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


In his glorious 1990 biography, Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Movies of William Friedkin, author Nat Segaloff quotes the Oscar-winning film-maker as wryly observing: “You understand what it’s going to say on my tombstone? It’s going to say ‘The Man Who Directed The Exorcist.’” As somebody who has spent a lifetime declaring The Exorcist (1973) to be the best film ever made, I perceive the way it would possibly maybe have overshadowed a profession that was so long as it was diversified.

But Friedkin, whom I first met again within the Nineteen Nineties after I was a starstruck fan (which I remained), did a lot greater than helm the film that modified my life – and the lives of many others. He proved himself one of the fearless and creative administrators of his technology, working in a string of genres – from musical comedy to severe psychodrama; political satire to police thriller; stage play diversifications to tales of supernatural terror – with equal ease and enthusiasm.

My preliminary encounter with Friedkin – whom everybody referred to as Billy – was on the telephone, in 1990, after I interviewed him about his bonkers psycho-nanny/killer-tree film (sure, actually), The Guardian. The opinions had not been good, however Friedkin was usually unfazed. Again in 1977, the opinions for his Wages of Concern remake Sorcerer had additionally been excoriating and the movie had been a significant box-office flop. But Sorcerer is now extensively acknowledged to be one among Friedkin’s best movies – a gruellingly nihilistic train in nail-biting suspense; a hellish journey into the center of darkness. Crucially, Friedkin understood that not each movie finds its viewers first time round, and so he was equally upbeat when the erotic thriller Jade took an identical drubbing in 1995, defiantly telling me on the time that it was “most likely my favorite film”. (He later stated he’d been joking, however I believe within the second he meant it.)

I met Friedkin in individual for the primary time in 1991, after I went to LA to interview him for the Channel 4 documentary Concern within the Darkish. I anticipated him to be a darkish and brooding presence however he was fairly the alternative – casually dressed, vastly relaxed and positively playful in his manner. On digital camera he was charming and humorous, speaking enthusiastically about his love of Psycho (“It wrestles you to the bottom”), asking me if favored opera (I knew nothing in regards to the topic), and hilariously declaring on digital camera that he “couldn’t give a flying fuck right into a rolling doughnut” that The Exorcist didn’t win finest image in 1974 as a result of it was “clearly one of the best image of the 12 months”. Ha!

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Friedkin directing Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider in 1971’s The French Connection. {Photograph}: Kobal

Our paths crossed once more in 1997 after he picked up a duplicate of my BFI trendy classics quantity on The Exorcist in an LA bookstore. The telephone rang, and after I heard the phrases “I’ve Billy Friedkin on the road for you”, I went weak on the knees, satisfied he was calling to demand who the hell I assumed I used to be, writing a guide about his film. To my aid, he instructed me he thought the guide was “nice” and he’d purchased all of the copies within the retailer! Relieved, I instantly proposed a documentary to rejoice the twenty fifth anniversary of the movie. The consequence was The Concern of God (1998, at present on BBC iPlayer) during which he and the movie’s author and producer, William Peter Blatty, regarded again on their differing visions of The Exorcist, whereas forged and crew remembered the big (and sometimes alarming) challenges of creating that electrifying film.

All through his profession, Friedkin by no means shied away from a problem, insisting that if a movie had a very good story – regardless of the style – then he was sport. His earliest works embody the 1962 documentary The Folks v Paul Crump, which was partly credited with the commutation of its topic’s loss of life sentence. Many years later, I had the privilege of collaborating with Friedkin on the narration for his demonic-possession documentary The Satan and Father Amorth (2017), though regardless of my co-writer credit score, the voice of that movie stays solely and unmistakably Friedkin’s. (I bear in mind standing on one leg within the nook of a carpark in Cornwall, attempting to get a telephone sign to Friedkin in LA, and shouting “It’s not about religion, it’s about doubt” to the bemusement of the seagulls.)

Having directed one of many final episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1965 (“Did Hitchcock provide you with any recommendation?”; “Sure, he stated ‘Our administrators normally put on ties’”), Friedkin made his function movie debut with the Sonny and Cher car Good Occasions (1967), which he presciently described as a cautionary story about “promoting your soul to the satan”. He introduced Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Occasion and Mart Crowley’s The Boys within the Band to the display in 1968 and 1970 respectively, and directed Bert Lahr in his last position within the nostalgic burlesque romp The Evening They Raided Minsky’s (1968), alongside Britt Ekland, Jason Robards and Norman Knowledge. Sure, actually.

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

However it was with one of the best image Oscar winner The French Connection (1971) that Friedkin actually made his mark, adapting the true story of a record-breaking medicine bust into an edge-of-your-seat thriller that took stylistic inspiration from Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), and regarded extra like a documentary than a drama. It was that sense of verité grit and realism that satisfied Blatty that Friedkin was the one director who may deliver his supernatural bestseller The Exorcist to the display, making audiences imagine that what they have been watching was actual.

