An Interview with William Friedkin
William Friedkin is an Academy Award winning director who made “The Exorcist” (1973), “The French Connection” (1971), “Scorcerer” (1977) and “To Live and Die in LA” (1985) among other films.
He took some time out of his schedule a couple weeks ago to answer some questions from readers on the website Reddit.com. I have organized them and reprinted them here for your convenience.
What’s the biggest change you’ve had to adapt to in your years of film making?
Really, for all filmmakers. The limited scope of the kind of films that can be made. When I started making films in the 60s and 70s, it was a much more personal cinema than it is now. The american film is, for the most part, adapted from comic books and video games now. Not exclusively, but for the most part.
It’s not an obstacle, it’s really a change in the zeitgeist. It’s a change of what people are interested in, and a change of what studios want. There was more of a variety of films being made in the 70s and there was less competition from other media- but today there’s enormous competition.
If you were an aspiring director today how much harder do you think it would be to crack it as a film maker?
It’s much easier today to get a film made than it was a while ago. The studios are really run by a lot of young people and they’re more apt to look at films that people post on YouTube or something like a short film done for a festival- then they hire this director to do a major feature. In the 70s and before, you really had to work your way up through all these ranks. There were these long apprenticeships, but today, someone who wants to make films can go out and buy a camera- shoot something- post it on YouTube and elsewhere and if there’s true talent there, it’s possible that their work can be discovered and they can make that jump into feature filmmaking.
You started your career with documentaries. Is there a particular type/aspect of doc film making that will translate well to narrative film making? Are there any particular books or movies on the subject you would recommend me researching?
That’s a complex, difficult question. With documentaries, you have to first seek out the story, then discover how you feel about it, then subtly reflect your feelings in a way that is not propaganda. The best biography of a filmmaker I’ve ever read is Elia Kazan’s A LIFE. It is a fascinating and detailed journey of a great film and stage director. It will be very helpful to you.
The 70’s was a landmark decade for film making. What direction do you think film making is going these days?
The filmmaking of the 70s were really based on literature and the life experience of the filmmaker- and today, there’s still adaptations of the classics- but for the most part, it seems like they’re based on comic book ideas and video games- but it’s not a criticism!
As a director, who influenced you the most in the film industry?
Personally, I admire the films of Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers. I think they’re very intelligent. A lot of their work has extended the possibilities of cinema.
Who’s your favorite actor/actress you like working with or hope to work with?
These are the actors I wish I’d worked with: Humphrey Bogart, Steve McQueen, James Cagney and Paul Newman. They’re all gone now, of course.
What’s the scariest film you’ve seen?
Without categorizing these films as “genre films”: Diabolique (the original french version) Alien, Psycho, and Onibaba by Kaneto Shindo
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing aspiring directors today and what advice would you give them?
Finding and being able to express your own individual voice, rather than rip-off somebody else, is probably the biggest challenge.
Is online and digital is the new way to go for filmmakers? Do you think it makes things better or worse?
It’s interesting and exciting to share thoughts with people from around the world who have similar or different interests from mine on a daily basis.
Your films have incredible, offbeat music selections. Everything from “Tubular Bells” to Wang Chung to Jeff Beck & Nile Rodgers add to your films in startling ways. How do you choose the artists to score your films? Is it an open collaboration from the beginning, or do you usually bring in the musical element after shooting?
It really varies- Sorcerer and To Live and Die in LA were actually inspired by the music of their composers. The Exorcist score is made up of fragments from various pre-recorded pieces of classical music that I felt were appropriate. With other films of mine, such as Killer Joe and The French Connection, I sought out their composers after I had finished the film.
If you had an unlimited budget and resources, what film would you make and why?
Not really at this moment. But budget is not the most important thing- only the story.
How does it feel to be one of the many many people who started out in cinema through Citizen Kane? Do you still love it as much today?
I’ve seen that film more than 200 times, since 1955- I’ve continued to be inspired and amazed by it. It synthesizes everything that came before it and it points the way to the future. It was released in 1941, but there have been many filmmakers since who, like me, continue to be affected by it.
