'The Exorcist' Director William Friedkin: Movies Now 'Opium for the Eyes'

William Friedkin

The director praises cable dramas aimed at intelligent, adult audiences, saying such small-screen content is "deeper and more complex" than superhero films often playing on the big screen.

KARLOVY VARY – The release next month of a newly remastered DVD version of William Friedkin's Sorcerer, just a few months after the Blu-ray version was issued, is no accident.

The director famous for helming The Exorcist and The French Connection has a reputation as a perfectionist. When the newly remastered Blu-ray of Sorcerer was released to accompany its new theatrical release in the U.S., a DVD with an old "pan and scan" version also was put out, the director said during a master class at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic. Friedkin said he was so angered by the low quality of the DVD that he took to Amazon to insist that buyers demand their money back.

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"It was a horrible, miserable DVD, a pan and scan that they put the new label on. I wrote on Amazon when the Blu-ray was No. 1: 'Don't buy the DVD, it’s a fake, a fraud, ask for your money back.' Then I went back to make a DVD that will be out next month with a sticker on the cover that says 're-mastered by William Friedkin.' I went back and did all the color timing again," he explained.

Sorcerer, shot in 1977, cost $20 million — a figure that would be closer to $80 million today — and the famously obsessive director pushed the cast and crew to their limits as they filmed the story of four renegades driving explosive-laden trucks through the jungle to a burning South American oil well. The film went way over budget and cost the director his studio contract when the movie flopped.

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Friedkin's recently published autobiography, The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir, includes many insights into the egoist frame of mind he was in when he shot Sorcerer. But his conviction that it would be a hit of similar size to The Exorcist went unrealized: Its release coincided with that of Star Wars which, Friedkin said, "changed the zeitgeist in Hollywood in a way we still feel today."

The director, who won a Crystal Globe for Outstanding Contribution to World Cinema at Karlovy Vary, said he does not know why '70s films are becoming popular again, but he thinks it has something to do with audiences tiring of "guys flying around in Spandex suits."

The success of cable network dramas such as The Sopranos, Homeland and True Detective "aimed at adult audiences that are assumed to be intelligent" suggests that viewers want something more than movies "based on cartoons or comics," he said.

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"Television today is better than cinema; it's deeper and more complex and it is for adults," he remarked.

"They do not assume you are a child that just wants to watch video games and comic books on a screen. In cinema that is the assumption: You just want to see guys flying around with Spandex suit and a cape and a mask, solving crime everywhere," he said. "This is 80 percent of American cinema…to me, much of it is like opium for the eyes. It does not go into your brain or make you think about it later. But cable television programs in America is what people talk about the next day, week and on and on."

Friedkin, 78, whose last film Killer Joe, starring Matthew McConaughey, was released in 2011, would not talk about any current projects but said he would love to work in television.

Reflecting on his method of working with actors, he said he never felt it was his job to demand performances from actors, despite stories that he had guns fired on the set of The Exorcist to keep the cast in a state of tension. But he did try to help his actors summon up the appropriate emotion before a scene.

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"A director becomes like a psychiatrist: You try to find out the secrets of the actor and then use them," he explained. "For example, for Linda Blair [who plays the possessed child in The Exorcist], I found out that the saddest moment of her life was the death of her grandfather. I would remind her of that before she had to do a scene when she had to be sad. That's a process called 'sense-memory' where you use that to reproduce an emotion they felt long ago."

The Chicago-born only child of Russian immigrant parents from Kiev, Friedkin started out working in live television in the 1960s; his break came in a 1962 documentary designed to save the life of a man on death row: The People vs. Paul Crump.

It's an experience that he will never forget and that changed his life forever, he said.

"I was able to film on death row and watched a man die on the electric chair. I watched the state put a man to death," Friedkin explained. "I remember every second of it as though it was yesterday. I lived with this memory every day of my life. Perhaps that is one reason my films are so dark…. I was a happy-go-lucky young man until then."