Thursday, April 18, 2013

William Friedkin - In His Own Words

William Friedkin (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

"One of my unfulfilled goals in life is that I haven't made Citizen Kane. But nobody else has... It has the same values at the great impressionist paintings." - William Friedkin, speaking in Chicago, April 16, 2013.

William Friedkin is a filmmaker who has always done things his way, so it certainly came as no surprise to listen to what he had to say during a lecture in Chicago, where he recently appeared to promote his new memoir, The Friedkin Connection. Speaking with great ease and offering marvelous charm and wit while relating his stories, the evening was one of the famous director talking about any number of things, from his early days in Chicago to specific tales about his best-known films such as The French Connection and The Exorcist to his thoughts about a few movies from the 1940s and 1950s that greatly influenced his ideas about his craft.

Friedkin related several tales of his youth and fondly recalled the individuals that helped him along the way; he was able to poke fun at himself while narrating this history, as when he went in for an interview at the WGN mail room in the Tribune Tower on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. Ray Damalski, a station employee who was the only person there, liked the young Friedkin, but told him that the ad he was replying to was for a different radio station across the street. Friedkin laughed when he recalled that he had confused the Wrigley Building with the Tribune Tower. Thankfully, Damalski liked him and hired him for the position, which led to a subsequent promotion working on television programs for WGN.

"The only thing I had when I was young was radio. You remember radio. No-inch television."

The director also related how a chance meeting with a priest, Father Robert Serfling, led to his first film. Serfling was the Protestant minister at Cook County Prison on Chicago's South Side; he was assigned to the prisoners on Death Row. Friedkin talked to him about his work and asked him if he thought that any of the current prisoners at that time was innocent; the priest replied that there was one, a young man named Paul Crump.

Fascinated by this exchange, Friedkin went with Father Serfling to the prison to meet Crump. In his book, Friedkin weaves an engaging section about this meeting ("I had no fear of Paul") and his decision to learn all the facts of the case. After gathering as much information as he could and having listened to Crump tell his version of what happened, the director decided that he could help the convict in his appeal to be spared the electric chair, as he would make a documentary about this case.

That film, The People vs. Paul Crump, made in 1962 on a shoestring budget, was a passionate work that Friedkin and his cameraman Bill Butler (who would go on to have a distinguished career as a cinematographer in Hollywood on such films as Jaws and Capricorn One) assembled on their own time, as both had full-time jobs at WGN at that point. Friedkin relates this story in his book, admitting that neither of them knew much about the technical aspects of editing and synching sound with visuals. Despite this, the film was much admired and did help Crump in his efforts; Friedkin was on his way as a filmmaker.

(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Friedkin related a number of stories about his films, especially The Exorcist. This was one of only three instances of exorcism recognized by the Catholic Church during the 20th century. The director told us all he could about this incident, including the fact that it was a 14-year old boy and not a 12-year old girl, as this was altered for the film; he also mentioned that while he knows of this male, who recently retired from NASA after a successful career, he has never said his name in public - and never will.

He also told a great story about how he was able to tap into some of the anger in Gene Hackman's performance in The French Connection. Without going into all the details, he said that after a take, he would tell Hackman that his performance was pretty bad; the actor, full of rage at this response to his work, was infuriated. Friedkin would then tell his cameraman to start rolling so he could capture Hackman's finest moments. As everyone knows, Hackman would go on to win an Academy Award as Best Actor for that film, but as Friedkin related, "I take no credit for Gene's work."

"The worst thing you can say about a film is that it's 'interesting. Interesting?' What, for fifteen bucks?"

Friedkin also spoke of his love for the MGM musicals of the 1950s - "the films I wish I'd made" - and the studio system. About this topic, he admitted how this approach to filmmaking fascinated him, as directors often made four, five or even more films a year. "I would give half my career away if I had worked in the studio system... I would have been a better filmmaker."

Along with his passion for the work of Orson Welles on Citizen Kane, Friedkin also spoke of how he loved the films of Alfred Hitchcock; in fact, his advice for aspiring filmmakers is to go see all of Hitchcock's movies. "They're all made with clarity and simplicity... He would direct actors beautifully without saying much." He also recommends that young movie makers go out and shoot something, edit it and put it on YouTube.

While several of the stories Friedkin related in public are also in his book, there's a great deal of information about his career in his new memoir that he did not talk about, including a number of details about the famous car chases in both The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. (about the former, he writes about the six "events" he planned for that sequence and how a few things happened accidentally along the way). It's just as fascinating to read Friedkin's harsh description of the early documentaries he made for David Wolper and how he learned a valuable lesson about the people he worked for - as well as himself.

Friedkin also writes of his inner demons (appropriate, one imagines, for the director of The Exorcist) and admits to harboring "anger and resentment." He is quick to point out his flaws and just as swift to thank his current wife Sherry Lansing (former head of Paramount Studios) and his children who help him "suppress my darker impulses." Not many people as well known as Friedkin would write about their own personal struggles; it certainly makes for fascinating reading and adds a lovely touch of humanity to this wonderfully creative man.

I'm pleased to have met William Friedkin and listen to him talk about his life in films; I'm even more delighted that he has written his memoir (buy here), a fascinating study of Hollywood, the individuals that populate it and how one director came to enjoy great success in that world, despite his disagreements with others. If you love Friedkin's films, this is a must. But even if you don't know much about his work or don't consider yourself a movie fanatic, this book is recommended for its frankness and no-nonsense attitude. Would you expect anything less from this man?


  1. Excellent post Tom! Thanks for sharing this. I really enjoyed the book as well.

  2. Sounds like I have an upcoming purchase to make.

  3. Tony:

    The stories about how particular films got made (especially "Sorcerer") from the business meetings in which Friedkin repeatedly argued with executives to the specifics of certain scenes in which Friedkin again argued with his techincal team and producers are fascinating.