Filmmaker William Friedkin

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Friedkin, a maverick of American cinema and the creative force behind many iconic, award-winning films, reflects on his extraordinary life and career.

Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin is best known for such seminal films as The Exorcist, which not only catapulted his career 40 years ago, but also revolutionized the horror genre, and The French Connection, a Best Picture Oscar winner. He started on his movie-making path right out of high school, working his way from the mailroom to the directing booth of local TV stations in his Chicago hometown. His directorial jobs included working on live television shows and documentaries before he transitioned to Hollywood and a legendary career, which he recounts in his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, released earlier this year.


Tavis: Director, producer, and screenwriter William Friedkin is the creative force behind so many iconic, award-winning films, including, of course, “The French Connection,” “To Live and Die in L.A.,” and of course the movie many still consider to be the scariest film ever made, “The Exorcist.”

That movie was first released in 1973, which makes it now 40 years old. There’s a new Blu-ray edition, which includes extended scenes from the movie and in-depth commentary from the director, Mr. Friedkin. Let’s take a look first at a memorable scene from “The Exorcist.”


Tavis: As soon as that clip started to play, I heard you whisper, “Oh, I remember this scene.” What do you remember about that scene?

William Friedkin: I remember every frame of the picture, Tavis. I worked on that film, from beginning to end, for about four years. I did all the foreign versions as well. I supervised all the dubbing in French, Italian, Spanish, German, and the subtitling in places like Japan.

There was a lot of give-and-take in doing the translations, because for example in Japan, the worst thing you can call somebody is a fool. So a lot of the four-letter words had to go, and the film was, of course, laced with them, I don’t hesitate to say.

But I did – we worked on the script, even after the novel had been out for a year, we worked on the script for another year.

Tavis: You have said on more than one occasion, Mr. Friedkin, and I want to get your take on this –

Friedkin: Call me Bill, would you, Tavis? Or Billy.

Tavis: Okay.

Friedkin: I’ll feel more comfortable.

Tavis: I’ll do my best, Mr. – I’ll do my best, Mr. Friedkin. (Laughter) You have said on more than one occasion, to my read, that you, interestingly, did not set out to make a scary film. It was for you a more spiritual journey.

I wonder if you might unpack that for me, because again, everybody sees it as perhaps the scariest movie ever made, but that wasn’t even your intent.

Friedkin: No, I understand that, and I don’t tell anybody they’re crazy if they think that, because I know that’s how it’s perceived, as a horror film. But it’s based on an actual case. It was inspired by a case that took place in 1949 in Silver Spring, Maryland.

There were only three such cases in the 20th century in the United States in the Catholic church that they authenticated as demonic possession, and they let an exorcism be performed. This was one of those cases.

Everything I’ve read, including the diaries of the doctors, the nurses, even some of the patients in the hospital where the young man who was the victim of this – it wasn’t a young girl, it was a young man – every one of the diaries tells the same story, and the young man is still alive.

He’s recently retired. But the diocese in Washington keeps close tabs on him. He has no memory of what happened to him. I set out with Bill Blatty, who wrote the novel and the screenplay, to make a film about the mystery of faith.

That was it. I knew it would be disturbing, of course, because the story is disturbing. But we tried to avoid all the clichés of the horror film. Now what we did has become the clichés of the horror film. I understand that and recognize it.

Tavis: When you say “the mysteries of faith,” I think I take your point, but give me a bit more on what you mean by that.

Friedkin: Well, there was a man over 2,000 years ago who wandered in the deserts of Galilee with a robe and sandals. He was probably illiterate. He never wrote anything that was published. There’s no recording of his voice, there’s no photograph of him.

The first of the gospels, the Gospel according to St. Mark, came out 70 years after his death. Yet trillions of people all over the world have believed that this man is the son of God. He called himself the son of man.

I don’t know – the gospels differ on this, but Jesus referred to himself as the son of man, and so the idea that people who have never read anything that he wrote, never seen anything, they didn’t catch him on TV on the “Tavis Smiley Show” or something.

All of it comes from the gospels, and yet this church was founded in his name, the religion is all over the world, and people believe. I think of it kind of as like the mystery of love.

You might meet somebody or I might, and we fall in love with them. Someone else meets the same person and that doesn’t happen. Love is a mystery, and so is life and so is faith.

Tavis: That’s what faith is, though – it’s the substance of things not seen.

Friedkin: Exactly.

Tavis: It’s stuff that you don’t see.

Friedkin: But that you believe.

Tavis: Yeah.

