Regular Exorcise With William Friedkin

Photo by Jon Rou

Academy Award-winner William Friedkin has directed several seminal films, including “The Exorcist,” “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “The French Connection.” Friedkin spoke on campus in late March as part of the School of Film and Television’s “The Hollywood Masters” series. Vanessa Newell, associate professor of film production in SFTV, spoke to him about his work and the film industry.

You said once your films are about people at the extremes. Why do stories about people like that appeal to you?
I think there’s good and bad in every human being on earth, including — may she rest in peace — Mother Teresa, and Adolf Hitler. As someone said, the proper study of mankind is man. What you’re dealing with in drama is the “crooked timber of humanity,” as Isaiah Berlin called it. That’s what makes an interesting story: where we’re bent, where we go off or where we hit a crisis point.

Are you drawn to stories that are interesting or those with complex characters?
Both. I’m interested in complexity but ambiguity as well. In most of the films I make, nothing is resolved, and those are the kinds of films I like to see. There are very few moments of closure in life other than death.

Technology has changed a great deal in the past 10–15 years, but the truth is it’s always changing. How was film technology changing in the ’70s?
By then, filmmakers had the ability to use hand-held cameras. You could take cameras out and film on the move almost anywhere. A lot of very important and significant films were made in the ’60s and ’70s, like the John Cassavetes films, which were mostly made with hand-held cameras and portable sound equipment. Before then, you’d never see them used on a feature film. By the time I started making films, people were not enslaved to the giant sound boxes that enclosed a 35 mm camera.

Do you think today’s technology, in visual effects for example, helps make films better than before?
Are the stories better? No, they’re worse than they were in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50’s, ’60s and ’70s. The stories are lame, and most are about superheroes, vampires, witches or possessed people. Most of the stuff that comes out in feature films today takes the easy road. It overshadows story and character. That is not how the studios looked at film in my day. They wanted to entertain people, yes, but they also wanted to present characters who had values and tried to distinguish between right and wrong. I don’t see a lot of films today. I pretty much know what they are, and they’re sequels to things that I’ve seen before.

Tell me what films have inspired you.
There are so many: “All About Eve,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Belle du Jour,” “Blow Up,” “Gigi,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Band Wagon,” “An American in Paris,” “Bullitt,” a French horror film called “Diabolique.” I continue to watch those films. “Citizen Kane” epitomizes the best that can be done in terms of storytelling on film, from the acting to the writing, direction, art direction, cinematography, editing and music. When I first saw it, the film was playing in a revival theater in Chicago. It was on a Saturday afternoon, and I stayed in the theater all day and watched the film five or six times in a row. I was flabbergasted. It was like the feeling some people have when they stand before a great painting or sculpture.

What’s your favorite part of flimmaking?
Editing. I look at the shooting of the film as nothing but raw material for the cutting room. That’s where the film is shaped. Most filmmakers I know will shoot a scene from eight or 10 angles, then take all of it to the cutting room and discover the film in the cutting room. I found that all of my films, including “The French Connection,” were made and discovered in the cutting room. My intention for how the scenes were going to be used often changed radically in the editing room. To me, that’s the most creative process in filmmaking.

Do you encourage aspiring filmmakers to study film history?
Yes and no. Put it this way: It won’t do you any harm to learn about film history, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to become a good filmmaker. You can read all the books written by Proust, Dostoevsky, García Márquez, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Alice Munro and never be able to write like them. But you’re not going to lose anything by reading them because theirs are great works of literature.

It’s always tempting to ask an established director, “What’s your advice to a young aspiring director?” So turn that question around: What’s the most basic, cold, hard reality about filmmaking that a young director better learn early on?
You better be able to take rejection. It’s very arrogant to think that you can make a movie. Very often, you’ll go ahead and set out to do that, and you’ll get slapped down. If you’re serious about pursuing it as a career, you’ve got to be able to get up. You must be able to take the hits. The qualities most necessary for success as a filmmaker are ambition, luck and the grace of God. Without all three, talent doesn’t matter. Luck comes out of ambition. In many cases, you make your own luck. But in my view, you also need the grace of God. It is sprinkled like the rain on the flowers in the spring — we never know whether we’re going to have it or not, or when, or where.

What scene is your favorite of all your films?
None. I don’t have favorites. It’s really like the old cliché: Which of your children do you like best? But there are a lot of scenes I’m proud of, like the bridge-crossing scene in “Sorcerer.” That is the best piece of filmmaking I’ve ever done. The scene in “The Exorcist” that I’m proudest of is one with the detective and the little girl’s mother, played by Lee J. Cobb and Ellen Burstyn. They’re talking around the fact that the detective is aware that a man either was pushed or fell out of her daughter’s bedroom window. They both know where the conversation is leading: that this little girl had something to do with it in some way. It was a perfectly written scene, and it was perfectly cast. I just got out of their way.

When directors are asked, “What’s your secret to directing actors?”, they often answer, “cast good actors.” Do you agree?
It starts with that. If you’ve miscast the role, you’ll never get it back. It’s also hard to know that you’ve miscast the role. Actors may have off days, and some may have taken the role just for money or reasons other than their desire to play the part. But that’s not something you know when you cast someone. I have miscast roles in the past, absolutely.

Can you do anything about miscasting after the shooting is done?
I have participated in editing scenes that were not as well acted as they ultimately appear. You cut certain things, or you stay on the reaction shot longer. I can honestly tell you that we have saved a lot of performances in the editing room that weren’t as good when shot. Then you get a scene like the one in “The Exorcist” that I described where the difficulty was choosing what to use.

If you ask me what’s wrong with Movies today I’d say not enough Ford LTDs. What would you say?
Why do you say Ford LTDs?

Because I love ’70s cars, and I love that they’re coming back.
Well, it’s hard to put an LTD in a film like “Noah” or “Captain America”!

William Friedkin
William Friedkin is the director of “The French Connection” for which he won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film.
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