William Friedkin is best known as the Oscar-winning director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, and he has a certainly had a long and varied film career, carefully picking his projects and not churning out as many movies as many of his peers. Of course, he has done a few television series episodes and movies along the way and has been directing operas for the last eleven years. No stranger to controversy, Friedkin’s next movie Killer Joe will be an edgy, twisted variation on Cinderella about a woman whose prince ends up being a cop who’s also a hired killer. As ever, the film be part of a personal continuum that explores “the mysteries of fate”. While interviewing the famed director about The Exorcist for Moviefone, we got a bit philosophical in discussing the nature of good and evil, the societal upheaval that opened the floodgates for Seventies cinema as well as the studio battles that he and other iconic filmmakers engaged in during their early years.
You like to talk about how your films are about the mysteries of fate, or in the case of The Exorcist the mystery of faith, but I also find that your films are about the corruption of the soul. Why are you so fascinated with this corruption?
Possibly because I’m aware of it in myself — the constant struggle between good and evil that’s inside everyone I know, to do the right thing or the wrong thing, whatever that may be. To show compassion and tenderness or just dismiss that. Like everybody else that I’m aware of that I can talk to a serious basis, I’ve had the compulsion to kill. I have felt times where I wouldn’t have minded to see somebody — not even [just] the extreme cases like Hitler… We wished him dead. If I could’ve pulled the trigger or the switch on Hitler, I would’ve done it. That’s not the teachings of Jesus, but it’s hard to talk about the teachings of Jesus in terms of people who have committed violent acts against their fellow humans. But why do people do that? Why do people commit violent acts? How’s that going to benefit mankind? I feel that there is a thin line between good and evil in all of us, and all us come out on one side or the other from time to time. Look at the [Catholic] priest scandals.
That’s also because they’re repressed.
Well, everybody’s repressed. Almost everybody would like to do something, or let’s say have sex with whomever they want whenever they want. That’s not an unusual impulse, but the fact that we contain it is a miracle to me because in the old days, in the prehistoric days, they didn’t contain it. Everything was based on emotion, no knowledge, except the limited knowledge they had to eat and sleep. The more knowledge we gain, it doesn’t cause us to repress our darkest impulses. You would think it would.
The Seventies was an edgy, dangerous time for film. There were female roles like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby and Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver that wouldn’t be done today. I had heard a rumor that John Boorman had turned down directing The Exorcist because he thought it was cruel to children.
He was never asked to do Exorcist One. But before me, Mike Nichols turned it down, [as did] Arthur Penn and Stanley Kubrick, for different reasons.
But they don’t do movies like that with children anymore.
I’m not aware of any. The Exorcist was out of the mainstream for all time. There was The Bad Seed before The Exorcist. Not a lot of things. But The Exorcist jumped totally out-of-the-box in how children were portrayed. Even Rosemary’s Baby doesn’t deal with the child. There’s a baby at the end of it.
“Coppola was threatened to be fired every day off of ‘The Godfather’. They wanted to fire Spielberg off of ‘Jaws’. And everyday on ‘The French Connection’ they wanted to fire me at Fox.”
In one DVD documentary, someone asked you if the Seventies were better time to make films, and you responded no because there was a lot of studio interference. But then I look at a lot of the films were made in the Seventies — whether it’s The Exorcist, Taxi Driver or Raging Bull — and it seems like those were dangerous, taboo-shattering times for film the way that the Eighties were dangerous, taboo-shattering times for shock rock. After that they both became sanitized, at least on a mainstream level. You can’t get away with certain things today because people are more sensitive to certain issues.
The Seventies films and a lot of Seventies culture came about because of the Sixties –the counterculture of the Sixties, the murder of John Kennedy, the murder of Martin Luther King, the murder of Robert Kennedy, the beginning of Vietnam, the disillusionment with U.S. policy — and it ended in 1969 with the Manson family murders. After that, everything changed, the game changed, in politics, society, culture and art. Those of us who made films in the Seventies are products of the Sixties and the change in cinema technique. 1960 was Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard. He changed the way films were made, so we had this freedom on the one hand to change the style, and on the other hand we had all of this madness and chaos that occurred all around us. And that influenced the kind of subject matter that my generation wanted to make and that the studios were prepared to support.
But in making them…I don’t know what sort of a time Scorsese had with Taxi Driver, but I know that the producer of Raging Bull came on the set of The Brink’s Job asking me to take over the movie. He thought Scorsese was out of control and didn’t know what he was doing, and I know that Francis Ford Coppola was threatened to be fired every day off of The Godfather. They didn’t liked his cast, they didn’t like his rushes, they were too dark. They wanted to fire Spielberg off of Jaws. The shark wasn’t working. And everyday on The French Connection they wanted to fire me at Fox. The budget was $1.5 million; the film cost $1.8 million. It was $300,000 over, for which they wanted to kill me. And it wasn’t for my producer, who had my back, they would’ve fired me off of that. Many of my contemporaries went through the same thing. For some reason we persisted, and some of us prevailed. Others of us had our films taken away and destroyed. The Seventies wasn’t a time of all this great freedom and pushing boundaries, it was fighting against the system and often losing. It’s like the gay movement, which started in this country with Stonewall. They got the shit beat out of them, and they were arrested and put in jail. But now what you have is pretty much a total acceptance of gay life and the gay lifestyle. In those days it was listed in the diagnostic medical dictionary as an illness, a disease that was curable through psychiatry. That’s out [of the books] now.
I heard you employed an interesting tactic to maintain a tense atmosphere on the set of The Exorcist: At one point you fired a gun to scare people.
I never shot real bullets. Blanks.
I heard that you did that to Jason Miller.
