Editor's Note. This is the third part of a conversation that took place in Melbourne in 2002 when William Friedkin was visiting to promote the revival of his film Sorcerer. The first part can be accessed IF YOU CLICK HERE. The second part can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE
There’s an extremely visceral quality to all of your films: the way you get in close, the cutting, the intensity of the action. There’s no better example of this than the extraordinary sequence in Sorcerer of the two trucks crossing the bridge. When you were planning it, did you have an inkling about how it was going to look?
No. I just had a general idea. I knew what the goal was, what these guys had to do, how they had to get these two trucks across the river. And while it appears to be something that’s actually happening, it is of course impossible, except in the world of cinema. My films are often called realistic, but the last thing I’m looking for is realism.
We ran into nothing but problems. This scene was shot in a place called Tuxtepek, Mexico, in the deepest part of the Mohave jungle, below Vera Cruz. But it was originally supposed to be shot in the Dominican Republic. We’d found a great rushing river there. It was about twelve feet high and it had never run dry. ‘The memory of man runneth not to the contrary.’ We started building this bridge there, and as we were building it the river began to recede. It became a dry bed. So we had a scene of a bridge across a dry river bed. So we took down the bridge and had to find somewhere else.
We found this place in Mohave, shut down the production, moved the company there, and built the bridge again over a rushing river about twelve feet high that had never run dry.
‘The memory of man…’ And it went down during the scene to about two feet. I then decided to obscure that fact by adding the rain. We had enormous hoses to make all that rain because the river bed had become virtually dry… again.
That was a mess of a shoot. Someone was trying to tell me something while I was making this film. There were a lot of things that just went wrong.
The magic of cinema! It convinced me…
Well we had to do everything you see. There were no digital opticals then or any opticals that would be convincing at all. As in The Exorcist, everything had to be done mechanically.
|Benicio del Toro, Tommy Lee Jones, The Hunted|
If you had to do it today, would you use CGI?
[Long pause] That’s a very difficult question. I’ve just finished a new film called The Hunted, with Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio del Toro, and it contains some very hair-raising sequences. And we did them all mechanically. You know, part of what I love about film is creating things on the spot. Digital opticals is another world, another discipline, another skill. I think it has an important place in cinema, certainly in creating backgrounds that are otherwise unattainable.
But I’m not keen on using digital opticals to create an action scene, although the chase scene in the first Mission Impossible is all digital opticals. Tom Cruise is on this train with a helicopter over him that’s trying to kill him. No train, no helicopter, no landscape. It was done on a sound stage with the crew riding around on something. And then they put in the train and the helicopter and bridge and the countryside passing by. And it’s totally convincing.
To do it that way is much more expensive, but it’s much less dangerous. So I would probably opt today for the opticals and not put people in danger. I mean, these people and the crew and I were all in danger in this scene. There’s no question about it: I used to do that when I was younger. Then, by the grace of God, I got a little older.
I did a lot of things that I’m not all that proud of. It came from a single-mindedness.
There’s an alternative ending to To Live and Die in LA, isn’t there?
Bill Petersen gets killed in To Live and Die in LA. He was the star of the movie. And the producers of the film said, ‘What do you mean, you’re going to kill the star of the movie, the hero?’ They tested the picture. So I shot another ending in which he lives. He just got shot in the head and he lives! And it tested better than when he dies ’cause people didn’t want him to die. But I thought, ‘No, this is just jive! Forget it.’
There’s a new DVD of the film coming out next spring in the US, a perfect print, and they asked me to put the alternate ending on as an extra, and I said, ‘No. Why should people see it? It’s terrible. It’s stupid.’
I understand that there was also an alternative ending for The French Connection? With tramps seeing dumped heroin in the East River.
I often get better ideas about my films after I’ve finished them. I’ll be taking a shower or something and it’ll occur to me how I should have ended the picture. Years after I’d finished The French Connection, I was thinking about an ending where two junkies are sitting by the East River stoned and this barge goes by.
