'Exorcist’ Director William Friedkin Told Us Why the Film Is Such a Classic

We also talked about realism, lapsed Catholicism, and why he doesn't like "The Shining."

Adrian Van Young

Adrian Van Young

Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

It may sound strange to hear, but the director of The Exorcist, William Friedkin, never set out to make a horror movie. But when the film about a young girl's demonic possession came out in 1973 people fainted, wept, and fled the theater. Armed guards had to be posted at screenings. As Paul Mooney said after viewing the film with his friend Richard Pryor: "If you say The Exorcist didn't scare you, you're full of shit."

William Peter Blatty's novel, on which Friedkin's film was based, provoked a similar reaction when it was released in 1971. People were so unmoored by it that they banished it to linen closets, trashcans, and freezers. That Blatty's novel took its inspiration from the real-life exorcism by priests of a young boy in Maryland in 1949 speaks to Friedkin's original intention as a director. Which was to make not a horror movie, but a "realistic" "film about the mystery of faith."

Today, on Friday, October 30 at 6 PM, 42 years after The Exorcist was released, the so-called "Exorcist steps" at 36th and M Streets in Georgetown, Washington DC, down which a newly possessed Father Karras hurls himself in order to save Reagan's life at the end of the film, will be dedicated with a plaque that bears Friedkin and Blatty's names. Recently, I spoke over the phone with Friedkin about revisiting The Exorcist, 70s horror, and why the steps dedication means more than any of his Academy Awards.

VICE: It came as no surprise to me upon rewatching The Exorcist last night how well it still stands up. Not only how scary and transgressive it is and continues to be, but also how stately and deliberately paced it is. It achieves this wonderful combination between mounting dread and absolute restraint.
William Friedkin: Which is why I'm stunned when it appears at the top of virtually all horror-film polls. Because we didn't conceive of it as a horror film.

I felt that the story was great—I mean, really confounding, because it was so real. It introduces the supernatural as a part of real life. And so I wanted to respect that. Today, I will admit that it's a horror film. [Back then] I knew it would be disturbing to people, though I had no idea how disturbing. People were freaked out—for years!—and to some extent, still are. I appeared last night at a screening at the Soho House here in Los Angeles. Full-house audience. Mostly young people in their 20s and 30s. And they were as struck by it as when it had first come out. I don't think that the film has dated because of the way it was cast, paced, and presented.

The pacing is deliberate, and I wanted it to happen slowly because the story, as it affected the real people who inspired it, took place in just that way. I felt we had to go through all of that. You had to see the symptoms. You had to see the treatment that was given out by internal medicine and by psychiatry, and to see that it all had been tried and failed.

"There are only three reasons people go to the movies: to laugh, to cry, or to be scared."

Well, one of the reasons I think it's so effective as a horror film is the pathos you feel for the characters. I think that mainly comes across in the performances. And this time around, I was really struck by the performance of Jason Miller (Father Karras). How did you coax such an elemental and intense performance out of him?
I didn't have him in mind at all. He wasn't really making a living as an actor; he was a milkman in Flushing, New York. But he had written this play called The Championship Season, which won the Pulitzer Prize. It was a terrific play, and I saw it when I was in New York casting the little girl, and it seemed to reek of lapsed Catholicism. And it turned out that he had studied for the priesthood at Catholic University in Washington for three years, then had a crisis of faith and dropped out—very much like the character, Father Karras.

So it wasn't an instance of my having to hammer this into him. He understood it, he got it. He had lived it.

There were big stars that wanted to play that part. Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman. Many others. And I had an instinct to not hire a star. I did not want to put someone like that in a priest collar.

It's interesting—you're watching the movie, and the acting is great, and the direction is great, but if you were to take away the good actors, by virtue of the direction alone, it would still be a scary film. I noticed that a large part of the film's beauty and its grotesquerie derives from this sort of piecemeal imagery that we get...
You're talking about the subliminal cuts [of the demon Pazuzu's face]. They're not in the script, they're not in the novel, but I've always believed that while [we as people] are in a conversation with someone, or having a meal, or watching a movie, or even driving—images pop quickly into our mind's eye like fireworks. Almost like a waking dream. I became very interested in the idea of subliminal perception.

The first scene when you see Linda [Blair] being examined in the doctor's office there's this two-three frame cut of the demon, and that's the initial makeup test, which I rejected. It wasn't organic, it was just horror makeup. [On the other hand], there's the scene where she cuts herself with the crucifix in the vagina. It occurred to me that she probably did that to her face, too. And so Dick Smith, the makeup artist, and I decided to have the makeup grow out of self-inflicted wounds to the face that become gangrenous so that there was an organic reason for the change in her facial features, which might certainly be demonic possession, or self-immolation.

