At 78, William Friedkin is experiencing a new lease on life, career-wise. Most enticingly, when we spoke with the genial, anecdote-laden, Oscar-winning director at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, he let drop that he's in contention for what has to be one of the choicest TV gigs on offer: season 2 of “True Detective.”
But that possibility is just one of many that have opened up for him over the last couple of years, a factor, we’d suggest of two main elements. Firstly, Friedkin’s last two feature films “Bug” and “Killer Joe,” both based on source material from writer Tracy Letts, have seen the director pick up some of the best notices of his post-’Exorcist’ career (and nabbing a peri-McConnaissance McConaughy for the latter can't have hurt). And secondly, his years-long battle to see “Sorcerer” restored has culminated in a triumphal series of festival screenings and widespread critical reevaluation. Suddenly everyone’s all “Oh yeah, ‘Sorcerer.’ I always loved that movie."
It’s not often that a film goes from being the buried black sheep of a director’s back catalogue (coming immediately after the insane one-two punch of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” it has till recently been regarded as a rather precipitous fall from grace for Friedkin) to being not just reclaimed, but the subject of a three-way wrangle between major studios over the reissue. But to hear Friedkin tell it, that’s how it shook out. So while we went on to discuss his upcoming Mae West project, just what the story was with Nic Cage collaboration “I Am Wrath,” and the TV show possibilities for “To Live and Die in LA” and “Killer Joe,” we started with ‘Sorcerer’ and the unique way that Friedkin himself almost willed its revival into being.
It must be intensely gratifying to see “Sorcerer” so comprehensively reevaluated. How do you account for it?
The industry has changed—that’s why there's a new perception of "Sorcerer." All of the critics, the film historians, the people who wrote in the daily and weekly newspapers have all changed. The zeitgeist has changed. The audience has changed, and they've heard a lot about "Sorcerer" through social networks that didn't exist when we made the film.
I mean, nobody conceived of a “future life” or a “shelf life” when I made that film. You made a film and it was disposable, unlike a painting. Or a novel which may have had some impact in its day and then grew in stature as people realized they weren't writing novels like that anymore. You know Charles Dickens wrote for a daily newspaper and now his works are in finely bound editions, as well as paperbacks.
His stories were just regarded as serials back then.
Yes, and they were “just” stories but damn good ones and well-written. We now realize with the passage of time that what Dickens did was literature, not simply filler in a daily paper. So for a film like "Sorcerer" which is 37 years old to be celebrated in first-run theaters—I went to a showing at the Chinese Theater!—that is because of a perception it has picked up along the way. I imagine the critics that didn't like it back in the day if they saw it now...they still wouldn't like it! But they're gone.
“Sorcerer” has kind of outlived its critics?
Well, I wouldn't go that far! But there is certainly a different reaction by this generation. This generation has seen everything because of the internet and TV. And there were TV screenings of "Sorcerer" all along, so some of them saw something in it...chose to go a little deeper
Do you think perhaps its relative obscurity almost helped the fervor of its new fans? People had a sense of personal discovery?
Oh, I’m sure. And I'm obviously pleased about that—I fought for its rerelease. What happened was, both studios that made the film, Universal and Paramount, they were each sold three times since I made it. When that happens all of the records go underground. The new young attorneys that come into the companies, they bury all of the old stuff, especially stuff that didn't work. And they don't know where it is.
So I came along and sued them both, not for money but just for the purpose of discovery—who owns these rights? Maybe I own the rights! And that scared them, so they had to go into those caves where they buried the documents and they finally found the documents of ownership. And then Warners wanted to take the whole thing over but it turned out that Paramount still retained European and other rights, and Universal only had a 25-year lease on the film, which Warners then took over. It took well over a year of lawyers stalling though…
Are there other films of yours you’d attempt something similar with?
Probably not. No. I mean, no, it's not a pleasant process to go through. But "Sorcerer" means a lot to me. In my view it's the best film I've made.
You are, however, involved in the possible reworking of “To Live and Die in LA” into a TV show. What’s the status on that project?
I've turned down every proposal for it. I don't want to replicate the movie but I'm not uninterested in having something that has the same vibe, the same feel, but not the same characters. Recently there was a TV version of the film "Fargo"—different characters, a different plot but with vague echoes of the old film, and it's wonderful.
And I'm trying, with a very good writer named Bobby Moresco who wrote "Crash" and produced "Million Dollar Baby," I'm trying to come up with something new that would justify that title.
So TV seems like what you’re gravitating toward at the moment...
Long-form TV is much more interesting than cinema to me. It explores much more edgy subject matter and doesn’t hew to any rules of censorship.
Hence the possibility of a "Killer Joe" TV series too?
We're trying to develop that too, but I'm being very cagey about it in that I won't just put it out there.
Would Tracy Letts be involved?
As an executive producer. He's not going to write episodes. He doesn't know any more about those characters than I do in terms of what else you would do with them. But I've entertained this interest and if we can come up with a concept that doesn't damage the original film I'd be happy to see something come of it. Obviously "Killer Joe" is an easier thing to consider because the character is clearly a detective in Dallas who is also a hired killer.