The acclaimed director behind The Exorcist talks about the Hi-Def release of this timeless crime classic
William Friedkin needs no introduction. He is the legendary director behind such seminal classics as The Exorcist, The French Connection, and Jade. His 1985 film To Live and Die in L.A. redefined the crime genre to become one of the most revolutionary, ground breaking film's of that decade. Revered for its authenticity, and supporting a phenomenal cast of yet-unknowns such as Willem Dafoe, William L. Peterson, and John Turturro, nothing quite like it had ever been seen before, and it paved the way for a whole new generation of gritty, realistic thrillers. The film follows a Los Angeles cop who loses all sense of the law after a vicious criminal mastermind kills his partner. It is a riveting tale of revenge, and it has been painstakingly remastered in hi-def for its Blu-ray debut.
Friedkin oversaw the entire restoration process on the film, and To Live and Die in L.A. has never looked better. The director took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with us about the release, which can be found in stores now. We touched on his entire career, as well the 3D craze that is sweeping Hollywood. Here's our conversation with the legend himself:
I just watched Under the Influence the other night on IFC and found it to be a fascinating documentary. For you personally, what was the transition like from the 70s going into the 80s, and how do you think the "Blockbuster" mindset that set in at the end of that decade affected or changed the work, such as To Live and Die in L.A., that you did in the 80s?
William Friedkin: The difference between the 70s and thereafter? People at all levels, including the people that ran the studios, were not concerned about the grosses of films leading up to the 70s. They were concerned about keeping the costs down on everything. So that there could be a profit. But none of the legendary films of the 70s or before were enormously high grossers. Take a film like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. It was on everyone's lips in 1960. In 1960 dollars, I think it did fifteen or twenty million at the box office. The dollar was worth a dollar then. But no one really knew or cared how much the film made. It wasn't discussed in the paper or on websites. That's not what the filmmaker, or the studio head, or even the critics talked about. They talked about the quality of film. They talked about the style of film. That's what our concerns were. We were not trying to out gross this or that. Today, that is all the studios are concerned about. The bottom line. Because they are all owned by corporations. They only care about the profits. You have studios that will take two or three million dollars and put it on one picture. Instead of twenty or twenty-five more films. It's like going to Vegas. That is the main difference. You take all of your money and you put it on one number. The studios are making fewer films. They are making more expensive films. Profits are tougher to come by. Not only because of the expense of production. But also because of the expense of promotion and hype. To boil that all down, it's more about hype today than it is about filmmaking. That's what I remember going from the seventies and heading into today.
Box office receipts as a spectator sport really started to pick up steam in the 80s, around the time To Live and Die in L.A. was released in theaters. How do you think the popularity of the so-called blockbuster affected production on that film at that time? And how do you think it affects you now as a filmmaker?
William Friedkin: I don't know. The film that changed everything was Star Warsin 1977. A few years before the end of the 70s, Star Wars changed the mindset. Just before that was The Exorcist and Jaws. People realized that these films could be a gold mine. How did it affect my future films? It affected everybody. Not just me personally. When you try to focus it on me, the pressure started to come more and more from the studios. I don't want to talk about the rise of the independents, which has been the counterweight to that. It was that way even back then, and before the 70s. The blockbuster affected everybody. When you go to a studio with something you want to make, or they come to you with something they want to make, more often than not, it's a tent pole. Not something one single person is really passionate about on a creative level.
How do you look at and analyze films you've made in the past? Do you study something like To Live and Die in L.A., and look for the flaws along with the elements that worked, to help understand yourself as a director and to push you forward in creating new art? Or do you let that film go away completely and only reflect on it as a representation of your former artistic self? Or when you have to revisit it for a DVD release?
William Friedkin: I don't look back or analyze my films. I just make them. It's for someone else to look at. There are films that I've made that I like a little bit more than the others. But the films that I mostly watch, and see over and over again, are not my own. For God's sake. I've seen my own films close to a thousand times in one form or another. When you edit them. When you shoot them. All of which used to be a very lengthy process. Then you run them over and over again for sound and music. Then you mix them, which used to take six to twelve weeks. Where you are seeing reel after reel over and over again. Then you'd go to premiere screenings, and have to do promotional screenings in other cities. I can't watch any of my old films now. I know all of their secrets. The films that I didn't make? Some of the classics from the past? I watch them constantly.
