The Friedkin Connection: A Reader’s Guide (and Review).
Want to read William Friedkin’s tome but daunted by its heft? Here’s my blow-by-blow, saving you time and effort!
Friedkin, by any stretch, has to be considered one of the major filmmakers in history. Many would claim that he made the best film in not one but two genres: the best (and scariest) horror film with The Exorcist, and the greatest cop film with The French Connection. His memoir is almost entirely devoted to his work, moving through his life film by film; his wives and children (with one late exception) are not only not discussed, they’re not even named. This is a filmmaker’s working memoir for film lovers.
For such an accomplished storyteller, Friedkin is a strangely flat chronicler here. He never cracks wise and avoids funny anecdotes, steers well away from the personal, and has a straightforward, simple prose style that is conversational but not chatty. He absolutely tells it straight when it comes to the many famous colleagues he’s worked with, unafraid to accuse them of laziness, difficulty or anything else, but his tone, even in these passages, is straightforward and somewhat formal rather than bitchy or gossipy. Indeed, his criticisms – and he has quite a few of those – are all restricted to people’s work habits; he never dishes any dirt whatsoever on anyone’s private lives. In the pages of this book, life is lived entirely on set.
In the end, the book lacks personal flair, Friedkin’s voice being restricted to one particular register. But the information, even given as flatly as it is, is fascinating and, basically, essential to anyone who’s at all interested in the cinema (particularly the American cinema, and most excitingly the American cinema of the 1970s). Friedkin, for all his misfires, is one of The Greats, and The Exorcist and The French Connection will keep him in that company forever. He’s taken the time to write this book, so you may as well take the time to read it – but if you’re simply too strapped for time at the moment, here’s a chapter blow-by-blow so you can just consume the ones that most interest you (saving the rest, I hope, for later).
Standard kid stuff and very typical Hollywood kid stuff at that. Parents from the pogram, gefilte fish, first movie (None But The Lonely Heart). Chat about uninteresting teachers. First girlfriend at age nine. Introduction to jazz. Learning to tell stories to other kids; learning to go to movies. Hebrew school. Bar Mitzvah. Overcomes a bully. First jobs and a touch of shoplifting. High school career. Memories of growing up in Chicago. First job in television. Observations of early live television. Death of father. Early mentor. Coming of age intellectually. Advancement in television. Early reading. First car. Watches Citizen Kane five times in one day and decides to become a filmmaker. Begins his own private film education. Discovers Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring. Meets a prison chaplain and gets first documentary film idea… a film about a prisoner on Death Row… and makes it. It wins him his first award, gets him his first agent, and he moves to LA and gets a job with David Wolper (for additional reading, try Wolper’s very entertaining book Producer).
Ongoing documentary making for David Wolper. Meets Francis Ford Coppola. Appreciation of Hitchcock. First fictional filmmaking job on the Hitchcock Hour television show (episode called Off Season). Makes a movie with Sonny and Cher – that bombs. Tells Blake Edwards what he thinks of the script for a Peter Gunn movie and loses that gig. Meets William Peter Blatty in passing… Movie offers start coming in.
The Night They Raided Minski’s.
The Birthday Party. The Boys in the Band.
The French Connection. Fantastic focus on the actual case and the actual cops, the casting process, and a lengthy section on the famous – or, as Friendkin calls it with characteristic modesty, “legendary” car / train chase. Interesting portrait – albeit brief – of Gene Hackman. Good and intriguing stuff on the editing of the film and Friedkin’s views on editing in general. The Awards. The Oscars. Obviously, a “must-read” chapter.
The Exorcist. First reaction to the book. William Blatty, how he came to write it, and how he went in to bat for Friedkin. How the church dealt with the subject matter – and sanctioned the production. Casting, including Linda Blair. Pre-production and first half of shooting.
The Exorcist continued. The “curse”. Conclusion of shooting in the United States.
Still The Exorcist! The Iraq (prologue) shoot. Editing (including some repeated wisdom almost directly copied from the same section in Chapter Five). Extended discussion of music and sound design. Release, reaction, awards, and Friedkin’s ascendancy to Hollywood Royalty. Disputes and an insight in to Friedkin’s sense of self-worth / arrogance. Obviously, Chapters Six, Seven and Eight are the dearest to Friedkin’s heart – and, it goes without saying, a must-read section.
Called “Hubis” by Friedkin, this very short chapter details the creation, brief life and rapid death of “The Director’s Company”, which comprised Friedkin, Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich.
Sorcerer. Great, intriguing chapter and very self-aware as well. The perils of location shooting, and hubris.
The Brinks Job. Minor movie, minor chapter.
Cruising. A film worth seeing in the “how did this get made?” category – not because it’s bad but because it’s so out there. This chapter tells how it got made and it’s a doozy. Probably the most interesting chapter — or at least the Cruising stuff is. Heart attack!
Directing a Twilight Zone (the modern series) episode.
To Live and Die in LA.
The disaster of Rampage.
Sherry Lansing. Pretty much the only time – outside of the brief whiz through his early years in Chapter One – that Friedkin discusses anything outside of his own work.
Blue Chips, a basketball movie with Nick Nolte. Jade, written by Joe Eszterhas. Twelve Angry Men for television – and, finally, a critical success (packed with a great cast).
A new career: Opera! Woyzek. Not of any real interest if you’re only interested in Friedkin as a film director, it also has a faint whiff of “Finally I discovered true art. Who needs Hollywood (since they don’t seem to want me anymore)?”
The 2000 re-release of The Exorcist (including restored footage). Fascinating stuff.
Rules of Engagement. The Hunted.
The Tracey Letts films: Bug and Killer Joe. The section on Killer Joe is comprehensive and vibrant, passionate even, perhaps because it’s the last film he made (as of this writing) and perhaps because we haven’t heard about some of these things before, as we have, for example, the protests against Cruising or the casting of The Exorcist.
Friedkin muses on directing and the current cinema.
In the end, there’s no doubting that Friedkin has been a difficult man to work with, and he seems, not only to know this about himself, but that this is his reputation. He acknowledges a volcanic, sudden temper and that on at least four occasions throughout his career to have bitch-slapped an actor hard across the face to get them to cry, weep, show anger, break down or what have you. Most tellingly, he seems to come into serious, ongoing conflict with at least one close, major colleague on every film, and often with more than one; on Killer Joe he is at war with an entire department. Perhaps you’d not want to be on his crew. But you’d almost certainly want him to dinner. He probably won’t come, so read his book. Like his films, it’s cool and deliberate, deeply unsentimental, matter-of-fact, and not without dark shadings. It seems like Friendkin’s life, like his films, has been incredibly richly textured, often wild and dangerous, and with plenty of dark shadings as well.