'Friedkin Uncut': Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Insight from a good-humored master.

The director of 'The French Connection' and 'The Exorcist' speaks out along with a pantheon of Hollywood actors and directors in Francesco Zippel’s film bio.

At the beginning of Friedkin Uncut, Italian documaker Francesco Zippel’s admiring career portrait, the 83-year-old subject compares “the two most interesting characters in history,” Jesus and Hitler. One brought the people he met up to heaven, and the other took them down to hell. There is good and evil in everybody, William Friedkin concludes wickedly, “even in me.”

It’s a startling aperture onto the bright, witty, original mind of a man who isn’t afraid to make unconventional leaps and rather dotes on controversy and hell-raising. And it illustrates the filmmaker's fascination with extreme characters and situations which, as Zippel shows, are a constant in his best work. Bowing in the Venice Film Festival's Classics sidebar, this enjoyable doc records a Hollywood master looking back at his career with lucid hindsight and irony. Social entertainment platform TaTaTu has acquired rights for North America and the U.K.

Zippel, who met Friedkin during the shooting of The Devil and Father Amorth, accesses a hefty selection of excerpts from his films, intercut with the director’s friendly interjections from his sumptuous Hollywood home. It gives the film the air of a personal work, though not too personal — there is barely a glimpse of his wife of 26 years, producer Sherry Lansing, nor are any other family members mentioned. Instead, Zippel has assembled an impressive “film family” for comments and compliments, including luminaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Willem Dafoe, Matthew McConaughey, William Petersen and Ellen Burstyn, giving a sense of the dense film community in which Friedkin is embedded as one of the most influential directors of the 1970s.

The son of Jewish emigrants from the Ukraine, he grew up in Chicago and at 16 got a job in the mailroom of WGN-TV; he began directing live TV at 18. He first glimpsed the power of filmmaking when he shot the 1962 documentary The People vs. Paul Crump about a black man on death row; the film convinced the governor of Illinois to commute the prisoner’s sentence and effectively saved his life.

Friedkin Uncut is at its most gripping when it discusses two early hits, The French Connection and The Exorcist, in which the theme of goodness struggling with the dark side explodes. Speaking about The Exorcist, Walter Hill mentions the psychological rigor Friedkin gave to “a lurid comic book subject,” while Burstyn tells a memorable anecdote about co-star Max Von Sydow, who over and over blocked on the famous line, “The power of Christ compels you!”

As Tarantino sees it, casting is 80% of a film’s success. Illustrating the director’s startling self-confidence and ability to follow hunches (“a gift from the movie god”) is the story of how he wiggled out of a contract with Stacy Keach and bet on playwright Jason Miller to play the young priest (Miller was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for the role).

Friedkin mentions the influence of Costa Gavras’ Z on his work, which he admires for its use of documentary techniques in a fictional story. In his 1971 The French Connection (winner of five Academy Awards, including best picture and director), he staged the famous chase through Brooklyn with real cars and real people, like cinema verite. Shooting it was so dangerous that Friedkin insisted on taking the camera and filming it himself in a single take. He considers Buster Keaton, who also put his life on the line to make movies, as the greatest director of chase scenes of all time, which he staged without the use of special effects.

Per the director, rehearsal is for sissies, and actress Juno Temple confirms he’s a “one-take guy” — maximum, two takes, but he only prints the first. “I’m not looking for perfection,” says Friedkin, who modestly states he has no perception of himself as an artist, but rather strives for the utmost professionalism in telling a story.

To Live and Die in L.A.is revisited in amusing interviews with stars Dafoe and Petersen, while Temple, McConaughey and Gina Gershon remember the 2011 crime comedy Killer Joe. Surprisingly, the film Friedkin hopes to be remembered for is his ill-fated Sorcerer (1977). As the movie gods would have it, this remake of the French hit The Wages of Fear about four desperate men driving two trucks full of dynamite through the jungle opened a week after Star Wars and flopped. Tarantino is among those who have re-evaluated it, calling it one of the greatest films ever made. 

Production companies: Quoiat Films
Cast: William Friedkin, Ellen Burstyn, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple, Wes Anderson, Dario Argento, Damien Chazelle, Francis Ford Coppola, Willem Dafoe, Walter Hill, Philip Kaufman, Matthew McConaughey, Zubin Mehta, William Petersen, Michael Shannon, Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright
Director-screenwriter: Francesco Zippel
Producers: Federica Paniccia, Francesco Zippel
Directors of photography: Carlo Alberto Orecchia, Giuliano Graziani, Dado Carillo, Marco Tomaselli, Powell Robinson
Editor: Mariaromana Casiraghi
Music: Costanza Francavilla
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Classics)
World sales: Doc Film International

106 minutes