The Hunted:WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: A Conversation with F.X. Feeney

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Movie PictureShortly after seeing "The Hunted," film critic and screenwriter F.X. Feeney sat down with director William Friedkin at his office on the Paramount lot. Sitting in the book-lined cloister in a building that once housed the creative likes of Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, Friedkin discussed his intriguing film.

FXF:

"The Hunted" feels true to themes you've explored throughout your career, themes about heroes who are divided against themselves. Much as we're technically rooting for L.T. (Tommy Lee Jones), one has to wonder why he didn't answer the desperate letters he received from Aaron (Benicio Del Toro) back when his former student could feel his own sanity about to slide over the edge.

FRIEDKIN: L.T. is totally guilt-ridden. He realizes that he has undertaken the training of assassins and he can't really live with that. That's why he got out of it to work with the Wildlife Fund. Actually, this character is based on our chief technical advisor, Tom Brown, Jr., who is part Indian and a tracker. He was taught by his father, but was never in the military and never had to kill anyone himself. He's also trained Special Forces, Delta and SEALS to track, to survive and to kill, and he still does.

When I met Tom, I saw he had this tremendous guilt because he would show some young soldier how to make his way through some area in camouflage, become unseen, then kill somebody. Later, he'd find out the guy had been targeted for political purposes; that is, somebody in power decided that this person deserved to die. So that's where Tom's guilt kicked in. He didn't know who the enemy was anymore.

Tom was, in fact, one of the guys preparing the troops for Desert Storm. He could look at an aerial photo of Iraq and tell you what roads their heavy transports ran on and where their missile installations were, just by looking at dots on a map. He could come into this room, get down and look at the carpet, and tell you how many people had been there in the last several hours. He could tell you whether they were men or women, what size shoe they wore and what emotional anxiety they might have been harboring just in the way they stood or walked. They're all Sherlock Holmesian skills, but not so much deductive skills as they are perceptions. And he's always right. That's why he gets called in by the military and local sheriffs to track people. He's written books that sell in the millions. They're mostly survival guides, with a bit of the mystical tone of Carlos Castaneda, but they have a lot more practical imagination about how to survive and kill. They fill a peculiar niche.

So I started with the notion of doing a film about Tom, whom I'd known for years, but I'd never been able to figure out a way to put it in a story that wasn't a documentary until now.

FXF:

Other films have this teacher-pupil dimension, but they tend to require a lot of expositional dialogue. You show who L.T. and Aaron are independently of one another in three nonverbal scenes, and then establish their longtime bond in a single line of dialogue: "Hey, L.T."

FRIEDKIN: I felt this was a fair way to go into the Tom Brown world. Then, when I cast Tommy Lee, it became the only way to go: understated. I wanted to make sure the information about their backstory was made available, and as visual as possible, but I didn't want to push it out there.

I was principally fascinated with the nature of a guy who has these skills -- he's able to survive and kill -- but he's never really used those skills in combat. He teaches them to a younger guy who does use them in combat, and who is driven mad by his knowledge. Ironically, when Aaron reaches out to L.T. for some kind of guidance, and doesn't get it, he winds up clashing with his mentor instead.

FXF:

I saw "The Hunted" last fall when the D.C. Sniper was still at large, identity unknown. It was hard to listen to all the reports without thinking that the culprit might turn out to be like Benicio Del Toro's character in the film, especially since he seemed to have a covert-operative's skill for extracting himself from the crime scenes.

FRIEDKIN: I thought the same thing, and I was grateful to be proven wrong. But there are a lot of topical ideas at work in "The Hunted" that I hope are concealed behind the action line. Still, it's meant to be an action picture that will cause you to reflect on certain things, such as: Why do we keep training people to go out and kill other people? Yes, we need a defense. The world is dangerous. But why are we raising hundreds of thousands of young men to not value human life?

FXF:

An even deeper nerve "The Hunted" hits upon is this notion that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are killers we've nurtured, and in Osama bin Laden's case, even trained. There was even Manuel Noriega before them. One could say that we actually raised these vipers.

