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William Friedkin at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors, Part Two

The director answers questions about THE EXORCIST, to be re-released September 22.

By Steve Biodrowski     August 27, 2000

Part One of our report on William Friedkin's appearance at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors covered his opening comments, in which he explained how he came to direct The Exorcist and why he finally decided to re-edit the film for re-release this September 22. After his speech, he began to field questions from the audience, some regarding his work on the film and some regarding filmmaking and Hollywood in general. An articulate and quick-witted man, Friedkin had an answer for everything, often with a humorous, even sarcastic edge, which often had the audience in gales of laughter.

Of course, with Friedkin's shoot-from-the-hip approach to verbal discourse, opinion sometimes blows away factalthough not too often, fortunately. He doesn't disregard truth, but he does know how to use a good soundbyte-type punch line to get a laugh from his audience, even when a more complicated (but less amusing) explanation would be more accurate. For example, his response regarding sequels to The Exorcist states that William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist III (based on his novel Legion) was retitled upon the insistence of the film's producertruebut also implies that the original story had nothing to do with The Exorcist, when it is in fact a direct sequel. Likewise, the climax to his story about the preview screening of The Exorcist II strains credibility, but why let boring facts stand in the way of a great story?

In any case, what follows is the remainder of Friedkin's question-and-answer session at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors Convention. Scheduled immediately after Friedkin was The Blair Bitch Project, a twenty-minute spoof starring Linda Blair, who was on hand to introduce the screening. When Friedkin ran over his allotted time, Blair joined him on the stage near the very end of his comments, and the two shared some fond reminiscences of working together on The Exorcist twenty-seven years ago.

QUESTION: WERE YOU EVER APPROACHED TO DO EITHER OF THE SEQUELS OR THE PREQUEL.

William Friedkin: Was I ever approached to do any of the sequels or this prequelwhatever the hell that is! The two sequels, whatever they arethey're terrible. It has nothing to do with the film that I made, and I would only be doing it again for money. While I've made some stupid films in my time, I've never intentionally set out to do it. Exorcist II'The Hairy Tic,' as well call itI'll tell you a little story about it. Yes, I was asked to direct it, and I respectfully declinedI said I'd rather direct my nephew's Bar Mitzvah! This is what happened when they had the sneak preview of that film. The people who were at Warners then are no longer there nowthey called me and Blatty and said, 'You guys are grandfathers! This thing is great. You're going to love this. This really works!'

Well, then they had the first preview. The Warners guys pulled up in limousines, and they went in. Customarily, they sat in the back of the theatre while the preview audience saw the first screening of 'The Hairy Tic,' and they let their limousine drivers go. You know: 'The movie runs two hours. Go out and get a hamburger, and get back in an hour-and-a-half or so.' They sat in the back, and the movie started. After about ten minutes of it, someone in the audience yelled out, 'The people who made this piece of shit are in this room!' Somebody else yelled out, 'Where?' And he turned around and said, 'There they are!' These Warner guys got up and started heading for the back [exits]. They ran the hell out of there as quickly as the could.No limousines! They were literally chased down the street!

The film set a record for the number of people who demanded their money back. To me, it's a shame. I heard talk about this prequel, which in my opinion is beyond stupid. It's just a rip-off, and it shows no respect, so that's all I have to say about that. Bill Blatty did a film from his novel called Legion, which the same guy who's doing the prequel got him to call it Exorcist III and to put some stuff in that relates to The Exorcist, but it relates to The Exorcist the way communism relates to Catholicism.

COULD YOU TALK ABOUT HOW YOU GOT MERCEDES MCCAMBRIDGE TO CONTRIBUTE THE VOICE OF THE DEMON IN THE EXORCIST?

I didn't know what I wanted for the sound of the demon when I started the film. It was an ephemeral notion in my head. As you know, when you read the novel, it talks about all of these horrendous sounds, but what is it? How do you do it? I had some men try and do the voice. Linda Blair voiced everything herself; she did all of the vocal stuff. But then I wanted a sound for the demonafter I had heard all of these men record over the voice, and after we did what we could in those days to play with the voicesI still didn't think it was right. It sounded like a man dubbed over a twelve-year-old girl. I started to think about that. I said, 'If it's not going to be a man's voice, it certainly can't be just an older woman's voice. What should it be?' I thought it should be something neutral, a voice that is neither excessively masculine nor feminine. Once I got that thought, I wondered, 'What the hell is that?'

