Alexandre O. Philippe's latest documentary, 'Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist', centres around an intimate interview with writer/director William Friedkin as he discusses his famous film adaptation of William Peter Blatty's novel. Unpacking and analysing what made 'The Exorcist' work and how it has managed to survive over forty years of film history is bound to be interesting to some degree, and a long-form interview with its creator is its own reward. But the pairing of Friedkin and Philippe sees the director go much deeper: he details his childhood, his process of working in the film industry (from sound to camera choices to script styles and everything in between), his vast knowledge of the history of cinema, sound design, art, friendship, faith and fate.
The film is filled with contentment and regret, with both pulling at Friedkin's conscience. Understanding that times have changed since he made his film, Friedkin often offers up a change of heart when contemplating the choices that he made not just as a director, but as a person also. After all, this is the same guy who freely admits to shooting rifles on set to scare the actors, punching a Jesuit priest in the face to get a tearful reaction, and asking Mercedes McCambridge to deliver lines like, "Your mother sucks cocks in hell!" It makes for an enthralling time, one that thankfully doesn't diminish the craft of this artist, but gives great perception to his creativity.
"I like the rough edges," Friedkin says, emphasising his need for spontaneous filming, rather than articulate perfection. He admits many of the artistic choices that are mused on decades after its release were complete accidents, happenstance moments that bring about article after article of discussion. There is no rhyme or reason to some of the greatest mysteries of the film; some are born out of sheer frustration or the open-ended nature of the book Friedkin adapted. According to the director, the opening shot of the black and white sun turning to colour had no deeper meaning aside from looking cool. And he still has no idea how to offer logic behind the ending to 'The Exorcist' when the demon possesses the hero, Father Damian Karras. In fact, he considers it to be a flaw that resulted from a compromise he was forced to reach with Blatty. "It asks for a total leap of faith on the part of the audience!"
He recounts being blown away by Orson Welles' 'Citizen Kane' as a child, and later heavily inspired by Carl Theodor Dreyer's 'Ordet'. "Not the Taj Mahal has the power of a close-up of Steve McQueen," he states on the cinematic technique. Friedkin is fascinating to listen to - intelligent, articulate, and passionate. All of it is uncovered in such enthusiastic detail, and this eagerness oozes off of the screen and into the audience.
The combative side of his personality is also on full display. "I felt it was a travesty of his novel... and I told him that," he says of his reaction to reading Blatty's self-penned screenplay, before revealing how the author had offered him his entire percentage in the film just to play the role of Father Damien Karras himself. "The scene needed brass, not strings. I'll fly Ingrid Bergman in to direct this scene," he recalls telling Father Merrin's actor, Max von Sydow, who was struggling to generate the requisite energy at a key point during filming.
On the subject of sound, he refers to his film as "an experimental sound museum." Friedkin mentions how Jack Nitzsche rubbed his fingers over a wine glass to create the sound in the opening titles, the way he was influenced by music that builds in layers, like the works of composer Igor Stravinsky, and his falling out with his friend Lalo Schifrin (which continues to this day) over his rejected score for 'The Exorcist'. Bernard Hermann, too.
He also cites his favourite artists and how they influenced his work. These include Caravaggio's religious figures against stark black backgrounds, James Ensor's paintings of faces which inspired Regan MacNeil's demonic makeup, and the iconic image of Max von Sydow standing in front of the MacNeil family's house, which was based on René Magritte's series of paintings, 'The Empire of Light'.
Friedkin is fascinating to listen to - intelligent, articulate, and passionate. All of it is uncovered in such enthusiastic detail, and this eagerness oozes off of the screen and into the audience.
Towards the end of the film, we see the bluff Friedkin tear up as he remembers a beautiful moment that he experienced decades ago in Kyoto, Japan. But the most touching moment occurs when he is speaking about Blatty. "Bill has... he had a tremendous love and sense of loss about his mother," he stumbles when talking about his friend and collaborator, who passed away in 2017.
The previous Philippe movie documentaries '78/52' and 'Memory: The Origin of Alien' give you some idea of how deep he'll go here. 'Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist' is beautifully stylised with smooth transitions from the interview, which is entirely focused on Friedkin in a palatial living room with a flickering fireplace, to the stunningly edited visuals. Philippe lets the audience see every piece of cinema as it is referenced in conversation. When the director talks about, say, casting Mercedes McCambridge as the dubbed voice of the demon, we get to see a large chunk of her filmography play out on screen, titled and dated. It's all meshed together with a pleasant soundtrack, which happens so organically you don't even think about the visual changes while they are happening before your eyes.
For those with a love for 'The Exorcist', but haven't read up on much of the behind-the-scenes details, this documentary will provide great stories and fascinating moments from the man who put it all together. But 'Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist' isn't just an analysis of Friedkin's finest work, or an uncovering of his influences and processes. It's a fascinating, no smoke and mirrors insight, an honest portrait that allows a legendary director to not only explain his magnum opus, but who he is as an artist and as a man.
'Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist' is available for streaming on Shudder ANZ.