William Friedkin's Faith In Exorcisms Is Unwavering. As For Diversity In Hollywood? It 'Snags' Him.

The Oscar-winning director of "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist" discusses his new documentary, the Trumpian zeitgeist and the "evil" in the world.

In 1973, William Friedkin released “The Exorcist,” one of the highest-grossing and most applauded horror movies in history. In 2018, William Friedkin released “The Devil and Father Amorth,” a documentary about exorcisms. The movie landscape has drastically changed in the intervening years, but William Friedkin hasn’t.

He is still a dazzling raconteur. His most recent fiction features, “Bug” (2006) and “Killer Joe” (2011), boast the same moody panache seen in the movies that launched his career, including “The Boys in the Band” (1970), “The French Connection” (1971), “The Exorcist,” “Sorcerer” (1977) and “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985). And, at 82, he has aged into your overly nostalgic and slightly regressive great-uncle. He rails against the changes in American popular culture ― sometimes with good reason ― and carps about the whole “diversity” thing that’s hit Hollywood in recent years. 

For an hour on a recent Thursday afternoon, I sat with Friedkin in his room at Manhattan’s swanky Carlyle Hotel, where the Oscar-winning director wore slippers, green pajama pants and a T-shirt with a dog on it. In “The Devil and Father Amorth” (now in theaters and available on select streaming platforms), Friedkin travels to Italy to profile one of the world’s leading exorcists as he treats a woman apparently possessed by demonic forces. The movie presents footage of this woman’s exorcism as fact, which led to a conversation about the reliability of documentary filmmaking, the role evil plays in the world, Friedkin’s views on the state of movies today, and the more socially conscious culture we now live in. 

Father Gabriele Amorth performs an exorcism in "The Devil and Father Amorth."
Father Gabriele Amorth performs an exorcism in "The Devil and Father Amorth."

You’re hardly prolific these days.

I have a very active travel and social life. And I’m writing a script now that I hope to finish in a couple of months that I worked on for a long time that I hope to film next. But I can’t talk about the subject, because if it gets into print it will give other people ideas, which I hope not to do.

You aren’t bit by as much of a moviemaking bug as you once were, perhaps?

Well, when I started out, it was a different kind of zeitgeist. And the stuff that’s being done today is not of strong interest to me: superhero movies, which is what the studios have put most of their resources behind. It is the new zeitgeist. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to begin to make one of those films.

There are also some very good films that are independent that come out occasionally, but it’s very tough for them. It wasn’t when I started. You had people like John Cassavetes and other great filmmakers who would mortgage their house to make a film. They made interesting, unusual and very personal films. I don’t know if they would publish “The Great Gatsby” today, or William Faulkner. I just don’t know. It’s a different zeitgeist. The paintings aren’t the same, the music is not the same, certainly not the popular music of my day.

When did you first notice that zeitgeist change?

It changes constantly. It changed with “Star Wars” in the ’70s. The zeitgeist changed when the silent movies were replaced by sound. [Charlie] Chaplin and [D.W.] Griffith were largely the inspiration for American films. Then I think the next big change was probably “Citizen Kane,” where a story like that, really utilizing sound on film, changed everything. The complexity and yet the simplicity. And then the next change was in 1960 with the French film “Breathless” by Jean-Luc Godard. They’re still shooting films somewhat like that: hand-held cameras, jump cuts. Now it’s changed in American cinema to superhero films, for the most part. That’s what they’re interested in: the next blockbuster. Everyone is trying to replicate “Star Wars,” its success. I don’t know that these same people would have been comfortable in the early days making films, because they were not about superheroes. They were more complex, deeper and darker films.

William Friedkin and Gene Hackman on the set of "The French Connection."
William Friedkin and Gene Hackman on the set of "The French Connection."

The difference with “Star Wars,” though, is that it was fundamentally an original story when it first opened. It took inspiration from Flash Gordon and whatnot, but nobody had seen anything like “Star Wars” before.

We used to see it every Saturday afternoon as kids going to eight little pictures at a time for a quarter. There were Buck Rogers and that whole school of dumb science fiction.

OK, but it wasn’t “Avengers 12” or “Transformers 16.”

No, but they were making sequels and serials to that stuff all the time. They just didn’t have the tools. And George Lucas didn’t have the tools that they have now, but he did very well with that he had.

That’s why the car chase in “The French Connection” is so famous. It looks handmade.

Well, there was no other way to do it. There were no computer-generated images then. We had to do everything that you saw.

Do you think filmmakers are drunk on the power of visual effects?