[bold|Does it bug you to have to look back at a film like To Live and Die in L.A. when it comes out on Blu-ray?}
William Friedkin: I only look at it to do the color timing. With all of my films that are on DVD and now Blu-ray, I have spent weeks with them in a color timing room. Just changing or enhancing them. I have been desaturating the color. Sometimes I will make a scene bluer or redder. Maybe a little bit more yellow or green in the trees. I do use the new medium. I believe in it. When you make a Blu-ray, its not the same as the print process was. You have little or no control over any print that was ever made. You are a victim of the 35mm printing process. The water that goes into the developer changes on a minute-by-minute basis. The different amoebas that get into the water. And the power that generates the machines. The development process fluctuates constantly. You could never get a perfect print.
On that note, I want to know what your reaction is when Warner Bros. comes to you and says, "We want the Exorcist to be in 3D"? Are you going to sit there and go through that whole process? Are you going to turn it over to someone else?
William Friedkin: No. Never. Providing I'm still alive. Warner Bros. is obligated to come to me. And they do. The point is, it's a totally different medium. I currently have control over every single frame on Blu-ray. If I want a scene bluer, I get that scene bluer. Originally, there was some fluctuation with the prints. If you made a thousand, or a few thousand prints, there is no control over any of that. But now I can make a master using the digital process. That gives me total control over how I want the film to look in this new process. The films now look like they did when I was first looking through the viewfinder. Every time you run a 35mm print, it picks up scratches. It picks up dirt. Sometimes it breaks, and you have to re-splice it. You lose frames. This doesn't happen with digital, or God knows, Blu-ray. Yes, there has been talk about expanding The Exorcist into various other mediums. The Exorcist Blu-ray is coming out this fall. But we talked about going to IMAX with it. Nothing is certain yet. They've tried to exploit The Exorcist in all sorts of media. I think that's great. Because I love the new media.
Wait. So you are okay with the film being in 3D? Or is that one aspect of the new media that will never happen?
William Friedkin: I don't like 3D. I don't believe there is any film that I have seen and loved that would have been improved by a scintilla in 3D. To me, it's just a gimmick. To me, the art of cinema is the same as the art of painting. The artist takes a 2D medium and gives you the illusion of depth. If you look at any of the great paintings, you have the illusion of depth. Which is part of the art. The same with the great movies. I don't believe that Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind, or any damn picture that you can name, would be better off in 3D. I think it's a gimmick. And it reminds me of what happened when Cinemascope came in . When everybody predicted that every picture ever made was going to be in Cinemascope. Because it's not that way. It was meant to get people out of the house. I find 3D distracting. I'm in the minority, I know.
I find that I am constantly looking at the effect more than I am looking at what is actually going on within the effect. It always pulls me out of the story.
William Friedkin: Of course it does. You don't need great actors to do a 3D picture. All of this condescending stuff that they put out? "Oh, we will always need actors." Bullshit! They are able to take anybody and put some markers on them, and have them walk through an empty room. Then they paint in the background. They can put in the Vatican. Or the Louvre. They can put you in outer space. Whatever they dream up. A very telling thing? Where are the acting nominations for Avatar?
They're not there. Even though some people predicted Zoe Saldana might get nominated. The same thing happened with Golem in The Lord of the Rings.
William Friedkin: Of course. Now, those are spectacular looking things. To me, the art of movies is to take a two-dimensional image and give the illusion of depth. The art of movies is also to allow the audience to suspend their disbelief. They need to use their imaginations.
Speaking of actors, To Live and Die in L.A. has quite an impressive line-up of talent. Willem Dafoe and John Turturro were just starting to blossom as performers when you cast them. How did you discover both actors for this film? In what regards did you hold them then? And how do you see this film having shaped them into who they are today?
