EXCLUSIVE: One of the maverick directors whose movies helped to define the 1970s as the last auteur era, William Friedkin reached back into that exalted decade to dust off Sorcerer, the 1977 film that was restored and is still being rediscovered in theaters around the world. When first released, with Roy Scheider heading a group of desperate men transporting unstable dynamite across the treacherous South American jungle to extinguish an oil well fire, the film was a failure that detonated the momentum Friedkin built with The Exorcist, The French Connection and The Boys In The Band. Its fate was sealed opening against Star Wars, a new kind of film that signaled a sea change that exists today. We got talking about Sorcerer and his attachment to direct Don Winslow’s superb novel The Winter of Frankie Machine. Friedkin had so many great war stories to tell about movies then and now, that I felt sure Deadline readers would spark to them the way I did.
DEADLINE: Today’s executives and filmmakers say they revere the 70s, but they are under pressure for formulaic global blockbusters that lack edge and authorship. What made that era possible that isn’t in place today?
FRIEDKIN: There were a number of factors. Studios were run by guys who really loved films, and many of them had been producers. Probably the biggest factor is, there were no formulas. A studio did not have to turn out a number of films that had to be formulaic, like they do today. A whole movement back then was spurred by the release of Easy Rider. Studios felt that if a couple of hip filmmakers could go out, without a script, with a small crew and make a film like that with very few resources, then the directors must know what they were doing. This benefited the younger guys of my generation. The studios just felt that maybe we had some formula.
DEADLINE: Did you?
FRIEDKIN: We didn’t. We were mostly influenced by the European films of the ‘60s. The French New Wave. Italian neo-realism. Kurosawa and other Japanese filmmakers. We were inspired by them and not bound to any formula. The French Connection, for all its success, was a real departure for a cop film, which was why it took us two years to get it made. Every studio turned it down. Many of them turned it down two or three times over a two year period.
FRIEDKIN: They didn’t get it. The chase scene was never in a script. I created that chase scene, with the producer Philip D’Antoni. We just spit-balled ideas. We walked out of my apartment, headed South in Manhattan and we kept walking until we came up with that chase scene, letting the atmosphere of the city guide us. The steam coming off the street, and sound of the subway rumbling beneath our feet, the treacherous traffic on crowded streets. We didn’t have a lot of time, because Dick Zanuck, who had already turned it down, told us that he would make the film for a million and a half dollars if we could get it done right away, because he knew he was going to get fired. And he was right. That’s why we settled on Gene Hackman who was not our first choice. We walked 55 blocks and came up with a chase. Nobody ever asked to see a script. We went three hundred thousand over that million and a half dollar budget, and they wanted to kill me every day for that. Nobody spent the kind of money they do today. You had groups of guys running the studios who were afraid they might be out of touch, and young filmmakers who had fresh ideas that were more like what indie film is today than what fit the classic Hollywood movie, which was the musicals of the ‘40s and the ‘50s like Singing in the Rain. What prevails in American film today that didn’t then was, if a film succeeds and seems to represent a formula, it will be repeated over and over, with more and more computer-generated images. I can’t think of any superhero film that existed in the 70s. None come to mind. No formulas and the start was the fear of those executives back then that Easy Rider caused in the hearts of guys running the studios back then.
DEADLINE: Were you aware you were working in a special time for the movie business? What was the best thing about working in movies back then, with so much freedom?
FRIEDKIN: We were not aware that it was a golden era. As was the case with those executives, we saw the golden era of Hollywood as being in the ‘40s, but we recognized a golden era had just happened in New Wave cinema with the neo realists in France and Italy. The conversation among us back then was, whose work will survive, Godard or Fellini? None of us knew the grosses of our pictures. We all had percentages of profit, but that’s not what motivated us. I was very close and still am to Francis Coppola and others. Our conversations were about the art of cinema as it preceded us; American film noir of the 1940s and ‘50s. Our influences were Treasure of the Sierra Madre and White Heat, films it would be impossible to get made today. Both Coppola and I were threatened many times over with being fired from our pictures because the studios didn’t like or understand our dailies. They didn’t like the dailies of The Godfather; the guys who ran Paramount didn’t like the cast. They didn’t want Brando, they didn’t want Pacino. I had the opposite experience. After Dick Zanuck green lit The French Connection with the axe hanging over his neck, he didn’t care who was in it. He was ready for me to actually cast Jimmy Breslin as Jimmy Doyle. Do you know who Jimmy Breslin is?
