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Not many films have changed the American cinematic landscape. But “The French Connection” can make that claim. The 1971 classic, with its handheld documentary style and legendary car chase, became the standard for on-screen authenticity. Its director, William Friedkin, is still going strong at age 77. Though his career stalled for a time after making “The Exorcist,” he’s enjoying a late renaissance. His 2011 horror-thriller “Killer Joe” garnered some of the best reviews of his five-decade career. And now he’s enjoying a second calling: directing opera. Diane talks with Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin about his life and career.
- William Friedkin Academy Award-winning film director
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir” by William Friedkin. Copyright 2013 by William Friedkin. Reprinted here by permission of Harper. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. William Friedkin is best known for directing "The French Connection," and "The Exorcist." The Academy Award-winning director has written a new memoir titled "The Friedkin Connection." In it he tells of his upbringing by Ukranian immigrants in Chicago and his decades-long career in film and now opera. William Friedkin joins me in the studio.
MS. DIANE REHMYou are welcome to be part of the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850, send us an email to email@example.com, follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir. It's so good to have you here.
MR. WILLIAM FRIEDKINWhat a great pleasure to be on this program, Diane...
FRIEDKIN...and to meet you.
REHMNow, do you prefer being called...
FRIEDKINBill or Billy is fine. That's what everyone calls me.
REHMOh, I love it. You know, I'm interested, you called this a memoir, but it's not necessarily chronological. You simply steeped yourself in your own memories.
FRIEDKINThat's correct. Much like Marcel Proust, but not as good. I got a phone call one day about almost four years ago from an agent in New York called Richard Pine, and he -- I didn't know him. He got my number through a mutual friend, and he asked me if I'd be interested in writing a memoir and I said no. And he said, well, why not? And I said, because I wouldn't be interested in reading it. And he said, what if I were to tell you I had five publishers that would be interested in publishing it?
FRIEDKINI said, well, that would get my attention.
REHMYeah, of course.
FRIEDKINSo I went back to New York, met with them, and there was a man at Harper Collins who's now the publisher who gave me sort of the key as to how to do it, because I didn't know how to do it. I had never kept diaries throughout my career. And what he said was, don't write a book where you just say this happened and this happened and this happened.
FRIEDKINWrite about how you felt about everything important that happened to you, and that's what I set out to do.
REHMSo did you do it moment -- a moment that became vivid to you?
FRIEDKINYes. I just sat down somewhere or stood up somewhere, and I would allow my imagination to roam freely throughout what I could recall from my over 77 years, and things would come to me, you know, out of thin air. And I wrote the book in longhand over three years. And things would come to me, I'd write about them until I couldn't remember anymore, and then move to something else which might have been 30 years later or 20 years before. And then occasionally I would remember more about those times and go back and write some more.
REHMSo was there a lot of editing?
FRIEDKINWell, as I say, I wrote the book in longhand, and then when I get 50 pages at a time...
FRIEDKIN...I would read those into a microcassette recorder.
REHMGood for you.
FRIEDKINGet them typed, and they'd come back in about 34 pages, and I'd rewrite those seven or eight times, and that would take them to about 27 pages, and I'd send those to my editor.
REHMThat's terrific. Did you approach filmmaking in the same way?
FRIEDKINPretty much, instinctively.
FRIEDKINI approached filmmaking -- I never had a lesson in filmmaking. I start -- I never went to college. I went from -- oh, you too?
FRIEDKINYeah. Well, we don't want to say that too loud though, do we, Diane?
REHMWell, but we share a great deal.
FRIEDKINI know. But the thing is, I never read a book through all the through high school. I faked my book reports from classic comics, do you remember those?
FRIEDKINAnd sometimes the classic comics were incorrect, and I'd turn in a book report and fail. So -- but after high school I went to work at a television station, radio TV station WGN in Chicago where I started in the mailroom and worked my way up.
FRIEDKINAnd that's how you did it then if you were a young man. But it was tougher for women. It was tougher for young women. They advertised for young men, you know, to start at an entry-level job and after a year I became a floor manager, which is like an assistant director, and then a year later I was directing live television.
FRIEDKINYou know, it's all the mystery of fate.
FRIEDKINYou know? I went to the wrong station to apply for this job. I was -- I'll tell you what happened. There was an ad in the newspaper asking for a young man who wanted a career in television to start in the mail room. I went down there on a Saturday, not even knowing whether the mail room was open or closed. I went in and there was the guy who ran the mail room. And he said, what are you doing here kid? And I said, well, I've come to apply for the job. And he said, well, tell me about yourself, and that took about 30 seconds, you know.
