“As a filmmaker, my ambition is to make a film that stands up to ‘Citizen Kane.’ I haven’t done that yet.”
So says William Friedkin from the stage of Seattle’s Egyptian Theater, where he’s receiving the Seattle International Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award (After being handed the snake-like, Dale Chihuly-produced sculpture, he jokingly asked, “Is this from ‘Prometheus?’).
Some in the audience would beg to differ. “You already have,” yells one goth-garbed audience member. Tellingly, the onlooker’s girlfriend wears silk-screenings of pentagrams and inverted crosses down both black spandex pant-legs. The couple’s creepy fashion aesthetic suggests they’re more smitten with Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” than with Orson Welles.
It’s Saturday evening on June 9th, and even though 76 year-old Friedkin is also present to tout “Killer Joe,” his latest taboo-breaking black comedy, he’s happy to serve up “Exorcist” trivia to the film’s many admirers in attendance. Dressed in a grey sport-jacket, white tie, and glasses that gleam off stage spotlights like the laser-eyed pupils of Beelzebub, Friedkin insists that he auditioned “The Exorcist” from the address “666 5th Avenue.”
As for his controversial decision to cast 12-year old Linda Blair as puke-spewing, foul-mouthed, demon-possessed adolescent Regan McNeil, Friedkin explains, “I hired her because I knew this material would not get to her.” Prior to the audition, did the youngster even know of “The Exorcist” and its devilish subject matter? Of course. She’d already read the book.
According to “Killer Joe” star Emile Hirsch, also present onstage, Friedkin works fast, with unbridled energy. Hirsch’s claim is reinforced by the director’s restless manner. He ignores an onstage chair, preferring to stand and pace back and forth.
Friedkin reveals that “The French Connection,” his 1971 Best Picture Oscar-winner, was shot in 40 days. Meanwhile, he spent a mere 19 days on “Killer Joe.” Why so expedient? It’s simple. Friedkin says that he prefers “spontaneity over perfection.” Standing beneath an on-screen “Killer Joe” logo, the legendary filmmaker explains that he often selects his first takes. Compare this to David Fincher, who allegedly shot 90 takes for one scene from “The Social Network,” and Friedkin’s efficiency is astounding.
Hirsch also states, “Billy swears a lot.” Tonight’s Q & A confirms this proclamation. Insisting that the job of a director is merely to provide an environment where a film’s crew and actors can do their best work, Friedkin insists that the concept of auteur is “bullshit.” The ratings board, which branded “Killer Joe” with an NC-17, is also “a complete joke. It’s bullshit.” He declares “Good Times,” his 1967 comedy featuring Sonny and Cher, “a piece of s**t.” (Friedkin is slightly more kind his follow-up, “The Night they Raided Minsky’s,” calling it merely “lame.”)
Despite Friedkin’s criticisms of the Ratings Board, one could argue that “Killer Joe” earns its NC-17 stripes. Adapted from an onstage play by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award Winner Tracy Letts (who also wrote Friedkin’s “Bug,” from 2007), “Killer Joe” concerns psychotic Texas cop Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, going defiantly against type). Donning sunglasses, ten-gallon hat, and black boots, Cooper resembles a suave, leather-jacketed cowboy. Behind his handsome veneer, however, this twisted lawman moonlights as a coldly efficient hit man. Called upon to murder the matriarch of a truly skuzzy trailer trash family, “Killer Joe” involves pedophilia, ultra-violence, and a fried chicken leg that nearly upstages McConaughey (don’t ask – see the movie). It’s strong, ugly stuff.
“Is anyone out there 13 years old?” Friedkin jokingly asks the packed audience, referring to the film’s NC-17 status. “Because if anyone says yes, we’re busted.”
Surprisingly, Friedkin refuses to single out any of his films as a “favorite.” But he does suggest a special fondness for the little-seen “Rules of Engagement” (2000). What? Over “French Connection” and “Exorcist”? Sure. According to Friedkin, many directors don’t necessarily favor their most popular films. “Talk to Coppola and ask what’s his favorite film,” the onstage Friedkin insists, “and he wouldn’t say ‘The Godfather.’ Not even close.”
The Q & A drifts back to “The French Connection,” which, aside from “The Exorcist,” is easily his most revered and iconic work. Friedkin explains that the film’s brilliant, game-changing car chase materialized as an attempt to outdo a similar piece de resistance from “Bullitt,” released three years earlier. His chase, however, would be shot in an entirely different landscape. The 1968 Mustang driven by “Bullitt’s” Steve McQueen bounced off the rolling concrete roads of San Francisco. Based in New York, “The French Connection” would tackle crowded streets and elevated subway lines.
In exchange for permission to use the subway train featured prominently in this legendary set-piece, Friedkin claims that his film’s studio, 20th Century Fox, paid the New York Transit Authority $40,000 dollars. With a chuckle, the director says, “The head of Transit Authority P.R. said he needed $40,000 dollars and a one-way ticket to Jamaica.” Why? According to Friedkin, the man knew that if he gave them permission, he’d get fired. Meanwhile, Jamaica seemed like a nice place to live.
Friedkin might dwell on tough tales and dark drama. But he clearly has a wicked sense of humor.
The SIFF honoree continues entertaining his crowd with “French Connection” trivia. The film cost $1.5 million to make. For the ground chase, including a car speeding at 90 miles per hour, Friedkin claims he was NOT granted any formal permission. “It was irresponsible,” he confesses from the stage. “I wouldn’t do it again.”
As the Seattle International Film Festival draws to a close, William Friedkin – the maverick who invented contemporary car chases and demonic horror – would seem the ideal filmmaker to conjure forth the event’s Grand Finale. Congratulations to Friedkin for continuing to push the envelope, and chase the spirit of “Citizen Kane,” into his mid-seventies. And thanks to SIFF, for 38 years of unprecedented film-going bliss.
Seasonal Affective Cinema, indeed. But as SIFF concludes, the sun is finally coming out.