DEADLINE: I was a kid reporter at New York Newsday and Breslin wrote columns about crime and political corruption.
FRIEDKIN: I tested Jimmy Breslin for the lead in The French Connection, with Zanuck’s whole-hearted approval. I’d cast Roy Scheider and Alan Weeks, the young kid who gets chased in the first scene. Jimmy just couldn’t cut it, but he was the prototype for the guy I wanted. I first offered that role to Jackie Gleason and that was the only time Zanuck ever vetoed me. Gleason was willing to do the film and he was my idea of the character. But Zanuck said no.
FRIEDKIN: Gleason had made the biggest bomb in the history of Fox, this silent movie about a clown, called Gigot. I wanted Gleason because the real cop was a heavy set Irish guy that you’d call Black Irish, dark and moody. That was the real guy, Eddie Egan. Gleason was closest to that, but the studio would have none of it. We went through many other stars until we finally reluctantly agreed to Gene Hackman when we were out of time and Zanuck kept calling the producer and me saying you better set this picture now because I’ll be fired before you start shooting. So reluctantly we went with Gene. One of the great actors in the history of American film, who was not my first, second or tenth choice for that part. So I guess the other thing about the 70s was, there was just a ton of pure luck.
DEADLINE: Isn’t that the way it is, most times in the movie business?
FRIEDKIN: Sometimes. Do you know that we turned down Star Wars back then? I had a company at Paramount, with Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, The Directors Company. Because of Francis’ relationship with George Lucas, we were offered Star Wars. It was more than we had the right to spend in our company, but both Peter and I hated the script. We didn’t see it. Francis did. But we passed on Star Wars!
DEADLINE: The revival is expected to be dominate the box office in December, fueling the biggest grossing movie year in history…
FRIEDKIN: Yeah, we passed up Star Wars. Lucas gave it to Francis because everybody else had passed. Lucas’ agent, Jeff Berg, finally got Fox to say yes. Then, he asked for a little bit more money for George because the film was taking longer and George hadn’t gotten a large fee. Instead of Fox giving him a few dollars more, Berg got for him the remake rights, the sequel rights and all of the merchandise. That’s how much that studio believed in Star Wars. To crystallize it for you, we filmmakers only cared about the aesthetics of movies, and not the grosses and sequel potential. Now, the media and everybody else is addicted to the box office grosses. It’s all they care about.
DEADLINE: What impact does that have on the culture of good movie making?
FRIEDKIN: I think it hurts all aspects of the motion picture industry, down to film criticism, which certainly isn’t what it was in the 70s. It’s hard to wax poetic about the latest super hero movie. You had films then that attracted audiences and didn’t cost so much that they could never make money. Films like Five Easy Pieces, and great little films like Bogdanovich’s comedies and Coppola’s film The Conversation, made for very little money. The studios were not out then to out-do themselves with special effects and comic-book characters. I’m not really criticizing, just observing it’s different. American cinema is now largely based on comic-book franchises. They’re working as a business so you can’t criticize it because audiences have become conditioned to expect it. But none of us in the 70s thought we were operating in a golden age; we all had been influenced by Godard, Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa.
DEADLINE: In Sorcerer, you took a nearly 40 year old movie and got it back out into overseas theaters. Why did you crave a second chance so badly?
FRIEDKIN: I’ll make a point but I want it to be clear my name should never be used in the same sentence as Vincent Van Gogh. He was one of the greatest acknowledged artists who ever lived, who painted for only ten years of his life but made over 3,000 works. None of them sold in his lifetime. Today, you’ve got to be a billionaire to buy a Van Gogh. Why wasn’t the quality of that work recognized then, like it is now? What was different 140 years ago? Van Gogh’s brother was his art dealer, he sold many impressionist paintings and not one Van Gogh. I only compare myself with him to suggest that sometimes a work gets recognized out of its time.
DEADLINE: What did it take to get that reconsideration?
FRIEDKIN: It was a long struggle. I had to go to court, just to find out who owned it. You’re never going to make a lot of money doing something like this, but Warner Bros spurred this revival by putting it on BluRay and DVD and it triggered all these distributors around the world who are running it in theaters as far as Istanbul and Seoul. When Sorcerer came out, it never had a release in Europe because it was such a failure in the United States, both critically and at the box office. And this was at the beginning of that time when the box office mattered. Star Wars had just changed everything; the blockbuster film became the diet of choice for studios.
