Before my one on one with William Friedkin began, I was given a warning. ‘Ask intelligent questions,’ I was told. ‘He doesn’t suffer fools lightly.’ That was good news – I hate nothing more than lobbing stock ‘How did you get involved in this project?’ questions at real talents.
And William Friedkin is a real talent. In the 70s it looked like he was gunning for the title of Greatest Living Director: The French Connection, The Exorcist, and the vastly underrated Wages of Fear remake, Sorcerer, were his unbeatable CV for the decade. Things were less rosy in the 80s – his Al Pacino gay serial killer movie Cruising was hated, and he teamed Chevy Chase and Gregory Hines in Deal of the Century, but To Live and Die in LA remains a masterpiece.
To be frank, Friedkin’s output since To Live and Die has left a lot to be desired, and I can’t help but think he knows it. He moved on to staging operas, a career he has been very successful with, but he broke his three year time away from cinema in 2006 when Bug debuted at Cannes. It’s a hard hitting psychological terror movie based on an Off-Broadway play by Tracy Letts. Cramped and claustrophobic, Bug is a reminder of just how unsettling Friedkin can be when he’s at his best. And this is, without a doubt, his best film in two decades.
When you’re approaching something like this, which was originally a play, and you’re bringing it to film, does your stage experience over the last couple of years come into play or are you starting fresh?
The only difference between directing an opera and directing a film or doing a play is there’s no camera on the stage. That’s the only difference. Everything else is the same. You are still trying to, on the stage, put people in different relationships to each other. You use lighting instead of a close-up camera to highlight people and put others in relief. The good actors want the same thing as the great singers want, which is a psychological underpinning for their characters and a staging that works. But I don’t look at Bug and say, ‘Oh this is a play I’m going to adapt.’ I look at the script itself; I look at the basic raw material. If this was a novel about these people it would be just as powerful, and just as powerful on the screen, I feel, because he’s written some really terrific and unusual roles.
This year you have Bug finally getting the wide release, but you also have the resurrection of Cruising. Is there a vindication for you that maybe people have come around on that film?
It’s hard for me to say, really. The film plays somewhere all the time. Now Warner Brothers took it over from United Artists; they bought a package of films from UA and they sent out questionnaires to rental houses, to fan magazines and fan groups and critics, saying, ‘Which of this list of films that have never been out on DVD would you most like to see?’ Cruising was way at the top of the list. It was number one by far. So there are people who are aware of it and want to see it. They asked me to do a whole new print with new soundtracks, which are now 5.1 – they were monoaural – and to make the film as tough and edgy as a lot of people perceive it to have been… but it wasn’t.
How are they going to react to it today? The squeamish should leave right away, or people who have problems viewing any kind of sexuality that’s portrayed so openly. I think what’s happened is the film took on a reputation in people’s minds who haven’t even see it. Originally the film got mostly negative reviews – by and large mostly from straight critics who thought it was wrong to deal with the background in any way, especially this way. And then there were some gay critics who felt it was saying, if you’re gay you’re either a murderer or going to get murdered. That’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s not what I set out to do. It’s not what the film does say. The leather bars are simply a background for a murder mystery, and that background was, shall we say, underused in the Hollywood film.
Today there’s much more representation of the gay culture in the mainstream. Have you given any thought what the response from that sector is going to be this time around?
I don’t care. I didn’t make the film for any sector. Any more than I would care of what French people thought about my portraying of a Frenchman as a drug smuggler. Where as The French Connection was based on actual events involving that character whose name we changed, Cruising was also based on actual events of the time – and an even larger metaphor, which was the AIDS crisis, which had just kicked in. People just got a name for it, and there were all these people dying who were in the gay lifestyle. And then there were all these literal bodies or body parts turning up in the East River, or in hospital bags or something. Then I knew a character who had been charged with one of the murders; it was the murder of the man who had been the theater critic in New York for Variety at the time. It was a man named Addison Verrill, and the guy who was charged with his murder and got out three years ago, a guy named Paul Bateson, is in The Exorcist. He’s in the arteriogram scene that I shot at NYU, where he was working as an assistant to the neurologist that I was using. I didn’t use actors in that scene, or in a number of other scenes in the film. I used people who did what they normally do for a living, and he was one of them. A couple of years later I saw that he was being charged for this murder, and the police traced these body parts to him because some of them were wrapped in plastic bags that were traced to NYU medical center. So I went and interviewed him in prison and I got a lot of the substance of what was occurring in some of these violent encounters.
