William Friedkin on How He Filmed 'The French Connection's' Iconic Car Chase

The French Connection 1971 -gene hackman -Photofest-H 2016
20th Century-Fox/Photofest

Director William Friedkin claimed “the only thing we had permits for was to shoot on the elevated train” when filming the iconic car chase from his 1971 best picture Oscar winner, The French Connection.

The filmmaker spoke Friday evening to a packed auditorium crowd during a 45th anniversary screening of the film at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Based on Robin Moore’s 1969 nonfiction book of the same name, The French Connection follows NYPD detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) on a relentless pursuit of Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), the ringleader of a heroin-smuggling syndicate. It was the first R-rated film in Academy history to win best picture honors, and it also earned Oscars for best actor (Hackman), film editing and adapted screenplay. 

Discussing the Brooklyn-filmed chase, Friedkin said he got permission to shoot on the elevated train after giving a New York official (who said the production was “crazy”) $40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica.

On the sequences filmed in the street, Friedkin claimed, “[Stunt driver] Bill Hickman [who also had a role in the film] drove 26 blocks at 90 mph. … The only thing staged was [when Doyle’s car narrowly avoids a collision with] the woman and baby.”

He added that the production was “very lucky” that nobody was hurt. “I wouldn’t do anything like this today,” said the helmer.

Friedkin said he was “blessed with an absolutely great crew,” citing collaborators including Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Owen Roizman and camera operator Ricky Bravo, as well as composer Don Ellis and editor Gerry Greenberg, who won an Oscar for the film.

Turning the subject to casting, Friedkin emphasized that “this film is Gene Hackman. … He became and is one of the great American actors.”

But the filmmaker also admitted that he wasn’t sold on Hackman at the start, saying his first choice for the role of Popeye was Jackie Gleason, and he approached others, including Peter Boyle and even journalist Jimmy Breslin, before landing his star.

During Friedkin’s onstage conversation, moderated by Oscar-winning screenwriter Chris McQuarrie, the director also shared a laugh with the audience as he told the story of how his car broke down on the way to the Academy Awards the year The French Connection was honored. He said he and his party of six hitched a ride with a man in a Chevy, who was getting gas at a nearby station.