Q&A: William Friedkin

Five questions with the famed helmer and Locarno honoree

While none of William Friedkin's films has ever screened in Locarno, the festival is honoring the prolific director's career with a Swisscom Leopard of Honor and will screen his underrated 1985 crime drama "To Live and Die in L.A." The Hollywood Reporter's France correspondent Rebecca Leffler spoke with the director about the Locarno honor, his next project and how he "sort of" discovered William Petersen.

The Hollywood Reporter: What are you working on at the moment?

William Friedkin: I'm working on one particular project now, written by Tracy Letts, who wrote (2006's) "Bug" for me and won the Pulitzer Prize this year for best American play. He's written a new script that I'm trying to get ready for production. It's called "Killer Joe." I'm in the process of casting now. "Killer Joe" isn't a horror film -- it's very violent, very funny and very sexy. But it's the kind of violence written by a Pulitzer Prize winner, in a realistic setting. That's the only film that I'm working on. A lot of people send me scripts and then I read somewhere that I'm doing them, but it doesn't come from me.

THR: Do you prefer directing operas or does your passion still lie in filmmaking?

Friedkin: Doing an opera often feeds my work in films and vice versa. I've been doing operas now for almost 14 years. I'd never seen an opera before I directed my first opera. I found that the great singers in opera today want the same things as professional actors, namely a psychological underpinning for their characters and a staging that works. Staging for a three-dimensional medium helps me a lot when deciding how to shoot a film. You can certainly get operas done faster in rehearsal than a film. Some films that I've made have taken three years to get made from beginning to end, including "The Exorcist."

THR: How do you feel about the film industry compared with the glory days of the '70s?

Friedkin: Back in the '70s and before, films were made out of a much more personal drive and ambition (and) by heads of studios who had only hopes -- but not high expectations -- to make a lot of money on them. There are many films from the '70s where there was no expectation for success, "The French Connection" or "The Godfather," for example. In those days, they used to let a film breathe -- the way F. Scott Fitzgerald used to let his novels breathe. It was more than just "this happened and then that happened and then that happened." The movie had spots where you could relax and enjoy the moment. You can't let them air-out anymore.

THR: You've recently gone back to your TV-directing origins with two episodes of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." What was it like to return to that medium?

Friedkin: Billy Petersen is a guy who I sort of discovered in "To Live and Die in L.A." and we remained friends. He told me it would be his last season on "CSI" and said, "Please do one of these for me." So I did, and then they asked me to come back for the 200th episode, even though Petersen was gone. I enjoyed it just as much. I'm not looking to do a lot of TV, though I enjoyed doing "CSI" very much. I was impressed by the incredible professionalism of the people who make those shows.

THR: Finally, how do you feel about getting this award at Locarno?

Friedkin: There are only a handful of such awards that I've ever accepted. But the Locarno festival is something I've been familiar with for years. I've had friends who have screened films there and they've told me how remarkable it is both as a film festival that discovers new trends and also as a beautiful place, from the Swiss lakes to the outdoor Piazza Grande theater.