Tribute to William Friedkin: "Making a film is very mechanical!"

Tribute to William Friedkin: “Making a film is very mechanical!”

Guest of honor at the Beaune International Crime Film Festival in 2009, the director of French Connection and The Exorcist who has just disappeared, gave us a masterclass. Tribute.

“I grew up in Chicago and you can’t say that I was someone particularly interested in culture. The only movie memories related to childhood are Mickey Mouse, The Three Stooges or series like Hopalong Cassidy, kind of westerns that also inspired like George Lucas. When I left college, I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I simply responded to an advertisement from a television channel that was looking for someone to take care of the mail. We were then in the early fifties, it was the explosion of live programs. There was a great excitement and a possibility of evolution. One day, an assistant director friend asked me to accompany him to the Surf Theater in Chicago, an arts and crafts hall: ” Come with me, he’s playing a great movie! ” It was Citizen Kane ! The shock, I saw it several times in a row. It’s as if suddenly, I had been given the key to an unknown world. If I couldn’t analyze what seduced me, I remember being struck by the light, the revolutionary use of sound, the complexity of the editing… Everything was new. It was as strong as the discovery of paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer or the Impressionists. ” How is it possible to create such things? I asked myself. It was this same colleague who then introduced me to the work of other great filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni… That’s my training. I never studied cinema in a school, on the other hand, I saw a lot of films. Initially you try to copy, learn the basics and if you are good at it you can develop your own style. If I had taken lessons, I might have learned how a camera works, how to use different lenses, but style, you have it or you don’t. I feel like at that moment God took me by the hand and gave me faith in cinema. I didn’t know what I wanted to film but I had to shoot. I gradually climbed the various ranks in the television network and found myself doing dozens of live shows. Of course, it had nothing to do with cinema, but at least I learned a lesson: the importance of communication with the technicians. If you know how to talk to them, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be the same with the spectators! »

William Friedkin is dead


“Even if I’m not a fan of social events, I still had to force myself. If I wanted to make movies, I had to meet people. That’s how I met a priest in the middle of a party where actors, politicians, judges gravitated… The man was a Protestant and officiated in a prison with those condemned to death. He then told me about this prisoner who had been claiming his innocence for eleven years and who was going to be put in the electric chair in a few months. We were on a Friday evening, on Monday morning, I called the priest back to suggest that he make a film about the prisoner. I had a hard time convincing my employers to follow me. However, I requisitioned a cameraman and a soundman and we made the documentary. Following his screening the death row inmate was acquitted. In a way, that’s when I understood the power of images. A film is capable of moving people’s consciences. Subsequently, my feature films have always tried to explore the border between good and evil. Many people have mentioned my relationship to religion, but if I was born in a Jewish culture, I am not practicing. Let’s just say that I find the story of Jesus fascinating. This mixture of magic and realism is amazing. Take The Exorcist, if I hadn’t believed in this tale of bewitchment, I would never have made the film! »

“All the films I have shot have imposed themselves on me. I didn’t need to look for them. The writing of the screenplay is then done very naturally, in a single gesture. Even if the script is only incidental. The important thing on a set is to have an overall vision of the film in your head. I had every plan of pursuing French Connection in mind before turning it. No need to make storyboards, it’s all there (he points his finger to his head) The day before shooting, I take my team to the sets and I explain to them what I’m going to do. Everything is anticipated to the maximum, in order to be ready to capture the unexpected when it arises. On my shoots, I never doubt, I know perfectly well what I have to do. The fantasy of the artist waiting for inspiration is nonsense. Making a film is very mechanical. »


“At the center of the production process, there are of course the actors. Again, it’s all about anticipation. It is at the time of the casting that it is played. If you have made the right choices, there is no reason for there to be any hitches. I remember my meeting with Roy Scheider at the time of French Connection. He came to my office, no one knew him, he had just performed in off-Broadway shows or in the theater. I ask him: “What are you doing at the moment! », « I am playing in a play by Jean Genet! “, ” Which role ? » « Oh just a man smoking a cigar without saying a word! “, I simply answer him:” It’s good you’re hired! He was surprised, at no time did I ask him to read part of the script. All acting psychology techniques like the Actor’s Studio method are bullshit. Some actors I’ve worked with have asked me for details about their character, I had to tell them stories to reassure them, but generally I tell them: “You want to know why you have to do such and such stock ? Because it’s in the script! Honestly, who knows what goes on in the head of a serial killer, for example. How do you respond to an actor who has to play this type of character? Benicio del Toro or Nick Nolte are like that, they ask me your questions. I know Nolte needs to write a 300-page novel about his role and submit it to his director before shooting. With Tommy Lee Jones it’s the opposite. He arrives in the morning, he doesn’t say hello, I explain the topo to him: “You enter through this door, you sit here, you light your cigarette then you make a phone call, you say a couple of words and you leave ! In the process he repeats the gestures, asks the assistant to make marks on the ground for some of his positions, he adjusts the timing of his gestures with the operator and presto, we shoot the sequence. He’s a pro, no need to play the psychologist, when he arrives on set, he already has his character well in mind. If you give too many indications to an actor, he will tend to do too much. However, a filmmaker must know how to adapt to any acting technique. I remember Max von Sydow on the set of The Exorcist, dressed as a priest. We were ready to shoot, then suddenly he turns to me and says “I have a problem with this sequence…” I ask him why. He answers me : ” Because I don’t believe in God! », « But you have already embodied Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told… », « Yes, with the difference that I played Jesus as a simple human being and not a divinity! “Well, do the same with that priest!” » The direction of an actor is as simple as that. The director must create a serene environment so that the actors feel good, or on the contrary, that they are in discomfort to destabilize them. The important thing in the end is that they feel supported by the team and the director. »


“Before, I multiplied the takes, today I do one or two at the most. The important thing in everything is spontaneity. Perfection, I don’t care. For example, I shot Bug in just nineteen days. It’s all a matter of instinct. Take the work on sound, I remember as a child I listened to stories on the radio while closing my eyes. I do the same thing with my feature films, a little inner music guides me. For the editing, I work in the same way as with the actors. Without pathos. The technician is just a pair of hands cutting where I tell him to cut. If he has a suggestion to make, I take it into account, but I don’t necessarily expect that from him. Anyway, it’s the film itself that guides your gestures. It is he who commands. Great filmmakers like John Ford or Orson Welles edited their film directly with their camera. Knowing that they might not get the final cut, they only shot what was necessary. Of course, it happened that we destroyed what they had done by turning over sequences as for The splendor of the Ambersons of Welles. Fortunately, I’ve never been confronted with this kind of thing, even when my films started to go less well, I hung on. Anyway the notion of success is so vague that it’s hard, even for producers to use it as an argument against you. Difficult to anticipate indeed, what will please the public or not. I think like any artist, the director has some sort of gift that guides his mind. Take two people, show him the paintings of the great masters in the Louvre. There is one that will be touched more than the other. Maybe that one has the soul of an artist. When I was married to Jeanne Moreau, she made me discover The search for lost time by Marcel Proust. This read devastated me. The rhythm, the power of the words, the sense of the narration… There is something incredible, supernatural, which was beyond comprehension. Today, I started directing operas, a good way to challenge my certainties as a filmmaker. In an opera, the director is the least important person in the process. It is the conductor and the score of the composer who are above all. So I try modestly to transcribe their desire. »

Similar Posts