DEADLINE: Star Wars, the movie you passed on, came out right alongside your film. It seemed like everything changed right there.
FRIEDKIN: Star Wars took all the theaters, and the audience. It was in the right place at the right time, and Sorcerer was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Star Wars is a great ride for all generations and it changed the zeitgeist of American film. That box changed. Probably the end of that Golden Era of the 70s was Heaven’s Gate, made by a guy highly regarded as an auteur. I never thought of myself as an auteur, more a working director who loved the process, just like my contemporaries. We didn’t set out to make movies audiences wouldn’t see because they were too difficult, we just only made films we believed in. John Cassavetes was the truest of the American independent filmmakers. He didn’t have anybody back him. Every time he wanted to make a film he had to mortgage his house, take acting jobs to pay for these little films that got great reviews and small audiences. But that didn’t bother anybody. People knew Cassavetes was a great filmmaker even if he wasn’t working on The Sound Of Music; his artistic ambitions were so much higher than commercial releases of the day that you knew he was never going to have a large audience. But what audience he did have appreciated his films and that was enough for some studio to release them. Today? Not a chance.
DEADLINE: Sorcerer starred Roy Scheider, who’d done Jaws and The French Connection, but was not the big draw. Why didn’t you wind up with Steve McQueen, the biggest star of the day? What was that dance like?
FRIEDKIN: We were friends, and he was a big fan of The French Connection. Walon Green wrote the Sorcerer screenplay for Steve McQueen to play the Scheider role. We sent it to Steve and he called me and said, this is the best script I’ve ever read. I love this picture. Then, he said, there are a couple of things I need you to do for me. I know you want to go out to some jungle and shoot it and I can’t do that because I just married Ali McGraw and she has a career. Can you write a part in there for her so she can be with me when I’m shooting this? I said Steve, you just told me it was the best script you ever read. There’s no major role for a woman in there. He said, okay, I get it. Then why don’t you make her a co-producer? I said Steve, I’m not going to do that, I don’t believe in that sh*t. And I certainly don’t want to schmuck bait your wife and call her a producer because she’s not going to be a producer on the film. And he then said okay I understand that, then let’s make it all in America. I said, Steve I’ve found the locations and I’m committed to them. I don’t want to do it in America. Because of those three reasons, he decided to pass.
DEADLINE: How did that work out for you?
FRIEDKIN: I’ll admit something. If that came up today, I would have done anything he wanted. I was so arrogant at that time. I thought I was the star of that film. So I didn’t think that a close-up of Steve McQueen was worth a shot of the most beautiful landscape. A close-up of McQueen was worth more. When McQueen dropped out, I lost Marcello Mastroianni and Lino Ventura, who were big European stars and were known in America as well. Only my arrogance cost me that cast.
DEADLINE: How much value do stars of today have compared to when McQueen, Paul Newman, Robert Redford or Dustin Hoffman were kings?
FRIEDKIN: I don’t think that kind of thing exists anymore. I couldn’t name ten and I might be hard pressed to come up with five actors or actresses who are guaranteed box office today. The concepts are the stars. I don’t know the name of the guy who just played Superman but back in the 70s audiences waited to see the next film of stars, same as they had with Cary Grant, James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis. I don’t think the star system exists now. Certain actors and actresses will work in a film that has a concept the audience wants to see, like Ocean’s Eleven. Jerry Weintraub put together a cast that made people want to see that film even if it isn’t the greatest film ever made.
DEADLINE: Why did the star system die?
FRIEDKIN: Studios don’t nurture them anymore. All of those guys that I mentioned were mostly under contract to the studio, run by showmen who recognized potential, created stars and picked all of the material for them. Again, luck played a part. Humphrey Bogart only got The Treasure of Sierra Madre because George Raft turned it down. Bogart is so great in the picture and I don’t know what the box office was, nor do I care. It’s one of the greatest American films ever.
DEADLINE: Sorcerer looked like an impossible film to shoot, from the hellhole locations in the South American jungle, to the rains and stunts involved in moving those vehicles across rickety bridges made of ropes and wood. How do you remember it.