In Cruising, in The Exorcist, you’ve dealt with Evil before. I’ve read that you believe the Virginia Tech massacre was the work of the Devil –
Yeah. And the Nazi Party, National Socialism in the 1920s and 30s and 40s, nothing explains it to me – and I’m a scholar of that period, I read everything and have talked to people who served in the German army then and have met survivors of the camps – and you can read a lot about the social conditions that seemed to produce hatred of the Jewish bankers and people who were successful by those who were not, and none of it makes sense. The National Socialists formed a government based on the idea of exterminating a race of people. That’s not something that comes out of social discourse. It’s one thing to say that people are profiting from the bad things that have happened to other people; it’s quite another thing to say, ‘We have to exterminate these people because they’re vermin.’ That’s what the government was founded upon. To me, that’s the Devil.
Is there evil in Bug, or is it just madness?
There’s evil in all of us. Our lives are a constant struggle of our better angels. For our better angels to defeat the evil that’s in all of us. Most of my films are about the thin line between good and evil, between the policeman and the criminal, for instance.
Most of your leads constantly walk that line between being a good guy and a bad guy.
So do I. I don’t think of myself as any different. How do you think of yourself? Do you think of yourself as a totally good person?
Oh no, I know myself too well.
But you don’t think you’re worse than anybody either. You have, I’m sure, good things that you’ve done that are unstated, unpublicized. I’m sure you do things just out of the goodness of your heart. And then at other times you may just explode at somebody. It’s in all of us, and I recognize this in the characters that I make films about, or do operas about.
The line between the good and the bad… in this film, one of the most heroic characters is the abusive husband.
[laughs] He’s trying to save her, ultimately! But see, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s driven too. Like this television executive who just got busted for beating a woman in Las Vegas. He’s got a big job, and he does it very well. Where does that come from? We say, ‘He has an alcoholic problem.’ I have a few drinks now and then, and I have no impulse to hit a woman. I think I did once, many many years ago, and I’m so ashamed of that that I can’t tell you. But I’m not that. But I did have that impulse, so I can recognize it. You can’t make a film about what you don’t know and don’t understand. You can, but it’ll be a piece of shit.
How easy is it to make a piece of shit?
You don’t know you’re doing it. I don’t know anybody – I mean, I didn’t know Ed Wood – but I don’t know anybody who sets out to make a bad movie. ‘I’m going to make the worse friggin’ film I possibly can make out of this piece of shit and hopefully rip off millions of people.’ I don’t know anyone who has that impulse. There’s a wonderful thing I remember from my youth: there was a guy called Mort Sahl, a comedian who would appear in nightclubs talking about current events and stuff. I remember this one night he was talking about the fact that Werner Von Braun’s book had just come out, his autobiography. Werner Von Braun was, of course, the German rocket scientist we usurped to work over here, and the title of Werner Von Braun’s book was I Aim At the Stars, and Mort Sahl said it should have been called, I Aim At the Stars, But Sometimes Hit London. That’s what happens to a filmmaker. There’s never been a film that I’ve started that I didn’t aim at the stars, or say to myself inwardly ‘Eat your heart out, Orson Welles!’ But sometimes I hit London.
It sounds like you’re less cynical than I am. I do think there are a lot of movies made that, walking in, are known to be pieces of shit.
Really? I think they do the best they can?
