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THE EXORCIST: William Friedkin at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors

A report on the director's comments regarding 'The Version You've Never Seen.'

By Steve Biodrowski     August 25, 2000

William Friedkin has proven talent as a director, but he's also a great public speaker. Sure, he directed The Exorcist, one of the most successful horror films ever made, and he won an Academy Award for his handling of The French Connection, but get him out from behind the camera and in front of an audience, and he comes alive. The guy is articulate, informative, and funnyall qualities that were amply on display during his appearance at the recent Fangoria Weekend of Horrors Convention in Pasadena, California.

The director was there to promote the upcoming release of The Exorcist, which features restored footage, enhanced special effects, and a remixed soundtrack. Can the greatest horror film ever made possibly be any better? It's doubtful that the revised film (billed by distributor Warner Bros as 'the version you've never seen') will increase the jolts and thrills, but it should satisfy fans of the book (not to mention author William Peter Blatty) by restoring exposition that clarifies a few ambiguities in the film.

Friedkin used to be quite outspoken in his determination not to go back and revise his old films, stating that to restore deleted footage would only 'make them more boring.' Apparently, years of badgering by Blatty, who also produced and scripted the film, finally paid off, and the director relented. Friedkin used his on-stage appearance to explain the reasons for returning to his most successful work, and he took the opportunity to answer numerous questions from the audience. Thanks to his detailed answers, he ran well past his allotted time on stage, but the enthusiastic audience was eating it uphe could have gone on another hour without wearing out his welcome.

The director began by explaining how he came to be involved with the property in the first place:

William Friedkin: William Peter Blatty was a guy I new very well. He basically wrote comedies; he was writing for Blake Edwards. They're very good comedies, things like A Shot in the Darkhe sort of invented the Inspector Clouseau character.* I had seen him a lot at the racetrack, where he always wanted to borrow money from me. So I figured he wanted me to read this book and lie to him and tell him it was greatand then ask for some money. I waited a couple of days. Finally, one day I was going out for dinner. I was waiting for somebody who was going to meet me in the lobby of this hotel, and I started reading this book. I couldn't put it down. I canceled the dinner; I canceled everything; I stayed in, and for the next three to four hours I read this book, and it just floored me. Those of you who've read it know the experience.

I found out that it had been offered as a film to several other filmmakers, because Blatty called me and said, 'Have you read my book?' I said, 'Bill, it's just great. It's so unexpected and so intense and so believable.' He said, 'Well, I'd love you to direct the film version, but I have to tell you that it was offered to Stanley Kubrick, who turned it down, and to Mike Nichols, who also turned it down, and to Arthur Penn. I said, 'Why'd they turn it down.' He said, 'Because they'd never believe that you could find a young girl, twelve years old, to play this part believably, and that the movie would rise or fall on that.' I wasn't too smart in those days, so I wasn't concerned about that. It took us many months and several thousand candidates before we found Linda Blair, whose presence in the film makes it totally believable.

For all these years, I've always been satisfied with the cut of The Exorcist; I mean, it's done pretty well. It continues to play everywhere. But Bill Blatty has never been satisfied with it. He always felt that I had taken out enough of itsections of itthat underlined the spirituality of the story and things that he felt were very importantwhich I took out for two reasons only: pace and length. I had just finished The French Connection, which in those days was a fast-moving film. Today, it would play like an infomercial; it would be like watching your hair grow, compared to the way they pace films today. But in those days I was interested in speed on the screen, so I cut eleven minutes out of the film that I thought was (some of it) redundant, (some of it) overstatement, and I didn't want to underline the spiritual nature of the film; I thought it was taken for granted by everyone who saw it. The spiderwalk I took out because it just didn't work. And now with the new technology I was able to make it work.

