Still in motion
After decades in the Hollywood doldrums, William Friedkin has rediscovered the form and critical success of his extraordinary heyday. The director reels in the years with DONALD CLARKE
THE AMERICAN directors that energised Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 1970s share characteristics with their contemporaries in the world of popular music. They were all seen as rule-breakers. They had a reputation for late-night festivities. In some part of our brain, we still – despite noticing wrinkles and cracked voices – think of them as young men with something to prove.
Yet, Martin Scorsese is 69. Francis Ford Coppola is 73. And William Friedkin, who joins us to discuss his fine new film, Killer Joe, clocks in at a robust 76.
Energy is, however, not in short supply. A square-faced man, who still wears steel-framed glasses and safari jackets, the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection displays the conversational zest of a professional anecdotalist.
“I can’t say the films we made in the 1970s were necessarily superior to the overall quality today,” he says before contradicting himself ever so slightly. “But our motivation was to live up to the masters. Today, they are turning out versions of comic books and video games for sheer entertainment. I’ve got to tell you Donald: I don’t find it entertaining. It works for the 70 per cent of the audience that are teenagers. When I started, we actually made films for adults.”
Indeed. Though a consummate entertainer and occasional sensationalist, Friedkin always constructed films that looked like the work of a grown-up.
Raised in Chicago, the child of working-class Jewish parents, William became infected with the bug after catching a screening of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. He tells me that his entire career has been driven by a desire to make a film that could rate alongside that classic.
“But I haven’t yet made a film fit to be mentioned in the same sentence, the same paragraph, the same book even,” he says.
He worked in television for a spell then achieved a semi-breakthrough when he was commissioned to make a whacky spoof – one of many contemporaneous Hard Day’s Night rip-offs – with Sonny and Cher entitled Good Times. Three more mildly acclaimed releases followed before he hit pay dirt with The French Connection. Legend has it (we will put a few more myths before Billy as the conversation continues) that a conversation with Howard Hawks, the peerless American director, helped him re-order his sensibilities.
Friedkin, who had just come off The Boys in the Band, an adaptation of Matt Crowley’s outrageous gay drama, was dating Hawks’s daughter at the time.
“That story is true, though I’m not sure the advice meant that much to me. Kitty said: ‘Oh daddy, Billy is a very good director,’ and he said: ‘What have you directed?’ I explained I’d made this film about a homosexual birthday party. He said words to the effect of ‘You don’t want to make films like that. You want to make action films’. I thought: well, he is an expert, but he sounds like a doddery old man. He made films about all sorts of people and they were all damn good.”