When William Friedkin says that Hitler and Jesus are the two most interesting characters in history, one is inclined to listen. The Oscar-winning director of “The Exorcist,” “Sorcerer,” and “The French Connection” is fascinated by the extremes they represent: One brought people down to hell with him, the other helped them ascend to heaven. Friedkin proves so talkative in Francesco Zippel’s documentary about him, riffing on matters both cinematic and spiritual, that it’s almost surprising he didn’t pursue a career that allows him to do it more — you can almost imagine him in front of a congregation of his own.
He isn’t the only one with a lot to say. “Friedkin Uncut” also includes testimonials from collaborators and admirers such as Ellen Burstyn, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Francis Ford Coppola; docs of this type never lack for talking heads, but there’s a sense that Friedkin’s work and career inspire a level of insight that’s comparatively rare. That’s in large part due to “The Exorcist,” which continues to fascinate not only for its brilliance but because its dark subject matter has rarely been afforded such serious treatment. Experts won’t learn much about the horror masterpiece they don’t already know, but there’s a joy to be had in simply hearing its creators delve into it in such detail.
Friedkin revisited it in his own “The Devil and Father Amorth” last year, and here he remains troubled by the question of demonic possession (whose existence he still doubts). Speaking with his strong Chicago accent, he grapples with this and other questions while being interviewed by Zippel as he sits in a director’s chair from his Los Angeles home. The setup is casual and unadorned, which is apropos of its subject: Friedkin is entirely unpretentious, and perhaps humble to a fault as he discusses the highs and lows of his storied career.
He speaks with reverence of other filmmakers — Kathryn Bigelow, he says, is the best American director working today, and Damien Chazelle has all the potential in the world — but modesty when referring to himself. “I don’t have a perception of myself as an artist,” he says after citing a handful of filmmakers (Federico Fellini, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Charlie Chaplin) he does thinks of in that elevated way. “That’s the beginning of the end of a career, when you start to believe you’re an artist instead of just striving for the utmost professionalism in the telling of a story.” There’s nothing particularly new or inspired about Zippel’s decision to simply train a camera on Friedkin and let him riff, but the man is such a captivating speaker that it ultimately doesn’t matter much.
Those who’ve worked with him offer nothing but praise, even when it doesn’t come across that way. He’s described by Gina Gershon as a method director, one whose interactions with his cast are increasingly affected by the characters they’re playing — which, in her case, resulted in him “treating me like shit” during the making of the underrated “Killer Joe.” (He apologized and explained himself after the fact, and Gershon seems entirely unfazed by the experience.) Matthew McConaughey, whose McConaissance began in part with that same film, says he got his “True Detective” role thanks to it.
Burstyn shares another anecdote too good not to mention: Max Von Sydow, an atheist, struggled with delivering his famous “the power of Christ compels you” line in “The Exorcist”; Friedkin joked that, of all the problems a film of that nature could have, an actor of von Sydow’s caliber flubbing a line never would have occurred to him.
Attention is given to Friedkin’s lesser-known works as well, like the 1962 TV documentary “The People vs. Paul Crump. The story of a death-row inmate who was ultimately released, it’s a kind of forerunner to Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line.” Ultimately, the focus is on the hits: “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection” get the most screentime, which is as it should be.
Then there’s “Sorcerer,” a high-profile failure with a notoriously difficult production process that, along with “Heaven’s Gate,” is frequently cited as helping end the director-driven New Hollywood era. Though rightfully reclaimed in recent years as its own kind of masterpiece, it had the misfortune of being released shortly after “Star Wars” and remains polarizing 40 years later. Friedkin seems unbothered: “Success has many fathers, and failure is an orphan,” he says. If that’s true, he inhabits both modes like few others.
“Friedkin Uncut” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival. TaTaTu, which acquired distribution rights prior to the festival, has not yet set a release date.