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Classics Corner: William Friedkin talks ‘Sorcerer’

The legendary director takes Time Out through the unbelievable making-of story of his newly rediscovered jungle epic

Ian Freer
Written by
Ian Freer

Why did you want to remake ‘The Wages of Fear’?
‘I don’t consider it a remake. The characters are different, the situations are different, the beginning and the ending and maybe everything in between, with perhaps one exception, are different from [director Henri-Georges] Clouzot’s great movie. I thought the story by Georges Arnaud had a tremendous shelf life and it hadn’t been widely seen in America when it came out in the ’50s – and that was a butchered version. The whole ending of Clouzot’s film had been changed. I thought of it as a timeless story that could be filmed once again in a completely different set of circumstances.’

What did you respond to in the material?
‘There is an overriding theme: four strangers having to co-operate in taking two loads of dynamite to put out an oil-well fire, which is clearly a metaphor for the world. Unless countries can find a way to co-operate, they will all blow up together. ‘Wages of Fear’ is a kind of metaphor for co-operation or destruction. That seemed to me to be a valid theme – even more so today.’

Is it true it started life as a small movie while you were waiting to direct the big budget ‘Devil’s Triangle’?
‘No, it started it life as the way it was intended to start life. Almost all of the stuff in it had not been done before. The essential events that make up the journey. What I did – what had not been done in the novel or Clouzot’s masterpiece – was [include] back stories for the four guys. It started life as the script that was photographed.’

Tell me about casting. Is it true you offered it to Steve McQueen?
‘Yes, and McQueen told me that it was the best script he ever read.’

Why isn’t he in the movie?
‘He had just married Ali MacGraw and he said, “Look, is there any way you can write a part in for Ali, because we are recently married and I know you are going to go off to some jungle for six months? I don’t want to be away from her for that long.” I said, “Steve, you just told me it was the best script you ever read and there is no real strong role for a woman in there. I don’t see how I could change it.” He said, “Okay, I get it. Why don’t you make her an associate or executive producer?” I told him that it was a phoney credit. He gave me a third option: to film in the US. I turned that down too, because I already had the locations. I would tell you today I would have accepted at least two of his conditions to get Steve McQueen. I didn’t realise at the time the value of a movie star – and he was a great action star.   

I think [McQueen’s replacement] Roy Scheider is great in the film. He’s fantastic. I’d worked with him before, on “The French Connection”, and since then he’d done “Jaws”. He’d become something of a name himself.’

He said that shooting ‘Sorcerer’ made ‘Jaws’ look like a picnic.
‘It was a very difficult shoot, very tense. We were never close friends. He had only done one other film when I met him – “Klute” – and it hadn’t come out at this point. He was acting in theatre off-Broadway. The moment I met him, I hired him for “The French Connection”. I thought, This guy is going to have a great career. I didn’t even audition him. I met him and gave him the role. He was extraordinarily cooperative and not difficult at all. With ‘Sorcerer’ [we had] some difficulties because of the difficulties of the shoot. But as I look back on it, it was a great collaboration. He contributed a lot.’

What were the toughest moments of that shoot?
‘We built the bridge in the Dominican Republic over a six-foot-high rushing river that no-one could ever remember diminishing in height. But it did go down, amazingly, to a foot and a half. We had to take the bridge down. Our production designer went off to Mexico and found a similar location, so we had to take the entire bridge down and rebuild it there. That was the costliest problem, because we had to shut down for six weeks with the crew on payroll, but there were others. More than 50 crew members left the film with gangrene and I got malaria.’

There’s a legend that the crew were running drugs. What’s the truth of that?
‘I didn’t fire everyone. In Mexico, there were undercover federales on set as crew. One of them came into my cabin in the jungle, flashed his badge and told me there were about 12 people on the crew who were using drugs. He said, “Senor Friedkin, you are a nice man, otherwise I would arrest these people immediately, but drug use is a serious crime in Mexico and they have to leave tomorrow.” We lost a couple people from the set: make-up artists, a couple of stuntmen, some grips. Again, we had to shut down for three weeks and bring in new people from the States.’

How do you look back at the shoot? Do you think it was hell?
‘No, it was tremendously difficult but inventive. It called on the best work any of us could do to bring it off. To this day it’s the film that came closest to my vision for it. This one came off exactly as I envisioned. No, I envisioned it with Steve McQueen, but I think Scheider was tremendous. I don’t think “Sorcerer” has dated at all. It doesn’t look like an old movie.’

When the film opened, why do you think it didn’t find an audience at the time?
‘I have no idea. You almost never know. “Sorcerer” was the film I made [four years] after “The Exorcist” and perhaps people were expecting something else? I don’t know.

It opened around the same time as ‘Star Wars’.
‘That’s an interesting theory. I don’t know how you can prove that except it is true that “Star Wars” changed the zeitgeist, there’s no doubt about that. So many of the films that come out today owe a great deal to “Star Wars”.’

How did you feel when it didn’t find an audience?
‘I was certainly disappointed. You always want your films to find as wide as audience as possible. Sometimes I felt I compromised to get a larger audience, [but] I certainly didn’t feel I had to compromise with “Sorcerer”. I was puzzled more than disappointed.’

Where do put ‘Sorcerer’ in your body of work?
I don’t do that. It’s up to the critic to put it somewhere. For many years, Time Out has chosen ‘The Exorcist’ as the greatest horror of all time. There have been many thousands of horror films since “The Exorcist” came out. I was surprised when “The Exorcist” would rank so high in critics’ polls. I don’t rank films. I would say this to you: “Sorcerer” is the film that came closest to my vision of it before I made it.’

‘Sorcerer’ is out now on Blu-ray.

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