"Director William Friedkin receives the Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony during Sorcerer screening at the 70th Venice International Film Festival in 2013. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)"
Back in the early ’70s, director William Friedkin was on a roll. First, he helmed “The French Connection,” which earned five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Next he delivered “The Exorcist,” which became the third highest grossing movie ever (at the time).
And then came “Star Wars.”
No, Friedkin didn’t direct “Star Wars,” George Lucas famously did that. But Friedkin’s next film, “Sorcerer" felt the impact of Lucas’s blockbuster when it opened June 24, 1977, one month after "Star Wars." And if you believe Friedkin (and many others), every film since has felt that same forceful impact.
“‘Star Wars’ changed the entire zeitgeist of American film to what it is still today. If ‘Star Wars’ had failed, you wouldn’t have 90 percent of the films that the studios make today,” says Friedkin, who called to discuss this week’s first ever Blu-ray release of “Sorcerer,” one of Hollywood’s famous flops (it made just $12 million against a budget of a $22, a huge loss for the times).
"Sorcerer," a re-imagining of H.G. Clouzot’s 1953 French thriller "The Wages of Fear," tells the story of four men from all over the globe, who, through varying un-saintly circumstances, find themselves in the same God-awful town in Colombia, working no-end jobs for the same evil Oil Company. When a well catches fire, the Company realizes their only hope of extinguishing the blaze is to transport highly-volatile nitroglycerine 200 miles across dangerous and poorly charted jungle terrain. Chasing life-changing money, the four men agree to drive two aging trucks filled with even older dynamite.
"The theme was relevant because it’s about this idea of four strangers who really are wary of one another, don’t like one another. They have to cooperate or they’re going to blow up. And that has always seemed to me a metaphor for the world, and no less so today," says Friedkin.
With such a gritty, grey story, a title whose meaning takes a second viewing to decipher, and mostly unknown actors often speaking foreign languages (save for Roy Scheider, fresh off of “Jaws”), it’s hard to imagine “Sorcerer” would have been a hit, even without the “Star Wars” Effect. But it’s also impossible to deny the power of that galaxy so far, far away.
"Star Wars" Poster (Mary Evans/LUCASFILM/Ronald Grant)
"I don’t know how it personally affected the business [of ‘Sorcerer’], but it was a massive hit. It was a vacuum cleaner. It sucked up audiences everywhere. It was massively hyped, and it appealed to people of all ages. So that affected everything. And as I say, it changed the template for a Hollywood film," says Friedkin.
As that blockbuster template is still firmly in place, it’s also hard to imagine any major studio green-lighting “Sorcerer” today, given the subject matter, the inflated budget (ultimately it ballooned to more than twice that of “Star Wars”), and the fact that Friedkin refused to budge on potential star Steve McQueen’s demands, even though Scheider’s part was originally written with McQueen in mind.
"Well, he wanted me to write a part in for his new wife at the time, Ali MacGraw. And he had told me it was the best script he ever read. And I said to him, ‘You said it’s the best script you ever read. There is no real role for a woman,’" recalls Friedkin. "And he said, ‘Okay. Well, make her an associate producer so she can be with me constructively.’ And I was arrogant, you know. I said, “I don’t believe in associate producer credits. They’re bulls—-. And no, I can’t do that. And he gave me a third option: to find a place and shoot the whole thing somewhere in the United States. And I didn’t think I could do that. And so I gave him no choice."
The risk factor wasn’t just financial; Friedkin also put himself and his cast and crew in real physical danger, ambitiously shooting in the jungles of the Domincan Republic, the deserts of Mexico, and the old city of Jerusalem, where a terrorist bomb went off the same day they were shooting a staged terrorist bombing.
"It was dangerous. I mean, it was way beyond what I would do today. I would never risk my own life and the lives of others the way I did on this film," says Friedkin, who contracted malaria and lost some 50 pounds after the shoot. "It was extremely dangerous to do so much of it, and I had a kind of sleepwalker’s certainty that I could pull it off and that nobody would be hurt. But it was life threatening. The scenes on the bridge, a lot of the driving, much of which the actors did themselves."
Because of such risks, it took the financing of two studios — Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures— to finally agree to make the picture. Having two studios involved at the get-go turned out to be double the headache for Friedkin, not just during shooting and promotion, but also many years later, when interested universities, art houses, and film societies couldn’t find the film.
"The film was no longer available. Paramount and Universal, who had co-produced it, both were claiming that they didn’t own it anymore and they didn’t know who did. So I had to bring a lawsuit to determine who owned it," says Friedkin.