FRIEDKINAnd he said, all right. You seem like a nice enough kid. Here's what you do, and he showed me, and he said, you can start on Monday, and I said, well, thank you, sir. $33 a week. And as I was leaving, he said, by the way, kid, are you stupid? And I said, what do you mean, sir? He said, take a look at that ad that brought you here. And I looked at it, and I said, yeah. He said, what address is on that ad, and what station? I said it's WBBM Television at 446 North Michigan. He said, well, this is WGN Television at 441 North Michigan. You've come to the wrong place.
REHMIt's all fate.
REHMIt's all -- had I gone...
REHMIt's all fate.
FRIEDKIN...to the right station...
FRIEDKIN...I might not have been hired.
REHMYou and I share so much, but one thing we really share is growing up listening to radio. Radio drama, Lux Radio Theater. "The Shadow."
REHM"The Green Hornet." Fabulous.
REHMHow did listening to radio do you think affect your move into how you began directing.
FRIEDKINWell, from the time I started directing, and right up to the present day, I view the soundtrack in a completely different way from the picture, and I do the soundtrack, all of it, afterwards.
FRIEDKINAll the effects, all -- of course the music, and I even loop a lot of the dialogue in order to improve performance. That is, I replace the dialogue with someone sitting quietly in a studio like this, and being able to emphasize different words or thoughts. Dramatic radio was the most powerful medium to me, because it used your imagination. It wasn't all up there on a screen. It was all done through the human voice and sound effects and music, and I still remember some of these programs, they had such a profound effect on me, and they taught me how to create suspense, and use the imagination.
FRIEDKINNow, quickly you lose that because motion pictures now show you everything. But I still try to use the -- I still try to layer the sound into my films.
REHMSo why do you believe "The French Connection" was so revolutionary?
FRIEDKINI have no idea. I thought it was a little B picture, a little cop film. I think one thing that was different about it was that the two detectives, and this has been a theme of mine throughout all of my work, it was about the good and evil in all of us, including those two detectives that broke the case and the thin line between the policeman and the criminal. And these two detectives who I met in real life seemed to me to reflect that, which is what I believe about people.
FRIEDKINI believe it's a constant struggle for our better angels to survive and thrive. And so these two cops were not, as I portrayed them, just heroes, which is how they saw themselves, but I saw them as flawed people dealing with other flawed people.
REHMYou've said in the book that "Citizen Kane" was one of the most profound movies for you.
FRIEDKINOh, yes, and for many other people as well. It's generally thought of as at the greatest American film by historians and film critics. It was never a success never a financial success, but it was a quarry for filmmakers. I mean, the most incredible use of the camera and dialogue and music and editing and lighting. It was all there at it's very best, much like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
REHMWhy do you think it wasn't a financial success?
FRIEDKINTo intelligent. Way over people's heads. It wasn't the common fare even back in 1941 when it was released.
REHMThey weren't ready for it.
FRIEDKINPeople are more interested in pure entertainment who go to movies.
REHMMusicals. Back then...
FRIEDKINWell, I love the musicals. I loved the Hollywood musicals. I wish I had directed the Hollywood musicals, but by the time I became a director, they were done. No more Gershwins, no more Cole Porter, no more Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly or Cyd Charisse, or Ann Miller. The Zeitgeist had changed, and I sort of drifted mostly over to the dark side because the American musical which I wish I had made were no more.
REHMWilliam Friedkin. We're talking about his new memoir, "The Friedkin Connection," and when we come back, we'll talk more. We'll hear a few excerpts from films, and take your calls. Stay with us.
REHMIf you just joined us, the brilliant director William Friedkin is with me. His new memoir is titled, "The Friedkin Connection." Why on the cover do you have your hand partially covering your face?
FRIEDKINDiane, I don't even know who took that picture on the cover. I think it was done at a press conference. I have not looked at the photo credit if there is one. I believe it was at a press conference that I did somewhere in Europe several years ago. But I...
REHMJacket design by Christine Van Bree, jacket photograph, Denis Rouvre, Corbis outline.
FRIEDKINI have no idea what that is. It looks like -- even though I seem to be looking into the camera lens, which I'll often do when they take my picture, but it looks like it was done at a press conference in Italy.
