By Tim Pelan
The film became an obsession. It was to be my magnum opus, the one on which I’d stake my reputation. I felt that every film I’d ever made was preparation for this one. —William Friedkin
Jungle drums were sounding the call for William Friedkin’s blood in 1977. Critics judged Sorcerer, his loose remake of George Clouzot’s 1953 action-adventure The Wages of Fear, filmed in the wilds of the Dominican Republic, an act of hubris out of step with the changing cinema demographic. Long buried and butchered, the director has in recent years championed a Lazarus-like rebirth on Blu-ray, with select hosted screenings to newly appreciative audiences. How does it stand up after all the fuss? Happily, his faith in the film’s merits is well-founded. Sorcerer is a bleak, timeless, nihilistic examination of grubby geo-politics from the rat’s eye view, in eye-popping wide screen verdant greens and punctuating broiling flames, brilliantly highlighting the photography of John M. Stephens and Dick Bush (Bush shot the opening vignettes; Stephens took the jungle shoot). Four disparate desperadoes, on the lam in a flea-bitten petroleum company shanty town, seize on the promise of a relative fortune and a ticket out: by driving unstable nitro-glycerine 218 miles through treacherous jungle terrain to extinguish an oil blaze. Whereas Clouzot’s black and white classic doubled the south of France for an unnamed South American locale, Friedkin’s ambition was broader. He sought to make something that was “grittier than the French movie, with the documentary feel for which I had become known.” He was fiercely competitive with Francis Ford Coppola, off shooting his own Heart of Darkness spin in the Philippines, Apocalypse Now. Locational veracity was paramount to Friedkin’s existential tale of suspense. If that meant turning down preferred star Steve McQueen’s request to film in the States, afraid his marriage to Ali McGraw would suffer, so be it. With hindsight, the director thinks he made a mistake, believing a McQueen close-up is worth a hundred wide-shots of steaming jungle. Although McQueen could play ground down, he was still a star behind those baby blues. Roy Scheider, his replacement, is a far better choice—a beaten down (criminal) working stiff, with a slab of a nose and a wiry weariness.
The process of resurrection began when a group in Los Angeles called Cinefamily, who regularly run classic screenings, looked into booking Sorcerer again in 2011. The head of the group got word back from Paramount saying they no longer owned the print, and Friedkin got to finding out. He told The Dissolve:
“The film was originally made by Paramount and Universal. Universal only had a 25-year lease on the film, and their ownership position expired. So I started to look into it. I called the guys I know at Paramount who send out prints to these film societies, and the guy over there said they had no record of it. They had been sending it out regularly around the country. He now says he has no idea where it is or who owns it. So I sued them—to find out, not for money. I sued them to achieve what is called ‘discovery,’ which meant they had to produce all the documents they had in their files about Sorcerer. They tried to fight that; they didn’t want to go looking in the basement vaults, because both Paramount and Universal had been sold three times since I made Sorcerer, and documents get buried after so many years. They tried to fight discovery, and the judge who got the case said, ‘No, you produce the documents. Mr. Friedkin’s a profit participant, and he’s entitled to know who owns the picture.’ In producing the documents, it turned out that Universal’s position had expired, and Paramount controlled the theatrical.
And then Paramount started to cooperate. The suit never went forward. They produced the documents, I had what I needed. Then Warner Bros. came in and said they wanted to take the whole picture over, they wanted to re-release it in theatres and on home video. They made a deal with Paramount, and Warner Bros. financed the home video, the Blu-ray. Paramount decided, because of all the interest created by the restoration and by the potential of other theatres and film societies and universities wanting to run it, that they would put it back out in theatres, and Warner Bros. got the Blu-ray and streaming rights, and they’ll figure out, between them, what to do about the TV rights, because there’s a lot of interest from cable television and all that (The UK’s Film 4 has screened the film several times in the last few years). So that’s how I got it back. I just hung in there with them, and then Paramount changed its position, and now they’re 100 percent behind it.”
