Without really trying, William Friedkin has been on the cutting edge for nearly half a century.
He won Best Picture and Best Director for “The French Connection” (1971), followed it up with the scariest movie of all time (1973’s “The Exorcist”), and followed that up with “Sorcerer” (1977), a movie so far ahead of its time that only in recent years has it been acknowledged as an overlooked masterpiece. (A newly-restored print of the allegorical adventure tale, released this week on Blu-ray, should help burnish the film’s reputation.)
At 78, Friedkin continues to stay ahead of the pack. In his most recent movie, “Killer Joe” (2011), he cast Matthew McConaughey in an unlikely role as a corrupt cop/hitman, thus helping launch the “McConnaissance” that changed the actor’s image and led to his recent Oscar victory for “Dallas Buyers Club.” For his upcoming projects, he’s thrilled to be working in digital and scoffs at those filmmakers and fans who are nostalgic for 35MM celluloid film. He’s about to shoot a movie for HBO in which Bette Midler will play Mae West, the original sexual provocateur, who ran afoul of the laws and censors of her day.
After talking with Moviefone at length about “Sorcerer” in an interview you can read here, Friedkin continued to discuss the changing landscape in filmmaking technology and distribution, offered advice to up-and-coming filmmakers, put to rest some myths about “The Exorcist,” and, paradoxically, expressed nostalgia for the old Hollywood regime that his 1970s movies helped overthrow.
Moviefone: You’re one of the few veteran filmmakers who is not going to miss 35MM film as digital pushes it to extinction.
William Friedkin: No, I don’t like 35MM at all. I worked in that medium because it’s all that was available. The fact about 35MM is that there never was a perfect print of anything because of the built-in flaws of the process. In every bath of developer, one reel would come off slightly green, another slightly blue, because of differences in the composition of the water or differences in the amoeba that constantly recirculate, or fluctuation in the electricity in the labs. I was always very concerned about my prints. Whenever I made a film that didn’t have to open on thousands of screens, I always supervised the prints. I approved about 1 out of every 25 reels. The average film is about 12 reels. Multiply that by 25 and you’ll know how many reels I burned to get closer to what I shot. And now with digital, it’s all automatic. It looks fantastic. It looks how it’s meant to look.
Of course, that’s assuming that projection quality is up to your rigorous standards.
To ignore that is like an airline saying, “We don’t care how comfortable our passengers are. We’re in the transportation business. We can throw ’em all into the airplane and let ’em go on the floor.” The exhibition business is vital to how an audience sees a film, and I care very much about that.
Why go through all the time and money to make it a certain way and then see it differently? I just don’t believe most theater owners give a damn about that. And I know that the studios didn’t care about the prints they send out. They figured somebody else would take care of that.
And has digital projection taken care of that?
It’s totally better. You no longer have dirt on a print, or splices, or scratches. I couldn’t watch a film of mine on 35MM anymore. The colors fade, and nothing is the same, and they weren’t perfect to begin with. Now, when I hear these guys who are nostalgic for 35MM, I just laugh up my sleeve because they don’t know what they’re talking about. Right now, the digital projection system and prints are the best they’ve ever been. If you light the scene well, it’ll look like a movie. If you just turn on all the lights, what we call bathtub lighting, it’ll look like that, only sharper. A well-lit movie is going to look the best it ever has on a DCP.
The other night, I saw this movie, “Under the Skin.” It’s a very tough picture for audiences, but it’s beautiful. The cinematography is world class. It belongs in a museum, every shot. They shot it with digital cameras and released it on a DCP, and there’s no dirt, no scratches, just the beautiful lighting and compositions.
There’s a lot more coverage of what filmmakers are doing now, even in the pre-production phase, than there ever was during your 1970s heyday. Could you and your peers have had the creative freedom you did under that much scrutiny?
Of course not. In the ’70s, we, the filmmakers, never knew how much money our films made, even though we were on a percentage, often. We didn’t get in the daily papers, or from the Internet or magazines, what the box office grosses were. We would only hear if a film was good or great or terrible. All the gossip about this cast change or that, or how much the film cost, didn’t exist when I was coming up in American film. To a great extent, it still doesn’t in Europe because there’s a lot of government financing of film. They still want to make money, but they’re more interested in approving projects they think are worthwhile. And that’s what the studios were like when I was coming up. There’s a constant spotlight on the gossip part of filmmaking, which I don’t think really does anybody any good except the media that’s putting it out.
