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In Conversation With William Friedkin

With an encyclopaedic knowledge of film, and 45 years of experience in the industry, William Friedkin is as expansive a raconteur about the world of cinema as you could hope to meet. In town to promote his new film Killer Joe, he talked at length about the filming of French Connection, the current studio system, and why violence is a compelling subject matter. 

I’ve seen French Connection over 1,000 times – from envisioning it, to shooting it, to watching the dailies back, to putting it together then editing it. And then you mix the soundtrack, then on initial release I improved all the prints . . . I know it by heart. I’m not emotionally involved when I watch it. I’m watching the densities, the colours, the sound. The film itself is lost to me.

We didn’t want Gene Hackman for the French Connection.He was our last choice. Our first choice was Peter Boyle, who most people will know now for his role as the dad on Everybody Loves Raymond. Those that worked with him on that say that not one day went by that he doesn’t tell everybody he’d turned down the French Connection. He turned us down because he wanted to play the lead in romantic comedies! With a face like that…

Here’s how you work with actors as a director: some require a sterner hand, some gentler stuff, but the most important thing you can do once the screenplay is finished is to create an atmosphere where actors and technicians can do their best work. Where they feel protected. Even though I was very young when I made the French Connection, I was the Father.

The other thing a director does is learn as much as you can about an actor so you can use their sense memories. In order for you to create an emotion I have to learn what it is about you that will provoke you. With Hackman, his character is a brutal cop, and a racist. Now, Gene was born in a farming community with a long history of racism, where the KKK was prevalent. He spent his life struggling against the racism inherent in this community, and when filming the French Connection – even though he lobbied to get the film – he didn’t want to go back there, to that mindset. There was one scene where he was grousing a guy and he did 36 takes – not one of them was any good. So he quit the picture. And his agent and the studio talked him into coming back but I was happy to see him go.

Gene had a very difficult relationship with his father. So on set I made him angry, you know – “you call that a frisk?” I would get him inflamed. We had a very stormy relationship. When the film was over, I started telling people I didn’t want to cast this guy. Later, when we became very good friends, I asked him about the film. He said “the chase scene is good, but I don’t know if I’m any good in it.”

Violence is an interesting subject. It has been for the greatest dramatists that ever lives – Shakespeare, Aeschylus. It’s hard to make a film – unless you’re Mike Leigh – about sitting around and having a chat. So violence, and sexual conflict, are at the heart of all stories. I am not attracted to violence – Killer Joe is the first movie of mine to get the most draconian of ratings you can get, an NC17. But the rating board is so arbitrary. I made the film I wanted to make and I’m really too old to clown in front of an organisation like the ratings board. In the early days – I made 50 visits to the rating board for Cruising. But now I’m too old.

Tracey Letz is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. I filmed another play of his called Bug 5 or 6 years ago. Then I saw a production in a little theatre off sunset strip, called Killer Joe. I thought it was magnificent. We’re on the same page with our world view, Tracey and I. We find most of human behaviour absurd, and we believe there is good and evil in all of us. It’s a constant struggle for our good angels to overcome their devils. And this is within all of us – some people who seem normal go out and commit murders, and you always hear “he seemed like such a nice guy,” you know?

Some of the greatest films ever made are based on plays. Casablanca is a pretty good film, right? It’s based on an unproduced play called Everybody Comes To Rays. But there’s also The Sound of Music, Cabaret, My Fair Lady, A Few Good Men, all based on plays. My favourite [of my own films] is the Birthday Party, which of course is Pinter, who taught me more about language and the human condition than any other writer.

The Exorcist couldn’t be made today the way I made it. It would have to be made believable. And Cruising wouldn’t be made today in any form under any circumstances, because of its subject matter. Because I know the thinking of the studio guys. You see the kind of films we send over from America here.  It’s all about the money, that’s all its about. Get the people in the theatre. And there’s no storytelling. It’s all video effects. If I wanted to become a film maker today, I would get into computer graphics. In five years time they won’t need actors. They’ve already made avatars for Tupac and Jimi Hendrix.

When I made Cruising I put a lot of extra scenes in it. We’re talking 40 minutes of hardcore gay pornography. Because I knew the studio would want cuts. So when they did, I cleansed the film of that 40 minutes. I had put it in in the first place so when I got to cutting there would be something left!

On Twitter it emerged someone had concrete evidence that Stanley Kubrick was gay. Now, I don’t give a damn. But there it is all over the internet! And he’s not around to defend or deny it. You could read somewhere that Spielberg is a tyrant – and he’s an absolute pussycat. Now, I’m not a pussycat, and – you’d have to ask my wife if I’m a tyrant. But when it comes to these figures and the internet, you just never know.

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: A Selected Filmography: 

The Birthday Party (1968)
The French Connection (1971)
The Exorcist (1973)
Sorcerer (1977)
Cruising (1980)
To Live & Die in LA (1985)
Jade (1995)
Bug (2006)
Killer Joe (2012)

Killer Joe is on cinema release in the UK now.

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