He won Best Picture and Best Director for "The French Connection" (1971), followed it up with the scariest movie of all time (1973's "The Exorcist"), and followed that up with "Sorcerer" (1977), a movie so far ahead of its time that only in recent years has it been acknowledged as an overlooked masterpiece. (A newly-restored print of the allegorical adventure tale, released this week on Blu-ray, should help burnish the film's reputation.)
At 78, Friedkin continues to stay ahead of the pack. In his most recent movie, "Killer Joe" (2011), he cast Matthew McConaughey in an unlikely role as a corrupt cop/hitman, thus helping launch the "McConnaissance" that changed the actor's image and led to his recent Oscar victory for "Dallas Buyers Club." For his upcoming projects, he's thrilled to be working in digital and scoffs at those filmmakers and fans who are nostalgic for 35MM celluloid film. He's about to shoot a movie for HBO in which Bette Midler will play Mae West, the original sexual provocateur, who ran afoul of the laws and censors of her day.
After talking with Moviefone at length about "Sorcerer" in an interview you can read here, Friedkin continued to discuss the changing landscape in filmmaking technology and distribution, offered advice to up-and-coming filmmakers, put to rest some myths about "The Exorcist," and, paradoxically, expressed nostalgia for the old Hollywood regime that his 1970s movies helped overthrow.
Moviefone: You're one of the few veteran filmmakers who is not going to miss 35MM film as digital pushes it to extinction.
William Friedkin: No, I don't like 35MM at all. I worked in that medium because it's all that was available. The fact about 35MM is that there never was a perfect print of anything because of the built-in flaws of the process. In every bath of developer, one reel would come off slightly green, another slightly blue, because of differences in the composition of the water or differences in the amoeba that constantly recirculate, or fluctuation in the electricity in the labs. I was always very concerned about my prints. Whenever I made a film that didn't have to open on thousands of screens, I always supervised the prints. I approved about 1 out of every 25 reels. The average film is about 12 reels. Multiply that by 25 and you'll know how many reels I burned to get closer to what I shot. And now with digital, it's all automatic. It looks fantastic. It looks how it's meant to look.
Of course, that's assuming that projection quality is up to your rigorous standards.
To ignore that is like an airline saying, "We don't care how comfortable our passengers are. We're in the transportation business. We can throw 'em all into the airplane and let 'em go on the floor." The exhibition business is vital to how an audience sees a film, and I care very much about that.
Why go through all the time and money to make it a certain way and then see it differently? I just don't believe most theater owners give a damn about that. And I know that the studios didn't care about the prints they send out. They figured somebody else would take care of that.
And has digital projection taken care of that?
It's totally better. You no longer have dirt on a print, or splices, or scratches. I couldn't watch a film of mine on 35MM anymore. The colors fade, and nothing is the same, and they weren't perfect to begin with. Now, when I hear these guys who are nostalgic for 35MM, I just laugh up my sleeve because they don't know what they're talking about. Right now, the digital projection system and prints are the best they've ever been. If you light the scene well, it'll look like a movie. If you just turn on all the lights, what we call bathtub lighting, it'll look like that, only sharper. A well-lit movie is going to look the best it ever has on a DCP.
The other night, I saw this movie, "Under the Skin." It's a very tough picture for audiences, but it's beautiful. The cinematography is world class. It belongs in a museum, every shot. They shot it with digital cameras and released it on a DCP, and there's no dirt, no scratches, just the beautiful lighting and compositions.
There's a lot more coverage of what filmmakers are doing now, even in the pre-production phase, than there ever was during your 1970s heyday. Could you and your peers have had the creative freedom you did under that much scrutiny?
Of course not. In the '70s, we, the filmmakers, never knew how much money our films made, even though we were on a percentage, often. We didn't get in the daily papers, or from the Internet or magazines, what the box office grosses were. We would only hear if a film was good or great or terrible. All the gossip about this cast change or that, or how much the film cost, didn't exist when I was coming up in American film. To a great extent, it still doesn't in Europe because there's a lot of government financing of film. They still want to make money, but they're more interested in approving projects they think are worthwhile. And that's what the studios were like when I was coming up. There's a constant spotlight on the gossip part of filmmaking, which I don't think really does anybody any good except the media that's putting it out.