Still, there seems to be a hunger among the public for that much information.
I wonder if it’s hunger, or if it’s just something the editors feel people should have. So much of commercial television, for instance, is that really what the public wants, or is it what somebody at a network thinks they want?
Speaking of TV, you’re part of the current migration of top-notch film directors to television.
I’m going to be doing a film about Mae West starring Bette Midler. We’re doing that for HBO. It probably could not be done as a feature film. It’ll be set during one short period in the roaring ’20s. Doug McGrath is writing it, he’s a great screenwriter. I like this Mae West idea very much because she’s an extraordinary character, and I would only do it with Bette Midler. And I like the people at HBO.
It sounds like a follow-up to your early feature about burlesque, “The Night They Raided Minsky’s.”
Yes, it draws on the same period and the same world, but a totally different life.
In the old days, this would be a movie, but now it’s for high-end television. There’s a lot of great stuff being done in that medium. You have directors of the quality of David Fincher and others who are working for television now, whether you call it cable, streaming, or whatever. They have fewer, if any, real limitations. I’m happy to do this for HBO because I don’t know what the audience would be for one of the major film companies.
The only thing I’m conscious of that the major studios are doing are these superhero films, about comic book characters, and that’s about it. That’s the life’s blood of the major studios today, and they’re doing well with it.
For a while, in the 1990s, it seemed like we were going to get an independent-film renaissance that would bring back 1970s-style filmmaking, but it didn’t last.
There are a lot more independent films being made now than there were back in the ’70s and before. But the real independent filmmaking movement preceded the ’70s and continued afterward, people like John Cassavetes, who literally mortgaged his house to make every one of his films. He could have lost his house if he didn’t get something back. So he worked very inexpensively and totally independently. What we call independent film today is well-financed.
Even an independent film that I admired greatly, “The Hurt Locker,” was released by a company that aspired to be a major, and they now are. You know, Summit, they had “Twilight” and other huge successes, and they merged with Lionsgate. So “The Hurt Locker,” which was clearly independently financed, was distributed by a company that is now a major. Sony Pictures Classics distributes very worthwhile films, but they are supported by Sony. Focus Features is supported by Universal. The studios have realized that certain independent films can do it better than they can.
The Jason Blum movies, which are made for chump change, have done tremendously well. A film like “Paranormal Activity” cost $ 15,000 and was made in a guy’s house in San Diego with no names, nothing. It was the premise and the execution of that film. It made $ 300 million or more on an investment of $ 15,000.
It seems like Blum and his filmmakers can take greater creative risks because their financial risk is so low.
The risk is always high. It’s relative. The guy who spent $ 15,000, if the movie tanked, he would be wiped out faster than the guy who spent $ 150 million.
Do you ever feel like modern horror films like those can’t stand up to “The Exorcist”?
I don’t think that at all. I liked “Paranormal Activity.” I liked “The Blair Witch Project.” I thought they really delivered. It doesn’t matter to me how much a film cost. It’s the invention and the idea and the theme and the execution that I respond to. I’m looking at what’s on the screen, not what the cost of it was, large or small.
Can you address the notion of whether or not there was an “Exorcist” curse, given the way the production seemed to have been shadowed by mishaps and deaths?
Jack MacGowran died shortly after he finished “The Exorcist.” But as Bob Dylan said, people who aren’t busy being born are busy dying. Everyone is dying. You’re dying right now. I’m dying. And when our time is up will probably not be at our discretion. He was the only… well, Jason Miller died many years later. Ellen Burstyn and [Max] Von Sydow are still alive and still working. Lee J. Cobb died a few years later. Nothing unusual about that. It’s largely a media creation. All of the essential people who were involved on it are still around and working, William Peter Blatty, who wrote the book, wrote the script, and produced the movie. He and I are in touch a couple times a week. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland. He’s still going strong. He’s in good health, has a nice family. I don’t know what they’re talking about with the “Exorcist” curse, but it’s easy to invent one.
Didn’t Von Sydow’s brother die during the production?
His brother died the day he made his first shot. “So what?” as Hillary Clinton would say. There was an accident that happened [a fire that destroyed most of the interior set of the McNeil house except Regan’s bedroom]. But to call it part of a curse, this is a media creation. People look at “The Exorcist,” because of its subject matter, and assume all sorts of ridiculous things. Some of the cast members in interviews, specifically, Ellen Burstyn, put out stuff like this.
