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THE EXORCIST Restored: William Peter Blatty
The mystery of faith, the demon of the southwest wind, levitating phones, the new cut and a prequel! The producer-writer reveals the truth behind this phenomenon of modern cinema!
By Paul Davis
September 22, 2000
WE ALL KNOW YOU WERE INSPIRED TO WRITE THE NOVEL BY AN EXORCISM THAT TOOK PLACE IN 1949, BUT WHAT WAS YOUR INITIAL PURPOSE FOR WRITING THE EXORCIST? WERE YOU AT ALL CONCERNED ABOUT THE BOOK'S POTENTIAL EFFECT ON CHILDREN? William Peter Blatty:
My original motive in writing this particular novel was to inspire faith, not fear. It was written as a supernatural detective story. As for children being exposed to The Exorcist
, I can only tell you that I have two young sons who constantly nag at me to let them see it, but I won't. It requires a mature mind not to be deeply unsettled by it.
MANY PEOPLE THING THAT THE DEMON PAZUZA WAS DEVISED BY JOHN BOORMAN FOR THE EXORCIST II
, BUT YOU ACTUALLY USED THE CONCEPT OF THIS DEMON IN YOUR NOVEL. WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THIS MYSTIC CHARACTER?
In Assyrian mythology, Pazuzu is the demon of the southwest wind, carrier of death and disease, in particular malaria. When I was stationed in Lebanon working for the US Information Service, I was sent up to Mosul in Northern Iraq to gather material for a weekly USIS news magazine ('The News Review'). At the end of my time there, I found myself with many hours to wait for the Orient Express that would take me back down to Baghdad; I wandered over to an archaeological dig and watched them hoisting up a figure much like the statue of Pazuzu in the film and resolved one day to use it in somethinganythingI might write. Then, while researching the novel, I found a photo of a statue of Pazuzu in a book of essays on the demonic called SATAN and written by the Desert Fathers, a French Catholic order . I resolved to make thisin my own mind, at leastthe demon whom Merrin had expelled in a previous exorcism, and who now returns to face him again in The Exorcist
WHAT KIND OF PYCHIATRIC AND PSYCHOLOGICAL RESEARCH DID YOU DO FOR THE BOOK?
First, I sat for hours with a medical doctor and took him step by step through symptomology manifested by an imaginary young girl I had brought to him as a patient. At each step he gave me his diagnosis and recommended treatment. I continued this up to the point where he threw up his hands and recommended the girl be taken to a psychiatrist. I then found a psychiatrist and put him through the same drill.
HAVE YOU EVER REGRETTED WRITING THE EXORCIST
No, I certainly don't regret it, but what I do regret is that it brought my career as a writer of comic novels and screenplays to a dead halt. After The Exorcist
, when film producers I had worked with proposed me for comedy writing assignments, studio executives' eyes would glaze over. It was as if I had landed on the planet with the manuscript of The Exorcist
under my arm. Yet before The Exorcist
no one would consider me for anything but comedy. I did manage to come up with a comic novel a couple of years ago. Despite the fact that it's title was Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing
, one prospective publisher to whom my agent had submitted it wrote back that he was 'disappointed that it wasn't more frightening.' As we say in this universe, 'Go figure.'
WHEN DID IT OCCUR TO YOU THAT A MOVIE WAS A POSSIBILITY?
I never thought the probability high. And to prove me right, every studio and movie production company in Hollywood turned down the novel. Only on the second time around, and in the hands of more intelligent readers, did Warner Brothers take it on. Even then I wasn't sure that it was a film that could really be made and, even if made, publicly exhibited.
SO IT REALLY CAME DOWN TO THE CHOICE OF DIRECTOR?
There was no doubt in my mind that this story of possession needed a documentary style to make it believable and after seeing The French Connection
, I knew that Billy Friedkin was the man for the job.
The few times that I was on set I only had one feeling, which was the suspicion that something remarkableand wonderfulwas coming together.