But as I say, for twenty-seven years, Billy Blatty has beenhe's a dear friend of mine, and I say this to you quite honestlyhe's been what you call a sore winner. He's always felt that the film needed those eleven minutes. Now if guy calls you for twenty-seven yearsmorning, noon, and nighttrans-Atlantic, while you're on a boat, while you're in a trout streamleaves messages everywhere, saying, 'You're wrong, and you've got to do something about this,' after awhile you get the idea that he's serious. I kept saying to him, 'Bill, why would we put this film back in? The film's played like this for twenty-seven years; it's played all over the world many times; it's played on commercial television, and everyone has seen it.' He kept saying, 'But Bill, really, it's the life's blood of the picture.' I said, even if we do this, Warner Bros isn't going to want to put this out again. They'll throw it into the Nuart [a Los Angeles art house theatre] as a classic, for one week. Is that what you want? He said, 'No, I think if we do this, it will be extraordinary.'

So last year, I went down to Warner Bros with Bill, who doesn't go anywhere anymore; he just stays and counts his money. We went in, and they kindly pulled out this footage. We screened the unedited work print of this footage, and I looked at him and said, 'You know something? You were right. This stuff is terrific. It belongs in the film, and I was wrong.' I allowed them to take some of it and put it on the DVDthe work print, unedited, not integrated into the main story at all, just odd takes that they found. By the way, a lot of the outtakes were lost; a lot of the scenes had been lost.

I'll reveal to you a dirty, dark, little secret about the people who run movie companies: they don't give a fuck about the movies! Stuff gets lost. I mean, like, the movie The Magnificent Ambersonsthey lost the last forty minutes of that film that Orson Welles had shot, and they reshot some stuff that put an extremely lame ending on the film. And now when people realize what a great classic that is, you say, 'Well, let's go get that footage that he shot and put it in,' they can't find it. There's so much stuff from movies that all of you know and love that is just lost. It's like you throw some old slippers in the garage and forget about them, and then one day somebody comes into that garage and says, 'What's this?' That's how film is treated by all of the movie companies. It's almost impossible to recreate accurately any of the original versions of films that were made five years ago, ten years ago. They just have no interest in saving this stuff; it's disposable. One of the reasons is, now, that all of these studios are owned by giant corporations, and they're just on to the next casenext, next, next. So a lot of the classic stuff from Hollywood is gone, if anyone ever wanted to see it. A lot of scenes that we shot for The Exorcist are gone and could not be found.

But I must say that when we showed this new version to the people at Warner Bros today, they immediately leaped on it and said, 'We should put this out. No one has seen this film the way you guys originally intended.' What they allowed me to do was remix the film, because the original Exorcist was a monaural release. So what's more important even than the new footagewe went into the soundtrack and remade all of the sound effects, remixed them, put new music in, new effects, and what I was able to do was completely rethink the aural approach to this picture for a contemporary audience. So it is a versionmore importantly than one you've never seenit's the way I always wanted The Exorcist to be heard. I'm really proud of that. The soundtrack by itself is really intense and terrifying. It's frankly the thing that lured me back into visiting it again. Although having said that, I will tell you that anyone who's ever made a film, if you had the chance, you would remake it years later, as you get older, as you mature.

There's a story about the great post-Impressionist Painter, Pierre Bonard. Bonard had become a famous artist in his lifetime, and his works were hanging in the Louvre. One day, he went into the Louvre with a tiny little palette in front of one of his paintings, and he started to repaint the picture. The guards grabbed him; they threw him out. He said, 'But I'm Bonardthat's my painting. I'm just fixing it.' And the guard says, 'Monsieur Bonard, it's in the Louvreit's finished!'

Well, I can tell you that all of us who direct films have that same desire. We would all be out there like Bonard retinkering with all of the old footage we took out, sometimes even cutting stuffwhich I did with this version, taking stuff out. As you know, the Cohen Brothers took about five minutes out of the new version of Blood Simple; they didn't add anything. But as you get older and mature, you change your mind about certain things. It's a little easier if you have one painting hanging in the Louvre. When there's several thousand prints all over the world, it's a little more difficult. So I'm very grateful to Warners for allowing us to integrate this footage, make brand new prints of it, redo the soundtrack, and put out a version that I think is terrific but that Blatty finally feels at peace with himself. Because he is really the creator of The Exorcist, it's something that I am pleased to have been able to do for him, and I hope those of you who see it will agree with us.