REHMWhen you were listening to a question.
FRIEDKINExactly, exactly. But I didn't choose either the title of this book or that photograph. That was done by the publisher. I would have called the book simply, "Connections" because it really is about all of the various people that I met along the way and how I learned something or moved to another level as a result of knowing these people.
REHMWhy did you choose to do the movie, "The Exorcist"?
FRIEDKINBecause it's one of the most powerful stories I've ever heard of. And it took place in Silver Spring, MD. It's based on an actual case that took place in 1949 in Silver Spring, MD. And it was a 14-year-old boy, not a 12-year-old girl. It's on the front page of The Washington Post then. Your audience can Google it and read about the '49 exorcism case in Silver Spring. And it gives many of the details.
FRIEDKINBill Blatty, who wrote the novel, was an undergraduate at Georgetown when this case took place. And he tried to write about it factually, but he couldn't get any information about it other than what was in the Washington Post. And even though he went to Georgetown University.
MR. JASON MILLERLook, I'm only against the possibility of doing your daughter more harm than good.
MS. ELLYN BURSTYNNothing you can do could make it any worse.
MILLERI can't do it. I need evidence that your church would accept these signs of possessions.
MILLERLike her speaking in a language that she's never known or studied.
MILLERI don't know. I'll have to look it up.
BURSTYNthought you were supposed to be an expert.
MILLERThere are no experts. You probably know as much about possession as most priests. Look, your daughter doesn't say she's a demon, she says she's the devil himself. And if you've seen as many psychotics as I have, you'd realize that's the same thing as saying you're Napoleon Bonaparte. You ask me what I think is best for your daughter. Six months, under observation in the best hospital you can find.
BURSTYNYou show me Regan's double: same face, same voice, everything. I'd know it wasn't Regan. I'd know in my gut and I'm telling you that that thing upstairs isn't my daughter. And I want you to tell me that you know for a fact that there's nothing wrong with my daughter except in her mind. You tell me you know for a fact that an exorcism wouldn't do any good. You tell me that.
REHMAnd of course, that is the voice of Ellyn Burstyn playing the part of the mother, Chris MacNeil, speaking to a priest played by Jason Miller. Even that tiny excerpt gives me the chills.
FRIEDKINYes, it is chilling. And most people -- well, as I say, it is based on one of only three cases that the Catholic Church authenticated in the United States up 'til that time period. I haven't followed it since. But they did an exhaustive investigation on this young man and they believe that an exorcism was not only possible but necessary. And the young man was healed of whatever these afflictions were and he's back in normal life today and has no memory of what happened to him in 1949.
REHMThis is a question from -- oh no, that's the wrong one. Oh, here it is. This is from Philip who said: "I think that Bill Friedkin invented projectile vomiting, but I'm hesitant to expand his line of inquiry."
FRIEDKINNot guilty. I'm not sure what he means by that. That kind of physical discomfort that led to almost constant vomiting was part of the manifestations that this young man underwent. And everything that you see in the film is in the diaries that I've read from Georgetown. They're in the Catholic Diocese in the Washington, D.C. area and Father Robert Henley was president of Georgetown before I made the film.
FRIEDKINLet me read the diaries of not only the priests who were involved but the doctors, nurses, and some of the patients at Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis, where the exorcism was performed.
REHMDid you ever meet the young man himself?
FRIEDKINNo. No, the church didn't want that to happen. I spoke to his aunt at great length and she told me some incidents that weren't even in Blatty's book that I put into the film.
FRIEDKINWell, the furniture moving around the room. The dresses pushing itself in front of the door to block the door so that people couldn't get out. I hesitate to talk about this stuff, Diane, because people find it hard to believe as did I until I read these accounts and they were either having to do with mass hallucination or demonic possession.
REHMAnd what about the head spinning?
FRIEDKINThat's something I believe that Blatty invented. But there were other similar things that occurred -- superhuman strength, levitation, contortionism that was similar to the head spinning. But Blatty, who did not have the facts but only the story as it was written in the Washington Post. And then his religious instructor at Georgetown, Father Eugene Gallagher brought other information that he had because he knew the exorcist in St. Louis who was a Father William Bowdern.
FRIEDKINBut almost everything else occurred. Everything that Blatty included -- and I included in my book, I quote from the diaries at great length. Now I happen to believe, as I think as Hamlet said to his friend Horacio, there are more things in heaven and earth than I dreamt of in your philosophy, Horacio. And that's how I approached life. I do not approach life as a cynic. I believe in the teachings of Jesus, although I'm not a Catholic or a Christian.
