September 27, 2023



William Friedkin: A Passionate, Outspoken Director Who Embraced Collaboration

William Friedkin: A Passionate, Outspoken Director Who Embraced Collaboration

A few years back I found myself in for a shock while chatting with the legendary director William Friedkin. Out of the blue, he took out his iPad and started scrolling through photos and videos he had taken while witnessing a bonafide exorcism ritual in a small room at the Vatican. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I viewed the chilling images – furniture moving on its own, objects flying through the air, a person contorting wildly while a priest recited incantations in Latin. It was like a scene straight out of Friedkin’s iconic horror film The Exorcist, except this was no movie set – this was real. The footage left me stunned, providing a rare glimpse into the intense, often terrifying process of exorcism practiced by the Catholic church. Just another surprising moment while spending time with the brilliant, unpredictable mind of William Friedkin.

The startling footage Friedkin captured during the exorcism served as the foundation for his 2017 documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, one of his last works. It exemplified his endless fascination with the unfamiliar and his willingness to throw himself into unsettling situations most would avoid. He later said his only regret was that Father Amorth passed away at 91 during filming, as Friedkin had grown fond of the man.

Ever audacious, Friedkin approached the ritual without bias, much like his treatment of the characters in The Exorcist. In fact, while making that iconic horror film, the Jewish director from Chicago took holy communion and told writer William Peter Blatty how moved he was. “He thought I’d unknowingly committed a sacrilege and called the priest to apologize,” Friedkin recalled in his memoir. “The priest told Blatty not to worry. ‘It can’t hurt him.'”

Feisty yet open-minded, Friedkin welcomed discussion and debate. He was sharp yet humorous in intellectual discourse. Unlike many veteran directors, he held no resentment toward younger filmmakers finding success. He invited the likes of Damien Chazelle into his home and co-hosted screenings with wife Sherry Lansing, often slipping away to listen to opera while she entertained guests. Friedkin was generous with praise for others in the industry. His bold spirit and openness to new perspectives remained strong late into his eclectic, extraordinary career.

Friedkin’s boldness and receptiveness earned him the admiration of artists like Guillermo del Toro, who agreed as a backup director for insurance on The Caine Mutiny. Even in his final months before passing on Aug. 7, Billy’s mind remained as sharp as the scooter whisking his fragile legs around set.

I witnessed his generosity firsthand last year when I asked him to blurb my new book. He meticulously read the galleys, agonized over the wording, and turned it in just before my deadline.

That’s not to say working with him was always easy. In hindsight, he was astounded by his own actions filming classics like The French Connection’s remarkable chase sans permits, putting himself and pedestrians in peril. Older and wiser, he said he’d never again attempt something so reckless.

While making The Exorcist, plagued with disasters like its main set burning down, Friedkin once grasped an anxious non-actor priest’s shoulders. “I don’t know if I can do this,” the man said, already emotional.

“‘Bill, you can do this,’ I insisted, though I had my own doubts,” Friedkin recounted. “I gripped his shoulders tighter. ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Yes,’ he trembled, confused by my questioning.”

Friedkin pressed on: “‘Say it!’ I demanded, pulling him into an embrace. ‘Yes, I love you, Billy, you know that,’ he affirmed. ‘I love you,’ I replied, before slapping him forcefully across the face and pushing him to his knees…O’Malley burst into tears and acted the scene.”

As Friedkin later joked dryly: “This is not an approach I’d recommend to aspiring directors.”

The anecdote illustrates the extreme methods Friedkin occasionally employed to elicit raw, authentic performances. While unorthodox, his tactics underscored his unrelenting pursuit of artistic truth. In retrospect, Friedkin realized such unbridled fervor could cross ethical lines, even in service of his creative vision. His self-awareness and willingness to scrutinize his past behavior revealed his maturity as an artist. Though complex and demanding, Friedkin’s uncompromising passion left an indelible mark on cinema.

It’s hard to picture Friedkin as an “aspiring” anything. From the outset, he directed films with a singularity and artistry few can match.

Consider a more pedestrian director tackling the tale of two undercover cops chasing an international drug lord. It’s a well-worn premise, yet Friedkin infused The French Connection with staggering authenticity and insight. Beyond white-knuckle thrills, the film is a philosophical study of dichotomies: rich and poor, American and European, refined and crude. Unexpectedly, we sympathize most with the crass lead, reflecting Friedkin’s genius. The French Connection remains as provocative and human as any thriller.

Realizing his vision wasn’t simple, though. Gene Hackman detested his abrasive character. Friedkin could only draw out the intense performance by riling up his star. “Gene had to play an angry, obsessive man, and I could provoke that anger and let him focus it on me,” he wrote. Hackman once stormed off set, leaving Friedkin unsure if he’d return. But he did, winning an Oscar alongside Friedkin’s own.

Friedkin was undeterred by conflict in pursuit of his singular vision. Rather than play it safe, he challenged convention and elicited daring, indelible work from his actors. The French Connection stands as testament to his uncompromising artistry.

I recall speaking with Sherry Lansing for a biography I was writing about her life. She is known for her grace and generosity. Throughout our conversations, she repeatedly used the word “genius” to describe the filmmakers she most admired. Finally, I had to laugh and tell her: “Sherry, you can only describe one person in this book as a genius. Who do you want that to be?”

The anecdote highlights Lansing’s propensity for effusive praise, particularly for creative talents she held in the highest esteem. My gentle ribbing aimed to have her single out the one filmmaker she viewed as truly superlative, a genius above the rest. While Lansing worked with many brilliant directors over her groundbreaking career, I was curious which one she’d ultimately bestow with that loftiest of accolades. The exchange provides insight into her discerning eye for talent and her glowing admiration for inspired, visionary filmmaking.

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Jhon Steve