When choosing the subject matter for his films, legendary movie director William Friedkin has never been one to shy away from edgy material focused on the dark side of life. 1973's The Exorcist, the mega blockbuster focusing on a young girl's demonic possession is easily is most famous film in a career that includes his Oscar-winning direction of 1971's gritty The French Connection, 1977's Sorcerer, 1985's To Live and Die In L.A., and the more recent Killer Joe.
Friedkin has a prominent place in the annals of gay cinema as well: he helmed 1970's The Boys in the Band, America's first all-gay themed movie, based on Mart Crowley's Off Broadway sensation. A decade later, after a series of box office hits Friedkin had the clout to get Cruising made. The infamous filmthe story of a gay serial killer trolling for his victims within New York City's S&M bar scene and his pursuit by an equally determined cop (played by Al Pacino) who goes undercover to capture himwas the subject of protests by the gay community when it got wind of Friedkin's script which seemed to link the killer's behavior directly to the gay S&M scene.
Released in 1980, Cruising was a modest financial and critical success and has been the subject of controversy ever since. James Franco, teaming with queer film director Travis Matthews, has recently made Interior. Leather Bar, an experimental film with hardcore gay sex that is based on the approximate 40 minutes of footage Friedkin excised from the final cut of Cruising in order for the movie to receive an "R" rating instead of an "X."
The four-times married Friedkin, a Chicago native, recently talked at length about Franco's project, his regrets over aspects of Cruising, his propensity for dark-themed material, working with two gay icons (Cher and Barbra Streisand), and other memories from his storied careerall of which are detailed in his just-released memoir The Friedkin Connectionin an exclusive interview with Windy City Times.
The director will be in town for two eventsat the CFCA Film Series at the Muvico 18 Rosemont on Sunday, April 12 and at the Harold Washington Library in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium on Tuesday, April 16 (the library will also screen The Exorcist on Tuesday, April 9 at 6 p.m.). Friedkin will discuss his career and sign books at both events. Highlights from our lively conversation:
WINDY CITY TIMES: Times change, opinions change and this is very true of movies. Sometimes, what seemed tremendous, no longer does and what was problematic, well, might have many redeeming qualities. I'm thinking of The Boys in the Band now. It must have been so shocking in 1970 for film audiences because in America nobody had ever done that before.
William Friedkin: Well I can tell you this about what I remember about Boys in the Band. First and foremost, what stays with me is what a great script it was. I try not to think about it as a social documentalthough a lot of people perceived it that way. It came out about a year after Stonewall and Stonewall was the first big step that I remember where gaysand I don't like to refer to "gays," I have to tell you thatI don't think of myself as "straight," I don't judge people or think of people because of their sexuality. I have frankly no interest in their sexuality but I know that many people who are gay define themselves by it because of all the oppression that preceded it. I'm aware of that. As a white, male heterosexual I never had to face that problem. There were some Jewish issues when I was younger at school but it never occurred to meand this is going to be hard for you to acceptthat I was making what was essentially a gay film. I was making a film that was a love story and that was very funny and ultimately very touching.
Obviously, all the characters with one possible exception were gay. Yes, that's true but the story itself stood on its own; the script, the dialogue, the relationships. I found it very moving and at the same time, very funny which is what I think Mart Crowley intended. I don't know that Mart was attempting to make a statement here or carry the banner. He wrote about a world that he was very familiar with. He wrote about characters he knew, including himself. So I remember that, of course, there was a lot of attention on it because all the characters were gay but that's not what drew me to it. I don't kid myself, I understand what its initial impact was and the same with The Exorcist(William Peter) Blatty and I never talked about making a horror film. I now accept that people think of it that way which is fine. The thing that I relate to in Boys in the Band and then Cruising is the tremendous amount of progress that's been made in, really, the straight world in terms of understanding that we're all equal and we're not really defined by our sexuality. I had friends who were gay when I was growing up. I think Illinois then was probably the only state where homosexuality wasn't illegal.
WCT: That's right. [The law banning sodomy was eliminated in 1961.]
