Sitting with William Friedkin a few years ago, I was suddenly caught by surprise. After taking out his iPad, the master filmmaker began to scroll through a series of photos, all taken inside a small room in Vatican City, where he’d been invited to attend a real-life exorcism.
That might not seem so odd to anyone who knows Friedkin’s credits, especially The Exorcist, the 1973 horror film that terrified much of the world. But this wasn’t Hollywood make-believe: there on a screen, in front of me, were images and video recording a living nightmare as furniture slid, objects flew and great gasps heaved from the subject of the exorcism, while an ancient priest chanted in Latin.
The footage — shot by Friedkin himself — became the basis of his 2017 documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, one of his final works (though by no means his last: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial will debut at Venice early next month).
It was a testament to his endless curiosity, his willingness to explore ideas and environments that most of us wouldn’t dare. Later, he regretted nothing about his time in Rome except the death at age 91 of Father Amorth (a man of whom he had grown fond), in the middle of filming.
Fearless, Friedkin never hesitated to place himself in the same sanctum as, well, the devil himself; and yet he didn’t approach the subject with judgment or prejudice, any more than he did the characters from The Exorcist. In fact, while making the latter, Friedkin — a Jew raised in Chicago — received holy communion and told writer William Peter Blatty how moved he was.
“He thought I had unwittingly committed a sacrilege and phoned the officiating priest to apologize,” the movie maker recalled in his memoir, The Friedkin Connection. “The priest told Blatty not to be concerned. ‘It can’t hurt him.’”
Feisty and opinionated, razor-sharp when mounting an intellectual attack (which was almost always buttressed by his sly humor and quick wit), Friedkin was nonetheless exceptionally open to others.
Unlike so many older filmmakers, he had no envy of a younger generation that was having its moment in the sun. He welcomed newcomers like Damien Chazelle into his home; frequently co-hosted screenings with his wife of more than three decades, former Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing (in truth, he’d often retreat to his study and listen to his beloved opera, while Sherry hosted the guests); and was generous in his praise.
That earned him the loyalty of major artists like Guillermo del Toro, who agreed to serve as a back-up director, for insurance purposes, on The Caine Mutiny, and dropped by just to watch Friedkin at work. Even then, only months before he died on Aug. 7, Billy (as everyone called him) was in tip-top form, his mind as electric as the scooter that whisked him around the set to relieve his fragile legs.
I experienced him at his most generous last year, when I asked him to write a blurb for a book I’d just finished. He spent days reading the galleys, then agonized over the right wording, before handing in his comments a whisker before my deadline.
That isn’t to say he was always easy. Looking back, he was amazed at his own actions while shooting his greatest films. To pull off the remarkable chase sequence in The French Connection, he hunched down in the car as it sped through the streets of New York without permits, placing not only himself but also passers-by in danger. Older and wiser, he said he could never imagine doing anything like it again.
At one point, while making The Exorcist (a film plagued with disasters, not least when his main set burned down hours before principal photography), Friedkin approached a non-professional actor, cast as one of the priests. Grasping the man’s shoulders, he recalled, “I said, ‘Bill, I want you to listen to me carefully. Look at me.’ He was shaking from the cold and his increasing anxiety. ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ he said, already on the verge of the emotion.
“‘Bill, you can do this,’ I said with conviction, though I wasn’t sure,” Friedkin recalled. “I held his shoulders tighter. ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Yes.’ He was trembling, not knowing where I was heading.”
Friedkin continued, “‘Say it!’ I said firmly, pulling him to me in an embrace. ‘Yes, I love you, Billy, you know it.’ ‘I love you,’ I said, at which point I slapped him across the face as hard as I could and pushed him to his knees … O’Malley burst into tears and performed the scene.”
As Friedkin later noted wryly, “This is not a solution I recommend to aspiring directors.”
Somehow, I can’t ever imagine him being an “aspiring” director. From the start, he handled film with a depth and originality few have equaled.
Imagine a lesser director tackling the tale of two undercover cops on the trail of an international drug lord. It’s a story we’ve seen over and over, but never as brilliantly as in The French Connection. Beyond the astonishing realism Friedkin brings to the work is a philosophical map of the world: rich versus poor, American versus European, sophisticated versus crass — and it’s the crass character who most draws our sympathy. French Connection says as much about life as any thriller ever made.
Not that achieving Friedkin’s goal was simple. Gene Hackman hated his character, and the only way the director could get the performance he wanted was to rile up his star. “Gene had to play an angry, obsessive man, and I could provoke that anger in him and let him focus it on me,” he wrote. At one point, Hackman stormed off the set and Friedkin wasn’t sure he’d ever come back. But he did and won an Oscar, as did Friedkin himself.
Shortly before Friedkin told me about his trip to Rome, I was interviewing his wife for a biography that I was then writing about her. Lansing is famously gracious. Time and again she would use the word “genius” to describe the filmmakers she most admired. Finally, laughing, I said: “Sherry, you can only use the word ‘genius’ to describe one person in this book. Who do you want it to be?”
She smiled. “Billy,” she said without a beat.