The world’s oldest film festival, Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica in Venice, celebrates 70 years. For this special edition a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement will tribute William Friedkin, in this occasion the restored version of his thriller ‘Sorcerer’ will be screened.
The Oscar-winning director behind ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The French Connection,’ has been defined by the artistic director of the film festival, Alberto Barbera, as a film-maker who has “contributed in a prominent way to the profound renewal of American cinema regarded as the ‘New Hollywood.’ ”
This exclusive interview with Mr Friedkin, sums up 45 years of film-making and his 19 movies:
What element in a story gives you the feeling it’s worth telling?
When I find some reality about the characters. My deepest fears and mysteries don’t come from fantasies, they come from believable stories, about real human-beings and the thin line between good and evil, that’s in everyone. And if I see that in a film script, which is rare, I’m attracted to it.
Was your success determined also by the fact you never played by the rules?
Yes I’m sure following that has contributed. I had no fear in declining to work with Basquiat, Prince, Mike Tyson. I even told Blake Edwards I didn’t like the script of the ‘Peter Gunn’ movie he asked me to direct.
Were the stories you made up for your childhood friends, somehow anticipating the genre of films you eventually made as an adult?
In hindsight I think that’s true, I didn’t know it at the time. Life is lived forward. But can only be understood backward.
Do you think you’ve lived the American Dream considering you started in the mailroom of some TV studios?
Yes, I was very conscious and I believed that the American Dream could be attained. So I took every opportunity that came along, I realised at a very early age that you have to be “simpatico” with everybody that you are working with in order to achieve your vision.
You started out with documentaries, do you ever miss that kind of film-making?
Yes, I see great documentaries being made now, especially in America, and there’s a documentary playing at this festival, it’s Errol Morris’ film about Donald Rumsfeld: ‘The Unknown Known’, I can’t wait to see it. He made an amazing documentary, ‘The Fog Of War,’ about Robert McNamara, who was the American Secretary of Defence, under Kennedy and was responsible, in his mind, for the Vietnam War and he admitted responsibility in this documentary.
You’ve always been very sensitive to justice, your first documentary was about Paul Crump’s case…
He was an African-American who was going to the electric chair, when I heard about him. I became a film-maker because I wanted to save his life, a kind of court of last resort and I had never made a film before, I had done live television. But I learned how to make a documentary to save his life, which it did.
During that period you wanted to become a reporter, why did you change your mind?
I didn’t, I simply got more opportunities from television and very soon after that cinema.
Do you feel a special bond with ‘The French Connection’ since you won your first Academy Award with it?
I feel very close to a number of my films: ‘The French Connection,’ ‘The Exorcist,’ especially ‘Sorcerer,’ ‘Crusing,’ ‘To Live And Die In L.A.,’ ‘The Boys In The Band,’ ‘Rules Of Engagement,’ ‘Bug’ and ‘Killer Joe.’ I’m very close to those films.
You often find inspiration in art history…
Many great painters that I got to see over and over again have influenced me. For example, the first visit I make when I come to Venice is to the Accademia to see Paolo Veronese’s ‘The Feast In The House Of Levi,’ which is a great masterpiece and a small painting by Giorgione called ‘La Tempesta.’ The image of the poster of ‘The Exorcist’ was inspired by Magritte.
In your accounts of ‘The Exorcist‘ you had your vision and audiences had a different understanding of the film, how do you relate to this difference of perceptions?
Everybody sees something different in a film that they either respond to or don’t respond to. Most people are very moved by ‘The Exorcist,’ and it’s witnessed that it’s still shown after 40 years, in cinemas, with a brand new blue ray.
Do you think your agnostic approach in ‘The Exorcist’ marked the success of a movie on the mystery of faith?
I think it worked well, because an agnostic is not a non-believer, an agnostic is someone who believes that the power of God and the soul are unknowable, that they’re not easily found in a religion, or in a pamphlet, or in a sermon, or in something else. It’s something that is part of the mystery of faith. I have never doubted my beliefs in the teachings of Jesus and ‘The Exorcist’ is about that, about the power of Christ.
How was it to interview Fritz Lang?
It was an interesting experience, because Lang underplayed the importance of his work. Whenever you would tell him how much you loved a film like ‘M’ or ‘Metropolis’ he would say they were amateurish. He hated his German films, because they were all recut and he loved his American films, which are by no means as famous. In the interview I did with him I was very surprised to hear him being so critical of his own masterpieces.
You have done some exquisite Opera directions, are you planning any others?
Yes, in Florence, in two seasons from now. I’m planning to do ‘Rigoletto with Placido Domingo and conducted by Zubin Mehta. Opera has been a great experience for me it’s enriched my life and deepened it.
How does it feel to know that ‘Sorcerer is going to be shown restored at the 70th Venice Film Festival after such a long time and to receive the lifetime award?
It’s brilliant for me. I’m really proud of it and proud to have been given this award, which is a real life achievement, from people who know, understand and love cinema.