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William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews

Posted on the 15 February 2013 by Thehollywoodinterview @theHollywoodInt
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews Oscar-winning director William Friedkin.
In July of 1997, I conducted the first of two lengthy interviews with director William Friedkin, regarded by many as the "enfant terrible" of the so-called "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls" generation of filmmakers who, for one brief, shining moment, seemed to reinvent American cinema in the late '60s thru the late '70s. Meeting Friedkin was something of a milestone for me at the time: I was still in my 20s, had been writing for Venice Magazine less than a year, and "Billy," as he likes people to call him, was the first person I interviewed who was one of my childhood heroes--a filmmaker whose one-sheets hung on my bedroom walls when I was growing up.
Below are the two interviews, conducted a decade apart from one another, and posted in reverse chronology. In both, Billy reveals a cunning intellect, a sometimes abrasive personal style, and the fact that he is a gifted raconteur, which carries over into his storytelling skills on celluloid. Although it is the view of many critics and those in the filmmaking community that Friedkin hasn't made a significant film since 1985's TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., if you take his body of work from 1970's THE BOYS IN THE BAND, through that seminal film of the Reagan era, William Friedkin is a true auteur to be reckoned with.
CRUISING WITH BILLY
Director William Friedkin restores his controversial classic for a new audience—and a new age.
By Alex Simon

Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Venice Magazine.
Released in February of 1980, William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist)’s murder mystery Cruising had a seemingly simple premise: a cop (Al Pacino) goes undercover in New York’s gay S & M leather bar scene to catch a serial killer who is preying on the young men who frequent them. Having made his bones as a documentary filmmaker, Friedkin shot the film neo-realist style, using many non-actors, and shooting at the actual clubs and locations that made up the city’s homosexual underground. Excoriated by critics, the public and gay rights advocates alike on the cusp of the Reagan era, Cruising proved to be a box office disappointment, and Friedkin didn’t make another film for three years.
Nearly 30 years later, time has been kind to Cruising and, like several of Friedkin’s films (Sorcerer and To Live and Die in L.A., to name two) that were met with tepid receptions upon their release, it has been reevaluated by many critics and scholars who have begun to hail it as an overlooked, and much misunderstood classic, never more evident than after a screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was featured as part of the Director’s Fortnight program, and received two standing ovations from a filmgoing crowd renowned for not suffering fools, or bad movies, gladly.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Long unavailable on home video (and never on DVD), Cruising has undergone a painstaking restoration of its audio and video, supervised by Friedkin and editor Bud Smith, with the final result looking like it was shot last week, and feeling like a very contemporary look at a very different time. It arrives in a deluxe edition DVD from Warner Home Video on September 18, and will be released theatrically for a limited run in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York during the first week in September.
William Friedkin sat down with us to speak about Cruising, and other cinematic ruminations.
Your screenplay for Cruising was actually inspired by several different sources, correct?
William Friedkin: I was offered the book Cruising by Gerald Walker to direct as a film, by Phil D’Antoni, who had produced The French Connection. I read the book and didn’t think much of it. It was sort of interesting but I wasn’t compelled to make it into a film at that time. Then Phil went out and got Steven Spielberg interested in making the film. And the two of them tried to get it set up for quite some time, and weren’t able to. And D’Antoni is a great producer, really tenacious. We were turned down on The French Connection by every studio twice until Fox made it. But they finally gave up on Cruising. Three or four years later, Jerry Weintraub brought it to me, and said “I heard you were interested in this, which is why I bought it. I want to do it with you.” I said ‘Jerry, I wasn’t interested in it. In fact, I turned it down with Phil.’ He said “Read it again. I think it would be a hell of a film.” Jerry’s a very persuasive guy, but I still wasn’t interested. Then several things happened: there were a series of unsolved killings in New York in the leather bars on the lower west side. The mysterious deaths that were taking place in the gay community, that later turned out to be AIDS, but really didn’t have a name then. And the fact that my friend Randy Jurgensen, of the New York police department, had been assigned to go undercover into some of the bars, because he resembled some of the victims. Then, the Arthur Bell articles about the unsolved killings. He wrote them for the Village Voice as sort of cautionary tales. It was great reportage. Then, there was a fellow who had a bit part in The Exorcist, in the NYU medical center during the arteriogram sequence, which was performed by an actual doctor and his assistant in the film. The assistant was later accused of a couple of the murders in the bars. I saw his picture in the papers and I got in touch with his lawyer, who arranged for me to meet with him at Rikers Island Penitentiary. I asked him what happened, and he told me. He also told me the police had offered him a better deal if he confessed to eight or nine of the murders, whether he’d done them or not. And I put that line in the film, because I found it so horrifying. I found out that he got out of prison three years ago, which means he got 25 years for what I took to be multiple murders. All of these things came together for what I took to be a kind of perfect storm, and I called Jerry back and said ‘I think I know what to do with Cruising.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews Al Pacino in one of the many scenes shot on location in NYC's underground gay clubs.
How you came to shoot in the actual bars is also an interesting story.
Most of the real estate where the bars were located was owned by the mafia at that time. I knew one of the guys who ran everything from 42nd street to the lower west side. So I went to him, and he referred me to the guys who were running them. I met the managers, the bartenders, and a great many people who frequented the bars. I went back a number of times. They knew I was doing research for the film, and they’re the ones you see in those scenes. There are no screen extras guild members. These guys were paid as extras, but they were just there, doing their thing.
So there was no hesitation from any of these guys to being put on film engaging in these very graphic sexual acts?

No. If there were a few guys who were uncomfortable being put on film, they just didn’t show up when we were filming. They never protested it.
When I was watching the film, I was thinking that 90% of the guys in those scenes must be gone now.

Oh yeah, and a number of the members of my crew died of AIDS later, as well.
Let’s talk about Pacino’s work in the film. One thing that’s really palpable is the obvious discomfort he had being in those leather bars. His unease in those scenes seems to come from a very real place.
Yeah, since all those people and situations in the bar scenes were real, I just put Pacino inside them. But Randy Jurgensen who was the police officer who was assigned to those bars years earlier, it was his discomfort as he would tell me about his experiences and the way he processed those experiences that allowed me to believe that Pacino’s reactions were on the money. He was a stranger in a strange land, but that’s what the film’s about: the crisis of identity. Al was very uncomfortable in those scenes, but he wanted to do the film desperately, although I don’t think he had any idea how I was going to go about doing it.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews Pacino and Paul Sorvino in Cruising.
I notice it’s the one film he never seems to talk about. During some of the retrospectives of his career recently, it never comes up.

Well, that’s a good thing. I don’t think that he’s the best spokesman for any of the work that he’s done. There are some people who can eloquently discuss their work, and others who can’t, that just do the work. There’s the work, and it speaks for itself. And I think that’s him. With many actors, you don’t want to hear this stuff anyway, because it robs the audience of the magic that screen acting is all about. And there are many actors who have been in films that don’t completely comprehend what it is they’re doing, and that’s true of Pacino in Cruising. And even today, it would be difficult to get an excerpt of Cruising on primetime television.
