William Friedkin: The Devil in Mr Friedkin

William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, hates the sequels it has spawned, he tells Geoffrey Macnab
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's early morning in a back room of the Caffe Torino, one of Turin's oldest and most splendid cafés. As a waiter bustles round him with a tray of water and coffee, William Friedkin is talking about James Cagney's performance in Raoul Walsh's White Heat. We're midway through The Turin Film Festival, which is holding a retrospective of Friedkin's work, and the 68-year-old director of The Exorcist and The French Connection is in cheerful and expansive mood - at least to begin with, before the fatal question about the jockstrap.

"That's an amazing performance from Cagney [in White Heat]. I can't think of too many other films in which a street criminal was portrayed with such complexity," Friedkin enthuses. "I know a number of guys on the other side of the law back in New York and in Los Angeles and Chicago... a lot of the behaviour of these guys is copied from Cagney and George Raft."

Friedkin's admiration of White Heat is easy to understand. This is a studio gangster movie with grit and flamboyance. It was shot by Walsh on location and paid meticulous attention to the psychology of its criminal protagonists, yet boasted explosive set-pieces as well as Cagney ("made it, Ma! to the top of the world, Ma!") at his most hyper-charged. In other words, it's a perfect template for Friedkin's own action movies. Like Walsh, he is a director who works within the system, sometimes taking what seem to be hack assignments (for instance, TV movies like C.A.T. Squad: Stalking Danger) and flitting between genres. He's one of a generation of US film-makers (alongside such figures as Sidney Lumet and the late John Frankenheimer) with a grounding in live-TV drama who can seemingly tackle any kind of material. Quite apart from The Exorcist and The French Connection, he has made musical burlesques (The Night They Raided Minsky's), Pinter adaptations (The Birthday Party), comedies (The Deal of the Century), even a film with Sonny and Cher (Good Times).

"I don't regard myself as an auteur," he says. "I think of myself as someone who is very lucky to have a job in film. I don't look to put my own stamp on a work. I look for a story which intrigues me and then I try to tell it as simply as possible."

The Turin retrospective provided a rare opportunity to see Friedkin's breakthrough film, The People Versus Paul Crump (1962), a documentary about a young black man on Death Row. In it, you can spot many of Friedkin's pet obsessions in miniature: his fascination with fate and the arbitrary nature of justice (Crump is like a real-life version of Kafka's Josef K), and his fetish for background detail. Crump has had a confession beaten out of him and has already languished for nine years in prison. The prison governor vouches that he has been rehabilitated, and the evidence against him is sketchy and circumstantial at best, but Crump still looks certain to be executed until Friedkin takes up his case. As a direct result of the film, Crump's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Friedkin already knows how to stoke up the horror and suspense. He includes constant cut-aways to a dripping tap which Crump must listen to every night in his cell. In one grim montage sequence, he coldly shows us the electric chair. Meanwhile, there are dramatic reconstructions of the robbery which led to Crump's imprisonment and of the beating he received from the warders, all shot in a rough, naturalistic way that anticipates the on-the-streets look of The French Connection.

Within a decade of making Crump, Friedkin was at the top of the tree. It's hard to credit now, but there was a time when he was regarded in Hollywood in much the same way as his beloved Orson Welles had been after Citizen Kane. With The French Connection in 1971, he became the youngest ever recipient of a Best Director Oscar. Two years later, he consolidated his reputation with The Exorcist. He is one of the most prominent figures in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind's scabrous account of American film-making in the 1970s, but the very mention of the book puts an immediate chill in the conversation.

"The guy who wrote it was writing gossip. He is dealing in garbage and dirt, which is why I didn't talk to him," he says. "None of the other guys did either. He wrote his book from the ravings of ex-girlfriends, ex-wives. I know there are implications in this book that friends of mine were out of their minds on drugs. They may have experimented with drugs but to write about those film-makers as drug addicts is idiotic."

Friedkin has a reputation as a tough taskmaster. Fifty people left Sorcerer (1977), his ill-fated, South American-shot remake of Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, because they were either injured or were suffering from gangrene. There are accounts of him pushing his actors to extremes, goading a placid Gene Hackman to act mean as Popeye Doyle and even slapping Paul Crump to make him more dynamic on camera, but he scoffs at the idea that he's any kind of martinet. "I don't think any shot is worth an actor or even a squirrel getting a sprained ankle," he protests. "Even in the most difficult action sequences I have shot, I will not put anyone in harm's way... There is a certain degree of risk when a guy gets in a car in a chase scene, but it's never what it appears to be... By the grace of God, there has never been any kind of accident to people in my films. Just a few bent fenders."