QUESTION: WHEN YOU WERE MAKING THE EXORCIST DID YOU GO THROUGH ANYTHING SPIRITUALLY, MENTALLY, PHYSICALLY?

I was always conscious that we were dealing with something that was beyond anything that any of us could figure out. Before I started the film, Blatty told me that he had based this on a true story. He was an undergraduate at Georgetown University when this actual case took place in Silver Spring, Maryland. Through Bill's good efforts, I met Father Healy, who was then President of Georgetown, and he showed me the files on this case. Not only the exorcists' diaries but the diaries of doctors and nurses who were present during this case. You read all of this incredible stuff that they say happened, and either all of this stuff happened to this fourteen-year-old boy in 1949, or it was a case of massive illusionust all the people involved were completely self-deluded by the same thing. The young man is still alive who experienced this, and we're still indirectly in touch with his relatives, and he has no memory of what happened to him when he was fourteen.

I felt we were dealing with more than just a fictional horror story. I felt that we were dealing with something that was trying to peel back the curtain of the mystery of faith. It was some kind of very small insight, I felt, into what the concept of faith meant, because when you have faith in something, whatever it isreligion, love, another person, an ideayou have no proof of any of it; there is no proof. It is not likely that the Lord is going to appear before you and say, 'Well, you doubted me; now here I am.' You've got to believe, as people have believed, for example, in Christianity for 2000 years, and the other religions as well.

So this is a movie that I always felt dealt with the mystery of belief, the mystery of faith. I was conscious of that every day that I was making the film. I tried not to overdo it stylistically. There are many films in this so-called genre that are much more stylistically interesting than The Exorcist. I just tried to follow the story.

YOU DID SOMETHING VERY INTERESTING WITH STYLE. YOU USED LIGHT AND DARK SCENES, AND LOUD AND QUIET SCENES, THROUGHOUT THE FILM.

I appreciate your comment. We were very consciously alternating scenes of light and darkness, scenes that were very loud and then scenes that were absolutely quiet. I did something then with silence that had never been done before. When you're mixing a soundtrack and you just turn the pots offthe sound offyou're still running magnetic track, which has a presence to it. When I set out to create the silent moments of The Exorcist, I took out the magnetic track. We cut in only clear leader, which is a voidit's like the sound of death; it has no presence. Even though the final picture was released with an optical track, which usually carries a noise level of its own, when you put dead silence on it, it was a new experience for people. I mean, it was dead silent in the theatre; you could hear a pin drop in all of the early screenings. I was conscious of trying, as this gentleman pointed out, [to portray] the contrasts of good and evil, light and darkness, noise and silence, faith and blasphemy. These are elements that we're constantly playing with in the filmhopefully, subliminally.

BASED ON YOUR RESEARCH, HOW MUCH OF THE SCENES WERE FACTUAL?

I talked to the aunt of this boy, as well as looking through these files. She gave me a lot of stuff that wasn't even in the novel, like the furniture moving. That scene where Ellen Burstyn is trapped on the floor and the dresser is movingthat happened to this boy's aunt. Speaking in tongues, speaking in Latin, speaking all this blasphemy... The Catholic Church today recognizes maybe two or three cases of demonic possession in the 20th Century. This is one of them. There are other religions doing exorcisms all the timethree or four before breakfast some days, you know? But the Catholic Church, even though the ritual of exorcism still exists, it is seldom performed in this country. But I am convinced that that case was either mass hysteria, as I've said, or demonic possession. Only two possibilities.

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*Technically, Inspector Clouseau had already appeared in The Pink Panther, but many of the elements we now associate with the character did not emerge until A Shot in the Dark, which William Peter Blatty co-wrote with director Blake Edwards.

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