FRIEDKIN: Sorcerer remains a metaphor for life.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
FRIEDKIN: To put it simply, you struggle and struggle and then you die. That’s it. I saw it as a metaphor for not only individuals in the film but the nations of the world, then and especially today. That might be a reason people relate to it now. The nations of the world are hostile to each other, and yet if they don’t work together and cooperate, they will blow it all up. That is the metaphor in the story of these four guys from different places in the world, who find themselves in that situation. They don’t like each other but if they don’t cooperate, they’ll blow up, literally. I think we’re on the edge of that disaster now, skirting it every day. All these countries are riding on truckloads of volatile dynamite. That drove me to make the movie, along with showing the exploitation of the Latin American countries by big American corporations like United Crude and the oil companies that were exploiting the workers, when safety conditions meant nothing. I was profoundly influenced by the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez who wrote what is now known as magic realism. That’s the style that I adopted for the film. Magic realism. Realism in the sense that everything you saw we had to do, and I will put it up as one of the most difficult films ever shot, especially the bridge scene. That was life threatening. When the film was over, I got malaria and had it four or five months. Many of the guys who worked on that film came back with gangrene and other diseases. It’s not something I would do today.
DEADLINE: I wonder if you feel the same way about a couple of your other movies. I re-watched The Exorcist, and those are shocking scenes for a young girl to play. Also watched The French Connection, and that high speed car chase scene under the subway trestle. Do you look back and consider it a miracle nobody got badly hurt?
FRIEDKIN: The answer to your question is yes, including Linda Blair in The Exorcist. There was always the risk on my films, where someone could have gotten hurt or worse. I always looked at film in those days as both an adventure and an education, going into uncharted territory, both literally and metaphorically. I was young. It was only by the grace of God that nobody was injured or killed on those pictures. I would not do that today. I would not make a film today that could cause a squirrel to get a twisted ankle.
DEADLINE: Why did you do it then?
FRIEDKIN: I was young and foolhardy, and I had the opportunity. That’s a dangerous combination — young, foolhardy with the keys to the kingdom, which I had because frankly, I was thought to be bulletproof, as were some of my colleagues at that time. It was wrong. The French Connection was life-threatening in many ways. The Exorcist was threatening to the sanity of that wonderful twelve-year-old girl. We auditioned thousands of girls across the country, many on videotape. I saw hundreds of the tapes and when I found her, she was like a gift from the movie gods. She came to me on nobody’s recommendation. Her mother brought her in when I was looking at 16 year old girls who could play younger. I could find nobody who could even withstand the psychological pressure of playing a role like that. Linda had no acting experience. She had only done some modeling but she was a straight-A student in Westport, Connecticut. She was extremely knowledgeable and bright and together. She was the only one I had met for that part that I thought would not be damaged by the experience.
DEADLINE: How do you ensure that, when those demonic possession scenes are so rough?
FRIEDKIN: I made the whole thing a game for her. Twelve years old; she didn’t understand the implications of what she was doing but she had some idea of what the story was about and she trusted me totally and I treated her like I was her surrogate father. Her mother and father were separated at the time. Her mother was on the set every day and appears in one small scene. I could send you still photographs of us on the set, where our love for each other is palpable. I actually loved that child like she was my own, and I treated her that way.
DEADLINE: What happened when there was a possession scene?
FRIEDKIN: I made it all a game. And when I would ask her to do something especially difficult, that she sort of thought was kind of dirty or something, or wasn’t sure, I’d say, okay if you do this I’ll give you a milkshake. It was done in that way you would treat a child. It had to be a 12 year old girl, though I’d given up on finding one until her mother brought her in with no appointment. Again, it’s a miracle that she was not damaged. She’s made many more films that I have; she’s very active with PETA, and started her own organization to protect animals. She’s a fine woman in her fifties now. She went through some problems that most teenagers go through, but came out fine. We could not have made that film unless she was who she was.
DEADLINE: The French Connection car chase plays in a different context after that terrible accident on Midnight Rider, that Greg Allman movie that resulted in crew member Sarah Jones. The director Randall Miller didn’t have permission to shoot on a bridge with a live railroad track, and he’s behind bars after they could not get a hospital bed and themselves off the tracks as a train came barreling over the bridge. How did that make you reflect on your film, which ended in Oscars and glory?