The thing to understand is, we don’t control, in any way, how we came into this world, and we don’t control how we’re going to leave it. There was a movie made recently, it hasn’t come out yet, and one of the assistant directors, a young woman, died. I don’t think anyone’s talking about that being cursed. God forbid, that was horrible. Early in my career, on “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” one of the stars was the great vaudeville comedian Bert Lahr. And he died during production. Nobody talked about a curse. Bert Lahr was up in years and not in very good health.
What effect did “The Exorcist” have on your own spirituality?
It strengthened my belief. I’m not a Catholic, but I believe strongly in the teachings of Jesus as set down in the New Testament. I guess I always accepted them, not enough to join the church, but I accept them even more now. I’ve done more studying of the New Testament. I’m much more fascinated by Jesus the man than the supernatural aspects of Jesus.
When you worked with Matthew McConaughey on “Killer Joe,” did you have any inkling he’d go on to this new, dark, critically acclaimed phase of his career?
It was just my hunch that made me go with McConaughey. I saw him on a television interview I had never seen him for any of the films for which he had become well known, the romantic comedies.
I know that he wants to do serious work, and the hope is that there will be enough serious films for him to continue on the path he’s chosen. I think the next thing he’s doing is a Christopher Nolan film [“Interstellar”]. It’s not an independent film. It’ll be a mega-millions movie. Matthew is not going to be able to survive forever on these small, low-budget films that are labors of love. I don’t know how much he was paid for “True Detective,” which was a pretty terrific series, but I don’t think he was paid a pauper’s fee to do that. That was the most commercial of commercial television, HBO.
Are there actors you’d like to work with but haven’t?
No, not at the moment, but I’d love to have worked with [Humphrey] Bogart, Steve McQueen, Lino Ventura, Marcello Mastroianni, James Cagney. So many great actresses, Susan Hayward, [Greta] Garbo, [Marlene] Dietrich. I can’t think of anyone today that I feel that way about. Spencer Tracy, I would have paid money to work with Spencer Tracy.
What I wish I could have done, but I didn’t come up in the right era, I wish I could have been a director in the studio system. I would have made about four or five films a year. Some would have been good, some bad, and maybe there would have been a few masterpieces. That would be a career like someone like Victor Fleming had, who in the same year directed “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and a couple of other pictures.
Wouldn’t you have chafed at the rigid authority of the old studio moguls, as you have during your actual career?
It would have been worth it to make the kind of films they made. Michael Curtiz, who made “Casablanca,” made three or four other films that same year. They’re not all of the same caliber. But I think I would have been a much better filmmaker if I’d worked in the studio system. Sure, people chafed, but look at the work they produced. And a lot of the directors found a way around that, like John Huston. “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” was not a typical Hollywood film, and it was not a success, except an artistic success.
How much of a role has luck played in your career?
I have been asked that question. The most important facets to me of what a filmmaker needs to succeed are ambition, luck, and the grace of God. I am not mentioning talent, you may notice, because there are a lot of extremely untalented people making stupid movies who have been very lucky and very ambitious. And a lot of guys I knew who had great talent never connected, never, and just disappeared into the flow. Ambition, luck, and the grace of God, that’s the formula as I observe it.
Do you have any regrets over the films that flopped or the ones that you wanted to make but didn’t get to do?
I have no regrets. How could I? All you need to do is pick up a newspaper every day and see what happens to people’s lives, the tragedies that are with us every day.
Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
Gallery | 10 Horror Movies That Will Actually Scare the Crap Out of You
- ‘The Shining’ (1980)
I’m trying to stay away from the obvious, but sometimes you just have to give it up, especially since we seem to be having a collective “Shining” moment, what with the wonderful documentary “Room 237” (about the myriad conspiracy theories surrounding the film) making its home video debut and author Stephen King finally releasing “Doctor Sleep,” the long-awaited follow-up novel (this time Danny is a grown ass man but falling into the same traps that his father did). It should be no surprise that Stanley Kubrick, when setting out to make a horror movie, wouldn’t just make some drive-in cheapie but an epic work of genre fiction that would last the test of time. Not that everyone is a fan; King himself publicly decried the liberties Kubrick took with his novel and many have claimed that it’s boring, slow and ponderous. It might be all of those things, but it’s also absolutely terrifying, with Kubrick conjuring images that, try as I might, I just can’t scrub from my brain. Anchored by an iconic performance by Jack Nicholson, “The Shining” is one of those movies that deserves to be known as an all-time scary movie.