I remembered, from my days growing up, listening to radio. You guys remember radiono-inch television, where you had to use your imagination. I was actually a child before television. They had dramatic radioincredible stuff, just sounds and voices. A great actress of that period was Mercedes McCambridge. I asked someone, 'Is she still alive?' We checked it out and found she had not done films in a long time, but she was in Dallas, Texas, doing Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? on stage. I called her, and I told her what I was doing. She said, 'Yes, sounds interesting.' I brought her to California after she was through doing Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? on the road. She looked at the film, and she was literally shaken. She said, 'I am a lapsed Catholic. I was brought up a Catholic, and I've been very scarred by my Catholicism. I don't know what sort of demons this will bring out in me if I do this.' But she said, 'I think it's great, and I will try to do it, with your help.'

We talked about certain things that we had to do to provoke that performance. We recorded her voice for about a month, five days a week, sometimes even on weekends. She had two priests that she knew that had to be in attendance at all times. She told me that she had quit drinking because she had an alcohol problem, and she had quit smoking because she either had to quit smoking or quit reading, because everything you read says smoking kills you. Once you read that, you either give up smoking or give up reading, so she had given up smoking. She said, 'But if I drink again and if I inhale cigarettes, it will do something to my voice. So we brought in the booze and the cigarettes. At one pointshe was so drunk during some of itI had her tied to a chair, like it was a torture chamber. After she had been drinking and smoking, we put pain into the equation. We brought in some raw eggs, and she drank these raw eggs. And certain things happened to her voice as a result of all this for a month. At one point some of the wheezing you hearthe demonic wheezing, which sounds like several tracksit's just coming out of her throat.

She gave herself to this, amazingly, and created that sound. But what I started with, as I say, was the notion that her own voice had a sort of a neutral quality, neither masculine nor feminine, a little bit of both, very strong, very haunting. Then what we did was added different things to it, and she went through a month of torture to produce this track.

I also, for those of you who are not aware of it, I was sent a tape from a priest in the Vatican where an actual exorcism had been conducted. On an old recorder, they recorded an exorcism that was done in the basement of the Vatican. It was basically unintelligible, but every once in a while, you would hear, BLAAAAGH!!' or something like that coming off this very badly recorded tape. I took some of that and mixed it into the track as well, along with certain other things.

GIVEN THE FACT THAT YOU DIRECTED ONE OF THE GREATEST HORROR FILMS EVER MADE, ARE YOU SOMEWHAT DISMAYED THAT A SHOT-ON-VIDEO SHITPILE CALLED THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT WAS DESCRIBED BY BREATHLESS CRITICS AS THE 'FUTURE OF SCREEN HORROR'?

I have to tell youI really like The Blair Witch Project; I really do. [applause from the audience] I applaud its ingenuity. It was something different, and it was pure to what it wasit did not break the focus. It was a documentary. When people set the camera down, all it showed you was shoes or sometimes nothing. I have to tell you, I sat there with my then fourteen-year-old son, and it scared the hell out of us. That picture scared me. I thought it was really good, because I love documentaries. I love that somebody took the horror genre, and did almost a pure documentary with it. I thank you for your comment about The Exorcist, and I respectfully disagreeI think Blair Witch is a helluva a film, a good film.

I'D LIKE TO KNOW IF WANG CHUNG WILL SCORE ANY MORE OF YOUR MOVIES.

Wang Chung did two scores for me, and I really love what they do. But as with anything else, my musical tastes tend to go in various directions. I won't say they mature, but I start hearing different sounds for different pictures. I'll be doing a film with Ving Rhames, coming up, about Sonny Liston, and the score for that will probably all be stuff like James Brown and Miles Davis and music of that period.

I still thing that what Wang Chung did for me is sensational. Also...who were those guys who did Sorcerer? Tangerine Dream! Senior momentpardon me. Tangerine DreamI love those guys, too. They broke up. As you know the nature of all rock groups is to break up; they get put on this Earth to break up.

WHAT ARE YOUR OPINIONS ON DIGITAL PRODUCTION AND DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION OF FILM?

I can tell you thatI love it. I can't wait for it to get here; I think it's fantastic. One of the reasons is that the prints that you will see in a theatreeventually, possibly in your lifetime, but I wouldn't be surewill be perfect and pristine, spotless, with perfect sound, and without any tears or rips in the film or those lines that run through it right after they first screen celluloid. As a delivery system, I think it's incredible. Also, as a means of production, it puts the tools in everyone's hands rather inexpensively.

The problem with it isand why I have serious doubts that any of you will ever see it in your lifetimeis the cost of converting theatres. Right now the estimated cost of converting one theatre to digital projection is somewhere between $100,000 and $500,000 per theatre. It's completely new equipment. What's going on is what normally goes on when new technologies come into the movie business: The exhibitors say, 'Why should be pay for it? You guys are making these films. If you want to run it that way, we'll let you put the equipment in our theatres.' And the distributors are saying, 'No, you own the theatres. If we go out of business, you still have these theatres running somebody else's movies.' It's like the Arab-Israeli conflict over Jerusalem. It's unresolvable. It's very costly. Certainly, they'll be streaming this stuff on the Internet digitally, and by that time, the horse might be out of the barn.