I think one reason the film works so much better now than it did in 1980 is that there’s a distance from it now: New York isn’t the same city now that it was then, and that gay underground scene really doesn’t have to exist anymore because homosexuals are much more accepted by mainstream society today.

Yes, they can look at it as a film, and not put it in a political context, which I never intended it to be. It never occurred to me that the film would be interpreted in a political context.
But you knew it would be controversial?
I knew that not everyone in so-called straight society accepted the gay lifestyle. I also knew there was a split in the gay lifestyle: of people who wanted to stay in the closet and people who didn’t give a damn about the closet anymore. And those people who wanted to keep their sexuality private, are the ones who objected to the film, and the leaders of the gay community who felt that it wasn’t the ideal way to present gay lifestyle in a major studio movie.
I remember sneaking into see Cruising when it was first released, when I was 12.
You owe me three dollars!
You owe me thousands of dollars for the years of therapy I had to undergo after seeing that movie at age 12!
(laughs) Fair enough. I’ll drop my claim if you will.
Done. But what I remember was, it was the toughest time I ever had sneaking into an R-rated movie. In fact in Phoenix, where I grew up, they had a special rating created for it: an R/X.

Just like the prescription symbol.
Exactly. People were really unsettled and scared of this movie.

I didn’t understand their fear then, and I still don’t. To me, it’s just a murder mystery, with the gay leather scene as a backdrop. On another level it’s about identity: do any of us really know who it is sitting next to us, or looking back at us in the mirror? But the vitriol that the film was greeted with still confounds me.
Did you resubmit the film this year to the ratings board?
Yes.
And it still got an ‘R’ and not an ‘NC-17’?
Yes, because the ratings board is different today. It’s much more liberal.
How did it get an ‘R’ then?
I had to cut 40 minutes from it, but none of those 40 minutes would have affected the story or the characterizations at all. It was just more footage, for the most part, in the clubs. Everything you see now in the clubs in part, you saw in full in my first cut. The sexuality was actual. It was not simulated. I took the film back to the ratings board 50 times before they would give it an ‘R.’ I know because it cost us $50,000—a thousand dollars a day—to work with the consultant from the ratings board whom we’d worked with in the past when we were faced with other films that had to be resubmitted for a mainstream rating.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
I assume that footage is now gone.
We tried to find it, and Warners was happy to put it all back in, either integrated back into the story as it is, or to run it as “extra footage,” but we couldn’t find anything. United Artists, and all the studios in those days, destroyed everything: outtakes, negatives. They weren’t interested in their legacy whatsoever. I felt that if we could find any of it, I wouldn’t have put it in as extra footage, because that would have just been playing to prurient interests, because it really was pornography. It was justified that they took it out to give it an ‘R’ rating, which is what we had to have. But when I was in the clubs, I couldn’t give the people boundaries. They were doing what they were doing, and I was filming it.
Tell us about the process of restoring the film that you and your editor, Bud Smith, went through.

When we got the negative from Warners, it was almost totally out of synch. There were sound tracks missing, the picture was out of synch with the sound. The negative looked like they’d held the six day bike races on it, and it was awful. But because of the digital process, we were able to go in and time every single frame again from the start and sonically clean the picture, so it had no scratches, no splices, no anything. Then we remixed the soundtrack into a 5.1 mix. The sound is now perfect. If there’s anything about the film that now achieves perfection, it’s the soundtrack. It took months to do it.
I have to admit, the first couple times I saw Cruising, I really hated it, both because much of it was over my head, and also the ambiguity of the story and the structure really threw me, much the same reaction as I had to To Live and Die in L.A. upon my first viewing. Nearly all of your films, going back to The French Connection, are both morally and structurally ambiguous. Why do you like to tell stories that way?
Because that’s the way life is. Most of the murders that occur are unsolved, for various reasons. It’s hard to convict someone due to the constitutional rights people have and the rules of evidence, that’s one thing. The other thing I’d say is that a lot of the guys who investigated these crimes are not the brightest pennies you’ll find at the bank. But I’m attracted to unsolved murders as a subject, and it started with my interest in the Jack the Ripper case. There were five murders, four of them right out in the streets of the East End of London. They took place in 1888, and it’s unsolved to this day. It’s an open file at Scotland Yard. There are so many suspects and rumors about this, and other killings throughout history, I’ve always been intrigued by it, and I’m not sure why. I’ve got interests in police matters anyway because of the thin line between good and evil that’s in everyone.
I remember you telling me that when you were growing up, in a tough part of Chicago, you ran with a gang and ran afoul of the law a few times yourself.
No question. I didn’t know right from wrong when I was a teenager. I had no particular education to speak of. I loved my mother and father and it was finally the fact that I was getting so much on their nerves, I just quit cold turkey and tried to be a human. This happened after I saw my mother crying when I’d been picked up for robbery at Goldblatt’s department store as a teenager. But then I developed this fascination that stems from the notion that we all battle good and evil every day of our lives, and it’s a struggle for our better angels to triumph over the evil that exists in all of us. So that’s what led me to get interested in the world of Cruising.
And obviously the gay subculture has interested you for some time. While you’re not gay, you directed the screen adaptation of Mart Crowley’s landmark play about gay men, The Boys in the Band, in 1970.
I’ve always had many gay friends who were as close friends to me as people who weren’t gay. They were just people to me, human beings who I knew and cared about. Society is filled with prejudices and I’ve spent most of my life trying to rid myself of mine. I take people at face value, and I don’t believe that people are defined by their sexuality. It’s a small part of what makes up a human being. I don’t look at somebody as “a gay,” let alone as “a fag,” or a black person as “a nigger.” I just don’t see them that way, and I don’t understand that way of thinking, other than my understanding of the fact that human nature has a great many dark passages and impenetrable subterranean basements.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews Friedkin, on the set of Bug, sets up a shot.
I think it makes people more comfortable to assign labels to things they don’t understand.
Absolutely. If you can degrade this other person because of qualities they may possess that are different from yours or, even more frighteningly, that you possess these qualities yourself but can’t face them, this often brings about the sort of people who go out and murder blacks, or Jews, or women, or gay people, or any minority out of a self-loathing, or self-hatred. I think the young man who opened fire at Virginia Tech, what drove him was self-loathing, pure and simple. I’m sure he had nothing against most of those people that he fired on.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews Willem Dafoe as counterfeiter Rick Masters in To Live and Die in L.A.
And that’s something you’ve always touched on in your films, that almost non-existent line between good and evil. In To Live and Die in L.A. I thought Willem Dafoe’s villain was in many ways more admirable than William Petersen’s “good guy,” because he was very straightforward about who he was.
And the Charnier character in The French Connection is a much more admirable human being than Popeye Doyle. That’s the thin line between the policeman and the criminal, and between good and evil.
Many of your films have achieved greatness status long after they originally premiered, which is what is happening with Cruising now. Do you get a sense of redemption when that happens?