William Friedkin: And so it wasn't an issue or a problem or a subject as I grew up. There was no fear of itI'm talking about it on a neighborhood level as I was growing up. On the other hand, when I was in high school if someone was gay they had to conceal it. If we ever thought about gay life in my world, it was largely in terms of campyou know Liberace. Now, of course, it's a totally different world and I think we're closing in on a time when all of the nomenclatures are just going to disappear. And for me that's a good thing.
WCT: Yes but it's interesting that this tag of "a gay movie" is still something that Hollywood really shies away from. It's still so hard for gay filmmakers or any filmmaker for that matter to make a film with prominent gay characters or themes. If The Boys in the Band had made a butt load of money in 1970 do you think the whole future for queer cinema would have been different?
William Friedkin: Yeah, no doubt. They would have all jumped on that. Of course because what Hollywood is about is trends. The trend right now is vampires, aliens and robots. That's basically it. That's what you're likely to see in a film coming out of Hollywood and it's over and over and there's sequels upon sequels and that's because economics does drive the film business. I don't know if you can call film an art formit's very young. Certainly, if Rembrandt is an artist than anyone making films is a plumber, you know?
WCT: (laughs) You wouldn't refer to yourself as a plumber, would you?
William Friedkin: I would, I would. If Vermeer is an artist, I'm a guy working in a kitchen in the back. I mean the great art of the painters and Beethoven and Bach, Mozart, what have youthese people define art in their field so I can't name a lot of films that belong in that sentence.
WCT: In those terms, I would certainly concur.
William Friedkin: If I had my druthers, I would have made musicals like An American In Paris, Gigi…
William Friedkin: Definitely The Bandwagon. But the composers and lyrics of the great American Songbook were off the air when I got started.
WCT: But you did get to work with two musical sensationsCher at the beginning of her career (for 1967's Good Times, the feature debut for both) and years later you directed Barbra Streisand's "Somewhere" video for her 1985 Broadway Album release. Can you talk about working with those two women?
William Friedkin: I see a lot of Streisand; she's a close friend and recently we went to Brooklyn to see her in concert and at the Hollywood Bowl. My wife and I (movie executive Sherri Lansing) see Jim Brolin and her socially and I just love her as a person. But she's obviously a great artist and when I worked with her that consisted largely of getting out of her way. What a director is doing really, is trying to create an atmosphere for performers and I know that she had a lot of problems with directors starting with William Wyler and the reason for that I quickly perceived was because she knew what she was doing. She knew what was best for her and if you didn't, you got out of her way. I interview her for The Broadway Album video and I just tried to light her well and stage her well and whenever she was uncomfortable, I would adjust it to make her comfortable because I was not doing "my thing." I was doing her thing for which I had high regard.
Now when I worked with Cher she was basically a waif. She was literally a girl that was hanging around the Sunset Strip. As I tell in the book, Sonny and his then-girlfriend basically picked her up at a place called Ben Frank's Coffee Shop and she had no place to sleep. She used to sleep on the floor in their apartment. And then gradually, Sonny and Cher came together. Both of them were gophers for Phil Spector and Sonny learned how to make the kind of music he heard in his head by working for Spector. He would use Cher sometimes as a background singer, even though she really had no training. When I knew Cher she was not all that motivated. She was deeply in love with Sonny; she idolized Sonny. Then she gave Sonny the courage to believe that he could do what Spector did. That was their relationship. She told me she always thought she was imitating Sonny and Sonny always thought he was imitating Frankie Laine. After Sonny would get the track down, he would bring Cher in and write the lyrics afterwards and she'd hear the lyrics in front of the microphone.
WCT: Did you hear or see that certain "something" in her? You must have.
William Friedkin: No I didn't, Richard. I didn't see it. In the early years of Cher I couldn't see it. The act was a creation of Sonny's and Cher played a very important role in it but Sonny was the producer, the director and the writer.
WCT: Now have you seen her recently?
William Friedkin: A couple of years ago in Vegas we had a reunion and we spent hours just talking about the old days. I have great fondness and affection for her.
WCT: That comes through in your book. Now of course, we need to talk about Cruising. There were several strands that came together as you wrote the screenplay, I believe.
