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.”
Nonetheless, The French Connection did seem to neatly combine Friedkin’s funkier sensibilities – he was an avowed apostle of the French New Wave – with the populist instincts for which Hawks was arguing. A crime drama shot on location in New York City, the picture had the nervous energy of a documentary. Even today, it seems agreeably, deliberately messy.
“The studio didn’t really understand the film until it came out,” he says. “They didn’t promote it that much. They released it in some areas as a double feature. But for some reason – with the grace of God – it just came out of the gate like a thoroughbred. It ran wire to wire, made a ton of money and won five Academy Awards.”
The French Connection was big. But his next film, The Exorcist, deserves to have the cliché “phenomenon” flung in its direction. Anybody old enough to be vaguely cognisant in 1973, will recall the media having a collective nervous breakdown on its release. If the accounts were to be believed, viewers were suffering nervous breakdowns, falling into trances and begging to be accepted into closed convents. A tale of possession set in a middle-class house, The Exorcist ate the box-office alive and, thereby, proved that horror could work in the mainstream.
Does a day ever go past when he is not asked about The Exorcist?
“Very rarely. But I don’t mind. I still love the film,” he says. “You know, many of those stories are true. There was a story about a classmate of Prince Charles’s who, after seeing the film, ran into a church and immolated himself.”
Many subsequent tomes and documentaries have argued that Friedkin acted in an eccentric and extreme manner while on set. Three stories in particular hang around: he let off firearms to trigger believable shock in his actors; he tugged Ellen Burstyn, who played the possessed girl’s mother, so violently that she permanently damaged her back; he walloped Father William O’Malley, playing an older priest, to help him summon up the right degree of weepy trauma.
Freidkin patiently dismisses Burstyn’s claims as “a self-serving hoax”. He admits that he let off shotguns, but argues that directors such as George Stevens had been doing the same thing for decades. The story about Father O’Malley, also a religious advisor on the film, seems to be entirely true.
“He couldn’t get to tears. We had take after take and he just couldn’t get it,” he explains. “I took him aside and said: ‘You know I love you.’ He said: ‘Yes and I love you like a brother in Christ.’ I turned away and turned back and struck him so hard that he was shocked and surprised. It brought back a sense memory and we did it all in one take.”
Friedkin seems happy to engage with all the campfire tales that have grown up around him. He goes on to admit that he made a mistake when – following wild demands from the actor – he decided not to cast Steve McQueen in Sorceror, his financially disappointing follow-up to The Exorcist.
But he does bristle when passing mention is made of Peter Biskind’s gossipy take on that era: Easy Riders and Raging Bulls. He’s not buying Biskind’s argument that he and his contemporaries were arrogant 1960s decadents. “He made that book up out of old cloth: partial truths, largely lies and rumours from forgotten former wives and girlfriends. He accused the younger generation of all being potheads. But, all I can say is I have never tried drugs in my life. I have been drunk, maybe, twice in my life. I was not part of the drug generation.”
At any rate, it does seem that, as the book posits, some sort of golden era did come to a close with the release of Star Wars. The films that Friedkin favoured became harder to finance. Youth culture took over.
He continued to work. But, after the juicy To Live and Die in LA in 1985, critical and commercial hits proved hard to come by. In recent years, however, he has been enjoying a comeback. His version of Tracy Letts’s play Bug won strong reviews. Killer Joe, also based on that writer’s work, starring Matthew McConaughey as a corrupt cop in a hellish version of Texas, has also been going down a storm. It’s an impressively grim film set in a relentlessly savage environment.
“You never can tell what will work,” he says. “I just do things that interest me and I hope they interest others. There are communities like this everywhere: cops who moonlight as killers; father sleeping with their daughters. It’s to do with what Emmanuelle Kant said about the crooked timber of humanity out of which nothing straight can be made.”
It’s nice to receive acclaim again. And he appears happy in his private life. After marriages to the actors Jeanne Moreau and Lesley Anne-Down and the journalist Kelly Lange, he finally settled down with Sherry Lansing, former president of 20th Century Fox, some 20 years ago. “She offers me plenty of advice, not always solicited,” he laughs.
Life seems very comfortable. Still, he must mourn the films that got away. He must feel he made a few gems that were unfairly overlooked.
“No, no, no! For God’s sake, Donald, if you get to be a movie director and express yourself in a mass medium, you’re damned lucky. I look upon myself as a damn lucky man.”
Killer Joe opens today.