Well it’s a good feeling, sure. But it’s the same film, and I’m basically the same guy and I often think about the people who are really artists, and I don’t place myself in that category, but someone like Vincent Van Gough, who painted for ten years, and made over 3500 works—oils, drawings, watercolors—and he couldn’t sell any. They were hated. No one was interested. Then a few years after he died, because his sister-in-law had managed to preserve his unsold work, his work was recognized and thus she gave Van Gough to history. But you say, “What happened?” A few years after his death, this groundswell started, and there was a complete reevaluation. Why? Same paintings. Same artist. It’s one of life’s mysteries that will also most likely remain unsolved.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: AUTEUR OF THE DARK By Alex Simon William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews Originally published in the August, 1997 issue of Venice Magazine. It's the fall of 1977 and I'm a movie-crazed ten year-old in Tempe, Arizona. My father, whose Bible is The New York Times, tells me about a new film called Sorcerer that The Times gave a glowing review to. Thinking that it sounded like a really cool horror flick with (hopefully) buckets of blood and scantily-clad babes running amuck, I agree that we should run, not walk, to the late, great Kachina Theater in Scottsdale to see it. I was not prepared for what rolled on the screen for the next two hours: a harrowing tale of survival, betrayal, friendship and, ultimately, redemption presented in such a realistic and gut-wrenching manner, that I didn't sleep well for several weeks afterward, still haunted by the tragic story I had witnessed. After doing some research, I found the film had been directed by a man named William Friedkin, whose two previous films The Exorcist and The French Connection I had heard of, but my parents wouldn't let me see. Even on TV. The fact that one man had created such a wealth of forbidden filmic fruit meant that this guy was way cool in my book and from then on, I sought out his films feverishly at Phoenix's two revival houses, The Valley Art and Sombrero Playhouse. After a couple years, I managed to catch up on all of Friedkin's work, even talking my parents into taking me to a double feature of The Exorcist and The French Connection as a reward for a good report card at the end of sixth grade (I'll admit to being dazzled, but a feeling a little limp at the end of that particular double bill). Since then, I have been a fan and admirer of his work. And although the Sombrero, the Kachina, and I are all long-gone from Phoenix, I still seek out Friedkin's latest at any venue I can. William Friedkin was born August 29, 1935 in Chicago. At 16, he began working in the mail room of a local TV station and within months had pulled his way up to studio floor manager. In less than a year, he was directing local live broadcasts and not long after, was handling network dramas and musical shows. In 10 years he directed hundreds of local, network and educational TV programs, including a number of well-received documentary specials. He made his big screen directing debut with a minor film, Good Times (1967), a Sony and Cher vehicle, but followed this with more ambitious projects: the old burlesque days nostalgia piece The Night They Raided Minsky's, the screen adaptation of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party , which he made in Britain, and the screen version of the off-Broadway play about gay men, The Boys in the Band.

Friedkin next scored a major commercial triumph with The French Connection, for which he won the best director Oscar for 1971 and which received additional awards for actor, screenplay and editing. The film, which contained one of the most exciting chase sequences ever filmed, remains a landmark of screen suspense. Friedkin had another blockbuster with The Exorcist (1973), a sensational and gripping tale of demonic possession, which set box office records world-wide. He followed this with Sorcerer in 1977, a brilliant, but at the time overlooked, remake of Henri-Georges Cluzot's classic Wages of Fear, about four desperate men transporting nitroglycerine through a dense jungle. The Brinks Job (1978) told a comedic story of an infamous Boston heist in 1950. Cruising (1980), which starred Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover in New York's gay community to catch a serial killer, sparked nationwide protests from gay rights groups who felt that it depicted gay sexual desire as a killer instinct. Friedkin's next hit was with To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), a dark and disturbing tale of a Treasury agent on the case of a murderous counterfeiter. Recently, Friedkin helmed the basketball drama Blue Chips (1994) starring Nick Nolte and Shaquille O'Neil. His latest film is an update of Sidney Lumet's classic "12 Angry Men," which premieres August 17 on Showtime. With a stellar cast headed up by Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott, Friedkin succeeds in doing with "12 Angry Men" the same thing he did with Sorcerer 20 years earlier: he has not remade a classic as much as taken an existing work and making it his own. Friedkin's "12 Angry Men" is a powerful work that stands firmly on its own, and deserves to be called a classic in its own right.

William Friedkin sat down recently in his spacious office on the Paramount lot to talk a bout his new film, his past works and to answer dozens more questions by a star-struck kid from Arizona. Here is what followed... Did you come from an artistic family? WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Not at all. No one in my family had anything to do with or any interest in the so-called "arts." Perhaps they did in the old country, which was Russia. But by the time they got to America, they were too busy trying to make a living. Both my mother and my father came from very large families. Eleven brothers and sisters on each side. They both came from the same town, Kiev, in the Ukraine. What did your father do? My father did a lot of things. He made cigars. He played semi-professional softball. He worked in a men's clothing store. He had a great number of jobs. Sometimes with his brothers. They had a men's clothing store in Chicago.

William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
The French Connection's most iconic shot: "good guy" Gene Hackman shoots "bad guy" Marcel Bozzuffi in the back! What was it that initially drew you to film and filmmaking? Well I was in television before I ever got into film. I was in live TV in the 1950's. I answered an ad in the newspaper and went to work in the mailroom of a local TV station right out of high school. I graduated high school when I was 16. Of course television was such a new medium in those days. I remember as a young boy seeing an image of an Indian that was the test pattern they used in the morning. I know that millions of people were staring at this test pattern, not believing that this image was coming into their homes, including me. I was mesmerized by the profile of this Indian. And that's not that long ago, that's the 50's. And the early television shows, which today we'd probably consider to be pretty lame, were all live and they just fascinated me. There was even a live western out of Philadelphia we used to see called "Action in the Afternoon." I remember racing home from school to watch this western on CBS. So I answered this ad in the paper when I was 16 and by the time I was 18 I was directing live TV. In those days there were no schools where you could learn this stuff. You could learn some of the technical things...but in those days most of the directors worked their way out of the mailroom or were ushers...but I never really got interested in film per se, until one afternoon when I saw Citizen Kane while I was working in television. How old were you then? Probably 18 or 19. And someone said, 'Hey, you ought to see this movie. It's really great.' Before that I had always regarded film as pure entertainment, nothing to get too concerned about. I had mostly just gone to the movies with my friends on a Saturday afternoon to see cartoons, a western, a short subject...but I never viewed it as an art form until Citizen Kane. It was a revelation to me, as it was to a lot of people. All of a sudden here was this massive, complex, involving story that left the screen with you. It didn't stay on the screen and lay back there like certain kinds of food that you eat and then five minutes later you're hungry again. It really stayed with me and I saw it again and again, five or six times. It's kind of a quarry for filmmakers, like James Joyce's Ulysses is a quarry for writers. It seemed to me, on reflection, to synthesize all of the art forms: photography, lighting, acting, music, editing, and writing. And I realized, soon after, that film could really transcend the other arts and synthesize them, but this was only through Citizen Kane and this led me to seek out other ambitious films and, now we're in the 60's, and I really became hooked on the films which came from Europe and some from Japan. Who were some of those? Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Kurosawa, H.G. Cluzot, especially. I remembered being especially moved by films like 8 1/2 and the Antonioni trilogy of L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse. Going to films then was an adventure and an education. Here were all these extraordinary visions from all over the world. The American film industry, for the most part, was pretty lame at that time. The promise of Citizen Kane really hadn't been realized in this country. I remember seeing a film called Ordet by Carl Theodor Dreyer, a Danish filmmaker and it was a very simple, beautiful black and white film about literal resurrection. And I'm sure that it implanted in me the approach I took to The Exorcist, which was simple and straightforward. Not a kind of traditional horror film.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Linda Blair in The Exorcist. That's what made that film so scary to me. You almost shot it like a documentary. Right, it was very straight, without any zooms, or pumping it up with weird angles. I just shot it like it was going on. And that I'm sure stems in part from that film Ordet. Because if you're interested in filmmaking or writing or anything creative, you sort of store away all of these references. Unconsciously at first, and then consciously. Not that you mean to copy them or imitate them, but they do provide little beacons on how to approach them. And nobody, unless you're a genius, comes into this world with a full knowledge or storehouse of equipment as to how to do anything.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
