William Friedkin

Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan | José Manuel Sande | Schawn Belston

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Hurricane Billy
by Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan

Hurricane Billy. The nickname (also the title of a book about him) took hold shortly after William Friedkin arrived in Hollywood from Chicago, soon to be the youngest director ever to win an Oscar, with The French Connection (1971). He carried that genial, troublemaking aura through his career, just like the characteristic, impish smile that brightened his face as he zoomed around on a scooter while on the set of his last film, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial -the crew and cast of young actors in navy uniforms clearly in awe of “the master”. Also on set that day, in February of 2023, was Billy’s understudy, Guillermo del Toro.

As studios’ insurance policies dictate for directors past a certain age, del Toro had agreed to step in if Friedkin could not finish the film. “I don’t need to be there, but I go on set every day”, del Toro told me. “There is so much to learn!”.  As it turned out, Friedkin finished production (two weeks on a soundstage, at Radford Studios) one day ahead of schedule. Within a month, by the beginning of March, he had a final cut.

I met William Friedkin for the first time in 2003, as I was working on a book and a major retrospective about his work for the Torino Film Festival, that would then travel to the French Cinematheque in Paris. I must have won his trust as he opened his personal archives; and also agreed to dig out of his garage, and edit, the footage of the Fritz Lang interview he had conducted for a project about the evolution of horror film, A Safe Darkness, that never materialized.

Since then, we kept in touch as friends and I had the pleasure of bringing several of his films to the Venice Film Festival, where we also awarded him a Golden Lion for Career Achievement, in 2013. That night we screened Sorcerer, his film maudit -and a masterpiece- which he had battled two studios to restore.  Never one to shy away from a fight, Billy was irreverent by nature and never lost the no bullshit, streetwise quality of his blue-collar Russian Jew Chicago youth. He had no patience for “suits” or “pols” and could not suffer mediocrity or group thinking platitudes. That made him an angular presence in Hollywood, even at the peaks of his career, when he immediately followed The French Connectionwith The Exorcist, an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling book that Warner Bros. reluctantly allowed him to direct, after both Stanley Kubrick and Francis Coppola had rejected the project.

Unlike his New Hollywood peers, he did not go to film school but started by directing TV documentaries – the first one, The People vs. Paul Crump, famously saved a man from the electric chair, and already contained some bold, dramatic re-enactments anticipating not only his poetic interests but the compositions and editing style to come.  Billy moved away from documentaries very quickly. Still, that early brush with reality’s unpredictability, almost a danger, never left his frame and haunts all his “classics”– Cruising, Sorcerer, The French Connection, The Exorcist, To Live and Die in LA; as well as some of my favorites among his other films – his two collaborations with playwriter and fellow Chicagoan Tracey Letts, Bug and Killer Joe, and the unjustly reviled Jade.

Billy applied his formidable formal precision, with equal intensity, to the expanse settings of the “chase” films and to the confined settings of the ones shot in a single room, a challenge he liked to embrace. He matched his curiosity for the dark corners of the human soul with his love for the arts -film, of course, but also literature (Proust was one of his favorite writers), painting and music.  “It takes talent, imagination, and a feeling for the zeitgeist to find a subject that touches a nerve. What I still want from a film -or a play, a painting, a novel, a piece of music- is exhilaration. I want to be moved and surprised at some revelation about the human condition”, Billy wrote in the introduction to his memoir, The Friedkin Connection (Harper Collins, 2013). He never stopped looking for that sense of exhilaration. His eyes never lost that sense of wonder. He was also incredibly funny.

Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan
Sag Harbor, NY
March 29, 2024

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SHOCK,  SURPRISE, CONFUSION:
by José Manuel Sande

When William Friedkin (b. Chicago, 1935 – d. Bel-Air, Los Angeles, 2023) passed away last August, two bittersweet feelings seemed to overtake us. One appealed to the melancholy of the years of revelation, to the discovery of the great filmmakers of the greatest titles of the 1970s, the golden age of a subversive and therefore diverse Hollywood; the other, more painful, to the oblivion of grandeur and our notions of time and recognition.

