An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Remembering 'Exorcist' director William Friedkin


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. William Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director who thrilled audiences with a harrowing car chase scene in "The French Connection" and then terrified them in "The Exorcist," died on August 7 at the age of 87. Though he made other films, none match the impact of those two. "The French Connection," made in 1971, was a gritty police drama and starred a then-unknown Gene Hackman as New York police detective Popeye Doyle on the trail of a heroin shipment. Here he is, raiding a corner bar.


GENE HACKMAN: (As Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle) All right. Come over here, you and you. Hey, Whiskers. Come on. Move ass when I call you.

ROY SCHEIDER: (As Buddy "Cloudy" Russo) Get out of here.

HACKMAN: (As Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle) You, come on - you, Baldy. Come on. Come on. Move. All right. Put it on the bar. Come on.

CHARLES MCGREGOR: (As Baldy) What are you pulling me for, man?

HACKMAN: (As Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle) Get it on the bar.

SCHEIDER: (As Buddy "Cloudy" Russo) Get the hell in there. Put your hands on your head.

HACKMAN: (As Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle) All of it. Smart ass, you dropped something. Pick it up. Want that hand broken? Get it up there.

MOSLEY: Hackman received an Academy Award for best actor. The film also won for best picture, and Friedkin won for best director. Two years later, Friedkin returned with the film "The Exorcist" about demonic possession based on the bestselling novel by William Peter Blatty. Linda Blair played 12-year-old Regan. Here she is being visited by a psychiatrist.


ARTHUR STORCH: (As Psychiatrist) Are you comfortable, Regan?

LINDA BLAIR: (As Regan MacNeil) Yes.

STORCH: (As Psychiatrist) How old are you?

BLAIR: (As Regan MacNeil) Twelve.

STORCH: (As Psychiatrist) Is there someone inside you?

BLAIR: (As Regan MacNeil) Sometimes.

STORCH: (As Psychiatrist) Who is it?

BLAIR: (As Regan MacNeil) I don't know.

STORCH: (As Psychiatrist) Is it Captain Howdy?

BLAIR: (As Regan MacNeil) I don't know.

STORCH: (As Psychiatrist) If I ask him to tell me, will you let him answer?

BLAIR: (As Regan MacNeil) No.

STORCH: (As Psychiatrist) Why not?

BLAIR: (As Regan MacNeil) I'm afraid.

STORCH: (As Psychiatrist) If he talks to me, I think he'll leave you. Do you want him to leave you?

BLAIR: (As Regan MacNeil) Yes.

STORCH: (As Psychiatrist) I'm speaking to the person inside of Regan now. If you are there, you too are hypnotized and must answer all my questions. Come forward, and answer me now.


ELLEN BURSTYN: (As Chris MacNeil, gasping).

MERCEDES MCCAMBRIDGE: (As Demon, growling).

MOSLEY: "The Exorcist" is one of Hollywood's top-grossing films to date and was the first horror film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar. Friedkin's other films include "The Night They Raided Minsky's," "The Boys In The Band" and "Cruising." We're going to listen back to William Friedkin's FRESH AIR interview from 1988, recorded with WHYY's Marty Moss-Coane. She asked him what he found so interesting about the criminal world.


WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: My uncle was a famous police officer in Chicago. He was - in fact, my uncle was the man who brought in Frank Nitti - actually captured Frank Nitti. And it turned out while I was growing up and listening to stories about my uncle, at a certain point, the rest of the family learned that my uncle was actually on the take. He was actually being paid by Frank Nitti while he was a Chicago policeman.

And then after my uncle brought Frank Nitti in, he was taken off the Chicago Police Department and made a bodyguard. He was made the bodyguard to Frank Cermak (ph), who was the mayor of Chicago in the early '30s. And he was with Mayor Cermak in Florida when an anarchist named Gus Zangara stood up at the Democratic convention and took a shot at Franklin Roosevelt, who was being nominated, and missed Roosevelt but killed Mayor Cermak. And that was sort of the end of my uncle's career as a bodyguard.

But all the time that I was growing up, I used to meet a lot of his cronies and a lot of the people on the other side of the law. My uncle owned a tavern after he retired from the police department and the bodyguard business, and I used to hang around that tavern when I was a kid and picked up a lot of stories and I guess a lot of impressions.

MARTY MOSS-COANE: You describe him as both a fascinating and a frightening man for you. And I know for young children that there are often people in their lives who make this great impression on them. And it's an impression that they really carry with them for the rest of their lives.