I don’t know that I would go that far. I would use it if I had to. It’s a tool. It can take you to places where you could never before even think about putting a camera. It can take you inside the Taj Mahal or the Louvre or the Vatican, and convincingly. There have been a lot of really good chase scenes that have used it. The “Bourne” films used computer imagery, and they’re good chase scenes.

What do you like right now? Whom do you respect as a filmmaker?

I just did a podcast with Guillermo del Toro.

He’s someone who uses effects in a purposeful and profound way.

I agree. He’s a very serious filmmaker. He studied with Dick Smith, who did the makeup for “The Exorcist,” “The Godfather” and a lot of other great films. He is a really interesting filmmaker. I like Damien Chazelle, the two films I’ve seen of his. I like Wes Anderson’s films. I enjoy them a lot. And Tarantino, who has really created a niche for himself.

You and del Toro talked on that podcast about how much you both love old MGM musicals. I’m sort of extrapolating here, but you implied a few years ago that the birth of rock ’n’ roll and the changes popular music went through as a result contributed to the downfall of the classical musical.

I think that’s close enough because rock music was a revolution. Elvis was a revolution. And he made some movies, but they’re not really musicals. They’re shots of Elvis performing. The popular music that gave birth to the MGM musicals were written by people like Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Sammy Cahn, Rodgers and Hammerstein. They were influenced by the popular music of the day, which was largely love songs. The popular music gradually evolved into rap and hip-hop, which is not about that, generally. And they’re not necessarily singable or danceable, certainly not by people like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse.

But hip-hop has yielded its own genre of dance, and it’s powerful too.

I haven’t seen any films about hip-hop that are as exciting as “The Band Wagon” or “Singin’ in the Rain” or “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Those and many other films drew on the popular music of the day.

Linda Blair and William Friedkin on the set of "The Exorcist."
Linda Blair and William Friedkin on the set of "The Exorcist."

So you liked “La La Land”?

I thought it was well-done. [Chazelle] did a very decent homage to the old musical. He’s such a wonderful filmmaker. And I loved the other film of his I saw, “Whiplash.” It’s terrific.

Have you tried to get more movies off the ground in recent years?

Not really. I haven’t found anything since “Killer Joe” that has really compelled me.

Are people sending you scripts?

Yes, but it’s not about scripts. It’s about what you really want to give your life to. You know, I had no script for “The French Connection,” but I loved the story. I thought the story was great. We made it up as we went along, but the guy who was the last writer on it won the Academy Award for best screenplay.

How’d you make sense of that?

When they fall in love with a film at the Academy, they generally fall in love with all of its parts. But I’m telling you we improvised that film every day on the set. Not one word of the chase was ever written. It’s not in any script. I went to those locations and I was inspired by them to do something that I had not seen.

Who did you consider your contemporaries?

Francis Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich.

Bogdanovich is someone who’s made a few movies lately that no one has paid attention to.

Well, that’s for a variety of reasons. The distribution platforms aren’t the same anymore. Most films are not made for a theater. They’re made for Netflix and for video on demand. The films that are made for theaters are the superhero films for large audiences, and some of the horror films recently, which I think are very good. “Get Out” and “A Quiet Place.” I like them a lot.

Horror seems to be the one genre that can can remain original and still succeed both commercially and artistically.

You’re right.

Even comedies have suffered.

I don’t know what’s funny to people anymore. Guys acting stupid. I can’t think of any that have moved me recently. And a lot of that is due to series television, where people got used to laugh tracks and everything that somebody says while sitting on the couch and eating a chicken egg gets uproarious laughter. I don’t know what people make of this stuff at home, staring at these people who are supposedly representative of American marriages in all of their various forms today. But they’re cracking jokes at each other. Is that how people go through life? Is that how you do?

No, certainly not.

You have friends. Are you married?

No, but I have a partner.

Do you guys sit around telling jokes to each other?

I wish. But I think many sitcoms are more nuanced than you’re giving them credit for. And anyway, there’s a lot to be said for the value of escapism, which is what sitcoms offer.

I couldn’t escape that way. That’s not an escape for me.

What’s an escape for you?

Reading a good book, fiction or nonfiction. Reading about something I wasn’t aware of before. Or listening to music. Miles Davis. Elvis. John Coltrane. Gil Evans. It’s hard for me to find somebody in today’s world, but there are many recording artists that I still listen to, especially in re-release. Sinatra. There’s nobody better with a lyric than Frank Sinatra. I like David Bowie a lot.

Did you feel that way about television in the ’70s, like “All in the Family”?

Well, not in the ’60s when you had really good humorists on TV. Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Burns and Allen.

What changed?

