My friend Billy: Mark Kermode remembers The Exorcist director William Friedkin

The Observer film critic on his hero, who died last week aged 87, a man dedicated to telling stories his way and who had a wicked sense of humour

By Mark Kermode

In his excellent 1990 biography, Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Films of William Friedkin, writer Nat Segaloff quotes the Oscar-winning film-maker as wryly observing: “You know what it’s going to say on my tombstone? It’s going to say ‘The Man Who Directed The Exorcist.’” As someone who has spent a lifetime declaring The Exorcist (1973) to be the greatest movie ever made, I understand how it might perhaps have overshadowed a career that was as long as it was varied.

William Friedkin
Directing Gene Hackman in The French Connection

Yet Friedkin, whom I first met back in the 1990s when I was a starstruck fan (which I remained), did so much more than helm the movie that changed my life – and the lives of many others. He proved himself one of the most fearless and inventive directors of his generation, working in a string of genres – from musical comedy to serious psychodrama; political satire to police thriller; stage play adaptations to tales of supernatural terror – with equal ease and enthusiasm.

My initial encounter with Friedkin – whom everyone called Billy – was on the phone, in 1990, when I interviewed him about his bonkers psycho-nanny/killer-tree movie (yes, really), The Guardian. The reviews had not been good, but Friedkin was typically unfazed. Back in 1977, the reviews for his Wages of Fear remake Sorcerer had also been excoriating and the film had been a major box-office flop. Yet Sorcerer is now widely acknowledged to be one of Friedkin’s finest films – a gruellingly nihilistic exercise in nail-biting suspense; a hellish journey into the heart of darkness. Crucially, Friedkin understood that not every film finds its audience first time around, and so he was equally upbeat when the erotic thriller Jade took a similar drubbing in 1995, defiantly telling me at the time that it was “probably my favourite movie”. (He later said he’d been joking, but I think in the moment he meant it.)

I met Friedkin in person for the first time in 1991, when I went to LA to interview him for the Channel 4 documentary Fear in the Dark. I expected him to be a dark and brooding presence but he was quite the opposite – casually dressed, hugely relaxed and positively playful in his demeanour. On camera he was charming and funny, talking enthusiastically about his love of Psycho (“It wrestles you to the ground”), asking me if liked opera (I knew nothing about the subject), and hilariously declaring on camera that he “couldn’t give a flying fuck into a rolling doughnut” that The Exorcist didn’t win best picture in 1974 because it was “clearly the best picture of the year”. Ha!

Our paths crossed again in 1997 after he picked up a copy of my BFI modern classics volume on The Exorcist in an LA bookstore. The phone rang, and when I heard the words “I have Billy Friedkin on the line for you”, I went weak at the knees, convinced he was calling to demand who the hell I thought I was, writing a book about his movie. To my relief, he told me he thought the book was “great” and he’d bought all the copies in the store! Relieved, I immediately proposed a documentary to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the film. The result was The Fear of God (1998, currently on BBC iPlayer) in which he and the film’s writer and producer, William Peter Blatty, looked back on their differing visions of The Exorcist, while cast and crew remembered the enormous (and often alarming) challenges of making that electrifying movie.

Throughout his career, Friedkin never shied away from a challenge, insisting that if a film had a good story – whatever the genre – then he was game. His earliest works include the 1962 documentary The People v Paul Crump, which was partly credited with the commutation of its subject’s death sentence. Decades later, I had the privilege of collaborating with Friedkin on the narration for his demonic-possession documentary The Devil and Father Amorth (2017), although despite my co-writer credit, the voice of that film remains solely and unmistakably Friedkin’s. (I remember standing on one leg in the corner of a car park in Cornwall, trying to get a phone signal to Friedkin in LA, and shouting “It’s not about faith, it’s about doubt” to the bemusement of the seagulls.)

Having directed one of the last episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1965 (“Did Hitchcock give you any advice?”; “Yes, he said ‘Our directors usually wear ties’”), Friedkin made his feature film debut with the Sonny and Cher vehicle Good Times (1967), which he presciently described as a cautionary tale about “selling your soul to the devil”He brought Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band to the screen in 1968 and 1970 respectively, and directed Bert Lahr in his final role in the nostalgic burlesque romp The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), alongside Britt Ekland, Jason Robards and Norman Wisdom. Yes, really.

Linda Blair, Max von Sydow and Jason Miller in The Exorcist (1973).
Linda Blair, Max von Sydow and Jason Miller in The Exorcist (1973). Photograph: Allstar/Hoya Productions

But it was with the best picture Oscar winner The French Connection (1971) that Friedkin really made his mark, adapting the true story of a record-breaking drugs bust into an edge-of-your-seat thriller that took stylistic inspiration from Costa-Gavras’s (1969), and looked more like a documentary than a drama. It was that sense of verité grit and realism that convinced Blatty that Friedkin was the only director who could bring his supernatural bestseller The Exorcist to the screen, making audiences believe that what they were watching was real.

