William Friedkin: ‘The Exorcist’ cast was ‘a gift from God’

Oct. 10, 2010 | 1:18 p.m.


the exorcist2 William Friedkin: The Exorcist cast was a gift from GodBy all accounts, director William Friedkin was a man possessed in 1973. The director had already earned a reputation as a fire-breathing perfectionist on the set of the 1971 film “The French Connection,” but he was even more intense, manipulative and volatile while making his follow-up, “The Exorcist,” the unnerving adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s hugely popular novel. Friedkin browbeat studio executives when they tried to eliminate an expensive on-location shoot in Iraq, and at one point dissatisfied with star Max von Sydow’s work, he pulled Blatty aside and told him to write the actor out of some key scenes and put him on the next plane back to Sweden. No one was safe from Friedkin’s wrath except, perhaps, little Linda Blair, the 12-year-old who giggled and slurped on milkshakes between scenes where she channeled Satan.

Friedkin’s extended director’s cut of the film has just hit stores on Blu-ray in a lavish new package from Warner Bros. that celebrates the horror film as a masterpiece for the ages — and, in hindsight, it may well deserve that treatment. The film, routinely cited as “the scariest movie ever made,”  was nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture and best director, and won four Golden Globes, among them the trophies for best picture, best director and best actress for the precocious Blair. On-screen, the film smothered any trace of showbiz artifice or Hollywood haunted-house clichés, and Friedkin is quick to correct people who call it a horror film — he prefers “theological thriller.”

Sitting in a hushed corner of the Hollywood Museum, surrounded by photos and props from decades of film history, Friedkin, now 75, tried to wrap his arms around the legacy of a film that made heads spin. “There was a kind of madness that occurred around the film. People beat down the doors to see it. There was talk of people fainting and screaming and throwing up. In Mexico City, Indians came down from the hills to see the movie. They had never seen a movie before. They threw their money at the theater; they didn’t know about standing in line.”

william friedkin William Friedkin: The Exorcist cast was a gift from God

William Friedkin at Hollywood Museum in 2010. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

The film, which for a time stood as the highest-grossing movie in history,  presents the story of a mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), desperate to get help for her daughter, Regan (Blair), who has a frightening seizure and then exhibits supernatural strength and the ability to levitate. Medical minds are at a loss, and the child attacks a psychiatrist. Finally, one doctor — thinking the behavior might be psychosomatic — suggests an exorcism, the ritual of casting out a demon. That takes MacNeil to Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a young priest at Georgetown University who happens to be in a deep spiritual crisis because of his mother’s terminal illness. An experienced exorcist, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow, in makeup that adds years to his visage) is dispatched by the church to assist the bewildered younger priest.

Last week, Friedkin’s extended cut of the film also got a one-night screening in more than 450 theaters nationwide to promote the Warner Home Video release, and the swirl of activity had been a bit surreal for Friedkin. “The Exorcist” brought out the best and the worst in the filmmaker, and he’s the first to admit it.

The movie has echoed in strange ways. It’s no surprise that the film is a lightning rod of interest for scholars, film students, horror fans and the clinically insane, but Friedkin also hears from unexpected corners, such as Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who once wanted to stage a special screening of “The Exorcist” for troops stationed near the ruins of Hatra in Iraq, which is the setting of the film’s opening sequence, and James Cagney, who in the 1970s sought out Friedkin and upbraided him for making the movie. The aging Hollywood icon wasn’t upset about religion or on-screen profanity — he was distressed that his barber of 35 years was so stirred by the film’s presentation of a living evil that he packed up his razors and went off to become a Catholic priest. “I haven’t been able to get a good haircut since,” the actor barked without a trace of humor.

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A scene from "The Exorcist." (Warner Bros.)

