If you've made very serious films like The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer, To Live and Die in L.A., Bug and Killer Joe, then you'd be justified in casting a rarified eye on everyone around you, but as I recently sat down for a long chat with director William Friedkin ahead of two revival screenings of his movies at the Alamo Drafthouse, I discovered he's not the intimidating, cold presence you may assume based entirely on his movies.
Friedkin is jovial, warm, incredibly intelligent and every answer of his feels like it could spin off into 20 different stories you'd be dying to hear. If anything, he's all the more interesting because he's not what you'd expect from a filmmaker with his background (he's also directed dozens of world class operas around the globe). He's approachable and modern (at 78 years old, he is more Twitter saavy than most young celebrities are), without any of the "back in my day" finger waving you may expect.
We spoke with Friedkin for about an hour, covering a variety of topics like why it's silly to put 35 mm film on a pedestal, why Bug is his most realistic film, and why he really added 12 minutes back into The Exorcist. We also previously published his thoughts on why TV now interests him more than feature filmmaking, which you can read here.
Movies.com: Do you think other filmmaking industries around the world have, or will eventually, take up the mantle of making movies like Sorcerer ever again?
William Friedkin: The way I did it? No, absolutely not. Even I would do it CGI, because you're not threatening anyone's life. A film like Sorcerer was life-threatening. Literally. There were 50 people, including me, who got malaria. I had to send 50 people home and change them out. You can imagine what it was like getting their replacements.
No. I don't know of any countries that would, at least. If people are making them, I don't see them around where I live. There are people making very interesting films out of places like the Middle East where we'd never see movies before. Films like Lebanon or The Band's Visit. I've seen a couple Iranian films that are incredible, and we never saw that stuff before. We just saw French or Italian or Japanese, but now I think some of the Mid East films are among the best things out there. The only French film I can remember from the last few years that I think is great is A Prophet. And I love Michael Haneke's films. He's a friend of mine. I spent a lot of time with him a couple years ago in Austria.
Movies.com: Unlike some of your peers, you don't have any nostalgia for shooting on film and are fighting to keep it alive. Why is that?
Friedkin: I'm glad 35 mm is dead. Its time has come and gone. It was a very long step on the way toward perfection. If these guys are nostalgic for 35, what about the old, original negative that wasn't safety film and could burn up in the camera or projector? Films began with completely different kinds of stock and all through the history of silent film right up until very recently, 35 mm has been a standard, but there's several reasons why it was only a step on the ladder in the same way that music used to be recorded on wire. They used to record music on wire recordings, then many years later came the 78 rpm, which was loaded with scratch noise. And then 33 1/3, 45 pm, then cassettes, and now CDs where the sound is perfectly recorded and there is no noise. I have no nostalgia for the old stuff and it's the same with film.
All 35 mm film has problems from the outset. In the camera, when you're shooting it, you could get hair or dirt in the gate. You'd get a shot and then the assistant would check the gate, and if there was a tiny hair you'd have to do the scene again or not bother and it'd be projected with it. The second these films were projected as prints, they'd pick up dirt and scratches or break and have to be spliced. All the classics I saw that way, and we just got used to all the dirt and noise, but now you have a medium where you don't have any of that. If the shot is lit well, it will look great with no dirt and no scratches. If it's not lit well, and the same goes for 35, it'll look lousy. If it's lit well, a DCP will look great and it will never pick up scratches or dirt.
The other thing about 35s is that they fade. When Paramount went to make the Blu-rays of The Godfather, they went into the vaults and what they found was the negative had completely faded out because it was underexposed to begin with. They spent close to two million dollars to restore that movie frame by frame with Ron Haver, this great restoration guy from UCLA, and that was their crown jewel! But that's the nature of 35. It fades, and it fades quickly. I certainly don't miss it.
