In 1971 and 1973, William Friedkin found himself on top of the film world with the one-two punch of The French Connection and The Exorcist. Then things got interesting: Friedkin’s next film, 1977’s impossibly ambitious Sorcerer, flopped, and subsequent films, such as 1980’s controversial Al Pacino S&M thriller Cruising, didn’t fare much better. Along the way, however, these titles have been rereleased and reevaluated, and opinions have changed. Sorcerer is now considered by many critics — including this one — as a masterpiece; 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A. gave us one of the best car chases of all time and introduced audiences to then-unknowns Willem Dafoe, William Peterson, and John Turturro; and in recent years, Friedkin’s film versions of the Tracy Letts play Bug (with Michael Shannon) and Killer Joe (with Matthew McConaughey) have won him high acclaim. Now Friedkin has published a surprisingly forthright and fascinating memoir, The Friedkin Connection, in which he dishes about his career and his life. And, starting this week, BAM has been offering a retrospective of the director’s films. To offer a retrospective of our own, we broke Friedkin’s career down into several stages and spoke with the director about the highs and lows. Where does he think he succeeded? Where does he think he went wrong? Vulture got some answers.
The early hits: The French Connection and The Exorcist
Your first several films didn’t make a lot of noise at the time. So how did you wind up getting to direct The French Connection?
The producer Phil D’Antoni owned the rights to the story, and he’d seen the documentaries that I had made for the ABC network and this other one I made in Chicago about a guy on death row. He and I became friends, and he told me about the French Connection case itself. I went back to New York with him and met the two actual cops. I rode around with them in the squad cars, went on all these adventures and busts, and by the time I went to make the film I knew their world as well as my own. I also sent [Gene] Hackman and [Roy] Scheider out to do the same thing for a couple of weeks before we shot the film. It took us a long time to get that movie made, but it was Phil D’Antoni who stuck with me all that time.
The sense of realism that you brought to The French Connection and The Exorcist seems to be one of the reasons why these films were not only successful then, but have also held up to this day.
It’s hard to know why some films continue to resonate and others don’t. Sometimes a film that is enormously successful in its day has no afterlife or no shelf life, and other films that were not successful at all in their day become classics and revered. Vertigo and Citizen Kane were box-office failures, and Vertigo didn’t even get good reviews! The Exorcist and The French Connection in many ways have not dated, because the details are not so of a period that they play like period pieces; the stories are kind of timeless. I mean, just look at how many times The Exorcist has been ripped off. Many people, especially younger people, don’t even know which is the original film. Now I see they want to do a series based on it! I’ve never seen a good sequel to The Exorcist.
Icarus Falling: The disappointment of Sorcerer, the controversy of Cruising
Sorcerer was a very ambitious film that got vicious reviews and poor box office. Why do you think it failed at the time?
It came out a week after Star Wars, and I think that’s one factor. Star Wars changed what people expected to see from a movie, right up to this day. But Sorcerer is also my most personal film, and it was the most difficult to make, and it had a lot of difficulties getting decent distribution. It’s among my favorite films that I’ve done, but I am the last person to talk about its merits. The audience didn’t take to it, and the critics didn’t like it. Now there’s almost been a complete critical turnaround. It hasn’t gone in front of a large audience yet, but attitudes change. It’s getting restored and rereleased, so we’ll see.
Did some critics have their knives out for the movie because it was a remake of a classic like The Wages of Fear?
It’s not a remake of The Wages of Fear! Somebody’s probably doing Hamlet somewhere right now; that’s not a remake of Hamlet. Sorcerer is a new version of a classic story, a novel by a French author named Georges Arnaud. Certainly my film was inspired by Clouzot’s film, which I consider a masterpiece. But then-contemporary audiences in the English-speaking world did not know Wages of Fear that well. I felt that the underlying theme, the subject matter, and the characters were important enough to do a new version. Now, did some critics have their knives out? I think that would be to undervalue the nature of film criticism. I would hope not, but you’re posing the question, so it has to be possible. Occasionally, what happens when a filmmaker or artist is extremely successful in a certain period, there do seem to be critics who come out with reevaluations for one reason or another. I do know that I very much thought I was the center of the universe at the time. And a lot of people probably were waiting for me to crash.
After a big film like Sorcerer fails, does the way you’re treated at meetings in Hollywood change?