The zeitgeist changed. First of all, there are no performers like that anymore. They’re mostly people that read somebody else’s jokes and they’re not naturally funny to me. 

Michael Shannon, Ashley Judd and William Friedkin at a "Bug" press conference in 2006.
Michael Shannon, Ashley Judd and William Friedkin at a "Bug" press conference in 2006.

Moving on to “The Devil and Father Amorth,” it’s pretty shocking to see footage of a supposed exorcism. What got left on the cutting-room floor?

Almost nothing. I had planned to go back and do what we call b-roll with Cristina [the possessed woman in the movie], but she had freaked out by then. Father Amorth was in the hospital with pneumonia, and he never came out. I went back to do her 10th exorcism, and he couldn’t do it. Now she is out there seeking other help but has not been successful as of yet.

[Amorth] was in a class by himself. He was totally original. He was the founder of the International Association of Exorcists. His work was supported and respected by the last three popes. He had been the Vatican exorcist for 31 years. So I fully expected to do her 10th or more, but he passed.

There have been so many “Exorcist” knockoffs over the years.

I’ve never seen them. I’ve never seen the sequels.

Did you ever consider making one?

No, no. [“Exorcist” screenwriter William Peter] Blatty did “Exorcist III,” which was not called that. It was from his novel called Legion, and then the film company got him to call it “Exorcist III” for obvious reasons. They threw an exorcism in, which he didn’t have.

With all those knockoffs, the image of an exorcism has become mythologized and hyperbolized, partly because “The Exorcist” is so evocative. Understandably, demonic possession has a lot of skeptics. People could easily look at the footage in this movie and still cast doubts on the veracity of what actually happened. How do you feel about that?

I filmed what I saw and experienced. That’s all. I didn’t make a film to convert skeptics. I’m not a skeptic. As a journalist, you should not be a skeptic. You shouldn’t be writing things and thinking people are out there to fool everyone. We’ve got to be open to what you may or may not get from what you’ve done, but you can’t approach life as a skeptic. First of all, you’re not old enough to be skeptical.

I’m not saying I personally am skeptical.

No, but there are skeptics who just don’t care enough to examine the unexamined life, so they have an attitude about it. You want to know something? Nobody knows anything.

Sure, we can agree on that.

The greatest philosophers and scholars in the world do not know if there’s a heaven or a hell or an afterlife or anything about Jesus. We don’t know about the eternal verities, but I’m curious about all of them. I know I’ll never know, but that doesn’t stop me from being curious about things that happen that change the world. You have to be curious, for example, about why Trump became president.

I am curious about that, yes.

You have to be. He won 30 states. Now, Mrs. Clinton can blame Comey. She can blame this, that and the other, Russian collusion. But 30 states voted for Donald Trump, who was not a politician. And that tells you something about this country at this time. It could change, it could evolve. There was a time that people had faith in politicians and continued to vote for them. They voted against politicians when they voted for Trump. They’d had it. You know the politicians have all just lied to us as long as we can remember.

Yes, but now we have somebody in office who has openly lied since being elected.

Well, I don’t know that. The people who voted for him don’t know that. They wanted something else, and I think, by the way, that he was pretty straightforward with people. He said that he loved to have sex with who he considered beautiful women. We all knew that. He wasn’t denying it. He wasn’t saying that he was Jimmy Carter, a religious man married to the same woman forever.

He’s no Jimmy Carter, that’s for sure.

He was a reality-TV host, and they voted for him over a woman who’d been around politics most of her adult life. So I’m curious.

Right, and maybe “skeptic” is the wrong word to get wrapped up in. Storytelling-wise, what we see in this documentary is fairly straightforward in its presentation, but ―

Totally straightforward. It’s hardly edited. I shot these people talking, doing an exorcism, these doctors talking about it, and this is what they said.

But I think anybody who watches documentaries with a critical mind should always question what’s being presented onscreen.


Because whether a movie is edited heavily or not, a documentary filmmaker captures and assembles the footage however he or she chooses. She chooses who is featured and how the story unfolds and what information is included.

That’s true.

So, what is fundamentally objective becomes subjective because it’s filtered through the lens of one filmmaker. It’s similar with journalism and newsgathering. So that’s why people might be skeptical of footage that claims to show a real exorcism. We don’t know what happened before and after the events we see in the film.

Yeah, there’s no subjectivity in what I did with this documentary. This may not be as I feel at all. This is what I heard and saw. That’s it, and here it is.

