Hollywood’s Best Film Directors


William Friedkin

In "Hollywood's Best Film Directors," we go behind-the-scenes with some of Hollywood's biggest names. They talk about their lives and work, explaining what makes them so successful. The series includes heavy-hitters Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and M. Night Shyamalan, among others.

AIRED: February 12, 2021 | 0:25:21

Man: Action.


Man #2: Action.

Got it. Good!

Narrator: This great Hollywood director made his first feature

starring the musical duo of Sonny & Cher,

but his big break came when he directed Gene Hackman

and Roy Scheider in "The French Connection,"

which garnered him the Academy Award.

And he reteamed with Scheider

for the action thriller "Sorcerer" in 1977.

He's shown diversity throughout his career

with such comedies as "Deal of the Century,"

alongside dark urban dramas like "To Live and Die in L.A."

He's repeatedly proved his ability to thrill audiences

with box-office smashes like "Blue Chips,"

"Rules of Engagement," and "The Hunted,"

but his one film that most captivated generations

of moviegoers is certainly the 10-time

Oscar-nominated horror classic "The Exorcist."

Hello. I'm William Friedkin.


Well, I grew up in Chicago.

Both of my parents were from Kiev, Russia,

and they had both come over with their parents

shortly after the turn of the 20th century.

You know, during one of many pogroms in Russia,

I graduated high school and I went right into

a television station in Chicago called WGN,

was owned by theChicago Tribune,

and they had the largest local independent station

in the country at that time.

I think it still is.

But everything I did was live television.

I started in the mailroom,

worked my way up from the mailroom.

After about a year, I became a floor manager,

and then about another year as a floor manager,

was like an assistant director

in the films or the theater.

And then about a year or so later,

after a couple of years of apprenticing,

I became a live television director.

And it wasn't until around...

oh, about seven years into that,

that I made my first film,

which was a documentary about an African-American man

who was going to the electric chair for murder.

And I made the film as a kind of court of last resort

to try and save his life.

I didn't know how to make a film at the time.

I learned by doing it.

I had done live television,

but the techniques are totally different.

So I made this film and it saved this man's life.

It was seen, among other people, by the governor of Illinois,

whose parole and pardon board voted 2-1

to send this man to the electric chair.

His name was Paul Crump.

But the governor saw my film and decided and sent me a note

saying that he had decided to pardon Paul Crump

to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

My first feature film that I directed

was called "Good Times."

It was with Sonny & Cher,

who were a very hot pop music act,

and that time was about 1967

and they had number-one hits on the charts --

"I Got You Babe"

and "You Better Sit Down Kids" and "Bang, Bang,"

and a lot of hit songs, some of which have lasted,

you know, 40 years.

And I was asked to direct this film

because I was very young at the time.

And the producer was a Hollywood legend

named Steve Broidy.

Thought that because of my youth,

I would relate well to Sonny & Cher,

and I guess we did.

But I don't have a lot to say about the film.

I don't think it's very good.

They're very interesting.

I'm not sure they were the ideal couple.

In other words, put it this way, they didn't make Tracy

and Hepburn turn over in their graves.

The film did fairly well. It cost very little to make.

It did well financially because it cost so little.

Columbia Pictures distributed it,

and Sonny & and Cher were hot at the time.


Put some blood on a slide.

Put the slide under the microscope.

And then he's gonna light a petri dish

and burn something in it.

Yeah, just bring it up into there somewhere.

That'd be great. Good.

I mean, when people start talking about the job

of a filmmaker is daunting,

I mean, they must be kidding.

It's you have fun.

I've always viewed it as a process

by which to --

well, Orson Welles described it best.

He called it "the biggest electric train

set a boy ever had," the process of filmmaking.


It never played on Broadway.

It only played off-Broadway,

and then it traveled.

"Boys in the Band" was shown

in many other cities of America and a few countries,

but it never played on Broadway.

I was attracted to it because of the script.

The script was wonderful. It was both funny and touching.

