Director William Friedkin on How He Conjured 1977’s ‘Sorcerer’

William Friedkin

Lew Wasserman slammed his open palm on the slick surface of his mahogany Chippendale desk. The desk, free of all objects, as always, rested on an oriental rug. He glared at me through black horn-rimmed glasses that made his eyes appear larger.

“We’re not gonna make this picture!” he shouted. “It’s gonna cost too much, and you’ve got nobody in it.”

In case you forgot or never read Hollywood history, Wasserman was the most powerful and influential man in the film industry, and his power extended far beyond it into politics and public life. He was right. The budget was too high for its time, $15 million. The lead actor was Roy Scheider, but his co-stars were three foreign actors who were unfamiliar to American audiences. The film was to be called “Sorcerer,” a title that turned out to be misleading. I had a contract with Universal at the time that allowed me to make films of my choice, and so the more Wasserman opposed my making it, the more motivated I became to prevail.

The film was to be an existential action- adventure about obsession and futility, wherein “no one here gets out alive.” It was a difficult theme, and the story had been successfully filmed some 25 years earlier as a French film, “The Wages of Fear.” But I thought I was bulletproof. I had recently directed “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” two films that were also difficult to get made. In fact, “French Connection” had been turned down by every studio for two years, including Fox, which eventually made it.

I planned to shoot “Sorcerer” in Paris; Jerusalem; Elizabeth, N.J.; Veracruz, Mexico; and a village and jungle in Cotopaxi, Ecuador. There were to be scenes of  such danger to human life that it would be difficult to get a cast or crew or even to get the film insured. Originally, Steve McQueen was to star in it, but the logistics were overwhelming even for the reigning prince of action films. It seemed an impossible film to make, which is why I wanted to make it.

After a series of legal threats and arguments, Mr. Wasserman secured a partnership with Paramount Pictures, I trimmed the budget, and, against his better judgment, he gave me the greenlight. Ecuador was considered unsafe for foreigners then, so we filmed in the Dominican Republic and Oaxaca, Mexico. It was the most difficult film I ever made. Fifty members of the crew suffered gangrene and other serious illnesses and had to be sent home. Various members of the cast and crew were busted for drug use, and the tension and frustration behind the camera was every bit as nerve-rattling as what we were filming.

Toward the end of the shoot, I contracted malaria. The picture went way over schedule and budget. But “Sorcerer” is the film of which I’m most proud, because it came closest to what I envisioned in my mind’s eye. It was released in 1977 to great fanfare, but a couple of weeks after “Star Wars,” which changed the zeitgeist as no other film before. “Sorcerer” got bad reviews and was a box office flop. An existential action film about futility, firmly rooted in reality, was no match for a galaxy far far away, where the heroes and villains were clearly defined.

Some 25 years later, I had to bring a lawsuit to determine the film’s ownership. Discovery proceedings went on for over a year, but eventually the film was resurrected and rereleased theatrically and on home video to great success all over the world. It went to No. 1 in action-adventure on Amazon. It was shown on a new high-definition print at the Venice Film Festival in 2013. Since then, it has played continuously on every existing platform to great reviews by a new generation of critics.

“Sorcerer” has been invited to screen at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18. Three months ago, I met with festival director Thierry Fremaux, who told me, “I particularly love the energy, the atmosphere — eerie and political — the landscapes and the comments on our society.”

Wherever he is, I hope Mr. Wasserman is pleased.

William Friedkin won an Oscar for “The French Connection,” and was nominated for “The Exorcist.”