When I filmed the exorcism, I had no idea what I was going to do with it. And then it occurred to me to take it to neurosurgeons and psychiatrists and let them debunk it if that’s what they were going to do. And they didn’t. But it was up to them. I put not one word in their mouth. I asked them questions. I asked the neurosurgeon from Israel who’s done thousands of surgeries, “Do you have any religious beliefs?” He said something to the effect of, “Beyond what I can see and feel in the reasonable world, I do accept the existence of an entity called God.” Which doesn’t say he’s a religious man at all. He’s certainly not a Catholic. He tried to explain, from his perspective, what was going on with that woman. It was a religious-based disease in which everyone in the room, including the woman and her priest and her family and other priests who were there, were participating in something that they accepted to be her demonic possession and exorcism.

If you have no religion, or if you’re a Jewish guy or a Muslim or of another faith entirely, you probably would not see an exorcist. It’s religious-based. The only treatment she or any of the other thousands of people who went to [Amorth] received was exorcism, but they had to see a medical doctor and psychiatrist in Italy first and be told that those skills were not going to help them. Then, if he had the time, he would do an exorcism.

Wiliam Friedkin, Matthew McConaughey and Tracy Letts at a "Killer Joe" screening in 2011.
Wiliam Friedkin, Matthew McConaughey and Tracy Letts at a "Killer Joe" screening in 2011.

What do you make of Father Amorth’s more outlandish beliefs? He’s said that Stalin and Hitler were possessed by the devil, and that the devil had a hand in creating “Harry Potter.”

Well, I don’t have any problems about “Harry Potter.” He did, I guess, because it dealt with witchcraft. He wasn’t the only guy who was troubled by “Harry Potter.”

Sure, it’s not a unique opinion. But you made him the subject of a documentary.

So, what do I feel about what? Here’s what I feel. First of all, I feel there is evil in the world, without a doubt. Some of it has been alleviated by groups that have come out and spoken up for themselves and fought back, but it’s not even about group evil. There’s evil in every human being, just as there’s a bit of good in many human beings. But how do you explain a guy that goes up into the Mandalay Bay in Vegas and shoots up a rock concert? Or these guys that shoot up the schools? Or the nanny who cold-bloodedly killed two little girls? Is that sickness or is it evil? I don’t know. It may be both. Where does that come from?

In the case of the woman in my documentary, the evil is directed at her, not from her. But I have seen evil in people that I know. You see it in the smallest way almost every day if you drive in Los Angeles. You see road rage. That’s when people turn evil. Have you never felt so badly about somebody that you might have wanted to kill them? We all have. You wouldn’t do it because you have restraints. Some people don’t have restraints.

Father Amorth believed the devil was a metaphor, not an actual person or thing. Certainly I can’t argue with that.

A few years ago, you said, “When you’re making a film, you don’t start to think of the social consequences, or whether there will be any.” But today’s filmmakers, as well as today’s audiences, do think more critically about the social implications of entertainment. We’re much more politically conscious, even though the ’70s are known for being such a politically charged decade in and out of Hollywood. Do you think that evolution toward socially conscious film criticism is a good thing?

I don’t think so. No. I don’t know that I could say this is good, but it does happen. No, I think a film should be enjoyed on its own terms for the ingredients in it. You like the story or you don’t. You like these actors or you don’t. This interests you in the way it’s done or it doesn’t. To apply some other set of principles to it is so subjective. I don’t look at “The Boys in the Band” as a film simply about the gay lifestyle. It’s a wonderful love story to me, with great humor.

And it’s still controversial, even as it reopens on Broadway. Part of why everything is so political right now is because the culture hasn’t served folks pushed to the margins. That speaks to the success of “Black Panther,” for example.

Yeah, I don’t go to see a work of entertainment to be politicized. I don’t know what the political nature of the Bruce Springsteen show is. It’s his life. I saw it. It was great. I know that his politics are liberal; that’s been obvious for years, before this show. But I enjoyed the show as entertainment, period — not entertainment from a liberal performer who’s trying to proselytize me about voting his way or something. Things are more politicized, you’re right. Everything is political. The whole idea of diversity kind of snags me. I think people should be hired on merit. I’ve always believed that, and yet they weren’t.

But what happens when the system isn’t in place to hire people of merit who don’t fit the dominant demographic?

It was always in place. I just have to tell you that when I hired people, I hired women, men, I didn’t know if they were gay or not gay. I could not have cared less. I was interested in their talent, period. And that’s all that you can be.