FRIEDKIN: It could have happened to us. It was only by the grace of God that it didn’t. While I had many people on the set concerned about safety, we defied all the laws of safety. I had no permission to shoot that chase, except from the elevated train. They let me shoot on the elevated train for about three or four hours a day. We were able to shoot from like 9:00 in the morning when they considered the rush hour over, until 1:00 in the afternoon. That we had to get permission for. But if they didn’t give me permission, I was prepared to steal that stuff. Just take my actors on a different elevated train every day and keep shooting until they threw us off.
DEADLINE: It was a different time, but movies still shoot with lax standards and those risks sometimes do result in worst case scenarios. It seems like you look back with a great deal of regret…
FRIEDKIN: Look, its mixed emotions for me, but regret is definitely a part of it. That I was so callous, and so…unconcerned, really about anything but getting the shots that I had in my head. I was surrounded by people who went along with me. The only thing you compare it to is like somebody who leads men and women in to battle, because these were battles. I had guys who were more than willing to take those risks with me. I never put a gun to anyone’s head, but I certainly broke all the rules and I think a lot of the rules came in to being because of what we got away with on films like The French Connection. When I did the chase scene in To Live and Die in L.A., I had permission to do all of it but that was very dangerous too except it was all executed with stunt men. The French Connection was not. The French Connection was going through actual New York City traffic that was unaware what we were doing.
DEADLINE: How fast were those cars going?
FRIEDKIN: At one point, 90 miles an hour, with nothing to announce their arrival. When I wasn’t shooting on the cars, with a camera mounted on the bumper, there was nothing to tell you that there was an oncoming vehicle, except we had a police gumball on the top of the car and a siren. I did have that. I had a police siren turned up all the way, and that was it. To get the most of the danger shots in The French Connection, it was 90 miles an hour. Basically one take with three cameras, from which I selected the shots. I operated the camera in that scene with a police detective on the floor, in case we got stopped by the police. The detective, named Randy Jurgenson, is still around and remembers those days very well. We did get stopped on several occasions and Randy had to pull out his badge and tell the precinct cops what we were doing. I caused the traffic jam on the Brooklyn Bridge for one scene. No permission to do it. I sent a bunch of off-duty cops on to the bridge to just park, for a scene in The French Connection where Hackman loses the guy he’s been trailing in traffic.
DEADLINE: What happened?
FRIEDKIN: Police helicopters flew over and came down and said what the hell are you guys doing? They stopped us shooting but I had guys with me at all times who were on the police force like the actual French Connection cops. They ran over with their badges and explained it to these guys who were still pissed off because they didn’t know what we were doing and we had no permission to do it. This gives you an idea of what was happening at the studios back then. They knew what I was doing but they never tried to stop me. I didn’t have anybody come down and read me safety regulations. But it’s nothing to do with my genius; it was only by the grace of God that somebody wasn’t hurt or worse. I thank God for that but it wasn’t because of extra precautions or my concern about the safety of myself or others. I have to say that. I can’t bullshit it.
DEADLINE: You provided a taste of this blockbuster fever we’re in now, with The Exorcist. I remember the lines around the blocks in Manhattan when it opened. Remind us what it was like to be riding a real zeitgeist movie wave, compared to now when the goal is to global saturation and where you can make a billion dollars in a couple of weekends.
FRIEDKIN: Now, they open in 6000-7000 screens or more. The Exorcist opened in 26 theaters in the United States, for six months. There was so much demand that they had to break contracts to expand it to 50 theaters in the six months. People were breaking down the doors. In Mexico City, Mexican Indians who had never been down to the city came down and threw money at the theater. They didn’t know about standing in line so they would throw their money at the theater and it was uncontrollable.
DEADLINE: To slow build extended business?
FRIEDKIN: it wasn’t a strategy on the part of Warner Brothers to do that. They actually thought they were going to get busted over the rating. They’d seen the grosses on films like The Godfather, which preceded The Exorcist, so they knew you could get large audiences. The reason they didn’t open it wider was, they were afraid we would get an X-rating and it would get busted, everywhere. We didn’t. I got an R-rating on that film, with no cuts. I didn’t take out one frame to get the R.
DEADLINE: You described in a THR tribute to Jerry Weintraub the pains you went through to get Cruising to an R. How is that possible with The Exorcist, with scenes that are still shocking today?
