William Friedkin: 'I got fired five times from The Exorcist!'

Legendary director William Friedkin
has just been given a lifetime
achievement award at the Venice film
festival, but he is still making big,
critically acclaimed movies, such as
last year's Killer Joe. He looks back on
his career, and the film he considers
his best, 1977's Sorcerer
William Friedkin with his award from
the Venice film festival. Photograph: Rex
Features/Action Press
Xan Brooks
Gene Hackman in
The French Connection
(1971). Photograph: Rex/
Courtesy Everett
Collection
On a hot, sticky Tuesday in Venice,
the American film director William
Friedkin sauntered from his hotel
to see an exhibition of paintings at
the nearby Doge's Palace. There, he
stood in front of Manet's L'Evasion
de Rochefort, which depicts the
flight of the man who challenged
Napoleon III. He saw the little boat
packed with indistinguishable
figures and the mighty sea
churning all around. It struck him
that the painting summed up what
he thinks of the world: that we're
stuck on a boat, at the mercy of
nature. Possibly it has something to
say about his own career too.
Friedkin is in Venice to collect a
lifetime achievement award and
unveil a remastered print of his
1977 film Sorcerer. The one-time
wunderkind of US cinema is now
77 himself, with a rust-coloured
bouffant, a tight, crimped smile
and a solicitous air. In person, at
least today, he could pass unnoticed
for any of the stately old Venetians
sipping espresso outside at the
pavement cafes. He has reached
port and found safe harbour,
although the weather has been
choppy and he nearly went down.
In the mid-1970s, flushed from the
success of The French Connection
and The Exorcist, Friedkin went
into the jungle to make his most
ambitious film yet. Sorcerer was an
adaptation of the Georges Arnaud
novel The Wages of Fear,
previously adapted by Henri-
Georges Clouzot : a tale of desperate
men carrying desperate cargo. But
the budget ballooned and the film
hit the rocks. The US distributors
put it up against Star Wars – pitting
the dark, tangled human thriller
against the bright, straightforward
mythic adventure – and there was
no contest, it lost. With the benefit
of hindsight, Sorcerer marked the
moment when the smart, knotty
pictures of the 1970s movie brats
were overhauled and destroyed by
the rise of the blockbuster.
Friedkin loves the movie, and
thinks it's the best he's ever made.
"I have no idea why it failed," he
says, as though I've just asked him
to calculate the average rainfall in
the Amazon basin. "No seer has
come to me with the reason. A lot
of people expected from the title
that it would be some sort of
followup to The Exorcist, which it
isn't. It came out in cinemas the
same week as Star Wars, I've heard
that too. I think it wasn't what
people expected to see. And when
that happens they get
disappointed."
What did he think when he sat
down to see Star Wars? That's it,
game over? Friedkin replies with a
mirthless smile: "I was never
moved by Star Wars."
I adore The French Connection ,
that whippy and sinuous early-70s
cop thriller, and I relish The
Exorcist, a sombre film about
spinning heads and pea-soup. But
after witnessing the remastered
Sorcerer, I can see why the director
reveres it. Friedkin's film charts
the fraught journey of four men
(Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer,
Amidou, Francisco Rabal) on a
mission to ferry truckloads of
dynamite through the rainforest.
The men are en-route to extinguish
an apocalyptic fire at a remote oil
well. But the road is treacherous,
the dynamite's unstable and the
slightest jiggle could send the trucks
up like a rocket. If Sorcerer lacks
the pared-down precision of
Clouzot's 1953 version, it's still a
thousand miles from being a folly.
On the contrary, it's a nail-biting,
high-concept Marxist disaster
movie, in which the bosses are
corrupt, the peasants are revolting
and the freelance contractors get
stuck in the middle.
A waiter enters the room bringing
coffee and biscuits. The director
could hardly be more delighted.
"Grazie, grazie, grazie," he says.
"Oh signor, this is absolutely
wonderful."At this stage it would be nice to cast
Friedkin in the role of tragic hero,
the holy innocent who ran
aground. And yet reports suggest
that, behind the camera, the man
can be the very devil. Peter
Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging
Bulls paints the set of Sorcerer as a
kind of hellish black comedy. We
hear tales of how Friedkin fired
five production managers, one
after the other, and about how he
once ordered his driver to go so
fast that the man lost control of the
vehicle and ran over a pig.
