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'I Thought I Was Bulletproof': William Friedkin Looks Back on the '70s

Photo of Ryan Lattanzio By Ryan Lattanzio | TOH! May 8, 2013 at 2:52PM

In a recent interview with New York Times writer Dave Itzkoff, iconoclastic filmmaker William Friedkin sat down to reflect on his diverse career, which spans 19 feature films since the mid-60s.
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William Friedkin
William Friedkin

In a recent interview with New York Times writer Dave Itzkoff, iconoclastic filmmaker William Friedkin sat down to reflect on his diverse career, which spans 19 feature films since the mid-60s. Friedkin, 77, didn't have a breakout until 1970 with "The Boys in the Band," a campy gay farce that actually still plays well today. The next year, Friedkin would go on to win Best Picture for one of his many masterpieces, "The French Connection," and a filmography chock-full of controversial classics from "The Exorcist" to "Cruising" followed.

With the huge success of "French Connection" and "Exorcist," the 70s were Friedkin's heyday. Until recent years, with his wonderfully disturbing adaptations of Tracy Letts' southern gothic plays "Bug" and "Killer Joe," the director was churning out lackluster efforts such as "Rampage" and "The Guardian." His film maudit "Sorcerer" (1977), the notoriously thwarted action adventure starring Roy Scheider, is now enjoying a repertory revival with a new print circulating around the US ("Sorcerer" kicks off a Friedkin retrospective at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica this Thursday).

(The entertaining KCRW podcast is here of Elvis Mitchell's interview with Friedkin.)

Read the full NY Times interview here and check out excerpts below.

In almost 50 years of directing films, I've made only 19. If you look at the films of the directors who worked at the Hollywood studios in the '30s, '40s and '50s, those guys made four or five films a year. Michael Curtiz, who directed "Casablanca," he did a couple films every year. And some of them are good and some of them are terrible and forgettable, and maybe one or two is a masterpiece. I would be a better director if I had been in that system. Most people say it was a kind of slavery contract. You had to do what the studios told you to do. Well, whoever the hell was at the studios telling them to do it, they were geniuses.

On "Sorcerer":

Certainly I regret that it wasn't a critical or a commercial success. The zeitgeist was changing. It came out a week after "Star Wars," and "Star Wars" really changed the way people think about, What is a movie? Right to this day, and beyond. All these films about the Avengers and the Transformers, video games and comic books, that's what, for the most part, Hollywood cinema has become. That just automatically opened the floodgates to people wanting pure entertainment that could be seen by people of all ages, basically. Would my film have worked if there was no "Star Wars"? I don't know. But without "Star Wars," I think American film would be different today.

On controversies surrounding his films:

I understand how and why they came about. When we released "Boys in the Band," the guys in the film were still, for the most part, in the closet with their friends, or in the workplace. The gay liberation movement, which had started about a year before with the Stonewall riots, they were not looking to see films about guys who are in the closet.

"Cruising," was set in the clubs -- not the gay clubs, but the S&M clubs, which many gay people had never seen -- which to me was just an exotic background. By the time it came out, the gay liberation movement was very strong. And this sort of subject matter was not the best foot forward at that time. So I understood the protests, I really did. But I was not thinking, when I made the film, about how this would affect gay liberation or not.

This article is related to: William Friedkin


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.