The legendary Hollywood director also explained his disdain for studio filmmaking today and addressed diversity challenges for the film industry.
On the 28th edition of the annual Halloween-themed “Treehouse of Horror” episode of “The Simpsons,” baby Maggie is possessed by a demon, and the voices of those tasked with exorcising it sound familiar to diehard horror fans: One of them is Ben Daniels, star of the FOX show “The Exorcist,” and the other is William Friedkin, who directed the 1973 movie.
Friedkin’s legacy extends far beyond that movie; two years earlier, he swept the Oscars with “The French Connection,” and later delivered “Sorcerer” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” The past decade found Friedkin continuing to produce edgy work, including two Tracy Letts plays (“Bug” and “Killer Joe”), numerous operas, and now a documentary, “The Devil and Father Amorth,” which premiered this fall at the Venice International Film Festival and explores the real-life context that inspired “The Exorcist.”
While visiting Lyon to deliver a masterclass at the Lumiere Festival, the 82-year-old filmmaker sat down with IndieWire to talk about his relationship to the horror genre, struggles with the studio system, and the battle to bring diversity to Hollywood.
How did your voiceover work on “The Simpsons” come about?
I just have a couple of lines. I don’t know what the character that they’ve drawn to illustrate me looks like. It’s a doctor who examines Homer for some kind of extraordinary symptoms. The writers turned out to be fans of mine. And they asked me if I wanted to come down to a cast reading. I was having lunch with the archbishop of Los Angeles, who is a “Simpsons” fan, and I brought him to this “Simpsons” reading. He loved it, he was in heaven. I enjoyed it very much as well, because it was funny around the table. Then they asked me if I could do a character. I went in and did it in like two takes.
The very decision to call you up for that episode speaks to your reputation as a horror director, although technically you only made one horror movie.
I’m not interested in the genre, per se. To me, there are good films and bad films. I don’t think in terms of genre. I don’t like a lot of westerns, but I love “Shane” and “High Noon” and the “Wild Bunch.” There are several films that are part of the horror genre that I love: “Psycho,” “Onibaba,” “Les Diaboliques” — but is that a horror film or a psychological thriller about murder? It doesn’t matter. To me, characterizing the picture is of no use whatsoever. I don’t know how you characterize “Citizen Kane,” the films of Alain Resnais or Fellini, but I like them.
What did you make of all those stories surrounding “It” breaking box office records? Some reports said it replaced “The Exorcist” as the highest-grossing horror movie of all time.
I thought it was a little bit over the top, but “It” was really good. The clown was pretty scary stuff. I really like it. But here’s the thing. It will never have as many admissions as “The Exorcist” in terms of people who came to see it. The price of a ticket when “The Exorcist” came out was probably on average less than two dollars; I think today it’s closer to nine. Neither “The Exorcist” nor any of the other films that made a lot of money will ever have as many viewers as “Gone with the Wind” or “Birth of a Nation.” I think it cost 15 cents or a quarter to see. So you can’t talk about how many people saw this more than something else because of the difference in the value of money.
But it’s kind of unusual for Warner Bros. to get behind a story like that because “The Exorcist” has been such an important film to them. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Still, I liked “It.” I thought it was terrific.
How do you feel about “The Exorcist” franchise as a whole?
I never saw any of the Exorcist films, not even Bill’s [William Blatty, author of “The Exorcist” novel]. I saw a few minutes of “Exorcist II,” but that was only because I was in the Technicolor lab timing a film that I had directed — I forget which one — and one of the color timers at Technicolor said, hey, we just made a print of “Exorcist II,” would you like to have a look at it? I said OK. I went in, and after five minutes, it just blasted me. I couldn’t take it. I thought it was just ridiculous and stupid. But that was only five minutes, so I can’t make an ultimate judgement about it. It just seemed to me to have nothing to do with “The Exorcist.”
Paul Schrader’s film had some potential.
Which one was that?
“Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist.”
I have no idea about that. I know Bill [Blatty] did one, which was not meant to be called “Exorcist III.” It was from another novel he’d written called “Legion.” I had no interest. I loved Bill Blatty. I dedicated my documentary to him and we remained close friends to his death. But I know that he had to make a lot of compromises — he had to put an exorcism scene in there, which he never intended, so that the producers could call it “Exorcist III.”
And what are your thoughts on the TV show?
I haven’t seen it, either. They bought the title from Blatty, and I don’t disrespect that. I know this: Before he died, he had never seen an episode of it. He died during the first season of it and he called me. The last call he made to me, shortly before he died, was, “Billy, have you seen it?” And I said, “No, Bill.” He said, “Neither have I.” And that was the extent of our conversation about it.