“The Exorcist” also influenced the approach to intense filmmaking. Movies such as “Alien” and “The Sixth Sense” are among those that picked up on the film’s coupling of mundane life moments with strange horrors, an approach that amped up the terror by laying a foundation of real-world expectations. The films echoes intensely in darkly spirited science fiction and reality-grounded horror, says one of its devoted disciples, David Eick, an executive producer on “Battlestar Galactica” and “Caprica.” And, Eick adds, the film is forever stamped by Friedkin’s own demon energy.

“Tales are legion of Friedkin-as-harpy-director during the production of the film — profanity-laden rants, physical abuse of actors, rampant firing of key crew, irrational demands,” Eick said. “His spirit possesses ‘The Exorcist’ in ways that his peers of the time — the hard-hitting but ultimately optimistic [Sidney] Lumet or the tortured but soulful [Martin] Scorsesenever could have approximated. Wherever Friedkin’s rage or unapologetic hostility comes from, it oozes from the pores of every frame and is the perfect recipe necessary to faithfully translate the novel. … The genius of “The Exorcist” is that it is bereft of any sincere attempt to balance its sense of godless despair and raw, obscene terror with any familiar or comforting antidote. To pretend otherwise is to rob the movie of its dark, ruthless intent.”

the exorcist blur ray William Friedkin: The Exorcist cast was a gift from GodFriedkin had been hailed for the raw street energy of “The French Connection,” but he said that with the “Exorcist” he was striving more for authenticity than reality — he then went on to explain that as a distinction of tale versus texture: “I tried to shoot it as realistically as possible. It was not designed as a horror-fest. It was designed as an event,” Friedkin said. “One of the things that I’ve heard from people over the years is that it seems real. Of course, I wanted the actors to become their characters and be inseparable from the characters during the course of the shoot.

“But I was never looking for anything like realism. I was looking for something much deeper and more mysterious than so-called realistic acting, which you might have found at that time [in something] like a John Cassavetes film where it seemed improvised but it wasn’t. I wasn’t going for that. If you’re talking just about realism and the details of realism, you sometimes miss the poetry that’s inherent in the characters when its written that well.”

For Friedkin, the cast and the crew, the 10-month shoot for “The Exorcist” didn’t feel especially poetic. There were a series of accidents and setbacks that created an eerie atmosphere around the production (filming was halted at one point for a month, for instance, when the set burned down), and the subject matter was upsetting to those involved.  Burstyn would only take the role if one of her lines — “I believe in the devil!” — was excised, and Von Sydow became upset upon hearing the vulgar language by the Regan character, which was one thing on the page but quite another when spoken by the pixiesh Blair.

At one point, a reverend visited the set and blessed the cast. There were also the rigors of the stunt work. Burstyn suffered a significant back injury during the filming, and Blair was also hurt during some of the harness work. The production went to extremes in many ways. The opening sequence in the film was filmed in Iraq, where temperatures soared past 120; the scenes where Regan is shown speaking through mist were filmed on a refrigerated set that was 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, an intense hardship for Blair, who was wearing a nightgown.

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Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn in "The Exorcist." (Warner Bros.)

Blair says Friedkin was a protective figure for her, but she may have been the only one who smiled when she saw the taskmaster. “Billy was absolutely obsessed with telling it the right way,” said Owen Roizman, the director of photography who was nominated for an Oscar for the film.  “His obsession permeated down to the crew, and yes, it was a demanding project.”

At the end of the trying production, no one was really sure how the film would be received, and an early encounter with the public left Friedkin fearing the worst. “The film opened on Dec. 26, 1973, but we had one screening a few days before at the old National Theatre in Westwood. I was in the last row with Bill Blatty, Ellen Burstyn, and Linda was there, too, I think. When the film ended, people just stayed in their seats.  There were no cheers or yells or booing. For five minutes, maybe, they sat there and then they filed out as if at a wake. During the running of the film, there was dead silence and some laughter. Laughter, I realized later, is a natural reaction to fear to tell yourself it’s not getting to you. At the time, I and the heads of Warner Bros. thought it was a disaster. I remember someone saying they should sell their Warners stock.”

exorcist William Friedkin: The Exorcist cast was a gift from God

Blair, left, and Burstyn, far right, with frightened visitors in "The Exorcist." (Warner Bros.)