William Friedkin: I had a casting director at the time named Bob Weiner. He wasn't really a casting director. He was a film and theater critic for the Village Voice in New York. It was a great counter culture paper that was originated by Norman Mailer. Bob Weiner knew every actor around. He made it a point to see Off-Broadway, Off-New York, Off-Everything. And he discovered and wrote about new actors. Among the many people he found were Whoopi Goldberg. He brought Roy Scheider to me. The guy had never done a movie. He cast The French Connection, and he got everybody but Hackman. We got Hackman because everyone else turned us down. Bob retired and moved to Paris. I called him when I got ready to do To Live and Die in L.A.. I said, "Bob, I want you to do the same thing for this movie what you did for The French Connection." I told him that I wanted to find great young actors. He said okay and came back to the states. After a month, I got a call from him to go up to the Toronto Shakespeare festival. He wanted me to go see a guy named William Peterson. He was doing A Street Car Named Desire. I said, "I don't want to see A Street Car Named Desire. That role belongs to Marlon Brando. I don't want to see anyone else do it." He said, "No. You have to see this guy do it." So I went up there. I saw Peterson do it. It was a totally original performance. He had never done a film. But he was very athletic, he was very physical, and he was a terrific actor. With an original approach to a classic role. I offered him the part right after the production. Bob brought me Willem Dafoe, who'd done nothing I'd ever seen. He brought me John Turturro, who was an Off-Broadway actor at the time. Everybody who is in the picture? He had discovered them and he had brought them to me. I never went to more than one person for the role. I have to be honest with you and tell you that Bob Weiner discovered these guys. And he sent them to me.
We're all grateful for that. This is a group of guys who've gone on to do some really great stuff over the years.
William Friedkin: They've all had wonderful careers. Great, great careers. And they are still going. Billy Peterson quit CSI after nine years to go back to the stage in Chicago. He didn't want to continue in the same part for nine years. He wanted to stretch himself as an actor. He is doing plays with Steppenwolf.
We were speaking about the technical aspect of film. How difficult was it to stage the highway chase scene at the time, especially when you did not have the advent of CGI to help? Do you think you could recreate such a monumental moment in this day and age with all practical stunts, or is this age of filmmaking completely dead?
William Friedkin: None of the chase scenes that I did over the course of three films had any opticals. We had to do all of that physically. The first thing you have to do is see it in your mind's eye. You have to envision it. Imagine someone knitting a sweater or a scarf. They either have a pattern in front of them, or they see a pattern in their mind's eye. Then it's one stitch at a time. That's what shooting a chase is like. One shot at a time. You set it up with a stunt coordinator. You discuss exactly what you want to see and how. You rehearse it in slow motion. Then you do it one shot at a time. I have to see the whole scene in my head before I go out and do it. Which I do. I will envision the entire scene before I shoot it. In the case of a film like The Exorcist or To Live and Die in L.A., I saw the whole movie in my head before I went to shoot it. I never did storyboards, or anything like that. I had the film in my head. We made up a schedule of when we were going to shoot stuff. We'd go to all of the people involved, discuss it with them, and get their input. Because it's a very collaborative medium. They would all give me their input. Then we'd have to go out and do it.
[bold|Do you think that type of filmmaking is dying away? So many new filmmakers can just plug a couple of words into a computer and it's all laid out for them. Imagination is dying away.}
William Friedkin: There are two guys. Paul Greengrass and Pierre Morel. They have done chase scenes that have far surpassed anything that I've done. Like The Bourne Identity. The film Taken. And the new film From Paris with Love. That has some of the best chases I have ever seen. Most of it is done with computer-generated imagery. The stuff is far more spectacular. If I were doing chase scenes today, I would use that. All of the scenes that I did? I put people's lives in danger. Or their bodies. That was all dangerous stuff. Just as it was in all of those old cowboy movies. When all of the cowboys were jumping off their horses? There were no opticals. They just did it. Or their stunt double did it. Someone did it. All of the stuff I've done in terms of action, and even some of the stuff I did in terms of The Exorcist? There were no opticals. It was all mechanical effects.
Take me through a day on set when you were shooting one of these scenes. Were you sweating the entire time? Praying that no one got hurt. Those had to be pretty intense days. Knowing the danger that faced everyone involved.
