William Friedkin already had a Best Director Oscar under his belt when “The Exorcist” came to theaters in 1973, but even he wasn’t quite prepared for what the film would mean for his career. “The Exorcist” was a box office smash, and long before the advent of social media, the film went viral the old-fashioned way — through word of mouth. Today, the audience reactions almost seem like a publicity stunt, but people really did faint and get sick after seeing the movie, lending many to believe the film is cursed. “The Exorcist” was terrifying, and its creepiest aspect was that it drew from real accounts.
Even 45 years later, Friedkin can’t escape the shadow of “The Exorcist,” not that he has a problem with that. When IndieWire joined the legendary director for a day in Georgetown, Washington D.C., Friedkin’s love of the city made famous by his film was more than evident, as he gushed about each filming location in the quaint neighborhood. And the city loves him back. Friedkin’s film is still shown to Georgetown University freshman as part of their undergraduate curriculum, and the infamous “Exorcist” steps were officially recognized as a cultural landmark in 2015 by the city.
On the Georgetown campus, students whipped out their cell phones to capture glimpses of the director, who was surrounded by journalists and cameras. They huddled in packs, staggering around at a close distance. “That’s the guy who made ‘The Exorcist!'” one of them whispered.
Friedkin is as much a legend as his film, which continues to terrify audiences even decades later, as younger generations continue to revere it as one of the greatest horror movies ever made.
But don’t tell Friedkin that. “The Exorcist” might top most horror lists as the exemplar of the genre, but Friedkin doesn’t see the film as a horror movie at all. Instead, it is a film about the power of faith in the face of unimaginable darkness.
“Faith is a mystery,” Friedkin told IndieWire at a lunch celebrating his new documentary, “The Devil and Father Amorth. “Bill [Blatty, author of the book] identified ‘The Exorcist’ as being a work about the mystery of faith. People call it a horror film. Blatty and I never spoke about a horror film. We made a film about the mystery of faith, which was his concept, his idea, his believe system.”
Friedkin’s strong faith and belief in “the teachings of Jesus Christ” have guided him in his post-“Exorcist” career, which included a range of bold genre experiments such as “Sorcerer,” “To Live and Die in L.A.,” and “Cruising.” But just as Friedkin has always come back to “The Exorcist,” including releasing an updated version of the film in 2000, it was inevitable that his career would loop back to the supernatural. This time, it’s with his new documentary, “The Devil and Father Amorth.”
In 2016, while in Italy receiving a prize for his work directing operas, Friedkin found himself with some downtime and requested an audience with the Vatican’s official exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth. Friedkin initially turned his conversations with the priest into an article for Vanity Fair, but he had an idea. He asked if he could witness a real exorcism, assuming the answer would be no. “Nobody gets to see an exorcism,” Friedkin explained. “It’s not a show, it’s a very private matter and I thought he would never allow it.”
To his surprise, Father Amorth not only approved his request, but allowed him to film the exorcism, resulting in “The Devil and Father Amorth.” Friedkin witnessed the exorcism of a 46-year-old woman, a former architect who was receiving her ninth intervention by the priest. The filmmaker said wasn’t sure what to expect; he and Blatty had known of Father Amorth while they were working on “The Exorcist,” and both men had their doubts about the priest, who claimed to have done tens of thousands of exorcisms in his lifetime.
But the experience had an impact on Friedkin. “After I witnessed this exorcism and after I met Father Amorth, I had no doubt that what he was doing was giving of himself and his skills to help people who were in trouble who could not find any other help anywhere.” For Friedkin, his new documentary is a tribute to the priest, who passed away in 2016. “He is an extraordinary man and the film is a tribute both to him and to William Peter Blatty,” Friedkin said.
But fans of “The Exorcist” should be wary — this isn’t Hollywood magic, nor is it designed to operate like a horror movie. “Do not expect ‘The Exorcist,'” Friedkin said. “This is a real documentary with no special effects. ‘The Exorcist’ is a work of fiction by William Peter Blatty, a great story inspired by something that he totally believed occurred and wrote as a work of fiction.”
Still, Friedkin insisted that there are some things that “The Exorcist,” despite Reagan’s theatrical head-spinning and levitation, did get right. “Father Amorth told me that during the course of the exorcism this woman in her altered personality had cited to him some of his actual sins.”
Whether or not you believe that the supernatural forces explored in “The Exorcist” are real, there’s no denying the film’s legacy and power to still shock and provoke audiences. It’s a film Friedkin will never be able to shake, and one that still has the power to creep under the skin, even 45 years later.