before that bit, so I kind of wimped out before that.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: It's strange.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It's brutal, right?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Yes.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So now there's dark humor but it's not The Marx Brothers.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So don't you agree with my basic point that there has been darkening of your point of view on the world.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I think it's edgy. I think it's pretty edgy.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Yes or no?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: What? Do I have a dark point of view?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Darker is my question.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Oh, darker than when I was much younger, sure. I've seen more, experienced more, experienced more pain myself, and humiliation. There's nothing that I've ever depicted that I haven't felt in some way or experienced. I don't mean literally but I mean I understand what that is and why.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I completely know that's true. I don't think an artist can create emotion he hasn't felt.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I don't know. But I can't. I couldn't tell an actor what to do if I didn't understand the motivation of that character.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I think all this has such intensity because you understand what the emotion is and you understand it deeply. And if a different director took that you wouldn't get that.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: See what I had in mind was like the ending of Rocky. I was hoping that at the end of that scene people would be on their feet cheering.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I know that's not true.
STUDENT [CHASE MOHSENI]: You make challenging films, more and more as your career has gone on. Do you still think there is a place for such challenging films in the film marketplace or is that mostly in television these days?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Mostly in television, in things like Netflix and HBO, and others that are coming along. But I'm much more interested in the work that's being done in those formats than any average week of movies coming out in theaters. I was addicted to binge viewing House of Cards, and well I loved 24, and of course The Sopranos. I don't think there's anything since The Godfather that you could compare to The Sopranos, for example--and many others that I could cite. Is there a place for this kind of thing in commercial cinema? No. not anymore. No place.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And yet Killer Joe did very well in foreign markets.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Yes and it's still doing very well for what it cost and for… it wasn't released in anywhere near the number of theaters that The Hunger Games was. But it's a kind of Hunger Game itself, as you can see.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It's interesting to me that you respond to television. I've never had that connection with television. If you look at your films for instance, where sound is used in such an original way. The opening of The Exorcist I don't know if you remember that, just the sound, is as powerful as anything you see visually.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I treat them separately; the soundtrack and the picture are completely separate entities to me. I do the soundtrack all afterwards — even the dialogue. I for the most part loop the dialogue to get a better sounding performance.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I haven't seen anybody in television who would do one of your distinct things. For instance in the opening of Sorcerer in Jerusalem, that long, long, long zoom in down, down onto these characters walking through the Damascus Gate through the city of Jerusalem. The very shot you use conveys a sense of paranoia and danger that there is menace in this world. I don't see that on television.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I sort of do though, Stephen. True Detective, did any of you see that? That's pretty damn good, I thought. Did you? Did anybody hate True Detective? I thought it was really good solid drama, not just television, and House of Cards? Did you ever see the British House of Cards?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: No.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: It's amazing. It's a masterpiece, unbelievably great. I thought nothing could top it and I didn't want to watch this thing and I watched it and I thought it was brilliant. I can't say that about too many films I've seen; that I thought they were thought provoking and powerful and would stay with me and have reverberations in my life. That's mostly pay per view now and what they call streaming. And it's mostly on weird, not major networks on channels like Starz and Showtime and HBO.
STUDENT [CHRIS MARTENS]: You've made films over a number of decades. Are there certain ideas or themes that you find yourself going back to?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Yeah: good and evil in everyone. In all the characters I've ever worked on, the constant struggle for your better angels to survive, even thrive. That would be my main theme. The whole idea that we have no control over our lives, no matter what. That we're really in this world, sort of like the woman in Gravity, who is mostly cut off from her spaceship. That's mostly the condition of the world. We're all mostly in our separate worlds. We try to live together and get together but it's difficult. Recently I went down to San Diego with Sherry and we had a private visit with the three pandas that are in the San Diego Zoo. It's very endearing, they're certainly amazing creatures. They're very singular, all pandas live alone, they want no part of any other panda—not their mother or their father. These three have to be kept apart – the mother, the father, and the baby who is less than two years old. As I thought about that, I thought, they're not faking it, they just don't like other pandas and they show it. The rest of us have to somehow get along with other people in order to survive. If you walk into the grocery store and call the grocer a bunch of names, he's not going to give you the apples. And yet I do think, most of the condition of humanity is sort of singular like that. In order to get along – it's what Harold Pinter once said to me and I believe he probably wrote it as well. He said, "It isn't that we don't communicate with one another; it's that we communicate too well." We all know, no matter what the other person is saying, we all have a sense of what they're really thinking. By ignoring it, we make that conflict go away. Sometimes we don't. Sometimes we pick up on the insult, or we pick up on the other person's reaction or attitude, no matter what they're saying or doing and a conflict arises. You know the old story--maybe it's happened to some of you--you look at somebody the wrong way in a bar, and suddenly, bang, violence occurs. And I think it's because there is such a singularity to human nature. As we now see more and more every day, it's difficult to put these differences behind us as a country. We don't understand really why the world isn't completely at peace, do we? This is an earthly paradise. Why should people have to starve? Why should they have to die miserably or be stricken with disease? We don't understand any of that. Given all that, it's hard to be funny. Woody Allen is the only guy in modern times who's managed it. The early Woody Allen films were all done in times of strife, struggle, war, and yet they're funny. Especially the early comedies, the satires, they're really funny. The farces, like Sleeper, and Take the Money and Run, and Bananas. These are very funny. Now he doesn't go there anymore. To me, Woody Allen is the best living American film maker, by far. Hands down.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Living? Really? More than Scorsese?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Yes, to me. I don't rate or judge Scorsese or anybody else. I'm just saying, I think that Woody Allen is the most important and the most profound. Profound. You take a film like Crimes and Misdemeanors; this is worthy of Dostoevsky. Which I think is its model, Crime and Punishment, but it's a masterpiece. How many of you have seen Crimes and Misdemeanors? Put that way up on your list if you haven't seen it. It is a very powerful film; very moving, very deep.
