“Life is lived forwards, but can only be understood backward.”
So writes William Friedkin in the prologue of his new memoir, The Friedkin Connection (Harper, 499 pages).
“I think about the love affair I’ve had with Cinema,” the legendary director reflects. “Images or fragments pop into my consciousness like fireflies.
“When I’m able to capture their brief flash, they illuminate a dark corner of my memory.”
Born in Chicago to Russian immigrants, Friedkin was an unremarkable student who aspired to nothing. When his mother took him to see a movie for the first time—None But the Lonely Heart at The Pantheon Theater in 1942—he was so overcome by the noise and lights that he wanted to scream. It wasn’t until much later Friedkin would see Citizen Kane and come to appreciate the “safe darkness” of film and the cathartic (if temporary) escape cinema could provide.
Written by the man himself, The Friedkin Connection recounts the author’s long, remarkable career in movies, beginning with his after school internship in the mailroom at WGN TV. His skills saw him promoted to the director’s booth before too long, and he drew praise for his first documentary, a low-budget DIY piece about a death row inmate (The People vs. Paul Crump). Producer David Wolper suggested Friedkin relocate to Los Angeles, where he cut his teeth working on television specials whose sensational content anticipated today’s reality TV. Shows like The Bold Men had Friedkin capturing the daredevil antics of skydivers and rocket-car racers while breaking long-established filmmaking rules (and FAA regulations) to get the shots he wanted.
He’d spend the rest of his life bucking trends and expectations in his ongoing quest to depict American corruption, greed, amorality, lust, and desperation on the silver screen in titles that still provoke, shock, offend…and entertain.
Writing with the skill of someone with decades of experience drafting, editing, and executing screenplays, Friedkin makes his readers privy to the artistic decisions and financial wheeling-and-dealing that defined his career and, in the aggregate, reflect on aspects of Tinsel Town moviegoers never see. Adopting a confessional, candid beer-with-a-buddy tone, Friedkin unburdens himself of all the creative moves and business choices that ever haunted him while reveling in his few—but considerable—box office victories.
His “spoiler” foreward cautions, however, that “there’s nothing salacious…I’ve left out the intimate details of my private life, lest the book be slapped with an NC-17 rating.” Friedkin also acknowledges that the events and conversations therein derive from his recollection of them and don’t represent “word-for-word transcripts” or “objective truths.” The director’s fans know going in that Friedkin’s most famous movie scenes were created the same way—by veering from the script and focusing on emotional impact rather than precise verbiage.
The book’s first half is devoted to Friedkin’s most beloved films, and fans of The French Connection and The Exorcist will delight in the wealth of firsthand information on the making of those seminal pictures. It’s not long before readers discover more about screenwriting, blocking, lighting, exposure, splicing, and audio dubbing than they ever imagined, and—laid against the backdrop of whatever personal baggage Friedkin brings to each picture—the mechanical processes become organic, dynamic, and completely engrossing.
We share the joys and frustrations of early works like 1968’s The Birthday Party (based on a poem by Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter) and musical burlesque The Night They Raided Minsky’s. We cheer as Friedman bests a competitive Robert Shaw in basketball and table tennis and wince as Minky’s unprecedented NYC production runs way over budget, drawing the ire of Friedman’s financiers. We visit with pop stars Sonny and Cher and “steal” shots with Friedman for their debut spoof, Good Times. We revel in the making of The Boys in the Band, a gay drama based on Mart Crowley’s Off Broadway play that stalled in theaters but paved the way for Rent and Glee.
Friedkin explains how Robin Moore’s crime novel prompted him to follow real-life narcotics detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso on their gritty New York beat and describes the casting process for their French Connection analogs, “Popeye” Doyle and “Cloudy” Russo. Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason were considered for the lead early on, as was Steve McQueen. Peter Boyle turned the part down, fancying himself a ladies man more suited for romantic comedies. Friedkin says he had a hard time with Gene Hackman, who ultimately played Doyle, and admits they simply didn’t trust one another at the time.
The author guides readers through the car chase that would become the film’s memorable centerpiece and confesses it was the challenge of staging such a sequence that led him to sign on in the first place. He recalls how he and his crew brainstormed a chase containing elements that hadn’t been seen before, deciding upon Doyle’s harrowing pursuit of a hit-man in an elevated subway car in a ’71 Pontiac LeMans. Friedkin reveals that his crew hadn’t received permits to stage certain scenes but went ahead anyway, putting pedestrians and fellow motorists at risk during the high-speed shoot. When the director suggested that his stunt driver wasn’t giving it his all, the driver dared Friedkin to ride along. Friedkin agreed, manning a camera while squatting in the stunt vehicle as it tore through real red lights and barreled around tight corners. Unscripted accidents were kept in the film, and the crew worked overtime to create the five or six distinct stunt “elements” Friedkin insisted on shooting.
The French Connection won several Academy Awards, and Friedkin concedes the “sudden” fame and fortune was more than he could handle at his age. He became arrogant and demanding of producers, actors, and technicians in his quest to achieve his vision for each new project. When old acquaintance William Peter Blatty tapped him for the movie version of his controversial novel about the demonic possession of a child, Friedkin vigorously defended his position. He was stubborn about his casting choices (with the exception of Ellen Burnstyn, who insisted she was destined to play Regan McNeill’s frantic mother) and pushed everyone to their physical and emotional extremes when shooting The Exorcist’s many disturbing scenes.
