The world lost one of its best filmmakers this week with the passing of the brilliant, passionate, and unapologetic William Friedkin. A Chicagoan through and through, he changed the film landscape with works like “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist,” and “To Live and Die in L.A.”—a trio of masterpieces that puts to shame the entire filmography of most of his peers. What always struck me most about Friedkin was the undeniable commitment to his craft in everything he did. Even the films that “didn’t work” were rarely lazy. He had such a gift with momentum, making movies that felt half their runtime, bursts of cinematic energy that felt like they couldn’t have been made by anyone else. We asked our writers if they wanted to share some further thoughts on the life and work of an American master after our wonderful tributes from Chaz Ebert and Scout Tafoya. Here are their contributions. – Brian Tallerico
BRANDON DAVID WILSON
Social media has been awash in absolutely choice interview excerpts since the news of William Friedkin’s passing broke. The guy knew how to give viral-ready quotes. His death is arguably the end of an era in which Friedkin was the last of what I consider the Advance Guard of New Hollywood. The movement that revolutionized American film in the ’70s really consisted of two groups: the first wave of the movement was made up of members of the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation, and most never went to college. Rather than university film departments, they often learned their craft in TV studios which Friedkin did when he began directing live television and documentaries at age 18 for WGN-TV in his native Chicago.
Of course, we will miss Friedkin’s work (though his final film “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” his first narrative feature since 2011’s “Killer Joe,” will world premiere next month at the 80th Venice International Film Festival). And yet Friedkin’s best work has likely achieved immortality because of the way he blazed a trail for himself at a time when the film industry desperately needed his trademark brash intensity. Friedkin is known more than most directors for his bravura set pieces, whether it’s his car chases, foot pursuits, or the harrowing confrontations with pure evil itself. But the key to Friedkin was his deep roots in documentary filmmaking, which he always talked about. That’s what made his films unique: the way his much-maligned but reappraised film “Sorcerer” (1977) veers from gritty authenticity to hallucinatory expressionism. Take one away from the other and it might be good, but it wouldn’t be William Friedkin.
“Sorcerer” was the film I turned to the night I heard of his death. I won’t say it is the quintessential Friedkin film. But it blends a lot of his greatest hits: a prologue shot documentary style, an examination of masculinity, and a tension between the natural and the supernatural. The delicious ambiguity of the ending lingers like the aftertaste of a good meal. Regarding masculinity, Friedkin really stood alone in his examination of men in that he began the ’70s and ’80s with transgressive gay stories long before that was allowed in the mainstream. Before the 1990s, you’d have to look to Almodóvar to find another director as at home with the idea that homosexuality was simply one expression of hyper-masculinity and not its antithesis.
The filmmaker I really see as his closest compatriot and friend-rival is Francis Ford Coppola. Friedkin all but admitted that “Sorcerer” was to some degree his pre-emptive strike against “Apocalypse Now.” Coppola is the first of that second wave of film school-educated auteurs, but in many respects he had more in common with Friedkin than the younger directors who followed in his path. They were both Romantics in a time when Modernism was in vogue. Their films are both fascinated by hell, not just as an inner state or a concept, but as a real place where some go for a season and some stay for good.
Modern directors will learn from Friedkin (“Uncut Gems” owes so much to his filmmaking), but they are unlikely to replicate his iconoclasm and total inability to suffer bullshit. Both of those qualities are in short supply these days. Because of that, Friedkin will be missed.
I have had plenty of memorable moviegoing experiences, but right at the top of the list would have to be April 14, 2013, the closing night of the inaugural Chicago Critics Film Festival (which I have been on the programming committee since its formation). On that evening, we were not only proud to present a very rare 35mm screening of “Sorcerer,” William Friedkin’s thrilling 1977 remake of “The Wages of Fear,” but we were honored that Friedkin himself had agreed to attend and take part in a post-screening discussion. As the film had largely fallen into obscurity since its original release (where both audience expectations creamed it—this was Friedkin’s follow-up to the ground-breaking “The Exorcist”—and the release a few days earlier of a little thing called “Star Wars”), I had only been able to see it on video at that point and while that was enough to convince me that it was Friedkin’s masterpiece, being to see it on the big screen—with him in attendance to boot—was the chance of a lifetime. The event proved to be spectacular as a large crowd gathered to get their copies of Friedkin’s autobiography (the must-read The Friedkin Connection) and then thrill at the sight of one of the most visceral and intense thrillers ever filmed, featuring scenes so audacious in their conception and execution that they put the CGI nonsense of today to shame.