Still, there seems to be a hunger among the public for that much information.
I wonder if it's hunger, or if it's just something the editors feel people should have. So much of commercial television, for instance, is that really what the public wants, or is it what somebody at a network thinks they want?
Speaking of TV, you're part of the current migration of top-notch film directors to television.
I'm going to be doing a film about Mae West starring Bette Midler. We're doing that for HBO. It probably could not be done as a feature film. It'll be set during one short period in the roaring '20s. Doug McGrath is writing it, he's a great screenwriter. I like this Mae West idea very much because she's an extraordinary character, and I would only do it with Bette Midler. And I like the people at HBO.
It sounds like a follow-up to your early feature about burlesque, "The Night They Raided Minsky's."
Yes, it draws on the same period and the same world, but a totally different life.
In the old days, this would be a movie, but now it's for high-end television. There's a lot of great stuff being done in that medium. You have directors of the quality of David Fincher and others who are working for television now, whether you call it cable, streaming, or whatever. They have fewer, if any, real limitations. I'm happy to do this for HBO because I don't know what the audience would be for one of the major film companies.
The only thing I'm conscious of that the major studios are doing are these superhero films, about comic book characters, and that's about it. That's the life's blood of the major studios today, and they're doing well with it.
For a while, in the 1990s, it seemed like we were going to get an independent-film renaissance that would bring back 1970s-style filmmaking, but it didn't last.
There are a lot more independent films being made now than there were back in the '70s and before. But the real independent filmmaking movement preceded the '70s and continued afterward, people like John Cassavetes, who literally mortgaged his house to make every one of his films. He could have lost his house if he didn't get something back. So he worked very inexpensively and totally independently. What we call independent film today is well-financed.
Even an independent film that I admired greatly, "The Hurt Locker," was released by a company that aspired to be a major, and they now are. You know, Summit, they had "Twilight" and other huge successes, and they merged with Lionsgate. So "The Hurt Locker," which was clearly independently financed, was distributed by a company that is now a major. Sony Pictures Classics distributes very worthwhile films, but they are supported by Sony. Focus Features is supported by Universal. The studios have realized that certain independent films can do it better than they can.
The Jason Blum movies, which are made for chump change, have done tremendously well. A film like "Paranormal Activity" cost $15,000 and was made in a guy's house in San Diego with no names, nothing. It was the premise and the execution of that film. It made $300 million or more on an investment of $15,000.
It seems like Blum and his filmmakers can take greater creative risks because their financial risk is so low.
The risk is always high. It's relative. The guy who spent $15,000, if the movie tanked, he would be wiped out faster than the guy who spent $150 million.
Do you ever feel like modern horror films like those can't stand up to "The Exorcist"?
I don't think that at all. I liked "Paranormal Activity." I liked "The Blair Witch Project." I thought they really delivered. It doesn't matter to me how much a film cost. It's the invention and the idea and the theme and the execution that I respond to. I'm looking at what's on the screen, not what the cost of it was, large or small.
Can you address the notion of whether or not there was an "Exorcist" curse, given the way the production seemed to have been shadowed by mishaps and deaths?
Jack MacGowran died shortly after he finished "The Exorcist." But as Bob Dylan said, people who aren't busy being born are busy dying. Everyone is dying. You're dying right now. I'm dying. And when our time is up will probably not be at our discretion. He was the only... well, Jason Miller died many years later. Ellen Burstyn and [Max] Von Sydow are still alive and still working. Lee J. Cobb died a few years later. Nothing unusual about that. It's largely a media creation. All of the essential people who were involved on it are still around and working, William Peter Blatty, who wrote the book, wrote the script, and produced the movie. He and I are in touch a couple times a week. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland. He's still going strong. He's in good health, has a nice family. I don't know what they're talking about with the "Exorcist" curse, but it's easy to invent one.
