William Friedkin: Directing is like jazz improvisation

The director of "The French Connection" reflects on Gene Hackman, Wang Chung and 50 years in Hollywood

Topics: LA Review of Books, Interviews, william friedkin, the exorcist, Directors, the french connection, Movies,

William Friedkin: Directing is like jazz improvisationWilliam Friedkin (Credit: AP/Jeff Christensen)
This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Los
Angeles Review of Books

IN 2012, WILLIAM FRIEDKIN celebrated 50 years as a filmmaker. In 1962, his very first film, a documentary called The People vs. Paul Crump, examined the case of a man sentenced to the electric chair for murdering a security guard during a robbery, although his accomplices received only prison sentences. Friedkin’s film was a contributing factor in Crump’s sentence ultimately being commuted. Following this auspicious project (made when Friedkin was only 27), the director went on to become one of the most audacious and lauded filmmakers of the 1970s, with The French Connection and The Exorcist helping to establish the gritty, boundary-pushing filmmaking that characterized the decade. After winning an Oscar for directing The French Connection and the massive success of The Exorcist, Friedkin admits (in his new memoir,The Friedkin Connection) to falling into a period of hubris. Yet he has remained a productive, creatively restless, innovative filmmaker, putting out another dozen or so pictures since: the 1977 box-office flop Sorcerer has recently been the subject of renewed interest and critical praise; To Live and Die in L.A. is considered to be one of the very best police thrillers of the 1980s; and last year’s Killer Joe — a rollicking, skanky noir-comedy — elicits outstanding performances from a very game cast, notably Matthew McConaughey in what is easily his darkest role to date. In the meantime, Friedkin has also developed a parallel career as a director of operas on stages around the world.

I spoke with Friedkin by phone. The conversation focused on some of the major themes that emerged from his memoir: the intensity of the filmmaking process, his approach to working with actors, and the role of unpredictability in producing creative work.

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Casey Burchby: There aren’t very many good, substantive books like the one you’ve written — books by filmmakers on filmmaking.

William Friedkin: There is one that I know of, and that’s Sidney Lumet’s book, Making Movies. Somebody can read that and learn how to make a film. It’s not only interesting anecdotally in terms of his own career, but his ideas about shooting, editing, everything else — it’s a virtual textbook.



CB: In preparing to write this book, did you go back and re-watch your films?

WF: No, I didn’t. And I didn’t keep diaries, either. The only thing I did was look up dates. I also went back and interviewed a number of people that I worked with. For example, I spent a week with Bill Blatty. It’s all from memory. I wrote in longhand. It’s the only way I can really think: from my brain, through my arm, to the pen and to the paper. It was a three-year process.

CB: Before making the Paul Crump film [The People vs. Paul Crump, 1962], did you have a strong, worked-out opinion on the death penalty, or did making that film shape your views?

WF: I had an instinctive feeling that the death penalty was wrong — that society’s act in methodically killing this guy was as bad or worse than the spontaneous killing he performed in a robbery. My views on that have changed considerably in the 50 years since. Some of the heinous crimes that have occurred [since then] were really rather rare around the time I made that documentary: the killings of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers, and this guy shooting up the theater in Colorado. I’ve since come to feel that the process drags on for so long — what is served? There is very little possibility anymore of rehabilitation from capital murder. And it certainly doesn’t bring closure to the family of the victims. But now, you see, you have DNA, so you can prove much more clearly who did it or who didn’t do it. So my feeling is, if there’s any doubt that the guy is the killer, he shouldn’t be executed. But if there is no doubt and if it’s a series of murders like those kids in Newtown — of course that guy saved the state the trouble.

CB: The Paul Crump film, which you made in your hometown of Chicago, won the Golden Gate Award at the 1962 San Francisco International Film Festival. And then you continued to make documentaries for a few years.

WF: I made another documentary on another death row inmate named Bill Witherspoon. He was a white guy in Chicago up for murder at the Cook County jail. He contacted me, and the ABC network aired that. Shortly after the Crump documentary, I was invited to go to work for the David Wolper company. I did three one-hour documentaries on different subjects for Wolper before I ever did anything on a movie soundstage. I would have probably stayed in documentary, but then the documentary field changed radically toward what it is today. In those days, the networks were responsible for making documentaries. There were many highly rated documentary programs on network television. All the channels ran documentaries. Now [documentaries are] the province of independent film.

CB: After you moved out to Los Angeles from Chicago, your first feature was the Sonny and Cher movie, Good Times. On that project, you describe working very closely with Sonny Bono to develop the script. Did that collaboration set the tone for many of your other films, in terms of working closely with writers and producers to develop projects from the ground up?

WF: Sonny, like a lot of other entertainers, knew what was best for him, better than any director could. I mean, Sonny invented Sonny & Cher. It became apparent to me in working with them that they were my first audience for anything that I wanted to do. And I wasn’t trying to change or alter them. The script of Good Times is what it is because that was Sonny’s perception of Cher. It’s not necessarily who she was. Cher, at that time, was a very young girl who didn’t know what to do with this newfound success. She hadn’t sculpted her personality; it was being shaped at that time largely by Sonny, who created this act. Basically, I was trying to extract the best I could out of them — it was all about them, and not about me.