What are your thought on director’s cut , or final cuts released on blu-ray or dvd. Do you see it as cheapening what is exhibited in theaters, or as another opportunity for directors to work out what ever issues he or she had with the theatrical version.
I think more often it’s a way of expressing a filmmaker’s original intent. But that doesn’t mean it’s a better version. I have read Scott Fitzgerald’s original version of “The Great Gatsby”. And it’s not better. In fact, it’s worse than what he finally published. There are 9 additional scenes that I shot for The French Connection. Later in the editing room, I took them out because I thought they were unnecessary and hurt the pace of the film. I would never want to see them re-integrated. A so-called Director’s Cut is often no more than a marketing tool.
When you produced the Academy Awards in 1977, you had to deal with a very unusual situation – that one of the performers nominated for Best Actor, Peter Finch from Network, had died just a couple months earlier. How did you decide who would accept the Oscar for him if – and, in fact – when he was named the winner? It looked like it was a surprise when Paddy Chayefsky (the screenwriter of Network) invited Finch’s widow on stage to receive the award for him.
That was not my decision, it was made by the board of governors of the Academy. As the producer of the show, you have nothing to say about who accepts the award.
What was your hardest movie to shoot?
Sorcerer: difficult to cast, to budget, and to shoot. Had I not just come off The French Connection and The Exorcist, I would not have been able to make it.
You’ve worked with many of the great cinema craftsmen: cinematographers like Owen Roizman, Caleb Deschanel, also editors, etc. How do you go about “casting” your collaborators–DPs, editors, production designers, sound designers, etc.?
There are a great many people I respect and have worked with many times. In some cases, my colleagues have retired or passed away. But I do continue to find new people whose work I respect and they help me to stay fresh.
Do you have any short films prior to doing big budget ones? And is there any way we can see them?
I did a couple of documentaries back in the 60s, when I lived in Chicago. Two of them are being shown at the Tribeca Film Festival on May 28, 2012.
What was it like directing the last-aired episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour? Did Hitch himself have much or any creative input?
It was the 10th and final year of the Hitchcock Hour, he had little (if any) creative input. The episode I did wasn’t very good.
How do you feel about the state of piracy affecting films and what changes should be done in the distribution chain, if any?
The cow is out of the barn- it’s really difficult to do anything. Piracy costs studios and record companies billions of dollars a year. Copyright is no longer meaningful and I think the responsibility lies with the government to institute tougher controls.
Looking back at “The Night They Raided Minsky’s”, I’ve heard it wasn’t your favorite thing to work on at the time, has time given you some perspective/positive memories of that experience?
I have few, if any positive, memories of it. But when I made the DVD recently, having not seen the film for 40 years, I thought it had some pleasant and amusing moments.
What inspired you to make “The French Connection”, a movie about such a touchy subject? And since you’ve stated that Gene Hackman wasn’t your first choice for Popeye Doyle, who was?
Believe it or not, our first choice was Peter Boyle. I thought the story was fascinating and original at the time, but it was the contrast between the two cops and the two French guys that most intrigued me. Though the cops represented law enforcement, they were bad-ass. And the two French dope smugglers were otherwise gentlemen.
Why didn’t you want Gene Hackman originally for The French Connection?
His agent suggested him just before we started shooting the film, but he wasn’t my first choice. He had mostly played supporting roles at the time, so I didn’t think of him. But he turned out to be great in The French Connection and many other movies. I consider him a gift from the movie gods.
Who’s idea was it to film the chase scene in The French Connection without closing the streets? That must have made you insanely nervous as the director.
It was my idea. It was very risky and I would never do it again.
What was your thinking when you decided to digitally re-do the color for the blu ray of the French Connection? Will you consider releasing something closer to the original?
I tried to realize my original vision for the film. There were numerous glitches in the copies that were made, so I have since redone it.
Do you know much about the original story of “The Exorcist” that took place in St. Louis in the 40’s?
