William Friedkin's controversial 1980 film Cruising is making the rounds of a few selected theaters this week before Warner Home Video releases it September 18 in a new deluxe DVD. Mr. Friedkin took a moment to sit down with Cinematical to discuss the film and the mysteries of life.
Cinematical: Are you fairly confident that Cruising will be accepted today, or will there still be some controversy?
William Friedkin: I have no idea. The times are different. At the time we made and released it, it was the first small steps of gay liberation. They had just begun to make gains to get recognition, have some political clout. Prior to that time, they had none. They were an oppressed minority. And Cruising of course was not what you would choose as the best foot forward for a bourgeoning political movement. And there were a lot of people in the gay community who were conscious of that and they protested it, but in doing so, they probably brought more attention to it than it might have gotten.
Cinematical: As with many other controversial movies, like The Last Temptation of Christ, hardly anyone actually saw it.
William Friedkin: They objected to the idea. The Last Temptation of Christ was being vilified. Crosses were burned on Lew Wasserman's lawn. This generation comes The Passion of the Christ and it's a huge hit. There were some protests, but they were of such a minor nature. Attitudes have changed since people gave a knee-jerk reaction to something they hadn't seen. The film [Cruising] has gained a life underground all these years. It's never been on DVD before, but it was on VHS and bootlegged. Millions of people saw it in a bootleg edition. It's tough. I will say that, even now, it does not play to populist sensibilities. Most of the movies today are, in terms of subject matter, bland. They're largely manufactured in a way that they're not going to offend anybody.
Cinematical: Probably the thing that people will object to today is not so much the gay subtext, but rather the ambiguous ending.
William Friedkin: There is more than one murderer, and that's what a lot of people couldn't wrap their minds around. We are conditioned by films, and mostly television, that if it's a murder mystery, by the end of the film when the curtain comes down, the murderer is caught. On television, there's a murder that takes place at 9 o'clock and by 10 o'clock it's completely solved. Evil is put back in its box. And Cruising doesn't do that. Cruising says that the evil is still out there, and the evil is out there. It's not meant as a cautionary tale to gays because equally, what I learned form the research on this film, is that most of the murders go unsolved in almost every big city in the world.
Cinematical: You've always had the gay and lesbian culture on your radar and in your movies, The Boys in the Band, for example, and a little bit in To Live and Die in L.A. It's even in your latest film, Bug.
William Friedkin: They're a part of the normal world that I move through. How do you put this? I have many gay friends, and many straight friends. Working in the film business and doing operas, there probably are a larger proportion of gay people, maybe, than there are in other industries. The depiction of gay characters, even in Bug, is a normal part of the landscape. As you're doing an impression of this particular landscape, all of these people of various persuasions pop up: a lot of Jews, also Gentiles, black people, etc. Up until recently, gay characters were disguised in American films. For many years you could not portray a gay character onscreen in an American film, as a gay character. In Kubrick's The Killing, the Jay C. Flippen character is probably gay. It's never stated, but you see his physical attachment to the Sterling Hayden character. [But] what does it have to do with anything? As we get to the stage when it's peripheral to a person's ability, then real progress will have been made.
Cinematical: The thing I love about Cruising and your other films is that you have this very concrete world in which the story takes place. Everything is impeccably researched. Except Bug, which is based mostly on paranoia and things that can't be proven.
William Friedkin: Nothing can be proven. Take the mystery of faith, the idea of Jesus Christ and his teachings. Who has ever sat down in a room with Jesus Christ, or received a personal message from Jesus? Here's this man who died at age 32 or 33, over 2000 years ago, wrote nothing down, probably illiterate. The whole tradition is an oral tradition, and now over 2000 years later, billions of people have believed in the teachings of Jesus. And that's a phenomenal thing, if you think about it. The New Testament is filled with such beautiful thoughts and ideas and poetry, but it can't be proven. You either feel it or you don't. There is no evidence. I try to find out how the Catholic Church works, for The Exorcist. What is this ritual? What's behind it?
And it turns out what's behind it is a very simple thing: the mystery of faith. And it's the most powerful thing. You have to go on and accept that there's certain things, like love, that are peculiar to human beings. Or find ourselves on the other hand in an extraordinary dislike for someone, where they just rub us the wrong way. But that's part of the mystery of existence which I find endlessly fascinating, and the existence of good and evil in all of us, which is what all of my films are about, for the most part. The thin line between good and evil between all of us.