There are so many other reasons. If you're on a distant location, like we were on Sorcerer, you couldn't see your dailies for weeks. "How was that shot?" "Oh, who knows!" We'd get something back weeks later and realize we had to reshoot it because it was underexposed. With a digital camera, you play it right back on the camera. With 35 a young filmmaker can't go in and buy an inexpensive camera. With digital, they can. You can buy one, shoot with it, edit it on your computer, and if you like it, you can post it on YouTube or whatever. Kids can't do that with 35. There's too many steps.
Movies.com: Some would argue that those extra steps are what made for better, more restrained filmmakers back in the day.
Friedkin: That's not what made for better filmmakers. The studio system did. The great directors like John Ford, Victor Fleming, King Vidor – name any of them, and they'd make three or four movies a year. Michael Curtiz made three movies the same year he made Casablanca! They kept working. Victor Fleming made Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in the same year! They had other guys shooting for them, sure, but they were a real team.
At MGM or Warner Bros., it was a team effort and they seldom edited their own films. Usually the studio head would edit a picture. Darryl Zanuck edited every film that went out of Fox. Directors learned to shoot with no waste. John Ford would shoot a scene, and then in the middle of a scene he'd cut because he knew that was all he was going to use from that shot, so he'd go to another setup. They don't do that anymore. Now guys are shooting films with 20 or 30 takes and printing them all and then finding the movie in the cutting room.
What made for great filmmakers in the days before I came along was the fact that they worked under the studio system. They'd make a lot more films than any of us will make, with the possible exception of Woody Allen, and they were able to hone their skills on different subjects. They would shoot a musical, a drama, a comedy, and keep working. They were working people. They were not artistes or auteurs, and that's what made for a great filmmaker. You hear about the great films they made, but you don't hear about the stiffs that went down the tubes.
Movies.com: Is this why your own movies don't seem to have any nostalgia in them? They're not striving to be of a style that was popular 20 years earlier.
Friedkin: What do you mean? Give me an example.
Movies.com: If someone wanted to make a gritty cop drama today, they'd be pitching it as being like The French Connection, but you obviously didn't have that template to point to and say "We're going to do what X movie did."
Friedkin: I'd never do that. You just go into a studio head's office. I'd go into Dick Zannuck's office and give him a script. Let's say with French Connection, we'd never discuss that the guy wasn't a hero cop. I knew he wasn't, but they didn't, because we never talked about it. They didn't know what I was going to shoot. They might have been looking for a hero, but the guy is an antihero because I don't believe in heroes in films. I believe there's good and evil in everyone, including Mother Theresa and Jesus Christ. There's good and evil in everyone, so I try to make films with people who are real. And some of the films I made many years ago still seem real. To me, the characters in a movie like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are more real than any of today's heros like Batman or Superman.
Movies.com: What's the closest you've ever come to making a sci-fi movie?
Friedkin: I never have come close. I've only made 17 films in 50 years. I've done some TV and documentaries. There are guys who have made 30 or 40 films in the same time. I wish I had the dexterity and flexibility of a guy like Woody Allen, who has a flood of ideas. Some are good, some are great, some – to me – are not that good, but he keeps working and that's what's important. I never had a sci-fi story, and as I think about it now, I don't read any sci-fi. I've tried. I've tried Ray Bradbury's stuff and found it unreadable. Even Philip K. Dick, from whom a number of great films have been made, isn't for me.
[Note: This is when Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League mentioned one could argue that Bug is kind of a sci-fi film.]
Friedkin: No, no way. Bug is my most realistic film. What do you think this guy who shot up UC Santa Barbra's private life was like? It's Bug. It's paranoia. So many people live in constant paranoia. Like this cop Dorner in LA, who was fired off the force and three years later he amassed an arsenal and shot up everyone. Can you imagine living inside his head? He issued a manifesto where you are inside his head, and he was totally mad.