You really think that the people who made Wild Hogs were doing the best they can?
I haven’t seen it. What motivates them, I can’t say. It’s quite possible that this is somebody’s view of a subculture or a way of life that they understood, and this is the best way they knew how to do it. I’ve never seen any of the Spider-Man films. I have no interest in seeing them, no desire. It doesn’t mean I think they’re bad. I’d rather go and read Proust or listen to some beautiful music.
Does your last few years in opera mean you’re less driven to do film?
Yeah. Because when I started making films and when I hit a stride in the early 70s I was very much part of the zeitgeist – what the people were interested in is what I was interested in. To some extent that isn’t the case anymore. I would not want to make Spider-Man for any reason, or any amount of money – which is not to be taken as a criticism of it, it’s just about sensibility and taste. It’s not my taste. I don’t like hip hop music. I’ve listened to it, but I prefer to listen to Shostakovich or Rachmaninoff or Dave Brubeck or Frank Sinatra. But that’s just my taste.
Do you think there’s less room in film today for your sensibility?
Not at all. And I don’t know what you mean by room.
Well, you have to go to a smaller studio and work on a limited budget…
That’s okay. That small studio won the Academy Award two years ago for Best Picture over all the other studios with bigger budgets. They were the perfect choice to do this, assuming that they wanted to. There are opportunities, but the only thing that goes against it is my finding what I want to do. That’s the toughest part.
Finding something that speaks to you.
Yeah, and that I can care about or be passionate about often for more than a year.
Is there something like that now for you?
I’m working on a film that’s being produced in France called Coco and Igor. It’s about the affair between Chanel and Stravinsky in 1913, which was about the time he had written The Rite of Spring, which was a total failure, and she had developed Chanel No 5, which was an enormous success. It’s a very interesting love story between two highly creative people.
The Rite of Spring opened to riots. The Exorcist didn’t have riots, but it was met with an incredibly visceral reaction by audiences – fainting, vomiting, running from the theater in terror. It’s so rare when a work of art is so extremely receieved; what is it that enables the artist to get across so viscerally?
You touch a nerve. Sometimes inadvertently. I believe, from everything I read, that Stravinsky did not set out to revolutionize music; it was in him. When people asked him, ‘How did you come to write something so far out, so groundbreaking and way ahead of its time?’ he said, ‘I am the vessel through which The Rite of Spring passed.’ A novel or a film or a play or an opera can come to somebody – usually it’s a writer. An overheard piece of conversation can become a drama. An anecdote can become In Search of Lost Time, seven volumes, from an anecdote. And literally, in Proust’s case, in anger at this theory of Sainte-Beuve which had taken on such a prominent place in the arts. Sainte-Beuve’s theory was that you cannot even begin to understand the work of a great novelist or writer, say Balzac or anybody, without knowing everything there was to know about this person’s biography, what their sexuality was, what they thought about life and the world, the arts, politics. The author put all of his personal life and private beliefs into his work. Proust read that and said, ‘This is a load of shit! This is entirely wrong. The artist is at least two people – there’s the person who goes out to dinner with friends, who mingles with critics and journalists, and then there’s the creative side to this person.’ And so the first title of his novel was Contre Sainte-Beuve, which means Against Sainte-Beuve. The novel started to be an answer and to disprove Sainte-Beuve’s theory. And what comes out? Something entirely different that turns out to be an eternal masterpiece. But imagine if he had written Contre Sainte-Beuve to destroy the literary theory of a 19th century critic. But that’s how it started. It’s given by God.
That’s actually my next question. We talked about the Devil –
That’s not me. I’m not the characters in my films, nor do I spend a lot of time thinking about them. I have to understand them and recognize them in myself, of course. But that’s as far as it goes. I recognize aspects of these people, and if I don’t, I can’t do the film. I can’t find Spider-Man inside me. But I can find this lunatic who believes the government fucked with his blood [Michael Shannon in Bug]. But I’m not alone in that!