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.
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.
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.
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
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.