PostED ON FRIDAY, OCTOBER 20, 2017
The song The Man Comes Around, by the late country legend dressed in black, Johnny Cash, plays on the short montage clip devoted to the hero of the day. When the lights come back on in this candy-glazed theatre with painted red walls, another legend, also dressed in black, but this time well alive, rocks the crowd like a divinity who walks on water. Bill Friedkin is in the house!
© Institut Lumière / Loic Benoit
For nearly an hour and a half, with the ease and articulacy of a stand-up comedian, he would enchant the theater with alternately thrilling and unbelievable anecdotes. Of his beginnings, we learn that his very brief studies were those of a dunce who took nothing seriously, not even the cinema. When he was 20, it was only on the recommendation of a reliable friend that he saw a film that would impact his life, Citizen Kane, for the first time. There was no getting out of it! The film ran continuously, permanently, “and from the noon showing until closing time, I watched the film over and over. And then I went home, telling myself, ‘I don’t know exactly what I just saw, but I do know that this is exactly what I want to do!’”
Later, at a posh soirée, Friedkin happened to meet a Protestant priest who officiated on death row. The priest told him about a man condemned to death, who seems to have been wrongly accused. Friedkin pounced on the opportunity to film his first documentary, which would also end up saving the man’s life! He continued his relationship with God and the Devil, who both seem, from the standpoint of his experiences, to lavish him with a benevolent gaze. In the same vein, he was not sold on Gene Hackman, cast against his will, and with whom he felt a reciprocal distrust: "When I met Hackman, I thought, here is the most boring guy in the world! I warned my producer that there was no way in hell that this guy could play Popeye, but I had no choice, and we yelled at each other almost every day of the shoot. In the end, Gene won his first Oscar!"
Then, Friedkin’s casting director confuses Francisco Rabal, who was slated to play the drug lord, with Fernando Rey! "I decided to welcome him at the airport myself - this intriguing actor I had spotted in Buñuel’s “Belle de jour” - to take him to his hotel. And I see disembarking this man – supposed my drug dealer, supposedly a Corsican gangster- who looks like the King of Spain!” Friedkin picks him up and, on the drive over, questions the debonair Spaniard: "You weren’t in “Belle de jour?” The actor replies, ‘Oh no, no, I’ve acted in Buñuel films, but not that one!’ And he adds, ‘You know, I speak very little French, very little. I am Spanish.’ I drop him off at his hotel and immediately call my producer and my casting director saying, ‘You knuckleheads! You cast the wrong guy! Fire him!’ My casting director then replies, ‘You’re right, I made a mistake, the guy you wanted is Francisco Rabal!’ We find out that, not only is Rabal also Spanish, but he does not speak a WORD of French or English and, moreover, is already engaged elsewhere! So, that is how Fernando Rey got the role, in a perfect illustration of my genius!"
One day, my producer and I had this idea of a chase between a guy riding the subway above-ground and the cop who chases him below in his car. So we went to meet the communications officer of the local R.A.T.P. He let me explain my idea, looked me straight in the eyes and dropped the verdict: ‘You must be completely out of your mind!’” Immediately, the filmmaker realizes that the affair is seriously compromised and is about to leave the office, ready to film without authorization, when the other catches up with him. Friedkin says "What’s going on? You just said it’s impossible!" “I said it’s ALMOST impossible!" Friedkin’s producer, a Sicilian, immediately understands, and says, "How much? The other, completely unflustered, replies: "$40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica!” And Friedkin asks him, "Why one-way?" “Because if I give you permission to shoot the scene, I'll be fired on the spot, so I'm going to live the rest of my life in Jamaica." Which is what he did! "
Friedkin is confronted with another seemingly impossible problem when casting the little girl for The Exorcist. After having auditioned thousands of candidates to no avail, he finds himself one day in the Warner offices, located at 666 (!) Fifth Avenue, New York. There is a certain Mrs. Blair and her little daughter Linda, who have come without an appointment. "The second that Linda passed through my office door, I knew it was her! I said to her, ‘Do know what the Exorcist talks about?’ ‘Yes, I’ve read the book!’ ‘She does bad things, and she masturbates with a crucifix.’ I ask her, ‘Do you know what it means to masturbate?’ She answers, ‘Yes, it's like jerking off!’ ‘And have you already tried it?’ She says, ‘Yes, haven’t you?’”