Shortly into his feature-filmmaking career, William Friedkin won the Best Director Academy Award for 1971's The French Connection. He followed it up with another Oscar-nominated directorial effort, 1973's hugely influential modern classic The Exorcist. Like many titans of '70s cinema, Friedkin has subsequently had a career filled with peaks and valleys, but he's currently experiencing a late-period renaissance with 2003's spare, haunting The Hunted and this year's creepily intense psychological horror film Bug.
His mid-period films have found a second life on DVD, especially the underrated 1977 thriller Sorcerer, a box-office flop that has attracted a cult following; the superb 1985 action masterpiece To Live And Die In L.A.; and 1980's Cruising, a dark drama about an undercover cop (Al Pacino) who goes undercover in New York's leather bars to smoke out a serial killer targeting gay men. Gay-rights activists attacked the film extensively throughout its production and release, but it's gotten a much warmer reception upon its DVD release and limited theatrical re-release. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Friedkin about casting The Exorcist and The French Connection, the controversy surrounding Cruising, and Sonny Bono.
The A.V. Club: You've said that when you read the novel that Cruising was based on, you felt it was dated. What did you mean by that?
William Friedkin: I just felt that the novel was not really accurate to what the scene was at the time.
AVC: In what respect?
WF: Well, the scene had shifted to the leather bars, and what [author Gerald Walker] was writing about was sort of upper East Side things, and it was all pretty polite. There was a polite side of gay society. What I was observing, for the most part, was the culture of the leather bars. And that's what was getting written about. That's what was happening in New York City at that time. A lot of things were happening. Mysterious deaths in the gay community, there were some brutal killings that had occurred, and I just don't think the atmosphere of the novel reflected that, or the early steps of the gay-liberation movement.
AVC: Would you say the novel took place more in the mainstream of gay culture?
WF: I don't know what the mainstream is. I was never talking about the mainstream. It just didn't seem to me to be relevant, the way the novel was written. The foundation, the story, I found interesting enough, but not the backstory.
AVC: Apparently Steven Spielberg flirted with the idea of directing Cruising.
WF: Well, the guy who originally produced The French Connection, Phil D'Antoni, had originally bought the rights, and he brought the novel to me, and I said, "I just don't think this is something that would interest me." So he latched onto Steven Spielberg, who had just done The Sugarland Express. It was before Jaws, it was before the rest of his career. And Spielberg and D'Antoni tried to get it made for, I guess, a few months—I'm not sure how long—but they could never get it financed. And the rights lapsed, and Jerry Weintraub got the rights three or four years later and brought it to me again.
AVC: Did you ever talk with Spielberg about his conception of the project?
WF: No, we never spoke about it.
AVC: You'd done The Boys In The Band about a decade earlier. Did you do much research for those films?
WF: No, I didn't do a lot of research. I mean, certainly not for The Boys In The Band. [That] was a terrific piece of writing, and it had everything it had to say. It was a very successful Off-Broadway play, and I thought it was funny and touching. Extremely moving and a terrific love story.
AVC: In the '80s, before AIDS and the gay-rights movement, there were very few Hollywood movies about homosexuality—
WF: There are still very few Hollywood movies that deal with that in any way.
AVC: Right, but there are kind of more independent films—
WF: The one that comes to mind, I guess, is a picture I didn't see, Brokeback Mountain.
AVC: Why didn't you see Brokeback Mountain?
WF: I don't see a lot of the films that come out. You know, I've lost the habit of going to contemporary films.
AVC: Why is that?
WF: They don't—I watch a lot of older films that have been re-mastered on DVD. I'd rather see Singing In The Rain or The Band Wagon or Treasure Of Sierra Madre or Citizen Kane 10 times in a year than any of the things that are out today. There are exceptions. Rare, rare exceptions. Sometimes there'll be an incredible—like I saw Ma Vie En Rose, which I thought was incredible. Great movie, great performance. And it's what you're drawn to, or not drawn to.
AVC: Your first movie was a musical, wasn't it? Good Times?
WF: You could call it that. But not with a straight face.
AVC: How did William Friedkin end up directing a Sonny and Cher movie?
