Friedkin Uncut (2018)

Friedkin Uncut

That’s the beginning and end of a career – when you start to believe that you’re an artist. Francesco Zippel’s documentary about the director William Friedkin partly takes place against a travelling backdrop of three film festivals during 2017 (Lyon, Sitges, Venice) where his work was being celebrated, he was being honoured and he was screening a new documentary about a priest who carried out exorcisms.  The first subject for discussion with Friedkin himself and a variety of talking heads, from Wes Anderson to Edgar Wright, is The Exorcist, prompting an odd opening interview to camera in which he considers Hitler’s reputation versus what Jesus did but the context is then revealed to be the existence and interpretation of evil. He states that he made the film as a believer although brought up in the Jewish faith in Chicago by Ukrainian immigrant parents and he says if they’d been Catholic his mother would have been sainted. Quentin Tarantino says that 80% of a film’s success is dependent on casting and, aesthetics aside, he credits Friedkin with brilliance in that department. Full-time milkman, part-time actor (and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of That Championship Season) Jason Miller was Friedkin’s choice for the priest after he saw him on stage and he then dumped first choice Stacy Keach and waited a week for Miller to travel to LA by train. Miller was right for the role and that was that. [Ironically years later when Miller came to bring that play to the screen he cast Keach]. Friedkin claims to be looking for spontaneity rather than perfection and cast members like Ellen Burstyn speak to what she describes as his Method directing – making a suggestion and allowing the actor to run with it, frequently doing just one take. She recalls Max von Sydow, an avowed atheist, the man Friedkin says was the best actor in the world at the time, being completely blocked on his lines in the notorious exorcism scene and says that Friedkin remarked of the 100 things that he imagined could have gone wrong on the set that was literally number 100. He’s a believer in professionalism, not artistry. His films do not aspire to or reach the transcendent, like Antonioni, Fellini, even Argento, he says, as he hugs the maestro at a festival gathering. After high school in Chicago, attended by fellow director Philip Kaufman, he started out in the mailroom of a TV broadcaster and worked his way up at a time when you learned on the job because there was no film school. He shot an extraordinary death row documentary The People Vs. Paul Crump and wound up saving the man from execution. Initially he had no idea about directing feature films – until he saw Citizen Kane and recognised the power of the medium to go beneath the surface of human life. I can’t remember Orson Welles ever saving anyone from hanging but it’s documentary which is the central motivation in Friedkin’s career and it’s this directness that attracts viewers:  Coppola says that he would have explored metaphor if he’d made The Exorcist, whereas Friedkin engaged in it and showed it:  He doesn’t philosophise about evil. He shows you evil. And it’s interesting that when Friedkin tries to extrapolate messages, as in the opening interview, he falters. The French Connection speaks to his background in NYC and his familiarity with gangsters and police detectives (and Randy Jurgensen provides great background in his interview) but also his commitment to cinema veritéNobody can top Buster Keaton. He shot the Brooklyn car chase (done without permits) himself because it was so dangerous and he had discovered the camera operator was married with children; but more than that extraordinary instance of consideration, bloodymindedness and the art of filmmaking (and he says the only great chases in cinema were done by Buster Keaton, one of the handful of cinema masters he extols) people talk about the world of New York City in that film, just as they talk about the recognisable world he visualises in To Live and Die in LA.  That was when he also cast two virtual unknowns, Willem Dafoe and William Petersen, both of whom talk here and we are reminded that the director did something viewed then by critics as utterly unconventional and wrong – killing off the hero three quarters of the way through. He also portrayed the process of currency forgery with such accuracy it attracted the ire of various Government agencies. However it’s Sorcerer he says he’d like to be remembered by, if at all. He and screenwriter Walon Green took the novel behind the H. G. Clouzot (another of his heroes) film The Wages of Fear and using the basic premise reinvented it completely (as he says, they don’t say you’re remaking Hamlet). Francis Ford Coppola reminds us that in those days, when he was also making Apocalypse Now, If you wanted to show something extraordinary, you had to do something extraordinary. And photograph it. And we are watching the bridge scene in which the actors could have died and we realise we are actually watching a documentary. Roy Scheider returned from Connection in the lead which some find problematic and it may be a reason that the film suffered terrible commercial consequences – but then it was released when Star Wars was out. He’s brave. He fights. He’s got balls that clank. Even though he was not part of the Movie Brat generation he formed a company that funded Coppola’s The Conversation and there’s an amusing letter from him warning Coppola not to go over budget.  The masculine nature of his projects is effaced by interviews with Juno Temple (Killer Joe) and Gina Gershon (Bug) who both praise him not just for stripping off in sympathy with them on set but also for creating dimensional female roles. Gershon felt terrible during production but found out in a phonecall afterwards that he treated her the way he did in order to get her to give her great performance and he thought the world of her. Friedkin’s wife was the one who told her. In the mid-Seventies Friedkin realised that Fritz Lang was still alive and well and living in Hollywood and approached him for an interview. After Lang found out what Friedkin had made, he agreed and the fantastic result, Conversation With Fritz Lang is excerpted here, in which the master denies the greatness of his German output and claims to prefer his American films. Perhaps it is the association with Nazism that bothers him. As far as Friedkin’s politics are concerned, he himself denies his work is political to the delight of other commentators. Cruising attracted huge critical odium from the gay community but it is recalled that privately Friedkin was delighted by the controversy (and presumably the ensuing publicity for a film starring Al Pacino). Tarantino says that in the mid-Nineties he screened it for the mostly gay crew of a Broadway play he was appearing in and they were surprised and pleased by it. It exposed a world of S&M clubs immediately prior to the AIDS era that was not only long gone, it had barely been known by a lot of gays at the time and Friedkin had obtained access to shoot in one through the owner, a mobster acquaintance. Critic Stanley Blumenfeld likens his latterday output to that of the Japanese artists Friedkin collects – quick brushstrokes, brief lines. Direct communication.  It’s not as the title suggests uncut unless you include the bits that Friedkin himself would have left out – comments about shots, about coffee. And it’s certainly not a perfect documentary (how ironic). But it is a rather fascinating portrait of one of the more extraordinary and unapologetic filmmakers who is still in our midst if rarely making films nowadays, who recognises at this stage of his life that being a professional is the only thing, art is a happy byproduct. He contentedly drinks his mugs of black coffee in the Hollywood home that he shares with his wife, the first ever woman studio boss, Sherry Lansing, whom he happily says is, like his late mother, a saint. If you want to make a film you need ambition, skill and the grace of God. And the most important thing is the grace of God  MM#2,500