LEAP OF FAITH Interview: Alexandre O. Philippe Talks THE EXORCIST And William Friedkin
The legacy of The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin, is truly immense. For example, the most popular horror saga of our times, which started with The Conjuring, owes it everything. However, the impact of the 1973 film goes beyond the screen.
When I interviewed occult writer Mitch Horowitz, on the occasion of the Blu-ray release of the documentary series Cursed Films, he commented that “most people in the United States and Latin America perceive exorcism or demonic possession based upon what they experienced through that movie. Even if they’ve never seen it, the ideas from that movie have become so influential that people who speak about exorcisms are probably forming their point of view from that movie. If The Exorcist never got made, it’s very possible that very few of us would even know and use the term. If you would just dial back the clock to the 1960s and look up the term exorcist, most people would not know what you were talking about. And yet today everybody knows what you’re talking about and people feel this need for exorcisms to such an extent that the Catholic Church is licensing people to perform the exorcism right, at unprecedented rates.”
At this point, 47 years after its theatrical release and 20 years after the premiere of the extended cut, there isn't much more to say about The Exorcist. So Alexandre O. Philippe, director of the documentary Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, decided to focus on filming a series of one-on-one interviews with the man who also directed The French Connection and Sorcerer.
Philippe, in an interview for Screen Anarchy, said that he became very interested “in Friedkin’s process as a filmmaker” and that he “wanted to make a film about The Exorcist through music, art and Friedkin’s influences, and also through his approach to life, his philosophy as a man and as a filmmaker. For me the documentary is essentially The Exorcist according to William Friedkin. He offered talking to Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn. I kept saying that I’d be greatly honored but this isn’t this kind of film, this is really you. I’m glad that I resisted the temptation. I wanted to use the Hitchcock/Truffaut model of interviews but instead of going through his filmography chronologically, I decided to structure the interviews very specifically on The Exorcist, to crack it open sequence by sequence, scene by scene, shot by shot, technique by technique. Have this deep dive into his process as a filmmaker.”
Listening to Friedkin for 100 minutes is an enriching experience. This is an auteur who, like several of his contemporaries during the New Hollywood era, constructed his productions meticuously, layer by layer. His vision was never compromised even though The Exorcist emerged from the studio system. He challenged the executives of Warner Bros. (he insisted on casting the unknown Jason Miller in the vital role of Father Carras, for example), and also the screenwriter and author of the original book, his good friend William Peter Blatty. Friedkin was the one who insisted, among other things, on adding to the script the prologue of the book that takes place in Iraq, thus setting the tone of the film. Looking for the right score, one that didn’t overshadowed the detailed and experimental sound design, Friedkin rejected the proposals of such great composers as Bernard Herrmann and his friend Lalo Schifrin (with whom he never spoke again).
It’s clear that Friedkin is a visionary and daring filmmaker, who takes precise references: Orson Welles, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Alain Resnais, Alfred Hitchcock, techniques of documentary cinema, painters such as René Magritte, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and all the composers of the music, are present in some way in The Exorcist. Friedkin also refers to many of his decisions as "sleepwalking security” (a term used by Fritz Lang, whom Friedkin famously interviewed in 1975): when you firmly believe that every decision you make is correct and you don't question your instincts. Friedkin has a fascination for the "mysteries of faith and fate”, he believes that many of the elements of The Exorcist now revered were "gifts from God."
Friedkin is, for Philippe, “a Renaissance man, you can talk to him about art, literature, history, music. He knows so much about so many different topics, it’s astonishing. He also recognizes that the knowledge that you take in when you’re making your own art is not necessarily something that you should think about consciously. It’s more an idea of trusting the fact that what you’re ingesting, whatever influences, ideas or images, are going to have an effect on what you put out into the world, if you just let them do their thing. That’s his process. When he says that he doesn’t think too much, that he trusts his instincts or doesn’t think about the meaning of certain images, he completely means it. But it’s also not saying that he’s just throwing stuff at the screen hoping it sticks. It works because it resonates with him, and it resonates with him because of the knowledge that he has. Friedkin doesn’t come out of the vacuum: he’s a student of the craft, of art, of music. When all of those influences work their way through his art, he doesn’t question that. That’s a pretty remarkable way to work.”
You just have to watch the interview with Friedkin conducted by Nicolas Winding Refn, widely shared on social media, to notice his brutal honesty and strong personality. When looking into the legendary stories of the making-of of The Exorcist, it’s always striking the unique methods that he used (firing a firearm or hitting an actor to capture genuine reactions) and that nowadays would be condemned.
When questioning Philippe if he had any problem with Friedkin, the documentary maker revealed that: “it was a very organic process, it couldn’t have been easier. It came out of an encounter with Friedkin at the Sitges Film Festival, he invited me to his table, then later on invited me to have lunch with him in Los Angeles. I know it’s weird, I’ve seen those interviews, I’ve heard the stories. So many people have come up to me and said, oh my gosh how did you worked with William Friedkin? Was he difficult? Was he scary? And I’m like, no, no, he’s the sweetest man. He’s been nothing but kind, open and funny.”
In addition to considering the experience of filming Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist as a “private masterclass that no film school can give you”, Philippe highlighted Friedkin's human quality:
“He has become a mentor to me. Obviously I look up to him as a filmmaker, he’s been one of my heroes forever, but the most wonderful thing is the lessons in life that he’s given me as a result of having those conversations. When he talks about faith and fate, and grace notes, and ideas that are part of his process and also of who he is, how he sees life. The idea that resonates the most is what he calls grace notes, it’s really the idea that we need to pay attention to the small things that surround us. The most unexpected, beautiful moments can arise from that. I’ve always paid attention to details and for Friedkin to articulate that made immediate sense to me. Since those interviews I’ve been paying even more attention to the grace notes, they’re everywhere, on any day. Friedkin is saying that life is a gift and if you don’t take a moment to appreciate that, then what are you really doing?”
Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is available on Shudder.