WF: Well, I didn't end up—it was my first picture. Sonny and Cher were basically the hottest act in show business at that time, and I had just come out of documentaries, and the only thing that I had done on a sound stage was the very last Alfred Hitchcock Hour. And then I met Sonny Bono and we became friends and I went down and heard him record some pieces and I thought the guy was an absolute genius, and the way he literally created and directed Cher, I thought was fascinating. And the opportunity to make a film came up, and he asked me to do it.
AVC: Was he still sort of hanging out with Phil Spector?
WF: No, he'd kind of broken away from Spector, but he was a gofer for Spector for years. That's how he got his start, and that's how he learned to make his music.
AVC: It seems that as a producer, Bono had his own version of the "wall of sound."
WF: "Wall of sound" was created kind of accidentally. All of the songs and backgrounds that were created for the wall of sound were done at a very small studio called the Gold Star Studio, which at the time was on Western and Santa Monica. It's gone now. It was low ceilings and no separation. You know, the idea of a recording studio prior to that was very large rooms, tall ceilings, and separations for each section. You could have a 50-piece orchestra playing, but you'd have the brass separated off from the strings and from the flutes and from a piano. You had them basically isolated. But when you put 35 or 40 musicians in the Gold Star, there was no separation possible, and the sound just bounced up into the low ceiling and came back as a kind of wash.
AVC: A lot of great things happen by accident.
WF: The Beach Boys recorded all their early stuff at Gold Star. Carole King and Sonny and Cher and all Phil Spector's stuff: "River Deep, Mountain High," The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." So yeah, I guess Spector could be credited with the wall of sound, but I think it started for economic reasons.
AVC: Orson Welles said that a director is someone who presides over accidents. It seems like certainly something you've been open to, opening yourself up to moments. How much do you think that was influenced by coming out of the documentary tradition?
WF: Well, I've tried to impose documentary techniques on a lot of the films I've done. I actually started in live television, but the first films I made were documentaries. But if you look at Citizen Kane, that's no accident. Nor is Touch Of Evil, so I don't know that I agree with that. There are certain things that happen during the production of, I think, every film, that you didn't plan, and often it's better than what you did plan. There's the question of either going with it or not, but I think Welles' films are the least accidental of almost any American director's.
AVC: Let's talk about French Connection, an action film that employs a lot of documentary techniques. Apparently, writer Jimmy Breslin was up for the lead role.
WF: He wasn't cast. He was a guy I auditioned. We weren't sure who to cast, and Gene Hackman was about the fifth choice. He was nowhere near anyone that we thought about initially to make that film.
AVC: Who was your top choice for the Popeye Doyle role?
WF: When Fox first said it was interested in making the film, we said "We really like Paul Newman," and they said, "Well, you're not going to be able to get Paul Newman." Our budget was a million and a half dollars, and Paul Newman at that time alone cost $500,000. And so then I said, "Well, you know, I think Jackie Gleason," because Gleason was what they called the black Irish, heavy drinker, big oversized guy in every way. But Fox had just made a film with Gleason, and it was the biggest disaster in the history of Fox.
WF: No, it was a silent comedy. No words, called Gigot. He played a clown. And it was an experimental film, it was a silent comedy, and it was a disaster.
AVC: So he experimented in losing all of Fox's money.
WF: Well, Dick Zanuck said, "There's no way we're gonna do this with Jackie Gleason." He'd spoken to Gleason, who wanted to do it. Then we went to Peter Boyle, who had just made a film called Joe, and Boyle said, "Well, I really only wanna do romantic comedies after Joe." That's what he tried to do. And recently, I met this guy Phil Rosenthal, who produced Everybody Loves Raymond for nine seasons, and Peter Boyle was on it, and Phil told me, "There wasn't a day on the set that Peter Boyle didn't say, "The biggest mistake I ever made was not doing The French Connection." We offered it to him, and he turned it down. It was an agent who suggested Gene Hackman. And we met with him and we had to start the movie or not, so we sort of backed in with Gene Hackman.
AVC: Which obviously turned out pretty well.
WF: Well, I thought he was great. He's sort of the centerpiece of it, and you know he was terrific. But no, I didn't have him in mind at all when we started.
AVC: A lot of your protagonists aren't conventionally likeable. For a lot of big stars—
WF: Some of their mothers like them, and often their wives—often not—but there are some people that like them.
AVC: They do tend to be on the dark side.
