still a stunner
NEW YORK The Exorcist will haunt people’s dreams forever.
“That’s not something that you can even predict,” the 75 year old Friedkin says today, sitting down with Sun Media for a free wheeling, 90 minute conversation that careens from his filmmaking to his personal spiritual journey. That includes tearful time spent recently with the Shroud of Turin in a private viewing with his wife Sherry Lansing, the retired movie mogul who once ran Paramount Pictures. Friedkin, a Jew by birth, considers himself an agnostic but is profoundly moved by spiritual and religious matters, including the demonic possession dealt with in The Exorcist.
“When we made it,
cards against humanity white cards?,” Friedkin continues, “neither the studio, nor those of us who made the film, had any idea that it would have any impact at all. In fact,
cards against humanity in stores, we thought it would be rejected or even laughed at.”
Warner Bros. executives were so apprehensive including of possible criminal charges if people challenged the surprise R rating the film earned that they opened it in only 26 theatres across North America. and Canada. If that figure was adjusted for inflation to 2010 dollars, The Exorcist would have generated $879 million in ticket revenues and rank ninth all time in North America, according to Box Office Mojo’s calculations. Adjusted for inflation, Gone With the Wind would be No. 1, with Avatar only 14th on the all time list.
No matter how you calculate it, The Exorcist was a box office sensation, has sold millions on DVD, and is now poised to be a blockbuster on Blu ray with its debut this week in a two disc book edition, The Exorcist: Extended Director’s Cut. Friedkin, always an intense man and notoriously difficult to work with during the peak of his career with films from The French Connection to The Exorcist, Sorcerer and Cruising, is mellower today. Even affable and charming. But he is still intense about his ideas on The Exorcist.
“I always believed in the story,” he says defiantly, trying to put the lie to people who think his only motivation was to shock and/or gross out audiences for profit. “I always believed the power of the story would have some impact because it’s about the mystery of faith. At its most bottom level, it is one reason offered why bad things happen to good people. There is a force of evil in the world. However you may define it in religious terms, in political terms or in social terms, from the beginning of time there has been inhumanity all around us. And The Exorcist offers us one little thing to cling onto: That the power of good is ultimately more powerful than the power of evil.”
Friedkin is convinced that is why the film remains current. “It’s not the special effects. They can do those much better today. In the cheapest shlock out film, they can do better effects. We had to do everything mechanically. Look, if I had access to those tools (digital effects), I’d have used them and the picture would have been a lot easier to make. Would it have been more effective? Well, that’s an open question because it’s all about the story anyway, to me.”
Yet the old fashioned mechanical effects are still part of the film’s appeal. A new documentary on the Extended Director’s Cut DVD and Blu ray, Raising Hell: Filming the Exorcist, shows how they were done. Now that cinematographer Owen Roizman’s silent behind the scenes footage has been revealed for the first time, audiences can see specifics: The mechanical doll whose head spun 360 degrees; the bed shaking; the furniture moving; how objects hurtled through the room; how a limber stand in (contortionist Linda Hager) did the infamous crab walk downstairs; how Linda Blair levitated on wires painted with dotted lines to make them more invisible; how stand in Eileen Dietz and then Linda Blair coped with the green vomit tubes, with its mix of pea soup and oatmeal; how the bedroom oatmeal; how the bedroom set was refrigerated to 30 C to let the camera record the actors’ real breath.
The head spin still amuses and creeps out Blair, who is seen in a make up chair right next to the identical twin doll’s head. “We all know it’s not real,” Blair says now,
cards againat humanity, adding that people still wonder how she did it herself. “That just proves that a lot of people wanted to buy into amazing filmmaking.”
In its day, The Exorcist was advertised with a subtle campaign using the now famous shot of Swedish star Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin. enclave where the exorcism takes place in the movie. The shot was hand picked by Friedkin and was inspired by Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte’s The Empire of Light series.
Friedkin, still embarrassed, remembers manhandling a Warner Bros. marketing man for an earlier bad taste poster that invoked the name of God and showed a bloody crucifix. “The film is going to be controversial and disturbing,” he remembers saying once he calmed down. “We have to underplay it.” That poster of von Sydow is now as iconic as the green vomit or the chilling music or Mercedes McCambridge’s growly voice work as Satan.
Just don’t call The Exorcist a horror movie, even though Warner’s own Blu ray souvenir book does just that. “I never wanted to suggest and I still don’t that this is a horror film,” Friedkin says. “I understand that it is perceived as a horror film. I get it. But Bill Blatty and I never spoke of a horror film. We never spoke of scaring the audience.”
Yet audiences remain scared. The Exorcist is as potent now as it was in 1973.
McCambridge faced demons in voice work
Husky voiced Mercedes McCambridge was in her late 50s when director William Friedkin found her to do Linda Blair’s demon voice for The Exorcist.
McCambridge, who died in 2004 at 87, was then an alcoholic in remission. She had given up smoking. She was a lapsed Catholic but deeply religious. She was scared of the evil that might be unlocked by the film. But she finally said yes.
“She was a gift from God to me, because I didn’t know how to do this voice when I started,” Friedkin says today. An experiment with Chicago voice expert Ken Nordine had failed. That is when Friedkin thought of McCambridge. He wanted something androgynous and menacing.
“She said, ‘If I were to do this, I would need two priest friends of mine in the studio at all times with me. And I will have to drink again, because that’s what changes the effect of my voice and make it even croakier. As well, I will have to swallow raw eggs and smoke cigarettes. I will have to think about whether I want to do there.’ And she decided to do it.”
Friedkin says, for some sessions, McCambridge demanded she be tightly tied to a chair, “so that, in the suffering parts, she was really in pain.”
She fell sobbing into the arms of the two priests after every session, Friedkin says. “They got her through it and what she did was fantastic.”
Blair loved ‘Exorcist’ experience
Linda Blair is and has never been traumatized by the experience of making The Exorcist in 1973. But it did change her life, she says now.
Blair intended to become a veterinarian, not an actress, when William Friedkin cast her as Regan, the girl who becomes possessed by the Devil.
“I loved her as a daughter and I became like a surrogate father to her,” Friedkin remembers. “In the time that she was with me, I treated her like my own child. And I tried to make everything a game, you know. And I never discussed with her the levels of this thing.”
So Blair remained unspoiled. But she did pursue an acting career. And now her life has come full circle to her childhood love of animals,
cards against humanity game online, the 51 year old vegan activist says.
“When I was in my 20s, my dog was stolen and I tried everything to get her back and that didn’t happen,” Blair explains. So now she makes it happen for other creatures in distress, both human and pet. “I try to keep the world honest and I think we could be doing a whole lot better.”
Still raw, still primal, still profoundly disturbing, The Exorcist stands the vigorous test of time. It is a controversial American classic. Even now, nearly 37 years after it started freaking audiences out on Boxing Day 1973, William Friedkin’s supernatural film is still news.
And the news is good. The Exorcist has been meticulously remastered (again) from the original 1973 negative. Plus the extended version of 2000, with its 12 minutes of extra footage, has also been updated. “This is the best print that has ever been made of this picture,” Friedkin boasts in an exclusive 90 minute interview.
Friedkin is referring to the image and sound quality of both versions. He personally worked on them but still deflects credit to technicians, executives and cinephiles at Warner Home Video. “They have saved world cinema,” Friedkin enthuses about Jeff Baker’s team. “These prints would have died. Every 35 mm print was born with a death certificate.”