Now that all the legal details have been worked out, with Warner Bros. stepping in for Blu-ray and streaming rights, Friedkin’s film has begun to fill theaters like he thought it would back in 1977.
"There’s a theatre club here called Cinefamily, and they have about 25,000 members at least. And they’re going to play it for a week before it goes into a general theatrical release. And they had a full house last night, they had a full house when I ran it in Venice and in Copenhagen, as it did in Istanbul recently, and the Toronto Film Festival in Canada where I think it’s still playing. And then it goes into a full release while the Blu-ray is out," says Friedkin with a tone of pride in his voice.
And he’s got good reason to be proud, as Friedkin considers “Sorcerer” his best work.
"I love the film. It’s the favorite of all the films I’ve made. It’s the only film I’ve made that I wouldn’t change a frame of it. It’s the film that came the closest to my vision of it," says Friedken.
Yet Friedkin may still want to go back and change that original release date.
For more on “Sorcerer,” “The Exorcist,” and “The French Connection,” below are highlights from my conversation with the ever loquacious, sometimes irascible , always entertaining William Friedkin.
The “Sorcerer” Blu-ray. (Warner Bros.)
If “Star Wars” changed the film making template, do you think that template was changed for the worse?
No, it is what it is. It isn’t up to me to say it’s better or worse. I mean, people love these films. You know, the films like “Batman” and “Superman” and “Spiderman” and “Captain America” and all of this stuff comes out of “Star Wars.” They would not have been possible. Nobody envisioned American film turning to that direction until “Star Wars,” when everybody started to think that this was the only sort of film that could be successful, financially.
So, then, opening up after “Star Wars,” and a disappointing opening at that, how did it affect your career afterward? Like, I know you went in thinking that this was really going to connect and then it didn’t really connect. How did that affect you?
WF: Well that’s, you know, as they say, Adam, s—- happens, you know? I kept on making films. I didn’t want to make super hero films or super villain films, or any of that kind… I didn’t want to make that kind of film. So I concentrated on different things. Immediately after “Sorcerer”… not immediately, maybe a couple of months later, I started to prepare “Cruising.”
"Sorcerer" seems like really good timing from a relevant standpoint.
WF: I appreciate that. No, I never thought it went out of style or something. You know, there’s nothing that focuses on one period, let alone the time in which it was made.
In your memoir you say that “Sorcerer” turned out to be “the most difficult, frustrating, and dangerous film I’ve ever made, and it took a toll on my health as well as my reputation.”
WF: Well, I contracted malaria as a result of it. And it’s not easy to diagnose malaria. You go to a doctor who has never seen the symptoms of malaria, they think it’s a serious flu. And I went misdiagnosed for several weeks with a doctor I had trusted. And fortunately for me, there had just been a pill that had come out that cured malaria over a course of prescriptions. It was brutal.
And there were many others who worked on the film who had gangrene and various other diseases, other cases of malaria, from where we were.
Bruno Cremer, Roy Scheider, and Amidou in ‘Sorcerer.’ (Warner Bros.)
You say you had a sleepwalker’s certainty that no one would get hurt. Where did that come from?
WF: Just my attitude in those days. I had felt the same when I did “The French Connection.” And I still have it to a degree, but not to the degree that I would risk other people’s lives any more, or my own. I mean, for example, when I did “Killer Joe” that was a different kind of danger. I knew that I was facing an NC-17 rating but I persisted in making the film that I had envisioned. And I had a sleepwalker’s certainty that I could pull it off. Now that didn’t endanger anyone’s life, but “Sorcerer” did, as did “The French Connection.” And I would not go there anymore. I was young and I felt that everything that I undertook would turn out fine.
Is that why Roy Scheider followed you, because he was young and thought everything that you did would turn out fine?
WF: Well, certainly he wasn’t concerned in any way that he expressed to me. He never balked at doing any of the stuff that you see. So I can’t read his mind, he’s gone. But he never expressed, nor did any of the people that followed me on this adventure, express to me any real concern. We did everything we could to make it as safe as possible, but you know, there’s always that small possibility.
Was there a particular scene that you finished and you were like, “We got lucky there”?
WF: Well, the bridge, certainly.
How did you get the truck to stay on the bridge like that?
WF: Well, the truck dumped maybe seven or eight times. I was in it once when it dumped, so were the actors and the stuntmen. And believe me, it wasn’t pleasant. And we just repaired that section of the bridge and kept going.
When you were in the truck and it dumped, what happened exactly?