As if fighting against the anathema that had condemned him in life to the mark of unrepeatable milestones – The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973) – or as if one were struck by the voice of the conscience of a reincarnation of the three (accurate) words that Adrian Martin ascribed to his cinema in a (prescient) obituary-like text for Sight&Sound with which he summed up our state as spectators: “shock, surprise, confusion.”

Three states in which the cinema of Friedkin – the great autodidact of New Hollywood, who was metaphorically dazzled by an early screening of Citizen Kane but was nonetheless an excellent connoisseur of the vigour of the European and Japanese cinema of his time – immerses us. Three representations of a gift that perseveres in many more titles and moments than the naysayers who wanted to write him off as dead after Sorcerer (1977) could accept, and later aspired to engrave a tombstone reflecting his looks, impregnated with neglect or bad conscience, with Cruising (1980).

In the month following his death I recovered – with more curiosity and motivation than Spartan rigour or systematic spirit – sixteen of his works, including some I had not seen, such as Rampage (1987), a thriller full of excesses capable of transmitting an unhealthy atmosphere and offering, as a was a trademark, an unusual sound design, and the inspired television version of Twelve Angry Men (1997). And others, such as Blue Chips (1992) and Jade (1995), in which, despite their shortcomings, he remains the perspicacious all-rounder who absorbs everything, avoiding content too far from his anxious worlds and even crossing over into a delirious libretto by Joe Eszterhas.

That unhealthy character, the ambiguity, the sound construction and the brilliance of so many of his visual solutions surpasses the widespread idea that Friedkin was a footnote, a figure of the past enhanced by a couple of omnipresent titles in the history of cinema, the Oscar-winning crime film with its documentary dimension The French Connection, and the heartbreaking strokes that would reinvent the horror story, The Exorcist. It is true that these are two popular and virtuoso films, two major endeavours, in which realism, background and authenticity – he revives a premise of his: “I seek spontaneity, not perfection” – make his work akin to a documentary forms, albeit meticulous ones, for which Friedkin would always be a shrewd officiant.

Guided tours through hell

Friedkin established a forceful link to documentary from the beginning in his early work, with several television pieces. A work capable of amending reality (the commutation of a death sentence), The People vs. Paul Crump (1962), and later lesser known portraits, such as Conversation with Fritz Lang (1975), a crepuscular and lucid encounter with the German filmmaker, where the intense verbal exchange seems to revisit the styles and constants that temper both of their cinemas.

It is no coincidence that the recognition of this documentary technique for working with fictional narration comes from Z (1969), the legendary Costa-Gavras film that impressed him, nor that he filmed the best chases seen in cinema since Buster Keaton.

Thus, Friedkin opens and closes the decade of the 1970s with two thrillers set in a dark New York. If The French Connection was a slap in the face of the buddy movie form, with a much more real anti-hero (and an infinitely better actor, Gene Hackman) than Harry Callahan, Cruising grows in controversy – accused of being a violent, banal and stigmatising portrayal of the gay community – to close the period with spectral magnetism. Accompanied by Jack Nitzsche’s superb score, it traces the line of a horror film, a disturbing nightmare, a proposal only revitalised by time.

And from one decade, and one coast, to another, from New York to Los Angeles, another breaking of moulds. In Live and die in L. A . (1985), the director gave new meaning to the term new, and reconstructed the police cinema of the macho Reagan era. With the secured pedigree of the image (cinematographer Robby Müller figuratively arriving from Paris, Texas) and the sound (Wang Chung’s soundtrack), and a handful of unknown actors – William Petersen and Willem Dafoe– realism and sophistication coexist. A tableau of a cold and gloomy Los Angeles, it emerges, alongside Chinatown, Blade Runner, Los Angeles Plays Itself and the writings of Mike Davis, as one of the most singular and enduring approaches to the historic city.