Everybody. During the exorcism scene. I had read about in Life magazine — George Stevens, when he filmed The Diary of Anne Frank on a soundstage, with this supposed attic where these families are hiding from the Nazis. What do you do? It’s a soundstage, it’s not the attic in Amsterdam. From a dead start, you have to make people feel that they are being menaced by people who will round them up, put them in concentration camps and kill them. I remember a photograph of him in Life magazine, sitting above the set with a rifle or shotgun, and he would fire these gun shots at periodic points, like when they were supposed to hear the sirens of the Nazi out on the street. It came back to me as a very good technique. You know how hard it is to get somebody, put a camera up close on their face and over there they’re looking at the rest of the crew — guys eating lunch, guy scratching their crotches and walking around, lights and all the paraphernalia of filmmaking — [and] when you say action, this person has got to be looking at a demon. I guess there are a few trained and skilled actors — I don’t know them — who could conjure up that feeling in his or her mind’s eye without some kind of help. You could do it on a stage, where you could sustain a performance from beginning to end, but film making is like knitting. One shot at a time, like one stitch at a time. So I’m making a shot of Ellen Burstyn, who has to see her daughter jumping up and down on the bed off camera. I don’t want to have to send Linda Blair up and down the bed every fucking time I need a reaction shot from somebody in the scene, so I would fire a weapon or something that would shake them up, and it would focus their attention on something violent. The reactions are superb. I only did that in cases like that, not when people were playing a scene to each other or together. It was done for reaction shots where at eight o’clock in the morning, after an hour or more worth of makeup, you’ve got to come on stage and from a dead start produce an emotion.
Did you fire a weapon a few times?
God knows how many times. I’ve done that on almost every film I’ve made. It tends to rivet the attention.
Didn’t you slap the actor who played Father Dyer?
It’s true, but it’s not a fair statement of what happened. The guy who played Father Dyer [in The Exorcist] is still a real priest at Fordham, Father Bill O’Malley. He’s not an actor, he’s a priest. He had to give the last rites to his friend, who’s just fallen down this flight of stairs, and then burst into tears. We were out there at three in the morning shooting that endlessly, 20 takes, and Bill couldn’t get the tears. I had remembered, and I had actually done this before, that this was what French director H.G. Clouzot did to rivet the actor’s attention. You are not going to do that with a skilled actor. They would hit you back. You’re not going to go to Laurence Olivier and get him to emote. He has the technique to do that. Bill O’Malley did not. So I took Bill, who I was very close to, and said after 20 odd takes, “Bill, do you love me?” He said, “You know I love you, Bill.” “And you know that I love you, don’t you?” He said, “Yes, I know that. I feel that and that I love God.” I said, “Bill, I just want you to keep that in mind before we do the next take.” I turned away, then I slapped him as hard as I could in the face, and he was shocked. I put him in the scene and said, “Roll it, action!” And he had the sting of what I had done after telling him that I loved him, and he came up to me afterwards and embraced me. He said, “Thank you. Thank you so much.” He needed something, some external thing to make them cry, and that will tend to do that. If you and I are talking and you suddenly slap me in the face, I’m liable to tear up. But then when I realize why you’ve done it, to produce some effect in me — I’ve done that maybe three times over a fairly long but scantily productive career.
“I feel that there is a thin line between good and evil in all of us, and all us come out on one side or the other from time to time.”
What inspired Father Karras’ dream sequence?
It’s indicated in Blatty’s novel. What I did in the dream sequence, which was not in Blatty’s novel, is throw in shots from Iraq in order to suggest subconsciously a symbiosis between Karras and Merrin. So you see the clock, the wild dogs and the St. Joseph’s medal found in Iraq. There are various other cuts that combine what we’ve seen in Merrin’s world and what Karras dreams about. I had this thought that when people have this kind of symbiosis that’s going to bring them together in some way — priests about to be involved with a very profoundly disturbing incident — why would their experiences not appear in each other’s lives in their dream world?
What impact do you think The Exorcist had on cinema made after it came out, and what do you want its legacy to be?
I’ve no idea about the impact it had. What do I want the legacy of it to be? It is what it is. I know that people think of it as a horror film. I don’t. I understand that people do, and there’s nothing I care to do about it or would do about it if I could, except when people ask me that question or similar questions, I say I understand why people it is thought of as a horror film. [Author William Peter] Blatty and I knew it would be intense, but we never discussed it as a horror film, nor did I discuss that with the cameraman.
You could call it a dysfunctional family drama.
You can call it whatever you want. The only reason to make films, for me, is to make a film that will either make you laugh or cry or be scared or all three.
Or to think.
Think? No. None of us are philosophers. I’ve never met a filmmaker who was a philosopher, not on a great massive scale. You can’t set out to make people think. That’s the work of Isaiah Berlin or Sigmund Freud and people who’ve studied scientific theory. We all have theories, but make people think? There are films that made me think, but first they’ve got to entertain me. If I’m bored or falling asleep or falling out, I tend to think about nothing other than getting the hell out of there. So your first obligation as a filmmaker is to tell a story. Blatty did have a religious message in mind when he wrote the novel and the screenplay, and I was aware of that, but what I tried to do when I released the first version of it was take all of the proselytization. I felt it was inherently implicit, and then later I put it back in, 12 minutes of it.
Blatty is more religious than you.
He’s a practicing Catholic, and I’m not. I believe in God, but I think the definition that best describes my beliefs is agnosticism, and the literal definition of an agnostic is one who believes the power of God and the soul are unknowable. So I acknowledge the power of God and the soul, but I don’t think that I or anyone else will know anything about it in this life. Is there an afterlife? I would like to think so. Who knows? We don’t know any of these things. That’s the mystery of faith, that we believe without knowing.