William Friedkin: “A close-up of Steve McQueen was worth much more than any landscape in the world”

About five years ago, film director William Friedkin was the guest of honor at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF), presenting his latest film, “Killer Joe” (2011), to the press and the audience. A true raconteur, the press conference in the morning of his one-day visit to Brussels was scheduled to take up to an hour, which was fine with me since the battery autonomy of the digital audio recorder I used back then would keep me on the safe side within the time frame of approximately one hour.

But Mr. Friedkin obviously had other plans. For a most curious but limited group of film reporters, he took the time to share his views in depth, and in the end, the press conference lasted over three hours. Filled with personal anecdotes as well as historical comments and thoughts from the then 76-year-old and dynamic Academy Award-winning filmmaker, I intensively and painstakingly took notes for most of the press conference, after the battery of my recording device had died (a device that was replaced that same week by a far more advanced recorder).

Poster of Robert Mulligan’s “Baby the Rain Must Fall” (1965) starring Steve McQueen

Just by accident, I went through the notes of Mr. Friedkin’s press conference the other day and discovered many incredibly interesting topics he talked about back then. One of them focuses on the casting of his action thriller “Sorcerer” (released in 1977), which he shot mostly on location in places like France and Latin America, and which, in more ways than one, “seemed cursed,” as he said.

With great admiration, he talked about Steve McQueen (1930-1980), ‘a genius film actor and a great joy to work with,’ whom he had in mind to play the lead character. At first, McQueen agreed to do so, and Mr. Friedkin then got in touch with Marcello Mastroianni and Lino Ventura to play supporting roles. With the script nearly finished, he sent it to Steve McQueen once more, who called Mr. Friedkin a few days later, telling him ‘it was the best script I’ve ever read.’ But when Mr. Friedkin started talking about the incredible locations he had found in South America, more specifically in Ecuador, Steve McQueen became more reserved. He preferred to shoot in California. With actress Ali MacGraw as the new partner in his life, he was not planning to leave her for a long shoot abroad, and ‘since she has her own career, I can’t take her with me to Ecuador just to hang out there.’

Mr. Friedkin didn’t particularly like the idea to write in a part for her, as Lew Wasserman had suggested, and Steve McQueen’s idea to make her an associate producer, ‘so she had a good reason to be with me on the set,’ was also ignored by Mr. Friedkin. Consequently, Mr. Friedkin refused to cast Steve McQueen in “Sorcerer,” which the director described as ‘one of the most foolish decisions I ever made because a close-up of Steve McQueen was worth much more than any landscape in the world. I could easily have found deserted mountain areas close to the Mexican border, or made Ali MacGraw an associate producer, or written a role for her. How arrogant I was then,’ Mr. Friedkin recalled.

To make matters worse, the deal with Marcello Mastroianni fell through; he shared custody with French actress Catherine Deneuve over their young daughter Chiara (b. 1972), and Ms. Deneuve didn’t want Chiara away on a foreign location for such a long time.

friedkin-william-the-friedkin-connection‘With Steve McQueen out of the picture, I turned to another favorite of mine, Robert Mitchum,’ Mr. Friedkin said. No longer the ambitious actor he was earlier in his career, Mitchum now only worked for the money. Although he also liked the script, he had his doubts and said, ‘Why would I go on location to Ecuador for such a long time to fall out of a truck when I can do that outside my house?’

Eventually, Roy Scheider, one of the decade’s leading and most productive actors, got the part, and the rest of “Sorcerer” is history. When Mr. Friedkin published his autobiography, “The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir” (2013), the notes I had taken turned out to be nothing more than a footnote since he explains the entire shooting process of “Sorcerer” and all its problems in detail. Actually, he describes his entire film career vividly, honestly, and with a great sense of humor—a perfect reflection of William Friedkin as I saw him bringing a large portion of his own film history to life during his stirring three-hour press conference. But what an outspoken and colorful character he was. He was really something else—made of a different material altogether.

Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, Brussels (Belgium)
April 11, 2012


GOOD TIMES (1967) DIR William Friedkin PROD Lindsley Parsons SCR Tony Barrett (story by Nicholas Hyams) CAM Robert Wykoff ED Melvin Shapiro MUS Sonny Bono CAST Sonny and Cher, George Sanders, Norman Alden, Larry Duncan, Kelly Thordsen, Lennie Weinrib

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (1968) DIR William Friedkin PROD Max Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky SCR Harold Pinter (also play ‘The Birthday Party’ [1967]) CAM Denys Coop ED Antony Gibbs CAST Robert Shaw, Patrick Magee, Dandy Nichols, Sydney Tafler, Moultrie Kelsall, Helen Fraser

THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S (1969) DIR William Friedkin PROD Norman Lear SCR Norman Lear, Arnold Schulman, Sidney Michaels (novel ‘The Night They Raided Minsky’s’ [1960] by Rowland Barber) CAM Andrew Laszlo ED Ralph Rosenblum MUS Charles Strouse CAST Jason Robards, Britt Ekland, Norman Wisdom, Forrest Tucker, Harry Andrews, Joseph Wiseman, Denholm Elliott, Elliott Gould, Jack Burns, Bert Lahr, Maud Adams

THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970) DIR William Friedkin PROD Mart Crowley SCR Mart Crowley (also play) CAM Arthur J. Ornitz ED Gerald B. Greenberg, Carl Lerner CAST Kenneth Wilson, Frederick Combs, Cliff Gorman, Laurence Luckinbill, Keith Prentice, Peter White