FRIEDKIN: Exactly. That is my strongest memory of youth - you know, hanging around my uncle's tavern and listening to stories about the old Chicago Police Department. Then he had this extraordinary apartment, you know, with major appliances and stuff, which was way beyond the reach of the rest of the family. We were all very poor growing up there. My mother and father - may he rest in peace - they were Russian immigrants. And the rest of the family, as I say, was not doing that well. But my Uncle Harry was a champ, you know? So I was fascinated by his world and the contradictions in it.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I know in your characters that they're - whether they're good guys or bad guys, that they're ambiguous characters. And there are many shades of gray. And I'm wondering whether you think there's something about the criminal world that blurs that distinction between what is good or who is good and who is evil because I think certainly cops and criminals share the same world. They understand each other very well.

FRIEDKIN: Exactly. Some of the most interesting, fascinating people that I've ever known are on the other side of the law. They're frankly on the other side of the law. And yet if you didn't know that, if I were to introduce them to you or to any member of my family, they would be very charming, very good with children, very vulnerable and emotional. And yet there is that other side. That has sort of been the theme of most of the films I've made - the thin line between the policeman and the criminal.

MOSS-COANE: You grew up in Chicago, as you said. And you grew up in, I imagine, a kind of poor neighborhood, perhaps even a a tough neighborhood. Were you a street kid? Were you a tough kid?

FRIEDKIN: I don't think I was a tough kid. No. I mean, I would like to, you know, carry along that sense of bravado. I was fascinated by what went on. I was pretty much on the fringes of most of the activity, although I was probably slated for trouble. If it wasn't destroying my mother so much and if I hadn't noticed what my own behavior was doing, I probably would be in jail right now. A lot of my friends were. But I never had the soul of a tough guy, frankly. Without much education, I still, I guess, had aspirations towards something else. For a long time, I wanted to play basketball and did - played street basketball. But I never - I tried to avoid getting into fights and all that. You know, a lot of it was inevitable.

MOSS-COANE: Well, did...

FRIEDKIN: And I certainly had a few. But I, by no means, was a tough guy or a gang member or anything like that.

MOSS-COANE: My guest is Academy Award-winning film director William Friedkin. I think you make movies for men. And I think that the women who go to your movies are brought by their men friends or their husbands. And that you make movies - first of all, I think that the central characters are usually two men pitted against each other in one way or another. And they have the things that I think men are most interested in, which is car chases and action and a little sex and murder and fights and violence.

FRIEDKIN: Well, you know, it's - I guess that's a pretty accurate description of them. It's not conscious. I sort of get interested in stories like that. Although I've done a wide variety of films, I haven't made that many. I think I've made nine or 10 films, but among them is "The Night They Raided Minsky's." And the very first film I made was a little piece with Sonny and Cher called "Good Times." It was the first film that Sonny and Cher made. And then - but I guess you're right. The films I'm known for could be said to be - could be described the way that you've described them. Believe me, it isn't conscious. I'm not more interested in men. And the kind of things that people tend to ask me to direct or are willing to direct when I say I'd like to make a film tend to be the kind of films that you've described. They're not necessarily the kind of films that I go to or that I prefer.

MOSLEY: Film director William Friedkin speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Marty Moss-Coane in 1988. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 1988 interview with film director William Friedkin, best known for his films "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist." He died earlier this month. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Marty Moss-Coane.

MOSS-COANE: Well, one thing that you are known for are your chase sequences and certainly in "The French Connection." That, I would think, unparalleled ride of terror that you filmed is really - I don't think anyone has quite surpassed that. And I'd be interested in knowing how you set that scene up, how you played that scene.

FRIEDKIN: Well, you know, they're very hard to do. It's among the hardest things to film, to, first of all, do something different, second, be able to realize it, because they're so very difficult to film, without getting somebody injured, and third, to get an idea that is completely different from any other chase because there are so many being done now.

MOSS-COANE: That's right.

FRIEDKIN: "The French Connection" chase, though, grew out of the character, the principal nature of the Gene Hackman character, Popeye Doyle, his obsessiveness. And I was very conscious at the time I set that chase up because I really didn't have an idea for it until about two weeks before the film started. I was aware of the chase in "Bullitt" that had preceded "French Connection" by a few years. I felt that I had to do something better than "Bullitt" if I was going to do something in that vein at all.

So in looking at "Bullitt," I could see certain flaws in it. I could see, for example, that they cleared the streets every time they made a shot. The streets of San Francisco were basically used as you would use a soundstage or a movie set. It was - they were totally free of any outside - no other people on the streets, just the principals. So I thought, well, this would be one very good thing, is to have innocent people around, to have this chase going on in the middle of the day in the middle of New York. In this case, it was Brooklyn or the Coney Island - Coney Island a lot of it, and then various parts of Queens were cut in.

