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21 Things We Learned from William Friedkin’s ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ Commentary

In this 2014 edition of Commentary Commentary, we dig into William Friedkin’s track for his 1985 masterpiece.
To Live And Die In La
Shout! Factory
By  · Published on May 1st, 2014

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter recaps William Freidkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. commentary track.

William Friedkin’s 1977 classic Sorcerer finally hit Blu-ray last week, and it marked my first viewing of the film. Before you give me grief, know that I had seen and loved The Wages of Fear, and I was just holding out on watching the remake until it came in a Friedkin-approved version. It should surprise no one that I found Sorcerer to be as fantastic as the original, but my favorite Friedkin film remains unchanged.

Not only did To Live and Die in L.A. introduce the world in 1985 to the bow-legged joy that is William Petersen, but it’s also a remarkably successful mix of dark sensibilities, characters with depth and honest excitement. It’s an intelligent thriller that makes no guarantees as to the morality or life expectancy of its characters, and its pacing and energy help make it eminently re-watchable. The DVD includes a handful of extra features (since ported over to the Shout! Factory Blu-ray) including an alternate ending, a deleted scene, a making-of featurette, and a commentary track from the director. He has an interesting approach to recording one, but he’s a fascinating speaker all the same.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A.

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

Commentator: William Friedkin (director)

1. Gerald Petievich’s source novel was recommended to Friedkin as something he might enjoy, and he ended up being attracted to “the surrealist nature of the life of a Secret Service agent.”

2. When Wang Chung was brought on for the music he told them that it absolutely shouldn’t include a theme song. “Don’t write a song that has the lyric ‘to live and die in L.A.’”

3. Eric Masters’ (Willem Dafoe) artistic side is based on German painter Rainer Fetting. Friedkin had Dafoe spend time with the artist, and the art in the film is actually Fetting’s work. This includes the one that Masters burns early on in the film, and while it would have been worth a hefty sum now, Fetting did the piece quickly knowing its purpose was to be burnt.

4. Friedkin wrote the first draft of the script by himself, but he contacted Petievich to help with some additional scenes. This collaboration led to Friedkin insisting that the author share a writing credit on the film.

5. One of the crew members took some of the film’s counterfeit money home as a keepsake, but his teenage son absconded with it and attempted to spend it at a nearby store. It failed in part because the bills were only printed on one side. The U.S. Treasury Department got involved and began sending men to the property master’s home for the next few months. Eventually, the agents contacted Friedkin directly, but on the advice from Petievich, the director refused to talk unless they presented him with a warrant. They never did and instead were satisfied with his very basic answers.

6. Bob Weiner was casting director on The French Connection, but he had retired by the time Friedkin was making this film. The director called him where he was living in Paris and asked him to return for this one film. Weiner said yes, and he soon instructed Friedkin to fly up to Toronto to watch a production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and its star, William Petersen. The actor had never been in a feature film before, but Friedkin recognized his talent. “He had all of the ingredients for this role, most especially intelligence.”

7. Petersen recommended John Pankow who he had worked with in Chicago, and Friedkin hired him shortly thereafter for the role of John Vukovich.

8. The foot chase scene between Richard Chance (Petersen) and Carl Cody (John Turturro) was filmed in LAX, but the airport officials made them agree to multiple restrictions. They couldn’t film actual travelers and instead had to use their own extras, and “under no circumstances could Petersen get up on those rails and run along those rails… but Bill [Petersen] assured me that he could run those rails with immunity.” Friedkin went for it and ended up enduring a “severe talking to” by an airport manager afterwards.

9. Turturro improvised much of his dialogue, taking things further than the script originally called for. Friedkin loved it.

10. Friedkin used a code word with Dafoe to remind him to play things cool on the outside even as he rages within. The word was “zen,” and it was often the only direction he would give the actor.

11. The priest in the scene where Chance and Vukovich stake-out Max Waxman’s home/office is played by Rainer Fetting, the artist mentioned above.

12. Friedkin is no fan of films that tell the audience in advance where the next scene is going to be. “That’s something called show and tell,” he says. “The audiences are told where they’re going and when they’re going there and then they go there.” He reels off a list of films he loves for their refusal to do just that including Citizen Kane, All About Eve, Paths of Glory, and others. On the more modern side of things, he cites Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman as filmmakers capable of surprising viewers. “I most value the ironic and the unpredictable.”

13. Darlanne Fluegel was allowed to hang around the apartment where her character lived, and Friedkin had her take part in the decorating in order to get a feel for how to move around in that space. He wanted her actions to feel natural, and that translated to her love scene with Petersen as well. “I let Petersen and Darlanne work that out for themselves,” he says. “I just told them where I was going to put the camera. I gave them the direction that I think is the greatest direction that I’ve ever heard… ‘Surprise me.’”

14. Petersen and Pankow spent time with L.A. police and secret service agents. Friedkin wanted the actors “to adopt the behavior” of the agents and to get a sense of their private and professional lives.

15. The character of Jeff Rice was written for Steve James. “I just loved Steve James as a human being and as an action actor.”

16. The prison sequence where an attempt is made on Cody’s life was filmed in a real prison with real prisoners in the yard alongside the film’s main actors. Friedkin recalls playing 3-on-3 basketball with Turturro, Petersen and some of the inmates. The filmmakers won.

17. Director of photography Robby Müller wasn’t comfortable shooting the big chase scene, so 2nd unit director Robert Yeoman did double duty.

18. Friedkin had Wang Chung score the film the same way he did with Tangerine Dream on Sorcerer in that neither band saw any part of the film until after they had written and recorded the music. Instead, the musicians were given the script and the instruction to essentially make music without beginnings or endings.

19. Regarding the film’s legendary car chase scene, Friedkin never said “let’s top The French Connection” and instead simply wanted something “different.” He recalls the city being very cooperative with their permits to allow for weekend shooting when traffic was lighter. He says chases don’t require a lot of people to shoot since they’re done one shot at a time and sound is captured long after the fact.

20. Friedkin wanted Masters to be “kinkier” than the character was in the novel. “Once I had cast Willem Dafoe it was clear this actor had tremendous complexity and a kind of ambisexual quality, so I adapted the character to what I perceived about Willem.”

21. His stance on censorship is the one expected of an artist, and he has some interesting things to say on the topic. “I think if a film is depicting violence in a violent world that it’s up to the individual filmmaker to decide where to draw back. And it’s up to the audience to decide if they want to go to that place or not.” He offers up alternatives like “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or there’s always Lethal Weapon 3 or there’s Police Academy 6.”

Best in Commentary

Final Thoughts

Friedkin mostly follows through on his early claim that he won’t be referencing the film itself while recording this commentary, but his thoughts are usually triggered by something we’re seeing onscreen. It allows him room and time for tangents, and he makes good use of the opportunity to show off the breadth of his memory and film knowledge. Of course, it also leads to several pockets of dead air, but they’re infrequent enough that they don’t hurt the experience.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.