I know pretty much everything about that case, it was in 1949 and a portion of the exorcism took place at Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis. It originated in Silver Spring, Maryland. A young man who was the victim at the age of 14 is still alive.
How did you come to direct The Exorcist? When you were making it, did you ever think to yourself that it would be as controversial as it was, and still is to this day?
The person who wrote the novel wanted me to do it. I wasn’t the first choice of the studio, it had been offered first to Stanley Kubrick, Mike Nichols and they had turned it down- but I was the last man standing. I had no idea it would have the effect it did- but when I read Blatty’s novel and came to understand the source of it and the implications of it, I was profoundly moved. I thought, if I made it well, then others might feel those same emotions.
Do you think The Exorcist would actually make it past the MPAA in its current form if you tried to release it today?
“The Exorcist” was followed up with several sequels, have you seen any of them? If you have, which one did you feel did justice to the first one?
I haven’t seen all of them. But the few minutes of each that I have managed to see seem to me to be awful ripoffs.
What are the most important lessons to take from “The Exorcist” in terms of the similarities and differences between literary and cinematic storytelling?
A movie must be a condensation of the story- you must make very focused choices on what they intend to keep or not keep. Also, a novelist can go from the past to the present to the future, in one sentence. A filmmaker cannot. I had to make choices about what portions of the exorcist I could dramatize and what I felt could be jettisoned. There are a number of sub-plots and characters in the exorcist novel that I didn’t deal with in the film. You can read a book over a period of days, weeks, or months, you can go back to certain passages- but a film is usually experienced once– unless you see it again– for a period of a couple of hours.
How involved were you in the development process for The Exorcist? Did you work intensively with Blatty in adapting the script from his novel? As a director, did you rely more on Blatty’s script or novel in developing the visual style of the film?
For the visual style, it was completely on the novel. We worked together for at least six months on the script- during that process, I would express my ideas to him- but the screenplay was totally his.
The Exorcist is potentially one of the scariest and most well known movies of all time. I’ve heard a lot of creepy stuff happened around production time. Is this true?
I had no idea. This has been exaggerated to the point of absurdity. There are strange things that happen on the set of every film… sometimes, even in your own workplace or home! I don’t remember any incidents that were unusual. The one thing that did happen is that the entire set burned down one day. It took us almost 3 months to re-build it.
It has been said that you fired a gun behind the mother in the Exorcist to get a more “real” scream of terror. Is this true?
I would sometimes have the prop man fire blanks off the set to get a sudden reaction from the actors. This was originally done by the great American director George Stevens on his film, The Diary of Anne Frank to provoke a sense of fear in his actors, who were supposed to be hearing the Nazi sirens. There were, of course, no Nazi sirens on the set of the movie. When I heard about this technique, I thought it would produce similar results on a number of films I made. It’s of course very difficult to say to an actor, “Now you are looking at the face of the demon” and expect him or her to be frightened, when he or she is in fact looking at the face of a 12 year old girl in makeup. The unexpected sound of a gun helps to produce the desired response.
How did you find the woman who played the voice of the demon in The Exorcist?
She was a famous radio actress in the 1940s and 1950s. Also, an academy award winning film actress, her name was Mercedes McCambridge.
There were reports that you or your editor had spliced images into extended scenes to prime the audience for emotional reactions. Shots of graffiti near the staircase? How much of that was urban legend, and what exactly do you recall doing?
None of that is true actually. If there was graffiti on the walls surrounding that staircase, it was there before we filmed it. And I remember specifically graffiti wasn’t as “artistic” back then.
Some people have seen themes in The Exorcist having to do with child sexual abuse, possibly involving the missing father, possibly involving the church. Was any of this in your head as you were directing it? Or is it in your mind a purely supernatural story?
It’s a supernatural story, but based on actual documented events. The other stuff never occurred to me.
Why did you decide to throw out Lalo Schifrin’s score for the Exorcist?