FRIEDKIN: You had then a very really liberal and highly sensitive and intelligent ratings board, headed by the guy who started the ratings code, Aaron Stern. He was a psychiatrist practicing in New York who Jack Valenti sought to figure out what the motion picture code should be. He came up with all that stuff — R, X, M, PG. He was new in the job when The Exorcist went to the Board. He called me after he saw the film with his Board. I didn’t know him; he called me at Warner Brothers and said Mr. Friedkin, I’ve just seen your film. We’re going to give it an R-rating with no cuts. We’re going to take a lot of heat for that and so will you and so will Warner Brothers but I believe that this is a brilliant, intelligent film and it should be seen widely. We all thought we were going to get an X for sure, and get busted. Some cities played it with an X in spite of the fact that it had an R-rating. It was an X in Washington where I shot it and it was an X in Boston.
DEADLINE: Why was the ratings struggle with Cruising so much more difficult than The Exorcist?
FRIEDKIN: You had a different ratings board with a different set of values and I can only define them as being much more conservative. Richard Hefner was much more conservative than his predecessor Aaron Stern, a liberal who did not believe in censorship. In spite of what the ratings board tells you, they operate as censors. It’s a trade-off to get a certain rating. You have to take down a couple of words here, a couple of shots there, shorten this, eliminate that. With Aaron Stern, you had to do none of that. Stern had the perception and the people on his Board that, basically, the ratings should simply be a warning to parents about what the content was. Let the parents decide whether they want to go with their children to see this, or not or have their children see it at all. He didn’t see it as trying to purify the populus. He saw the code–and he was backed up by Valenti–as a means by which to inform the public of content. It accomplished that. Now look, a lot of people saw The Exorcist who probably should not have. But the X-rating was not going to stop them anyway. When I was a kid, I grew up in Chicago and we didn’t have ratings on pictures. There was some pictures in Chicago that Mayor Daley’s office just banned. They couldn’t come in, or if they could, they were Adults Only. I managed to sneak in and see those pictures along with by buddy when we were in grammar school. A film like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which was loosely based on the Loeb and Leopold murders. James Stewart played a college professor and two young kids who had taken his Nietzschian philosophy to heart. They killed a fellow student, put the dead body in a big chest in the center of the room, and put drinks and food on it and threw a party. There were only twelve shots in the whole film. He shot one whole roll of film until the film ran out in each of the scenes, no interior editing at all. The camera moves but only to follow actors. And there’s no cuts except at the end of a reel where he does tricky little transitions to the next reel. But it is a movie about two kids getting away with a murder. It was Adults Only in Chicago but it didn’t stop me or my friend. Now with home videos and if a kid wants to watch something X rated or a hard R, chances are they’ll do it.
DEADLINE: Dustin Hoffman said recently that movies today are terrible and all the quality is on television. Do you agree?
FRIEDKIN: I don’t take the position that the films today are terrible though I’ve been misquoted on that front. They’re different because of the new digital technology and they probably shouldn’t even be called films anymore. I do see the kind of film making that existed in the ‘70s as taking place in long form television, mostly on the cable and digital downloading. I’m talking about series that develop character and story over eight or ten episodes. I find them much more suitable to me as a viewer than what plays at my local cinema. The Sopranos, the British series The Fall, 24, Homeland, House of Cards. These are the things I find myself watching more than cinema. But I just saw Mr. Holmes and my wife and I were in tears. There are exceptions.
DEADLINE: Are you saying that the movie golden age of the 70s is taking place right now, on TV, where all these edgy writers went when studios stopped hiring them when they stopped making mid budget dramas?
FRIEDKIN: You’re right, and the good stuff is being done on television. That’s where we are doing To Live and Die in L.A. It’s being written by Bobby Moresco who wrote Crash and won the Academy Award and Million Dollar Baby. God willing, I’ll direct all the episodes and try to capture the vibe of the movie. I’m much interested in long-form television both as a director and as a viewer.
DEADLINE: You had a pretty fast trajectory, but studios now routinely take promising makers of no budget movies and throw them in the deep end on blockbusters. Look at Colin Trevorrow, who moved director from the no budget Safety Not Guaranteed and then Jurassic World, and now he’s in line to direct one of the Star Wars films. Some of these artists get chewed up and spat out. What would you say to these guys making these giant leaps?