STUDENT[MATT KLEIN]: You've done, we've even seen today, a great many different types of films. We saw horror, a very dark comedy, an action movie. Do you feel like genre colors your directing style? Do you consider yourself a genre filmmaker?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: No.
STUDENT[MATT KLEIN]: Or do you just approach films as films?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: That's it. You've answered it. I don't know what is going to attract me but all my films have found me and for various reasons. I didn't find them. They all found me and I had to see them all in my mind's eye before I could go out and film them. There are many projects that I started and abandoned 'cause I couldn't see them in my imagination. Usually, when I direct a film I don't need the script. I know all the shots. I have some idea how they'll connect, although the editor contributes mightily to that. And films are made in the cutting room. To me all the shooting of a film is nothing more or less than raw material for the cutting room. Thank you.
STUDENT[TERRENCE JOHNSON]: As somebody who has directed a wide variety of film like The Boys in the Band, The Exorcist and Killer Joe, what advice do you have for directors who are starting their careers out in terms of picking movies and projects to work on?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: You have to follow your vision and you can do more than I could ever do at your age. We never had the ability to go out and buy a little camera, even one as HiDef as the GoPro Camera that's this big and you could balance it on a stick. You don't even need a steady cam mount and you could shoot a HiDef picture. You could go out and buy any number of DCP cameras and you could go out and make a film that you have conceived and you could take it home and edit it yourself on your computer. Once you finish it or think it's finished you could put it on YouTube and someone will see it, often many someones. Sometimes tens of thousands of people will see your work on one of the many websites that you could show your work. I could never do that when I was at your age and wanted to be a filmmaker. We had to get a job. There weren't even film schools that I could go to. I worked my way up from the mailroom of a television station in Chicago to live television. My first film was the film about this African American guy who was on death row. And I made the film primarily to save his life, and only secondarily—but it was there—to become a filmmaker. So I learned by doing it and that film shows it too. You can make a movie. I couldn't. I had to go out and somehow con people into letting me shoot something. And when I did The Hitchcock Hour I didn't know what I was doing. You have at your fingertips, all of you guys, the grammar of cinema available to you. The best source of where it's going to come from is from you. Not from somebody else, from you. Maybe somebody else you're working with. You can make it and you can get it shown. That's something that my whole generation of people, that some of you may really admire, we couldn't do that. We had no way to do that. Thank you Terrence and good luck to you.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: One last question.
STUDENT[ELIZABETH QUINN]: You've done a lot of adaptations from novels and plays and I was just curious about how you approach adapting from one medium to another, that process.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I wouldn't have adapted these works if I didn't believe in them as a film. At the very beginning of cinema, where did most of the scenarios come from? They were all silent, there were no words? But who did they get to write the captions and the stories? Playwrights. People who had written plays. Or they became caption writers because they had an ability to write, even though there were no words to be spoken. Sometimes… let's say Killer Joe for example. The problems of that were solved by the playwright before I came to make the film. I only saw it as a vehicle for cinema as well. My first obligation was very much like what surgeons are taught. You know what the surgeons credo is? First, do no harm. And that to me is the credo of someone adapting a play or something else for cinema. Don't adapt it if you don't like it. If you want to change it, go do something else. But films come from many sources. Most of them come from either plays or novels, or true stories that have been written, or one's imagination. And sometimes it's a mixture of all of those and none are to be ruled out. I find Killer Joe very cinematic in that it's about action and character. The action is sometimes weird, you might think, and the characters are all bent. There's no question about that. These are flawed people, but that's where drama comes from—from the crooked timber of humanity. That's not my phrase, it's Isaiah Berlin's. But that's where all great drama comes from, the crooked timber of humanity from which we all stem.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Good. Wonderful last line, Doctor Friedkin. Thank you so much.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Good luck to you all. I really wish you all, I feel for all of you something akin to what you must be feeling. I hope that you feel it deeply enough so that you will follow this ambition that you have now. Don't give up. Unless you've managed to convince yourself that you really don't like it anymore or that you have no fucking talent. If you think you've got the talent, don't let anything stop you. When I started, we couldn't even think then about women directing something, or running a studio like my wife did on two occasions, or producing. When I started in the mailroom, it was literally a male room. Women could not apply and certainly minorities were not welcome. Today, believe me, everybody is welcome. And if you have some talent it's going to get out there, but you need the following: ambition, luck, and the grace of God. You notice that I did not mention talent. There are many untalented people out there making a lot of money. There are guys out there who are holding $5 billion for their work on film and I'm trying to promote a bag of popcorn out there. So it's not about talent, but you need ambition, luck and the grace of God. I wish that to all of you. I mean that as sincerely as I can. And I hope you guys will do some original work someday. I'll see it, hopefully, and like it. That's my fondest hope. God bless you all.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Thank you.