WF: You fell in the water. And it was raining. And you counted yourself lucky that the truck didn’t fall on you or anyone else. You know, there were a lot of safety devices, but I don’t need to repeat it, it was life threatening. But all of us who worked on it at the time felt that if we could pull it off, it would be an extraordinary and memorable scene. That’s the feeling we operated on. And there was no other way to do it. You know, computer imagery did not exist at that time.
In your Letter from the Director in the Blu-ray edition, you say that you didn’t want to do another cop movie, you didn’t want to do another cult movie, you wanted to get outside of your comfort zone. Did Sorcerer take you further outside your comfort zone than you had anticipated?
WF: Of course. Yeah. That was one of the motivating factors. I’ve always viewed filmmaking as both an adventure and an education. When you do it, you learn a great deal about different societies and peoples and customs. I’ve been all over the world making films, including Iraq. You know, I did the opening of “The Exorcist” up in Northern Iraq outside of Mosul. And I’ve experienced a lot of cultures and learned a lot and made friends in all of these places.
So I’ve not only learned a lot but it’s all been an adventure. And you find that the most profound adventure is inside your own mind’s eye. You learn about more about yourself when you do films like that. If I were to do, you know, just another spandex movie, you know where the guy in the mask that doesn’t really conceal his identify and he flies around and saves the world, I don’t think I would learn much about myself or the real world. So I’ve always enjoyed making films as an adventure and an education.
What was your first dramatic directing gig, was that for Hitchcock?
WF: Oh, I did the last “Hitchcock Hour” after I guess 10 years of it, and I learned nothing from Mr. Hitchcock that I hadn’t learned before, and after from his films. I’ve learned a great deal from Hitchcock’s films.
So the only advice he had for you was to wear a tie?
WF: Yeah. Yes, literally. And he was serious.
Did you take that to heart?
WF: No. And if you remember the whole story, I saw him some four years later at the Director’s Guild Awards. I had just won the award for “The French Connection.” And he was sitting down front with his family and his agents, and I went right down after I made my acceptance speech. And I had this rented tuxedo and one of those snap-on bow ties, and I snapped my tie at him and said, “How do you like the tie now, Hitch?” Of course, he had no memory of it, but I did.
It was good. He stared at me blankly, much as he had done when he saw that I wasn’t wearing a tie.
Roy Scheider in “Sorcerer.” (Warner Bros.)
You were at a huge point in your career when you took on “Sorcerer,” and I would imagine that you could have worked with pretty much anyone, but you chose to work with a relatively unknown, well relatively unknown in the US, cast. Why is that?
WF: Well, I had another cast in mind, and for various reasons it didn’t work out. I think I could have made it work out, but I wasn’t concerned about having those stars. None of them wanted to film under those kind of conditions, and some of them couldn’t. Like I had Marcello Mastroianni for one of the roles, but he could not leave Italy or France because he had a daughter at the time with Catherine Deneuve and she wouldn’t obviously give him access to his daughter in the period that he would be in a country like where we were going.
What was the first sign of difficulty with “Sorcerer”?
WF: Well, it began with the fact that I didn’t get the ideal cast. I had Steve McQueen, Lino Ventura, and Marcello Mastroianni. Now, you know, put all that aside. I’m delighted with the cast I have. I got the right cast for that film. They’re inseparable from those roles. And I don’t think that McQueen would have, could have reached the emotional lows that Scheider did as an actor. McQueen would have been great. We wrote the script for McQueen. But I don’t think he would have gotten to the emotional resonance that Scheider was able to.
How long did it take to find Scheider?
WF: Oh, I don’t remember, Adam. Not that long. I spoke to some other actors who considered it, Robert Mitchum, among them. I would have been very happy with Mitchum, but he had reached a point in his life where he didn’t want to work that hard physically.
I read that Scheider was upset that he wasn’t in “The Exorcist.” Did he express that concern going into “Sorcerer”? Was that a sticking point?
WF: No. Not at all. He expressed it before, he wanted to play Father Karras in “The Exorcist.” And I would have gone along with that, but Bill Blatty, who wrote the novel and the screenplay, he didn’t think Scheider was right. And my first obligation was to please Blatty, who created this thing.
So how did you agree upon Jason Miller then?
WF: I convinced everybody that he was right. That’s how we agreed.
That was his first role, right?
WF: Yeah. He had never been in a film. He had only done some regional theatre, small parts. He was a playwright, and I met him socially. And I saw that he was this guy, he had lived that life. He had studied for the priesthood for three years, had a crisis of faith, dropped out. I did a screen test of him and I convinced everybody, and it took a lot of convincing that he was the guy. He not only wasn’t a star, he was completely unknown as an actor, except in regional theatres.