Friedkin: Why? I’m not a Catholic, but I believe strongly in the teachings of Jesus, and Jesus is said to have been an exorcist. The New Testament accounts have many exorcisms performed by Jesus and his disciples.

Tavis: Have you, to your – what you’ve said now I can take in 18 different directions, and –

Friedkin: Well, pick one. (Laughter)

Tavis: No, no, I’ll pick one. I’ll pick one, because we’d be here for the next three or four days talking about the gospels and this. But here’s the question, I suspect, which is whether or not, given what you’ve articulated now, you were ever disappointed that all of that was ignored, dismissed, or just went over people’s head, and it was about a horror movie.

Friedkin: All of it was not, Tavis.

Tavis: Right.

Friedkin: For example, the head of the Jesuit order, whose name at the time was Father Pedro Arupe, and his headquarters was in Milan, he had his own print of “The Exorcist,” and he ran it for other priests, for friends, for people he knew and liked.

Throughout the Catholic church it was of course controversial, but at the highest levels it was accepted, and even accepted and believed by people who are not Catholic, such as myself.

Tavis: What is the value, then – and I don’t mean economic value – but what is the societal value, the spiritual value, to our revisiting this 40 years later?

Friedkin: New generations. People weren’t even born when this film came out. Many generations weren’t born. I do believe that the film is still very powerful and effective to new generations. I’ve seen it.

The world’s become a lot more cynical over those 40 years, and the church has lost a lot of followers for various reasons. But the picture still seems to carry a certain power.

I don’t put it out there. I don’t control that. If there was no demand to have it seen, there’d be no 40th anniversary Blu-ray. Even according to the gospels, with the exception of Paul, the letters of Paul, Jesus did not come here to start a new religion to Galilee, Palestine, whatever you want to call it.

Jesus came to reform the Jewish church, and the church and the people in Palestine were controlled by the Romans. And Jesus was tried for sedition, for going against the government The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, he controlled – and King Herod – they controlled the diaspora.

Jesus felt that the synagogue had lost its way. What he was trying to do was bring them back to the beliefs of Moses and the 10 commandments, from which they had widely strayed. That was his purpose here on Earth.

The priests or rabbis at the time didn’t like that, so they called on the Roman governors to try him for sedition. Then, as you know, Pilate asked the populace which one of the three men on the cross they wanted spared. He would have spared one. They said, “Barabbus,” who was a thief. Not Jesus.

Tavis: That’s right.

Friedkin: But his trial was for sedition. He was killed for sedition. The odd thing about that is the actual penalty for sedition in those days was not crucifixion, it was stoning.

Right after Jesus – there were thousands and thousands of people who were crucified. There were others who were named Jesus and called themselves the messiah were crucified.

After Jesus, there was a man called Stephen who became St. Stephen. There are cathedrals built to him all over the world. He claimed that he saw a vision of Jesus in the heavens standing at the side of God, and he was tried for sedition and stoned to death.

So there’s a lot of strange things that are unanswerable in normal terms about the mission of Jesus, why he came here, who he was. Very little is known, although he had four brothers, and his brother James was actually the spiritual leader of the church after Jesus’ death.

But it all comes down to the mystery of faith – you believe it or you don’t. I happen to believe, as I say, in those teachings. I don’t subscribe to the Catholic Church today, being opposed to damn near everything.

Tavis: What about this new pope, though?

Friedkin: He seems very promising, doesn’t he? He’s saying some wonderful things and doing some wonderful things. But then I remember how great Jimmy Carter seemed when he became president in 1976, and how down he was with the – carried his own bags, this and that, said wonderful things.

I don’t think he was a great president. I think he’s possibly the greatest after-president we’ve ever had.

Tavis: (Laughs) It’s funny you should say that. He’s been a guest on this program.

Friedkin: Interesting guy.

Tavis: I consider him a friend. He’s been on this program many times, and I asked him that question one time. I thought he was going to bite my head off when I asked him whether or not he thought he was the greatest ex-president we’ve ever had. It was a fascinating conversation.

But let me go back though to – I’ve been kind of smiling, listening to you, and I didn’t want to interrupt you, because you sound as much like a theologian as you do a filmmaker.

I say that with respect. But I wonder whether or not you think that 40 years after “The Exorcist,” whether or not Hollywood is best-equipped to deal with all of this.

Friedkin: I think not. There’ve been other –

Tavis: It attempts to do that, you know.

Friedkin: Well, they make other films with exorcist or exorcism in the title, but most of them that I’ve seen are just garbage. They have no spiritual undercurrent, nothing. They’re just – they are horror films.