As opposed to Clouzot’s opening in the shanty town of Las Piedras where the oil company is based, Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green (The Wild Bunch) chose to open on the four men’s sketchy backstories, spanning the globe. In New Jersey, wheelman Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) limps away from a fatal car crash after a church robbery in which the priest brother of a mob connected criminal is shot (this was based on a real anecdote relayed to Friedkin by “Gerry M,” friend of an Irish Mobster in Queens). In Paris, wealthy banker Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is up to his neck in fraud, about to bring his father-in-law’s brokerage house down in disgrace; when his partner commits suicide after his father refuses to bail them out, he flees, without a word to his wife. Dapper but seedy hitman Nilo (Francisco Rubal) flees an assassination in Mexico. In Jerusalem, Kassem (Amidou), a Palestinian terrorist, escapes an Israeli raid after he and his comrades set off a bomb. In a bold move, these vignettes are all silent or subtitled until Scanlon’s tale.
These men all find themselves in Porvenir, a filthy scab on the backside of nowhere, where none of the profits from the rapacious American Petroleum company filter down to the locals. Its fascistic logo of a black bird of prey emblazoned on the oil tanks a grim echo of the nominally optimistic political slogan plastered on the walls of this unstable country—“UNIDOS HACIA EL FUTURO” (“United towards the future”). With three of them laboring under aliases—Scanlon as the unlikely “Juan Dominguez,” Manzon as “Serrano,” and Kassem as “Martinez,” they drift in a fugue state, sweating in swamps fitting oil pipelines, and nursing beers in the shanty town’s bar, scheming on a way out and avoiding the attentions of the corrupt local police. According to Scanlon’s inspected work permit, the time is on or around September 1976. Scanlon gazes at a faded cheesecake poster, the girl reaching for America’s soft drink of choice; two carbonated castaways (it occurs to me the focus on this poster is a comic nod to Jaws, and the bathing beauty poster Scheider’s Chief Brody drives by in Amity). When rebels blow the next well, the company offers big money for four men who can transport the unstable nitro by road; have a coke and a smile, and drive like hell.
Friedkin and Green kept the spine of the premise, but changed the characters, making them more desperate and cynical from the get-go, as opposed to merely down on their luck. “We had no intention of copying those characters (from Wages of Fear), but we came up with these guys who are outside the law to one degree or another… We decided to make them be very flawed men, which is, of course, how they would wind up in a purgatory like that to begin with. The most interesting part of a journey is how the traveller came to the starting point in the first place. How the hell did they get there, and where were they going?” Thankfully Sorcerer drops the embarrassing relationship from Wages of Fear between Véra Clouzot’s ingénue doormat Linda and Yves Montand’s disdainful Mario. Instead the woman who offers some cold comfort to these fellow travelers is an old crone, with a face for the ages. Like her, every secondary character or face in the crowd suggests a hard scrabbled life. Before the men begin their journey she seems to return Manzon’s pawned watch to him, a gift from his wife on the last day they were together. He in turn passes a letter to his wife to the oil chief to post for him. It seems in his mind he is finding some sort of redemption, but there is little room for sentiment here. He later reminisces to Kassem, believing they are on the home stretch, showing him the watch and the engraving on the back (“the first ten years of forever”). A tire blows and they plunge to their doom, Scanlon and Nilo witnessing the explosions bloom from a distance. In a neat touch in The Wages of Fear, the fate of one truck is suggested poetically instead by the shockwave blowing the tobacco from a cigarette paper, life snuffed out in an instant.
The settings and cinematography have an incredible, ’70’s veracity and sweaty immediacy: an analogue actuality, nihilistic and tinged with only the faintest glimmer of hope. Sorcerer would make a brilliant double bill with Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger: two existential struggles—four men seeking to reclaim value in their lives, another questioning the bourgeois value in his. Four lost in hell, the other a fallen angel in “Paradise.” Each ending an ambiguous mirroring. The Jerusalem section of Sorcerer incorporated a real coincidental explosion around the block; scenes of bustling, baying crowds and soldiers storming the gang holed up in a block of flats evoked the neo-realism of The Battle of Algiers (and also influences the stand-out sequence in WWZ). The actual filmed explosion looks stunningly real, debris blowing past stunt people straight towards the camera. It was so powerful it blew out a window in the mayor’s office across the street. Likewise the explosion of the oil well in the jungle rivals any large scale effect put on screen, workers bodies tossed like rags as ballooning flames threaten to rip the screen apart, multiple cameras placed right in the middle of the action. The spectacular Jersey car crash wrote off twelve cars before Friedkin was satisfied, the first delay of many (see also upcoming detail on the nail-biting rope bridge sequence).
