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Interview : William Friedkin

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It’s been an uncultivated couple of years for Veteran director William Friedkin. An acclaimed master of thrills and trepidation, as voted by his peers and pane, he’s been treated to an almost impromptu second coming with many of his premature classics in receipt of the all too infrequent re-release treatment. First his paramount and easily most lucrative film, “The Exorcist” was re-released – albeit in it’s directors cut structure – to much acclamation; and recently, he was lucky enough to have one of his minor classics, the thriller “Sorcerer” – now screening in it’s re-issued form in selected cinemas across Australia – unleashed to Australian audiences the way he intended it to be before the film’s distributor took a pair of scissors to it some 19 years before. We talk to the illustrious director about an unparalleled bonanza career, the aforesaid “Sorcerer” and his upcoming “The Hunted”, one of 2003’s most anticipated thrillers starring Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro.

The story of four convicts voluntarily surrendering their services to deliver nitrogenised bombs across some jagged jungle terrain, “Sorcerer” initially did nothing on it’s release – Director Friedkin says he partly blames that on the Australian distributor at the time, CIC. “The original version, the way I made it, never played Australia. It was cut at the time by a guy who was running distribution for CIC – which is now U.I.P – and he was subsequently fired for doing the same thing to a number of films. He was re-editing them to shorter running ti he could get more screenings in and he’d said ‘this film’s two hours, we’d make more money if we could take say half an hour out of it’ – and didn’t matter if you had final cut we didn’t even know this was going on until later”.

“I still don’t know the extent – I understand they quit the first half of it but I only found that out about a year ago when Jim Sherlock started to talk to me about re-releasing it over here (in Australia) in it’s original form.

“Sorcerer” was made at a time before computers – so Friedkin says audiences may appreciate they hand to do it all perfunctorily. “There were no any effects or optical’s in those days. It was extremely difficult and hazardous. If I knew it would be such a hassle – endanger people’s lives and my own – and then meet the sort of fate that it met in some parts of the world I wouldn’t have done it. But it is the favourite of all my films”, says Friedkin.

One possible reason “Sorcerer” may not have been successful at the outset is it’s disingenuous title. “The Sorcerer is an evil wizard and in this case the evil Wizard is fate, it’s more a film about fate and about the mystery of fate. The fact that somebody can walk out of their front door and a hurricane can take them away, an earthquake or something falling through the roof or something. And the idea that we don’t really have control over our own faits, neither our births nor our deaths, it’s something that has haunted me since I was intelligent enough to contemplate something like it”.

Friedkin says there’s nothing about the movie he’d like to change but he dearly wished his first choice, Steve McQueen, had headlined the film. “We’d sent him the script and he read it and called me back and said ‘this is the best script I’ve ever read – let’s do it’. Unfortunately, McQueen had just begun a relationship with Ali McGraw at the time and didn’t want to re-locate to South America where the film was to be shot. Although Friedkin said McQueen was quite welcome to bring along his new actress girlfriend for the shoot – McQueen wanted more: he wanted his girlfriend to receive an associate producer credit on the film. Friedkin says he superciliously discarded the command – and lost McQueen. “I think Scheider (Roy) is terrific. I think he’s wonderful, but McQueen is a genuine movie star that could have made the film more…user friendly?”

“A lot of my films have a way of coming back – as The Exorcist recently did – they’re re-releasing “To Live and Die in L.A” again and shortly, “Cruising”. In many ways there’s certain timeless specific qualities about them (my movies) in that it’s not in a specific period.

Friedkin says through DVD audiences have been able to re-visit or ‘discover’ his films. The DVD of “Sorcerer” is due out here next year. “We made a new DVD. But this release is not for that. It’s been out in the states for about two years, but I love DVD. I love it as a format, It’s a great way to see a film because you can go in and clean the print, time it perfectly and it’s not going to be destroyed every time you run it through a projector – it’s the best way to deserve film right now. I finished a DVD of “To live and Die in L.A” about three months ago – It’s a pristine beautiful copy and I did re-did the soundtrack – remixed it – so it’s now in digital stereo – it was originally in mono all track – and so we mixed it differently and we timed the picture in a way that I could never get a print.”

