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The Exorcisms of William Friedkin : After 16 hitless years, the ‘French Connection’ and ‘Exorcist’ director seeks to turn heads again with ‘The Guardian’

Long before “Batman,” before “E.T.,” before “Star Wars,” and even long before “Jaws,” there was “The Exorcist.” Buzzing with word of Linda Blair’s head spinning full circles on her neck and those repulsive streams of green vomit, moviegoers lined up on the streets of 1973 America like never before, just for the chance to feel their stomachs turn flip-flops in the dark.

“The Exorcist” broke house records in theaters everywhere. In some towns, fevered fans shattered glass doors to get in. Lines for even the midnight showing of the movie snaked through the sidewalks of Westwood like a boa constrictor wrapping itself around its prey. The lines grew even longer when the press reported that people were fainting in disbelief. One women, the legend goes, had a miscarriage while watching the film, which, some claimed, reached right up inside you, twisted your guts, made you squirm, cringe and cling fiercely to the arm of the stranger beside you. The bravest of men covered their eyes and shrieked out loud.

And, like no so-called horror film before or since, “The Exorcist” grabbed 10 Academy Award nominations and actually won two Oscars. If Robert Redford and Paul Newman hadn’t been so cleverly charming in “The Sting,” it probably would have won a bunch more.

In 1973, William Friedkin, “The Exorcist’s” 34-year-old director who had already scored an Oscar for his direction of “The French Connection” two years earlier, stood at the top of the cinematic world--right beside Coppola, Scorsese and Kubrick.

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Now, 16 years, three marriages and six hitless films later, Friedkin stands in a puddle of simulated blood, swatting away the mosquitoes that congregate around his baby-eating, blood-spurting, hydraulic-powered tree--the tallest and most horrifying star of his latest film, “The Guardian.”

Such is the stuff of a career in film making.

“I love the experience of making films. I love the mud. I love the dirt. I love all the inconveniences. That’s why you do it,” he says, on the set of his first return to horror since he terrified audiences with “The Exorcist.” “If you do it because you’re looking to be the Great American film maker, you’re liable to experience disappointment. I have never experienced disappointment on any of my films because they all have great memories for me, even some of those that have done less well than others.”

Thinking he had come as close to his “vision” as he might ever come, it took Friedkin several years to attempt another film after the “The Exorcist.” Though “Sorcerer,” a spectacular remake of H. G. Clouzot’s 1952 thriller, “The Wages of Fear,” drew critical raves, it also proved to be a spectacular disaster. The movie cost $22 million, a big-time budget in 1977, but it grossed less than $6 million at the box office.

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“Friedkin’s career as a director has yet to recover,” the editors of the Motion Picture Guide, an encyclopedia of film, wrote about “Sorcerer.” “Though he bounced back slightly with the likable ‘The Brink’s Job’ in 1979, his subsequent films (‘Cruising,’ ‘Deal of the Century’ and ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’) have been wretched efforts artistically and for the most part financial flops.”

Of his 1985 film “To Live and Die in L.A.,” his last foray into mainstream movie making (his 1987 film, “Rampage,” has been lost in the shuffle of the DeLaurentis Entertainment Group’s financial troubles), the Motion Picture Guide comments: “Friedkin has become a parody of what he was, and is now little more than a glorified MTV director.”

Amid the mud and the blood of his latest effort, clad in blood-splattered, drawstring surgical scrubs and a T-shirt, Friedkin, 50, refuses to look back with regret. As blood oozes out of “The Guardian’s” mechanical tree and he dodges a spongy limb that shoots like a missile from its trunk, Friedkin maintains that the only difference between making a hit movie and making a series of flops is “you get less money to make your next picture.”

“I have never dragged my tail and said, ‘Aw shucks’ when things went badly, nor have I said, ‘Look what I just did’ when it works. The life of a film maker is one film to another. You get on with it. There’s a great reward when you connect with the public and people are lining up around the block to see your film. But the real joy is making the film. And if you want to make films, you find a way to make films. One day, if I make ‘Citizen Kane,’ which by the way was a flop in its day, then I would quit a happy man.”