- ‘Suspiria’ (1977)
If you thought Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-winning “Black Swan” was a trip, then you should probably watch this blood-chilling Italian spook-fest that heavily inspired Aronofsky’s film. “Suspiria” concerns an American girl (cult icon Jessica Harper) who goes away to an Italian ballet school run by women who might be witches. Everything about “Suspiria” is overwhelming, from the sound design and score (by Goblin) to director Dario Argento’s crayon-colored visuals (the blood is redder than it was in old Hammer movies), which rank amongst the most striking ever committed to a horror film. Argento firmly puts you in the shoes of Harper, whose discovery is shocking and profound. If you’re looking for a movie with a traditional narrative, then you are probably best served elsewhere. “Suspiria” employs an eerie kind of dream logic, and it makes everything even more haunting. (Like most great horror movies, a pair of lackluster sequels followed: “Inferno” and the way after-the-fact “Mother of Tears.”) It’s still bewitching after all these years.
- ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973)
Maybe my favorite horror film of all time, Nicolas Roeg’s cultish thriller focuses on a young couple (Donald Sutherland and an almost painfully beautiful Julie Christie) who, in the opening sequence, lose their young daughter in an accidental drowning. Understandably distraught, the pair move to Venice, where Sutherland is restoring some ancient church. Then things get really weird: Christie befriends a pair of psychics, a serial killer has the city in a stranglehold of panic and fear, and both parents are plagued with visions of their dead daughter. Daphne du Maurier, who wrote the stories that “The Birds” and “Rebecca” were based on, also wrote the source material for “Don’t Look Now.” But “Don’t Look Now” is drastically different than those somewhat dusty Hitchcock movies; not only does it feature the greatest sex scene ever (seriously), but it also has an ending so shocking that it’s hard to shake, years after seeing it. It’s also drop-dead gorgeous in the most ’70s way possible (love those argyle socks, Donald!)
- ‘Prince of Darkness’ (1987)
John Carpenter is a director known for instilling fear into audiences around the world. As the creator of “Halloween,” “The Thing,” and “Christine,” he has spooked countless human beings. But one of his scariest works is also one of his most under-seen. “Prince of Darkness,” which was recently released in a highly recommended deluxe Blu-ray package from Shout Factory, is about a team of religious scholars and grad students who are conducting a study on a mysterious vile of goo that just might be the physical manifestation of Satan. Admirably philosophical and deeply visceral, “Prince of Darkness” has a vibe unlike any other Carpenter movie; call it an oppressive blanket of bleakness. Carpenter is always scary but that scariness is often peppered with jokey winks or out-and-out jokes. Instead, “Prince of Darkness” is positively apocalyptic. After watching this movie recently I had nightmares. I honestly cannot remember the last time that happened. Just thinking about it is kind of creeping me out. It’s that scary.
- ‘Kill List’ (2011)
A more recent movie (but every bit as scary as any other film listed), this Gallic horror movie, directed by the outstanding Ben Wheatley (who had not one but two excellent genre films come out this year, “Sightseers” and “A Field in England”), is a movie best experienced without knowing anything about it. I saw it at SXSW a couple of years ago, at a special morning press screening set up after audience reaction proved so strong. Even at 10 a.m., it scared the hell out of me. What’s so fascinating about “Kill List” is about how fearless it is, toggling between genres like someone flipping through television channels. It’s a domestic drama one moment and a hit man thriller the next and a grand, “Wicker Man”-style horror movie the next. It’s unpredictability adds to the movie’s atmosphere of dreadful foreboding. You can tell that something horrible is just around the corner, you just don’t know what. To say anymore would be criminal, but just know that this has rightfully been inducted into the pantheon of all time great horror movies.
