I have always been impressed by the ability of top film directors to project an aura of invincibility — did they all take the “Aura 101” course in film school? Directors must not be challenged on set or in script discussions, they have final cut and they are the font of all creativity.
All this came to mind this week as I read a new memoir written by the superbly talented director William Friedkin. Friedkin’s book does the unthinkable: It relates the behind-the-scenes stories of his triumphs like “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” but also sees Friedkin take responsibility (brutally so) for his wrong calls, like “Sorcerer” and “Cruising.” In doing so, he captures the gut-wrenching shifts of a filmmaker’s life — the bizarre whipsaw from success to disaster.
“I have vaulted to the top of the Hollywood A-list and thought I would stay there forever,” he writes. “I have tasted fame and money and they tasted good. But I was at the edge of a cliff and my demons were standing by waiting to push me off.”
Friedkin won an Oscar for directing “The French Connection,” which set a new milestone for action thrillers, but the shoot was itself a thriller. His star Gene Hackman wanted to quit the picture mid-production, having decided that he “didn’t like being an actor.” The film’s distributor (Fox) then tried to re-edit the film, thus igniting the first of Friedkin’s epic studio battles.
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In person, Friedkin is charming and well-read and now devotes himself principally to directing opera (he has directed 15 major productions around the world) as well as the occasional indie film (the excellent, if quirky, “Killer Joe” is the most recent). His earlier directing life, however, was filled with melodrama.
On his first job — an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock TV series — he was castigated by Hitchcock himself not only for falling behind schedule but for dressing inappropriately. “My directors wear ties” commanded the great man. (Friedkin was attired in t-shirt and jeans).
Friedkin showed great promise as a feature director with “Boys in the Band,” an innovative film about the gay scene based on the Mart Crowley play, but the film was ahead of its time. (It was a box office disappointment.)
Despite the spectacular success of “The French Connection,” Warner Bros. did not want him for “The Exorcist,” offering it to Mike Nichols and Arthur Penn, both of whom turned it down. Friedkin sparked to the material but was so obsessive in his preparation that he over-rehearsed his actors. “I realized I had squeezed the life out of my actors’ performances,” he writes. “I went back and told the actors to forget everything we had rehearsed and go for spontaneity.” (The film got 10 Oscar nominations.)
At the high point in his career, Paramount offered a “dream deal” to Friedkin and his two friends, Francis Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, giving them complete autonomy to select their own pictures, exercise final cut and own most of the profits. In a moment of hubris, the three impulsively drove down Hollywood Boulevard in Coppola’s stretch limousine (a Paramount gift), drinking champagne and waving gleefully like conquering heroes to puzzled bystanders. The three had all been experiencing giant successes, one after another, but the Paramount deal quickly fell apart and each of the filmmakers hit a patch of nasty failures.
Friedkin’s box office problems ranged from “Sorcerer” (Friedkin turned down Steve McQueen for the lead) to the excellent but underrated “To Live and Die in LA.”
“My behavior during this period was erratic,” Friedkin acknowledges. “I treated people badly.”
Friedkin was inspired to write his candid memoir by reading Elia Kazan’s thoughtful and revealing autobiography. To prepare for his writing exercise, he read the entire works of Marcel Proust (a feat I would have found daunting).
While his memoir focuses on the vicissitudes of his directing career, however, Friedkin studiously avoids discussing his personal life. He had early marriages to Jeanne Moreau, Kelly Lange and Lesley-Anne Down, but his 15-year marriage to Sherry Lansing is one of the town’s famously successful bondings. Lansing is, herself, one of the industry’s illustrious success stories.
While Friedkin has strong opinions about almost everything, he has always believed that filmmaking is “the most collaborative of art forms.”
Contrary to some of his famous colleagues, Friedkin insists, “I don’t give much credibility to the auteur theory. A director’s intelligence can inform a movie but in film the cast and crew all contribute to the underlying vision.”
He’d like to direct more films, and perhaps even remake some of his old ones. “Just when you learn how to do it, you’re too old” he writes.
Sometimes in the middle of the night, Friedkin admits that he is awakened with an insight on how to improve on an old scene. Then he goes back to sleep.