A bride’s black eyes in a New York church suggest no-one, whatever their station or journey in life, gets a moment in the sun in this squalid universe. Discussing the memoirs of an officer his wife is editing, a philosopher warrior who debates the power over life and death, ultimately following orders, Victor shrugs, “He was a soldier.” “No one is just anything,” she replies. The four reduced men must gamble with life, to give it value. In his memoir The Friedkin Connection, the director stated that this line was the theme of the film.
Friedkin ended up filming mainly in the Dominican Republic (as well as France, Israel, Mexico and America) because Paramount Chairman Charley Bluhdorn had large holdings from his Gulf and Western interests in Sugar and cattle there, “where he reigned like a medieval lord.” (Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.) He had his own private landing strip, and when Gulf and Western, Paramount’s owners, acquired South Puerto Rican Sugar, Bluhdorn got a large estate out of the deal. Bluhdorn also built an extensive guest complex for the studio’s use, named Casa de Paramount. Friedkin saw a grim irony in documenting first world oppression of a virtual slave state via the studio boot on locals’ necks, gleefully sticking two fingers up at Paramount by ripping a picture of the Gulf and Western board out of a calendar and framing it on the wall of the Oil company’s office to represent their distant, unfeeling owners. Walon Green recalled, “When Bluhdorn saw his picture, he had a shit hemorrhage.” (From Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Times of William Friedkin by Nat Segaloff.) Friedkin was at the height of his powers, off the back of The French Connection and The Exorcist, and was wrapped up in his arrogant desire to trump both himself and his contemp(t)oraries.
The shoot ended up running for around ten months, with a massive budget overspend. Scheider recalled the troubles in his biography by Diane C Kachmor; Friedkin was obsessive, driven. “I was the only guy he couldn’t fire, because I was the leading man. I said to Billy, ‘You gotta stop firing these people, ’cause I’m getting tired of going to the airport and saying goodbye to them.’” Roads to nowhere, like modern Nazca lines, punctured the interior, to transport the trucks to their slippery jungle trails. The vehicles were beat-up old army M211’s–real ballbreakers (Ballbreaker was Friedkin’s originally mooted title). Sound designers including Jean-Louis Ducarme, who Friedkin worked with on The Exorcist, employed distorted samples of tiger and cougar roars for roar of the truck’s engines. Sound design would be the only Oscar nomination the film would receive, losing out to the even more innovative Star Wars. From The Sorcerer Blog:
“Bugs and birds and dogs and coughing and mud help establish the setting (and the squalor). Rain is a constant, roaring, surrounding presence that doesn’t conveniently back off when there’s dialogue to be heard. The creaks and snaps of the bridges add to the suspense. But the real marvel here is how the trucks are presented. They don’t rumble or purr—we all know what an internal combustion engine sounds like. These moan and growl likes beasts, as alive as the doomed men who drive them, and creak and rattle like the hunks of Frankenstein’d-together junk we know they are.”
The trucks were christened Lazarus and Sorcerer, in the manner of the real local hauliers; named for girlfriends and mythical creatures. Another title for the film that had been considered was No Man’s Land, but that was the title of a play by Harold Pinter. Sorcerer as a film title and truck name derived from Friedkin listening to Miles Davis’ album of the same name, “with driving rhythms and jagged horn solos that characterized Miles’ band in the late 1960’s.” Friedkin reasoned, “Sorcerer is an evil wizard. And in this age the evil wizard is fate—it takes complete control of our lives.” If The Exorcist was about faith, Sorcerer was about fate, and how these men attempt to change theirs.