How did you use your TV experience to educate yourself in film? I had directed about 2000 live shows in eight years, everything from the Chicago symphony orchestra, to baseball, to kids' shows...I was doing seven or eight live shows a day for eight years. In the early 60's I met at some party a man who was the Protestant chaplain of the Cook County Jail in Chicago. And he was an interesting guy, ministered to all these guys on death row. He started to tell me about a black guy named Paul Crump, who he thought of all the people he'd run across as a priest in jail, this one guy might've been innocent. Crump had been on death row for nine years and was about to electrocuted. This piqued some interest in me and I asked him if I could meet Crump...He got me an interview with him and I went down to death row at the Cook County Jail where Crump, in a bout six months, was about to be executed. All his appeals had run out...and he told me his story and I wanted to do something to help him. So I went to the general manager of the station where I worked, which was WGN at the time, and asked him if the station would finance a documentary on this guy. He said "no way. We do live TV. What the hell's a documentary?" There was another station in town that wanted to hire me, the ABC affiliate called WBKB. And the station manager is a guy who, to this day, is one of my best friends, a guy named Red Quinlan. And Red was a try-it-on type of guy. He was one of the guys who invented the famous Chicago television style with shows like Studs' Place and Garroway at Large. And Red said "Sure, we'll do (the documentary)." And he had a fund of a bout $6,000 that he put away in a fund called "Project J", 'J' being for "justice." I went out with a young live cameraman named Bill Butler, who went on to become a famous cinematographer. Bill was a live cameraman who wanted to make films too. We went down to an equipment rental house called Behrend CineRental, and we asked the guy who ran it to show us how to use a camera and get synch sound with it. And he showed us how to do it all in about an hour...and that one hour was the only lesson I've had in filmmaking, ever! I'd never even seen a documentary either! The warden of the jail, a guy named Jack Johnson, didn't want to execute Crump. He had executed three other guys and it really bothered his conscience. So he gave me permission to film this documentary a bout Crump's rehabilitation while in jail, and at the same time I was dealing with some of the outside facts that had caused him to be in that position: his family life, the circumstances of the robbery of which he was accused and convicted. The Chicago police had beaten a confession out of him. If he had gone on trial today, he'd walk in a bout a week, or a jury would come back with an 'innocent' verdict. But he was accused and found guilty of the daylight robbery of the Libby-MacNeil-Libby company in the Chicago stockyards. Four guys wearing masks robbed the Libby Company, pistol-whipped one guard and killed another guard. The four guys were rounded up rather quickly. The police used to go in and just terrorize a neighborhood until they got an inkling of who did this stuff...Crump was not picked up in this roundup, but was implicated as a fifth man. All four of these guys made deals with the cops, did a little time, then walked. Crump was the only one charged with first degree murder. His only alibi was that he'd spent the night with a prostitute. There were eight women on the jury. He was married at the time and had a kid. The prostitute came and testified for him, but this didn't appeal to the jury and they convicted him. Then his appeals eventually ran out. I went around talked to some of the witnesses who'd testified in his trial. The guy who nailed him was the guard who'd been pistol-whipped. And he identified Crump in court by voice only. Four words that were shouted through a mask: "Give me your gun." He couldn't identify the weapon that was held on him, and he was supposed to know something about weapons. And I asked him how he could possibly make an identification like that under obviously strained and difficult circumstances...and he said that "When you're workin' with a couple hundred of these niggers every day, you get to know one from another pretty well." It was this guy's testimony and the testimony of the other four guys who'd made deals with the police that put Crump on death row. So I made this film, which was called The People vs. Paul Crump and it was kind of a landmark film in Chicago. It went out and one a whole bunch of film festivals in 1962, including the San Francisco Festival where it won the Golden Gate award, the highest award. The film was shown to the Governor of Illinois, who was Otto Kerner. Kerner pardoned Crump from the electric chair as a result, even after his own parole and pardon board had voted to send Crump to the chair on the appeal. Kerner pardoned him to life imprisonment and Crump finally got out about five years ago. I used to keep going back to Chicago and I'd appear before the parole and pardon board, trying to get him released even to my custody, but it wasn't the same board that upheld his conviction. But they were still pissed off that some movie and some movie director had influenced the governor beyond their own influence to pardon the guy. And they always felt he was guilty. But the film won all these prizes and started getting all these offers, and Red Quinlan set me up with my own documentary film unit along with Bill Butler. We were guerrilla filmmakers. But we had no idea how to really do it. We just did it and learned along the way. Paul Crump was also seen by a man named Norman Lloyd, who was the producer of "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" at the time, and he got in touch with me and asked if I'd like to do a Hitchcock Hour. I'm in my 20's. He said there was more suspense in the first five minutes of this documentary I'd done than in anything they'd done all season. So I did a Hitchcock Hour called "Out of Season" with John Gavin and Richard Jaekel and Tom Drake, the old guy from the MGM musicals. I had to meet with John Gavin and get his approval. We shot up at the Bates Motel at Universal...it was the last, or next-to-last Hitchcock Hour ever made. It was seen by David L. Wolper, who'd had films in the San Francisco Film Festival, which my film had won. So Wolper invited me to come out and work for him. They were doing great documentaries. So I brought Butler out with me to do some stuff and joined his staff. I worked for Wolper for a year and a half, did three documentaries for ABC and the 3M Company sponsored them all, all on in prime time, highly rated. And that was television in those days. Then Sonny and Cher were making their first film. Sonny Bono had seen one of my documentaries on ABC, liked it. We met and liked each other and that was my first film, Good Times.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Sonny and Cher take a break on the set of Good Times (1967), Friedkin's first feature. I've seen it. It's a fun little film. Jesus, you'd better have an examination if you liked that (laughs). Sonny, when he was Mayor of Palm Springs about ten years ago, ran it at the Palm Springs film festival and invited me to come down and I saw it for the first time since we'd made it. And it was just horrible. Unbelievable. If I had made that film in Rumania under the Ceausescu regime, I would've been assassinated! (laughs)
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Friedkin on the set of The French Connection with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. Do you think it was easier then for a young filmmaker to break into the business? Oh no, it's easier today. First of all, you had no film schools. The film schools that were around then were largely a joke, not taken seriously. The people out here didn't give a damn if you'd been to film school. There was no film school mentality at work then as there is now. There were no particularly well-known graduates of the film schools. The very best one at that time was at MIT which was run by a documentary filmmaker named Richard Leacock...Today, anybody can have access to equipment. You can go out and buy a camera today and shoot film, tape...at the drug store! You can get a video camera, make a tape, show it to somebody, get a job at MTV, and then get a feature, like that! It was much tougher in those days. There's far more venues today, so there's far more opportunities. Anybody with talent can do it. There are no restrictions on color, gender, anything else. There was at the time. It was pretty much a white boys club.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Jason Robards and Britt Ekland in The Night They Raided Minsky's. After Good Times you went onto The Night They Raided Minsky's and The Birthday Party. Tell me about those. Well, I had seen Harold Pinter's play (The Birthday Party) in San Francisco at the Actor's Workshop when I went up for the Golden Gate awards. I wrote a letter to Pinter and told him I thought it would be an interesting thing to film. So I got it set up with a small company called Palomar Pictures. But before that, my friend Bud Yorkin had asked me to direct Minsky's because he and his partner Norman Lear had a few films in the works...Minsky's was way over my head. I didn't have a clue what to do. Norman produced it and he was a very difficult, tough guy to work with, but I learned a great deal from him and I was struggling every day on the set. It wasn't a great script...it was a lot of schtick. But it would've been a lot better if I'd been more familiar with that world of burlesque in the 20's, which I wasn't. So because of that I think the film suffers to a great degree from that. It became a very experimental thing. By the time I did The Birthday Party, I had a couple films under my belt. I was very self-critical about them and now I was working with a tremendous piece of material that was not necessarily cinematic, but very stage-worthy. But that was a great experience. Pinter was on the set all the time. Very supportive. I had a great cast: Robert Shaw, Patrick Magee, Dandy Nichols. I'm reticent to talk about them because they're such early efforts and have very little value, those first three films. I think the kindest word you could use in describing them is "crude."
