6 Filmmaking Tips from William Friedkin

By  · Published on May 21st, 2014

Warner Bros.

William Friedkin began his directing career on television, where he helmed numerous documentaries and even an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in which, during filming, young Friedkin was reportedly chastised by the Master of Suspense for not wearing a tie. Friedkin is the blue-collar outsider of New Hollywood, the genuine article in an era during which everyone fashioned himself an outsider. The son of lower-middle class Ukranian immigrants, Friedkin worked his way from the mailroom of a local TV station to eventually directing some of the most beloved films of the 1970s like The French Connection and The Exorcist.

In his approach to filmmaking and his biography, Friedkin has more in common with Lumet and Ford than his film-school-rank contemporaries Coppola and Scorsese. Yet there is still no director quite like Friedkin, who during the 1970s helmed the first major film with an all-gay cast, won an Oscar for a film that defined the heart-stopping car chase, made the biggest horror blockbuster of all time, and sent Roy Scheider to drive a truck 200 miles through the Dominican Republic.

With renewed attention and appreciation given to past flops Cruising and Sorcerer (the director’s favorite of his films), William Friedkin’s career now looks to be one of the richest and most diverse among his generation of filmmakers.

So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) by the guy from the “film school generation” who never went to film school.

Casting Matters

And it was only a week later that I realized a close up of Steve McQueen was worth the greatest landscape you could find.”

The above is a quote from Friedkin about casting Sorcerer, his $25m 1977 remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear that never found an audience in a summer fully enamored by Star Wars. The film is credited (alongside Heaven’s Gate and Apocalypse Now) as one of the out-of-control productions that led to the dissolution of New Hollywood, but recently the film has been given a second chance with a much-touted Blu-ray. Sorcerer is an incredible work of suspense, and its quartet of stars is led commandingly by Roy Scheider.

But Friedkin originally wanted Steve McQueen in the lead role, with Marcello Mastroianni and Lino Ventura accompanying him. McQueen was interested, but made demands that Friedkin wouldn’t accept, which led to Mastroianni and Ventura’s dropping out as well. Though Friedkin sells Scheider (not to mention the film’s magnificent cinematography) a bit short, his open regret about not meeting McQueen’s demands speaks to the power of casting – not only in commercial terms (would we now be living in a world in which Sorcerer was a hit or, at least, justly appreciated?) but also in terms of the meaning and weight that certain stars inevitably bring to a movie.

Direct Well into Your Old Age, Studio Funding is No Badge of Honor

This is the right way to put down a generalization about age and directing when you’re a continually working 78-year-old filmmaker.

There Are No Heroes

One of my themes is that there is good and evil in everyone. I was not out to make these guys heroes. I really don’t believe in heroes. The best of people have a dark side and it’s a constant struggle for the better side to survive and to thrive.”

Popeye Doyle is a belligerent racist and alcoholic who thinks procedure doesn’t apply to him. Father Damien Karras is a priest who has lost his faith. The men of Sorcerer are a motley crew of assassins and thieves. Friedkin isn’t interested in the “antihero,” but in exploring that blurry area in which distinctions of good and bad no longer reside on a convenient dyad. He’s interested in empathizing with, or at least exploring the lives of, pariahs.

Perhaps this has something to do with an early life that gave him nothing for free. Or perhaps this has to do with the advice that he learned from another filmmaker, which he included in the insert of the Sorcerer Blu-ray.

“The great French director Jean Renoir was asked why there were no villains in his films. His answer: ‘Everyone has his reasons.’”

Let Your Worldview Change Your Filmmaking

“My films became more obsessive, less audience-friendly, and would turn even darker in the future. They would continue to portray the American character as psychotic, fearful, and dangerous.”

Friedkin wrote the above in his biography “The Friedkin Connection” in reflecting on Sorcerer’s financial failure and the glossy optimism that Hollywood began to adopt by the late 1970s. Few great directors of the 1970s flourished in the 1980s. The same is largely true of Friedkin, but as evidenced by his one bona-fide hit during that era – To Live and Die in LA – Friedkin didn’t let the era of excess make his worldview more Hollywood-friendly.

To Live and Die in LA is a powerfully pessimistic movie during a time that demanded the false comfort of happy endings. And Friedkin has only delved into darker territory since. Have you seen Killer Joe?

Watch Costa-Gavras’ Z to Learn How to Make Fiction Like a Documentary

Find Humanity Within the Worst of Us

In this excerpt from Friedkin’s fascinating hour-long interview with Fritz Lang conducted in 1975, Friedkin and Lang get into an almost contentious discussion about how Lang’s M structures an audience’s relationship to (and potential empathy towards) a child rapist and murderer played by Peter Lorre. This moment, I think, reveals more about Friedkin’s approach to characterization than it does Lang’s.

Where Lang wanted the audience to cope with the abject horror of such a crime against a face as seemingly innocent as Lorre’s (the irony being that this role jump-started a lifetime of creepy roles for Lorre), Friedkin is persistent that this casting and Lang’s stylistic choices allow us to empathize with Lorre despite his crimes, and to potentially see his despicable acts as the result of a terrible condition and not an innate, malevolent evil. Where Lang wants the audience’s imagination to permit “collaboration” in heinous violence, Friedkin is interested in disreputable people as humans, as well as the burdens they carry and their social treatment. Freidkin longs to empathize most with those who supposedly deserve no empathy.

What We’ve Learned

In his “career view” of Friedkin, Noel Murray of The Dissolve refers to the director as a “man of contradictions,” “which is probably why he’s made so many movies about people at war with society and with themselves.” This observation perfectly encapsulates Friedkin’s work, from canonized achievements like The French Connection to forgettable Hollywood entries like The Hunted.

Friedkin has worked across many genres, but he has consistently shown interest in the lives of outsiders, weirdos, and other persona non grata. You won’t find a hero in any of Friedkin’s work, but you will find a character that allows an intriguing angle on the world that our typical movie heroes often restrict us from seeing.

And that character was probably supposed to be played by Steve McQueen.

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