"Sorcerer" opened about a month after "Star Wars," replacing it at Hollywood's Chinese Theatre, for instance, only to be pulled a week later (after slow sales) and replaced by "Star Wars." To Friedkin, George Lucas's blockbuster had displaced not just "Sorcerer" but the entire movement of American director-driven cinema that had flourished in the early 1970s, to be supplanted ever-after by assembly-line franchise and action films designed more to make money than to create art.
These days, the 78-year-old Friedkin is more philosophical about "Sorcerer," acknowledging in his 2013 memoir "The Friedkin Connection" the role his own creative decisions played in the film's negative reception. For one thing, his hubris in remaking a classic (Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 adventure "The Wages of Fear") earned him the ire of critics who'd previously embraced him. Second, the title was misleading, suggesting a supernatural thriller like his last movie, not a jungle adventure about desperate men driving a volatile cargo of nitroglycerin through hellish terrain. ("Sorcerer" is a nickname painted on one of the trucks.)
Also, Friedkin had wanted to cast Steve McQueen but lost him when he balked at providing a make-work job for McQueen's new bride, Ali MacGraw, so that they wouldn't be separated during the long overseas shoot; eventual lead Roy Scheider gave a fine performance, but he wasn't the box-office draw that McQueen was. Shot in the Dominican Republic, "Sorcerer" was a notoriously difficult production -- it went millions over budget, performers were nearly killed while filming harrowing stunts, and everyone got sick, including Friedkin, who contracted malaria.
Today, however, "Sorcerer" is finally getting some vindication. Many critics regard "Sorcerer" as the director's overlooked masterpiece, and a newly-restored print is getting a brief theatrical re-release in various countries, and is out on Blu-ray as of April 22.
Speaking to Moviefone from his Hollywood office, Friedkin discussed "Sorcerer"'s journey from reviled to revered, the film's legendary production difficulties, and the its ultimately hopeful spiritual message. In Part II of the interview, which you can read here on Friday, April 25, he talks about the differences between filmmaking then and now, the supposed "Exorcist" curse, and his upcoming HBO movie about Mae West.
Moviefone: Why did it take so long for "Sorcerer" to catch on?
William Friedkin: Each of the studios that financed "Sorcerer," Universal and Paramount, were both sold three times since I made "Sorcerer." Every time that happens, all the legal documents from films they no longer consider current go underground. But in Los Angeles, there's this group called Cinefamily, with about 25,000 subscribers, and they had been playing the film regularly for many years, at least once a year. In 2011, they e-mailed me and told me that they had tried to book the film and were told by Paramount that they didn't own the film, and they didn't know who did. So I sent them to Universal, and the same answer came in. So I had to sue both companies to determine who owned the picture. I sued not for money but for discovery. That showed that the rights had been vested in a company called Vivendi, which had once owned both Universal and Paramount's foreign film operations.
Universal had only a 25-year lease on the film, and that had expired, but Paramount had to produce all this discovery. At that same time, Warner Bros. came along and said they would like to take over the whole thing and have it for Blu-ray and streaming. They wound up making a deal where Paramount has all the theatrical rights around the world, but Warner Bros. has all the home video and streaming. Warner financed the whole project, Paramount paid them half, and now Paramount is actively seeking theatrical distribution around the world, and the Blu-ray is coming out April 22.
And yet, even while the film was in legal limbo, some people still remembered it fondly and championed it.
Somehow, through all the years that it virtually wasn't shown at all, there were still film critics and historians who had seen it, on bad VHS copies or truncated prints, and the film continued to live in their minds. So there was a great drumbeat by historians, critics, and fans.
What revelations will fans find in the restoration?
It's the same film I made in 1977, only it looks as I had originally intended. The color and the densities are perfect, and the sound is considerably better. But I didn't add a frame. It's the same picture. Everything I ever intended visually is in the new print, and it never was in 35MM.
You're very insistent on presenting your films with the lighting, color, and sound the way you initially envisioned them.
We ran the film at the Chinese Theatre [in Hollywood] on Saturday night. That's probably the most famous theater in America. And I was in there for several hours on Saturday, starting at eight in the morning, with a team from Dolby Sound and Boston Sound, and we retuned the entire sound system at the Chinese Theatre for this screening. And I boosted the light on the screen by one stop. I can't control every screening anymore, but what I insist on -- the studio can screen it on a sheet in a barn in Utah if they want, but not if I'm going to be there. If I'm going to be there and do an introduction or a Q&A, it has to be the film I made.
Two years ago, before the Chinese changed their screen, I refused to let them run a print of "The Exorcist." It was beyond salvation because that IMAX screen they had was not compatible with a 2D print.
Do you think the film would have been a bigger hit if you'd been able to hire your first-choice star, Steve McQueen, instead of your "French Connection" co-star Roy Scheider?