I simply didn’t like it. This happens, fortunately, not often. I have great respect for the other work Lalo has written for film.
There seemed to be a string of devil movies to come out and be extremely popular in the late 60’s & 70’s. Why do you think that was?
Undoubtably because of the success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. I’ve seen few of any of them, so I can’t comment on many of them.
Do you think that horror films do not get the same respect as some other genres? If so, why don’t they?
Most of them are cheaply made and stupid, but not all. Alien, Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, among others, are classics and were successful at the box office and with critics.
What are your thoughts on horror films these days?
I see few if any of them these days, so I can’t offer a real opinion- but I did like The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity series.
There have been reports of making “The exorcist” for TV as serialized drama? Thoughts?
I have no way of knowing that, anything is possible. It would be of no interest to me.
Can you Tell us anything about the making of “Sorcerer” that is not very well known.
The first time we built the suspension bridge in the Dominican Republic, the river ran dry, we moved the location and built the bridge again over a 12-foot high rushing river in the jungles of Mexico. By the time we started to film, the water level decreased to 2 feet high, so we had to dam the river in order to relocate the water to our location and we had to create a rainstorm in order to mask the fact that the river was so low.
Can you give us any updates on your “Sorcerer” lawsuit?
I’ve sued Paramount and Universal to determine ownership which they presently claim they don’t know. Their first response to the suit last week, was to ask that it be moved to federal court, which we’ve agreed to. It’s now in the 9th district court of appeals.
Will there ever be a directors cut of “Scorcerer”?
I’m trying to make prints available in both DVD and blu-ray, as well as have the film shown, to all these universities and film societies that want to run it first. That’s my only purpose in bringing the suit, it does not involve money. There is no director’s cut.
Your film “Cruising” was released in 1980. Were you surprised by the backlash of the film at the time of the release?
I thought it would be controversial but I didn’t realize HOW controversial!
What did you think of Al Pacinos Dancing in “Cruising”?
I don’t think he could win “Dancing With The Stars”. There was no choreography. He was doing his own thing, along with the other guys.
In “To Live and Die in L.A.” how much of the writers original vision usually ended up making the final cut? Also, how often do “happy accidents” occur when an actor will go off script and ad-lib and it turns out to be better than what was scripted.
I wrote that script and revised it constantly during the process of filming it. There were many spontaneous contributions from the actors that were not scripted and I always welcome and relish that.
Some people have reported that the car chase in To Live and Die in LA with the highway helicopter shot was shown with the film reversed, in order to make it seem like the cars were going the wrong way with the idea that the audience would be uncomfortable without knowing why. Is this what you intended?
Yes. My aim was complete disorientation, but we shot it that way. The film was not run in reverse.
What was your favorite part about making “To Live and Die in LA”, and are there any cool pieces of trivia about it that you’d like to share?
I most enjoyed filming the chase. Can’t think off-hand of any trivia.
How did you come to work on “Bug”? What was Michael Shannon like?
I first saw it in a small theater in Greenwich Village. Shannon is one of the most skilled actors around, his work is fantastic and original.
Killer Joe is the second Tracey Letts stage to screen adaptation you are directing (after Bug). What attracts you to Letts’ work and how is it working with him as a screenwriter? Would you consider directing any other adaptations of his?
Our world-views are similar. I think he’s one of the very best dramatists in America and I hope we can find something of mutual pursuit.
What was it about Matthew McConaughey that made you want to cast him? Was he your first choice?
The first quality I look for in an actor is intelligence; the ability to understand and portray the character in a way that’s compatible with my vision. Matthew knew and understood this character, having grown up in that part of Texas, where the story is set. Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon and Thomas Haden Church were my first choices as well. But I was unaware of Juno Temple until she sent in an unsolicited audition tape.
Do you feel like you’re part of a creative comeback for Matthew McConaughey? What is he like to work with?
This is a departure from his other films, but it’s a direction he now wants to continue. He’s a terrific actor who has been mostly cast for his good looks, which I think has limited him and made him rich.
