William Friedkin interview

Tom Huddleston speaks to the director of the film that topped our 100 best horror films poll

William Friedkin is the director of ‘The Exorcist’ (1973), which sailed to the top of our 100 best horror films poll. The tale of a 12-year-old girl who becomes possessed by an ancient demonic force, the film is notorious for its dramatic intensity and explicit imagery – it was banned in the UK for 25 years. Friedkin spoke to us from his LA office, and was eager to deny that ‘The Exorcist is a horror film at all.

Were you a fan of horror movies before you made ‘The Exorcist’?

‘Not per se. I had seen and liked some very visceral, very strong films, but not because they were horror films. The first and still the most frightening was “Psycho”, some 14 years before ‘The Exorcist”. “Rosemary’s Baby” I found to be a very moving and profound film as well. It produced chills, sure, but these films defy categorisation. The ones that really stick with you and move you always do. I understand that people think of “The Exorcist” as a horror film, I totally get it. You don’t have to worry about it, it’s only a horror film. But I think it deals with issues far more profound than what you find in the average horror film. To be frank with you, [writer] Bill Blatty and I never set out to make a horror film. The idea never crossed our minds.’

So what made you want to tell this story?

‘To me, “The Exorcist” was a story about the mystery of faith, and I tried to depict that as realistically as possible. I had read the files in the Jesuit archives in Washington DC of the 1949 exorcism case that prompted Bill to write his novel. You can Google it, it was on the front page of The Washington Post. Then I spoke to the president of Georgetown, which is a Jesuit university, about that case and what he knew about it, and I was convinced that what had happened was something that was beyond our general understanding of illness and how to cure it. This was not simply a scary story, this was something of the supernatural in the natural world. And that’s how I approached the film.’

So even though you’re an agnostic, you believe in exorcism?

‘Well the definition of agnostic is someone who believes that the power of God is unknowable. That’s my position. I believe in God and I believe in the human soul. Maybe one day they’ll discover the cause of what happened to that young man, but back then, it was only curable by an exorcism. His family weren’t even Catholics, they were Lutheran. They started with doctors and then psychiatrists and then psychologists and then they went to their minister who couldn’t help them. And they wound up with the Catholic church. The Washington Post article says that the boy was possessed and exorcised. That’s pretty out on a limb for a national newspaper to put on its front page. I don’t think you’d see that too often nowadays. Possibly in a Murdoch paper. But you’re not going to see that on the front page of an intelligent newspaper unless there’s something there.’

The Exorcist The Exorcist

Were you surprised at some of the imagery you were allowed to include?

Yes. In today’s world there would not be enough Xs in the alphabet for ‘The Exorcist’. As it happened, the guy who started the code, who created the ratings board in the US, was a man named Aaron Stern. He called me a half hour after he had screened the film and said were going to give an R rating. I didn’t have to cut one frame. He understood that the film had a serious intent. Whereas all the sequels of “The Exorcist”, they’re not worth a bucket of warm shit. Fucking awful. Part of the problem with serious intent is that if it’s successful, it’s going to get ripped off and trashed.’

Do you think there’s a limit to what can or should be shown on screen?

‘My films have always been a study of human behaviour at its extremes. They’re not aimed at young people, they’re aimed at adults. Is there a line I wouldn’t cross? You could have asked that question of James Joyce or Henry Miller. Is there a line that they wouldn’t cross? I don’t know. The brutality that exists between human beings and nations is one of the serious flaws of human nature. I tell you what I think is brutal, the movies that show the massacre of thousands of people by these incredible villains, and the stupid sitcoms that cause people to view television as opium for the eyes. I think they’re evil, those are lines that I would not cross. But most other subjects, if they’re well written, are fair game. My new film “Killer Joe” has received an 18+ rating in the US. It should be! I don’t want children to see the films that I’ve made.’

Why do you think 'The Exorcist' is such a powerful experience, even for non-religious people?

‘It offers an explanation of why bad things happen to good people. The target of the demon is not the little girl but the priest who’s losing his faith. The demon is trying to make the priest believe that that there is no God, that we’re all just filthy, execrable beings that aren’t worth a damn. At the end of the film, he is restored to his faith. So to me, it’s a powerful and a positive ending. I personally believe that within each of us there are these forces of good and evil constantly battling for our souls. That’s the subject of all the films I’ve made, but it’s more prominent in ‘The Exorcist’. We all go through it. You, me, and everyone we know and love. We all have a dark side and we all have a better side. ‘The Exorcist’ is a metaphor for that.’

Do you believe that the film was, in part, responsible for the resurgence of Christianity in the US?

‘I know it was. I can give you specific incidents. I remember meeting James Cagney when we were both on a TV show. He said to me, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you, young man! For 35 years I had the same barber. He’s the greatest barber I’ve ever had. He saw your movie and he stopped being a barber, he entered the priesthood!”.’

So even as an agnostic, you’re okay with the idea of promoting religion?

‘Even those of us who call ourselves atheists, or think that the whole thing is rubbish, are curious about the mystery of faith. Is there anything to this stuff? “The Exorcist” offers one possible position. While I’m not Catholic, I’m overwhelmed by the idea that a 32-year-old man in a very small part of the world, who never left one word written in his own hand, has affected the lives of trillions of people. I look at the Catholic Church and I see these guys in these far-out costumes with all this gold, and I wonder what it has to do with this young man who went among the people, wore a simple robe and sandals, and healed the sick. But I also wonder how millions of people were willing to give their lives for their belief. And because I wonder, I’m curious about something like “The Exorcist”, which attributes that power to a true belief.’