- ‘Day of the Dead’ (1985)
While “Night of the Living” dead is an undisputed classic and “Dawn of the Dead” is a rollicking zombie theme park ride, it might be the third in George Romero’s amazing zombie series, that is the most creepily effective. Sure, “Night of the Living Dead” showed audiences something they had never seen before and remains a truly scary little movie, and “Dawn of the Dead” is the rare extravaganza that is as smart as it is entertaining (take that, Ronald Reagan!), but there’s something bombed-out and sad about “Day of the Dead” that makes it even more powerful. It’s basically the “Before Midnight” of zombie movies, taking place in a world overrun by flesh-eaters, with humans living largely below ground and doing odd tests on their walking dead captors (love you, Bub). Originally intended to be a zombie epic, the financiers balked when Romero wanted to release it unrated, so he had to scale down and make an even more intimate, claustrophobic version of his story. The results, which have also recently been offered up in a deluxe Blu-ray from Shout Factory, are nothing short of jaw-dropping. And bone-chilling. In “Day of the Dead,” the humans are just as scary as the zombies (an ideally liberally lifted for Danny Boyle’s similar “28 Days Later”). More brainssssss.
- ‘High Tension’ (2003)
French filmmaker Alexandre Aja is one of the most exciting directors working in the horror genre. In movies like “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Piranha 3D,” he is able to both send up and celebrate horror movies using a combination of wicked camerawork, gross-out effects, off-handed humor (always with a political edge) and tautly constructed suspense set pieces. But one of his earliest films is one of his best: in “High Tension,” a girl visits her friend’s family farmhome for a weekend away form the hustle and bustle of college. The first night she’s at the farmhouse, an anonymous madman kills the entire family (lovingly photographed in graphic detail), leaving her to run for her life. It’s like a Dean Koontz novel crossed with an early Luc Besson movie, and had the movie not totally fallen off a cliff in the last act (thanks to an idea Besson had), it would be a classic. As it stands, with that stupid ending, it is a near-classic, and certainly worth watching. It’ll give you some jolts, for sure.
- ‘House of the Devil’ (2009)
Ti West is a young American filmmaker who is just this side of the indie mumblecore movement. And he might be the next great face of horror filmmaking. West is always challenging conventions, whether it’s for his smart-ass monster movie “The Roost” or his follow-up to this film, “The Innkeepers,” which smartly deconstructed the haunted hotel subgenre. With “House of the Devil,” it’s the closest he’s come to an out-and-out classic, a riff on the babysitter-trapped-in-the-house-alone subgenre that was popular in the late seventies and early eighties. In this film, a weirdly angular young college student, desperate for cash, answers an ad for babysitting. She’s called out to a spooky mansion in the woods and asked to just sit tight; she doesn’t even see the supposed kid she’s babysitting. As you can imagine, things get very creepy, very quickly. The ending of the movie (which briefly costars “Frances Ha” breakout Greta Gerwig) has become a major source of contention — either you see it as a huge pay off to all that waiting or a letdown for a movie that spent so much on atmosphere and mood. This is a recent movie that demands to be seen, appreciated and canonized.
- ‘Dead & Buried’ (1981)
Some horror movies are just lovably bizarre. Such is the case with this early-eighties gem, written by the team behind “Alien” Ron Schusett and Dan O’Bannon and featuring a freak-out twist ending that would make M. Night Shyamalan weep tears of jealousy. In the small town of Potter’s Bluff, some mysterious murders are going down. The sheriff (James Farentino) sets out to solve the mystery, which leads to some deep and dark places, indeed. Featuring early make-up effects by a young Stan Winston (watch for that needle-in-the-eye gag) and a terrifically creepy score by Joe Renzetti, “Dead & Buried” is one of those little horror movies that manages to jangle your blood in altogether unforeseen and disturbing ways. It’s hard to talk about this movie without giving it away, but Blue Underground released a terrific Blu-ray a few years ago, so pick it up, and get lost in the foggy cliffs of Potter’s Bluff. This is the kind of movie that you watch and then immediately show ten of your very best friends because you want someone to love it to (it’d also be nice to have someone to talk to about it).
- ‘Audition’ (1999)
Of all the J-horror movies released in the early aughties, none gave us the willies quite like “Audition,” from Japanese master Takashi Miike. Part of what makes “Audition” so effective is the way it creeps up on you. For much of the movie it plays like a sappy, somewhat sentimentalized drama, about a sad man who holds a fake television audition for a suitable new wife. The young woman seems to have it all — she’s lovely and engaging and personable. Except, of course, that the movie takes a dark turn and the woman you’ve come to adore turns out to be the stuff of nightmares. That’s about all we can say before a bolt of lightning comes out of the sky and silences us. But it’s worth it. The image of the burlap sack which appears to be still until… Well, just watch it for yourself. It’s like “Jaws” for the age of internet dating.
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