What they did in those days was take all these packages of heroin which they’d confiscated and put them into their inventory. And then, when the case was closed, they’d cut them up and dump them in the East River.
And so I had this image of two guys, stoned, by the river, while $15 million of heroin is cut up and thrown into the river in front of them. And thought that would be a really wonderful ironic ending. But unfortunately it never occurred to me while I was making the film.
I understand there were problems getting The French Connection off the ground?
When the producer and I took The French Connection around to the studios, every one turned it down, some of them twice. No-one was gonna make the picture and then finally the head of 20th Century Fox, Dick Zanuck, the son of Darryl F. Zanuck, called us back months after he had passed on the film. He said, ‘You know, I got a hunch about that film. I don’t know exactly what the hell it is that you guys wanna do, but I’m gonna get fired in about six months. And I’ve got about a billion and a half dollars hidden away in a drawer. If you can make that film for a million and a half, go ahead. I won’t be around when it’s done.’ He was right. He was fired before we finished it.
|Oscar Night, William Friedkin (far right) and the Oscar for|
The French Connection
We had a budget close to $3 million at the time and it included stars like Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. We told Dick Zanuck and he said, ‘You’re not gonna get Paul Newman. He costs too much, at least half a million.’ Today that amount’s called ‘chump change’ in America. Now $20 million is scale.
So he said, ‘You don’t need a star. Just get the right guy.’
I got the original cops and tested them, but they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t act. And they had a different view of them than I did, getting girls and beating up all these guys on the street.
I had this friend, a journalist at the New York Daily News: Jimmy Breslin, what we call a two-fisted journalist, a muck-raker, a blue collar guy who’d expose all these slum landlords, and so on, a big heavy-set Irish guy with a dark mop of hair. And he was my image for the lead role. So I said to Zanuck, ‘How about Jimmy Breslin.’ He knew who he was and he said, ‘You know what. That’s a great idea. Why don’t you go back to New York, see if he’s interested and shoot a test?’
We had cast Roy Scheider before I did this, and the young black actor who’s chased by him in the first scene. And I went to Breslin and said, ‘Let’s work on this for about a week or so and then we’ll shoot a test.’ He said, ‘Great.’ He’d never acted. He was a newspaper reporter! We’d go out on a Monday, and he’d be absolutely brilliant. Tuesday, he didn’t show up. He was drunk. He’d come in Wednesday and forget everything he did Monday, didn’t know what he was doing there. On Thursday, he would blow every line. Then we’d come to Friday and I’m thinkin’, ‘This isn’t gonna work.’ But he says to me, ‘Don’t you have a car chase in this picture?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ Then he said, ‘I gotta tell you. I told my mother on her death-bed that I would never drive a car. I don’t know how to drive.’ I said, ‘You’re fired.’ And that was the end of him for that role.
Then we offered it to Peter Boyle. He did a movie called Joe, which was an interesting picture that was very indicative of what was happening in many American cities. He was an awkward guy with a bald head and he said, ‘Nah. I wanna do romantic roles.’ So he turned it down. Then there were a few other people who turned it down too.
Gene Hackman was the last man standing. I didn’t want to do the film with Hackman. I thought he was too soft, too laidback, no energy. But he did a great job. There’s such a thing as the Movie God that watches over films, and the casting of The French Connection was presided over by the Movie God.
Then we came to the casting of the French guy. I went to the casting director, who wasn’t really a casting director: he wrote for The Village Voice. But he knew every actor in the country and I said to him, ‘Let’s get that French guy who was in Belle de Jour.’ I didn’t know his name. He said, ‘Oh, that guy. I know him. He’s good. His name is Fernando Rey.’
|Fernando Rey, The French Connection|
So now I go down to the airport to meet his plane and I see him and it’s not the guy I was talking about. He’s got this little goatee and he’s very dignified and I recognized him. But he was not the actor from Belle de Jour. So I’m driving him to his hotel from the airport and I said, ‘You know, this guy you’re playing is a rough Corsican guy. That little goatee you have is all wrong. He said, ‘You don’t want me to shave my goatee because I have pimples all over my face and this covers them.’