In 1980, Friedkin courted controversy with Cruising, a tale of a cop going undercover in New York’s heavy leather S&M gay scene that prefigured the furore surrounding Paul Verhoeven’s 1990s hit Basic Instinct. A scandalous cause célèbre at the time of its release, Cruising (like Sorcerer) has since been widely re-evaluated, earning plaudits for the authenticity of its settings, and the experimentally textural nature of its soundtrack. (When I asked Friedkin about the “meaning” of a scene in which the killer’s identity seems to change from shot to shot, he replied “How the hell should I know? What do you think it means?”) The 1980s also saw Friedkin going “back on the streets again” with To Live and Die in LA (1985), a stylish thriller featuring a wrong-way car-chase up a Long Beach freeway that rivalled the hair-raising car-chasing-an-elevated-train sequence from The French Connection.

In the 21st century, Friedkin scored a US box-office No 1 hit with the courtroom drama Rules of Engagement (2000) and helmed two adaptations of Tracy Letts’s stage plays: the chillingly paranoid psychodrama Bug (2006), and the notoriously divisive Killer Joe (2011), featuring a career-best performance by Matthew McConaughey. His final film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, is set to premiere at the forthcoming Venice film festival, a decade after he won a lifetime achievement award there in 2013.

Al Pacino in the controversial 1980 thriller Cruising.
Al Pacino in the controversial 1980 thriller Cruising. Photograph: United Artists

Through all of this, Friedkin was guided by the desire to tell stories in the best way he could, and to meet success and failure with equanimity. He once upbraided me harshly (“I have Billy Friedkin on the line for you…”) about something I had worked on that I thought he would love, and his disapproval was so strong that my wife went off and came back with a glass of whisky to calm my nerves (“Welcome to the club,” said one of his regular collaborators, to whom I later recounted the story). Yet he ended our conversation with the words: “But hey, if that’s the way you want it to be, then that’s that. Don’t listen to anyone else. Be true to yourself.” I nearly cried. And then I downed the whisky in one.

Being in Friedkin’s company was an exhilarating experience. He was an avid reader, had an encyclopedic knowledge of music, had directed operas in Europe, and talked about painting with an unguarded vigour (“Mark, what do you think of Vermeer? You like Francis Bacon? Ever seen Magritte’s The Empire of Light up close?”) that was utterly infectious. On stage he was a consummate raconteur, spinning yarns that could have an audience roaring with laughter one minute and then hanging on tenterhooks the next. For proof, check out my documentary The Poughkeepsie Shuffle: Tracing the French Connection (2000), in which he recounts the jaw-dropping dangers of shooting that film’s celebrated chase scene, and proudly admits to accidentally (mis)casting Fernando Rey by telling his producers to “go get that French guy that was in Belle de Jour”, only to wind up with “the wrong guy” (Rey was Spanish) with no time to recast.

A few years ago, when we recorded the Blu-ray commentary track for Cruising (an absolute riot!) Friedkin was equally forthright, remembering obeying the jock-strap-only dress codes of the clubs in which he filmed (“yeah, and I was the ugliest guy in the room, so no one ever hit on me”) and sardonically saying that it was a good thing Al Pacino didn’t want to talk about the film because “he’s not very eloquent” (Friedkin had wanted Richard Gere for the role).

Friedkin speaking at the Oxford Union Society, with Mark Kermode in attendance, in 1998.
Friedkin speaking at the Oxford Union Society, with Mark Kermode in attendance, in 1998. Photograph: Shutterstock

He also had a wicked sense of humour, and once took great pleasure in getting me to explain to his wife Sherry Lansing (who was then head of Paramount) what I thought was “wrong” with Titanic – which would go on to become one of the most successful movies of all time. Lansing listened patiently to my rubbish, and then replied: “Yes, and you know what’s wrong with you, Mark? You are not a teenage girl.” She was right. Friedkin was delighted.

Perhaps my fondest memory is of being with Friedkin in Strasbourg in 2017 when my daughter (who loves “old” movies) asked him if he’d ever met Charlie Chaplin, and while retelling the story of meeting him at the Oscars, Friedkin unexpectedly teared up. It was profoundly moving, and I think we all ended up with something in our eye.

They say you should never meet your heroes, but Friedkin was one of mine, and he didn’t disappoint. He was a force of nature, and I am proud to have been able to call him a friend. I will miss him terribly. But we will always have his films.

Source: My friend Billy: Mark Kermode remembers The Exorcist director William Friedkin

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