Documentary filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe blurs the line between scholar and fanboy in his meticulously crafted cine-essays on classic movies and iconic film directors. In Leap of Faith, the Swiss documentarian casts an erudite eye over one of the most critically revered and commercially successful horror films of all time, William Friedkin’s Oscar-winning demonic-possession shocker The Exorcist (1973). This follows Philippe’s forensically detailed dissection of the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho in 78/52 (2017) and his deep dive into the cultural hinterland of Ridley Scott’s Alien in Memory: Origins of Alien (2019).
Leap of Faith is an easy, entertaining watch, but it feels like a smaller film than its two predecessors, chiefly because it features just a single long interview with Friedkin rather than a rich chorus of insider insights. That said, the 84-year-old veteran director remains an articulate and forceful presence onscreen, refreshingly unburdened by modesty and clearly keen to display his highbrow cultural smarts. Screening at London Film Festival this week following its Venice premiere, Philippe’s deluxe movie masterclass has obvious fan-friendly fest appeal, but it should also enjoy decent commercial prospects based on the enduring, almost mythic power of The Exorcist.
Remaining off-camera throughout, Philippe shoots his interviewee in classical talking-head style, his longform musings illustrated with film clips and stills and all couched in a somber chamber-orchestral score. His soft-touch questions gently steer Friedkin through some of his more notorious antics during the making of The Exorcist, including slapping priest Father William O’Malley in the face in order to elicit a reaction onscreen and firing guns on set to keep his cast energized — a trick borrowed from old-school Hollywood legends George Stevens and John Ford. Friedkin also details his tortuous search to find a score for the film, which led to abrasive encounters with legendary composers Bernard Herrmann and Lalo Schifrin. “I didn’t give a shit if he was Bernard Herrmann or Ludwig Van Beethoven, I was too close to that film,” he barks.
Most of the stories in Leap of Faith will already be familiar to horror buffs and film historians from countless previous interviews and documentaries. The sole fresh revelation here is Friedkin’s claim that The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty offered him his full financial stake in the movie in return for being cast in the Father Karras role. Naturally, his request was denied and Friedkin chose the equally unknown Jason Miller instead. As Blatty died in 2017, we will never get to hear his side of this bizarre filmic footnote. A couple of secondary interviewee voices to add balance to Friedkin’s one-man show might have been useful here.
Philippe’s respectful, measured approach indulges his subject without allowing too much boastful bombast to muddy the picture. Noting that Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols all turned down the chance to direct The Exorcist, Friedkin casually claims “they didn’t know how to make the picture, but I did.” Unpacking the film scene by scene, he points out echoes of Dreyer, Hitchcock, Resnais, Magritte, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt and other high-level artists. While some of this cultural context is illuminating, it can also feel pretentious and strained.
As the title suggests, Leap of Faith takes the line that The Exorcist is more a profound meditation on religious belief than an effects-driven supernatural horror yarn. Indeed, Friedkin even fancifully credits “forces beyond me that brought things to that movie, like offerings.” These are reasonable enough claims, although his attempts to draw parallels between the film’s “grace notes” and the spiritually uplifting ambience of a Japanese Zen garden feel like a poetic stretch too far. That said, to his credit, Friedkin concludes that many of his best creative decisions on The Exorcist were happy accidents, and admits he finds the film’s cryptic finale baffling even to this day. “It looks like in retrospect I knew what I was doing,” he smiles, “but I was just following my instinct.”
Production companies: Exhibit A Pictures, Milkhaus, Screen Division
Cast: William Friedkin
Director: Alexandre O. Philippe
Cinematographer: Robert Muratore
Editor: David Lawrence
Music: Jon Hegel, Anthony Weeden Familystyle (Karyn Kusama, Matt Manfredi, Phil Hay)
Producer: Kerry Deignan Roy
Venue: London Film Festival
Sales: ICM Partners