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
The Boys in the Band, featuring Cliff Gorman (center). So you consider The Boys in the Band your first really accomplished film? I would say so, yeah. Because again, it was a marvelous piece of material. Mart Crowley, who wrote it, had seen Minsky's and The Birthday Party and thought that somewhere between those two films was the sensibility he was looking for in a director. I went to New York and saw the play which I thought was great...it was one of the most difficult films I'd ever directed. I decided to go with the stage company because you would've had to look for years to find a group of guys as great as they were. And they had been doing it on stage for about a year. A performance for the stage is not a performance for film. It had to be totally reconceived, all their work. So it wasn't easy to make that film, but in the end, it was a great experience. What do you think is they key to making a film that could be stagey, taking place on one set, cinematic? To be honest, I've never seen a play on film that I've done or anyone else has done, that wouldn't have been better-served on the stage. A lot of the excitement you get from a stage performance is just dissipated by film. For example if the audience is seeing the whole thing on a stage, played out in front of them, they decide who they want to look at, where the emphasis should be. The director has a lot less control, and that's good. A play lives on the stage and on film, the very best you could do is make a record of it. The films of The Boys in the Band and The Birthday Party, although I tried a number of things to make them cinematic, it all comes up against a brick wall. It is a play. And every time you cut to someone for a reaction, or a punchline, you're intruding on the sacred bond between the actor and the audience and the playwright and the audience. The spontaneity is taken away on film. That work was written to be experienced live on the stage. It's like I show you a beautiful photograph of a Vermeer in a magazine. You can see that it's a beautiful painting, but it's not like seeing the real thing in person in its proper dimension in its proper setting.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Friedkin with Gene Hackman (center) and Fernando Rey (right) on the French Connection set. The thing I notice with all your films starting with The French Connection is that you avoid dialog whenever possible and rely on visuals to move the story along. I had heard a long time ago that when a film is run in Thailand or any foreign country where they can't afford a dubbed or subtitled version, the way they run the film is, they'll run about five or six minutes of it, stop it, then a guy stands up next to the screen and explains to the audience what they've just seen. Every five or ten minutes. It occurred to me then that the only way to make films would be to make them so you'd never have to stop them in Thailand. People could just look at the screen anywhere in the world and understand what was going on.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Friedkin directs Linda Blair in The Exorcist. That was Chaplin's theory. Was it? Today I think it's a great theory that's gone too far. Today movies are as visual as they've ever been, but they don't make any sense! They've got no heart, very little story. The dialog is very often a little bit above a grunt...now, for the most part, people just stare at the screen for two hours and it's like opium for the eyes and you're not moved at all...it's an escape from reality. So there it is. This vision that I had has been fulfilled, and I can't stand to look at most of it. How much collaboration do you have with your cinematographer before you shoot? Well, we're very collaborative. I listen to suggestions from everyone, but I always have a vision of what I want. A guy can talk me out of it if I think it's a better idea he has. But I'll discuss with the (cinematographer) what the mood of the scene is, where the light's coming from, how the characters should look. I usually come to every set with a shooting plan. Trailer for The French Connection, with voice-over narration by Eddie Egan, the real-life inspiration for Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle. Let's talk about The French Connection. How did you come to be involved? I knew the guy who produced the film, Phil D'Antoni. We used to play racquetball together. We had the same sensibilities and he'd seen my documentaries and wanted to make a film with me. One day he called me up and said "I've got this story, The French Connection about two cops in New York. It's right up your alley; documentary style...There's a book by Robin Moore, who wrote The Green Berets about the case." So he sent me the book and I started to read the book and I couldn't. I've never read the book. So I went to New York and met with the two cops that it's about, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso...and I was fascinated by them. First of all by the alliteration of their names, Egan and Grosso. And then when the names were filled in by these two guys, I could see wonderful contrasts. A big, bluff Irishman and a short, sort of paranoid Italian guy. They seemed to represent a wonderful sort of Mutt and Jeff. And I went out with them for several weeks while they were out busting dealers...and all the dialog and scenes in the movie were things they actually said and did, like busting up that bar, and so on. So Phil and I then set out to get a script done. We had four or five writers. No one could crack it. We took some of these scripts around to the various studios for over two years. All the studios turned it down, most of them twice. Finally, Phil gave me the galleys of book that was about to come out. It was called Shaft, written by a guy who was a crime reporter for The New York Times named Ernest Tidyman. We thought it had very smart, New York street dialog. We met with Tidyman, paid him $5,000 to write the script, which he did, and later won the Academy Award for it. The script was by no means good enough. His position with that script was like my coming off my documentaries to make Minsky's, it was over his head. Again, we took this around, no interest whatsoever. Finally, it had been almost three years. Dick Zanuck, who was head of Fox, called us in and said "Look, there's something in this screwy idea you guys have...I have a million and a half dollars hidden away in a drawer and if you guys can make it for that, go ahead. I'm getting fired in a few months anyway, and I probably won't be around to see it, but I'm fascinated