William Friedkin: When I did those films you are talking about, I was much, much younger. I did not have a great moral compass. I never thought about stuff like that. I wouldn't do it today. I wouldn't endanger anyone's life for a movie. Back then, I would and did. And I endangered my own life on many occasions as well. It's only by the grace of God that no one got hurt or killed. To be very honest with you. I don't shirk from that. I was a different person. I was a callow kid that just wanted to make his bones. I wanted to take the envelope further than it had ever been taken. I literally set out to make the best chase ever filmed when I set out to make The French Connection. I had that in mind. For twenty-six blocks, we drove a car through ordinary traffic at 90 miles per hour. With no permission. With no one blocking cars. We just did it. I operated the camera in the back. Because the cameraman and the director of photography had children then. They were very happily married. And I was single. I did things that I would not do today. For a movie or damn near anything else.
You have to feel grateful that you, at the time, had the nerve to do that. Watching a film like that, which is obviously being shot in real time, and its all tangible and real, is far more satisfying than looking at cartoon cars smash into each other. Its less fun knowing everything is being controlled by cranes and computers.
William Friedkin: Is it really? To me, those new films have far eclipsed the scenes that I have done. Because of the new digital capabilities.
When I watch a film, and I know everything being shot is physically real? It brings me into the material on a more intimate level. I'm actually invested in it.
William Friedkin: It's all about illusion, really. The young kids today? The are seeing these films in much greater numbers than ever before. I love the Pierre Morel films.
I did too. I loved Taken. I thought that was a great movie.
William Friedkin: They have that new stunt technique. They use Parkour. These guys that jump from building to building, and they jump from windows. They are all cabled. And you can erase the cables. We literally had to do everything that you see in the films of mine that you've seen. We physically had to do that. That meant putting people at risk. That is done much, much less so today. The scenes are stronger. To me. I have to tell you, I would use it if I were going to do another chase. I would have to use it to compete.
I don't think you could get away with not using it.
William Friedkin: No! Because people expect more. And now they are going to want it in 3D IMAX. I'm not a fan of 3D. But I am a huge fan of digital imagery. Because it allows a filmmaker much more latitude to appreciate their own visions and dreams.
Didn't you go back and use some digital animation when you re-released The Exorcist a couple of years ago?
William Friedkin: No. I only used it in one effect that wasn't in the original picture. You've heard about the famous "Spider-Walk". Where the actress walks backwards. When we originally shot the "Spider-Walk" with a contortionist that was the size of Linda Blair, we had to cable her down the stairs. In many of the scenes, like the levitation and stuff, I used cables. But I was able to hid the cables into the lights. I had the ceiling cracked so that the cable blended into the cracked ceiling. But with the "Spider-Walk", I couldn't use it because we could never get rid of the cables. When they released The Version You've Never Seen, I was able to erase the cables. That was the only way we could use it. Over the years I've gotten all of these letters and emails from fans saying, "Why didn't you originally use the 'Spider-Walk'!?" I don't bother answering those questions. I didn't use it because it didn't work. Then the technology came along. We made it work. I didn't do anything new. I was just able to erase the cables. So it looks like that girl is walking on her hands and feet, backwards, down the stairs.
Do you think that enhances the original film? Or do you think you should have just left the film alone?
William Friedkin: No! You don't leave the film alone. You have a new audience, and you have a new medium. Why would you leave it alone? Film is not an antique. It's not a relic. It's not a Leonardo da Vinci. I don't want someone painting over a da Vinci or Rembrandt. But these movies aren't that.
Some people would argue that.
William Friedkin: Look, I have seen the Charlie Chaplin movies that have been cleaned up. All the dirt is removed. And all of the crap that has gotten on the negative over the past decades. I have seen them clean and beautiful. They are much more beautiful to me than when I originally saw them in a revival theater. This goes for a lot of things. I want to see a clean print. We didn't build in the dirt when we shot those pictures. We didn't build in scratches and dirt, and blotches. That all comes from the printing process and the projection. You can get rid of that. Some guys at MIT have been able to take some of the classic old records, like Caruso, Enrico not David, and they have been able to remove all of the record scratch. The hiss. Now you can hear Caruso's voice as it was recorded at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. There is no hiss. There is no noise that is competing with the sound of his voice. All of the surface noise is gone. The purists say, "Ah, that is terrible. They fucked around with the original." Thank god that technology exists. Now you can just hear the pure voice. Why wouldn't you do that? What is so urgent about scratches on a movie? Or record hiss on an old recording? I love CDs.