WF: The thing that interests me is the good and evil in everybody. I don't have conventional heroes in the films that I directed, because I believe there's good and evil in everybody.
AVC: They're all inextricably interlinked. Like for example, Bug— playing a role like that has to be psychologically grueling. Is that kind of a challenge? Is it hard to convince people—
WF: Well, it's psychologically grueling for the time you're shooting it. Then I say "Cut, that's a wrap," and everybody goes home and lives lives that are not psychologically grueling.
AVC: Everybody has a piña colada and laughs off the day's shooting?
WF: Well, it's a job, you know? I'll tell you, the guy who plays the lead in that, Michael Shannon? He's a guy that really doesn't give it up. He lives the role. And I think this guy's gonna have a very interesting career.
AVC: Well, when it's that kind of a role and it's that intense—
WF: It's not like a jacket that you can take off at the end of the day. He—that's the reason I cast him and not a bigger star, because I found him so dedicated, so focused on everything that he had done on the stage, and now he's got something of a film career going.
AVC: Ashley Judd had been typecast in romantic comedies and very slick thrillers, so it was good to see her have an intense role where she's actually called upon to act a great deal.
WF: Oh, I knew her socially. I had never worked with her. But she had the quality that I most look for in an actor: intelligence. She's much more intelligent than a lot of the roles that she's played, and I knew that she understood this character in all of its subtleties. So she was the only actress I ever went to.
AVC: Let's talk about the casting of The Exorcist.
WF: I had no difficulty casting The Exorcist at all. Paul Newman wanted to do it. Jack Nicholson wanted to do it. After I had cast Ellen Burstyn, who is I think the first person I cast, Nicholson showed up at the restaurant where we were having lunch, and he said "Why haven't you thought about me for this?" And I told him, "You know, you've worked with Burstyn already, and I don't want this to be about an acting team or something." I gave him a silly excuse. And he said, "Have you ever heard of Tracy and Hepburn?" I said, "Yeah, I have, but I don't wanna go that way. I want a guy who appearing in priest's garb is gonna be totally believable, and not be thought of as an actor dressed as a priest."
AVC: The Exorcist seems like such a modern-day Hepburn and Tracy movie.
WF: Well that's maybe you, but that's not how I saw it. But I had no trouble casting however I wanted. We got everybody we wanted the first time out. I mean, Max von Sydow, who at the time was one of the most distinguished actors in the world, signed on immediately, as did Lee J. Cobb and Jack MacGowran. And these guys were definitely world-class actors.
AVC: The Exorcist was such a huge phenomenon—there've been so many parodies and sequels and rip-offs, yet it's terrifying all the same. The 2000 re-release had to be one of the biggest re-releases—
WF: The only re-release bigger was Star Wars.
AVC: So why do you think it's so resonant?
WF: Well, I think it's the underlying idea that it deals with, the mystery of faith. A lot of people are interested in the mystery of faith, even if they call themselves non-believers. If you call yourself a non-believer, you're referring to disbelief in something, and you're acknowledging that there is something to believe in or not. Like Christopher Hitchens, in his new book, God Is Not Great. But he's referring to God and the mystery of faith, which he doesn't happen to possess. The Exorcist, I think, deals unflinchingly with the mystery of faith, and I think that a great many people all over the world find that of constant interest.
AVC: You have a strict no-sequel policy. Were you ever tempted to return to one of your hit films?
WF: No, not for 10 seconds. I haven't seen any of the sequels that were done on my films, and I would have no interest in doing a sequel. As far as I'm concerned, the stories were complete.
AVC: You went to some leather bars before making Cruising.
WF: I simply went to the places to find out what was happening, so I could set this murder mystery against this background. I never thought that any of the behavior that I saw was inhuman, or something to be ridiculed or scorned. So I don't ever remember being shocked by anything. I met all the guys who managed the bars and were bartenders, and a great many of the people who frequented the bars, and some of them I knew, and they welcomed me into their clubs. I never thought of them as shocking or weird, although I realize that a lot of people who have more delicate sensibilities than me might. Not only do I view cruising and the clubs as a background to a murder mystery, it was dealing with the work that a friend of mine had been doing for a while. This New York police detective had done what Pacino does in the film.
AVC: Gone undercover?
