Aspects of Film: Friedkin on the Movies
Film director William Friedkin recounted his career in the movie industry and reflected on the present state of the industry, as well as its future, in a Director’s Forum on Tuesday, September 16. Friedkin is the director of many successful movies, including The French Connection (which won Academy Awards for best picture and director in 1971), The Exorcist (1973), Rules of Engagement (2000), and The Hunted (2002).
Friedkin’s primary influences came from the French New Wave cinema, famous for its exuberance, daring, and avant-garde techniques. Movies like Breathless (1960), which introduced the technique of quick jump cuts (originally because the filmmakers could not afford a full roll of film), radically changed cinematic techniques and inspired directors worldwide. The technique can be seen on the screen everywhere today, whether in movies or on television (Friedkin cited 24 and K Street as good examples).
Friedkin grew up in a poor Chicago neighborhood. College was not a consideration for him, and he took his first job in television working in the mailroom for WGN TV. After eight months of hard work, he was promoted to assistant director, and another six months later, was a full director of live television shows. Friedkin directed more than 2,000 live television shows before his first movie opportunity arose.
Friedkin’s first movie was a documentary that came about after a conversation with a prison chaplain. After Friedkin asked the chaplain if he thought any of the Death Row inmates were innocent, the chaplain said he thought that one man – Paul Crump – was almost assuredly wrongfully convicted. Friedkin directed a documentary about the case against Crump and produced The Court of Last Resort. The documentary was highly acclaimed and brought significant attention to the case. After being shown the film, Illinois governor Otto Kerner pardoned Crump to life imprisonment. Armed with idealism, Friedkin left Chicago for Hollywood believing that movies could change the world around him.
Never formally trained in the art of making movies, Friedkin learned his craft simply by watching the techniques of others. He learned suspense from the master: Alfred Hitchcock.
In 1973, Friedkin directed The Exorcist, considered by many to be among the scariest horror films of all time. He shot most of the film in Georgetown, where the young boy and subject of the movie was treated. Friedkin went on to describe the filming of the opening scene, which he filmed in Iraq at a time when the United States government had no diplomatic ties with the country. He commented on the warmness of the Iraqi people who were all too happy to have the scene filmed there with the only requirements being that he was to use an Iraqi crew on the film, teach them how to make fake blood, and leave a print of The French Connection.
In the early days of film making, remarked Friedkin, movie studios were controlled by mean-spirited dictators who were bold and daring. Today, with movie studio conglomerates, there is a certain “saneness” in the industry that dampens some of the creativity that was prevalent before. However, Friedkin said, the new possibilities that have arisen from the advent of digital technology have begun opening things up for directors again, and a crop of talented young filmmakers have shown promise for rejuvenating the industry.
Other obstacles hinder moviemakers today. Friedkin said it is difficult to make a movie that challenges the political power today, “and it is virtually impossible to challenge the status quo. The biggest enemy of art is political correctness.” Worse, Friedkin said, society has become more cynical since the days when he began making movies.
Friedkin concluded by remarking on the attributes of a successful director. A director must be – first and foremost – a good communicator. Secondly, he must be ambitious. And lastly, he must have luck “or, as I like to think of it, the grace of God.”