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But doesn’t it gnaw at him that he was once revered and acclaimed and now labors in comparative obscurity? Doesn’t it wear on his ego, his pride?

“Four times you’ve asked me that and my answer is still the same,” Friedkin snaps. “I never considered myself the great American anything. Not then and not now. I consider myself just another member of the crew, the highest paid member of the crew. Winning the Academy Award (and the Directors’ Guild Award for 1971’s “The French Connection”) was an enormous honor. But I thought I had won it prematurely, that I hadn’t paid enough dues at that point.”

Friedkin even insists that bombing miserably, as he did with “Cruising,” the much reviled and sexually graphic 1980 film starring Al Pacino, that showed a dark and violent side of the gay underground, hasn’t made it more difficult to persuade a studio to hire him.

“It’s always difficult to get a film made. The most difficult time I ever had was with ‘French Connection.’ Nobody wanted to make the picture. It got turned down by every studio twice (before going on to win five Oscars including best picture of the year).”

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The notorious path of his Hollywood career out of the way, Friedkin hungrily dives into a discussion of his film-making style, peppering his soliloquies with references to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the late French author Georges Simenon and the films of Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Kubrick and Michelangelo Antonioni.

He takes obvious pride in his prologue to “The Exorcist,” a masterful cinematic sequence of images and sound, shot on location in Iran, that introduces the conflict between the priest and the demon and sets the frightful atmosphere that pervades the rest of the film.

“It’s all sound and mood, those things are what make a film, the detail,” Friedkin explains. “What makes a story is what Simenon said, the way the light plays on a character’s nose, not the philosophical idea that the character is expressing. What I did was try to take all the hard meaning out of that sequence and concern myself with detail. I was setting people up to sit on the edge of their seat for the rest of the movie. That’s what I hoped to do.”

Friedkin’s films are at their best when he sets the audience on the edge of its seat. It’s not the actual horror of “The Exorcist” or “The Guardian,” which is scheduled for release this spring, that fascinates him, he says. It’s the suspense, the anticipation of danger or evil or the unknown.

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“I’m interested in people who live without alternatives, whose backs are to the wall. What unites all my films--'The Night They Raided Minsky’s,’ ‘The Boys in the Band,’ ‘Cruising,’ ‘French Connection'--I think, is that they all involve people living on the edge of very intense situations that are forcing them into irrational behavior and a kind of last chance reaction to life. I guess it’s because I find that situation in my own personal life very often.”

Friedkin, who was married to French actress Jeanne Moreau and British actress Lesley-Anne Down and is now married to KNBC-TV news anchor Kelly Lange, declined to elaborate on exactly when and where he has encountered such desperate situations in his own life. Although when praising “Fatal Attraction” as the best horror/suspense film of recent years, he deadpans, it’s “a scary movie for all of us who have committed adultery in our lives.”

Though several of Friedkin’s films have a strong documentary flavor, he contends that the true-to-life situations depicted in such movies as “Fatal Attraction” have to be “heightened” or sensationalized to help people remove themselves from the horror of the story. Friedkin says, for example, that the situation portrayed in “The Guardian” is like that, too. It presents a situation in which a young couple hires a nanny to care for their baby who turns out to be “the instrument of evil” for the infant-devouring tree. He says it is so primal and suspenseful that it could easily be told without any supernatural hocus-pocus. Friedkin points out that his own interest in the film, which is based on the 1987 novel “The Nanny,” was born out of his own “horrifying” experiences with some of the people he hired to look after the son he had with Lesley-Anne Down.

“But I remember being persuaded by the studio that without the supernatural element, the story is too real, too disturbing, too close to the bone,” Friedkin says. “The supernatural element in a story like this or ‘The Exorcist’ gives the audience a chance to distance themselves from the horror of something like that actually happening to your 12-year-old daughter. That would be a documentary, but you would be repelled by it because there is no fictional distance.”