CB: Is that what it’s like to work with a star, with someone who’s that aware of his or her persona?

WF: Not necessarily. Not all of the so-called stars are that aware of camera logic and lighting. Generally, many of the film stars play themselves. They come in, and they want to be directed. They want insight into the character they’re playing, a psychological insight and a staging that works. There are a lot of people who became stars after I worked with them. Gene Hackman was not a star — he was a very good actor. Same thing with Roy Scheider. Pacino was a star, but then you get into all kinds of other complicated things, like, “Have you cast him correctly?” And if you haven’t, you’re going to pay a steep price, because there’s nothing a director can do if the casting is wrong. On The Exorcist, I had a God-given perfect cast. I didn’t even know many of them before I started the picture.

CB: You say that working with Harold Pinter on The Birthday Party was one of the defining collaborations in your early career. How did Pinter influence your thinking?

WF: First of all, his plays, at that time, were perceived as complex and enigmatic. [Pinter] himself was a very simple guy, and his approach was simple. He said things to me like, “Don’t go looking for metaphor or some kind of meaning that’s not in the text. It’s just about what it is.” And that was very difficult to absorb, because Pinter’s plays were not written in a conventional three-act structure. There’s seldom a really satisfying resolution. You’re never quite sure if characters are lying or telling the truth. And it was Pinter who made me understand that it was just about the behavior of those people on the stage at that time, and that the actors should not be encouraged to look for deeper meaning or prior action. Many actors I’ve worked with since will say, “How did this guy feel about his parents?” Or, “How does he feel about his sexuality?” If it’s not on the page, don’t worry about it. Don’t look to apply metaphor or a subtext. Pinter is all about subtext, and yet you just play it as you would play ordinary conversation. And that’s what he captured: the mystery in ordinary conversations. Somebody would say something that you might not pay any attention to — somebody else might not be concerned with it — but somebody else in the room who hears it is absolutely terrified. And you don’t know why. What Pinter captures is not the fact that people can’t communicate, but that they communicate only too well. So I learned about the importance of one actor listening to and responding to another actor, and not attempting to play something that isn’t there. I’ve employed things I learned from Pinter in a lot of scenes. In The Exorcist, for example, there’s a scene between Lee J. Cobb and Ellen Burstyn where they’re obviously both talking about the fact that her daughter probably caused a guy to go out of her bedroom window. But they never say that. 

CB: In the book, you talk about working with Gene Hackman on The French Connectionas being difficult at first. Online, I found the video of his Oscar acceptance speech. It’s brief, but he thanks you specifically for keeping him in it when he was close to quitting. Why was he, at first, so disconnected from the character, and how did you help him to finally make the connection to enable the performance?

WF: Once we cast him, I had introduced him to the guy he was playing, Eddie Egan, and I thought he would get a great deal from that, that he would be able to see Egan in operation, and how Egan worked in the street. And Hackman’s response to all that was he thought that Egan was a racist. He judged Egan. And you can’t judge the character that you’re playing, or you’re going to come out with a vaudevillian villain. And Gene had definitely judged Egan. Didn’t like him much. That’s why at one point Gene felt he couldn’t give me what I wanted and was prepared to quit. At the time, that wouldn’t have bothered me except that the picture would have fallen apart. So I had to find a way to get it out of him. We worked together to get Hackman closer to Egan — because we were never going to get Egan closer to Hackman. Gene had seen a lot of racism in his youth in Dundee, Illinois, where there was once a Ku Klux Klan group. And Gene had developed a strong rejection of prejudice. He didn’t understand that Egan’s manner in the street was not based on prejudice; it was based on the types of people he was dealing with. He was not dealing with ladies and gentlemen. He was dealing with hardened criminals, many of whom were black.

CB: So you had to acculturate Hackman to this New York cop culture?

WF: I had to arouse an anger in Gene that was lying dormant, I felt, within him — that he was sort of ashamed of and didn’t really want to revisit. And, ultimately, he did. But at first, he just didn’t want to go there. We did about 37 takes of the first scene, where Hackman and his partner are interrogating this African-American drug dealer. And Gene couldn’t get physical with the kid. The [actor’s] name was Alan Weeks, and he was a wonderful actor. And he said, “Go on, man, hit me! I don’t give a fuck! Just do it. Let’s get the fuck outta here!” And Gene couldn’t bring himself to do it. He had to leave Gene Hackman and become Eddie Egan. 

CB: There’s a theme of obsession running through The French Connection, and it’s also in some of your other films — the single-minded drive to accomplish something, to crack the case. Is that something that you identify with as a filmmaker?

WF: Sure. It was in my nature. You certainly have to be obsessive and single-minded to get a film made. And in all ways: to get someone interested in financing it, distributing it, getting it into theaters. The guys who are able to accomplish that are single-minded and obsessive.

CB: How did your hour-long interview film with Fritz Lang [Fritz Lang Interviewed by William Friedkin, 1974] come about? Had you gotten to know him?