FRIEDKINBut I believe that the teachings of Jesus are, you know, almost impossible to live up to. But I approach a lot of things that most people would simply doubt, I approach them as possible.
REHMDid you ever, during the filming of "The Exorcist," worry for yourself or the young people involved?
FRIEDKINI never worried for myself. I was much more concerned about what effect this film would have on the young girl who played the part. And she was the only girl out of thousands who auditioned that I felt could get through it. And she did.
REHMShe got through it. Did you follow here afterwards?
FRIEDKINWe're still good friends. She's now 52 years old.
REHMAnd she's fine?
FRIEDKINShe's doing great. She's done more films and television programs than I have. And she was recently in the road company of the musical "Grease." She's very active with PETA, you know, the organization that protects animals. And she's very active in that. That's her passion. And she still loves horses, you know. When I met her, she was winning blue ribbons, showing horses at places like Madison Square Garden.
REHMI love it. Now, "French Connection" won five Oscars in total, including Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actor. It grossed more -- pardon me -- $52 million at the box office. How did you come to direct it?
FRIEDKINWell, one thing is, that $52 million would be almost $300 million in today's ticket price.
REHMOf course, of course.
FRIEDKINBut the producer brought it to me. I met him quite by accident. He had seen some of my documentary films. And I directed the very last Alfred Hitchcock hour that was made after nine or ten years of that show. And he had seen some of these. And we started to talk and meet. And one day told me about the "French Connection" case. And I was fascinated by it. We went back to New York from Los Angeles and met the two cops who broke the French Connection case.
FRIEDKINAnd I was fascinated by then and made the film more about them than the case.
REHMAnd the case was? Briefly.
FRIEDKINIt was $32 million worth of uncut heroin that came into the United States for Marseilles, hidden in the rocker panels of a car. The rocker panels are just below the door. It's where you step up to get into the car. And what they were doing was peeling back these rocker panels, inserting the kilos of heroin in the rocker panels. They then close the rocker panels, ship the car to America. And then it would be bought in America, the drugs taken out of it, and cash put back in and shipped back to France.
REHMAnd what you're trying to demonstrate in this film is not only that extraordinary story but that thin line that police are involved in.
FRIEDKINWell, the best cops think like criminals. And I've always felt there was a thin line between the policeman and the criminal. I mean, you have to understand the criminal mind to be an effective cop.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. GENE HACKMANAll right, Popeye's here. Get your hands on your head. Get off the blind, get on the wall. Come on, move. Move.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1Come on, sweetheart.
HACKMANCome on, move. Face the window. Move. Face the wall. Turn around. Turn around. Come on. Hands out of your pockets. Turn around. Come on. Come on. Turn around. Get on the hood. Hey, you dropped that. Pick it up. Pick it up. Come on, move. What are you looking at? All right, bring it in. Get your hands out of your pockets. What's my name?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2Doyle.
HACKMANCome here. You pick your feet. Get over here. Get your hands on your head.
REHMYou had a hard time with Gene Hackman during that film. Why?
FRIEDKINWell, Gene wanted to do that role. He really lobbied to get into the film. But then once I introduced him to Eddie Egan, the actual cop he was playing and he rode around with Egan, as I had done for months before I made the film, he thought that Egan was a racist. He saw -- Gene came from a very small town in Illinois called Danville. And there was a lot of racism there when he was younger that he had to overcome.
FRIEDKINAnd the way he saw Egan operate -- he was reminded of that kind of racism. I didn't see Egan that way. I know that it was largely an act for him to survive in the streets, to treat people, including African American people that roughly as in the clip that you heard. And that's exactly how Egan would do it. Now, Gene and I clashed over the fact that I wanted to show how Egan operated, words and all.
FRIEDKINBut every African American cop behave the same way in the streets or they would not have survived. So Gene and I had a lot of conflict. And I used his anger against me to get him into the mood of Popeye.
REHMThat's a brilliant director. Here's a question from Philip: Did Bill invent the urban car chase?
FRIEDKINNot at all. A few years before the chase in "The French Connection," there was a very good chase in the film called "Bullet" with Steve McQueen. It was shot in San Francisco. And I love "Bullet." I think it's a really great detective film. But I wasn't all that crazy about the chase scene in "Bullet." In studying it, I realize that they just cleared out the streets and ran the cars over the hills of San Francisco.