Afterward, along with colleague Steve Prokopy, I conducted the Q&A with Friedkin, which was also an experience for the ages. Possessing a gift for the gab commensurate with his filmmaking skills, he regaled the audience with tales of the film’s arduous production as well as other tales from his wide-ranging career—the high point being his hilarious anecdotes in response to my query if he had ever seen any of the various “Exorcist” sequels and prequels that have cropped up over the years. He then concluded with a touching recitation of a verse from Dylan Thomas’ And Death Shall Have No Dominion in memory of Roger Ebert, who had passed away a few days earlier. This truly was a night for the ages, and the only vaguely bum note was that, amidst all the hubbub, I was apparently the only person in the place who did not get a chance to get their copy of the book signed. I may not have gotten an autographed book that night, but I got something far more significant—I got an experience, the kind that reminded me of why I fell in love with movies in the first place.
William Friedkin was deeply into sin. His films operate on what the disgraced psychiatrist (Robin Williams in his greatest role) of Kenneth Branagh’s bonzer “Dead Again” called the “karmic payment plan,” namely, you “buy now pay forever.” Most often grouped with the film brats of the New American Cinema, Friedkin was an autodidact, starting in the mailroom of WGN out of high school. His breeding was more in line with the John Frankenheimers of a previous generation who cut their teeth on television news documentaries before beginning their feature film careers, and his ethos has always felt to me less in league with Catholic filmmakers like Hitchcock or Scorsese (despite “The Exorcist” serving as the most effective Catholic recruitment artifact in the modern era), awash in rinse cycles of the fallen, than Billy Wilder’s irascible, even noxious belief in the essential lousiness of the world and its inhabitants. Indeed, there are similarities between Friedkin’s and Wilder’s pasts: Friedkin, whose Ukrainian-Jewish grandparents fled their homeland before a violent antisemitic pogrom, and Wilder, who lost most of his family to Hitler’s death camps. Like Wilder’s prickly filmography, Friedkin’s best movies are documentaries of the inevitability of great evil. Dangerous to the touch, I don’t know anyone who has seen Friedkin’s key pictures and has not been lacerated by the experience.
His breakthrough, a documentary called “The People vs. Paul Crump” (1962), which he shot with legendary cinematographer Bill Butler who preceded Friedkin in death by just four months, is shockingly evergreen. Its dramatic recreations, moral outrage, and unfiltered accusations of police brutality earned the film an immediate suppression on the eve of its broadcast. Undaunted, Friedkin smuggled a copy to then-Governor Otto Kerner, who, a day later, commuted Crump’s execution.
Friedkin was never daunted. In stylized documentary style, he told in “The French Connection” the true story of an unstemmed drug operation centering a racist, brutal cop, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman), as the new American hero archetype for our home of the broken trust, land of the betrayed. Joining Popeye in “The Exorcist,” a pair of haunted, haggard priests trying to protect a child from corruption; then a thug (Roy Scheider) who flubs a heist at a Catholic Church run by gangsters and finds himself one of a motley crew of exiles tasked with transporting a cargo of dangerously decayed explosives through the infernal jungle in “Sorcerer.” His manifestations of the naked nightmares of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in the writhing midnight shades of “Cruising” (1980) rival anything in Paul Schrader’s psychosexual hells. He made counterfeiting twenties sexy in “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985), showed off the ugly, paranoid sweats with “Bug” (2006) and “Killer Joe” (2011), and even left us with one of the great Hollywood memoirs. The first thing I revisited tonight, though, was his episode of the 1980s “Twilight Zone.” “Nightcrawlers” (S1 E4) tells the tale of a Vietnam Vet who manifests his trauma whenever he falls asleep. Wherever Friedkin went, he brought wickedness. His works are magnificent.
