Actors' memoirs come and go, but when a filmmaker tries his hand at writing a book, the results can be enlightening indeed. William Friedkin, the director best known for "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist," didn't even bother hiring a ghostwriter. Instead, he filled one Moleskine notebook after another with long-hand recollections, then sent off the pages to his publisher. "The Friedkin Connection," out April 16 from HarperCollins, is jam-packed with colorful anecdotes (who knew Gene Hackman was such a pain in the ass?), but the real joy is sharing brain space with this ballsy, unconventional force of nature as he plays career Chutes and Ladders in the company of Hollywood's A-list.
Last month, Friedkin, who is married to former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing, visited HuffPost Live and talked about the complicated legacies of his gay-themed films "The Boys in the Band" and "Cruisin'." Last week, I had the chance to ask him about his classic films "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist," which turns 40 this year. As you'll see, he didn't exactly pull any punches.
Michael Hogan: "The Exorcist" is one of my favorite films ever, and I think it's fascinating that you say you never set out to make a horror film.
William Friedkin: We knew it would be disturbing. Demonic possession and exorcism -- that's not your average Adam Sandler movie. But ["The Exorcist" novelist and screenwriter William Peter] Blatty and I never spoke about it being a horror film. We talked about it being a film about the mystery of faith. When it first started to come out that critics and viewers saw it as a horror film, and a great horror film, we both went through a rationalization, which was that it's one way of dealing with it. Just dismiss it as a horror film.
But if you examine what it's really about -- while it is disturbing -- so is the whole idea of Christianity! Beginning with the immaculate birth and then the crucifixion, all of those are beyond most people's ability to comprehend. And then the resurrection -- that's the basis for a horror film! But Blatty and I accept that people view it as a horror film. OK, it runs every Halloween somewhere. And on October 30, there's going to be a new version of it that will premiere at the Smithsonian.
For its 40th anniversary, right?
Yeah. You know, there aren't that many films -- or horror films -- that get re-released like that. So there's clearly more to it than just a horror film. It reaches people on very profound levels.
Does horror to you have B-movie connotation?
I don't think in those terms, for the most part. But there are some horror films that I think are legitimate horror films that I think are quite good. "Alien," "Rosemary's Baby," there's a Japanese film called "Onibaba" -- and "Psycho," of course.
What about "Halloween"?
It's OK. I'm not gonna knock it. I mean, I really enjoyed it. That's probably not the right word. I thought "Halloween" was engrossing. But then what tends to happen is all these sequels and rip-offs where they just diminish the value of the original. And that's happened to "The Exorcist." John Nance Garner, the vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt, famously said, "The Vice Presidency isn't worth a bucket of warm spit." Well, there isn't one sequel to "The Exorcist" that's worth a bucket of warm spit. "The Exorcist 2" is one of the worst films I've ever seen. It's terrible. I find it worse than terrible; I find it disgusting.
It must upset you that a film you put so much care and pride in would have its legacy tarnished that way.
No, it didn't upset me. I basically regard the films I make as very close to relatives or children. But I don't equate those films with what somebody else ripped off. I had nothing to do with them. If I had, I would be ashamed.
Didn't Blatty direct "The Exorcist 3"?
It was originally titled "The Legion," and it was based on a book Blatty wrote. But the studio, Morgan Creek, decided to call it "Exorcist 3." Blatty had sold them the rights, and that was one of their rights. They called it "Exorcist 3," and what can I say? I love Blatty, and I owe a great deal to Blatty, as I say in the book. But to me all the sequels are unwatchable.
You're one of the inventors of the modern car chase. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?
Yes. I can tell you that if I had seen any of the chases in Buster Keaton's films before I set out to do chase in "French Connection," I never would have attempted to do it. Those scenes are works of art. I don't know how he did most of them, but they actually had to go out and do all that stuff. There were no special effects that you could employ, other than in the camera. I tried to avoid all of that. I tried never to even to change the camera speed, with the exception of one shot in the "French Connection" chase, which is a backward-motion shot pulling away from the rear of a stationary train. The only way I could get the oncoming train to crash into it was to do it as a backward-motion, high-speed shot. But that was all done in the camera and it wasn't dangerous. Virtually everything else in "The French Connection" and "To Live And Die In LA" and "Jade" chase scenes was dangerous. And I wouldn't go about them in the same way today. It was just by the grace of God that nobody was injured or killed.
Looking back on it, do you think it was too risky?
Yes. It was. But I have to admit that I didn't think about that at the time. But I also had enough confidence that it would work, that I could pull it off. And that people would not get hurt. We rehearsed everything before we shot it to make sure it was doable. But it was also made one shot at a time. I look at a chase scene like knitting. One stitch at a time. Knit one, purl two. I think the chase scenes I see today are spectacular, but most of them are done on a computer. If I were doing one today I would use the computer too. I wouldn't go out and do that stuff mechanically and put people's lives at risk.
Didn't you do the "French Connection" chase without permit?
Most of it. I don't remember getting a permit for anything, except we got permission from the guy who was representing the transit authority to film on an elevated train. He obviously wouldn't let us crash the train, but that was accomplished by an under-the-table payment.
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