To score the film Friedkin recalled a band he’d met in Germany on a promotional tour for The Exorcist—Tangerine Dream were playing a set (“like the music of the spheres”) in the Black Forest in the dead of night, the only illumination from their synthesizers. Band leader Edgar Froese:
“The Sorcerer soundtrack was recorded on an old eight-track Ampex tape machine in Berlin. It was one of the four machines that were in Abbey Road Studios in London, which were sold after the Beatles era. We had rented an old movie theatre in Berlin and made a small studio out of it. The Moog was very useful, and by this stage we were quite versed in its use. We also used a Fender Rhodes piano, guitars, and even Revox tape machines as delay units.”
The band were disappointed that many of the tracks recorded were not used in their entirety, although what use was made of them was highly effective, such as during the second truck crossing of the precarious bridge. Kassem is attempting to guide Manzon through the driving rain when the rotten strut beneath him collapses and he plunges straight down into the river, the sound cutting out. When he crawls up and Manson yells is he OK, leaning out of the cab, a huge tangle of twisted branches swept down river pins him to the vehicle, Tangerine Dream’s electronic shriek like a capricious primordial demon. Friedkin placed loudspeakers all over the jungle locations and played Tangerine Dream’s music to set the right mood before shooting.
Scheider had been bitter that Friedkin hadn’t cast him as Fr Karras in The Exorcist. Friedkin claimed Bill Blatty didn’t want him for it; Universal would back Sorcerer if he was cast. Although actor and director repeatedly butted heads, each fiercely believed in what they were putting on screen.
“What I did in Sorcerer makes Jaws look like a picnic… The stuntmen complained because the principals were doing all the stunts, but that’s the way Billy Friedkin makes movies. The most dangerous scene I’ve ever shot was the one where we were driving across a rope suspension bridge in a horrible storm and we kept swaying back and forth, back and forth. What the audience will see on that screen is what really happened.” —The New York Times (“Roy Scheider, Sorcerer Star, Talks of Thrillers”), January 21, 1977.
And again from Scheider’s biography: “I was rehearsing to stay alive… When we got to the Dominican Republic, I appreciated all that practice back in the States. Billy’s approach to Sorcerer ruled out rear-projection or trick photography. The actors, the vehicles and the terrain were too closely integrated into the composition of each shot. So what you see in the film is exactly what happened. When I take a mountain road on two wheels, on a road with potholes the size of shell craters, that’s the way it was. No one but Billy Friedkin could have persuaded me to take the insane chances I did. But when it was over and I looked at the rough footage I knew it was worth it.”
The most incredible sequence as mentioned earlier is when the trucks traverse a fraying, rotting rope bridge across a river in a torrential downpour. Legendary production designer John Box (Lawrence of Arabia) had the bridge be controlled by a concealed system of hydraulics. The trucks were lashed to it so that as it swayed, they didn’t topple over; the frayed ropes cleverly disguised steel cables. While the fast flowing river was a perfect location, unusually dry weather had meant that by the time the bridge was built, it had completely dried up. A sensible man would have scrapped the stunt—not Friedkin. “I had become like Fitzcarraldo, the man who built an opera house in the Brazilian jungle. When I saw the finished bridge, I believed that if I could film the scene as I conceived it, it would be one of the greatest in film history.”
So, scouts were dispatched to find a close match for the location, settling around Tuxtepec in Mexico. The bridge was taken apart and rebuilt over another the Papaloapan river. Production elsewhere was on hiatus. Fate laughed at Friedkin however, as this river also began to dry up. Box and his crew diverted the flow upstream to shore up the depth, while rain machines provided the originally unplanned downpour, to disguise the changing light. In the end, the twelve-minute nail biting scene cost a whopping $3 million.
An apt inspiration for the director was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with its tale of madness brought on by the bickering of gold prospectors. When Scanlon and Nilo are later held up by rebels, one takes Scanlon’s hat, in a nod to the bandit doing the same with Humphrey Bogart’s Dobbs. Scanlon earlier believes he and Nilo are in the only surviving truck—“We’re sitting on double shares!” he cackles, Dobbs-like.