by it." We had a budget at the time of $2.8 million, and we wanted to get Paul Newman, or somebody like that, for the lead, and half a million of that was for Newman. Zanuck said "Newman's not going to want to do this. Who else do you want?" I said my real idea of this guy is Jackie Gleason: a big, heavyset black Irishman waddling down the street trying to catch some junkie for a nickel bag. I talked with Gleason about it, and I just loved the guy. Zanuck says "We just made a film with Gleason called Gigot that tanked. We don't want Gleason. We don't need stars in this picture. Get anybody! Make the film for a million and half and be a man!" I knew a journalist from my New York days named Jimmy Breslin, a big, fat, heavyset, drunken Irishman. Used to write bad things about the cops. They hated him. I asked Zanuck about him, he said "Fine. Hire him." So I got this guy named Bob Wiener, who wrote for the Village Voice and knew every actor in New York to be my casting director. He got us guys like Tony Lo Bianco from The Honeymoon Killers and Roy Scheider, who'd never done anything, except for this film that hadn't come out yet called Klute...at the time Roy was working off-Broadway in a Jean Genet play where he way playing a cigar-smoking nun (laughs). Roy came in, we talked for a half hour, I said "You're the guy. You've got the part." Meanwhile, I'd go out with Breslin and Scheider and some other characters I knew, not actors, and we'd improvise scenes on the street based on the scenario I had. One day we were out rehearsing on some pier in Harlem and we had a scene of Scheider and Breslin beating the shit out of this black guy, and all of the sudden three guys in white sheets in white hats come running at us with white broomsticks. They were thinking "Here's a couple white boys beating the shit out of a brother." And the black guy got up and said "No brother, it's okay! It's only a movie!" Then one day Egan and Grosso drop by unannounced, and they see Breslin, who the cops hated! And Egan thought Robert Redford should play him. Redford or Rod Taylor. He thought Rod Taylor looked just like him...he had a casting list on the board at his precinct where all the cops could write in their casting choices for his part...his choices being Redford and Taylor. Newman was "okay" with him, too. Now he sees us running around with this big, fat, drunken left wing slob who hates the cops! He says, "What's going on?! This is bullshit! Let me fuckin' do it if you're gonna go with this asshole! Audition me!" And I did, and he was terrible. And I said "Eddie, your vision of yourself and mine is at odds." So I kept working with Breslin. One day he'd be brilliant. Another day, he'd show up not knowing what he was doing. The third day he'd be completely drunk. The fourth day he might not show up...and I realized this was going nowhere. Then one day he says to me "I hear you guys are gonna put a chase in this movie. I gotta tell ya, when my mother died, I promised her I'd never drive a car again." And that nailed it for me! So I called Zanuck, told him my great idea wasn't gonna work. Then (agent) Sue Mengers, who represented Gene Hackman, suggested Gene, and we met with him, who'd never really starred in a picture...and we frankly had no other choice, that was it. The way that film was cast, it was like the Movie God took care of it. I don't know if you ever heard the story of how Fernando Rey, who played the drug kingpin, got in the picture?
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Above, Fernando Rey as drug kingpin Alain Charnier in The French Connection. Below, actor Francisco Rabal, whom Friedkin would later cast in Sorcerer.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
No. The way we cast the movie was, we'd sit around and I'd say "Let's get that guy from Belle de Jour, the one who played the gangster." Because the real drug kingpin from the story was a Corsican. A rough hewn guy, unshaven, longshoreman type. So my casting guy comes back and says "The guy's name is Fernando Rey and he's done a lot of films with Luis Buñuel and he speaks English." I said "Get him!" So they make a deal with him, no actor in that movie got more than $25,000, including Gene, so Fernando must've gotten 12 or 15...So I ride out to JFK to pick Fernando up, don't see him. Finally I get paged, I go to the desk and see this guy, Fernando, and I recognize him from other movies, but he's not the guy I was talking about!! And he's got this little goatee, and he's sophisticated. And we're driving back and I said "You know this character is really rough, could you maybe shave the goatee?" And said "No, I could never shave my goatee. My chin is all scarred up." He also says "I'm Spanish, I speak very little French. Maybe I could learn some phonetically." I'm thinking Belle de Jour was made in French, by a Spanish director. I say "Weren't you in Belle de Jour? He says "Oh, no." So I get him to his hotel. I call Wiener and D'Antoni and I'm screaming "You fucking morons! This is not the guy!...This guy is completely wrong!!" (laughs) So Wiener makes the call and finds out that he did indeed get the wrong guy. The guy we really wanted, from Belle de Jour was Francisco Rabal, not Fernando Rey, who it turns out is also Spanish, speaks no French, speaks no English, and isn't even available. So we're stuck with Fernando Rey! And the rest is movie history! There is a Movie God. It seems like every great film in history had a hard time getting set up. Yeah, and even after we made it we had problems. Fox was afraid of it, wanted to change the title. They had done some stupid survey in supermarkets, and when you mentioned the title The French Connection to a bunch of women in a supermarket, it either meant a foreign movie, a dirty movie or a condom! (laughs) So we were about to give in and said "Okay, we'll call it Popeye. But of course we couldn't call it that. Then they wanted to call it Doyle. They had a whole bunch of posters made up with Doyle on them. This is about a month before the film opened. So we went to them and said "You can't call this movie Doyle. If you do, we'll go public and denounce it!" At that time, Dick Zanuck did indeed get fired and there were this whole group of dissident stockholders trying to take Fox over, led by David Merrick. And we called David and told him our problem. And David was looking for anything he could find to throw shit on the present management of the studio, and he used that, and we stopped them that way. Then they tried to tell Phil and I once we backed them down, "You've just dug a grave for your own picture (with the title The French Connection)."