When I was asked to do "The Boys in the Band," I was thrilled

because I think it's one of the finest plays

written in this country.

I think it's still

a very powerful and moving piece of work,

so that's what attracted it to me as a film.

"The French Connection" was brought to me by the producer,

a man named Phil D'Antoni, and he and I met

just socially around Los Angeles

shortly after "Boys in the Band."

And he had seen the handful of films I had made

up to and including "Boys in the Band."

We became friends.

He had this story about these two cops

in this big drug bust that had happened in 1969.

And I met the two cops, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso.

And I immediately sensed there was a story there,

and we set out to make it.

We had a number of unsuccessful scripts.

And it looked for a long time

like it wasn't going to get made.

Every studio turned it down.

Every existing studio in Hollywood passed on it twice

until finally Dick Zanuck,

who was then the head of 20th Century Fox,

called us in.

This is after at least a year

of trying to get the film made, pounding the pavement every day.

The budget was a million and a half dollars.

We couldn't raise it.

We could get no one interested in it.

And then finally, Dick Zanuck called us in,

the producer and I.

The producer's name is Phil D'Antoni.

And Zanuck said, "I don't know what the heck this thing is,

but I got a hunch it might be something.

So I got a million and a half dollars

hidden away in a drawer over here.

If you guys can make it for that, go ahead.

But I won't be around when the film's finished

because my dad's going to fire me,"

and that's what happened.

His father, Darryl Zanuck, fired Dick

as head of production before we finished the film.

Darryl was fired, and the head of the studio

was a guy who had been Darryl's film editor,

a guy named Elmo Williams.

20th Century Fox was in

a lot of trouble at that time, and we were fortunate

because the only film they had coming out was ours,

"The French Connection,"

and by the grace of God, it was successful.


I knew the writer Bill Blatty, just socially.

I had met him in a situation that's sort of a long story,

but we kept in touch over the years.

And then I was doing a promotion tour for "The French Connection"

when I got this package in the mail,

and I took it with me to several cities in America.

It was in a brown paper bag and it was the galleys

of "The Exorcist" from Bill Blatty,

who I knew as a comedy writer.

He had written a number of very fine comedies for Blake Edwards,

one of which was "A Shot in the Dark,"

in which Blatty created the Inspector Clouseau character,

which is not something you normally associate

with the writer of "The Exorcist."

One night, I was at the end of the tour,

so I was in San Francisco at some hotel.

I don't remember which one.

And I had a dinner appointment at 8:00.

I sat down and I opened the manuscript of "The Exorcist,"

and I couldn't stop reading it.

I couldn't put it down.

I called and canceled my dinner,

and I just read the manuscript until I finished it.

And I was basically thunderstruck

by not simply the plot,

but the way he had organized this material.

And so I called Bill and I said, "What -- What is this?"

And he said, "Well, it's based on a true story.

It took me 15 years to write it.

I started writing it as an undergraduate

at Georgetown University."

There was an actual case in that area

involving a 14-year-old boy,

not a 12-year-old girl, as in the novel and the film.

But he said, "I couldn't get any information from the priests

at Georgetown who were involved

about what had happened in this case,

even though it was widely reported inThe Washington Post.

But I tried to write it as a work of fact,

which is what it was.

I couldn't get enough information,

so I decided to write it as fiction.

And I invented some of the characters from people I knew.

And, as I say, it took 15 years and it's coming out."

I said, "Bill, it's...

it's really sensational.

It's just a great piece of work."

And he said, "Would you like to make a film of it?

Because I've sold it to Warner Bros."

I said, "Bill, I would love it."

I saw the whole film in my mind's eye

after I read it.

And I said, "Yes, I really would love to do it."


Alfred Hitchcock said that the movie is made in preproduction

and it's simply a matter of going out

and filming what you've planned,

and that very little is done after that in a Hitchcock film

that doesn't conform to the way he made drawings of every scene.