FRIEDKINAnd there was no sense of real danger to the pedestrians. So I knew when I made "The French Connection," I had to do a chase because it was in New York, where innocent people were at risk. And that's what I set out to do. But before either the chase in "Bullet" or the chase I did in "French Connection," there were the chases made by Buster Keaton in the silent film era that are spectacular.
FRIEDKINAnd your audience can see them now on DVDs restored. If I had seen any of those Buster Keaton scenes before I was to do a chase, I would never have done a chase. They're that good.
FRIEDKINThey're amazing. And he not only created them, he acted in these scenes at great personal risk to himself.
REHMHe acted in...
FRIEDKINAnd directed them, and they're spectacular.
REHMWhat about the car chase scenes in the "Bourne" films?
FRIEDKINThey're very good. They used, to a great extent, modern technology, which means computer-generated imagery. We didn't have that. We had to do everything, as did Keaton, live, mechanically.
REHMHow could you do that?
FRIEDKINOne shot at a time. Have you ever knitted, Diane? Have you ever done any knitting?
FRIEDKINOr you've seen people knit.
FRIEDKINShooting a film -- shooting a chase scene is very much like knitting. It's one shot at a time, as knitting is one stitch at a time. Knit one, curl two.
REHMSo how long does it take to do an entire chase scene?
FRIEDKINWell, it took me probably close to a month, but not consecutive days, to do "The French Connection." I've done several others, but just as someone knitting has to envision the sweater before you knit it, you have to see the chase in your mind's eye.
REHMWilliam Friedkin, his new memoir is titled, "The Friedkin Connection." Short break, right back.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, William Friedkin is my guest this morning. Of course he has made many, many prize-winning films, among them "The Exorcist," "The French Connection." And then jumping forward "Killer Joe." Tell me about "Killer Joe."
FRIEDKIN"Killer Joe" was originally a play written over 20 years ago by Tracy Letts who's one of the best dramatists in this country today. He won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award a couple of years ago for "August Osage County." He is really a fine playwright in the league of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. And he and I have the same world view. And I saw "Killer Joe" and I was immediately attracted to it because I recognized all the characters.
REHMYou're really attracted to dark stories.
FRIEDKINI am now, but I told you earlier, Diane, I wish I could've done "Gigi," "American in Paris," "The Band Wagon," "Singing in the Rain." Those are my favorite films. I watched them over and over.
REHMSo what took you to the dark side?
FRIEDKINThey weren't making those kind of films when I became a director. And then my influences of radio drama, which you mentioned, were the kind of things I drifted toward in film where audiences can watch sometimes, pain and suffering and some of the most terrifying things. But they feel they're safe. It's called a safe darkness.
FRIEDKINWhen an audience goes into a theater to see "The Exorcist," for example, they're obviously terrified or appalled by what's happening on the screen. But they know that when the lights come up they can walk out of the theater and that's not going to be a part of their lives. So they're drawn to that as a kind of release.
REHMSo you describe "Killer Joe" as a kind of catharsis.
FRIEDKINIt is in a way. "Killer Joe" is the hardest edged film I've ever made. It received an NC17, which is the most restrictive rating. It's virtually censorship, the NC17.
FRIEDKINAnd why did you choose Matthew McConaughey?
FRIEDKINI saw him being interviewed on a television show. I had never seen any of those romantic comedies that he became known for. I'd never seen one of them.
REHMHow about "A Time to Kill?" Did you ever see that?
FRIEDKINI didn't see that. I saw "The Lincoln Lawyer" just before I made "Killer Joe." But I saw him being interviewed and I realized that he was from the area in which the story is set, east Texas, and he had the right accent.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMANWhat are you? I mean, what do you do?
MR. MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEYI'm a detective.
WOMANLike Magnum PI?
MCCONAUGHEYNo. He's a private detective. I'm in the Dallas Police Department.
WOMANHe ain't real either.
MCCONAUGHEYNo. I'm real.
WOMANAll right. It's nothing like those shows with car chases and all.
MCCONAUGHEYA lot of paperwork.
WOMANI read some policemen can go their whole lives without shooting their guns.
WOMANYou ever drawn your gun?
WOMANYou ever shot anybody?
MCCONAUGHEYNobody you'd know.
WOMANDid they die?
MCCONAUGHEYWell, they have, yes.
