Photo Debra DiPaolo

PARAMOUNT STUDIOS, STAGE 15. A BELL rings for silence, and cries of “Rolling!” echo around the set of William Friedkin's military thriller Rules of Engagement. Samuel Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones ease into character as the clammy silence of a U-boat is punctuated by Jones' distant bark. “Cut!” cries the director. The a/c roars afresh, and the off-set extras exhale with relief as Friedkin rejoins me in a cluttered corner near his video monitor.

We've moved to the indoor set from Friedkin's comfortable office, decorated with photographs of his wife, Sherry Lansing, chairman of the Paramount Motion Picture Group. Friedkin was with the studio in 1976, when he made Sorcerer, his majestic-looking, financially ruinous reworking of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear. Back then he was riding high on the Oscar he'd won for The French Connection and the enormous success of The Exorcist. Those experiences — the heady rise of an autodidactic former TV director after the studios gave youth its head, and the subsequent downward spiral of his and his fellow movie brats' careers in the wake of Star Wars — mean that Friedkin knows, as few others can, how sweet life was between two revolutions.

Peter Biskind's scabrous account of those times, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, details how the catastrophe of success intermingled with fluid morality and extravagant drug use, and prompted the youngsters to shipwreck on messianic delusions and studio-straining vanity projects. According to Biskind, Friedkin was the brattiest: all Vesuvian tantrums and Hima-layan ego, insanely demanding, hard on the help and harder still on his womenfolk. But the mild and engaging man huddling with me between takes could be a totally different person. The rail-thin peacock of the '70s is slightly plumper now, but the expensive haircut and tailoring still convey the impression of sleekness. As for Biskind, “I'm not going to talk about that,” Friedkin says courteously, with a faintly chastened air. “I don't wanna go there. I read very little stuff about myself. I just can't afford to.”

Today there's none of the vehement, cocksure tone that characterized his utterances back when he was Whelp No. 1. Instead, he outlines his aesthetic concerns, his perceptions of Hollywood then and now, all the while musing upon “individual films rather than directors” that fed his ambitions as a kid. Friedkin trained in Chicago television, then made four features before The French Connection, which, he says, “was the first film I made that accurately reflected my own perceptions of the world. I learned relatively little from my early features that helped me with French Connection, so instead I used my TV experience, adapting documentary techniques.” Connection, along with the controversial thriller Cruising and his masterpiece, To Live and Die in L.A., all, he says, “specifically deal with the thin line between the policeman and the criminal, the fact that the most effective cops have the soul and the nature of criminals.” He made Popeye Doyle a racist thug, and his nemesis a charismatic, cultured Frenchman. In Cruising, it's possible that Al Pacino is, or assumes the identity of, the real murderer, and in L.A., corruption literally passes from one cop to another like an inheritance.

“I think that life in general, not just my movies, is a moral wasteland,” Friedkin avers. “It's interesting how religion and government attempt to impose rules, restrictions and ideas of behavior — and how little they work when the crunch comes.” I suggest that To Live and Die in L.A., with its counterfeiting, lawless lawmen and supersaturation of greed, feels, given his experiences in this city, like a form of personal manifesto. “My own internal landscape certainly matches the one in the movie very closely,” he concedes. It's ironic that this man of the '70s should have made his richest movie in the '80s, long after Hollywood had written him off.

If Friedkin did, in a career sense, once live and then die in L.A., then he is very much back from the dead today, ensconced in a major studio, projects backing up nicely, plus a career retrospective at the Egyptian that he can stroll to from his office. Friedkin has been attending the Q&A sessions after selected screenings, but he hasn't been watching his films again. Apart from supervising video and laser-disc transfers, he never does. “I can't afford to look backwards,” he says.

So he looks to the future. Rules of Engagement and his next project, Night Train, a biography of hard-luck heavyweight Sonny Liston, tend to suggest that Friedkin is back to his core concerns, greed and betrayal, the limits of loyalty, and the price of a man's soul. “I want Night Train to be Liston's view of the world, without judging him,” he says, and there's a whiff of Friedkin's own life in his summary of Liston's: “He was desperate to be the best, and against all the odds, he pulled it off, but he was never accepted by the public. And that's not something you can train for.”


American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater,

6712 Hollywood Blvd. | (323) 466-FILM, Ext. 2 | Through June 13

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