Studio executives were already looking sideways at Friedkin. The movie opens in a dusty archaeological dig in the ruins of Hatra in Iraq, and it took three months to scout, set up and shoot the sequence — and it was impossible to shoot during the scorching midday. Friedkin remembers that in the late evenings, when Von Sydow was finally allowed to peel the latex off his face, a miniature deluge of sweat would pour out. There were plenty of involved parties who had tried to save time and money by tearing those pages right out of the script.

“Bill Blatty’s publisher didn’t want it in the book, they wanted him to cut it, and then of course Warner Bros. didn’t want it,” Friedkin said. “Very few people who were in a position to make a decision about it even understood it. They didn’t know why it was necessary because nothing happens. It’s all about setting an ominous tone and this omen coming out of the ground, which is an actual replica of the demon, Pazuzu, which is an Abyssinian demon that goes back thousands of years before Christ.

“Nobody wanted to do it. Then when I told Warner Bros. that I had to go to Iraq, they wanted it even less. I just made all the arrangements to go. At that time, we had no diplomatic relations with Iraq, not even a desk in the Swiss Embassy or anything, but Jack Valenti, who was head of the MPAA, got me a meeting with the Iraqi ambassador to the U.N. They had three requests. They wanted me to employ Iraqi people for the crew. They wanted to learn how to do makeup blood. And they wanted a print of ‘The French Connection.’ That was it. We gave them all of that. Why they wanted to do makeup blood, I had no idea; they had no film industry. But we had Dick Smith, one of the great makeup artists, come over and show them.”

the exorcist William Friedkin: The Exorcist cast was a gift from God

Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." (Warner Bros.)

Back stateside, Friedkin found an unexpected ally in his quest to make the movie.

Father Henle, a priest, was the president of Georgetown, and I became very friendly with him. At the end of the day of scouting, he had a bottle of Chivas Regal in his drawer. We’d have a glass. One day, after about two weeks, he pulled out an old red folder and unwrapped it. It was the diaries of not only the priests but also the doctors and the nurses involved in the case. They told the same stories as the priests — there were five priests involved. There had been another priest in the Washington area who had done the first exorcism, and he had permanently scarred his arm, and it was a life-threatening wound, and he couldn’t handle it, so they moved the boy into restraints at Alexian Brothers Hospital. Blatty had never seen all of this, and as I read it, I knew everything we were showing was possible. I had wanted to be authentic, but I saw that it could also be real. It had to be a case of demonic possession — one of three authenticated by the church in the Americas in the 20th century — of mass hallucination. I wanted to keep that floating around in the film as long as I could.”

Henle also put Friedkin in touch with an aunt of the boy who described the way furniture would move in his presence — a detail that was not in the novel but would end up in the film — and that he displayed superhuman strength and spoke in languages he could not possibly know. “We were asked by the church at the time not to reveal the boy’s identity, which we never have. As far as I know, he is still alive, and he retired a few years ago from NASA. I’m told he has no memory of the experiences.”

Blatty said Friedkin was willing to mow down any obstacle between him and the realization of the film he wanted. When Von Sydow wasn’t performing his lines with the gusto that Friedkin wanted, the director turned to Blatty and said the story needed to be changed. “One of the most vivid experiences was when Billy Friedkin approached me off the set and asked me to come up with a way to write Max von Sydow out of movie,” Blatty said. “I was confused at first, but Billy said, ‘He’s not the guy; he’s not giving me what I want in the exorcism scene. I talked to Max, and he said he was having a hard time believing all the ritual.” When Blatty was told to arrange a flight home for the Swedish star, the actor suddenly found a new depth of passion for the lines.

the exorcist1 William Friedkin: The Exorcist cast was a gift from God

Burstyn, Blair and Miller were all nominated for Oscars for the film, and Friedkin said there was something close to divine intervention when it came to assembling the cast.