But I thought, have people on the streets. Have life going on, innocent bystanders. And work the chase into that so that there is a danger taking place to just these innocent people. Then I thought, you know, I could never top the movement of the two cars in "Bullitt," so I have to get something else. What? What is intrinsic to Manhattan? What is intrinsic to this neighborhood? What can I work into this thing that will vary this from one car chasing another? And I used to ride the subways, and still do, in New York. And it occurred to me, yes, let's have a car chasing a train.

Then I had to go out and find out how fast a train could go at its fastest if it, let's say, had been commandeered, as we portrayed it. And I found out that at its fastest speed, the train could only go 50 miles an hour. So this made it, then, theoretically possible for a car starting several blocks behind to catch up with a train. Then everything was very meticulously choreographed. I mean, I rehearsed everything before I shot it, but then accidents happened. Certain things went wrong. And they sort of...

MOSS-COANE: There was a real accident?

FRIEDKIN: No, nobody got hurt. But things did not go as I planned them 100%. But I was able to keep the accidents - in other words, keep the mistakes. And I think it's the mistakes in it, the rough edges, that really make it, also the use of sound, Marty. That chase - I always let people come in and look at my dailies with me, you know, the rushes. I don't mind people seeing rushes and stuff. And nobody was very impressed with the rushes of that chase. If you would had just seen it before it was edited and then before the sound went in, you wouldn't have expected it to become, you know, a great scene. It really is the juxtaposition of sound and the dynamic use of sound that's as powerful as the images.

MOSS-COANE: "The French Connection" got five Academy Awards, including for best director, best picture, best actor. Do you think it's your best film?

FRIEDKIN: No, I think the filmmaking in "The Exorcist" is better. A film I made that did not do very well is actually, I think - is the most important film I've made. And that's "Deal Of The Century," which was roundly roasted by most of the critics. But I really - I thought it was important and funny. I don't think it's fully realized. You know, I don't think it's perfect. And I don't think it's as well-directed as it could be, because the script was brilliant. The script was just first rate. And I don't think I did as good with it as I might have. Wasn't intentional. But I think it's still a very important film, an important comedy, about the arms race.

MOSS-COANE: Well, you describe "The Exorcist" as a film about the mystery of faith and no more. And I would say that people going to see the movie "The Exorcist" would say it's a horror film. And...

FRIEDKIN: I never thought of it as a horror film, still don't. I don't think it in any way fits into the category. First of all, "The Exorcist" was about an actual event. The actual event briefly took place in Washington - or in the Silver Spring, Md., area in 1949. It was widely reported in The Washington Post then. And it involved a 14-year-old boy, who was not from a Catholic family but had these strange things happening to him and was very, very sick and not diagnosable in any medical sense. And so through a series of circumstances, his family took him to the Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis, where an exorcism was performed on this young man.

And I was able to see the diaries of not only the priests involved in that exorcism but the doctors and nurses who were in attendance. And they're quite stunning, quite eye-opening. They're in the archives at Georgetown, and I had access to them. And I realized when I saw these documents that this story had resonance way, way beyond anything like a horror story or just a work of fiction. It had implications that were far deeper and greater. And I tried to make the film with those implications in mind. There are no, like, crude effects in it. I specifically attempted to take those out. It's not like a Hammer film of an Edgar Allan Poe piece or something. It also - "The Exorcist" is a very well-written piece. It's - I think it stands up.

MOSS-COANE: See; I think it is both what you say and also what the audience says, because I think in certain ways it describes the horror that doubt casts on our faith - and that it is about good and evil, which I think are elements that you play with, and that the horror has to do with a world that, perhaps, we don't understand, a world where evil and goodness are in battle, and that we're in, somehow, peril because of that.

FRIEDKIN: Oh, yes. But, I mean, it isn't about some monster stalking the streets with a knife, you know? It's not a slasher movie.


FRIEDKIN: It's not a vampire film. It's not a - you know, it doesn't fit into any of the categories of horror pictures. It is, like, a realistic film about inexplicable things. Now, I know it's called a horror film. I mean, and it's won awards from horror film festivals and stuff like that. But - it isn't that I don't like horror films either, but that mantle does not wear well to either Bill Blatty, who wrote it, or to me. We had far more serious things in mind. But it was meant to be a film that would be seen by a lot of people, you know? I've seen equally powerful films that dealt with, you know, the mystery of faith and the inexplicable that no one ever saw, like Carl Dreyer's "Vampyr" or "Ordet," which is one of the greatest films I've ever seen, you know, about literal resurrection.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I regret to say that we're out of time. And I thank you very much, William Friedkin, for talking with us this afternoon.

FRIEDKIN: It was a pleasure, Marty. Thank you.

MOSLEY: Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, recorded in 1988. He died August 7 at the age of 87. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Marty Moss-Coane. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new indie film comedy "The Adults." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "SOUL STOMP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marty Moss-Coane