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) DIR William Friedkin PROD Philip D’Antoni SCR Ernest Tidyman (book ‘The French Connection’ [1969] by Robin Moore) CAM Owen Roizman ED Jerry Greenberg MUS Don Ellis CAST Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi, Frédéric de Pasquale, Bill Hickman, Ann Rebbott, Harold Gary

THE EXORCIST (1973) DIR William Friedkin PROD William Peter Blatty SCR William Peter Blatty (also novel ‘The Exorcist’ [1971]) CAM Owen Roizman ED Norman Gay, Evan Lottman MUS Steve Boeddeker CAST Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, William O’Malley, Peter Masterson, William Peter Blatty, Mercedes McCambridge (voice only)

SORCERER (1977) DIR – PROD William Friedkin SCR Walon Green (novel ‘Le Salaire de la peur’, a.k.a. ‘The Wages of Fear’ [1950], by Georges Arnaud; screenplay of LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR [1953] by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérome Geronimo) CAM Dick Bush, John M. Stephens ED Bud Smith MUS Tangerine Dream CAST Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou, Ramon Bieri, Peter Capell

THE BRINK’S JOB (1978) DIR William Friedkin PROD Ralph Serpe SCR Walon Green (book ‘Big Stick Up at Brink’s’ [1977] by Noel Behn) CAM Norman Leigh ED Bud Smith, Robert K. Lambert MUS Richard Rodney Bennett CAST Peter Falk, Peter Boyle, Allen Garfield, Warren Oates, Gena Rowlands, Paul Sorvino, Sheldon Leonard, Gerard Murphy

CRUISING (1980) DIR William Friedkin PROD Jerry Weintraub SCR William Friedkin (novel ‘Cruising’ [1970] by Gerald Walker) CAM James Contner ED Bud Smith MUS Jack Nitsche CAST Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox, Don Scardino, Joe Spinnell, Jay Acovone, Edward O’Neill, Powers Boothe

DEAL OF THE CENTURY (1983) DIR William Friedkin PROD Bud Yorkin SCR Paul Brickman (book ‘Deal of the Century’ by Bernard Edelman) CAM Richard H. Kline ED Bud Smith, Jere Higgins, Ned Humphreys MUS Arthur B. Rubinstein CAST Chevy Chase, Sigourney Weaver, Gregory Hines, Vince Edwards, William Marquez, Eduardo Ricard, Wallace Shawn, Ray Manzarek

TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985) DIR William Friedkin PROD Irving H. Levin SCR William Friedkin, Gerald Petievich (novel ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ [1984] by Gerald Petievich) CAM Robby Muller ED Scott Smith MUS Wang Chung CAST William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow, Debra Feuer, John Torturro, Darlanne Fleugel, Dean Stockwell, Robert Downey, Sr.

RAMPAGE (1987) DIR William Friedkin PROD William Friedkin, David Salven SCR William Friedkin (novel ‘Rampage’ [1987] by William P. Wood) CAM Robert D. Yeoman ED Jere Huggins MUS Ennio Morricone CAST Michael Biehn, Alex MacArthur, Nicholas Campbell, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, John Harkins, Art LaFleur, Billy Green Bush

THE GUARDIAN (1990) DIR William Friedkin PROD Joe Wizan SCR William Friedkin, Dan Greenburg, Stephen Volk (novel ‘The Nanny’ [1987] by Dan Greenbrug) CAM John A. Alonzo ED Seth Flaum MUS Jack Hues CAST Jenny Seagrove, Dwier Brown, Carey Lowell, Brad Hall, Miguel Ferrer, Natalia Nogulich, Pamela Brull

BLUE CHIPS (1994) DIR William Friedkin PROD Michele Rappaport SCR Ron Shelton CAM Tom Priestley, Jr. ED David Rosenbloom, Robert K. Lambert MUS Jeff Beck, Nile Rogers, Jed Leiber CAST Nick Nolte, Mary McDonnell, J.T. Walsh, Ed O’Neill, Alfre Woodward, Bob Cousy, Shaquille O’Neal

JADE (1995) DIR William Friedkin PROD Robert Evans, Gary Adelson, Craig Baumgarten SCR Joe Eszterhas CAM Andrzej Bartowiak ED Augie Hess MUS James Horner CAST David Caruso, Linda Fiorentino, Chazz Palminteri, Richard Crenna, Michael Biehn, Donna Murphy, Ben King

THE HUNTED (2003) DIR William Friedkin PROD James Jacks, Ricardo Mestres SCR David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths, Art Monterastelli CAM Caleb Deschanel ED Augie Hess MUS Brian Tyler CAST Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Connie Nielsen, Leslie Stefanson, John Finn, José Zúñiga, Ron Canada

BUG (2007) DIR William Friedkin PROD Kimberly C. Anderson, Gary Huckabay, Holly Wiersma, Andreas Schardt, Michael Burns, Malcolm Petral SCR Tracy Letts (also play ‘Bug’ [1996]) CAM Michael Grady ED Darrin Navarro MUS Brian Tyler CAST Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick, Jr., Lynn Collins, Brian F. O’Byrne, Neil Bergeron, Bob Neill

KILLER JOE (2011) DIR William Friedkin PROD Scott Einbinder, Nicolas Chartier SCR Tracy Letts (also play ‘Killer Joe’ [1993]) CAM Caleb Deschanel ED Darrin Navarro MUS Tyler Bates CAST Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Marc Macauley, Graylen Banks