William Friedkin: Yes, several things happened at once. All these articles started to appear by Arthur Bell in the Village Voice. He was a really good writer and he began to chronicle some of the dangers that he perceived that were going on in the S&M clubsthere were strange deaths and there were unsolved murdersand at the time they were sort of put together. But nobody was really talking about HIV or AIDS or the stuff that was happening in the S&M clubs as contributing to that. But there were these murders that had as a common location places like the Mine Shaft and the Anvil in New York. Then, a friend of mine, another guy who was a detective in New York actually did the job that Pacino has in the movie. He was sent into the S&M world because he looked remarkably like some of the victims.
So I had these things and the clincher which was Paul Batesonthe confessed killer of some of these men who had appeared in The Exorcist in the scene in the hospital. I went to see him in his cell at Rikers and I knew I had a really unique background for a murder mystery. And that's how I think of Cruising to this day. It's not meant to be a commentary on that lifestyle at all, other than I found it was fascinating. It was a world that was not familiar even to a lot of gay people and the so-called straight people pretended it wasn't there and nobody got to see it. It was all in a private club situation. The fourth foundation for me in that story was that I knew the guy who either owned or controlled the clubshis name was Matty Iannielloand he was the head of the Genovese crime family. He had a part of the Stonewall, too. It was ironic that the Mafia controlled all the clubs in those days and they were in league with those cops. He got me permission to shoot in these clubs.
WCT: So when you started working on Cruising you thought that because this was a world that hadn't been explored before on film, it would be a great backdrop for a murder mystery, correct?
William Friedkin: Completely exotic, yes.
WCT: Did anybody ever say to you, "C'mon this is a gay murder mystery, WTF?!"
William Friedkin: No. At the time when I said I was going to do it I was in a position where the studios were prepared to do anything I wanted to do and they were bidding to do it. Then when I finished the scriptwe had a deal with Warner Bros. to make itwhen the people at Warners saw the script they said, "No way, we can't do this, we just can't. Let's do something else." But by then I was just so hooked into making a film about that world that I wasn't going to be deterred and of all people, along came this television company Lorimar which had The Waltons on the air and which was noted for that kind of thing and for their first feature film they backed Cruising.
WCT: And of course, then the script leaked and the protests happened and all the controversy ensued. But what I rememberbecause I saw it in the theater when it was releasedwas having trouble with the subplot. And still do. This was the next door neighbor of the character Pacino playedthe "nice" gay man who gets into this violent argument with his lover and ends up being murdered and the overall impression, combined with the gay serial killer that Pacino is tracking, is that every single gay person is violent and once we get hysterical we pick up a knife and start stabbing people. Did you ever think about things like this?
William Friedkin: I didn't at the time but I certainly do now. I mean it did not occur to me the implications of that but I'd have to say that you're absolutely right and it took me awhile to understand the protests that occurred. This was clearly not the best foot forward for the gay-rights movement in a time when it was making massive strides and yes, the implicationwhich I was not conscious ofwas that yeah, the gay lifestyle leads to murder. What was a conscious thought was that there were all these murders in those clubs and mysterious deaths. Now it turns out that they were done by psychopaths like Paul Bateson who could have been anything. I mean these guys who go around shooting up movie theaters or schools todaythese guys aren't either gay or straight, they're crazy. They're just psychopaths. There's no doubt that a film like Cruising was not a flag for gay rights. I realize that; I didn't at the time.
WCT: Maybe the backlash was so strong because there were so few gay-themed films or television shows so every little thing that came out was like something that represents us.
William Friedkin: Yeah.
WCT: And that's what Vito Russo pointed out with The Celluloid Closetwe define ourselves by what we see in the movies; it's this great social construct that we look to as a mirror. Tony Curtis says in the documentary, "I watched Cary Grant to see how to dress; how to act and behave" and gay people not having had much of that, I think, fed the backlash. There wasn't much there to contrast such sensational images with.
William Friedkin: Absolutely correct. I stand accused and I find myself guilty. There's no question about it; it was basically out of ignorance of what you're saying.
WCT: Ironically, here we are over 30 years later on the cusp of extraordinary cultural changes for gay people and James Franco has chosen this moment to make this film which purports to recreate this deleted footage of yours from the movie.