FRIEDKIN: Exactly. And gave them billions of dollars. In Osama bin Laden's case, to drive out the Russians. All on the theory that "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

FXF:

And then we desert these guys.

FRIEDKIN: They go off on their own way, and we don't like the way they've gone, so they're the enemy now. Yeah. We've created a lot of monsters that have turned against us. The U.S. is the greatest creator of Frankensteins ever, whether foreign, or homegrown like Timothy McVeigh.

That said, let me stress there is no "message" in this film. There are questions I hope people will wrestle with when they reflect on it, but I don't provide answers. I have none -- only more questions. I've never really made a film where the good and evil were entirely separate, because I truly believe there is good and evil in all of us. It's a constant struggle, on a daily basis, for one side or the other to prevail. I think that's true of all people from all nations. They could be religious people, and they'll still have this struggle of good and evil going on inside them. I've never really made a film -- from "The French Connection" to "The Boys in the Band" -- in which there were clear-cut bad guys and good guys. The characters that fascinate me are those that embody both. Actually, Benicio's character, Aaron, is probably the true good guy in "The Hunted."

FXF:

He's the one with the purer heart. He's the one saying to the hunters, "You don't respect the animal you're hunting." And though that's not the movie's "message," it creates a nice irony. In fact, in that huge posse going after Aaron, L.T. is the only one who actually respects him. That is, of course, why L.T. is the only one Aaron ever lets come within speaking distance. L.T. fulfills the logic of the question Aaron is posing.

FRIEDKIN: Exactly. I always prefer the kind of film in which a lot is drawn from the audience's imagination. And from their intelligence. I never try to tell an audience what a picture is about. I really prefer that they think about it, and whatever it's about, that's what it's about to them, as individuals.

FXF:

The fights in the film don't feel at all "choreographed," they feel chaotic and very real. How did you prepare for them with the actors?

FRIEDKIN: That "chaos" is a method called "wolverine" fighting where you just jump on each other's chests and start fighting. But we did prepare. Tommy Lee and Benicio rehearsed. I had them work all this stuff out with Tom Brown and two of his assistants for months in a dojo.

As actors, Benicio and Tommy Lee are both very different in nature, and therefore, they work very differently. Benicio needs all the preparation he can get, and time to find his character before each shot. Tommy Lee just instinctively goes out and does it. His first take won't be much different than if I did thirty takes with him, and I never do a lot of takes with him. He's just ready. He has the quality that I most value in an actor: intelligence.

I learned how to work with him on "Rules of Engagement." We didn't mess around with a lot of rehearsals, and we didn't "freeze the performance," like it was going onstage. It wasn't going onstage. A film performance has to look live, and real. It has to look like it's happening right then and wasn't studied. Tommy is the best actor you can find to do that. He looks like he's just making it up as he goes along. But he works for hours alone, getting to the point where, when you say "action," it's there. He's there.

Benicio's great, too, but he's different. For example, I would talk for hours with him about the inner life of his character and the backstory. With Tommy, not one conversation about that.

FXF:

Benicio Del Toro's physical movements in the Kosovo sequence are absolutely striking, and when he dives headfirst down that ventilator and snakes through it without a sound, it's amazing.

FRIEDKIN: All that's completely authentic, and again, I credit Tom Brown. As for the Kosovo sequence, it was important to set the first scene there. Under NATO auspices, the United States decimated that country, while the ethnic cleansing was going on. While the Serbs were shooting up all the Kosovars, Albanians and Muslims, the United States was bombing. It was a totally surreal madhouse. So that's why I set the first scene there, the better to dramatize how Benicio's character gets such an overdose of just indiscriminate killing that he's never able snap out of it.

FXF:

There's a tense moment when the Serbian child comes into the room and you don't know what Benicio's character is going to do. His eyes are terribly expressive at that instant, but you're not sure what he's thinking. He might kill the girl, he might not. That he doesn't is huge a relief, and guarantees Aaron our sympathy even after he slips past the child and kills that Serbian.