I don't do -- I use preproduction

to discover the film,

to cast the movie, to pick the locations,

to pick the crew,

and then we'll go out and scout the locations

or decide where we might have to build sets.

And then I will -- I have envisioned the film

in my mind's eye before that,

but then often I'm influenced by a location

to change my concept.

So whatever I do in the preplanning stages

of a film, I have --

I've learned to be flexible enough to adjust that

when you actually get to the locations,

which influence action, it influences character.

But in order to get to the set for the first day of shooting,

you have to have planned for months and months

where you're going to shoot, with whom, and how.

I don't need to sing its praises.

I know that "The French Connection"

is a classic American film. I know it now.

I didn't know it while I was making it.

I had no idea.

I just went from shot to shot.

Making a film is akin to doing needlepoint --

knit one, purl two.

You just compile one shot after another

and you put it together in the cutting room.

But as a filmmaker, you have to envision the entire film

in your mind's eye before you go out

and make it so that you know pretty much what you're shooting

is going to wind up in the finished film

or at least a facsimile of that.

But the creative process is at its height

in the making of a film in the editing room.

"The French Connection" was completely changed by me

in the cutting room.

I discovered the plasticity,

the ability to shape the material in a cutting room

when I was doing "The French Connection."


I tried to assemble a crew,

most of whom have worked with me before.

Sometimes they get older or retire or pass away,

so I have to seek new people,

or I see a cameraman's work that I really like

and I decide to work with a new cameraman.

I then cast the film, and as Hitchcock said,

"Casting is at least 50% of the success

or failure of a film."

It's probably more.

But then I will try to communicate my ideas

and my visions to the cast and crew.

I will then be open to any ideas they may have.

Anyone on the crew, anyone in the cast may give me some ideas

that I think are good and I will utilize.

So I start to try to form a family

out of the film cast and crew.

And you do become a family, and we're doing it together.

It's true that one intelligence may inform a film, yes,

but it's the work of many, many hands and many minds

and many ideas.

And often it starts with the script.

Sometimes I've written the script,

but often a guy who write -- a director

who writes his own script

is like a man who has himself for a lawyer.

He has a fool for a lawyer.

So that is sometimes, if not often, the case.

But more importantly, I try to form a family

and get everyone on the same page

and be open to all of their suggestions, ideas,

and the technical abilities that they can bring to a film.

[ Indistinct conversations ]


I had done a chase scene for "The French Connection,"

and now I was going to direct another chase scene,

and they're not easy to come up with.

They're very difficult to do, and they represent pure cinema.

Now, they're easy to do because of computer-generated imagery.

But when I was making these chase scenes

for "To Live and Die in L.A."

and "The French Connection" and "Jade,"

we couldn't -- we didn't have CGI.

We had to do everything mechanically.

We had to literally do it.

And when it came to do "To Live and Die in L.A.,"

I wanted to film another chase,

and so I start to think about it.

And the process is not all that different from a composer

sitting down to formulate a melody or an artist

to get an image that he can paint.

If you start to think about it, if you put your mind

and your attention on this problem

as it relates to the story that you're filming

and the surroundings

and the place where it's being filmed,

you will often get divine inspiration, and the sequence

will start to dictate itself to you in your mind's eye.

And that's certainly true of me and my films,

the sequences in my films and the films themselves.

I'm simply the vessel through which they passed.


I originally cast Richard Gere in that part.

Now, remember, this was 27 years ago,

and I thought that Richard Gere was perfect.

And then I got a call from my agent,

a man named Stan Caiman at the time,

may he rest in peace,

who also happened to be Al Pacino's agent.

And Al and I had been trying to find a film

to do together for a long time.

I actually started to make "Born on the Fourth of July" with Al

until they ran out of money and couldn't get it made,

and so it was dropped and then subsequently made

by the writer Oliver Stone and Tom Cruise.

I got a call from Caiman saying, "Look,

Al has read your script of 'Cruising'

and he wants to play this part."

