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William Friedkin: Why Sorcerer's Spell Refuses to Die

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In the mid-1970s, there were few American filmmakers riding as high as William Friedkin. The French Connection swept the 1971 Academy Awards, nabbing Friedkin a Best Director statuette. The Exorcist, released two years later, broke box office records to become one of the top grossing films of all time. Boasting creative power and freedom that most directors could only dream about, Friedkin opted to film an updated version of French auteur Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic The Wages of Fear (1953).

The result, 1977's Sorcerer, became one of the most notorious box office bombs of the decade. Its dark, unrelenting tale of four desperate, disparate men (Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou) who undertake a suicide mission by driving truckloads of nitroglycerine across the rugged South American jungle wasn't what the changing tide of audience tastes were buying then, compounded by the fact that Sorcerer was released the week before a little picture called Star Wars, which changed the Hollywood production (and marketing) landscape forever.

Nearly 40 years later, Sorcerer is getting a second life. After spending nearly a year painstakingly restoring the film's picture and sound, William Friedkin is presenting its U.S. premiere at the TCM Film Festival on Saturday night, April 12, at the iconic Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Now regarded as an unheralded classic by cinefiles and filmmakers alike (it's among Quentin Tarantino's top five favorite films), Sorcerer is also receiving a Blu-ray/DVD release from Warner Bros. Home Video on April 22.

William Friedkin sat down with us at his Los Angeles home recently to recall the birth, death and resurrection of Sorcerer.

I'm very excited to see the restored print of Sorcerer at The Chinese. I haven't seen it projected in over 20 years.

This new DCP of the film is just gorgeous. It looks as it looked when I saw it through the viewfinder. It's just perfect. I remixed the sound into 5.1 and it looks and sounds as I always hoped it would. In Denmark, Tangerine Dream is performing their score live, while I'm there. They're also recording it and doing an extra half hour of music that I didn't use in the film, that isn't on the soundtrack CD. So hopefully, there will be a new Sorcerer soundtrack album released soon.

When they scored the film, they hadn't actually seen it, just read the script.

That's right. I told them what it was about, then they sent me the music and I cherry-picked the pieces I liked best. Since they're basically an improvisational band, I said, 'Just write your ideas based on what I've told you and what you see in the script.'

Let's talk about the restoration process.

Thirty-five millimeter film deteriorates terribly over time, kind of like the old 78rpm records: They were great to have at the time, and were often the original recordings of the artists. But the technology was so flawed, eventually the 78 would get all scratched and you wouldn't have a perfect range of sound. Now we have high-definition sound, which is the way things should sound. I've never understood the purism of the original recording technique. I also don't buy this idea that film is the only pure cinematic form, as opposed to digital, which reproduces the image the way it was meant to be seen.

Was the film in bad shape when you went back to it?

No, it wasn't in bad shape, but neither were the colors true anymore. The prints had long since deteriorated and the negative, even though it had been stored well, the colors had started to fade. You couldn't make prints off it that would have decent color. But it wasn't a fucked up negative like The Godfather was when they went to make a Blu-ray of that. Paramount spent over a million dollars restoring the negative of The Godfather.

How long was the entire restoration process?

About seven or eight months, doing color timing and remixing the sound. In the color timing I do, you have to go into each frame, so it's a lengthy process.

Let's talk about why, after the one-two punch of The French Connection and The Exorcist, you joked you could have gotten a film of your nephew's Bar Mitzvah financed, you decided on a re-imagining of Clouzot's The Wages of Fear.

It just struck me as a very solid framework for a story about the mystery of fate. I had just made a film a few years before about the mystery of faith. Those are the eternal mysteries to me, and Clouzot's film struck me as a great vehicle to deal with the idea of man's fate in the simplest of terms. I was never interested in characters that were all good or all evil. They were engaged, as the world still is, in a constant struggle to survive. That framework struck me as being timeless.

You chose Walon Green, who'd written The Wild Bunch with Sam Peckinpah, as your collaborator.

Yeah, Wally Green was a good friend and one of the best young writers around. We created new characters and new situations throughout and kept Clouzot's essential framework. I always thought of it as doing a new production of Hamlet, or one of the classics, as opposed to a remake.

How carefully did you both study Wages of Fear before you wrote the script and then shot Sorcerer?

We didn't, and neither of us read Georges Arnaud's book, because it was in French. Wally and I were both huge fans of Wages of Fear and remembered it well enough that we just worked from those memories. Remember, this was before DVD or even VHS and it wasn't a film that had been widely seen here in the States. There probably weren't a lot of subtitled prints around then, either.

You've talked before about how not casting Steve McQueen in the lead, which would have secured you a cast of international superstars including Marcello Mastroianni and Lino Ventura in support, is the biggest professional regret of your life.

It was a huge regret for years, but not anymore. I think the cast is terrific. I don't know that those three huge stars would have gone as far as the guys we cast, because what they did was life-threatening. McQueen was kind of a daredevil, but we did things that were really unsafe. You want to talk about a regret, that's something I regret. We were very lucky no one was seriously hurt or killed. Very lucky.