He is equally dismissive of much of the hysteria surrounding The Exorcist. "If there were paranormal events, that's up to you to determine. I say there were none," he declares. "I certainly don't believe in anything like an Exorcist curse... I'd be surprised if anyone stable saw The Exorcist and started to faint or throw up. I can't be responsible for the mental stability of everyone who sees my films."

Ellen Burstyn, who plays Linda Blair's mother in the film, has told journalists that her back was hurt during the shooting of one of the stunts in The Exorcist and that she still suffers the after-effects of the injury today. "That's bullshit! She's on stage right now, doing a one-woman show. Burstyn never missed one day's work as a result of that shot in The Exorcist. She's a drama queen and journalists play this up. You guys love this stuff... She'll say to me jokingly, 'You know I really hurt my back.' [Well] I hurt my back getting out of bed."

He's been following the saga of the new Exorcist film, Exorcist IV: The Beginning, from which Paul Schrader was sacked earlier this year. The scriptwriters, he says, "probably can't make up a story" ("Blatty based his story on facts, he stayed very close to the events.") He won't be going to see the finished product, but doesn't seem particularly sympathetic towards Schrader. "I don't know what his problems are, but I know that the sequels I have seen are garbage." John Boorman's Exorcist II, he adds, is "possibly the worst film I've ever seen."

It is noticeable how cantankerous and defensive he becomes when talking about his most celebrated and notorious movie. None the less, he is shortly to return to the horror genre. He is attached to direct an adaptation of Robert Silverberg's Book of Skulls. "The idea [behind the film] is what would you do for eternal life. Would you kill your best friend in order to attain eternal life? It's a thriller about very metaphysical things." Before then, he plans to make the serial-killer thriller Serpentine. He has abandoned plans to make a movie about the boxer Sonny Liston, but is still hoping to revive his long-gestating The Diary of Jack The Ripper.

You get the very clear sense that Friedkin feels like a man out of time. He bemoans contemporary audiences who want "fantasies, sequels and video-game movies instead of real stories," and laments the fact that all the studios, which he remembers as being "mom and pop stores" when he started in the business, have now been taken over by huge, faceless corporations. Yes, he concedes, the industry has shed its old kneejerk chauvinism (the fact that his wife, Sherry Lansing, is boss of Paramount is testament to that), but the paradox is that it's lost the knack of making women's pictures in the process. "The guys like Mayer, Zanuck, Goldwyn and Warner were for the most part chauvinist, sexist and racist maybe. They had all the shortcomings of human nature, but they made the best women's films ever... Now you have more women in charge of the studios, but fewer women stars, fewer great roles for women."

Whatever his misgivings about present-day Hollywood, Friedkin is a pragmatist. He's managed to keep on working while other 1970s mavericks, Michael Cimino for instance, have fallen by the wayside. As the Turin retrospective underlines, there have been some misfires along the way. His C.A.T Squad movies, about a crack team of counter-terrorism experts, may include plenty of nods in Hitchcock's direction, but they're still surprisingly clunky. Neither Jade (1995) nor his most recent film, The Hunted (2003), are a patch on his best films of the 1970s.

With Rules of Engagement (2000), he enjoyed his first big box-office hit in years but he is still incensed by the European critics who accused him of glorifying the US military machine and of presenting racist stereotypes of the Arab characters. "Let's face it," he protests. "Europe for the most part is in thrall to the Muslim world... The ordinary European in the streets has anti-American sentiments like I have never seen before. Perhaps they're deserved. But Rules of Engagement is about the impossibility of determining the innocence or guilt of a soldier in war. It was totally misinterpreted by a lot of the European press as a jingoistic celebration of war. I believe that the European press is in many ways blinded by a kneejerk anti-Americanism."

Friedkin now has a second career directing operas. He's far more animated when discussing his production of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle than when he is mulling over The Exorcist. "Staging operas is a tremendous challenge, more of a challenge for me than cinema is," he says. "There's nothing as satisfying as staging a piece of work and lighting it and then hearing it when it's put in front of a 100-piece orchestra."

He's already plotting his production of Samson and Delilah, to be staged in Tel Aviv in 2005, and of Strauss's Salome, pencilled in for Munich in 2006. Meanwhile, he and David Henry Hwang are working on a new version of Alice in Wonderland for The Los Angeles Opera Company, also for 2006.

While Friedkin is happy to talk opera till the cows come home, he certainly doesn't want to be reminded of preparations for his 1980 film, Cruising, in which Al Pacino starred as a cop who goes undercover in New York's S&M gay underworld.

Before shooting began, Friedkin reportedly visited one gay club on jockstrap night. "Who are you writing for? Penthouse?" he complains bitterly of what is intended as a light-hearted question about how exhaustively he researches his movies. He refuses to answer the question. "It's not germane to anything I've ever done."

On this angry note, the interview is brought rapidly to an end. The moral for any future interviewer of Friedkin is obvious - steer clear of the underwear.