NEW ON BLU-RAY: “THE EXORCIST: EXTENDED DIRECTOR’S CUT”
By 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.”
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.
“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] Scorsese — never 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.”
Friedkin 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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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