To some extent. It varies with various people. I was still in demand as a director and made more Hollywood films then, but the fact of the matter is that the Hollywood studios are primarily concerned about success and not quality. I’m not saying that they completely disregard quality, but their main concern is financial success. It is a business. It’s called show business, not show art.
In 1980, you made Cruising, which was interpreted by many as a homophobic film and sparked a lot of controversy and more torrents of bad press.
Cruising came out around a time that gay liberation had made enormous strides among the general public. It also came out around the same time that AIDS was given a name. I simply used the background of the S&M world to do a murder mystery; it was based on a real case. But the timing of it was difficult because of what had been happening to gay people. Of course, it was not really set in a gay world; it was the S&M world. But many critics who wrote for gay publications or the underground press felt that the film was not the best foot forward as far as gay liberation was concerned, and they were right. Now it’s reevaluated as a film. It could be found wanting as a film, but it no longer has to undergo the stigma of being an anti-gay screed, which it never was.
Television, cop thrillers, opera: “Nightcrawlers,” To Live and Die in L.A., Rampage
In the mid-eighties, at a time when your films weren’t doing well, you made “Nightcrawlers,” an episode for the new revival of the Twilight Zone series, about a Vietnam vet who hallucinates that members of his unit have returned from the dead to get him. Was this an attempt to try a different approach, to maybe get away from the film world for a bit?
“Nightcrawlers” I did because it was a great story. It was a metaphor for how Vietnam continues to haunt us. We had a five-day shoot, and I approached it and shot it the same way I’d approach a film. It’s one of the most watched things I’ve ever done, and so it restored my confidence. But I’d always dabbled in TV, so this wasn’t an attempt to get away from film. To me it was no different from film, really.
You followed that up with a film that reminded many of The French Connection: To Live and Die in L.A. That was liked by many critics, but it also wasn’t a big hit.
I had met this recently retired Secret Service agent, Gerry Petievich. He’d written a novel, and his stories were fascinating. I mean, one day these guys are protecting the president of the United States, and in the evening they’re socializing with him, playing cards with him in his suite; then, the next day, they’re chasing some guy in a bad neighborhood for a $50 fake credit card. It was surreal. I wrote the script for it and conceived of this chase, and brought it off with a terrific stunt coordinator named Buddy Joe Hooker. We did things that, you know, we could be arrested for. That was something that I’d also done for the chase scene on The French Connection too. We were very lucky that nobody got hurt, injured, or killed. When I was younger, I never let things like that get in my way. We also cast the film in a similar way to The French Connection in that I didn’t want stars, just good actors. The same guy who cast the earlier film went out and found Billy [William] Peterson and Willem Dafoe and John Turturro, and they were spot on. I wasn’t concerned that they were complete unknowns, because I felt that the story was very strong, and that the action would be good. But I didn’t want it to be gritty like The French Connection.
Unlike The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A. came out at a time when the film industry seemed much more star-driven. Did that limit its commercial possibilities?
More likely it did. I mean, if the film had, I dunno, Steve McQueen or some big action star, it might have done much better. Sure! But we’ll never know that. You can only speculate about it. I love the film, and I value my films or don’t value them in a different way. When I think of them in terms of success, I think of how close I came to my original vision of it. The two films where I came extremely close were To Live and Die in L.A. and Sorcerer.
Which films were the farthest?
Many. The Guardian I don’t think works. There are a lot of people who love Rampage, but I don’t think I hit my own mark with that, or The Brink’s Job. You know, I could go on all night, but I’ve only made nineteen films in 50 years.
Let’s talk about Rampage, which you made after To Live and Die in L.A., and which barely got released — for reasons beyond quality or anything you did.
At the time we made Rampage, [producer] Dino De Laurentiis was running out of money. He finally went bankrupt, after a long career as a producer. He was doing just scores of films and was unable to give any of them his real support and effort. And so literally by the time it came to release Rampage, he didn’t have the money to do it. And he was not only the financier, but the distributor. His company went bankrupt, and the film went to black for about five years. Eventually, the Weinsteins’ company Miramax took it out of bankruptcy and rereleased it. But this was among the lowest points in my career. I’d been away from the A-list for a while, and a lot of directors never survive a disaster like that. But you don’t stop, unless you lose interest in it, and I had not lost interest. I just worked on another script. Now, the films, obviously, became much less mass-oriented. Well, that’s the direction I was heading anyway. I didn’t like the mass-produced films.