William Friedkin: Well, I'll tell you about that, okay? I had heard from a young guy who works with us; goes to film school, that Franco was doing this. That he was auditioning people from film schools to be in a movie that was kind of an homage to Cruising. "Really?" I thought. Then a bunch of articles started to appear about it. I didn't know Franco but I know that he did try to get the remake rights to Cruising. He wanted to do another film of it and I control those rights and that wasn't going to happen. But he was obsessed with that film and he and a guy named (Travis) Matthews set out to do something that they purported was going to be an homage to the missing 40 minutes of Cruising. They were shooting and I called Franco's lawyer and we had a very pleasant conversation. I said, "Look, I respect Mr. Franco as an actor very much and I don't want him to get his tit in a ringer but I don't know what he's planning to do." The lawyer said to me, "Don't worry about it, it's an homage but it's not the story; nothing like it." Now Franco had been shooting the film and I don't know how much of it he had shotmaybe all of itand out of the blue he calls me.
He introduced himself on the phone, he said, "You know about what I'm doing?" I said, "I heard you're doing something; I'm not sure what it is." And he saidwith a laugh"What is the missing 40 minutes of Cruising?" I said, "You're kidding, I thought you were making a film about it; your impression of what those missing 40 minutes are" and he said, "Well, I am but can you tell me anything about what it was?" Now I'm telling you, Richard, I think by this time he had finished shooting and I said, "The missing 40 minutesall of it, every frame of it was pornographyas it would be defined by the Motion Picture Association." I shot it because I could. I made a lot of friends in the clubs. The guys in those scenes were not extrasthey were members of the Mine Shaftthey didn't mind being photographed. I could never get extras to simulate what they were doing. I shot everything you can imagine and I put it in the cut we showed the head of the ratings board knowing that he would decimate it and that I would be left with the film I wanted to make. And that's what happened. When Warner Bros. took over the filmthey now own itthey were desperate to find that footage but we have not yet been able to locate it. Anyway, Franco sent me on my iPad a copy of Interior. Leather Bar and I looked at it briefly and I have no idea what he had in mind or why he did that. I can't comment on its quality. I just have no idea what was going through his mind to do the film.
WCT: Does it feel like an homage to your picture?
William Friedkin: Well it clearly was a reference to it. It wasn't a criticism of it; it wasn't a put down of it. I just believe that Francobecause I know on two occasions he tried to remake the film and couldn'the had to shoot something. I understand that. He had an itch that he had to scratch and so he did this film on the premise that it was his impression of the missing 40 minutes.
WCT: But having seen it, you don't quite understand what the itch is? (laughs)
William Friedkin: Well, I don't quite know what he expected to get out of it. First of all, it's not feature length. It's like a long short. It got a lot of publicity. But it would be very difficult to play it; there's not really a story. But Franco does a lot of experimental stuff and it falls into that category.
WCT: To finish up, we have to obviously talk about The Exorcist. Is it true that you and William Peter Blatty have a script for a miniseries remake?
William Friedkin: Nonot at all. Some time ago, Blatty sold the sequel rights to the picture. I never wanted to nor would I ever do a sequel. But Blatty sold them to a company called Morgan Creek and they made 2, 3, 4, 5none of which I've seen, including 3 which Blatty directed. Blatty also ended up with the TV rights. None of this stuff was worth anything at the time so Blatty ended up with them the way Lucas and others did. Morgan Creek also had the rights to make some kind of television project. I now understand that they are trying to do some kind of a series which I've talked to Blatty about. It's supposedly not the characters in The Exorcist but involves a new set of characters and a similar kind of investigation about somebody who appears to be possessed. They were trying to get some very good people to do it but I don't know where they are.
WCT: So do you have a follow up project to Killer Joe?
William Friedkin: I'm looking at several things and I may have an announcement shortly about what I'm going to do next. I can tell you this: it will not be a step back from Killer Joe in the sense that I'm not going to go back to some conventional "boy meets girl" or "boy meets boy" or "anybody meets anybody story." It's going to have a hard edge to it.
WCT: Well, no matter what's next, it's a pleasure to be able to thank you for all the indelible images and moments you've given movie fans that generations to come will respond to.
William Friedkin: Thank you so much for that.