WF: He went into the bars to try to entrap a killer because his commanding officer thought he had the appearance of a great many of the victims.
AVC: Do you think Cruising would be anywhere near as controversial if it were to be released today?
WF: I just don't know. I can't speculate. I'm told that those scenes really don't exist in the same way any more. Like the Mineshaft, the Anvil, the Eagle's Nest, the West Side bars. I'm told there are still some places left, but not operating in the same way, largely because of AIDS. I doubt that a film like Cruising could be made today. It was highly unusual. It was highly unusual that it was made at the time.
AVC: In the '70s, it seems like nightclub culture got a lot more decadent, that the heterosexual nightclubs were getting more extreme, and the gay nightclubs reflected that. Do you think that was an overall trend, or was it something specific to these leather bars or to the S&M culture?
WF: Well, it was a much more liberal time. It had a renaissance in American painting and music and film. The renaissance in film largely came out of European film, which influenced most of the directors of my generation. The young filmmakers that I knew and was friendly with at the time were all very serious guys, and they all were steeped in the history of film. Some, like Bogdanovich, were rooted in the Hollywood films of the '30s and '40s, and others, like Coppola and Scorsese and Brian De Palma—well, he was influenced totally by Hitchcock, but Coppola and Scorsese and I were mostly influenced by the European films, largely the French New Wave and Italian neo-realist films. And so out of that, and out of the liberalization of the culture and the summer of love and the swinging '70s, which came largely out of Great Britain's swinging '60s, out of that whole maelstrom came the liberalization of the nightlife and the night world, you know? Everything had been liberalized. It was very similar to what was happening in Prague, in Czechoslovakia, when they defied the Communist government that took them over. There was that feeling in the '70s here. It was largely a reaction—I think it all probably started with the Kennedy assassinations and the assassination of MLK, and people lost faith in their government, which continues to this day, but what provoked it was the feeling that nobody was in charge, that whoever was in charge temporarily was incapable of being in charge. So out of that grew the drug culture as well.
AVC: I think that's reflected in your films of that era as well, that—
WF: The guys who were making films then were making films about this newfound freedom more than anything else. It was an outgrowth and a complete break from the Hollywood studio system, which had produced hundreds of great movies, but it was felt by the younger filmmakers that those movies had been machine-made, that the final cut really belonged to the head of the studio, which to a great extent, they did.
AVC: Cruising hit theaters around the time AIDS started to emerge.
WF: These mysterious deaths seemed to be affecting only gay men at the time. Not long after, the next most affected group became women in prison. They discovered that needle exchange had been responsible for a lot of cases of AIDS, and at the time we made Cruising, many of my friends were dying, inexplicably, and it didn't have a name. It was a disease affecting gay men. There were all kinds of rumors, of course, at the time, that it was something created in a lab by the government.
AVC: In certain quarters, those rumors never really went away. There's still a very strong distrust of the government.
WF: Well, again, that's because not many people trust the government, and with good reason.
AVC: Which is one of the central themes of Bug, of the government being malignant and this war carrying over into civilian life.
WF: The reason I made Bug is because it made sense to me. Total sense to me. A lot of the conspiracy theories have refused to die.
AVC: Do you see Cruising as apolitical?
WF: Oh, I never saw it as a political movie. I saw it as the background to a murder mystery.
AVC: But do you think you can completely separate politics from something that inherently incendiary?
WF: I couldn't tell you what the politics of Cruising are. I couldn't say, "Well, yeah, this had a political flavor or bent because of such and such." I mean, a lot of people assumed it had some political background because it was dealing with a group of people that had not been seen onscreen. And gay liberation had only just begun to take hold.
AVC: In the '80s, because of AIDS and the burgeoning gay-rights movement, there was very much this idea of the Sidney Poitier version of gay life: "Let's only show people who are noble and asexual and pure, so heterosexuals won't be frightened by them and will accept them."
WF: Well, every minority wants that. You name them. Look at all the complaints that come forth from the Italian community over The Godfather and The Sopranos. There are many intelligent people who will say "That's not us, that's not Italians, just a handful of bad apples." I know a lot of guys who should know better who criticize all of the films and television shows that depict Italians as gangsters. It's easy to say, "Well, they're making all Italians appear to be gangsters," and they're not. The Godfather and The Sopranos, which are the two best examples of the form, I don't see at all where this is talking about all Italians, you know?