I think that Hollywood’s, the films that I see coming out now at this time that we’re talking are very promising. I think there’s about to be a renaissance in Hollywood films.

But for many years, most of the pictures were just about a guy with a letter on his chest, a spandex suit, flying around saving the world, or they’re about vampires, zombies, comic books, video games. That’s been most of what Hollywood has produced.

Tavis: But you do realize, though, that this horror genre is a billion-dollar business, thanks in part to you.

Friedkin: I don’t live under a rock, Tavis. (Laughter)

Tavis: Thanks in part to you.

Friedkin: Maybe a rock in Bel Air, but –

Tavis: In Bel Air, yeah. (Laughter)

Friedkin: But I know what’s going on.

Tavis: I’d live under a rock in Bel Air if I could.

Friedkin: Okay, but I’ll tell you something. (Laughter) I accept no responsibility for the stuff that’s come out with this in the title or anything that’s done in that genre.

Tavis: But whether you like it or not, though, you do get some of the –

Friedkin: Blame.

Tavis: – some of the blame for this genre exploding the way it has.

Friedkin: That’s why I hide out most of the time (laughter) and don’t come out here in public this often, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me move, then, from “The Exorcist.” I’ll put that aside. By the way, like I said, out in Blu-ray now, and there’s a wonderful excerpt from your book included in this –

Friedkin: Thank you.

Tavis: – which I’ll get to that in a second. “The French Connection,” one of my favorite films.

Friedkin: Oh, thank you.

Tavis: Yeah. All these years later, when you look back on that, you think what?

Friedkin: Well, I think that it was an act of the movie gods, small “G,” that got it cast the way it was – I didn’t want any of those people with the exception of Roy Scheider.

The film was passed up by every studio that existed then. Most of them passed on it twice. It was only a man named Dick Zanuck at 20th Century Fox who said, “I don’t know what the hell this thing is you got here, but I have a hunch it could be something. I’ve got a million and a half dollars hidden away in a drawer. If you can make the film for that, go ahead.”

We did. It was under the radar, completely. It wasn’t widely publicized, didn’t have stars in any sense of the word. I was not a star director. Yet opening day, people showed up in long lines around the world, and that’s – it was very surprising to me.

Because look, I think it’s a damn good film, but I see it as a nice little cop thriller, basically.

Tavis: It’s a little more than that, but I digress on that. I want to go back to “The Exorcist” right quick because you’ve said something now about “The French Connection” that makes a connect for me, which is that “The Exorcist” cast isn’t what we thought it was going to be.

When you mentioned that “The French Connection,” you didn’t want anybody in the cast originally –

Friedkin: With one exception

Tavis: – except for Roy Scheider. This was not the cast that the studio was pushing on you for “The Exorcist,” either.

Friedkin: Not at all. The studio, in the lead, the mother, they wanted either Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, or Jane Fonda. Great ideas, and so we offered the film to Audrey Hepburn, and she was married to an Italian doctor and living in Rome.

She said, “Look, I’ll do the film, but you’ve got to come to Rome and shoot it,” and I felt I’d have to bring every single member of the cast from America to Rome. It would cost a fortune, and I didn’t speak Italian at the time.

I would be speaking to the crew in translation; I didn’t want to do that. So we asked her to come here and she said, “No, I don’t want to leave,” so we went to Anne Bancroft, who said, “I’d love to do the film, but I have to tell you that I’m on my first month of pregnancy, if you guys are willing to wait.”

At the time, I didn’t have children, but I said, “Anne, I think after you have your baby you’re not going to want to go right back to work. We could wait for two years.” Ellen Burstyn was the last woman standing. That’s how she got it.

Tavis: But isn’t it funny how this stuff works, though?

Friedkin: Yeah.

Tavis: And it worked.

Friedkin: They’re great, and the little girl, Linda Blair –

Tavis: Linda Blair, yeah.

Friedkin: – who was 13, she had never acted before. She was a straight A student in Westport, Connecticut, but I met her in a room and after seeing 2,000 auditions, either in person or on tape, and I thought we can’t make this film.

So we started to look at 16-year-old girls who looked younger, and even 17, and I figured we can’t make this movie, until her mother brought her in on her own without an appointment to my office at Warner Brothers. She walked in the room and I knew instantly she was the one.

Tavis: And the rest, they say, is history. This memoir came out earlier this year, and I’m glad I have a copy of it. It’s called “The Friedkin Connection,” a memoir.

I knew that I was going to fall in love with whatever you had to say in here, in part because I went through the first couple of pages and just saw some of the dedications and some of the quotes that you use in the first few pages and realized that you and I both have something in common: That we love Samuel Beckett.