“The two people in the film who were our first choices were him and Lee J. Cobb; the rest of them were just given to us by the grace of God. I didn’t know who any of them were when I started. Jason Miller had never acted in a film, but he had written a play called ‘That Championship Season,’ which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony, and when I saw it, it just reeked of lapsed Catholicism. I told my casting director that I wanted to meet him — just on instinct — and she arranged a meeting for us, which went terribly. I had a cold, and I had all these prescriptions and Theraflu or whatever … and he thought I was a pill freak. He didn’t know why he was there, and I thought he was cold and uncommunicative.”

After the sour experience, both men assumed someone else would be taking on the role of Father Karras, and, in fact, a different actor did sign a contract to play the role. But then Miller read Blatty’s novel and was startled by the affinity he felt for the Karras character; Miller had studied at American University in Washington to become a priest, only to drop out after three years, and in the story Karras is enrolled at Georgetown University in Washington and deeply conflicted about his faith because of his mother’s terminal illness.

Miller — who had a fear of flying — took a train from New York to Los Angeles and paid his own way after imploring Friedkin to let him take a screen test on an empty stage on the Warners lot. Burstyn was there, Friedkin recalled, and judged the playwright to be far too raw and tentative for the part, and Friedkin himself wasn’t sold either — until the next day when he watched the rushes from the session.

william friedkin1 William Friedkin: The Exorcist cast was a gift from God

William Friedkin at the Hollywood Museum. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

“The camera loved him,” the director said. “He looked fantastic. He sounded right. He knew the background, he knew the character. He was the character, he had lived it. I had to go into Ted Ashley’s office, he was the head of Warners, and tell him that we had to fire the other guy and hire this guy. They all thought I was nuts. They thought I was totally crazy and, frankly, out of control. But Jason Miller was a gift from God. And so was Linda Blair.”

There had been casting calls in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas, and thousands of girls had auditioned and been taped. Friedkin had met personally, he says, with 500 actresses. There was none among them that he believed could handle the job and its wrenching requirements. It would have to be a youngster who could present herself as a normal child and then switch to the profane and spew obscenities (as well as other things). “I was back in New York,” he said, “and I felt like we couldn’t make the picture.”

Then one morning, a Connecticut woman named Eleanor Blair arrived at the Warner offices in Manhattan — at 666 Fifth Avenue — with no appointment. She brought along her daughter, Linda, who had been modeling since age 6. “Linda Blair walked in the door, and immediately I knew it was her. She was a straight-A student and winning blue ribbons showing horses at Madison Square Garden. … I asked her if she knew what ‘The Exorcist’ was about, and she said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s about a little girl who gets possessed by the devil and she does a bunch of bad things.'”

The director and the two members of the Blair family had a brief chat about the nature of those bad things — including the script’s particularly jolting scene involving a crucifix — and the child remained sunny and engaged throughout the conversation. “The material was not going to upset her, she was totally together. … I became like a  surrogate father to her, and that’s how we made it happen. If you watched the rushes of her scene, you would see her saying the most outrageous things, and then, as soon as I said cut, a prop man would hand her a milkshake and she’d be giggling.”

Blair says that the film’s success has been a mixed blessing in her life — she had no real desire to pursue acting at the time, but the momentum of the movie seemed to send her down a preordained path — and Miller, who died in 2001, found it difficult to shake the persona created by his work in the movie. Says Friedkin: “After the film opened, Jason and I were living in New York and we’d be walking down the street and people would come up and grab him by the arms, ‘Father, it’s my son, you have to help me. …’ He would have to tear himself away. ‘I’m not a priest, I’m just an actor.’ He went into seclusion for a while. He couldn’t walk the streets.”