REHMNow, here's an email about that movie which says, "My husband persuaded me to see "Killer Joe" with him but we were both appalled by the violence, especially against women and the sexual abuse of the young girl. What were Mr. Friedkin's reason's for making that film?"
FRIEDKINI thought that the sort of thing that's portrayed went on and goes on all the time. It is a story that is, in fact, based in truth. I personally am not a misogynist. I have never committed violence against any woman on any level and I don't promote it. The characters in "Killer Joe" are not meant to be admired any more than the characters in Shakespeare's Scottish Play are meant to be admired. But it's Shakespeare's way of saying, here is who they really are. They're murderers.
FRIEDKINAnd other Shakespeare's plays are extremely violent and disturbing. Look at Hamlet's abuse of women, of his mother, of Ophelia. Hamlet is an abuser, a serial abuser but it is a great piece of drama, and that's how I viewed "Killer Joe." I've sorry if people are offended. I don't set out to offend people, but neither do I set out to cover the truth.
REHMLet's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Louisville, Ky. Good morning, Michael, you're on the air.
MICHAELGood morning, Diane. Mr. Friedkin, I've enjoyed your work for a long time. Congratulations.
FRIEDKINThanks very much.
MICHAELI'd like you to talk a little bit about your film "Bug" and what inspired you to make that.
FRIEDKINAgain, it was written by Tracy Letts. And "Bug" is probably the most profound piece of writing that I've read about paranoia. And how paranoia can be passed from one person to another who are in a very symbiotic relationship. And we see evidence of this all the time. This is about a kind of serial paranoia. And again, it's taken to extremes. But again what drew me to that and to "Killer Joe" were what I thought were the underlying truths behind it. Because there should be many kinds of films. They can't all be stupid comedies or lame musicals. You know, there have to be a lot of films. And the films that I'm attracted to tend to be on the edge and on the dark side. I must say that.
REHMAnd yet here you are now moving to opera. Tell us about that.
FRIEDKINA number of years ago -- it was 1996 -- Zubin Mehta, the renowned conductor's a friend of mine -- we always used to talk about either politics or movies or music. And one day he said to me -- I was having dinner with my wife and Zubin and Nancy, his wife -- and he said to me out of the blue, why don't you do an opera with me? And I said, gee Zubin, I've never seen an opera. And he said, oh, come on. He said, we've talked about opera music. I said, yes, I've listened to some opera but I've never seen one. He said, no no, you'll be very good.
FRIEDKINAnd in order to put him off -- he said, what would you do if you had the chance? And I knew he is the preeminent musical director in Florence at the Maggio Musicale, the Florence opera house. And in order to put him off I said, well I would do either one of the two Alban Berg operas. And Berg wrote Lulu and Wozzeck and they're both atonal. And they were both written in the 20th century, which is not the great century for opera. And in Florence, in Italy they don't care for German opera, even if it's good. You know, they don't like Vaughner or Schoenberg or Berg.
FRIEDKINSo I said, well I would do either one of the Berg operas. And he went out of the room, he came back with his diary that had his bookings for about seven years. And he said, okay. He leafed through it...
REHMHe pinned you down.
FRIEDKIN...and he said, I'll do Wozzeck with you in two years if you'll commit to it now. And I was puzzled and disturbed. And my wife said, oh go ahead, it'll be fun. And so I then steeped myself in it and I studied German for a year...
FRIEDKIN...and learned the libretto. And by the time I came to do it I had a concept. And I've now done about 15 operas since, all over the world.
REHMHow does it feel?
FRIEDKINIt's great. It's very similar to directing for film. The only difference is you don't have a camera of course. But with film you can emphasize a person or an object or something by the use of the close-up lens. With opera you can do the same thing on the stage with the way you position people and light them. So you must have a concept. And then I found -- of lighting and set -- but I found that the great singers I've worked with -- and I did two operas here for the Washington National Opera at Kennedy Center -- I found that the great singers want the same thing that really fine actors want, which is a psychological underpinning for their characters and a staging that works.
REHMSo you are directing them as you would an actor in a film.
FRIEDKINYes, using sense memory the way an actor does. In order for an actor to play any emotion, whether it be happiness, fear, sorrow, whatever it may be, they have to reach into their own experiences. And what the director does is find out what those aspects of their personality are so that you can push those buttons when you need to, in order to get them to reach down into their sense memories.