In 1980, Friedkin courted controversy with Cruising, a story of a cop going undercover in New York’s heavy leather-based S&M homosexual scene that prefigured the furore surrounding Paul Verhoeven’s Nineteen Nineties hit Fundamental Intuition. A scandalous trigger célèbre on the time of its launch, Cruising (like Sorcerer) has since been extensively re-evaluated, incomes plaudits for the authenticity of its settings, and the experimentally textural nature of its soundtrack. (Once I requested Friedkin in regards to the “which means” of a scene during which the killer’s identification appears to vary from shot to shot, he replied “How the hell ought to I know? What do you assume it means?”) The Eighties additionally noticed Friedkin going “again on the streets once more” with To Stay and Die in LA (1985), a trendy thriller that includes a wrong-way car-chase up a Lengthy Seashore freeway that rivalled the hair-raising car-chasing-an-elevated-train sequence from The French Connection.

Within the twenty first century, Friedkin scored a US box-office No 1 hit with the courtroom drama Guidelines of Engagement (2000) and helmed two diversifications of Tracy Letts’s stage performs: the chillingly paranoid psychodrama Bug (2006), and the notoriously divisive Killer Joe (2011), that includes a career-best efficiency by Matthew McConaughey. His last movie, The Caine Mutiny Court docket-Martial, is ready to premiere on the forthcoming Venice movie competition, a decade after he gained a lifetime achievement award there in 2013.

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Al Pacino within the controversial 1980 thriller Cruising. {Photograph}: United Artists

Via all of this, Friedkin was guided by the need to inform tales in the easiest way he may, and to satisfy success and failure with equanimity. He as soon as upbraided me harshly (“I’ve Billy Friedkin on the road for you…”) about one thing I had labored on that I assumed he would love, and his disapproval was so robust that my spouse went off and got here again with a glass of whisky to calm my nerves (“Welcome to the membership,” stated one among his common collaborators, to whom I later recounted the story). But he ended our dialog with the phrases: “However hey, if that’s the best way you need it to be, then that’s that. Don’t hearken to anybody else. Be true to your self.” I practically cried. After which I downed the whisky in a single.

Being in Friedkin’s firm was an exhilarating expertise. He was an avid reader, had an encyclopedic data of music, had directed operas in Europe, and talked about portray with an unguarded vigour (“Mark, what do you consider Vermeer? You want Francis Bacon? Ever seen Magritte’s The Empire of Mild up shut?”) that was completely infectious. On stage he was a consummate raconteur, spinning yarns that would have an viewers roaring with laughter one minute after which hanging on tenterhooks the following. For proof, try my documentary The Poughkeepsie Shuffle: Tracing the French Connection (2000), during which he recounts the jaw-dropping risks of capturing that movie’s celebrated chase scene, and proudly admits to by accident (mis)casting Fernando Rey by telling his producers to “go get that French man that was in Belle de Jour”, solely to wind up with “the mistaken man” (Rey was Spanish) with no time to recast.

A couple of years in the past, once we recorded the Blu-ray commentary observe for Cruising (an absolute riot!) Friedkin was equally forthright, remembering obeying the jock-strap-only gown codes of the golf equipment during which he filmed (“yeah, and I used to be the ugliest man within the room, so nobody ever hit on me”) and sardonically saying that it was a very good factor Al Pacino didn’t need to speak in regards to the movie as a result of “he’s not very eloquent” (Friedkin had wished Richard Gere for the position).

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Friedkin talking on the Oxford Union Society, with Mark Kermode in attendance, in 1998. {Photograph}: Shutterstock

He additionally had a depraved sense of humour, and as soon as took nice pleasure in getting me to elucidate to his spouse Sherry Lansing (who was then head of Paramount) what I assumed was “mistaken” with Titanic – which might go on to turn into one of the profitable motion pictures of all time. Lansing listened patiently to my garbage, after which replied: “Sure, and you realize what’s mistaken with you, Mark? You aren’t a teenage lady.” She was proper. Friedkin was delighted.

Maybe my fondest reminiscence is of being with Friedkin in Strasbourg in 2017 when my daughter (who loves “previous” motion pictures) requested him if he’d ever met Charlie Chaplin, and whereas retelling the story of assembly him on the Oscars, Friedkin unexpectedly teared up. It was profoundly shifting, and I believe all of us ended up with one thing in our eye.

They are saying it is best to by no means meet your heroes, however Friedkin was one among mine, and he didn’t disappoint. He was a power of nature, and I’m proud to have been capable of name him a buddy. I’ll miss him terribly. However we are going to at all times have his movies.


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