WF: Well, I had read that he was still alive. And I called the Director’s Guild, and said, “Do you have any information on Lang?” They said, “Yeah,” and they called him and told him I was interested in meeting him. So I went over and talked to him. And I said, “I really think it would be good if I filmed you.” He says, “Ah, no, don’t bother. Who wants to see that?” But finally he relented. I went over there for five days for one hour each day. I went over with Bill Fraker and Bill Butler, two of the best cinematographers around. We shot with two cameras, because I knew he spoke slowly and haltingly, and I’d have to cut all those pauses out. Sometimes, he’d have one-minute pauses, or longer, before he had the breath to be able to answer. That’s why I cut those five hours of footage down to less than an hour, mostly to take out all of the hesitations. Then, I just stuck it away in my garage. A number of years later, the Turin Film Festival wanted to do a retrospective of my work and the woman who was the programmer there said, “Whatever happened to that Fritz Lang interview you did?” And it was in my garage, unedited! So we cut it down to 45 minutes or so, and they ran it for the first time at Turin. It played here on PBS. Then Criterion asked for it and put it on [DVD and Blu-ray] with M.

CB: You devote a chapter of the book to Sorcerer and the story of that incredibly difficult shoot. It must be gratifying to see the renewed interest in it. What’s the film’s legal status?

WF: The lawsuit is over. We’re now in negotiation to get it released on television, on DVD and Blu-ray, and streaming. There’s a lot of legal stuff to be ironed out, and then we’ll make a digital copy. But the negative does look good. 

CB: When it was released in 1977, was timing an issue in its lack of box office success?

WF: I wouldn’t go there. I don’t know why it didn’t work the first time. I have no idea. Sometimes a film is ahead of its time. Sometimes it just misses the zeitgeist. You never know. I have no idea why some films are extremely successful, let alone why some fail. It’s all subjective. Sure, Star Wars came out a week or so earlier, and changed the whole American film business — changed everything to what it is today. But some films catch the zeitgeist, and some don’t, and that’s all you can say.

CB: You talk about music quite a bit in the book in relation to the films, as well as in your work directing operas. Music features prominently in a number of your films, and you speak highly of various musicians and composers. When does music become a part of the filmmaking process for you?

WF: Usually the music finds me. I mention in the book how I was in the Black Forest in Germany and heard Tangerine Dream [who scored Sorcerer] playing in a darkened church after midnight — no lights, just the lights of their electronic instruments. And their music — that kind of music was totally unique then. It later entered the mainstream, but it was unique at that time. The same thing, when I went to England for some reason and, on the radio, I heard Wang Chung [who scored To Live and Die in L.A.]. I thought it was a fantastic sound, rhythmic and complex. And obviously written and played by guys who were aware of classical music, as I was, but with a pop sound. For The Exorcist, I took excerpts from all of the contemporary classical music I was listening to at the time, and used that. There was no real original score.

CB: The original score, by Lalo Schifrin, fell through.

WF: Several did. I was going to go to Bernard Herrmann, which I did. And then Lalo Schifrin, who I knew, had actually written a score that was the exact opposite of what I asked him to do. It was wrong, to me. I felt it would have overwhelmed the movie.

CB: You have described the extensive research you conducted for CruisingThe French Connection, and The Exorcist. How do you take the very specific conclusions of your research and balance that with the need to remain open and, to some extent, improvisational on a set? 

WF: It works similarly to the way jazz works. When you hear great jazz improvisation — let’s say from Miles Davis or John Coltrane or Ahmad Jamal — when you hear their recordings, they are basically improvised. But they are improvised from a storehouse of knowledge about music and their own approach to it. Plus, they put their lives into their music. The great jazz musicians are playing this stuff not with notes on a page, but from the depths of their own feelings and emotions. And that’s what happens when you direct a film. God knows, I didn’t know the inner workings of New York’s police department, or the narcotics bureau, during the time of The French Connection case. I had to immerse myself in that. By the time I was done, I knew how to reinvent that for cinema in the same way that a jazz musician is able to reach into those very solid sources and play something that reflects his feelings at the time.

CB: By immersing yourself in the subject matter, you create a context for yourself, and then when you get to a set, you have developed an eye that will recognize what will work and what won’t. 

WF: Yeah. You get a concept, which is an inspiration. What I’m interested on a set is spontaneity, not perfection. If I was doing Shakespeare, I’d be interested in perfection. But for something set in contemporary times in the streets or something, I’m interested in spontaneity. But you can only achieve that spontaneity if you’re immersed in the story you’re telling and you know the details of it — then you can impart those details to the actors. You can’t impart anything to an actor if you don’t know what the hell it is.

CB: Do you think your sense of spontaneity comes from your documentary background? 

WF: I think it comes more from my love of jazz. When you hear a Miles Davis track like “Milestones” or “So What,” those tracks, which are improvised, really reflect Miles’ nature as it was formed by his own life and all of the music that had preceded him. You’re adding your own experiences as a filmmaker to all of the films that you direct, just as an actor is drawing on his sense memories to portray a character.

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