You read about a lot of these characters in the paper, but the ones you don't read about are all around. Sometimes I'll just go someplace and observe people in moments when they don't think anyone is watching. I see people talking to themselves, wandering the streets. There are more and more homeless now than I ever remember as a kid. I grew up in Chicago and we never saw homeless people like this. People traumatized by these stupid wars we've been involved in where we destroyed a large part of the last generation. I think a lot of what's happening in the world today has brought about more and more scenarios like Bug. That guy in the film is an ex-vet. He has severe post-traumatic stress syndrome. But you see in the street of every city you go to, these guys who have seen hell.
Movies.com: Does that drive any sort of compulsion in you to make movies about that topic?
Friedkin: No, I just made that one. I only try to reflect a certain portion of reality. The great fisherman of reality is the recently deceased Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude. That stuff is called magic realism, but it deals with the inner lives of ordinary people in a way that raises it to a level of high art. It's called magic realism, but it's realism. It's what goes on in people's minds, and you can relate to it.
There is no such thing as normal. Normal is a goal. It's an aspiration. Are the people who run countries normal? These guys who are sending people off to die in wars for no reason? I find that insane. I find all the wars that America is involved in now – and this is not against the troops, obviously, who do and go where they're told because they believe in the country – insane. What will we get from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? Fewer attacks on the country? I doubt it.
I lived in Iraq for three months. I did the opening of The Exorcist in Mosul up in the north of Iraq, and the Iraqi people were beautiful. They had one-party government, the Ba'athist part with no opposition, like Mexico basically, though we don't attack them. For example, when I lived in Iraq in 1973, women could be in all the professions. They were doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, everything. They did not have to wear burqa unless they were in a mosque. They were not oppressed. It was a lively, active, energetic culture. We went into Iraq and we destroyed the country to save it. That's also what one of the generals said about Vietnam when they napalmed it, that they had to destroy the country to save it. So no, I don't believe in normal, and to me Bug is a documentary.
Movies.com: You've obviously been an advocate for restoration of your own films, and though The Exorcist rerelease did have some new footage, you haven't been one of these filmmakers who keeps releasing new cuts of their old films. Why is that?
Friedkin: The only reason I added 12 minutes to The Exorcist in 2000 was the writer, Bill Blatty, had been after me for years to put those 12 minutes back. In 2000 it was 26 years old, it had made something like six or 700 million dollars. I love Bill Blatty. He gave me his great novel to make as a film, and I know he missed those 12 minutes, and I know he felt I'd cut out the spiritual center of the film, but I did that purposefully because I didn't want any preachment. I thought it was pretty obvious what the film was about.
One shot I put back in was the backwards walk, because when we did it you could see the wires, but 26 years later I could take those wires out digitally. I left the shot out originally because it didn't work. So I told Blatty I'd look at it. He came out to L.A., we got the workprint and I looked at this film with the 12 or so minutes that were left out, and I said, "I think you were right," and I put them back in. Warners then rereleased the film in theaters, but I only did it for Blatty. I didn't care about rereleasing the way they did, though it did end making the same amount of money domestically, though the value of the dollar was far less.
Do the extra 12 minutes make the movie better? I can't say that, but it is less ambiguous. Blatty came to that film as a believing Catholic. I was more or less an agnostic, although I strongly believe in the teachings of Jesus I am not Catholic. Blatty thought those 12 minutes underscored the spiritual nature of his story, so I basically did it for him. We're still close friends and talk two or three times a week.
Movies.com: A few years ago Blatty said you were going to direct Dimiter. Is that happening?
Friedkin: No. I told him I'd read it, but I had no intention of making a film out of it. You've got to be careful about what you read on the Internet. We never had plans to make it.
Movies.com: What is stopping an Exorcist remake?
Friedkin: They've done it! They did four others. I've never seen them. I saw a few minutes of Exorcist II. I was at the Technicolor lab and the guy said "We're running the first print off for Exorcist II, you want to look at it?" I actually froze in horror and had to leave the room after about three minutes. It was horrible. I've never even seen a minute of any of the others.
Read the first part of our interview with William Friedkin here. We'd also recommend grabbing a copy of his memoir, The Friedkin Connection.
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