William Friedkin, the director of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” a pair of acclaimed Tracy Letts adaptations (“Bug” and “Killer Joe”) and author of “The Friedkin Connection,” a new memoir about his 50-plus-year filmmaking career, answered the door of his hotel room. It was a lousy room. “Small,” he said simply. He stepped aside to let me in, looking disappointed and resigned. He wore large, 1970s-style eyeglasses, sneakers, black socks and a black shirt. He tugged his chinos high above his waist. This is not much bigger than the one-room apartment that he grew up in at the corner of Foster Avenue and Sheridan Road, he said.
Not to mention, his plane was more than an hour late. He lowered the shade on a window, which looked out on Rosemont, the freeway and, beyond, O'Hare Airport — an inauspicious start to a book tour.
This was late Sunday afternoon. His luggage and black leather bomber jacket lay on the bed.
“OK, here's what I have,” he said. “I have to be at the Muvico theater at 6 for the Chicago Film Critics Association (Film Festival). Then a car is going to pick me up after the screening of (his 1977 movie) ‘Sorcerer.' But first I'm doing a book signing, then I will introduce ‘Sorcerer,' then I have my Giordano's, then I sign more books and do a Q&A until it's over. Then tomorrow in the morning, a photo shoot, then at 11:15, Union League Club, then at 5 p.m. WTTW. Then a cocktail party at Christie Hefner's, then more interviews Tuesday and my talk at Harold Washington Library.”
He comes to town a few times a year, he explained, stops at Mr. Beef, the Art Institute, visits with relatives and friends. His wife, former Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing, grew up in the South Shore neighborhood (and recently donated $5 million to the University of Chicago's Laboratory Schools in Hyde Park, from which she graduated in 1962). Though he's 77 now and lives with Lansing in Bel Air, Calif., Friedkin still retains some of the brusque, restless and confrontational directness that made him, along with Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and a handful of others, synonymous with filmmaking in the first half of the 1970s.
Indeed, his book — which he wrote without the help of diaries, because, look, he never kept diaries, he said — is a lot like him: somewhat lyrical (“My world always ended at the shore of the frozen Great Lake,” he writes, “watching the ice floes, jagged pieces of a big white puzzle breaking in the sun”), somewhat guarded personally (“This is a professional memoir,” he told me, “Frank Langella can write a book about all the men and women he had sex with, but I wouldn't do anything like that”) and generally unwilling to sugarcoat stuff.
When I asked if he felt revived — with back-to-back critical successes in “Bug” (2006) and “Killer Joe” (2011) after decades of being written off, with a successful side career as a director of opera — he said: “I don't know what you are talking about. I feel revived because I took a shower! Look, after ‘The Exorcist,' which was 40 years ago, I didn't make a film for four years. There was nothing I was interested in. I started to look after my personal life. Remember, I was hands-on — with ‘The Exorcist' I supervised subtitles, dubbing in different languages. I contacted projectionists at the 26 theaters it was showing, two or three times a week, for six months! If they told me the brightness was on 15 I'd say, ‘Make it 16 or I pull the print. And what's the sound at?' If they said 12, I'd say, ‘It's 15!' They'd say they had complaints that the film was loud. I'd say, ‘Make it 15 or I pull your print!'”
His phone rang.
“Hi, sweetheart,” he said.
“Hi, honey, just arrived in Fort Myers,” Lansing said, sounding cheerful and loud on the speaker.
“I have this little room near the airport,” Friedkin said.
“What time is Christie's party?” she asked.
He told her.
“Casual attire?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” he said.
“OK, I love you, have a good interview,” she said.
“Love you, darling,” he said, and hung up. The smile on his face evaporated. I asked him about Chicago playwright Letts, and how their relationship started, why they've become a good fit.
“What? It's not something that can be easily framed,” he said. “We both find the same things disturbing, humorous, chilling. We share a worldview. We see dark and light in the same person. That's why I am so out of touch with today's filmmakers. I don't believe in pure heroes or pure villains. Did you read my book?”
I assured him I had.
“It's all there.”
Changing direction, I asked about his rarely-seen documentaries, which started when he was working at WGN-TV. He said that live TV was “wrapping up about the time I started, especially in Chicago. I might have stayed in Chicago the rest of my life if there were more to do, but TV was getting syndicated, movies in the afternoon. I saw it was time to move on, and then was offered a job at a documentary company in California.”
I asked if he felt confident.