Friedkin writes that Marlon Brando was initially considered for the part of Father Lankester Merrin, and Stacy Keach was his first pick for the younger, troubled Jesuit psychologist Damian Karras. Max von Syndow was eventually for Merrin—but the forty-something actor wore latex prosthetics and had liver spots painted on his hands to make him seem older. Friedkin picked the dark, soft-spoken Jason Miller for Karras after seeing the actor’s work in That Championship Season. Linda Blair was amongst the very last (out of hundreds) to audition for the part of young Regan and was selected, says Friedkin, for her ability to portray both a child’s innocence and a monster’s menace. The director suspected Blair was one of very few candidates who could survive the psychic torment the role entailed.
We’re escorted into the walk-in freezer that doubled as Regan’s bedroom, where the temperature hovered at 30 below zero (until lights were rigged). Friedkin details all the sleight of hand used to make Regan’s bed levitate (a forklift) and shudder (wires), and her head rotate 360 degrees (a puppet). We’re provided the recipe for the pea soup vomit the demon Pazuzu sprayed on the priests and are told how Friedkin won permission to shoot his prologue in Sinjar by promising to teach Iraqi moviemakers how to brew their own convincing movie blood. We get the skinny on Regan’s freakish “spider-walk” and needle-in-the neck arteriogram, and witness a stuntman’s perilous four-part somersault down the long staircase at M Street and Prospect. Friedkin also dishes on eccentric actress Mercedes McCambridge, who agreed to voice the demon for free but recanted later, threatening to sue when she didn’t see her name in the credits. He also tells why the quiet exchange between Burnstyn and Lee Cobb’s Lt. Kindermann is favorite scene. We learn about the “Exorcist Curse,” which may or may not have been responsible for the death of actor Jack McGowran, and a studio fire that set production back weeks.
The critical acclaim lavished upon Exorcist didn’t exactly humble the author. Friedkin’s friendship with Blatty was cemented (at least for a while), and the pair considered partnering on other projects in the future. One funny anecdote finds the two staging a heated argument over salad dressing to rankle their overbearing producers, who toss them from an important meeting.
Friedkin returned to Roy Scheider for the lead in his next film, Sorcerer. A remake of the Henri-Georges Clouzot film The Wages of Fear, the 1976 shoot found the director and his team deep in the jungles of the Dominican Republic, where seemingly nothing went according to plan. Rivers that needed to appear swollen on celluloid dried up in real life. Government officials demanded that drug-abusing crewmembers leave the country immediately, or be arrested. When a tree failed to explode properly, Friedkin phoned in a convicted arsonist to do the job right. Hollywood impresario / oil magnate Charles Bluhdorn disrupted shooting by dropping in unannounced—by helicopter—to check “Fweedkin’s” progress for Paramount.
Despite the work he’d invested, Sorcerer became the director’s first post-Oscar flop. Audiences instead flocked to some indie film about space pirates called Star Wars.
The book’s second act fast forwards through Friedkin’s ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s output, detailing the disastrous production of Al Pacino thriller Cruising. The director remembers being ordered to strip to gain admittance to an S&M bar on “jockstrap night” so he could conduct research: Pacino played a homicide detective investigating a series of murders in the gay community. Friedkin remembers the public outcry against the movie, and how a frustrated Pacino often had to get into character within spitting distance of a mob of angry protestors. The author breezes past the Chevy Chase comedy Deal of The Century to discuss the triumph of the stylish crime noir To Live and Die in L.A., which helped break Willem Dafoe and William Petersen (C.S.I.) into the mainstream. Friedkin divulges how new wave pop band Wang Chung figured into the soundtrack, and why sometimes it’s better when pictures like that have unexpected, ambiguous—or even unhappy—endings.
We go on set with Nick Nolte for Blue Chips and David Caruso for Jade. We join Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson in the military courtroom drama Rules of Engagement, then accompany Jones (Benicio Del Toro) on survival training for woodsy actioner The Hunted. Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd get cracked-out in the psychological thriller Bug, whose hotel room fire had to be shot with remote cameras. Friedkin also shares his passion for theatre and opera; he directed several over the last decade.
The mercurial director admits suffering from bouts of deep depression, which only exacerbated his already prickly personality. He confronts his own mortality following a heart attack in the early ‘80s, then gets pissed with his physicians after a sloppy bypass surgery necessitates partial sternectomy. Although he’s been married four times, Friedkin only mentions present wife, Sherry Lansing, and their sons in passing, which one supposes is fine given the director isn’t a “celebrity” whose profile is shaped by his behavior and relationships during non-work hours.
At turns engaging, fascinating, and compelling, The Friedkin Connection is mandatory reading for any self-respecting movie aficionado that provides insight into one man’s creative vision behind the camera. One gets a better sense of how much effort goes into making a picture—and how much elation or angst await when audiences either receive or reject aid work. It’s a fair guess Friedkin’s autobiography has more bite than other books on more mainstream authors, given his staunch refusal to play by anyone else’s rules—even when nonconformity results in economic disaster and emotional strife. You gotta hand it to anyone who ignores Alfred Hitchcock’s dress code or slaps a priest in the face to elicit a bravura performance.
Oh, and it helps going in to have already seen Friedkin’s films. Those who haven’t will find major plot points spoiled by the director himself during his reminiscing.