AVC: But couldn't you understand, if you were a gay-rights activist in 1979, that the leather scene would be one aspect of gay culture that you'd be very reluctant for the rest of America to see?
WF: Uh, I could understand it, sure. In the same way that I could understand every minority group wanting to have only its best foot forward, especially the gay community at that time, which had just begun to make progress in many areas, including political power. And now, I'm sure that the perception was that this was a threat to that. People would only see gays as either murderers or victims. That's not a way to look at any work of art or communication. That's just not a way to view it. I happen to be Jewish, and if I see something that shows a Jewish character in a terrible light, let's say Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice, I don't think "This is a portrayal of all Jewish people!" I don't write a letter or run to my rabbi or something like that. It's a portrayal of that person. It happens to be a rich, complex, brilliant portrayal. And the character is kind of definitive and for the ages, but I don't watch it and think, "My God, this is my heritage, this is me."
AVC: Things have kind of come full circle, and the gay community is embracing Cruising on a certain level for documenting part of its history for posterity.
WF: Well, that's what I've been reading in things sent to me from Warner Brothers. But don't forget, it's a different generation, and there are different people writing these stories. Like I just received the essay about Cruising in The Village Voice. And it's very positive, and yet the Voice was the biggest attacker of Cruising. The Voice denounced it every chance it got, during preproduction and production, and after it was released. And there was a brilliant, talented writer who led the charge against Cruising. And now it's different people writing about it, in a different time, and they're able to look at the film as a film, and talk about it as that. Oh yes, they'll refer to the politics of the era, but that's changed today. To an extraordinary extent. The only gay people who remain in the closet are those who choose to, who don't want to publicly declare their sexuality, which is true of heterosexual people as well. I don't walk around with a button or a T-shirt that says "I am a heterosexual." I don't think sexuality defines a person. It's one small part of who you are, in my view. You are many things, and I never felt that people were defined by their sexuality solely. Although God knows, as a minority, gay people have taken serious lumps for their sexual preferences. As has every minority. You know the examples, I don't have to state them.
AVC: Have you read the book The Celluloid Closet, or seen the film?
WF: No. I've heard about it, but I haven't.
ÅVC: They talk about certain archetypes that gays were limited to—
WF: I have no idea what's in that book, except I imagine it's sort of a compendium of gays as portrayed over the century, but I've never read it. I was asked to participate in the film, but I declined.
AVC: Why was that?
WF: [Celluloid Closet author] Vito Russo had come to me while I was filming Cruising, saying what a huge fan of mine he was, and how he wanted to write an appreciation of my films, and this and that, and I gave him open access, and he then went out and wrote a scurrilous, untrue piece for New York magazine which had clearly been written before we had ever met. Knowing that Vito Russo was the source of The Celluloid Closet, I decided not to participate in the film.
AVC: What did he say in the New York piece?
WF: I don't know, I don't have it in front of me. You can probably Google it.
AVC: He wasn't acting in good faith?
WF: I did read his article in New York, and it completely inaccurately reflected my piece. They were his views about my piece, which is fair enough, but he came to me under completely false pretenses.
AVC: A lot of your films have found a second life on DVD. Sorcerer is a good example.
WF: A lot of that is because DVD has become the real cinémathèque for international films. It's preserved the legacies of the films of every country, whereas the studios who made most of them don't give a damn about their legacies. They throw away negatives. They let negatives deteriorate. The Cruising negative, when we started to work on it, the color timer that I was working with said the negative was in horrible shape, that the only negative he had seen recently that was in worse condition was The Godfather. Here's an iconic American film, and the negative was allowed to completely deteriorate. So they're trying to restore it now.
AVC: That's surreal.
WF: The studios mostly threw away the negatives of the classic films. They had no interest in their legacy. That's long before the invention of VHS and the DVD. But now, for example, here's Warner Brothers, which is extremely interested in restoring all kinds of films. They're gonna have a new print of The Jazz Singer, and they're restoring it in beautiful prints, high-definition, digitally made, and with a new soundtrack—the original soundtrack, but cleaned up. And that's because the guys in the DVD departments of the studios do have a love of film and an appreciation of the legacy. That's why I work with them and cooperate with them, because the cinémathèque is the DVD.