REHMAnd what we have glossed over -- forgive me for doing so -- is your own upbringing. I want to hear about that and how that led you to -- without college, without training -- to become one of the great filmmakers in the world.
FRIEDKINWell, you're too kind but I think what's necessary for anyone to succeed in anything are really three things, ambition, luck and the grace of God. That is my -- notice I didn't mention talent. There are many untalented people out there, you know, taking our hard earned dollars all the time for stupid things that have no underlying meaning, nothing. They're just meant to put people in chairs and relieve them of their hard earned cash. But I believe that I had a great deal of ambition and luck and the grace of God.
REHMFrom your parent, luck?
FRIEDKINYeah, well my parents weren't very ambitious. They both came from Kiev, Russia in the Ukraine then. They both came over to the United States during a programme at the turn of the 20th century. And we were very poor. But I didn't know we were poor, Diane, because every -- all of my neighbors lived the way I did. And we had plenty to eat and things didn't cost a lot of money then. And so, you know, I enjoyed my life and never knew I was poor until later.
REHMDid your parents express love for you?
FRIEDKINTotally. I'm not one of those guys who had a bad relationship with his mother or father. I loved them. We were close knit. I'm an only child. I think because we lived in one room -- we lived in a one-room apartment with a kitchenette for most of my first 20 years -- a kitchenette, one bathroom. I used to walk to school, walk home, okay? Where did you grow up?
REHMRight here in Washington.
FRIEDKINIn the D.C. area.
REHMWalked to school through high school, no college. Began here as a volunteer.
REHMAnd now it's all over...
FRIEDKINBy the grace of God.
REHMBy the grace of God. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Baltimore, Md. Good morning, Robert, you're on the air.
ROBERTGood morning. Thank you for taking my call.
ROBERTMr. Friedkin, I've been a huge fan of your work for many years, particularly things like "To Live and Die in L.A." and (unintelligible) .
FRIEDKINOh, thank you.
ROBERTMy question though is regarding a lot has been written over the years about "The Exorcist," particularly the controversy surrounding casting and screen credits for Mercedes McCambridge and Eileen Dietz. And I wondered if you could discuss some of that.
FRIEDKINYeah, Mercedes McCambridge did the voice of the demon. And when I asked her to do it, she was a great radio actress and I went to her to do the demon voice because her voice was kind of neither female nor male. It was sort of neutral. She insisted that she not receive screen credit.
FRIEDKINShe said that if the film were to be effective, people should believe that this voice was coming from that little girl. And she made it a strong point and didn't have it in her contract. I begged her to take a screen credit because it was a wonderful job of acting. And I so admire and admired her. And she said, no. And then the film came out and she completely changed her mind and sought screen credit, which we immediately gave to her.
FRIEDKINThere were only 26 prints around at the time so in all subsequent -- we replaced the last reel of those 26 prints which had the credits, and put her credit on after the fact. In terms of Eileen Dietz, she was the -- Linda Blair's lighting double. We used to -- she was older. She was in her twenties. Linda was twelve. We used -- Eileen Dietz was the same size as Linda Blair -- to light the set with her in it. She appears in the film for about 23 seconds and that's it.
FRIEDKINShe does have screen credit though, but she certainly did not play that role or anything near it. It was all Linda Blair except for the voice, the demon voice.
REHMNow here is my question. I have never seen "The Exorcist." I was too afraid to see it. Should I see it?
FRIEDKINI think it's a film that transcends the idea of a horror film. It is about the mystery of faith. It's very powerful but, yes, it's disturbing, Diane. And if you don't want to expose yourself to that sort of thing, it will disturb you. I know this for many years. It's been out there for 40 years and it's coming back again, so you'll have the chance. It'll be back in theaters starting late this fall, so you will have the chance. But if you're disturbed by that sort of thing, this will disturb you more than anything of its kind.
REHMI want to read you a great email from Jeff before we close. He says, "I want to tell you about an experience my mother had seeing "The Exorcist." She went to see the film in the theater. During one particularly scary scene, the whole audience screamed and something fell into my mother's lap that made her scream even more. Apparently the woman in the seat in front of her screamed so loudly her wig flew off and landed in the seat behind her."
FRIEDKINI find that rather sad, disturbing and somewhat humorous, I'm afraid to admit.
REHMWilliam Friedkin. He's written a new memoir. It's titled "The Friedkin Connection." What a joy to talk with you.
FRIEDKINMy pleasure. Everything I expected and more.
REHMThank you so much. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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