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Old man and the scene

Times Staff Writer

“YOUNG and edgy?” William Friedkin rolls the words around and decides they taste just fine. “I’ll ascribe to that description. Youth is something that you feel. You can feel old at 30. And from time to time I did.”

William Friedkin -- everyone calls him Billy -- is 71 now, but with his smooth complexion and lively manner he neither looks nor acts his age. “It’s clean living,” he says, grinning at the absurdity of the thought. “Clean mind, clean body, take your choice.”

Friedkin, director of “The French Connection,” for which he won an Oscar, “The Exorcist,” “To Live and Die in L.A.” and numerous others, is in Cannes with his latest film, the Ashley Judd-starring dark drama “Bug.” To the director’s pleasure, it found itself in the festival’s young and edgy Directors Fortnight section.

But on this day the conversation will not deal with “Bug,” but with Friedkin’s thoughts on where the entertainment business has gone in the more than 50 years he’s been associated with it. “It’s called evolution, Ken,” he says non-judgmentally about one change or another. “It is what it is.”

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Friedkin began his career barely out of high school, going to work in the mailroom of Chicago TV station WGN. “In those days that was the only way to get into TV production, no schools were teaching it,” he says with his usual briskness. “By the time I was 18, I was directing live TV, and I directed 2,000 live shows in the eight years before I left.”

A chance meeting with a death row chaplain led to Friedkin’s first feature, a documentary called “The People vs. Paul Crump.” “I went down to an equipment rental house with a friend and said, ‘If you teach us how to use your camera, we’ll rent it.’ That was the only lesson I’ve ever had in filmmaking.”

One of the things that’s changed from then to now is the emergence of computer-generated imagery for the kinds of special effects that made the memorable chases in Friedkin’s multi-Oscar-winning 1971 “The French Connection” such a powerful experience.

“We had to do everything mechanically, we had to do all that stuff,” he says. “But if you were a visitor on the set, you wouldn’t have been very impressed. Those sequences were like knitting -- it was one stitch, one shot at a time. It was the editing and sound that made it look dodgy. No shot was particularly dangerous, you wouldn’t have thought you were watching one of the great chases. It came alive in the montage.”

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Also changing is the financial scale of things. “We made ‘French Connection’ for $1.8 million, which was $300,000 over budget, and they wanted to fire me every day for that overage,” Friedkin says, still disbelieving. “In those days there was much less at stake financially, no film that you could make would hurt or break a studio or knock the stock price down.”

More than that, “the media attention on Hollywood has grown. When I started you didn’t read in a paper what a film grossed last week. To a large extent we knew nothing about anyone’s personal life. We didn’t know the sexual preference or political views of any actor and we didn’t care. Now you can’t open a magazine without being inundated by this stuff.”

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It’s not like it used to be

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ONE of the questions Friedkin hears a lot from friends is: “ ‘When are they going to start making films for adults?’ But the larger question is, ‘When are adults coming back to theaters?’ It’s the kids who seem to crave the social experience of the movies. What’s a studio going to do?”

As a director who had great success in the pivotal decade of the 1970s, Friedkin says he saw the beginnings of this trend. “I got to know a number of the greats, Billy Wilder, Willie Wyler, George Stevens, Darryl Zanuck. And one of the things that happens is that once you achieve a certain success you tend to become a bit more isolated, you live in a house on the hill, detached from the audience you’re supposedly serving.”

I remember going to screenings with a lot of these masters and they would say, ‘What kind of a picture is this, what in the hell is this?’ What this is is a tsunami that is going to change everything. It changed the audience. The younger generation was no longer interested in seeing a love story with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Along came a film like ‘Star Wars’ and the young audience said, ‘This is what we want to see and we want to see it over and over again.’ The studios said, ‘What about something like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”?’ And they said, ‘We want to see this “Star Wars.” ’ I lived through it. I saw it.”

Friedkin’s “Exorcist” was part of that trend, and he feels it paid a price.

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“When ‘The Exorcist’ was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, there were big-name producers and directors who said, ‘If this film wins the Academy Award, it will be the end of Hollywood as we know it.’ I’m not naming names, but I’m telling you the truth -- there was an active campaign against it at the highest levels of the academy.

“If ‘French Connection’ represented kind of a threat, ‘Exorcist’ was a slap in the face. It was outrageous, it left little to the imagination. Let me correct that, it left nothing to the imagination. It was vivid, graphic and violent in a way I don’t think was ever done before. It had a 12-year-old girl masturbating with a crucifix, and you see it.”

When he’d finished “French Connection,” Friedkin remembers, “I thought it was kind of a B picture. I said, ‘We’re never going to win the Academy Award with this thing’ and I meant it, it wasn’t a joke. I’ve never had a lesson in anything. It all sort of came my way.”


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