FRIEDKIN: We had similar trajectories except there was no long-form television to fall back on or go in to then but the guys in my generation advanced pretty quickly from rather mediocre films into the opportunity to make better and better films. We got access to better material and sometimes we got lucky. I wasn’t Warner Brothers’ first choice to make The Exorcist. It was turned down by Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols. I was way down on their list but they signed me with a couple of films to my name when The French Connection came out and was an immediate smash. A lot of these young guys who started doing home videos or MTV stuff got their work noticed for style and talent and the move quickly for the same reason we did in the ‘70s. Some studio guy sees some talent there. It isn’t a matter of experience; it’s a matter of a perception of the talent, no different than when RKO gave the contract to Orson Welles.
He had never made a film and they gave this guy the keys to the studio to do whatever the hell he wanted. And he came up with arguably the best ever American film, followed by a precipitous fall. I couldn’t really advise these young guys that are getting these big film jobs other than to say, you take these opportunities when you can. These young guys have a greater opportunity than my generation ever had. They can go in to a little electronic store and buy a digital camera or a cell phone, shoot something, edit on their computer and post it on a website like YouTube. Sometimes these homemade films are seen by millions; the social network is the greatest disseminator of information ever. These guys make their own films and if they have talent, there’s going to be someone who’ll take the chance on them. We had to work our way up to the ranks. My first job was the mail room for a television station in Chicago. The great directors of the ‘70s, guys like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer and Franklin Schaffner, they started either as ushers when live television was shot in New York, or in the mail room. There were no schools teaching technique then. You came up through the ranks and you learned by watching the guys before you do it. If you had talent, it would come to the fore. The greatest television I’ve ever seen was done live on Playhouse 90 by John Frankenheimer. There’s never been anything to equal it. They would sometimes do it with eight to twelve live cameras and run from studio to studio, while the show was on the air. The quality equates with today’s TV dramas, but there’s almost no memory of it because the only recordings were on out of focus Kinescope. There were no tapes of those shows. They existed in the minds of people like myself who were influenced by them.
DEADLINE: You wrote recently what you and Jerry Weintraub had to do to get an R rating for Cruising. Given the uptick in tolerance, how does it hold up? There was perception back then that the movie depicted an abhorrent lifestyle.
FRIEDKIN: That certainly wasn’t our intention. Our only intention as I wrote in that lease was we saw this as a murder mystery set against an exotic S&M backdrop that had not been shown in a mainstream film. The film did not intend to make an overall comment about gay life at all. If I was to make that film today, well, it would be difficult because I don’t believe that those places exist anymore because of AIDS. A lot of these mysterious deaths that were occurring in the clubs at that time turned out to be HIV, but they didn’t have a name then for guys who were getting sick and dying. So that’s one of the few films that I couldn’t even make today. I shot in those clubs with the people who were all members of those clubs and participated freely. In terms of what I did then, I stand behind it totally and I know that many people were offended and I know why because you were just in the very earliest stages of gay liberation and the gay movement had just begun to make its steps out of the closet, and Cruising was not the best step forward for the progress that gays had made in society toward being accepted. A lot of people perceived it as a commentary on all of gay life, which it was not.
DEADLINE: What’s the hardest lesson you learned in your film career?
FRIEDKIN: That a close-up of Steve McQueen is worth more than the best landscape you could possibly photograph.
DEADLINE: Give your vision for turning The Winter Of Frankie Machine into a film. This is a great book by The Cartel author Don Winslow that at one time had Martin Scorsese ready to direct Robert De Niro, and Michael Mann poised to do it. How do you see it?
FRIEDKIN: Great character, 62, who’s basically on the beach and comes back to do one more hit in Detroit. I see this thing as a very tight little thriller with a great character. Not a big budget picture. It has all of the power of like a short Hemingway novel, very compact and complete. It’s got to be written for somebody who can pull that off without seeming like he’s acting. We’re at the earliest stage. I got the call about two weeks ago from Shane Salerno with a note from Don Winslow asking me.
DEADLINE: You know who’d really nail that lead role of the retired hitman?
FRIEDKIN: Who’s that?
DEADLINE: Steve McQueen.
FRIEDKIN: [Laughs]. You are spot-on. The other guy? Paul Newman, the one from The Verdict. There are some others, not necessarily movie stars but actors. Walton Goggins is a guy you could believe in that role. He may not be 60; but he’s got some mileage on him, it shows in his face. McConaughey, who went to a different place in Killer Joe, he could do it. If he wanted to do it I’d say yes in a second.