The film, expected to be X-rated, opened in only 26 theaters for six-month bookings. Friedkin micromanaged each of those theaters as if he were staging a play. “I knew the names of all the projectionists. I had them replace the screen at the Mann Theatre in Minneapolis. I told them I wouldn’t send the print if they didn’t fix it, and they believed me. I sent guys from Warners to check the light on the screen. I called every theater every day for six months to check to make sure the sound levels were right.” The movie was a sensation and quickly spread well beyond that initial 26 theaters, and somehow, that made Friedkin sad. “I loved it. I could control the way audiences saw it. Total control. You know, I put everything I had into making the film as good as I could make it. It’s probably the only movie that I gave that much to.  It was the one.”

— Geoff Boucher


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“Phantasm,” the 30-year reunion interview

“The Last Exorcism” stirs interest

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Wes Craven’s retirement plan: “Die in my 90s on the set”

“House of the Devil” and feathered-hair horror


24 Responses to William Friedkin: ‘The Exorcist’ cast was ‘a gift from God’

  1. vincent joy says:

    Friedkin's work reminds me a lot of Fred Zinneman, at least his very good films (THE EXORSCST, SORCERER, THE FRENCH CONNECTION). His best had a real feeling of "being there," which is the same feeling I get from Fred Zinneman's work.

    • craigbhill says:

      Yes, in the beginning Friedkin allowed the brilliance of a unique master to shine thru on the screen, but not when his projects lacked camera movement, and are very staid. Watch and see. Even his better films of the last 20 years lack camera movement.

  2. rick says:

    Best horror movie ever

  3. jpohara says:

    I was 16 when this movie came out. The physical sensation of watching it in a theater is something I will never forget. I felt strong temperature changes and at times the air flow was so stifling/dead it felt as if you were in a desert . I experienced a tunnel vision like view that is hard to explain. All of this was just a manifestation of the super concentration of the audience. In some ways close to unbearable – this is a very remarkable motion picture.

  4. jpohara says:

    I watched the trailer and got a little light headed. I'm not really a woo-woo sort of guy, it just takes me back to a peak experience from a long time ago.

  5. madsircool says:

    An excellent piece!! Hope there are many more to follow.

  6. David B. says:

    I saw it in Los Angeles soon after it was released. People were screaming in the audience. It scared the heck out of me, and everyone else. Just an amazing film.

  7. sean says:

    Excellent piece.

  8. Rob says:

    OMG I can't wait to see the new cut. By FAR the GREATEST thriller of all time. Still makes my skin crawl just thinking about it and everyone's reaction to it at the time. I am 48 and it still scares the hell out of me. I loved the story line for the second one and Richard Burton was an excellent choice, but it fell far short of the Original. And yes Father Karras, his poor tormented soul, was perfectly played by the late Jason Miller. Friedkin made a masterpiece and thank you Billy for creating the new cut. I CAN"T WAIT!!

  9. JLS says:

    "The Haunting" is the scariest movie ever made! Try watching this one alone.

  10. Ted Newsom says:

    I saw THE EXORCIST when it came out, at a theater in NYC. Friedkin's protestations not withstanding, it's a pretty good horror movie.

    I would expect nothing less than excellence in that he took ten months to shoot it. That's 5 times as long as most other films, and about 10x as long as the classic horror films of the 30s, 40s & 50s. And he had a ten million dollar budget– in an age when comic books cost 15 cents (they're more than a buck now.)

    Since 1974, Friedkin has pontificated as if no one before him ever took horror movies seriously. That is a self-centered insult to directors such as Jacques Tourneur, Georges Franju, Val Lewton, Robert Wise, Paul Leni, Terence Fisher, Robert Siodmak and scores more.

  11. Donald from Hawaii says:

    I can still remember, at the age of fifteen, sitting in the old Waikiki Theatre in Honolulu and nearly jumping out of my skin when Ellen Burstyn hears a noise upstairs in the attic, and while investigating the disturbance with only a candle for light, an unexpectedly strong draft causes the candle to flair and flame out. That scene still gives me chills whenever I've watched the film since, as I sit in morbid anticipation for the moment.