Jason Miller in ‘The Exorcist.’ (Everett Collections)
Do you take pride in the fact that you’ve scared so many people with “The Exorcist”?
WF: Not really, because the film was always about the mystery of faith to me. I never set out to make a horror film. I knew it would be disturbing, but I also thought that it would provide people a lot to think about in relation to the mystery of faith. Blatty and I never spoke about making a horror film.
That’s interesting, because it’s widely regarded as, if not the best, one of the top five horror films of all time.
WF: I know that people think of it as a horror film. I’m not surprised at that. It’s an easy way to deal with it is to label it. But it’s not what we set out to do. I accept the fact that it’s regarded as a horror film, but I also accept the fact that millions and millions of people around the world have thought about the whole idea of faith because of “The Exorcist.” Not the ripoffs that came afterwards, no.
How do you know which fights to really fight and which fights to let go?
WF: Oh, I don’t know. Instinct.
Seems like there’s a lot of fighting that goes on as a director.
WF: Sometimes I’m wrong, you know? Just because I fight for something and win doesn’t mean I was always right. But I always went with my belief. I always went with my vision, even though others influenced it from time to time.
Gene Hackman in ‘The French Connection.’ (20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy Everett Collection)
Can you think of an occurrence when you were dead set against something but you were actually wrong?
WF: Yeah. I wasn’t completely convinced about giving the starring role in “The French Connection” to Gene Hackman or Fernando Rey. I didn’t think that it was going to work out. But I had to cast the film because the studio was collapsing of its own weight and I had to get that film on or it would never have gone forward.
I mean, the guy I wanted in Hackman’s role was Jackie Gleason, and the studio would not go with him.
That would have been a very different movie.
WF: I’m not sure. Jackie Gleason was closer in nature to the actual cop. So I had my doubts about Hackman throughout the shooting of that film. And now that it’s all past us, I think he was great and my initial reaction was wrong.
But you never worked with him again, right?
WF: We talked about it several times, and it never materialized. And for many, many, many years that I might have worked with him, he’s been retired. He lives in Santa Fe and he’s completely retired. I don’t think he’s made a film for God knows how many years. He writes thrillers with another guy and he paints and he’s very happy. And I don’t think Gene ever really enjoyed acting, as great as he was.
Why do you think he wasn’t enjoying himself?
WF: I have no idea. But I know he often expressed that, and I think his… you know, for a long time Gene was a very restless soul. He kept moving everywhere. He’d move from house to house in Los Angeles, and then he moved to other places, and now I think he’s found peace and happiness in Santa Fe, doing more of what pleases him, painting and writing.
The oil fire begins in William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer.” (Warner. Bros.)
You worked on four very different films in that decade: “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist,” “Sorcerer,” and “Cruising.” What connects those films?
WF: My sensibility and my interests. I’ve only made 17 films in almost 50 years. I think I’m a year short of having made films for 50 years, in that my first one I started in 1965. And I worked all the time, but several things have happened. I’ve abandoned a number of projects because I couldn’t achieve my vision of them. That’s certainly number one.
But I was interested in all of those films. They were things that were on my mind that I was interested in. They were like mysteries without a solution, you know, especially “Cruising” but also “Sorcerer.” And a large part of what interested me about “Sorcerer” was that the most mysterious part of any journey is what brought the travelers to that point, to the starting point, in the first place. And “Sorcerer” is a film that begins in mystery, ends in mystery, and has a kind of a savage journey in between.
And I was totally immersed in all of those films, and indeed everyone that I’ve made since, including “Bug” and “Killer Joe.” I read a lot of scripts. I get scripts all the time, and did after “Sorcerer.” But they weren’t things that I wanted to do.
Are you pursuing any other director gigs?
WF: Well, the next thing I’m doing is for HBO. I’m going to do a film about a brief period in the life of Mae West with Bette Midler. And it’s being written by Doug McGrath, who wrote “Bullets Over Broadway,” the film, with Woody Allen. And he has another show on Broadway called “Beautiful,” which is the music of Carole King. And he’s written some other really fine screenplays. “Nicholas Nickleby,” you know, a number of really good works. And he’s writing the Mae West film for Bette Midler and me. She’ll sing three or four songs. And I would only do this with Bette Midler. She’s a friend, and I spoke to her and she became as excited as I was.
And HBO did as well. I enjoy working with them a great deal now. I’m a very collaborative guy. I’m not primarily interested in creative freedom. My thought is that the best idea, wherever it comes from, and you can usually tell, is the one that works. And that comes from very different sources often.
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