Even when his films are victorious, says Friedkin, he almost always knocks back offers to do sequels. He doesn’t even want to know about some of them. “I didn’t speak to Paul Schrader about The Exorcist prequel and nor should he. I mean if I were Paul Schrader I wouldn’t call me either. I have no interest in Exorcist 2 or 3 or whatever the numeral is, I have no interest. It’s like if you told me there’s just been a grisly car accident down there on the street – 15 car pile-up and there’s bodies all over the place – I’m not going to rush down to see it, I have a pretty good idea what it’s like, and that’s how I very these sequels to The Exorcist, they’re horrible.”

Friedkin’s next film is “The Hunted”, his second with Tommy Lee Jones. “He’s great”, Friedkin says of the reportedly cloistered actor. “He’s superb. Like McQueen you don’t mess around with him on what’s my motivation? or what’s my backstory?. He’s like a great soloist. That’s what Jones is as an actor”

“Tommy Lee plays a guy that is basically a tracker. He’s a real character called Tom Brown Jr who is able to walk into a room like this and he can look at the carpet from a certain angle and tell you who was in this room recently, man or woman, how tall, what weight, what their emotional state was when they walked over here..various other amazing things, and he also teaches the military elite how to survive and kill.

“Benicio (Del Toro) plays a member of the Delta Force. One of the elite killers – who is trained by Tommy Lee – and goes off on these missions, the most recent being in Cosovo in 99 where he has to assassinate a Serbian colonel but he flips out – as we say ‘wanders off the reservation’ – and they got to bring him back and the only guy that can find him or know how to deal with him is Tommy Lee. It becomes a confrontation – the moral ambiguity of the hunter and the hunted, the hunter is the hunted himself. It’s very simple, straightforward narrative – but it’s action from beginning to end, but with two really fine actors playing these roles. It’s a dual; it’s about survival not only out in the woods but out in the cities and within.”

Friedkin says “The Hunted” was originally conceived as “Tracker” over at New Line, but when that film fell apart an eerily similar script arrived on his desk at Paramount, he decided to mesh the two. “Over at New Line we could never find the proper framework for this Tom Brown character. Then I got this other script and thought wow this is tracker. So we developed it further and changed it, so it’s more like Tracker than this script they bought in because I bought Brown in to make all this stuff real and with the foundations”.

Friedkin’s about to do the DVD commentary for the latter “I’m going to try to do it differently”, he says “I’m not going to do it the way I’ve been told to do it in the past – which is to look at the movie and to talk about what’s on the screen – I get a lot of criticism about that, it wasn’t really my idea, so I’m just going to talk the way we are about generally my ideas while making the film”.

Friedkin says he’s already back on the case writing his next movie. “I’m working on a screenplay right now called ‘Serpentine’ which was a work of non-fiction from a guy called Tommy Tobson who had written “Blood Money”, and a wonderful piece of journalism about a real character and it’s a really terrific cat and mouse thriller. I hope to be doing it in April” He says, “Jude Law wants to do it. He’s going to get the script first. There are two key roles. We want to film in Spain”

Also on his schedule is a film called “Coco and “Egor”. “It’s about the love affair between Coco Channel and Egor Stravinsky. It was going on at her country house while his wife and four kids were in the house.”

And what about the odds of a “French Connection 3”? “Fox has asked me to do another French Connection. This time, Sammy Graso who was one of the original French connection cops, he’s now a producer, he’s the guy that Scheider played in The French Connection, and he wants to do it. We’re great friends and we’ve kept in touch in all these years and we’ll see”. Friedkin says it’s too early to say who’ll play Popeye Doyle. “I haven’t committed to doing anything. I’ve been approached, I’m not uninterested, and I’ll have to see what it is they want to do here. There’s a lot of room there but I’m sort of reluctant to go back to what is known in some parts of this world as an ‘iconic’ film. If I revisit it I’ve got to find a completely different take”.

SORCERER is now screening in selected cinemas Across Australia
THE HUNTED commences in 2003.

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About Caffeinated Clint

The writer/publicist/producer who wears the editor hat on Moviehole. Favorite films include "Say Anything...", "The Hunt for Red October", "Jerry Maguire", "Almost Famous", "Die Hard", "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", "Young Guns", "American Psycho", "Back to the Future" and the "Star Wars" series.
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