I’ve already written about his titanic achievements as a director and the symphonies of terror he composed for this site but I want to take a minute to say few people had a voice for storytelling like Friedkin. Punchlines sounded so funny in his voice. I was lucky enough to see him speak at the Bam Cinématek, where he told somehow uproarious stories about killers and thieves. Generously when speaking about the movie “The Wages of Fear,” which had inspired his remake “Sorcerer,” he took a minute to ham it up and say, “If you haven’t seen “The Wages of Fear,” what are you doing here? Get out! Go! Watch it!” He had this perfect cadence, like a psychotic dentist finally released from lifelong doctor-patient confidentiality. On the executive who he made the mistake of telling he wanted to cast Ellen Burstyn in “The Exorcist”: “He got on the ground and grabbed my leg. ‘Now…walk. You see how hard this is? That’s what it will be like if you try to cast Ellen Burstyn in “The Exorcist.”’” And his reunion with “Exorcist” extra Paul Bateson, who’d been arrested by “French Connection” extra Randy Jurgensen. “I went up to Riker’s Island to see him … he said, ‘Hi, Bill, how’s the movie going?’ I said, ‘Oh fine … did you do those murders?’” Many people could tell that story, but only Friedkin could bring the house down with his enunciation and diction. There was no one else like him.
“One of my first influences was Harold Pinter, and he wrote about what goes on between the lines. That’s where most of us live, in the spaces between the lines.” – William Friedkin
It was 2012, and I had a chance to speak to the great filmmaker who preferred people to call him Billy. He was promoting “Killer Joe,” a raw, revelatory character piece that easily equals his best. This conversation was the closest I came to experiencing a bit of the humanity of the man that has been articulated over and over since his passing yesterday, a sense that this was not only a truly elegant mind but one that was ever curious, ever irascible, ever willing to look between the lines for what lays in those spaces.
In the interview, he talks of his love of spontaneity and the way that Cassavetes’ films “breathe life.” We discussed Kantian philosophy and the notion that it is “the imperfection in humanity, the absolute imperfection in people, which makes for drama. If everyone agreed about everything, it’d be a very dull society.” We talked about losing a bet and being forced to dress as Ali G. And we spoke of his love of Twitter and that, for him, “it’s a great lesson in how to communicate without being long-winded, and I tend to be long-winded.”
Whether in 120 characters online, in interviews, in earlier TV productions working for fellow immortal legends like Hitchcock, his 1970s run of masterworks like “The French Connection” and the immense, still somehow under-loved “Sorcerer,” right through to his latest films that in many ways are superior to anything he ever did, there was an energy, an intelligence, and an almost compulsion to do what he states is the fundamental drive of cinema—namely, communication. “You’re ultimately trying to communicate with an audience,” he told me. And while “you can’t communicate with everybody,” he admitted. “As a director, you’re constantly working on the means by which you can make the audience forget there’s a camera, forget these are actors, and just get caught up in the drama.”
Easy to say, yet difficult to do. Friedkin’s gift was to draw us into the worlds he helped create. His art encompassed everything from elements on screen to cantankerous audio commentaries, or audience Q&A’s where he’d be sympathetic to those eager to learn and biting to those that came across as gormless. His films were often misunderstood even as they were lauded, and one could sense the tension between what he strongly believed and how the crowds appropriated what he had crafted. He’s a man that passed out counterfeit money created for one of his films, yet every word he doled out seemed utterly authentic, free of pretense or fear that somehow the truth should be dulled for the sake of politeness or convenience.
He was, in short, a macher and a mensch, a serious man with a gleeful sense of humor, a craftsman that never allowed the technique to overwhelm the humanity of the stories he was telling. He was a modern mythmaker, a raconteur of the finest order, and, above all, an artist who left his mark on the medium like few others. He will be missed, but his works, in all their forms, will continue to be cherished as long as audiences are left to witness. May his memory be a blessing, and may his example continue to fuel creators unafraid to piss a few people off while making truly great, lasting art.
