Hollywood heavy hitters normally wait until they're out of the film game to write their memoirs. That way they can settle scores and write the first draft of their cinematic history without severing relationships they still need.
Not William Friedkin. Still going strong at 77, the director is releasing his tell-it-like-it-was memoir, The Friedkin Connection, in the middle of a late-career renaissance. Horror-thriller Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2011) garnered some of the best reviews of his 50-year career. Killer Joe, a critical darling slapped with an NC-17 rating, would have done even better at the box office had Friedkin given in to the rating board's demands that he trim some of the Southern-fried depravity surrounding Matthew McConaughey's police detective with a side career as a contract killer.
Friedkin's against-all-odds success story is compelling reading from the start. He was raised in the white slums of Chicago by Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine; his mother was a saint who kept him away from the neighborhood toughs; his father a semi-pro baseball player turned clothing salesman. Inspired by Citizen Kane to become a director but with no money for college, Friedkin started working in the mailroom of TV station WGN. Within a couple of years he was directing live TV, and soon his documentary about a convicted murderer, The People vs. Paul Crump, won several awards and contributed to the commutation of Crump's death sentence.
Lured to Hollywood, Friedkin made The French Connection, which brought a gritty sense of cinema verité to what could have been a conventional police procedural. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Gene Hackman) and Best Director, catapulting him into the New Hollywood stratosphere. When he followed it up with one of the all-time box office champs, The Exorcist, all of his worst qualities — arrogance, abrasiveness, obsessiveness — were in full bloom. He thought he had found the magic formula, but this time it produced Sorcerer, a dark, relentless film that came out the same week as Star Wars, a popcorn film that crushed Sorcerer at the box office and signaled the end of the serious, morally curious films that Friedkin specialized in. The project drained his energy and killed his mojo — “my hardest shoot ever,” he says — and led to a long period of decline and despair before a comeback that began with To Live and Die in L.A. (1985).
A notorious womanizer, Friedkin had three failed marriages — to L.A. newscaster Kelly Lange, French actress Jeanne Moreau and British actress Lesley-Anne Down — before finding lasting love with actress-turned–studio mogul Sherry Lansing in 1991.
L.A. WEEKLY: Why wouldn't you make the changes to Killer Joe requested by the ratings board?
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Fuck them where they breathe. I gave them 17 seconds, but they bounced it right back for more. So I said the hell with it, that's it, that's the picture.
Why do you say luck and ambition are just as important as talent in Hollywood?
Ambition is probably more important than luck and talent. A lot of the people directing movies today, writing them and even big stars, they're more lucky and ambitious than talented. I've seen great films at festivals, people have sent me great DVDs and emails, I see very talented people out there that are not going to get a shot. Maybe one out of 20 will get a shot.
Tougher to handle: success or failure?
Failure is tougher to handle, in spite of a lot of guys that would like to say otherwise. Failure is more difficult because you often don't know why it happened or what you can do about it. Success is easier because you just ride the wave.
Steve McQueen loved the script for Sorcerer and said he would do it if you filmed it closer to L.A. or if you gave Ali McGraw a producer's job so she could be on location with him. Should you have accommodated McQueen's requests?
Without a doubt. That was the biggest fuck-up I ever committed. I was arrogant and stupid and didn't accede to his requests, which I would have done today.
Why are you able to still make films that matter, when so many of your peers are either dead or long out of the film business?
One reason — it's the God's honest truth — is that I have never tried any kind of drug or narcotics. Never even smoked grass.
Did many of your peers destroy themselves with substance abuse?
Many did. The most important thing you need to direct a move is stamina. Your brain can't be scrambled. There's a lot of stuff out there today that looks like it was made by scrambled brains.
You've been happily married to Sherry Lansing for 22 years, but you chose not to write about your three failed marriages and all the other women you were with before Sherry. Why not?
No one is interested in that. I'm not a sex symbol. I actually wrote all that stuff, but I looked at the whole book and thought, this is going to trip people up. They did not end well and I didn't want to be in a position to either lay blame or accept blame. I also wrote about casual, one-night affairs with famous people, but then I didn't want to tarnish their memory.
The French Connection won the Oscar and The Exorcist didn't, but The Exorcist became a part of American pop culture. Why?
It resonates with people on a far deeper level because it deals with the mystery of faith. French Connection is a good thriller, a damn good story with interesting characters, but Exorcist is about the mystery of life and faith. Even atheists are interested in that.
What caused your heart attack at 41?
Deep-dish pizza from Chicago and hot dogs from everywhere. I consumed more hot dogs than Wimpy did hamburgers.
You say Al Pacino was always late to the set of Cruising and unprepared with his lines. That'll be a shock to fans who consider him a great craftsman.
It's no skin off my ass. That's the truth. I tried to write the book as honestly as I could. Once I agreed to do it, I decided not to bullshit anybody. I was going to tell things the way I remembered them and how I felt about them.
You tell the story of fighting back against Joel the bully as a kid, so why did you resort to bullying so often to get your way on film sets?
I don't have it right in front of me, but …
Well, fuck you — you want me to name the times I was a bully?
Are you saying you never bullied anybody on your sets?
Absolutely not. Are you talking about the handful of occasions I slapped someone to get a performance? Read Sidney Lumet's autobiography and he discusses doing that. I know that Hitchcock did that and John Ford did it. No one did it constantly, nor would you do it to every actor you work with.
You say your mother sacrificed her life for you and is responsible for whatever goodness is in you. What goodness is in you?
Oh, fuck that. My mother taught me — and my wife underscores constantly — don't brag on yourself.
You admit to risking lives to get that great chase in The French Connection. Why do that?
I would not do that again, but I did in my youth. I was sort of fearless and I also had faith. Fortunately, by the grace of God, no one got hurt in my films.
You admit that after The French Connection and The Exorcist, you were overtaken by a sense of entitlement and hubris. In hindsight, how should you have handled that kind of overwhelming success?
I should have been more compassionate.
You sometimes cultivated a rep as a dangerously psychotic person. Why?
It got a lot of studio executives off my back. I learned that from Bill Blatty.
Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind's book about the New Hollywood of the '70s, paints you as a womanizer, a tyrant and a bully quick to fire people for any reason or no reason at all. Any truth to that?
I've actually never read the book, but I've talked to some of my friends who are portrayed in it, and we all share the opinion that it is partial truth, partial myth and partial out-and-out lies by mostly rejected girlfriends and wives.
Ellen Burstyn claims she had an affair with you after she starred in The Exorcist. True?
I hope she enjoyed it.