For the last leg of the journey, with Scanlon the sole driver left after the ambush, behind the wheel of Lazaro, John Box found an otherworldly location in the Bisti Badlands in New Mexico. It was sacred Navajo land, where bizarre petrified wooden growths and unusual rock formations called hoodoos bear down silently on Scanlon’s pitiless, purgatorial odyssey. “It was a place of ancient magic, said to be home to generations of sorcerers and alchemists.” —Friedkin. Here the director, together with his editors Bud Smith and Robert K Lambert, made use of a series of hallucinatory optical effects involving double and triple exposures and a variety of color effects, together with flashback dialogue and sound, to suggest Scanlon’s fractured state of mind. “Where am I going?” he croaks, echoing his words post-heist in New Jersey, on the run, Nilo’s mocking laugh ringing in his ears from beyond the grave. As the last of his gas runs out, he abandons the truck and staggers the final 1.3 miles (Friedkin was made to film inserts of Lazaro’s speedometer, with Scanlon counting down the 218 miles to the fire in chalk next to it) with the remaining explosives to the hellfire ahead, collapsing dead beat as oilmen take the precious cargo from his claw-like grip.
Sorcerer had the misfortune to open in Mann’s Chinese Theatre in LA just after Star Wars—audiences stayed away in droves, and it was pulled after a week, Lucas’ shiny space fable hastened back. Friedkin is sanguine about his hubris and bad luck—audiences tired of early ’70’s American cinema’s pessimism, Tangerine Dream’s eerie electronic score a distancing world away from John Williams’ soaring symphony.
Had George Lucas stuck to his arty, docu-driven realism of THX-1138, with its experimental sound and refusal to pander, would his ongoing style have mirrored Friedkin’s? Sorcerer is in many ways the kind of film the anthropologist in Lucas admired: very little exposition, the viewer thrust into unusual locations and situations, observational and free-flowing. “I was profoundly influenced by the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez who wrote what is now known as magic realism. That’s the style that I adopted for the film. Magic realism,” Friedkin told Deadline. An abiding image is the loin cloth clad tribal father breaking away from his family to chase after Scanlon’s truck, darting in and out of view of the rear view mirror, chuckling at the mechanical monster. Just another kind of magic…
Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
Forty years after the release of the masterful Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s blistering remake of The Wages of Fear, about a group of men driving a cargo of explosives across perilous terrain, the director reminisces about how a brutal shoot gave way to an equally brutal critical reception. This article by Mark Kermode, Road to Perdition, originally appeared in Sight&Sound, December 2017.
After the global successes of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), director William Friedkin mounted the riskiest film of his career—an adaptation of Henri- Georges Clouzot’s 1953 classic The Wages of Fear. Based on a novel by Georges Arnaud (aka Henri Girard), Clouzot’s film followed four disparate Europeans, variously stranded in South America, who agree to drive two truckloads of volatile nitroglycerin over treacherous terrain for financial reward. A critical hit which inspired such lesser American knock-offs as Howard Koch’s 1958 Violent Road, The Wages of Fear seemed ripe for contemporary reinvention in the strife-riven mid-7os. With The Wild Bunch screenwriter Walon ‘Wally’ Green, Friedkin recast the key characters as a Mexican hitman (Francisco Rabal), an Arab terrorist (Amidou), a French businessman (Bruno Cremer) and an American gangster (Roy Scheider). Requiring two studios—Universal and Paramount—to cover its expanding budget, Sorcerer (1977) was a gruelling masterpiece. Yet the results proved fatally out of step with audiences flocking to see Star Wars. A critical and commercial failure when it opened 40 years ago, the film has since been reassessed, and is now considered an overlooked gem; the author Stephen King recently called it his favourite film of all time. Unveiled in a new 4K transfer at the Venice Film Festival in 2013, Sorcerer has been rediscovered in cinemas and on Blu-ray by a new generation of fans astonished by its grinding, visceral power.
After The Exorcist, you could have done anything. Why did you opt for a remake of The Wages of Fear?
Wally Green and I used to work together at Wolper doing documentaries for the ABC network. We were talking about the world situation; that if there was no way for world leaders to get together, we were probably going to be the generation that blows up. And we started talking about The Wages of Fear.
The Clouzot film or the source novel?