“I don't know what the hell you're talking about,” he said. “You're never confident! Ask an artist if they feel more confident now than three years ago. None of it is ever easy! I don't know what you mean?!” But he said that he wished he had been a movie director in the Hollywood studio system of the 1940s and '50s, “making MGM musicals, ‘Singin' in the Rain,' ‘An American in Paris' — by the time I got to be a filmmaker, there was no one writing songs like that, no one dancing like that, it was less innocent. So I made the films that were available at that time. But if I had been in the studio system I would have made more movies and been a better director. The more you do it, the more you learn, and every time now, you're starting over. Then, they worked with the same crews, now you're assembling everyone from scratch, every few years, if you can.”
I said he would have to be at the movie theater soon but joked that I would love to hear some of the horror stories from the 1970s — which was not the right thing to say to William Friedkin.
In the book, I said, he mentions some people found him difficult to work with.
“Give me a quote — you're pulling things out of thin air.”
I said I could not recall an exact quote from his 500-page book — which, I see now, does indeed have chapters titled “Hubris” and “An Uphill Climb to the Bottom,” admits to directorial arrogance and alienating studios at times, makes references to slapping actors, describes in harrowing detail how he shot the famous chase sequence in “The French Connection” without permits and includes the line “I thought I was bulletproof.” It also — Friedkin spares himself little embarrassment — has the filmmaker failing to appreciate “Jaws” and telling Coppola that he just didn't get George Lucas' thing with “Star Wars.”
“Am I difficult?” Friedkin asked me. “How can I respond to that? Whatever I said in the book, I meant. If I said I was difficult I said why and when and where, and that I was certainly not always (difficult), not every day. But I am happy to respond either now or later to a specific thing, but don't expect me to me make up stuff. I don't know what you're talking about! I was very self-critical in this book but I don't take all the praise or all the blame, and not everyone would say that about me, that I was difficult, not everyone.
“If you asked ‘Who would say you were difficult?' I would say I don't know. ‘You seem to indicate you were difficult in your book.' Well, what did I say? I try to give an honest portrait of myself. Are you gong to write a column that is all speculation and rumor here? … Oh, I see, you probably think I'm being difficult now! Because I don't have a pat answer: ‘This guy was difficult.' I don't have pat answers, but you are welcome to quote anything I say.”
I said it was an innocent question.
He said: “I don't agree with your definition! Do I have a vision and set out to achieve that vision when I am making a film? The answer to that question is yes, I do. OK, here, grab this bag, we have to get going.”
We drove one block away, to the Muvico Theaters Rosemont 18. Mike Kerz, the theater's event manager, looking very nervous and very polite, welcomed us.
“Hello, Mr. Friedkin, what an honor,” he said, assuring Friedkin, now as pleasant and cheerful as the freshly exorcised little girl in “The Exorcist,” that he had spent two days assembling this new print of “Sorcerer,” which was wonderful.
“Great news!” Friedkin said. “Give me five!” He gave him five.
Erik Childress, of eFilmCritic and the film critics association, walked up, hand extended. Friedkin slapped him on the back and asked if there was a place for his bags.
“Also, you score my deep dish?” he asked.
“Right after your introduction, it'll be waiting,” Childress said.
Friedkin smiled and gave him a fist bump, walked into the theater and stopped before the long line of several dozen fans waiting to get their books and posters and soundtrack albums and DVD cases signed.
“This looks like my bar mitzvah!” he shouted to the crowd, which, for the next hour and a half, put William Friedkin in a much better mood than he had been earlier. A man leaned in nervously, hand shaking, and said he loved “Bug,” loved “the whole conspiracy aspect” of the movie.
“Are you doing a Q-and-A tonight?” the man asked.
“'Til they throw me out,” Friedkin said. “Ask me a good question — unlike some people.”
I looked up from my notebook and realized Friedkin was staring at me, grinning. The young man stepped off.
An old man stepped up.
Friedkin's eyes went wide.
“Yeah!” the man screamed. They hugged, kissed, embraced. He was Morry Loed. He used to be an actor for Friedkin; he brought a playbill of a stage production that Friedkin wrote and directed ages ago, at a theater on 53rd Street. They hadn't seen each other in 40 years. He told Friedkin he was 84, and back when Friedkin told him he was moving to Hollywood, he didn't believe it. Friedkin laughed and asked what Loed is doing now.
“Ah, well I'm retired now, of course,” Loed said.
“Well, and I'm not,” Friedkin said. “I am never (expletive) retiring. Never!”
Friedkin in person
William Friedkin will discuss his memoir, “The Friedkin Connection,” 6 p.m. Tuesday at Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St.
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