For Friedkin there were still more roads to travel, from music videos to opera, always with the same energy and involvement. And perhaps even further personal evolutions, though I don’t know whether they made him less overwhelming or more likeable. After all this, Friedkin’s arrogance – echoed by a quote from Elia Kazan (“Arrogance, however disguised, is the essence of every artist”) in the prelude to his memoirs, The Friedkin Connection (2013), a book that awaits (and deserves) translation in Spain– begins to diminish.

From another of the introductory phrases of this book, the one that resignifies the logic of the camera, and from the modesty of production, emerge, largely concentrated in small spaces and exploring essentiality, with energy, humour and testamentary character, two adaptations of plays by Tracy Letts, Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2011). These are very black comedies which, as a coda, surely indicate two aspects that function as a vital synthesis: neither early nor dazzling success destroyed his talent, nor would he ever lose his expeditious and courageous ways.

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An Appreciation of William Friedkin
by Schawn Belston

I first met William Friedkin in a screening room on the Fox Lot in 1998. I was a terrified, inexperienced junior executive at Fox and he was a Hollywood legend. He was going to be at an event honoring “The French Connection” and it was my job to make sure he liked the print in advance of the show. I’d been warned he had never been happy with any prints of the movie, and that he ate guys like me for lunch.

The warnings proved true, as he more than exceeded expectations. From the first big note of the main title score, he barked “milk!” with increased anger at every shot he felt needed density while I busily tried to keep up with writing notes in the dark. We stopped after 3 reels because it was a waste of his time to continue beyond that. As the lights came up in the screening room, I braced myself for a shellacking. He stood up, exasperated, looked me carefully over, and sort of sighed. “You gotta talk to the lab and see what they can do.” I did just that, he ended up liking the print, and over the ensuing decades, we worked on “The French Connection” too many times to count, from film prints to home video masters and multiple digital restorations.

Sitting alone together in the dark with sound down low reviewing the work, the screening room can attain a level of intimacy between artist and archivist that feels almost like a confessional. I treasure those times with Billy. He didn’t tell me any scandalous secrets, but over the years in the dark something better happened: a friendship formed.

Nobody could tell stories like Billy. He didn’t need a moderator, and frequently turned post-screening Q&As into brilliant monologues. It’s a bit strange to be writing about him now, because I prefer the way Billy told it. Other than recommend you see his films and dive deep down the internet Friedkin rabbit hole, what can I possibly say about him or “The French Connection” that he didn’t say himself?

It will surprise no one that he was a perfectionist, didn’t suffer fools, and absolutely hated feeling like his time was being wasted. He knew exactly what he wanted, and was totally uncompromising in demanding excellence. He was colorful and provocative, but never frivolously profane. His bluster was a mask, behind which was a poet.

Billy was also a cinephile, always up on both the latest movies as well as classic Hollywood and world cinema. He loved “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, which was probably the movie we talked about the most over the years—he pays homage to it in “The French Connection” when at one point Popeye and Cloudy dance like Walter Huston. Even so, he didn’t consider himself in the same league as his director heroes. His filmed interview with Fritz Lang, not long after he made “The Exorcist” is particularly fascinating in the way it captures two filmmakers at opposite ends of their careers, and in the way it foreshadows Billy’s own later years connecting with the generation of filmmakers after him.

It always surprised me when Billy spoke sincerely about his aspiration to someday make one film worthy of comparison to his favorite classics, because to me he’d made at least three: “The French Connection”, “The Exorcist”, and “Sorcerer”—-not to mention “Cruising” and “Killer Joe” among others.

The years flew by, and when my own career took an unexpected turn, Billy was a comforting voice. He checked in on me every month or so—reassuring me, offering to help, talking about the latest opera or movie he was directing, sometimes comparing favorite recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies. He reminded me not to let others define my path, and inspired me by example to keep moving forward and not sweat fools needlessly. I am forever grateful for his friendship and trust.

If heaven has a cinema—and I can’t imagine it doesn’t—I look forward to sitting next to him in the dark once again one day, hearing his stories and catching up on all that has happened since we last met.

– Schawn Belston, Los Angeles, April 2024