  12. Bill says:

    I saw this movie at a drive-in theater as a young teenager (sneaked in under blankets in the back of a station wagon). It was paired with Fritz the Cat (!). Talk about incongruity.

  13. lori quattrucci says:

    Billy Friedkin you are a genius:) I was 15 years old when The Exorcist was released, my brother to this day will tease me and say "There have been other films made since The Exorcist" I said, really I haven't noticed. I could talk about this movie forever. I tell people if there ever was a trivia contest on The Exorcist I know I would win it.

  14. Mike Reuben says:

    Thanx for your article on The Exorcist. I was one of the people in lines around the block in Westwood Village. I've always considered it the best "supertnatural" movie ever. As much aclaim that it received, I've always thought that the acting and story line were extremely underrated, with the focus on the special effects. Top 25 or 50 movies ever? Mike from Anaheim Hills

  15. Jack Barbera says:

    I saw the film at the Paris Theatre in New York in April of 74. I went back to see it 5 more times. Seeing it on DVD just doesn't make it.

  16. Mario Beguiristain says:

    How could "thousands of girls have auditioned by tape" when it hadn't been invented yet?

  17. Patrick says:

    My question (an obvious masterpiece, just for the record) is this. Whatever happened to Kitty Wynn? I remember seeing her in "Panic in Needle Park" and then in "The Exorcist." I found her intuitive and realistic in both films. Then….?

    • Charles says:

      Kitty Winn retired from acting in the early 80's. The Panic In Needle Park is one of my all time favorite movies. Her performance as Helen in The Panic in Needle Park (1971) is ranked #76 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time (2006).

  18. patrick says:

    a remarkable film for reasons that go way beyond the horror genre. The acting is amazing, each and every one of them from Burstyn to Blair and on (and yes, Linda Blair deserved that Oscar nom even considering Mercedes McCambridge's incredible demon voice dubbing). Each frame just LOOKS and FEELS stunning and vivid: the colors, the tone, the tracking of the camera. The sound is devastating and powerful. And even though the movie feels very grim, there is a humanity and a heart that comes through.

  19. john says:

    i remember seeing the movie in 1974, my friend ray passed out during the movie, i came home one night and my brother in the dark started moaning, like in the movie, i walked over to his bed, he sat up real fast and said MERRIN……..i punched him right in the face and said that will teach you!, we laugh about it now lolol…………..the scariest movie i have ever seen, i never thought it would be seen on regular tv, it has but it's so cut up, kids today laugh at it. you have to understand the time peroid the movie came out, it was 1973 and the catholic church was still powerful, i remember people saying they had to see a shrink because of the movie, i personally know of 3 people that did, what an a amazing ,amazing movie!

  20. guest says:

    The temple of Hatra (Al-Hadr = place of the devil) is according to locals actually the place where the devil landed when he was tempting Jesus (years wandering in the desert). Till today you can notice two big holes the size of football fields next to each other which melted the sand into glass where the devil landed (not lightning strikes!!..???). Strangely this is the only VERY ancient place where you find all of the symbols in use by devil worshippers until today.Remember I am sure the temple existed before the landing?? A local tribe called the yeazidi's (devil/sun worshippers) has very secret USABLE knowledge of the peacock occult which is very powerful indeed… believe me. As a member of special forces(my country of origin undisclosed here, but assisting USA MNF) we were unable to penetrate a secret chamber which are being guarded by guards dressed totally in black. When reporting this to the commander of the nearby FOB Jaguar base, we were told that no explanation can be given to us, as to why (armed militia?) is allowed to operate freely in that area, but the issue is so sensitive as to be of INternational (illuminati?) importance… HANDS OFF!!!. If you want to add, mail me: bpapenfu@yahoo.com

  21. Reb says:

    This is one of those films that, as masterful as it obviously is, I wouldn't watch again to save my life.

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