One of Beckett’s pieces of work that I live by that you have in the book here is “Ever tried, ever failed? No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.” I love that: “Try again, fail again, fail better.”

Friedkin: That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Tavis: Where your life is concerned, make the connection for me – trying again and failing again and failing better.

Friedkin: Oh, I’ve had numerous failures. You’re talking about a medley of my hits. I’ve had films that didn’t work with the public that I love just as much, and a lot of people get one of those failures and they’re gone, they’re out of here.

But I kept going because I love film. I love to work in cinema and to communicate. It’s been an adventure and an education for me, and so I keep going.

I didn’t know “The Exorcist” would be a hit movie, or “The French Connection.” I had no idea the extent to which they in fact succeeded, and I don’t think that it had that much to do with me, really. Later, you can cite a lot of reasons, but at the time, there were no reasons, because as I’ve told you, every studio passed on these films. Many of them passed twice.

Tavis: How do you process, even though you didn’t know it would work on the front side, when you get to this point of your life and you look back and you see that you have done work that is now iconic. How do you keep from sticking your chest out just a little bit?

Friedkin: Because I’ve been on the canvas. You know what the great contemporary philosopher Mike Tyson said? He knocked somebody out in the first round. I forget, might have been Spinx. I don’t remember.

But I remember he was interviewed by Howard Cosell, and he knocked him out in one round. After the fight, Howard Cosell interviewed Tyson and he said, “Mike, what did you think of his plan to stay away from you, to just keep shuffling away and occasionally trying to get in and jab you? How did you feel about his plan?”

Tyson said, “Everybody got a plan till they get hit in the face. Then he don’t got a plan anymore.” (Laughter) That’s my philosophy. It has not been said better by Bertrand Russell. That’s the way it is.

Tavis: Yeah.

Friedkin: I had a plan to have every one of my films be a (laughter) colossal success, Tavis, until I got hit in the face. Then you pick up, try again, maybe fail again, but fail better next time.

Tavis: If you had not – I’m just sitting here listening to you, trying to figure out what you might have done had this not been your calling, your vocation.

Friedkin: I had absolutely no focus as a kid. I never paid attention at school, I never went to college. Not because we were too poor; we were. But if I wanted to go to college, I would have found a way.

I’ve spoken now in many colleges, but I had no interest in school. I didn’t prepare myself at all. As I look back now at this point in my life, I would love to have become a doctor, but I had no training for it, and no motivation as a kid.

I didn’t do – I was a bad boy, and it’s a miracle I didn’t go down for a very long time, like some of the kids I grew up with. It was due to a lot of reasons – the love of my mother and father that really saved me from having no focus as a kid.

Tavis: Even though you didn’t turn out to be that physician, I hope you feel like you’ve made a meaningful contribution at this point through film.

Friedkin: I appreciate you – that’s for others to say. I feel that I’ve been very lucky to acquire this vocation, this ability to tell a story that other people can relate to sometimes, in the way that I told you earlier I can relate to the stories of the New Testament, though I’m not a Catholic.

So I feel very, very fortunate, man, I’m telling you, and that’s about it. I’m very fortunate. There are people far more talented than I am that can’t get in the door. I know many of them and I’ve tried to help them. To me, it’s all a matter of God’s will, ambition, and luck, and I have not said talent. There are many untalented people making millions of dollars in the film business.

Tavis: Yeah. I know some of them. (Laughter) Just for the record, I am a follower. I am a follower of that first century Palestinian Jew named Jesus.

It has been a blessing to have you on this program.

Friedkin: It’s been my pleasure, man. I love your show. You’re a great interviewer, and it’s an honor to be here.

Tavis: I’m delighted to have had you. There’s so much to delve into about the life and times of one William Friedkin. “The Exorcist” is out in Blu-ray now, extended director’s cut, and the original theatrical version.

There’s a wonderful excerpt from his book also that comes in this 40th anniversary Blu-ray edition, and there is the book itself, “The Friedkin Connection,” a memoir which I think you will delight in getting your hands on. Mr. Friedkin, an honor to have had you on this program, sir.

Friedkin: It’s mine, Tavis. Thank you very much.

Tavis: Maybe next time you’ll be Bill.

Friedkin: Okay.

Tavis: Okay.

Friedkin: That comes the second time, right?

Tavis: Yeah, that means you’ve got to come back.

Friedkin: Or beyond.

Tavis: That means you’ve got to come back again.

Friedkin: Just invite me.

Tavis: All right. I think I just did.

Friedkin: Okay.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: November 18, 2013 at 12:24 pm