Interview: William Friedkin on a lifetime in film

Director William Friedkin is the recipient of the lifetime achievement award at this year’s Lux Film Fest. He talked with Duncan Roberts about the state of the film industry, his career and spirituality in his work.

In a career spanning 60 years, William Friedkin has produced a stellar body of work that includes modern classics such as The French Connection (which landed him a best director Oscar) and the iconic The Exorcist. The latter is being screened, alongside acclaimed thriller To Live and Die in LA and neo-noir adventure The Sorcerer as part of a retrospective at the Luxembourg City Film Festival.

Speaking with Friedkin on the phone from his Los Angeles home, it is obvious he retains a passion for film. He was insightful, courteous and generous with his time.

Duncan Roberts: How has the covid pandemic affected your work, did it disrupt any projects?

William Friedkin: I’m able to work on them to some extent. But I couldn’t make a film now, it would be impossible under those circumstances. And films are slow to be released, and then they are mostly playing on a streaming platform. I don’t understand how they’re going to give an Academy Award this year…it’s ridiculous.

Do you think that will have a long-term effect? Will people get used to streaming and eschew going to the cinema?

Yes, I think the new normal will be quite different from the old normal. Even if they do get a solid grip on this pandemic, I don’t see people going back into theatres quickly. I think there will always be an audience for Disney type films, you know, family films, big cartoons, state of the art. That’s about it. I think everything else is going to have a hard time.

Meanwhile festivals like Lux Film Fest are going on. I mean maybe there is a need for this sort of cinephile audience. Have festivals helped your career at any stage?

I’m not sure I know what helps or hurts my career. A lot of people remember some of my films from the past. But it’s very difficult to sustain something like that. And for various reasons, tastes change, audiences change. I am hoping to go to Venice again in early September where, God willing, we plan to run the 50th anniversary of The French Connection.

But I’ve enjoyed a lot of the festivals I’ve been to. I’ve enjoyed the communication with audiences that share my love for cinema, and with other filmmakers, and critics…I can’t think of any offhand that I didn’t enjoy. What I think it may do for someone’s personal career is that your films are seen by audiences that may not have seen them anywhere else.

You’ve mentioned the French Connection, but several of your films have been adaptations of novels or plays. Is bringing your own originality to previously existing material, something you particularly relish?

The French Connection is not based on anything, except my own experience with the cops. There was a book about the French Connection case, but I’ve never been able to read that book. I made The French Connection from the personal anecdotes, and from the lives of the two cops, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grasso, whose names I had to change in the film for some unbeknownst reason. I mean, we had the rights, you know, but the studio lawyers were just terrified.

I have done a few plays on film. The Birthday Party by Pinter, and The Boys in the Band and Bug and Killer Joe.

Yes, the latter two by Tracy Letts. What was it about his work that that attracted you?

We have the same worldview…and our response to human nature is very similar. I discovered his work when it is almost invisible, but I saw a kindred spirit. And I felt that those two particular plays were very cinematic in my world.

Also, they were scaled to such an extent that I could make them at that point [Killer Joe was released in 1993 and Bug 1996], whereas I couldn’t really go out and make another action film. The French Connection, the budget was a million and a half dollars. And it wound up costing 1.8 million, which, you know, by today’s standards is virtually what the catering costs. But the cost of those kinds of films has gone way up.

You mentioned The Boys in the Band. There was a new version of that released last year. Did you see it?

No, I didn’t. I spoke to one of the guys who was in it who asked me if I would talk to him about it before he did it, but I never saw it.

If we can talk about The Exorcist, you’ve said that your films generally tackle the human condition… but do you approach the horror genre, you also made Bug for example, differently from other films?

No, and I really don’t think about genre. I don’t think of The Exorcist as a genre film, let alone a horror film. I know people do, so I don’t quarrel with that. When the writer [William Peter Blatty] and I approached the screenplay and when I made the film I thought of it only as a story about the mystery of faith. Certainly, there are elements of the supernatural in it…it does contain some very disturbing sequences. But we never set out to make a pure horror film. What I think of as a horror film is something like Psycho or Alien or Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. That’s a great horror film, with all the horror film tropes.

The Exorcist is inspired by an actual event in 1949 in Maryland. I approached the film in a sense as though it was a documentary. If you look at the details of the actual case, they’re every bit and more disturbing than what’s on the screen.

You started your career making documentaries and you also made The Devil and Father Amorth [about a real-life exorcism] a few years ago…

That’s still doing the rounds on Netflix…

Documentaries seem to have gained renewed recognition recently. Do you watch them with the same passion you once watched feature films?

Oh, the documentaries today are the best films around, in my opinion.

You have mentioned the way Costa Gavras filmed Z almost as a documentary as an inspiration for your style in filming The French Connection.

The only films I had made before I came to make a feature were documentaries, no script and a small crew. I didn’t realise you could do a feature film that way until I saw Z. I was fortunate enough to meet him and tell him what a profound influence he had on my work. Afterwards I realised it’s not complimentary…as though mine was some great masterpiece or something.

We’re lucky here in Luxembourg, because we have the Cinémathèque, which is where your films will be screened during the festival. They still show the classics, and there’s still an audience for that I think.

That I find very encouraging. And not because I want to live in the past, but there’s just no topping nothing some of those films. And in American cinema, you know, go back to Citizen Kane. There’s nothing that approaches that. I mean, the Hitchcock films certainly are great in what they are, but as a standalone masterpiece, there’s nothing like Citizen Kane.

So, did you did you watch the recent biography of [Citizen Kane screenwriter] Herman Mankovich [Mank]?

Yes. That’s all I can say.

This theme of faith in The Exorcist, and in the Father Amorth documentary…I mean, has religion at all influenced your work?

Only in the sense that I am a spiritual person. I don’t subscribe to one particular faith, but I certainly believe in the existence of a higher power. And that I don’t accept the idea of a big bang that created the universe… I don’t criticise anyone who doesn’t have faith. But I have my own beliefs that are just bred in the bone.