I love that that was in the DNA of the film, right down to the makeup design. The other thing I was wondering about, though, were some more extended shots toward the beginning—like the ironsmith with the blighted eye in Iraq, the ghostly nun, the homeless man on the subway. I was looking at how those shots were working with sound effects and sound-editing in the film. I think that's where the fear comes in, for me. It's that accord between very, very economical visual imagery and sound-editing that really does it.
I treated the soundtrack completely separately. I created sound environments with my collaborators. What I had in mind, of course, was to recreate dramatic radio, which I loved as a kid. All these wonderful suspense radio programs. Inner Sanctum, Suspense, Orson Welles's Mercury Theater. But I always tried to work with soundtracks in just that way—where the soundtrack has its own life and its own importance.

Was "Tubular Bells" [The Exorcist theme] originally composed for the film?
I had commissioned Lalo Schifrin to write a score, and I didn't like the score. I felt the need for something that was akin to Brahams's "Lullaby"—a kind of childhood feel. I went to see the head of Warner at the time, and he didn't know what the hell I was talking about, but he said go into that room over there, the music library. There were a couple tables stacked with demos. I went through that stack until I came to this thing called "Tubular Bells" by a guy named Mike Oldfield. And [Warner] had no interest in it—was not going to release it. It's a narration record. Because right after I play "Tubular Bells," Mike Oldfield starts narrating and talking about tubular bells, what they are, and how they sound. But I listened to that refrain, and it hooked me, and we won the rights to it. I think it sold 10 or 20 million records. And it was an accident.

"[Blatty] really changed the horror film—his novel, our movie. It was not a serial killer, a robot, a monster, a vampire, a zombie—it was something completely different, set in a realist world."

You know, it strikes me that many of the great horrors films of the 70s or early 80s have some kind of iconic classical score. Like, The Exorcist, The Omen, The Sentinel, Carrie, Halloween, Suspiria, Jaws, and at the end of course you have Alien and The Shining. Why do you think the 70s was such a golden age for that kind of film being made?
There was a lot more freedom of the screen then. It was not formulaic. In those days, the studios were open. You could make a film like The Exorcist and get away with it. But the form of course was inspired and influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley. Those were the people who invented horror films, because the first really significant horror films were things like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

You know, the guy's name who should be up there with those three is William Peter Blatty, for The Exorcist [the novel]. He really changed the horror film—his novel, our movie. It was not a serial killer, a robot, a monster, a vampire, a zombie—it was something completely different, set in a realist world. Of course, everything I've mentioned to you—the gothic horror stories that are the origin of all this—they're set in a totally fictional world. Nobody is pretending that Dracula or Frankenstein's monster are real.

Right, they take place in these kind of hyper-realities. There's something entirely otherworldly about them.
They're great! And they still hold up. But Blatty changed horror films.

"I'm not a fan of The Shining at all. That's kind of masturbatory stuff, I felt."

You've dabbled in many different genres over the years, most notably crime, yet every decade or so you seem to return to horror, or at least films with a strong macabre sensibility. Cruising, Jade, Rampage, Bug. What keeps you coming back to horror and the macabre?
I don't consciously return to any genre. I'm certainly drawn more to drama than to comedy. And I think there are only three reasons people go to the movies: to laugh, to cry, or to be scared. I think I come back to not horror films so much as high-intensity films about characters that have their backs against a wall and no place to go.

But you know, the horror film genre is a small brotherhood of real classics. The Shining—I'm not a fan of The Shining at all. That's kind of masturbatory stuff, I felt. I don't find it scary, and I also found it—a bit obscure. I don't know what the fuck it was about!

The films that have terrified me are Alien, Psycho, a Japanese film called Onibaba (1964)—one of the most terrifying films I've ever seen. And I loved this recent film The Babadook. It took me by surprise, and I believed it. I mean, it was largely about the difficulty of being a single mother with a troubled child. In other words, a realistic situation, with real characters, that I found to be profoundly moving.

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With The Exorcist, as you say, you set out to make a high-intensity film, though not necessarily one of such majestically disturbing proportions. So what do you think was lost in translation there between you and the audience?
Nothing. People interpreted the film as they chose. Most people think of it as a horror film, so I've long since accepted that it must be. And I've learned over the years that the most terrifying scene is the arteriogram.

Yes! I absolutely agree with you. That is the most terrifying scene.
Medical science impinging upon the innocence of this little girl. Which is more disturbing than the demon.

My last question has to do with the dedication of the steps. How do you feel about it?
Let me tell you exactly how I feel about it. I have an Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director [ The French Connection ], and a number of nominations. There are probably hundreds of people who have won an Academy Award, but I don't think there are any who have a dedication like that on one of their locations. They're calling those steps now—in a historic district—in a historic city—the Exorcist Steps. My name is on the plaque. As is Blatty's. To me that's an absolutely great honor because the Academy may come and go. Its importance has been diminished over the years anyway. But that plaque on those steps is going to be there for a very long time.

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