Steve was a great actor, and I was disappointed when he didn't do it. Having recently seen Scheider in it, I think he's great. Would there have been more box office? Probably. Steve was among the biggest stars at that time. Would it have been a better picture? I'm not sure Steve would have been able to bring as much to it as Scheider did as an actor. Scheider was much more intense. McQueen would crest in intensity. When he was cast right, in something like "Bullitt" or "The Thomas Crown Affair," he was fantastic. If he had to show real emotion or pain, he would have been at a loss. And Roy did that brilliantly.
It seems like making a film in the jungle and having a "Heart of Darkness" experience, where the chaos of the production is echoed in the story told on screen, was a common career-halting experience for the great directors of the 1970s -- besides you and "Sorcerer," it also happened to Francis Ford Coppola with "Apocalypse Now" and Werner Herzog with "Fitzcarraldo."
It didn't happen to everybody. The examples you cited may be it. I don't know what happened there. The films you mentioned are varying degrees of quality. I think "Apocalypse Now" is a great film, and that's all I think about it. I know Francis, he's a very good friend. He did have difficulty. Rightly or wrongly, we all tried to jump the highest part of the fence then, not the lowest part. If you go for the highest part of the fence, you're often going to stumble and fall. And sometimes you'll set a new record by jumping higher than anyone else did. I know that people like Francis and myself were interested in going for, not just the best we could do, but better than we could do. And we were supported by the studios in that, to a certain extent. That would be much less palatable today, since "Star Wars."
Were the studios looking for an excuse to end the era of creative carte blanche and make safer and more formulaic movies, and did these overly ambitious projects give them that excuse?
That was the result of it, certainly. Whether they set out to do that, I don't know. If "Star Wars" had failed, and you never know, the climate of American films would be totally different today. There wouldn't be all these films about vampires and werewolves and witches and superheroes, all made with CGI. It would have even held back the development of CGI. But "Star Wars" was a massive success, and everything that's followed it has been an offshoot.
Clouzot's original "Wages of Fear" was seen as an existential statement about man's place in an unforgiving universe. "Sorcerer," however, seems to be more about politics -- the need for international cooperation to prevent a devastating conflagration -- or about spirituality, with the four damned men slogging through Hell and striving for redemption.
I always felt that "Sorcerer" dealt with matters like purgatory on Earth and, in a sense, the mystery of faith. We all end up the same way, and one's life is not something we have any control over. That's certainly one of the major themes of "Sorcerer." The fact that these guys all are criminals -- what would they be doing in a town like that if they weren't criminals? The interesting thing to me, the most mysterious part of any journey, is how the travelers came to the starting line in the first place. I wanted to explore that, how these people ended up in a kind of living purgatory. And then, the journey itself is purgatory. The journey itself is savage. They're all seeking a kind of retribution, a kind of atonement for their sins.
As I see it recently, all over the world now, in screenings like the one we had Saturday night at the Chinese, but everywhere else I've seen it, and everywhere else it's played, in England and Toronto and Istanbul, it seems to play the same way, and people are now getting that idea, that it's about purgatory and the reclamation of one's soul and the mystery of faith. To a great extent, that's a metaphor for all of our lives. We each have a cross to bear. We're each aware of the good and evil that exists in all of us.
So I don't really judge the characters that interest me. They're not superheroes, that's for sure. With a superhero, you pretty much know what the outcome is going to be. That, to me, is a kind of pornography. It's a false picture. It is not a mirror held up to life. There are no superheroes. There are people who do very good and very evil things as well. Sometimes our better angels fail to thrive. There are some clearly evil people in this world, guys like Hitler and Manson, but for most of us, we contain equal parts of good and evil.
How did John Huston's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" influence "Sorcerer"?
For me, that's one of the top five American films ever made. I was very influenced by "Treasure" in almost everything I've done. I think it's a masterpiece, and that's a word I don't throw around. There are a handful of masterpieces, and that's one of them.
So it was also about characters who are neither all good nor all evil, but whose mettle is tested by extreme situations in an inhospitable foreign land.
I believe those characters, all of them. They all represent facets of human nature. And yet the story is a great ride.
Is that how it works for you, with you trying to balance a great ride, as in "The French Connection," for instance, with a philosophical underpinning?
It has to have a philosophical underpinning of some kind. I won't just do some mindless horror film or adventure film or whatever. That's why the last couple of films I did ["Bug" and "Killer Joe"] were written by Tracy Letts, who's one of the best playwrights in America.
Those films don't come along often for me, or anybody else, either. I've been directing films for about 50 years, and I've made 17 films, but I've been working all the time on something. I haven't done all the films that I've started to work on because I couldn't fulfill my vision. I've abandoned many more scripts than I've made.
Check back Friday, April 25, for Part II of Moviefone's interview with William Friedkin.