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The cinematic razzmatazz inherent in occult-laden movie making, however, often overshadows the more substantive elements of the films. “The Exorcist” is acknowledged as a terrific movie, but what people often remember most about it are the special effects and the makeup. Friedkin concedes that because of the homicidal tree, “The Guardian” is likely to be classified, at least initially, as a typical horror film, even though what intrigues him most is directing the edge-of-your-seat interplay between the couple, played by Dwier Brown and Carey Lowell, and the nanny, played by Jenny Seagrove.

Then why bother with the gimmicks?

“The special effects are very important,” Friedkin insists. “In (Garcia Marquez’s novel) ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ when the little girl dies, the bed sheets in the back yard wrap around her and lift her up in the sky. That’s a wonderful effect from that novel that I remember as being really transcendent, but it isn’t the whole book.

“This film has a number of set pieces like that, mostly at the end. Creating the environment in which these unexplainable things take place concerns me more than what we’re shooting now with the tree. Although what were shooting now has to be totally convincing on the screen or the whole picture is ruined.”

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Friedkin means it. An admitted perfectionist, he fired the special effects team that had been working on “The Guardian” for seven months and shut down production for three weeks while the replacement crew built a new tree from scratch. Though Friedkin admits that the delay was expensive, he maintains that he will finish the picture on its $10-million budget.

“Special effects are often trial and error,” he says. “The first go we had with them was error, now we’re doing it and it’s trial. It isn’t easy to just order them up. It’s not like saying, ‘Make me 12 of those shirts.’ You can’t just say, ‘Make me a supernatural tree that does the following things.’ The people who did it for seven months probably did the best they could, but it didn’t work. Now it works.”

That kind of meticulous concern for detail affects more than just the crew.

“This is my 20th movie, and I’ve never seen anyone go frame by frame like he does,” says Joe Wizan, producer of “The Guardian” and such films as ". . . And Justice for All” and “Jeremiah Johnson.” “He is convinced that if you lose or add just one frame it will make a difference in the visceral effect. It’s fascinating. Most people don’t work that way. It drives the producer crazy.”

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“The studio has been totally supportive,” Friedkin chimes in. “They realize that everything is for the betterment of the picture. It’s not a whim of mine. This is not ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ If they thought I was wrong, I’d hear about it real fast, and if I didn’t adjust, I wouldn’t be here for this interview.”

Universal executives declined to answer questions about Friedkin’s track record or the current film.

Friedkin insists that he has always aimed his films for the widest possible audience, then stood back in amazement the few times he has actually hit. The problem, he says, is that no one, except maybe Steven Spielberg, who Friedkin says has some kind of “mystical, oracular connection with today’s audience,” knows what works and what won’t.

“What happens is what happened to (German rocket scientist) Wernher Von Braun, whose autobiography was titled, ‘I aim at the stars and sometimes hit Dresden,’ ” Friedkin says. “I always aim at the stars and sometimes I hit Dresden. But I set out, as Wernher Von Braun did with every rocket, to take it to the moon.”

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Friedkin, who says he was enamored of films as a small child, started out as documentary film maker, but realized early on that audiences for such films are especially tiny. He made his first feature, “Good Times” starring Sonny and Cher, in 1967 when he was 27.

“In my day, film making was the art for young people to aspire to. Today, young people aspire to music. They want to play guitar in a rock band. When I grew up . . . to be a side man in Harry James’ band, who cares? But, today, you want to be in Guns n’ Roses or you want to be on tour with Sting.”

So, considering that such young people make up the bulk of today’s movie-going public, is it even more difficult for a 50-year-old director like Friedkin to hit it big? Many of today’s wildly commercial directors, Robert Zemeckis, Tim Burton, Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne, all came of age cinematically after the George Lucas-Steven Spielberg “Star Wars/Close Encounters” movie revolution--a film era that emphasizes pure visual images and glosses over most everything else. Is it possible that these visually flashy directors are simply more in tune with the tastes of today’s MTV-weaned movie audience?

“Possibly,” Friedkin says hesitantly. “It definitely is more difficult (for me) to make movies today because the age of the audience has changed and perceptions of what is a good movie has changed. Today, the kind of movies that are successful are a hell of a lot different than the kinds of movies that were successful when I came up.”

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