Producer: Kerry Deignon Roy Director: Alexandre Q. Philippe Cast: William Friedkin Distributor: Shudder
Many consider “The Exorcist” the scariest movie ever made, and if it isn’t (and contemporary teens, jaded by the surfeit of gore and “gotcha” cuts in today’s horror pictures, would certainly disagree), William Friedkin’s 1973 box-office blockbuster was certainly terrifying to audiences when it was released—and remains so for those who saw it then. (Stanley Kauffmann famously said “it will scare the hell out of you.”) In Alexandre Q. Philippe’s documentary its now-octogenarian director talks at length about the making of the film, which won him an Oscar nomination (his second—he’d won two years earlier for “The French Connection”).
What “Leap of Faith” resembles more than anything else is one of those audio commentaries by directors found on DVDs and Blu-rays of their films. But it’s a great audio commentary, accompanied by visuals that are carefully chosen. Many are the scenes from “The Exorcist” that Friedkin is discussing at the moment, of course.
But there is much more. When Friedkin refers to other films of his, scenes from them are inserted to show particular points too—mostly related to cinematographic elements that he’s emphasizing. The same is true of excerpts from films by others that he draws on for comparisons. We get bits from masterpieces like “2001” and “Citizen Kane,” and from Dreyer’s “Ordet,” which he cites as a particular influence. There are also pertinent still photos and discussions of paintings he cites as providing visual motifs—along with excerpts from particular pieces of music he considers important to his conception—and footage of places, like a meditative garden in Kyoto, that have touched him and helped shape his world-view.
But for much of the running-time Robert Muratore’s camera simply lingers on Friedkin as he recounts anecdotes about the making of the film, though by shifting perspectives the cinematographer gives the images fluidity, while editor David Lawrence adds the other elements seamlessly into the mix.
As for Philippe, to whom Friedkin is talking, he has relatively little to do. We occasionally hear muffled snatches of his questions, but for the most part Friedkin simply rambles from topic to topic, articulating his mode of direction—spontaneous and intuitive (“I’m a one-take man,” he says, though he’s not dogmatic about it, praising directors like Kubrick who do many of them)—and how he came to get the directing job and then struggled with William Peter Blatty, author of the novel, to get the script right.
He describes the casting process, particularly his last-minute decision to replace Stacy Keach, who’d already been hired, with playwright Jason Miller as Father Karras (after first rejecting Blatty’s desire to take the part). That’s an important part of his perception of the film as one of faith and fate. Things often seemed to fall into place by serendipity, he says, but he adds that he couldn’t have made it without believing: the only problem he had with Max von Sydow during the shoot, he recalls, was when the actor admitted a difficulty with performing a particular scene with sufficient intensity because he didn’t believe in God.
Friedkin discusses the technical aspects of the film at length, noting his collaboration with cinematographer Owen Roizman and the care with which he selected the music tracks. (One of his most memorable recollections concerns his approach to the legendary but irascible Bernard Herrmann, whose ideas he summarily rejected as clichéd.) He offers a long account of the choice of Mercedes McCambridge to lay down the voice of the possessed Linda Blair and her peculiar way of achieving the desired effect. He also alludes to the use of what he calls subliminal images, though whether the term is accurate for images that are visible to the viewer is debatable.
Though the pride Friedkin takes in “The Exorcist” is evident, there’s one aspect of the picture that he admits finding unsatisfactory—the ending, in which Karras induces the demon to leave the girl and possess him, and then hurls himself out a window to his death. Ultimately, he says, he simply shot it as Blatty wanted despite his own misgivings—but still considers it problematic. Others of us might feel the same way, but as he notes, audiences don’t seem to mind, then or now.
Truth be told, there isn’t much in what Friedkin says in “Leap of Faith” that’s really new—most of his account will be old news to fans. But his recollections carry special authority, and he relates them very engagingly.