FRIEDKIN: There are three little girls in the film: that one, the daughter of the woman Aaron loves in secret, who thinks of him as a surrogate father and the little girl that L.T. notices at the airport, playing hide-and-seek, whom he helps. In each instance, I was thinking of the way Fellini used the young girl at the end of "La Dolce Vita," waving at the hero from a far shore. He waved back but could never cross over to her. He could never again attain that innocence which would allow him to do that.

Mind you, I didn't calculate these things; they just got into the film. I don't know why I have three little girls in the picture. They don't figure into the plot that heavily. As for the little girl in the Kosovo scene, she came out of a line of extras and I thought she was beautiful. Her part in the film wasn't even scripted and she'd never acted, but I was inspired to use her to drive home the horror of what had been going on there.

FXF:

This hearkens back to something you once told all the students at AFI back when you were fresh off "The Exorcist." You said that there was a point early in the production where you felt you had a documentary about Iraq, you had shot so much footage.

FRIEDKIN: That's the most exciting part of filmmaking. You go to a location. You're not in a studio. You're not married to anything but the reality of the world that's going on, and you try to integrate this story, or this action, into the prosaic settings that are its surrounding.

We did that with "The French Connection." The chase was totally developed into the areas that fascinated me visually. I mixed New York with Brooklyn and Queens, from one cut to another, and just integrated the action without extras. We'd get to a point where I'd say to Gene Hackman, "Why don't you come down the stairs and try to flag down a car, over there? And I'll have three cars go by, and then we'll see what a guy who's actually on the street driving -- who doesn't know we're filming -- we'll see what he does, if he'll stop." We would attempt all this stuff on the spot, but it all was dictated by an environment that I had scouted.

FXF:

I've wondered, especially with regard to "Rules of Engagement" in relation to "The Hunted," whether your sympathy for the military mind grows out of the nature of the film director's job. After all, in order to direct, you have to be a strategist and fighter yourself.

FRIEDKIN: You have to have a sense of how you're going to go out and accomplish what you're trying to do. You can't just go out and do it. And like a good warrior, you then make yourself basically invisible. You don't let people in the audience see your technique as a storyteller, if you can help it. And even when you're in production on location, you don't operate with a big public presence, using a big crew. The ideal as a filmmaker is, as much as possible, to embody the line that Tommy Lee uses about Benicio: "Half the people he killed didn't know he was in the same room with them." Half the people we film don't know we're out there, filming them.

FXF:

Even in the Portland sequences?

FRIEDKIN: Sure. We just hid the camera. We put it on a roof, or inside a moving vehicle, and used long lenses. We integrated the action right into people walking in the park or trying to get to work on the street. None of them are looking at "a film in production." None of them were expecting to see Tommy Lee Jones go running by them. We did the same kind of thing in a foot chase down Madison Avenue in "The French Connection." I actually put the three actors into the middle of a noonday crowd.

FXF:

There's a progression from "The French Connection" through "To Live and Die in L.A." to "The Hunted" in that they all have chase sequences, but the emotional stake seems to have grown from one film to the next. I suppose that's because of the bond between L.T. and Aaron, but also because of the presence of Irene (Leslie Stefanson) and her little daughter in Aaron's life.

FRIEDKIN: You're right. Part of the emotion might also have grown out of the current political climate. People now live under the notion that they could get whacked just going into a pizzeria. But I've always lived like that. From the time I grew up, I have lived in a constant state of tension and anxiety. But I think we are all beset by irrational fears that very often are real fears. Fear of exposure, fear of failure, fear of success!

FXF:

How do you cope when you're not making movies?

FRIEDKIN: I get relief through music or art -- mostly through the higher art forms like literature. I read Proust every day. This is the third translation that I'm reading right now. It's a new one that has come out in England but hasn't come out here. They haven't excised the poetry, but they've clarified a lot of things that were misunderstood because of the way he wrote, in the margins. I'm one of those guys who marks his life "Before Proust" and "After Proust." Reading Proust has helped me to understand a lot of things about myself and human nature.