Friedkin apparently wept
anguished tears over the fate of the
pig. Then he turned around and
fired the driver as well.
If the director was a tyrant, he was
at least an equal opportunities one:
he kicked up at the suits and down
at the staff and made a mess of
enemies along the way.
No, no, says Friedkin: "I don't have
any enemies. Presumably there are
people who don't like me, but I
wouldn't call them enemies and I
didn't then. The studio executives
were just objects that I had to get
by to do what I wanted. The same
was true for all of us back then –
Coppola, Bogdanovich and
Spielberg. Talk about getting fired!
We were getting fired every day,
every one of us! I got fired about
five times from The Exorcist! My
producer would get the phonecall
and then simply hang up."OK, but here's another story from
the Sorcerer set. The film was shot
in the Dominican Republic, where
much of the island was controlled
by a billionaire industrialist named
Charlie Bludhorn . So far, so
predictable. And yet Bludhorn was
the boss of the conglomerate Gulf
and Western, which owned
Paramount, which produced
Sorcerer. On set, Friedkin required
a picture of rapacious oil moguls in
order to give a face to the
nameless, faceless villains of his
tale. So he tore a page out of the
Gulf and Western board report and
stuck it on the wall. When
Bludhorn saw the finished movie,
he had what a colleague would
later describe as "a shit
haemorrhage".
Friedkin stares at me across the
biscuit tray. "What the fuck do I
care?" he says. "Yeah, they're on
the wall, it looked like a good
picture of a board. Why would I get
20 guys together to pose for a
picture when I had a picture
already of the Gulf and Western
board? They were a distinguished-
looking group of blokes."
Friedkin was born in Chicago. His
mother was a nurse and his father
sold clothes. Looking back, he can
see that the family was poor. But
then everybody else in the
neighbourhood was in the exact
same boat. "In summer when it
was hot, we had no air-
conditioning, so we'd all sleep in
the park. Thousands of people just
sleeping in the park." He shrugs.
"Now you can't walk in that park
in daylight, but you do have air-
conditioning, so it all evens out."
He began
his career
in TV,
shooting
live shows
anddocumentaries for a local station.
TV, he says, was a miracle; it was
like meeting the messiah. "I thought
if I could work in this medium, I'd
be happy for the rest of his life.
And then I saw Citizen Kane and it
was an overwhelming experience.
It made me want to make a film
like that and of course that's
impossible. It was an impossible
dream."
During his 70s heyday, Friedkin
admits he felt "invincible". He won
the best director Oscar for The
French Connection and spun a
grisly tale of a possessed little girl
into one of the most successful
movies ever made . But when
Sorcerer failed, he fell from the
summit and his subsequent career
has proved altogether more spotty.
These days the word on Friedkin
and his contemporaries (Coppola
and Bogdanovich, Cimino and
Altman) is that they overreached
themselves and were punished.
They became drunk with power
and were driven mad by the auteur
theory, which fostered the notion
that they were somehow inviolate
and close to divine. But the director
isn't biting. Film, he says, is
a collaborative effort. He has
never had much truck with the
auteur theory anyway.
He eats some of his biscuit and
returns to the subject of Sorcerer.
"That's the one that came closest to
my vision. The way I saw the film
in my mind's eye, that is the one
that's pretty much there."
Does this contradict his earlier
statement? If he judges his films on
how they match his own vision,
doesn't that therefore suggest he
views himself as an auteur?
He pauses mid-nibble. "Didn't you
hear what I said? Am I talking to
deaf ears? No!" he says. "No! I
made that film with other people
who, if not equal, made valued
contributions and put their lives on
the line. The auteur theory is a load
of bollocks!"
In the wake of Sorcerer, he went
on to provoke pickets from gay
rights groups with his 1980 film
Cruising, in which Al Pacino's cop
went undercover in the leather
bars of New York. He married the
French actor Jeanne Moreau and
then divorced her after two years.
He directed Rampage and Blue
Chips and Jade, all of which
stuttered at the US box office. But
in recent years Friedkin has
enjoyed a renaissance. He's pared
back the budget and gone back to
basics. Bug (written by August:
Osage County author Tracy Letts)
was a taut and twisted motel-room
nightmare; Killer Joe (Letts again) a
turbulent pulp thriller about crime,
compromise and punishment in a
Texas trailer park. Against all the
odds, he looks to be ending his
career in better shape than some of
his contemporaries.