Through a Lens Darkly with William Friedkin
"I met Sacha Baron Cohen in the States a couple of times…” It’s the first, but far from last, namedrop during the interview. If you are in the film industry and William Friedkin doesn’t know you, you are not in the film industry.
Pictures he has posted on Twitter offer tantalising glimpses of his razzle-dazzle lifestyle: lunch with “good friend” Sidney Poitier, a boat trip with “close friend” Francis Ford Coppola and, curiously, one taken last week of the 76-year-old dressed in a yellow tracksuit and beanie hat, blinged up unmistakably as Ali G.
“I was paying off a debt,” the veteran director shrugs. “It was a bet on a basketball game and this fellow and I agreed whichever one of us lost would dress as Ali G. I didn’t take it seriously, then one day he showed up with the costume… But I’m a big admirer of Ali G,” he continues. “I think he is one of the greatest things ever to happen in the United Kingdom. The Ali G Show was sheer brilliance. You know, Sacha Baron Cohen, he’s quite the opposite in real life.”
Would the Ali G bet have been between you and another of your showbiz pals? “Yes it would, and I don’t intend to name him,” he smiles. Friedkin is a spry, witty raconteur with the healthy glow that comes from a lifetime in California. Perched on a grand armchair in the Caledonian Hilton in Edinburgh, he has a playful air and a manner as casual as his sweater and slacks combination, but the spark that saw him shake up the film establishment 40 years ago is undiminished.
Hollywood was considered moribund at the end of the 1960s until a band of young directors including Friedkin, Coppola, Polanski and Scorsese came along and revolutionised American cinema. Winning a Best Director Oscar in 1972 for The French Connection’s unforgiving urgency, Friedkin trumped it the next year with his blockbuster adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s book The Exorcist, which influenced – or has been ripped off by – every horror movie that followed.
He’s only made 13 films since. His latest, Killer Joe, opened the Edinburgh Film Festival and is generating greater acclaim than any he has made in the past 30 years. While Coppola has largely been hiding his blushes since The Godfather: Part III, Scorsese seems content making lush, Oscar-friendly fare like Hugo. Friedkin is the last man standing: it’s impossible to imagine any of his contemp-oraries making a film as uncompromising as Killer Joe.
“That’s your observation,” Friedkin says. “Scorsese is a very talented and brilliant film-maker. He made some great movies, like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver – and Raging Bull was one of the great American films, but it didn’t make any money. For a long time I know Marty was bothered by that and decided to change course and try to make more commercial films. I have not decided to change course.”
Friedkin has long been on the fringes of the mainstream and feels more out of place than ever in present-day Hollywood, with its dependence on comic book adaptations and sequels, often of earlier comic book adaptations. Perfectly illustrating the industry’s lack of originality, a follow-up to Scorsese’s masterpiece began filming last week: Raging Bull 2.
“Really?” Friedkin howls, grabbing the arms of his chair, his body contorted in outrage. “By Scorsese?”
In fact, Scorsese has shown complete indifference to the project, noting that he said all there was to say at the time he made the original.
“I wasn’t involved with any of the Exorcist sequels or the French Connection sequel,” Friedkin says. “Not only was I not involved, I haven’t seen them. I view them as shit! They were simply made to cash in on the title. The public isn’t stupid. They can see a rip-off when it’s coming.”
Friedkin’s films have all examined the thin line between good and evil. “It’s a constant struggle for our better angels to survive, and often they don’t. Like just now, I knocked these films that I haven’t even seen. That’s a faux pas that I’m guilty of,” he sneers.