L to R: Ramon Beri, Bruno Cremer, Roy Scheider, Amidou, Fredrick von Ledebur.

I'm thinking of the rope bridge sequence in particular. This was before CGI existed, so everything we see on the screen is real.

Exactly, and yes the rope bridge was certainly dangerous and all the driving, which was sometimes done by the actors themselves, literally had them behind the wheel on the edge of a cliff.

Let's talk about Roy Scheider. He was just coming off the success of Jaws, which I understand through multiple sources, changed him, and not for the better.

He was a piece of cake on The French Connection. He was trying to make it then and I mean, Roy would have lay down in front of an el train if I'd asked him to. I'm not sure what happened after Jaws. I thought about it a bit while we were doing Sorcerer and then afterward. I could speculate. I think he was not in a good marriage. This may have had something to do with it. He subsequently got divorced from Cynthia, who I made an assistant editor on Sorcerer. I think his personal life was not entirely good, but then it comes down to choices. I don't know, for example, if some other actor than Matthew McConaughey had done Dallas Buyers Club, he would've won an Academy Award for that. If it was an actor who didn't have to lose forty pounds, who knows? But McConaughey was a on a trajectory. It's a matter of timing and choices and the grace of God. Success in this business has a lot more to do with luck than anything else, being in the right place at the right time.

Roy Scheider as doomed gangster Jackie Scanlon.

We're back to the subject of fate again.

It all comes down to fate. There's no real reason I ever should have become a film director. I never studied film, unlike the movie brats of my generation I never went to film school, or even to college. I was never that enamored of film. I saw movies, but I viewed them as entertainment. I was motivated to want to get into live TV, which was a new medium when I was of age, in the middle '50s. So I took an entry-level job and it just grew from there. It's the equivalent of independent film today. But why did I get the breaks that I got? I couldn't tell you. That's the mystery of fate and to me, that's what Sorcerer is about.

The story of how you were finally able to blow up that massive tree trunk in the jungle is a funny one.

There was this guy whose nickname was "Marvin the Torch." He was a Jewish guy from Queens who was in the beauty supply business. If you saw Marvin, which wasn't his real name, in a room full of people, you wouldn't have looked at him twice. He used to use these flammable beauty supplies to take out whole blocks for insurance purposes. I knew a lot of these guys. My special effects team were having a hell of a time getting this tree blown up, and it was a key moment in the film. We couldn't just leave it out. I finally called Marvin in New York, out of desperation. His wife answered and I said, "Hi Mrs. Torch, is Marvin there?" Looking back, that probably wasn't the best strategy on my part. She got very upset, and started screaming "He doesn't do that anymore! You leave us alone!" I convinced her the job I had was legit. Marvin flew out to the Dominican Republic with his case of beauty supplies and he was the one responsible for getting that amazing explosion to happen that you see in the film.

Amidou and the infamous tree trunk, soon to be spectacularly splintered, courtesy of "Marvin the Torch."

And the robbery of the church was based on a crime committed by one of your cast members.

Yes. His name was Gerry. In a former life Gerry had an...interesting occupation. He and his crew had robbed a church in Elizabeth, NJ., where we were filming, although not in the same church, where they divided up all the donations from other churches and split them up, according to need. Gerry and his friends found out about this when they were at a gas station and saw a Brinks truck pulling up to the church every week. So I told Wally Green about it and we included it in the script. Gerry was what was known as the lead-off man, the first guy who went through the door. He was a real tough guy and part of the Irish mob that was run by a guy named Hughie Mulligan, at the time. I used Gerry in a few films, including The Brinks Job, where he had a major part. We were good friends, but I haven't seen him in years. I think he's still alive.

Francisco Rabal as Nilo, the assassin.

That wedding scene in the church is also famous for the bride who was sporting a major shiner.

The actor playing the groom is named Frank Pesce, who was a good friend of Sylvester Stallone. The girl was someone he brought, I think, maybe his girlfriend at the time, but the black eye wasn't real. It was make-up. The thing is, while it looks really incongruous today, that sort of thing wasn't uncommon back in the mid-70s. Today it would be called an "abusive relationship," but back then, there wasn't even a name for it. It's just what went on among many couples and was accepted.

Sorcerer, like some of your other films, including Cruising and To Live and Die in L.A., were financially unsuccessful and, in some camps, really excoriated upon their release. Now, all three films are viewed as classics.

The same thing happened with Citizen Kane. It was a box office bomb and excoriated by most of the critics when it came out and now it's almost universally regarded as the greatest film ever made. I'm not comparing my films to Citizen Kane, but again, it all comes down to timing and luck.

I think Sorcerer is your greatest film and I'm not alone in that. Do you feel somewhat vindicated now that it's finally getting its due?

It'd be easy to say that, but I don't know how it's going to be received yet by a new generation. That's who's really going to be seeing it. It's being re-released theatrically. It's being released on Blu-ray April 22 from Warner Bros. Then it's going to be on television, all over cable and video on demand, all over the world. So it'll have a new audience. Most of my films, when I see them again, I would do everything over and in some cases, would just shitcan the entire thing. Not so with Sorcerer. I can still watch it with some enjoyment. I still get pleasure out of it.