‘The Friedkin Connection’: Living forward, looking back

In the prologue to his new memoir, “The Friedkin Connection,” Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin writes, “Life is lived forward, but can only be understood backward.”
September 24, 2013

In the prologue to his new memoir, “The Friedkin Connection,” Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin writes, “Life is lived forward, but can only be understood backward.”

As he looks backward on a career spanning some 50 years, the director perhaps best known for the iconic films “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Exorcist” (1973), gives the reader a plethora of delicious anecdotes but also conveys a sense of the vicissitudes involved with getting a film made in Hollywood.

“I wanted people to try and understand what my process was,” he explained in a recent interview, “and some of the obstacles I encountered along the way, and where I was successful and unsuccessful in dealing with them. In that way, I thought people might get a deeper understanding of the life of a film director.”

As illustrated in his book, it is a life of constant struggle against people who are trying to interfere with a filmmaker’s vision.

“From all of recorded history,” he observed, “there is the story of a creator whose work is constantly being undermined by a destroyer or a kind of devil. And that’s pretty much how I have viewed a lot of the people I’ve come in contact with making films. I haven’t made that many films, by the way. I think I’ve made less than 20 films in about 50 years of doing it. But, I always come up against the same barriers. There are people who don’t make films, but they’re in charge of the studios where films are made, and you get in their way, as they get in your way.” 

Friedkin didn’t set out to be a film director. He grew up in a rough Chicago neighborhood, the son of immigrant Jewish parents who fled the pogroms in Ukraine. After graduating high school, he went to work in the mailroom of a local TV station, and eventually progressed to directing live television. He never went to college and credits a writer at the station, Francis Coughlin, with exposing him to the world of books, art and other intellectual pursuits. 

Then, he had a life-changing experience. “It was fate, or God, that led me to see a movie called ‘Citizen Kane,’ and that inspired me to want to make films. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but whatever Orson Welles did to make ‘Citizen Kane,’ that’s what I wanted to do. And then, either fate or God put this story in front of me of the black man who was going to the electric chair in Chicago.”

The man was Paul Crump, who was sentenced to death for the murder of a security guard during an armed robbery. Believing the man to be innocent, Friedkin made the documentary “The People vs. Paul Crump,” which was instrumental in getting Crump’s sentence commuted to life in prison. (Crump was later paroled.) It also led to Friedkin being signed by the William Morris Agency and being hired by the famed documentary producer David Wolper, who brought the young director to Hollywood.

Friedkin ultimately delved into feature films. His first three efforts were “Good Times,” a musical spoof of various movie genres with Sonny and Cher; “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” an homage to old-time burlesque; and “Boys in the Band,” one of the first films to deal openly with homosexuality, about a birthday party attended by a group of gay friends and one supposedly straight man. The movie was well received by film critics.

Then Friedkin exploded on the scene in 1971 with “The French Connection,” about two New York City cops pursuing drug smugglers who get their product from France. It was second only to “Fiddler on the Roof” in grosses for that year and won five Academy Awards, including best director for Friedkin, who also won the Directors Guild and Golden Globe awards. The film has become legendary for its unique car chase sequence. 

Two years later, Friedkin made what many consider his signature film, “The Exorcist,” which depicts the demonic possession of a young girl. With some exceptions, it garnered rave reviews and has been re-released several times, earning a worldwide gross of more than $400 million.

In his memoir, which he will discuss at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sept. 29, Friedkin writes of “the roller coaster that is Hollywood, where dizzying heights are followed by gut-wrenching depths.” He chronicles the years following the heady success of “The Exorcist” as a succession of ups and downs, with some of his films being highly praised or finding more favor with age, while others have had disappointing outcomes. But, he stressed, they were the kind of films he would want to see, while the movies with mass appeal are of no interest to him.

“The film that I’m most proud of is this film ‘Sorcerer,’ he stated. “It was one of my least successful. And now, at the recent Venice Film Festival, on my birthday, Aug. 29, they ran a restored version of ‘Sorcerer’ that looks like it was made yesterday, and now it’s coming out again in theaters, in home video, and on television. The film was dead. It’s been raised like Lazarus.” The story concerns four fugitives who accept a job driving nitroglycerin for 200 miles over dangerous territory in South America for an American oil company.

He added, “I’m not interested in superheroes, somebody who puts on a spandex suit and flies around and saves the world. I wouldn’t be interested in either making that kind of film or watching it. … I’m way out of step with public taste, because the public flocks to that kind of film, films about vampires and zombies, and films that are video games.”

But Friedkin, who has lived through heart attacks and major surgeries, continues to make movies, and his latest film, “Killer Joe,” a dark comedy about a young man who is in debt to a drug dealer and who plans to kill his mother for the insurance money, has been welcomed by most film critics. 

Friedkin has also expanded his horizons to direct plays and numerous operas. A few years ago he staged Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera “Samson and Delilah” in Tel Aviv. And he starts rehearsals in January for a production of Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” at the Geffen Playhouse.

He confesses to having mellowed with age and with his marriage to Sherry Lansing, a pioneer who, in 1980, became the first woman to head a major movie studio.

As for what he feels it takes to be a successful filmmaker in Hollywood, he cited “ambition, luck and the grace of God. I don’t believe talent figures into that equation at all. Sometimes it does. Sometimes very talented people succeed. Other times, very talented people don’t even get an opportunity. Without ambition or luck and the grace of God, it doesn’t matter how great your talent is.”

William Friedkin will appear on the Park Stage at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sept. 29, 2 p.m. at West Hollywood Park, 647 N San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood. For more information, call (310) 659-5550 or visit westhollywoodbookfair.org.

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