Didn't Von Sydow's brother die during the production?
His brother died the day he made his first shot. "So what?" as Hillary Clinton would say. There was an accident that happened [a fire that destroyed most of the interior set of the McNeil house except Regan's bedroom]. But to call it part of a curse, this is a media creation. People look at "The Exorcist," because of its subject matter, and assume all sorts of ridiculous things. Some of the cast members in interviews, specifically, Ellen Burstyn, put out stuff like this.
The thing to understand is, we don't control, in any way, how we came into this world, and we don't control how we're going to leave it. There was a movie made recently, it hasn't come out yet, and one of the assistant directors, a young woman, died. I don't think anyone's talking about that being cursed. God forbid, that was horrible. Early in my career, on "The Night They Raided Minsky's," one of the stars was the great vaudeville comedian Bert Lahr. And he died during production. Nobody talked about a curse. Bert Lahr was up in years and not in very good health.
What effect did "The Exorcist" have on your own spirituality?
It strengthened my belief. I'm not a Catholic, but I believe strongly in the teachings of Jesus as set down in the New Testament. I guess I always accepted them, not enough to join the church, but I accept them even more now. I've done more studying of the New Testament. I'm much more fascinated by Jesus the man than the supernatural aspects of Jesus.
When you worked with Matthew McConaughey on "Killer Joe," did you have any inkling he'd go on to this new, dark, critically acclaimed phase of his career?
It was just my hunch that made me go with McConaughey. I saw him on a television interview I had never seen him for any of the films for which he had become well known, the romantic comedies.
I know that he wants to do serious work, and the hope is that there will be enough serious films for him to continue on the path he's chosen. I think the next thing he's doing is a Christopher Nolan film ["Interstellar"]. It's not an independent film. It'll be a mega-millions movie. Matthew is not going to be able to survive forever on these small, low-budget films that are labors of love. I don't know how much he was paid for "True Detective," which was a pretty terrific series, but I don't think he was paid a pauper's fee to do that. That was the most commercial of commercial television, HBO.
Are there actors you'd like to work with but haven't?
No, not at the moment, but I'd love to have worked with [Humphrey] Bogart, Steve McQueen, Lino Ventura, Marcello Mastroianni, James Cagney. So many great actresses, Susan Hayward, [Greta] Garbo, [Marlene] Dietrich. I can't think of anyone today that I feel that way about. Spencer Tracy, I would have paid money to work with Spencer Tracy.
What I wish I could have done, but I didn't come up in the right era, I wish I could have been a director in the studio system. I would have made about four or five films a year. Some would have been good, some bad, and maybe there would have been a few masterpieces. That would be a career like someone like Victor Fleming had, who in the same year directed "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz," and a couple of other pictures.
Wouldn't you have chafed at the rigid authority of the old studio moguls, as you have during your actual career?
It would have been worth it to make the kind of films they made. Michael Curtiz, who made "Casablanca," made three or four other films that same year. They're not all of the same caliber. But I think I would have been a much better filmmaker if I'd worked in the studio system. Sure, people chafed, but look at the work they produced. And a lot of the directors found a way around that, like John Huston. "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" was not a typical Hollywood film, and it was not a success, except an artistic success.
How much of a role has luck played in your career?
I have been asked that question. The most important facets to me of what a filmmaker needs to succeed are ambition, luck, and the grace of God. I am not mentioning talent, you may notice, because there are a lot of extremely untalented people making stupid movies who have been very lucky and very ambitious. And a lot of guys I knew who had great talent never connected, never, and just disappeared into the flow. Ambition, luck, and the grace of God, that's the formula as I observe it.
Do you have any regrets over the films that flopped or the ones that you wanted to make but didn't get to do?
I have no regrets. How could I? All you need to do is pick up a newspaper every day and see what happens to people's lives, the tragedies that are with us every day.
Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP