From the Archives: Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist

From the Archives: Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

A few years back, William Friedkin made a “documentary” called The Devil and Father Amorth, which purported to be an insider’s look into a real exorcism. While that much is indeed true, and Friedkin did get to film an exorcism in progress, anyone with any amount of sense saw what was really going on: a troubled woman was undergoing one of the most hardcore placebos ever administered. The angle of the film was one of belief, so aggressively so that Friedkin added demonic tones to the audio track of the “possessed” woman’s mid-exorcism yells and screams, making her voice like that of even the cheapest straight-to-video possession victim. Frankly, it was embarrassing, and to read subsequent interviews with Friedkin in which he expressed utter offense that anyone would suggest that he would do something so dishonest in a film, was kind of a big moment for me. Here’s William Friedkin, one of the best filmmakers of all time saying something so aggressively stupid, and doing so with such emotion, that I began to wonder if this guy was indeed a genius, or just a huckster who took his snake oil sales pitch one step too far?

It admittedly left a bad taste in my mouth, the unassailability of Sorcerer notwithstanding, but in the time since watching it, I’ve warily chosen to believe that Friedkin is indeed a brilliant storyteller, and one who is so committed to his craft that he’ll go along with a falsity if only just for the fun of upsetting rubes like myself. It drives me up a wall, but you really gotta respect it! In addition to the healing salve of time, the latest documentary by Alexandre O. Philippe (78/52) gives us a much deeper look into the mindset of a master filmmaker than any clipped interview ever could. Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is different than most other oral histories you’ll see in that there is only one talking head to speak of: Friedkin himself.

Following up on the same instinct that likely manifested The Devil and Father Amorth (namely, the fact that The Exorcist is Friedkin’s most iconic work), Leap of Faith gives Friedkin just under two hours to ramble on and on about what it was like to make the film. It occurs to me that I’m making this sound like a bad thing when it very much is not. Friedkin is a fantastically engaging storyteller whose sharp memory belies his age. The dude remembers everything and everyone down to some impressively small details, and is able to weave his inspirations and ideas into the explanations of his creative choices in a way that shows just how much thought was put into making what is largely considered the scariest movie of all time. He can sell us on every creative impulse he had, and it becomes quite clear why he’s such an effective filmmaker — Friedkin can spin a yarn with the best of them. Strong Robert Evans vibes are with him, sans the plasticine coke-nose.

What I mean is that while every word coming from his mouth rings of truth, the contradictions are as common as the facts. To hear Friedkin tell it, tons and tons of preparation went into every aspect of the film, and he often had to fight for certain choices in order keep things congruent with his vision. At the same time, he pretty much credits every choice he made to luck, fate, and instinct. Having worked on film sets before, there is undoubtedly a lot of truth here — films are often a crazy mix of downright clinical preparation and flying by the seat of one’s pants — but the dichotomy he’s putting forth changes only in service to the self-image Friedkin seems to want to create in the moment.

…which is why I love him?

Emerging from Leap of Faith, I had similar thoughts as I did emerging from The Devil and Father Amorth, only now I’m seeing it from a different angle. This is Friedkin’s power. It’s almost as if he knew that by refusing to engage with the extremely valid criticisms of his own documentary, it would result in him expanding the real estate he already had in my brain. It’s as if Friedkin understood that the creative aspects of his work can tie directly into the business end of things if he pulls the right emotional strings. If I went from fan to skeptic a few years back, I must concede that I was likely the victim of 4D chess on the part of Mr. Friedkin.

I am sorry I have doubted you, oh great one.

Philippe stands out as a documentarian because there’s really no editorial angle here, just a one man oral history of the making of a single film. What Philippe adds to the proceedings is a damn near magical layering of both footage from The Exorcist and behind the scenes images to complement Friedkin’s words, often resulting in a perfect dance between sound and image. One component would be essentially worthless without the other, but together it’s a film nerd’s dream. A score is added as well, and as far as I can tell it was created originally for the doc. It too is woven into the material in such a complementary way, often recreating the sound effects or tonal shifts employed in The Exorcist just as Friedkin is describing how the soundscape came to be. And while I wish there were more technical stories of production, that doesn’t seem to be the goal of the film. Instead, they are seeking a lyrical, experiential telling of one of the most legendary productions in film history, and on that front its a total success.

While Friedkin waxes philosophical over his influences, which range from Caravaggio to Magritte (I will honestly be thinking about how films can be lit quite differently now), one thing becomes very clear: this half-blowhard oddball has tons of creative juices still flowing through him, and regardless of our methods, we all should be as creatively invested in our own projects as he was in his. Facts, in the realm of creative endeavors, are often inferior to truths, and this is a duality that Friedkin embodies in all of his work, even late career faux-documentaries. It just took another brilliant filmmaker unpacking it all in order for me to understand. Very well done!

eap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is now streaming on Shudder.

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