Director William Friedkin on Clashes With Pacino, Hackman and Why an Atheist Couldn’t Helm ‘Exorcist’

During a candid conversation about his new memoir, the director of "The French Connection" recounts past conflicts with Al Pacino and Gene Hackman during filming.

Few filmmakers have reached the professional heights or the career depths of William Friedkin.

In the mid-1970s, he was the toast of the movie business, picking up an Oscar for “The French Connection” and topping box office charts with the blockbuster “The Exorcist.” By the end of the decade, he had washed out in spectacular fashion.

“Sorcerer,” his big-budget remake of the French classic “The Wages of Fear,” cost a then unheard of sum of $22 million to make, and grossed roughly half of its production budget. It had the misfortune to hit movie theaters at the same time that “Star Wars” was electrifying audiences and is often cited as an end point in the kind of personal and challenging material that characterized the best of 1970s moviemaking.

Friedkin recounts his own Icarus story with candor and grace in his new memoir “The Friedkin Connection,” which hits stores on April 16. The director is engaging company, taking readers through a Hollywood that for a brief moment believed that art and commerce could mix.

Also read: William Friedkin’s Misunderstood 1977 ‘Sorcerer’ Getting Re-Release (Exclusive)

At the same time, he is unflinching in depicting his own hubris and his struggles to adjust to life off the A-list. To be sure, Friedkin remains active, directing last year’s “Killer Joe” with Matthew McConaughey. He also has managed to direct other near-masterpieces, such as 1985’s galvanizing “To Live and Die in L.A.,” since those heady “Exorcist” days.

His story, however, is a reminder that while great talents blaze brilliantly, their flame can be snuffed out quickly.

Friedkin spoke with TheWrap about the ups and downs of his life in Hollywood and reflected on the state of the modern movie business.

Why do you think ‘The Exorcist’ remains such an iconic horror film?

I don’t consider ‘The Exorcist’ a horror film and I never spoke about it as such. It’s based on an actual case that has such incredible mystery and power and not just for people who believe in Catholicism.

I was extremely fortunate in the cast, because they became almost inseparable from their roles. Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn, who was by no means the studio’s first, second or third or fifth choice, all came together and gelled and were sensational.

It’s going to come back theatrically this year. We’ll have the first screening at the Smithsonian and there will be a Blu-ray release with an hour and a half of new extras.

Do you think someone who was a religious skeptic could have directed “The Exorcist”?

I think somebody who was an avowed atheist should not have directed the film. My personal beliefs are defined as agnostic. I’m someone who believes that the power of God and the soul are unknowable, but that anybody who says there is no God is not being honest about the mystery of fate. I was raised in the Jewish faith, but I strongly believe in the teachings of Jesus.

You’re very hard on yourself in your book and you write candidly about your own arrogance and film failures. Was that difficult?

When I agreed to do this book, I decided to be as honest as I could within the confines of my memory. I had no notes, so this is a book that was written from memory, although I interviewed a few people I worked with to get their takes on stuff we did together. But I wanted to write the truth as I recalled it, and only remove a lot of the personal and social stuff, so I could write a professional memoir.

After an astounding run of early hits like “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection,” your career went off track. Do you think its time for a critical reevaluation of certain films you did that may not have been hits with audiences or reviewers?

I really don’t live by what the critics write, although I was aware of the critical reception of all of my films. My own take on the films I’ve made is based on what I achieved versus what I set out to do. Take some of the films failures of their day — “Citizen Kane,” “Vertigo” — most of those films are now considered masterpieces.

“Sorcerer,” your 1977 remake of “Wages of Fear,” was such a big flop that it almost ruined your career. What happened?

The zeitgeist had changed by the time it came out. It came out at the time of “Star Wars,” and that more than any film that I can recall really captured the zeitgeist. I was offered the opportunity to produce it early, and I didn’t see it, but “Star Wars” went on to change everything we’ve seen since. I don’t think any filmmaker in history has had more of an effect than [George] Lucas.

What about “Cruising?” That film was extremely controversial when it came out in 1980 for its depiction of a serial killer praying on gay clubgoers. Were the charges of homophobia fair?

“Cruising” came out before the AIDS virus, but at a time that the gay community had made enormous strides. There had been the Stonewall riots a couple of years before. So this was not the best foot forward for the gay rights movement,  but I never intended the film to be critical of gays. I just thought the S&M world would make a good backdrop for a murder mystery, but I did not in any way mean for it to reflect the gay lifestyle. I understood at the time that people who were trying to achieve gay rights were not going to appreciate such a tough picture. It’s still very tough, very hard edged and ambiguous.

You clashed with the star of the film, Al Pacino. Have you reconciled?

I have not seen him a lot. We never moved in the same circles. I wanted Richard Gere for the role. Having seen the film at special screenings, I’ve come to realize [Pacino] is still pretty damn effective in it, but he gave me a rough time for reasons other than the normal actor-director relationship. He wasn’t on time and often didn’t know what we were doing on a particular day.

You also struggled with Gene Hackman in “The French Connection.” What was the root of that conflict?

I put Gene in a ride around with Eddie Egan [the NYC detective who inspired Hackman’s character] to see how he worked, and Hackman came away with a negative feeling about him that he could not reflect in the movie. He had to play Egan without comment, but he thought he was the worst villain in history, and struggled to play him without judging him. A lot of the way Egan operated in the street disturbed Hackman, because he thought Eddie was a racist.

Ultimately, Hackman got it, but I had a  strained relationship with Gene. The important thing is he gave a damn good performance even though we had a rocky time of it.

You have now adapted two of Tracy Letts’ plays for film, first “Bug” in 2006 and then “Killer Joe” in 2012. What appeals to you about his writing?

He is this generation’s Tennessee Williams. He captures a certain region’s way of life and the stuff he writes just comes from somewhere unexpected and completely original.

How have films changed since you broke into Hollywood in the 1970s?

When I started there was more opportunities to make films about different subject matters and not everything needed to be a blockbuster. Studios knew how to keep costs down, and I don’t think it’s that way today. Now Hollywood throws money at the screen and hopes that will do it.

They’re making these expensive tentpole pictures, but the important things like character and story get lost in the shuffle. At the same time, the independent film world has grown, because when I started it was [John] Cassavetes almost out there alone.

Have you seen anything lately that gives you hope that there are still filmmakers sensitive to character and story?

“End of Watch,” I felt was a very powerful examination of the LAPD and violence. “Compliance,” was…I don’t even know what the hell it was. It was way outside the studio system, but I was impressed at how it was told with clarity and simplicity even though it was about complex themes.

“The Call” was a genre film, but it was really very well made and it echoes back to “Psycho” in many ways. There are still good films being made like “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” but I have to really reach down.