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William Friedkin on 'rip-off' Exorcist sequels, Scorsese selling out and dressing as Ali G

As William Friedkin, legendary director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, dies aged 87 we revisit this interview from the archives. Originally published in The Big Issue on 25 June 2012

William Friedkin Image: Warner Bros./Hoya Productions

William Friedkin Image: Warner Bros./Hoya Productions

“I met Sacha Baron Cohen in the States a couple of times…” says director William Friedkin.

It’s the first, but far from last, namedrop during the interview. If you are in the movie industry and William Friedkin doesn’t know you, you are not in the movie 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 last week of him dressed in a yellow tracksuit and beanie hat, blinged-up unmistakably as Ali G.

“I was paying off a debt,” he 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. Da Ali G Show was sheer brilliance. And I met Sacha Baron Cohen in the States a couple of times. You know, he’s quite the opposite in real life.”

Was the Ali G bet between you and another of your showbiz pals?

“Yes it would and I don’t intend to name him,” he smiles.

William Friedkin is a spry and witty raconteur. He has the sort of 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 he movie establishment 40 years ago has not diminished.

Hollywood was 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 2012 Edinburgh Film Festival, and is generating the most acclaim of any of his films in 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. William Friedkin is the last man standing – it’s impossible to imagine any of his contemporaries making a film as uncompromising as Killer Joe.

“That’s your observation,” Friedkin says. “Scorsese is a very talented and brilliant filmmaker. 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.”

William Friedkin has long been on the fringes of the mainstream and feels more out of place than ever in present-day Hollywood with its current dependence on comic book adaptations and sequels, often of earlier comic book adaptations.

“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 says.

The better angels certainly suffer in Killer Joe. In many ways it’s more horrific than The Exorcist because instead of demonic possession, it explores the more common human frailties of greed and malice. Chris, played by Emile Hirsch, agrees with his father and stepmother to hire a hitman to kill his estranged mother and cash in on her life insurance policy. Instead of money upfront, Chris negotiates that Killer Joe can have his naïve little sister Dottie’s virginity as collateral.

It’s a ferociously funny trailer park tragicomedy that transforms into a psychotic soap opera in a frantic final act as Killer Joe seeks retribution after things don’t go quite according to plan. Matthew McConaughey brings a deadly blend of sadistic mania and matinee idol magnetism to Joe, a modern, more extreme incarnation of Gene Hackman’s ‘Popeye’ Doyle, a despicable man yet one so charismatic, you can’t side against him.

“That’s the oddity of it,” Friedkin says. “I know guys like Killer Joe. I know guys who work in homicide on the police department and do hits for the Italian and Irish mafia. They’re not strangers to me.”

Incredible as this claim seems, Friedkin insists that he was so close to one that he would babysit his son, who called him Uncle Mort.

“Nice guy,” he states simply. “It’s part of the crooked timber of humanity. It was Immanuel Kant who said, ‘out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight can be made’, and I find a lot of truth in that.”

The film has already attracted controversy for one depraved scene in which Chris’ stepmother, played by Gina Gershon, is forced by Killer Joe to perform a sexual act on a fried chicken drumstick.

On the set of The Exorcist, Friedkin fired guns and filmed scenes in freezers to ensure his actors were suitable rattled for tense scenes. How did he orchestrate the mood onset this time?

“You keep the mood light. What a director does is create an atmosphere where a cast and crew can perform their best work. You give the space for a performance of that act, which is, I guess,” he says, stifling an absurd giggle, “an extreme act.”

When The Big Issue catches up with Gina Gershon later, she takes a slightly different view.

“I think he definitely screamed at me,” she recalls. “But I think he was screaming at everybody onset.

“William Friedkin is a method director,” continues Gershon. “He’s so wonderful and sweet but as my character started to get a little bit darker and a little more dubious he wouldn’t talk to me as much. I started taking it personally. At one point Matthew was like, ‘Wow, did you guys have a fight or something?’

“He’s an intense guy, a real renegade, but he’s a great director. He’s strong in his opinions, he doesn’t back down and doesn’t pussyfoot around.”

At the glitzy opening gala in Edinburgh, the film drew a combination of guffaws, cringing and shocked silence before a hearty round of applause from audience members vowed never to eat fried chicken again. Critics have also been positive, but have noted the film’s questionable treatment of female characters. Does Friedkin think Killer Joe is misogynistic?

“No.”

How can you be sure?

“No, I don’t have to prove why he isn’t,” he counters. “Joe loves women. He loves Dottie.”

Remember, that’s the childlike girl effectively sold to a hired killer. Or maybe there’s an alternate version of events.

“Dottie is Cinderella looking for her Prince Charming to take her away from her evil stepmother, her evil father and her brother who is willing to pimp her out in order for this hitman to murder his mother! It’s Cinderella done as a black comedy. Cinderella for the modern generation!” Freidkin declares.

It sounds like a great line for the film poster.

“I think what they should put on the poster is ‘Get Boned – See Killer Joe’. There are going to be t-shirts that say ‘Get Boned’ and I hope all of your readers will be able to obtain one and wear it proudly.”

Inspiring as much affection as derision is perhaps no bad thing. It was publicity surrounding adverse audience reactions to The Exorcist that helped turn it into a phenomenon. Were any of the stories about audience reactions true?

“Which ones?”

Fainting, vomiting in the aisles…

“Yes there was fainting. There was some vomiting. What else?”

There’s a story that lightening struck a 16th Century church in Rome across the street from a cinema playing the film, causing a cross at the top of the tower to plummet to the ground.

“I was there when it happened,” he says.

And what’s your explanation for it?

“What is my explanation? I didn’t do it!” he laughs, raising his hands. “It was an act of God.”

It’s the biggest namedrop of the lot, but maybe the only good friend you need.

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