But the Zeitgeist is always changing. This may be surprising to you, but when I became a film director, what I really wanted to do was make MGM musicals. Those are my favorites: Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, The Bandwagon, Gigi, one or two others. My idols are Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen. But by the time I started, the popular music of America had changed. It was no longer the Gershwins and Cole Porter and the Great American Songbook. It was rock and roll. I couldn’t make those films anymore. There was no audience for them. So I went a different direction and achieved some critical and financial success in this other direction. And have stayed closer to that over the years. But I would have preferred to have made films like that.
In the late nineties, you started directing opera.
I still do — almost one a year. I got into it quite accidentally, but I love it. It very much feeds my film work. The only difference between directing an opera and directing a film is with an opera there’s no camera. But I can do the same things in staging and lighting and in the set design that I could do by changing lenses in shooting a film: emphasize this character, de-emphasize that. Provide different moods for each scene. You learn how to work simply on the stage to achieve an effect. And the best singers want the same thing that great film actors want, which is a psychological underpinning for their characters and a staging that works. They want to give a performance; they don’t want to give a concert.
Do you think that directing opera also allows you to, in a way, make those musicals you never got to do?
Maybe. I hadn’t thought of it that way. But now that you mention it. [Laughs.]
A slow grind back to the top: The Exorcist rereleased, Rules of Engagement, Bug, Killer Joe
They say in Hollywood that “You’re only as good as your last movie.” But in 2000, The Exorcist was rereleased, to much fanfare and box office. Does it help your career when your last movie is the rerelease of your greatest movie?
Billy Wilder had a variation on that saying. He’d say it privately, but he probably said it publicly, too, because whatever Billy said in private he also said in public. He’d say, “You’re only as good as your best movie.” And Billy had to believe that, because he was still making movies in the seventies. Were they as good as Double Indemnity or Some Like It Hot? Maybe not, but he kept working. So I don’t know if the rerelease of The Exorcist helped me. I’ve always been able to keep working.
Right around this time, you also had a hit in The Rules of Engagement, which was also controversial.
I love that movie, which is extremely prescient today. It was controversial in a lot of quarters, because things had started to become very PC around that period. Many people viewed it as American jingoism and as a tribute to the American military. That never bothered me. I’d be very pleased and proud to do a tribute to the American military, even though I think they’ve been badly misused and abused since World War II. But Rules of Engagement is actually about how the American military are treated like cattle. We depicted a Middle East conflict in that film, before the Iraq War. The American soldier signs up to serve his country, and they get sent to these stupid wars where nothing can be accomplished, and so many lives are lost on both sides. I lived in Iraq for three months when I made The Exorcist. We shot up in Mosul, in the north. I’ve never felt closer to a people — and I say this in my book — than I did to the Iraqi people at that time, in 1973. Saddam wasn’t the president then.
Wasn’t there talk of creating an Exorcist theme park in Mosul during the Iraq War?
I got a call from then-lieutenant colonel David Petraeus, who had gone into Mosul with the 101st Airborne shortly after the invasion of Iraq. He said that as his soldiers were watching The Exorcist on video, they realized the place they were guarding was where we had filmed the early scenes in the movie. A lot of the people who were still living there remembered me and the crew. So, the 101st Airborne gave a $5,000 donation to students at Mosul University. They built a tour, a parking lot nearby, and a police station. They had a food stand where they would serve kebabs. I think it was two or three dinar for a tour that they called “The Exorcist Experience.” Petraeus invited me to come over and reunite with some of the people who I had worked with in Iraq. I said, “I’ll be on the next plane, just tell me when.” It kept getting postponed and postponed, and finally we lost Mosul, which is now one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. It was a most wonderful place. I’d go back today in a minute.
Your last two films, Bug and Killer Joe, have gotten you some of the best reviews of your career. In a way, you’ve reinvented yourself as an independent filmmaker. Did your approach change at all when you started making these smaller films?
My approach, no. Certainly my tastes went more in that direction. And these last two films I made were written by Tracy Letts, whose worldview I share. I think he’s probably the best American playwright today, as well as being a terrific actor. I directed another of his plays, The Man From Nebraska, at the South Coast Rep. My ideas of what I wanted to see and what I wanted to direct have changed in the sense that they’re not obviously commercial films. But they’re going to find a smaller niche audience that’s open to these ideas. But as always, I went for the material: the story and the characters. I was able to put together a dream cast for both Bug and Killer Joe. Otherwise I don’t think they would have worked at all.