But the best way we know of now to show a movie is with digital projection. The best way to shoot a film is with digital cameras. They are superior. They're superior in the same way that you don't need to crank the camera anymore, and the camera can move now; the camera isn't a slave to sound as it was in the early days of sound. Right now, the vision of the filmmakers, people like yourselves who will be coming along, young people I see in the audiencethe way to get your visions out there, the best way, is with the digital components. But how soon you'll see them in a theatre, I wouldn't bet on it, for the reasons I just stated.

HOW DID YOU GET LINDA BLAIR TO THROW UP, AND WAS IT PEA SOUP?

The pea soup was only used for coloring. It was oatmeal, for texture, and the pea soup for coloring and to water it down a bit.

[By now, Friedkin has gone well over schedule, and Linda Blair is waiting just off-stage, ready to introduce the screening The Blair Bitch Project.]

What we did...I hate to reduce The Exorcist to disgustI'm getting the quick cut sign, so I'll give you this last oneI hate to discuss vomit when we're talking about the mystery of faith, ladies and gentlemen. But, all of the effects in The Exorcist are created mechanically. There were no opticals that did the job in those days. We tried opticals, and they looked horrible. Everything you see in the film, we achieved mechanically. The effect of the projectile vomit was done with two wires [tubes] running up through the dress and up through Linda's makeup, which was rather thickly applied by Dick Smith.* These wires went through the makeup from the floor, went back into her mouth, and were turned around [to point outward]. The vomit was literally pumped through those wires and out her mouth, by a great special effects man named Marcel Vercoutere, who if he were around today would be sitting out there. Marcel was one of you. He was a guy like you who loved horror and the supernatural, and he loved experimenting with special effects. I built him a bedroom in the basement of the studio where we shot the film in New York, and he and his wife and kids lived there, with a couple of assistants[aside to Linda Blair, who has just walked on stage] Hello, Beautiful!he just experimented with all of the stuff you see in the film.

There is my queen! Come up for a second! [loud, long applause as Blair and Friedkin embrace] She is the greatest. Without Linda Blair, there would not be this film. She is the most dedicated and the wonderful, committed actress that I've worked with. It's a pleasure to see you again, darling! Do you want to say anything now?

Blair: [joking] I love you.

Friedkin: The other day, for the [official Warner Bros Exorcist] website, they sent me a lot of stills that had not appeared anywhere, that were never put outback stage stuff of The Exorcist. I saw some stills of you and me, and in almost all of them I've got my arms around you; I'm hugging you; you're looking up at me and smiling. And I realized that was the nature of our relationship during the making of the film. I was like a surrogate father to Linda, and these stills reminded me of that. I felt...first of all, she was the cutest little thing I'd ever seen at twelve, and then at thirteen, and then I guess at fourteenwhen we were still making the film! She was just adorable and wonderful and wholesome and a straight-A student and the most delightful person you could meet. And I related to that, because I at that time didn't have a child, and I thought of you that way then, I must tell youif you didn't already know it.

Blair: You know, I hadn't really intended to say much of anything, but I do love and adore you, and I think that's always importantthat people realize [that about] our relationship. This is the first time that we've appeared anywhere together. I was thinking about how much my mother, who is not with us anymore, loved Billy, how close they were. I realized you were almost like a brother to me. I know you feel it's almost like father-daughter, but it wasn't; it was almost like a brother. We were very close, and you can see we're still very close. So for all the rumors that came out way back then, about the problems or whatever that may have been on the filmthey were not true, or we would not be as close as we are today. I trusted Billy, and my mother trusted Billy completely. As much as you were delighted by the fact that I was very nave and innocent...Billy would say, 'Okay, this is tomorrow's dialogue.'

Friedkin: [imitating a dialogue between Blair and him] 'I can't say this!'--'Yes, you can!'

Blair: You know who won! But I do love and adore him. He's the most incredible director I have ever worked with. The film is obviously one that will for the rest of our lives go down in cinema history. I'm very proud to be part of it. For those who always ask, did it affect my lifewell, yeah! It gave me a lot of wonderful opportunities as well. So for that I thank you, on the lighter plane of things. You know how I feel....

Friedkin: [to the audience] Thank you very much for showing up this afternoon. I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you. I read the magazine. I love it. I think it's the best thing of its kind.** Congratulations on your convention. Thanks a lot, folks!

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*Despite Friedkin's assertion that the effect was achieved live on-set, in the EXORCIST DVD, makeup man Dick Smith says that the projectile vomit was replaced in postproduction with a rotoscoped optical. Also, freeze frames of the image seem to indicate that it is Blair's double, not the actress herself, performing in this scene.

**Essentially the same words he used to me when I interviewed him for Cinefantastique magazine several years ago.

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