In any case, he was not my image of the character at all. We get to the hotel and I go to the hotel pay phone and call the casting director. ‘You imbecile! This is the wrong guy. This is not the guy from Belle de Jour.’ So he says, ‘What do you want me to do?’ I said, ‘We’ve got to fire him.’ Then by the time I get back to the office I’ve found out at the guy in Belle de Jour was Francisco Rabal, who’s in Sorcerer. And he wasn’t available anyway. So we stayed with Rey.
|Gene Hackman, The French Connection|
He was not my choice. Hackman was not my choice. So there is a Movie God.
I want to ask you about your style as a filmmaker. With some filmmakers, you often get the sense that they’re really just shooting dialogue. With most of your films, there’s the impression that your starting-point is an image and that the rest comes later.
The camera moves that I use are never in the script. What I believe – I’m not always successful in doing it – is that a camera should only move to follow an actor, not on its own. Though occasionally I will push it in slowly to somebody’s face to try to draw us more into his thoughts.
The real influence on the way I move the camera is Michelangelo Antonioni. My films don’t look anything like his, nor are they paced like them. He’d never repeat a shot. He’d get 70 or 80 shots without repeating one, while with most filmmakers, as you know, the shots are repeated all the time.
So I try never to repeat a shot to ensure that there’s always something and only to move the camera with an actor.
What did you think of Exorcist II?
When they made it, the people at Warner Bros. told me, ‘This film’s great. You’re a grandfather.’ And then they previewed it for the first time in Pasadena. And at this preview the Warner Bros. executives pulled up in limousines and they went into the theatre and, after about five minutes, there was a stirring in the audience and they knew something was wrong. But they had let their limousines go. They’d told their driver, ‘The film’s two hours long. Why don’t you guys go at get something to eat at MacDonald’s or wherever, down the block.’
Then after about ten minutes, a guy stood up in the middle of the audience and yelled out, ‘The people who made this piece of shit are in this room.’ And this other guy yelled out, ‘Where?’ The first guy turned to the back of the theatre and said, ‘There they are.’ The executives stood up and ran out of the theatre being chased by a handful of people from the audience. They got outside and their cars were gone, and so they had to run down the block to escape the audience. It’s distinguished by being the biggest money-back movie ever made: where people went and asked for their money back.
To me, it’s like a horrible accident in the street. I don’t need to see it to understand.
You’ve become the go-to guy for car chases. Are you happy about that?
They’re not too easy to come up with. I can’t think of too many great car chases in films. There are a handful that appeal to me. One is in a Buster Keaton silent: it’s a brilliant chase. But they’re hard for me to think up and they’re very difficult to shoot. Critics often deprecate a film by saying, ‘Oh, it’s got a lot of car chases.’ But a car chase is pure cinema. It cannot be done in any other medium. You can’t see it on the stage; you can’t read it in a book; you can’t see it in a still photograph. It can only be done in film, or in reality.
A lot of early cinema was just recordings of recording productions. But two people talking in a room is not pure cinema.
|David Caruso, Jade|
I find car chases a big challenge to put in a film and I’ve actually only done three of them – in The French Connection, To Live and Die in LA and Jade. But I’d like to do more. Now, of course, they can do them with digital photography and there’s not even any action going on. But I enjoy shooting them because I love cinema and that’s about as pure as it gets.
Scenes like them and the one on the bridge in Sorcerer are, to me, pure cinema. No-one’s saying anything: it’s just stuff happening in front of the camera. You’re not gonna see that on the stage, except maybe in a Baz Luhrmann show.
What’re your feelings about cinemas like the one we’re standing in [the Astor]?
There is hope. For the most part, films have become the products of giant corporations. When I started making films, they were owned by individuals, men and women who loved movies. Now they’re owned by people who love profits more. But a cinema like this, and a few others in the world, they’re what keep the dream alive.