I don't know if cursed is the word I would use, but some strange occurrences took place. When I was negotiating the film deal, I was staying at the home of Dick Gordon, a Georgetown classmate of mine who was now a law professor at Georgetown Law School. Dick and I were seated in his breakfast nook, talking about what tack to take with the next expected phone call from a producer's Hollywood agent, when the telephone in the living room sounded. My wife was resting on a living room sofa. The ringing stopped; I heard a clatter and then my wife exclaiming, 'It just floated up off the receiver!' When Dick and I entered the room, we did find the phone on the floor. Dick picked it up, said 'Hello.' No one there, just a dial tone. He put it back into its cradle, and my wife explained she'd watched it float up off the receiver and drop to the floor. Dick and I were extremely skeptical. The very next day, I was sitting in a living room chair with that phone on an end table beside me. I was expecting another call from the agent. The phone rang. I was a heavy smoker then, and before reaching for the phone I grabbed a cigarette and matches, started to light the cigarette, and saw the telephone lift up off the receiver and slip down to the floor. I picked it up, and found that the agent, not a spectral voice, was indeed on the line. Later I called the phone company, got a technician on the line, and asked if the electricity generated by the ringing of the phone might be enough to cause it to jump off the receiver. He said absolutely not, and that he had never heard before of any such occurrence. I speak to Professor Gordon frequently. He lives in the same house, has never changed telephones, and to this day the phone has never again floated. True story. This absolutely happened! Make of it what you will.
FRIEDKIN HAD THE SET BLESSED, RIGHT?
The set was blessed. There was a cessation of these problems after the first blessing on day one of shooting, and they did not recur until we changed locations from New York to Georgetown; and they started again and the same Jesuit, who was my teacher in High School actually, Father Tom Bermingham, was called out and blessed us again, and it came to a (shall I say blessed?) halt; but again as a Catholic and a man of faith, I certainly believe, in a manner of reason that something unknowable was operating on us at the time.
HAVE YOU HAD ANY MOTHER SUPERNATURAL EXPERIENCES?
Myself, no. My daughter, who was 13 at the time, saw the ghost of my mother on the night she passed away. She'd run screaming out of her room and awakened us all. When I asked her about it the next day, my daughter disclosed that she had for some time kept stored in her bedroom closet a number of my mother's personal effects. There is no question but that my daughter saw a cloudlike figure in the shape of my mother standing at her bedside.
WHEN YOU SAW THE FILM FOR THE FIRST TIME, WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION?
I saw the first cut in a moviola at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York and came away feeling it was a masterpiece. I was less thrilled with the second cut, which I saw at a press screening in New York. The audience was dead silent during and after, and I had no clue as to their response that night, although I was quite apprehensive when a young woman left her seat and came up the aisle unsteadily during the middle of it, a hand to her forehead as she kept murmuring, 'Jesus! Jesus!' over and over again. I felt a dread that she might be Pauline Kael.
WERE YOU SURPRISED BY THE EXTRAORDINARY REACTION CAUSED BY THE FILM?
Yes and no. I had expected the film to be well received, but was as taken aback as everyone else by the 'phenomenon' the film became
WHEN DID YOU FIRST HEAR ABOUT THE UK BAN, AND HOW DID YOU REACT TO THAT?
Don't remember when I heard of it, only that when I did I couldn't figure it out. It seemed quite arbitrary.
DOES THE RESPONSE TO THE FILM NOWADAYS AMAZE YOU?
A. Not as much as the first time around. The film is ageless and has a tremendous power to stir the emotions, and audiences today are at rock bottom no different than the audiences of the '70s.
RUMOR SUGGESTS THAT YOU SIGNED TO DO A FOUR-HOUR REMAKE OF THE EXORCIST
. ANY TRUTH TO THIS? ALSO, HAS THERE EVER BEEN ANY MENTION OF A COMPLETE REAMKE, MUCH AS GUS VAN SANT DID WITH PYSCHO
Some time back when I had despaired of the complete version of my novel ever being restored on film, I explored the possibility of a four-hour miniseries. But when Billy Friedkin had his epiphany about restoring the 'lost' footage, I felt there was no longer any need. As for a full out remake, neither I nor Billy Friedkin nor the studio has ever thought of such a thing, mainly becauseand now particularly with the expanded version coming outnone of us ever felt that the film (a) was dated or had lost its power or that (b) it could be done any better, or even as well. And could you possibly cast it as well? I don't think you could even come close.
AND WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR THE EXORCIST
? YOU HAVE THE NEW CUT OPENING THIS MONTH, AND THERE HAS BEEN WORD OF A PREQUEL.
The new cut opens on September 22nd and is longer, more spiritual, more frightening, and the version I have always loved. As for the prequel, I can confirm that Morgan Creek are trying to go ahead with the prequel. They've hired a good director named Tom Loughlin, but have enormous problems with the script, not to mention that there's already been a film about Merrin's African exorcismI believe it's called EXORCIST II
WILL THIS NEWLY RELEASED THE EXORCIST
BE SOLD ON DVD?
Yes, sometime in 2001 when the theatrical release has dwindled down. Haven't started work on it yet, but the flip side mayI emphasize 'may,' as we are working on securing certain rightsfeature something that's never been publicly aired or screened. Fingers crossed.