When a filmmaker with such a long, storied career as William Friedkin passes, there’s often a temptation to lump their works into two categories: The earlier, “real” filmmaking, the gritty, groundbreaking stuff that changed cinema forever, and the ineffectual later efforts marred by time and fading talent. Certain posthumous writing the last few days has even leaned into that narrative, positing that he hasn’t really made a good movie since “To Live and Die in LA.” So while many others are rightly celebrating his most famous works (“The Exorcist,” “The French Connection”) and some reevaluated favorites (“Sorcerer,” “Cruising”), his later films are nothing to sneeze at. Most notably, he spent the 2000s in deep collaboration with actor and playwright Tracy Letts, adapting two of his shows—”Bug” and “Killer Joe”—to the screen. In concert, they’re grimy, lurid pieces about the dark recesses of the human soul; “Bug,” a descent into the murderous depths of codependency, “Killer Joe,” a darkly comic crime drama centered around the most amoral man McConaughey’s ever played outside of “Wolf of Wall Street.” I loved both, the former so much that I pitched and directed a lab show production of “Bug” in college. (We were the first production at the school to feature full-frontal nudity of either gender; I like to think ol’ Billy would have been proud.)
Even after that, as he slowed down a bit and leaned on his “Exorcist” bona fides, he remained imminently watchable. As the central figure in Alexandre O. Phillippe’s “Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist,” he brings his acerbic wit and abrasive idiosyncracies to a feature-length fireside chat about the making of his most famous picture. His 2017 documentary “The Devil and Father Amorth” almost feels like a cinematic prank, Friedkin wandering through an Italian village like he’s the host of a Discovery Channel ghost-hunting show, claiming to film a real exorcism despite never really believing in them when he made his original “Exorcist.” It’s tawdry and base, but knowing Friedkin, that may have been the point. He knew he was the “Exorcist” guy, and by God, he was going to give the people what they wanted.
No matter the era, he was a filmmaker who liked to poke, prod, and pull the rug out from under his audiences—to make them uncomfortable or hold up a mirror to their darkest impulses. He was ever the New Hollywood brigand, at once sneering at intellectuals presuming subtextual choices he never made in his films, and in the next breath celebrating the odd choices he did make just to mess with people. That instinct never dulled, even in his later years. He just changed the shape and direction of his barbs.
When the name William Friedkin appears on screen, you know you’re in for a visceral cinematic experience that captures the exhilarating tensity of uncertainty. Friedkin’s films are not seen; they’re felt. His most adrenaline-charged set pieces were constructed in a way to affect and touch us bodily. You find yourself clenching the seat’s armrest as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle misses a near collision going 90 miles per hour. You feel the penetrating cold enveloping you as you stand bedside next to a levitating demon-possessed Regan. You feel the muscles of your body clench as you hold your breath while attempting to cross a creaking rickety bridge in a truck full of dynamite. It is no wonder he had the reputation of creating films that instigated the most extreme physical reactions from his viewers.
Some of these reactions have entered the realm of Hollywood legend. The most famous one, of course, is that of “The Exorcist,” and how ambulances waited outside cinemas after authorities received reports that audience members were fainting and throwing up while watching the film, a classic that changed the landscape of the genre forever. But for me, I always had a soft spot for his lesser-known works like “Sorcerer,” which features one of my all-time favorite soundtracks by Tangerine Dream. It is a film that stood the test of time and is just as impressive, if not more so, than the original film it was based on, “The Wages of Fear.”
The world has lost a master of building suspense and releasing tension. The grittiness he brought to his streak of films from the 1970’s may be his most remarkable achievement to date, but even his more recent films like “Killer Joe,” “Bug,” and “The Hunted” are slowly but surely gaining a reputation for being ahead of their time. Friedkin left a body of work so sensually affective, once experienced, it becomes impossible to forget.