And so I talked to Jerry Weintraub and Jerry said,

"Yeah, sounds like a good idea."

So we did not go forward and negotiate with Richard Gere.

We moved off to Pacino then because he was possibly

the hottest actor in America at that time.

[Gunshots ]

My first choice was a guy who was a journalist

in New York named Jimmy Breslin,

who looked like the Eddie Egan or "Popeye" Doyle character.

And I knew Jimmy very well.

And I thought he'd be an interesting guy

to play this part.

Before Breslin, we said to Dick Zanuck,

"We'd like to get Paul Newman."

And at that time,

Paul Newman was one of the highest paid actors

and he was making $500,000 a movie,

which today is chump change for an actor,

but back then was very high.

And Zanuck said to us, "You're not going to get Newman.

We can't afford him.

I want to make this film for a million and a half dollars,

and I don't care who you get.

Just get someone who's appropriate in that part

and in all the parts."

We then went to Peter Boyle.

We offered the role to Peter Boyle,

who had just played a part called in a film called "Joe."

He played the title character,

and he was a bigot who acted out his bigotry

and went around killing Black people,

and he had the physique and the personality of a New York cop.

We offered the role to Peter Boyle

and he turned it down and he said,

"You know, after 'Joe,' I just want to do romantic leads."

And the producer of his television series,

"Everybody Loves Raymond,"

a lovely man named Phil Rosenthal,

who's become a friend of mine,

said, "There wasn't a day on the set of 'Everybody Loves Raymond'

that Peter Boyle didn't tell everybody

the biggest mistake he ever made

was to turn down 'The French Connection.'"

But it might not have been the same film with him.

Who knows?

Anyway, Hackman was our last choice.

He wasn't a choice.

When we couldn't find anyone else,

his agent, a woman named Sue Mengers,

called and suggested Gene and asked

if I would meet with him,

and Phil D'Antoni, the producer, and I met with him

and we had about a week to decide.

And under that pressure, we decided to go with Gene,

whose performance is brilliant.

He was very difficult to work with.

The most difficult actor

I've ever worked with is Gene Hackman,

but he's great.

He's an American classic.


And I am very pleased with "Sorceror."

I don't view it in the same way,

let's say, that you may, as a...

a kind of partial success

or partial failure.

I don't think of any of my films that way.

You -- Look, my films come back big time.

I mean, I'm rereleasing "Cruising" this fall,

a film I made 27 years ago.

I've just finished making new prints for Warner Bros.,

a new DVD which will come out after a new theatrical.

It's getting a gala premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

This is a film I made 27 years ago

that is arguably the most controversial film

I've ever made.

It's coming out again,

not because I said, "Let's bring it out again."

Other people find these films

and want to share them with new audiences.

This is a new generation that's going to see "Cruising"

and that sees all of my films, so you can never be too careful

about not judging a film in its own time.

You have to remember

that Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting during his lifetime.

What does that mean?

Does that mean that all the paintings were no good

or that it was a question of timing

or that he had to wait for a generation

to come along to discover what he was all about?


And especially now with the advent of new media

such as DVDs and soon other more exotic

means of transmitting films.

You can't make any ultimate judgments

about them,

and I don't judge films.

I don't believe they are meant to be judged.

Yes, I've won an Academy Award

and my films have won Academy Awards,

but I think that's a wonderful thing,

but it's a promotion tool for the motion picture industry.

It's not a finite judgment, in my opinion,

about this film versus that one.


It's all about communication, whether you're communicating

with a cast and a crew in television

or the theater or wherever.

It's about communication first

with the people you're working with

and then ultimately with the audience.

And that's the best lesson a young person

coming up can learn.

It's not how much you know

about the equipment or staging techniques.

It's how you're able to communicate with other people.

I really don't care about the opinion of others

other than the people who pay money to see the film

in theaters or after it's sold to television.

And I will never defend a film of mine.

The film is its own answer.

What I -- How close I came to what I had in mind

is all that concerns me about a film that I've made.





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