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Friedkin and Ellen Burstyn on the Exorcist set. Were there anymore trials and tribulations? A guy named Elmo Williams was running the studio then. He'd been Darryl F. Zanuck's film editor his whole career. And he was put in charge until the dissidents took over, the week The French Connection came out. And Williams saw the film in his cutting room with the guy who was then his editor, who fell asleep at the screening. Williams sat through the whole thing, whispering notes to his assistant. And before the screening, I thought this guy was a brilliant editor. He had edited High Noon. He told us stories that he had saved High Noon, that (director) Fred Zinnemann didn't know what he was doing, that he was in love with Grace Kelly and shot most of the movie on her...and Elmo cut all that out and went with the Cooper story. Elmo told us he got (Tex Ritter) to record the theme song that became so famous, that he went out and shot the clock ticking and made all those montages that are really what you remember about High Noon. So I thought, "What the fuck, we're gonna learn something here." So Elmo comes in with dozens of pages of notes, but they were things like "That scene when the guys go in the bar, take four frames off the beginning of that shot. Add nine frames to this. Take thirteen frames off that." Then he wanted narration over the whole picture, because he didn't understand it! And I'm listening to this shit. We thought we had a good cut! He was then going away for a week...and wanted to see all these changes when he returned. So Phil says to me, "What do we do?" I said to Phil "This guy is full of shit. He's a bullshit artist. All that stuff about High Noon is horseshit, and this is horseshit! He doesn't know what's in those frames. Maybe if I add one or two frames, the boom mike drops in! Not all those cuts are made for style, but most cutting is done because you cut away when something stops working for you, either for an emotional, or a technical reason." So Elmo comes back, we tell him his ideas were marvelous, tell him what a genius he is, how he saved our asses. We run the same picture in front of him. After it's over he says "Well, it's a lot improved isn't it?" (laughs) "But what about the narration," he says. "Let's get Hackman to narrate it." I told Elmo that was a great idea, then rushed out to call Gene. I said "Gene, you're gonna be out of town for a while, okay? This is what's happening." He says "Fine." I go back to Elmo, tell him Hackman's out of town, in Europe. I said, "Gee Elmo, you want me to fly over and record Gene?" The movie cost $1.8 million. They didn't want to spend the extra money because I was already $300,000 over and they wanted to kill me. So Elmo says "Well I guess we'll have to put it out the way it is." We put it out, and it's an instant hit, much to everyone's surprise, including mine. The films out for about a week or ten days, then the new management comes in. Dennis Stanful and Gordon Stulburg, who'd headed up CBS films, for whom I'd made Boys in the Band. We had a great relationship. So Elmo's out of there, but he's still hanging around. The sound mixer calls me one day after the films been out for ten days, tells me that Elmo's ordered a new sound mix for The French Connection. So I call Gordon. The money from the film is just rolling in...I tell him the whole Elmo story from page one. He says "Let me handle this." While I'm sitting there he calls Elmo. Says "Elmo, I hear you want to go in and re-mix The French Connection." Elmo says "Yeah well we hear the mix is too loud and that some people can't hear some of the dialog..." Gordon says "Well that's fine Elmo. Will you send me an estimate of what it's going to cost?" Elmo says "Well when Darryl was running the company, we just did it if it was right. We never bothered to figure out what it cost." "Elmo," Gordon says "Just figure out what it's going to cost to recall those hundreds of prints and remix and then put them back out again." Elmo comes back later with a figure of $150,000. So Gordon shows him the box office figures, which were all through the roof, and all the incredible reviews and he says "You know what Elmo, I think I'll use that $150,000 for extra radio and TV spots to promote the picture!" (laughs) And he kicked his ass out of there and Elmo was gone soon after. That's typical of the kind of moronic behavior I've run across since day one. It's a constant struggle. It sounds like you have to be a real chess player to survive as a filmmaker. The toughest problem any filmmaker has is with the studios. And it's a classic encounter. They're not always right, you're not always right. But for the most part, you have people making decisions who don't know what the fuck they're talking about! People who've never really been involved in the making of a film at any level! They've been lawyers, agents, stock brokers...and they're making the big decisions! It's very seldom that a guy who's ever been in the trenches winds up running a studio. And unless you've been there, you don't know the problems.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Friedkin with Exorcist novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty. Tell me about the genesis of The Exorcist. Well I knew (author) William Peter Blatty. I used to see him at the races. Periodically he'd send me one of his novels or a script that he wrote. I thought they were always nice stories...light stuff. I liked him. Nice man. One day I'm on tour with The French Connection. Bill calls me up, says he has this book he's written that he wants me to read, that Warner Brothers wants to make it into a film. So Bill sends me the galleys, it reaches me on the road. I put it off for a while, until Bill called me and asked if I'd read it yet. I said 'no.' So, feeling obligated, one night at dinner I opened it up and started reading this book called The Exorcist. And I couldn't stop. It was like, unbelievable. Another dimension. It was as good or better than anything I'd ever read by Edgar Allan Poe. Just brilliant. So I called him up and told him how much I loved it. He tells me he had started writing it as an undergraduate at Georgetown. Took him fifteen years to complete it. He had seen the files at Georgetown University of this actual case that occurred in 1949. "You want to do a film of this?" he asks. "Absolutely." So he goes to Warners, and Bill had director approval on this, and they say they're making a deal with Mark Rydell to direct it. Mark Rydell had just directed The Cowboys with John Wayne. Warners thought it was their best movie ever, and told Blatty that he had to see it. Blatty, who was very Machiavellian, had all sorts of people in the executive office at Warners who knew what was going on. Turns out Warners had originally given it to a guy named Paul Monash to do. Monash was going to re-write it, set it in Salem, Massachusetts, change everything. Blatty hauled out his contract and backs them off. So Blatty goes down to see The Cowboys to humor them, walks out after the first reel. Frank Wells, may he rest in peace, calls Blatty to see what he thought and Blatty tells him that he wants me to direct it. I understand they had to pay off Rydell since they had a deal with him. Mark's a very good director. I really like his work and I like him. But Bill felt he could communicate with me. So I got that picture because of Blatty.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Roy Scheider as doomed gangster Jackie Scanlon in Sorcerer. Your next film was Sorcerer, one of my favorite films. You really brought your own voice and sensibility to it, rather than "re-making" The Wages of Fear directly. I also remember it was really overlooked by the public when it came out. Why is that? I have no idea. It's usually not a huge hit because the audience didn't like it. It's never the fault of the distributor in my opinion, or a bad campaign or anything else. It just didn't work enough for the audience enough to make it a hit.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Poster for Henri-Georges Cluzot's 1953 Wages of Fear, which Friedkin remade as Sorcerer in 1977. A lot of people now view it as an overlooked masterpiece. I had seen The Wages of Fear and I thought it was a great film. It was really a theme about brotherhood. You had four guys, total strangers to each other, hated each other, and had to cooperate with one another or die. Make a last stand together or die. And I thought that this was really a metaphor for the world, for all the various nations of people who hated each other, yet had to find a way to live together, or perish. This theme should be continuously revived and presented to an audience. So I didn't want to remake Wages. I wanted to take that theme and do a new version with my own kind of spin on it that was based on the Georges Arnaud novel. I just thought it was another interpretation of a great classic. At one time I had Steve McQueen, who wanted to do it. He read the script, by Walon Green and I, loved it, thought it was one of the best scripts he'd ever read. He asked where were we gonna shoot it. I said "I don't know. Mexico, the Dominican Republic..." He didn't want to leave the country, thought we should shoot it here. He was just starting his relationship with Ali MacGraw and didn't want to be away from her, so he said "Why don't you write something for her." I said "You just told me it was one of the best scripts you ever read, now you want me to put a whole new character in there for her?" "Well, make her associate producer or something." I said "Ah Steve, fuck off!" One of the biggest mistakes I've ever made. I wasn't thinking of the importance of the close-up verses the wide shot. The most beautiful location in the world doesn't mean shit next to Steve McQueen's face. I didn't know that then, but I certainly do now and I just let it slide with Steve. And Roy Scheider is terrific in the film, just wonderful, but Steve...just had the whole baggage he brought with it. And there were other actors I had who would've done it with Steve, like Lino Ventura and