The people that want that can always go back to the original hiss and dirt, because those versions have not been destroyed. It does give you a choice.
William Friedkin: Those purists can go fuck themselves.
If I want to watch the old version or the new version of The Exorcist, they are both on DVD.
William Friedkin: But I cleaned both versions up. There is no version of that on DVD that hasn't been cleaned. Or adapted to the new medium. Whether it be DVD or Blu-ray. The only lousy versions of it are the old VHS copies. Because VHS loses color. The magnetic tape fades. We don't know how long these DVDs or Blu-rays will last.
According to Oliver Stone, they are only supposed to last ten years.
William Friedkin: How the fuck does he know?
I don't know. But I think that's pretty funny. Seriously, ten years is what he said.
William Friedkin: He is full of shit. Has anyone been able to prove that yet? Where's the proof?
William Friedkin: I'm sure they do if you have a good play back machine and a reasonably good television set. Or a good monitor. How does he know they last ten years?
I think at the time he said that, he didn't want people to buy Alexander on DVD.
William Friedkin: Fuck him and Alexander. Guess how long a print of Alexander lasts? I bet you can't see a good print of it now. You can't see a good print of anything. Even the revival houses don't get a new print made from digital. They run the best print that exists. The other night I watched one of my favorite films. I don't know if you ever heard of it. Its called Diabolique. H.G. Clouzot directed it. I watched that. It was a Criterion release. Fantastic! It is a black and white movie. The blacks are blacker. The whites are whiter. All of the scenes are richer. The sound is better. It has been cleaned up. And digitized. You hear details you never heard before. It's a pleasure to watch. And you're not watching it through a curtain of dirt and scratches, and noise. I love the new medium. Especially Blu-ray. I don't know what's next.
It's 3D in the homes.
William Friedkin: Fuck 3D! The Blu-ray is the real cinematech of world cinema. That's how it's being preserved. All of these guys that are trying to preserve 35mm negatives? They are wasting their time. There are better ways to see and project this stuff now. It's called digital. Everything that is made today is made that way. In a few years, I don't know how many, I'm not a prognosticator like Oliver Stone, who I happen to like, by the way...But an announcement like, "It's only going to last ten years!" He doesn't know his ass from left field. Nobody does. We don't know how long this stuff will last. But we know that before it goes out of style, there will be some new thing to replace it. There will be some little disc the size of a quarter that will give you the best looking image imaginable.
[bold|Netflix on-line. It hooks into your game consol, and you can call up thousands and thousands of movies instantly.}
William Friedkin: Right! I have that now. Pay-Per-View.
You can even get Pay-Per-View HD.
William Friedkin: It is Pay-Per-View HD. We have it on a huge screen. I run that on a movie screen that I have. We run 35 still. We run new films in 35. But most of the time I sit there in front of a big screen, and I look at the films that I love from the past. And I see and hear them better than I ever was able to in the past.
In the past they've tried to remake the Exorcist. There are murmurings of this in the press all the time. What is your take on an Exorcist remake, and would you partake in anyway if that were to happen?
William Friedkin: It is what it is. Billy Wilder said it best. You should never really remake a picture. If a picture was great, it will stand. And you can't top it. If it was a piece of shit, why would you want to do it again? I'm pretty sure that with the way things are going, and the lack of imagination that exists amongst the major studios these days, they are going to eventually remake everything. That is the way of the world. In many ways it doesn't bother me. It's like a new recording of something. Many years ago, the great conductors did some great recordings of Beethoven's Symphony. Today, there are great conductors still doing Beethoven's Symphony. They sound just as good or better. So, yes. Someone could go out and make The Exorcist better than I did. Let me put it to you this way. All of the sequels suck. All of the fucking sequels of it? I wouldn't piss on them if they were on fire. They are all shit. One of the reasons they are is because the people that made them have no belief in the original story. It was about shtick and putting their own imprimatur on it rather than a belief in the story, or an understanding of what that story was about. Which was faith. Sure, you could go out and make Jaws today. But all of the sequels to Jaws weren't good. They are all worthless. The Godfather II is the only sequel that I have ever seen that is as good as or better than the original. Possibly. It is as good.