Who else did you consider for the role of Joe Cooper in Killer Joe besides Matthew McConaughey?
Josh Brolin and Kurt Russell.
“Killer Joe” was shot in Louisana. Would you consider returning to Louisiana for your next project?
It would depend totally on the subject matter – if it was appropriate. There are wonderful crews and good actors there!
What kind of atmosphere was there on set when filming Killer Joe’s “that scene with roasted chicken” – it is, I must say, one of the creepiest scenes I’ve seen. What were the general directions to Juno Temple for her preparation to the role?
First- PURE intensity and fun for that scene, as was the whole show. Everybody involved was completely into it. Second – I told Juno Temple to think of herself as Cinderella; desperate to break out of a terrible family life by finding her prince charming.
What is the best way of working with Actors?
The most important thing a director does after choosing the material and casting it, is to provide an atmosphere of a sense of trust where the actors can do their best work.
You shot Killer Joe digitally. Has this new format changed the way you work?
Not really, I still compose shots and edit them in the same way.
After watching the trailer for Killer Joe I was surprised at how much was given away, who’s choice was it to give what appears to be almost the entire plot outline of the movie away in the trailer?
It may give too much away but there is a great deal more in store that is not in the trailer!
You’ve been adapting a lot of Tracey Letts, what’s attracted you too that material?
I’ve only done 2 of Tracy’s works on film. Some of the greatest films ever made originated as plays: Casablanca, A Streetcar Named Desire, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, The Little Foxes and so many others, too numerous to mention.
Do you plan to continue collaborating with Tracy Letts? What advice would you have for young filmmakers to get them through the early period of rejection and brokeness?
Hopefully! But we have nothing right now in the works. You will have to believe strongly in yourself when others don’t, all filmmakers live with rejection. The only advice I can give you is to fail better next time.
What made you decide to go with NC17 on Killer Joe?
To conform to the MPAA’s response to the film, I would’ve had to have destroyed it. Fortunately, LD Entertainment, the distributors, share my view. The ratings board has given far more lenient ratings to films that are far more disturbing than Killer Joe. Why? Because they can. But Mickey Liddell, the distributor, agrees with me. There’s no point in destroying the film in order to save it.
Were you at all surprised when Killer Joe received an NC-17 and then had your appeal denied?
I was surprised, but it’s a subjective process- I frankly was not aware about the extent to which people would be disturbed by it. But keep in mind, the ratings process IS subjective. There are no written rules. The film was not made to be disturbing, it happens to be funny, ironic, and absurd. It is not meant to glorify sex or violence.
Did you consider cutting it down to get an R rating (and therefore, a larger audience)?
Never considered cutting it down. It freaked out the ratings board.
What movie would have loved to have directed that someone else did?
How has your approach to directing has changed over your career?
I may have gotten a little better at it, from experience. But that’s for the audience to decide. I’ve only made – I think 15 or 16 films over 45 years of doing it. But I’ve certainly learned from each one, whether it be techniques, or the ability to communicate easier with actors.
How do you feel about shooting digitally versus film?
I think the results of digital are much better, you have way more latitude with color timing and density.
If you didn’t make movies, what would you want to be?
Before I saw Citizen Kane when I was 20, I had no particular idea of what I wanted to do. I barely graduated high school and never went to university. My career has come about as a result of ambition, luck and the grace of God. Notice I didn’t mention “talent”.
What film are you the most proud of?
I can’t pick just one. Despite their imperfections, I have love for all of them.
What do you see as the future of film making? Do you think that it will be more independent?
I think, more power to the filmmaker, in that it’s a very personal medium and not corporate driven.
What advice would you give to filmmakers just starting out?
Buy a high def camera, start shooting something and post it on YouTube. Then, keep shooting more.
What is your next project going to be?
I’m working on a thriller from an original story of mine to be filmed in Europe in January. Meanwhile, I just finished my memoirs for Harper Collins, which will be released next spring. There will also be an e-book where you can view the scenes I’ve shot as I describe how they were done.