Marcello Mastroianni would've done the film with him. That's the cast I had if I could've gotten Steve. I said "I don't need stars; I'll just make it with four good actors." And I did. Cruising is your most controversial film. Did the public outcry surrounding that surprise you? It did to a great extent. Really the gay community was split. There were people who did not want shown anything that would present the gay community in anything but a good light, because the struggle for gay rights was in its very early stages then (1980). And I could see where the leaders of a certain element of the community would find this abhorrent because it wasn't showing the image of gays that they were promoting. On the other hand, there were a great many gays who saw the film who knew and understood that world and felt it was honest to that. A few years ago it was rereleased in San Francisco at the Roxy theater in a brand new print, and the same outlets who'd ripped the shit out of it fifteen years earlier, like The Chronicle, gave it four stars. It got glowing write-ups in the gay press and guys were saying "This is how some of us were." I never made the film to have anything to do with the gay community other than as a background for a murder mystery. It was not meant to be pro or con, gay rights, or gay anything. It was an exotic background that people, I knew, hadn't seen in a mainstream film. That's what intrigued me about it. I had never seen it, but heard about it and decided to go around to the various (gay) clubs and saw what was going on, said that this was incredible. And I decided to write the story based on what I'd seen and on a story that one of the French Connection cops told me, Randy Jurgensen, that he'd experienced when he was sent out as a decoy in the gay world to catch a killer who was targeting gays. And Randy was hung out to dry in that situation and it really screwed him up. It made him start to question his sexuality. And I made the film, which I think leaves a lot to be desired as a film. It was severely cut, some of the best stuff was cut out of it. It was compromised severely then. It should've gone out as an 'X' picture, but they couldn't.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Friedkin and William L. Petersen during the To Live and Die in L.A. shoot. One thing I've noticed in a lot of your films is that you have morally ambiguous protagonists, many of whom are unsympathetic initially, but you wind up caring about them, even if they're scumbags. What do you think it is that draws you to darker subject matter and characters? My belief that that's really closer to the way the world is. I can only deal with characters that I know and understand and I've found that most of the people I know and have met are a combination of a great many things. They're not all good and not all evil. There's evil in good men and good in evil men. Hitler was beloved of his inner circle, and of Eva Braun and of his dog, Blondie. There's photographs of Hitler with little German children, him just beaming at these beautiful little kids, and them looking up at him like he's this benevolent granddaddy. And it's Hitler! Even though the foundation of American films is based on good guys and bad guys, that's not my experience in life. Or in self-analysis. There are times when I know my own motives are low, base, self-serving and there's other times when I'm able to do things that are quite selfless and kind and helpful to others and warm. I have and we all have these forces, good and evil, constantly at war within us. And sometimes the war is lost badly for the forces of good. Like Jeffrey Dahmer, or (Andrew Cunanan) for the Versace murder. I don't believe that he was born evil. But there was a mother that loved him at one time when he was a little child. And I tend to see these things. I don't want to make the guy a hero, by any means, but my initial impulse when I hear someone has crossed the line and committed a violent act is sadness. Sadness at the loss to all of humanity. And I feel that same sadness when I lose that battle within myself. Why make a film about someone, unless you're going to reveal something about their humanity?
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Friedkin's version of "12 Angry Men," featuring a who's-who, cross-generational cast. What prompted you to re-make "12 Angry Men"? A couple years ago my son and a few of his friends were around the house talking a bout "What is a jury?" and "What is reasonable doubt?" in the Simpson case. I had a video of 12 Angry Men and I showed it to them. And while it really wasn't their kind of film, they were fascinated by it because it did sort of answer those questions. While I was watching it with them, I said "This is great! This is a classic!" I had been reading a whole bunch of lame scripts that had been sent to me where I couldn't get past page ten, and now all of the sudden, here's this great piece of material. And I started to think that they just don't write them like this anymore and why aren't we making films like this and wouldn't it be great to do this with a superb cast today, and with every generation because it tells us a lot about ourselves as well as the American justice system...It was actually revived in London on stage last year, directed by Harold Pinter! You assembled an amazing cast. What was it like working with actors of such varying ages and styles? Everyone has their own style and way of working and some of it was a surprise to me. For example, I expected that the real veterans would come in knowing their lines from the get-go, having it all down, which is usually how the old-timers of that period worked. Jack Lemmon comes in like a contemporary actor. He's read the script, but doesn't have a clue what he's going to do until the rehearsal. You find it together. A man like Hume Cronyn comes in with the whole thing and he's got it and the work there is to keep him from being so set, and helping him to discover it more. It was twelve guys with twelve different approaches to acting. And they brought with them total dedication because they saw what I saw in the material: that they don't write them like that anymore. How much was changed from the original text? Not that much. We wanted to keep it pretty timeless. Originally I thought about having some women in it, but it's really not written for women. It's about men. About testosterone. In the same way that Little Women is about women. But I did know that I wanted to have some minority actors in this version instead of the all-white cast like in the original. Besides that we added a few modern references to the dialogue, but...the clothes, the room where it's set, we all tried to keep very timeless. But it's an all-male jury because that's the title! The attitude towards it now is very different from when Reginald Rose wrote it in the 50's as a very liberal statement coming out of the McCarthy era, saying that even though some people appear to be guilty of something they may not be, and we have to examine that and not be quick to label people.
William Friedkin: The Hollywood Flashback Interviews
Friedkin directs his version of "12 Angry Men," with the late Hume Cronyn and Jack Lemmon How long do you rehearse before you shoot? Generally I don't rehearse at all. I rehearsed "12 Angry Men" for eight days. But generally I don't believe in rehearsal. I believe in talking with the actor, working out what you're going to do, then putting it in front of the cameras to get spontaneity. The biggest concern I have with any film I make is that it seems too set where all the words are spoken perfectly and all the camera moves are perfect. I don't like films like that. I want my films to seem like real life, like it's really happening. The best films for me are the ones where you're not conscious of a writer or director or photography or anything and there it is. That there's just these people and they seem to be just who they are. I rehearsed The Exorcist for a month and the best performances I ever saw of it were left in the rehearsal room. When we finally got to the shooting, it wasn't as fresh. How do you maintain tension on the set during a tense scene? By keeping the set tense. By getting in actors' faces. By getting them shook up. Very often I would fire a gun to get people's nerves completely frayed, then shoot. I have gunshots being fired all over the set. Are studios today making the sort of pictures that attracted you to filmmaking in the beginning. No. If I were a young kid today, I wouldn't want to go into film. I remember years ago when I met (the directors) Billy Wilder and Richard Brooks. And some of the films we've talked about I talked to them about. And I would hear them constantly bemoaning the state of American film, realizing that the shit that we were making was not impressing them. They thought it was better when they were doing it. And I remember thinking then, that if I ever get that way, I gotta hang it up. Because I loved the films of that period (the 60's) because they spoke to me. And I realized that they had made great films in another era, but that's past and changed. And that's my attitude about it. I frankly don't like most of what I see. I think it's imitative and derivative and usually done without anything coming from inside. Most of the films are manufactured like a product rather than being born of the need to communicate some idea onto film. But I recognize that they're not making these films in a void. Audiences today are responding to them. So you can sit back and say "That's a load of shit," or you can go out and make your own film that you hope an audience will respond to in whatever terms you can live with. It's like that old joke Mort Sahl used to tell about Werner Von Braun, father of the rocket (who developed explosive rockets for Germany during WW II). He said "Werner Von Braun's autobiography is called I Aim at the Stars. What it should really be called is I Aim at the Stars, but Sometimes Hit London." I very often aim at the stars as a filmmaker, but sometimes I hit London (laughs).

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