There are few cinematic ranconteurs as engaging as William Friedkin. Candid and filled with a career’s worth of stories from the perspective of a filmmaker who has seen the industry change from the freewheeling ’70s to the belt-tightening, tentpole focus of today, Friedkin’s perspective is unique. And with his new memoir “The Friedkin Connection,” he’s put down a lifetime of wisdom into one must-read volume, but of course, there’s always more, and the director recently chatted with The New York Times and shared a few more fascinating morsels, reflecting on his own ego, stories from shooting “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist,” and more.
While for most, winning an Oscar means a step up into bigger and better projects, Friedkin freely admits it went to his head. “I had no perspective back then. After I won the Oscar, I thought I was bulletproof. And I wasn’t. But I thought I was. You often pay dearly when hubris sets in. I thought, well, I have the formula now. I really know how to reach audiences,” he said, even while revealing that when it came to “The French Connection,” he didn’t realize what he had until after the shoot.
“I had a whole different idea of casting. I cast a guy to play Frog 1, the drug dealer – he wasn’t the guy I intended! My casting director cast Fernando Rey by mistake. Gene Hackman wasn’t even on my list of choices. But I had to make the film with him because he was the last man standing,” Friedkin shared. “Everyone else either turned it down or, as when I auditioned Jimmy Breslin, he couldn’t do it. I had to struggle with Hackman, and it was only after I had finished the editing and saw that it was working, he obviously is the force that ignites that picture.”
However, if anything, Friedkin is one of the prime examples of taking the unexpected and making it into something special (it says something that decades later, the S&M world flick “Cruising” is still discussed at length). And even when he found himself in wild situations, Friedkin leaves with an anecdote to tell — such as meeting devil-worshipers in Iraq while shooting “The Exorcist.” “They’re a Muslim sect, and their basic belief is that God rules everything in heaven, but the devil rules on earth. So they worship the devil. They had no idea what the hell I was doing there. They had heard that this crazy American was taking raw meat to the statue of the demon Pazuzu,” he said. “And when I told them it was for a movie, and we had hoped to attract wild dogs and vultures, they were disappointed. And the people from the Baathist party, my handlers, said, ‘Don’t go. It’s dangerous. We have no control over that.’ I had this wonderful translator who was also my guide, and he took me there. It was a great experience.”
But today, the Hollywood Friedkin once knew is no more. “All these films about the Avengers and the Transformers, video games and comic books, that’s what, for the most part, Hollywood cinema has become,” he says. But luckily, his movies have stood well against the sands of time, and if you’re in New York City a retrospective of his work — including a newly restored “Sorcerer” — plays at BAM starting on May 7th.