I don’t like Michelangelo because he’s a gay artist. I like him because he’s a great artist. I don’t like Picasso because he was a straight artist. I value a work of art, be it music or painting or cinema, because of the work. I don’t give a good goddamn about Leonardo’s sexuality or Michelangelo’s or Miles Davis’. I just like the work, and I’m not going to hire somebody just because they’re black. If they’re black and good, that’s wonderful. If they’re black and they’re not as good as this other dude over here…

Sure, but what happens when the people at the top — executives, for example — aren’t historically hiring people of color or greenlighting movies about queer people? It becomes a systemic issue.

I don’t know anybody who is that way now, who would say, “I’m not going to make this story because the guy is gay or the guy is black or it’s a lesbian.” I don’t know anybody in charge of a studio who would do that today.

You have to understand something. The guys who founded the movie industry all started at the bottom somewhere. They started in entry-level jobs. They were stage hands and gaffers and grips. They moved up to become directors. John Ford did that, and Howard Hawks. Some of the greats started on the crew, and they learned every facet of their work. That tradition carried on. There weren’t a lot of women then who sought out jobs as carpenters on a film. There just weren’t. Not because they thought they wouldn’t get them, but it just wasn’t the kind of job a woman sought. Now they do. The thing is, then there were a great many closeted homosexuals who started the film industry. But mostly they were straight guys who were working on the soundstages, or working an entry-level job somewhere and worked their way up. That tradition continued. Instead of carpenters, they became agents. And agents worked their way up to be heads of a studio.

Now, I personally think the best action filmmaker in America today is Kathryn Bigelow, a woman. I think she’s a great director of actors and action. There were years when people wouldn’t hire her to do an action picture because they thought a woman couldn’t do that, until she did it. So it takes someone coming out of left field to do it. Why have there not been more women who were great artists? Great painters? There was one woman impressionist, I think, Marie Laurencin. Maybe there was somebody else, but I’m not aware offhand of any of the other impressionists being women, or the pre-Raphaelites or the 17th-century Dutch. The great movements of art: Where were the women’s paintings? They were not told you could not paint.

But the canon is dominated by men. And art is full of gatekeepers. If you aren’t invited to the table to be exhibited in a gallery, for example, you’re never given the chance to be considered great.

You don’t get to be invited. You do great work, it gets hung. Marie Laurencin was invited. If you do great work, it’s going to be seen. Vincent van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime, died at about 44 by committing suicide. You look at a van Gogh today and say, “This is great! What didn’t they see then?” And his brother, Theo, was the dealer for the impressionists. He couldn’t sell a Vincent. Why? Now you’ve got to be a billionaire to own a Vincent. What happened? In the short period of less that 100 years, van Gogh went from being unsaleable to one of the great appreciated masters. If Vincent sold one of his paintings then for what they sell now, he would have been a rich man and done more. But he produced well over 3,000 works: oils, water colors, drawings, prints. What did they have against him? He was great and he couldn’t sell, so it’s hard for me to make the argument that there are women like that who were great and couldn’t sell, because I don’t know any.

But history always leaves people out.

Yeah, but nobody ever said that a gay painter will not be working. Michelangelo and Leonardo got the greatest commissions and delivered. I don’t know if anyone gave a shit what they were. Do you care? I don’t.

No, but it’s hard to talk about today’s landscape by referencing Michelangelo. For a long time, the infrastructure wasn’t there for women directors and protagonists of color.

There were women directors.

Few and far between until just a few years ago.

Ida Lupino, Dorothy Arzner.

Sure, but they are not mentioned in the same breath as —

They weren’t as good. The weren’t as good as William Wyler, Orson Welles, Richard Brooks.

Maybe, but the point is more that women weren’t invited to the table and then exalted at the same rate that Howard Hawks and John Ford were.

You don’t get invited to the table.

Well, someone has to sign over a paycheck. Someone has to hire you. During the classic studio system, especially.

You don’t get invited to the table. You make your own place at the table.

Many people think that I’m gay, but nobody knew or cared if I was or wasn’t. I swear to you. It never was a factor. I neither traded on that fact or not. And I frankly don’t care what people think of me, as long as they don’t think something horrible that isn’t true. But that’s not horrible to me. Who gives a flying fuck into a rolling donut? I really don’t. I never thought in working with someone — and that includes “The Boys in the Band” — “Are these guys gay? Is he gay? Is that guy gay?” The guy who played the most flaming character in the show was not gay. Cliff Gorman was doing an imitation of a gay man at that time. Some of the others who were, let’s say more butch, were gay. They were actors. And that’s all that seemed to matter.

But the reason we can even sit here and have a 20-minute discussion about this movie is that culture was so starved for stories about gay characters in general, just as people are for the sort of characters of color we saw in “Black Panther.”

You’re right. And they were not given opportunities. There’s no doubt about that.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.