FXF:

Have you ever been tempted to write a novel?

FRIEDKIN: No, because I'm so blocked by Proust's achievement. I can still make movies because there's nobody who really intimidates me. There are filmmakers whose work I like and admire very much, but I don't feel that there's a Proust out there, or a Garcia Marquez, to name another giant who's just made it impossible for me to write fiction.

I went to the Lycee Condorsette, which is the school that Proust went to. Still there, still operating. I went in and there was a registrar there, and I said: "Do you have any of Proust's papers from when he was a student?" She asked, "Are you American?" I said yes, and she just looked at me, asking, "Why are you interested in that?" I said, "I've read everything he wrote, some of it in French." So she went into the back and brought back all these files, including Proust's report card, from when he graduated. You know, he was an asthmatic and he failed French! But his headmaster wrote over his final grade, "He worked as hard as his affliction would allow." Yes, I'm deeply steeped in Proust, but you don't see that in any film I've made.

FXF:

Not in any overt way, but I was thinking, while you were talking, that the power of memory is an affliction that drives a lot of your characters. Even when you don't dramatize that memory with a flashback, the past is very much a presence in your films. Popeye's conscience grows out of a loyalty to something even he can't articulate in "The French Connection." There are the loyalties and might-have-beens that are eating at the cops and criminals in "To Live and Die in L.A." And you have the slippery nature of memory when choices go wrong in "The Rules of Engagement." That seems more true of your films than most American films I can think of offhand, especially action pictures.

FRIEDKIN: That was not planned!

FXF:

Which filmmaker has most influenced you?

FRIEDKIN: In a very literal sense, I learned from Antonioni to never repeat a shot. To go from one set up to another, to another, without any repetition. I don't ever go over my shoulder to you, then over your shoulder to me, and back and forth. Even if I'm going to do two sets of over-the-shoulder shots in a row, I change the angle on each, and the perspective, and the height and the width. In that way, the story moves along laterally, like literature.

FXF:

Now that you mention it, I don't recall a "repeat" shot even in any of your chase sequences.

FRIEDKIN: No. I'll go 80 shots in a row without a repeat. As in Antonioni, you'll see 80, 90 shots in a row, then he'll repeat something for some reason. But always for a reason. And even in the repetition, there is always an alteration to the way it was used before. For example, the person sitting there in the shot before will now get up and exit the room and the camera will follow him. There's always this movement, this continuity of something going somewhere. Antonioni's films externally appeared to be going nowhere. You know, long walks? People just strolling, looking, doing nothing. There'd be street life, little things happening but nothing story-wise, yet they all seemed to be moving and providing this anxiety because you were going somewhere and you didn't know where, or what was around the corner.

FXF:

When you prepare action scenes, do you storyboard at all? Or do you still go on instinct?

FRIEDKIN: No. I'll look at a location and I'm inspired by the location. I'll often create scenes for that location. I'll sit with the writer -- in this case Monterastelli -- and say "Let's put something here!" The film takes on a life of its own once I'm in the cutting room. It literally tells you what it wants to be.

As a director in the editing process, which is the process I love the most, you have to be open and listen to the film. You're not trying to shape it so much, as pay attention to what it's telling you. This happened to me with "The French Connection." The film I shot is not the film that came out of the cutting room. The film kept saying to me, "I am not this. I am that. This isn't working." So the whole pace, and everything else, came out of the editing. I had a plan, but it didn't pass muster in the cutting room because I listened to the film the way a composer listens, or a writer hears the words. Much Stravinsky was asked, "How did you come upon The Rite of Spring? It's the most radical piece of music of the 20th century. It changed all music that came after it. How did you devise this?" And he said, "I was the vessel through which The Rite of Spring passed." I totally understand that. And Flaubert once said, "Madame Bovary is me." In the same way, I am all the characters in my films and the stuff they're putting out there is just coming through me. And when I'm in the editing room, I'm just wide open to the shape it wants to take.

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Brian B.