What about the Empire Strikes Back?
William Friedkin: I'm not a fan of that. That is not for me. That is for my nephews and nieces. I don't get it.
Have you ever seen License to Drive? Which was originally titled To Live and Drive in L.A.? If so, how do you think your two films compare? Do you have a good sense of humor when it comes to other directors poking a little bit of fun at your films, as important to the history of filmmaking as they may be?
William Friedkin: I've never heard of it. I don't mind pastiches. One of the funniest things I have ever seen is when Richard Pryor did a skit of The Exorcist on Saturday Night Live. It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. A lot of my films have been lampooned or pastiched over the years. When they're funny, I enjoy them. I never heard of License to Drive. But a lot of the chase scenes I did were stolen. One of those stupid Lethal Weapon movies? They took the chase from To Live and Die in L.A. and basically copied it. The car driving into wrong way traffic.
In License to Drive, they have the car driving backwards.
William Friedkin: Ah, fuck them. I've never seen that, but I have seen Lethal Weapon. It's actually pretty good. You can't copyright this stuff. All the ideas are out there, and they're in play. More than ever. Rap artists grab onto old records and sample the stuff. There is nothing you can do. I will say, I have seen lampoons of my work. And I have really enjoyed them. But no, I would never do another version of The Exorcist. As far as I'm concerned, that's it. That is all I have to say about it. That's all Bill Blatty had to say. We said what we wanted to say. Neither one of us view it as a horror film. We view it as a film about the mysteries of faith. It's easier for people to call it a horror film. Or a great horror film. Or the greatest horror film ever made. Whenever I see that, I feel a great distance from it. Because, first of all, that story was based on an actual case. It was the only case in the early twentieth century that the Catholic church authenticated as a case of demonic possession in America. In other countries, there are two or three exorcisms preformed everyday before breakfast. In the United States, in the Catholic Church, that is the only case that was ever authenticated to be demonic possession. When I found that out, my approach to it became completely different. The thematic approach was that this was really happening. This wasn't a horror film, or a fantasy. Yes, there are some horrific elements in it. I grant you that. What is in it is evil. What is also in it is good. All of the films I have made, that I have chosen to make, are all about the thin line between good and evil. And also the thin line that exists in each and every one of us. That's what my films are about. That's what To Live and Die in L.A. is about. There is a thin line between the policeman and the criminal. The best cops are always crossed. The best cops are the ones who are able to think like criminals. But for a quirk of fate, they might have been criminals.
What do you think of the film that just came out, Paranormal Activity? Which certainly plays on what you did in the past
William Friedkin: I thought it was great. They made the film for fifteen thousand dollars. Some guy shot it in his house. Brilliant. And it worked. It delivered. Now I see that some of the studios are trying to set up divisions just to replicate that. But you can't. That, and a film like The Blair Witch Project, which was great? They are one offs. I don't know what they'll do next. But you can't replicate that. This was an idea that somebody had. Like the original Saw. This young man from Australia and his partner. They were film students. And they had this idea. They came up with this concept. It was successful. So the studio jumped on that and started making a bunch of them. Four, and five, and six. I don't know. But The Blair Witch Project is a one off. You can't commission guys to sit at a desk and figure out something else like that. These were real visions. Paranormal Activity is a real personal vision. Who is this guy? I don't even know his name. I don't know, but the film is terrific. I don't remember the names of the two kids that did The Blair Witch Project, but God that picture worked. It was made for no money. Because they knew exactly what they were doing. They didn't have a bunch of studio overhead cracked onto it. Nor the advice of these guys who are all there to "help the director". They just went out and made their vision. And its great. That sort of thing can't be replicated. It's a vision. It's an inspiration. I love those two films. I can't think of other things that have worked quite as well. That are in that same sort of genre.
The only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Cloverfield. Which I didn't really care for.
William Friedkin: I didn't think that was bad. In its own way. That cost a bit more. But in it's own way, I thought it was very, very good.
The all-new, hi-def remastered Blu-ray edition of To Live and Die in L.A. is in stores today.