Oh, the film. There was no English translation of the novel. But we both remembered and loved the film from 1953. It had not been widely seen in America. It had played in arthouses, with subtitles. We thought it was a great film that perfectly captured this notion of the separate countries of the world either co-operating or dying together. So we took that premise and ran with it. Then Wally, who spoke five or six languages fluently, got the novel. It wasn’t great—it was good pulp, which often makes the best movies. We decided to create our own characters, different from the ones in Arnaud’s book and Clouzot’s film. Then I went to France to do some press for The Exorcist, and I met up with Clouzot. I told him I was interested in taking the premise of The Wages of Fear. He didn’t seem very happy about it—understandably so—but he wasn’t against it. But it turned out he didn’t have the rights to it anyway—they were with Arnaud, who hated Clouzot’s film. He was crazy—a very ornery old guy. He hated my film too! Anyway, we bought the rights from him for very little money, and we set out to make it in our own way.
You originally had Steve McQueen in mind for the lead. What happened?
I talked to Steve about the film, and sent him Wally’s script. Two days later he called and said, “This is the best script I’ve ever read.” Then he said, “I’ve got a favour to ask. I just married Ali MacGraw and you’re gonna be off in some jungle for six months. Would you consider writing a role for her?” I said, “Steve, you just told me it’s the best script you’ve ever read. There are no women in it. There’s a very small part for a French woman, but it’s not a part for Ali.” So he said, “All right, make her an executive producer, or an associate producer.” Back then, I was really an arrogant punk. If Steve McQueen had asked me that today, I would have immediately agreed. But I said, “Steve, that’s a bullshit credit. Don’t you have more respect for your wife than to give her some bullshit credit? I’m not gonna do that.” And he said, “All right, then find locations where you can shoot it in the US.” I just said, “Steve, I’m very happy with the locations I have.” I was just an arrogant moron. So he said that under those conditions he couldn’t do the film. Now, with McQueen I had commitments from Marcello Mastroianni and Lino Ventura. But when I got Roy Scheider instead of McQueen, neither Mastroianni nor Ventura would take second billing.
Do you think having Scheider rather than McQueen was one of the reasons the film failed to find an audience?
Scheider was great, but he was not a huge star like McQueen. He certainly scored in The French Connection, and he had done Jaws (1975), but he wasn’t in a place where he could just take the audience with him. I think he’s brilliant in the film. But he was not a movie star. And in those days you needed a movie star.
The shoot of Sorcerer was famously grueling. What was the most difficult thing about it?
Almost everything that physically could go wrong did go wrong. We built this bridge, which was hydraulically operated, that looked like a rickety old wooden bridge. We built it in the Dominican Republic over a rushing river that was about six feet high, and which had never gone down during the months that we were going to shoot. So we built the bridge over this river, at a cost of a million dollars, because it was going to be the big set piece of the film. And gradually the river went down and down and down, until there was less than a foot of water flowing through it. Impossible. We had weather experts and all kinds of meteorologists telling us, “This is impossible! This can’t happen!” But it happened. So [production designer] John Box found a similar location near Tuxtepec, in Mexico. They had totally similar topography, about the same-sized rushing river, that again had not diminished in living memory. So we took the bridge out of the Dominican Republic, broke it into pieces, and shipped it all the way to Mexico. Then we rebuilt it over this vast rushing river… which proceeded to go down and down and down. In the mornings you had this overcast, perfect even light, but then at about noon the sun would come out and burn everything off. Every day. So like when we were shooting in Iraq for The Exorcist, we had to shoot a split schedule. Sometimes, in order to disguise the sky, we had to make it rain. I wasn’t planning to do the bridge scene in the rain—I thought the bridge swinging over a fast-moving river was enough. But now we’re getting tips of sunlight everywhere, so we had to bring in these rain-making machines. Then people began to get sick. People got gangrene. I got malaria. We had these Mexican labourers who built the bridge, 20 or 30 of them. I was very friendly with them. There was one guy in particular I liked very much. And one day he whipped out a Federales badge. He was an undercover cop. He said, “Senor Bill, you have people on your crew who are doing drugs. You’re a very nice man and I like you, otherwise I would arrest all of these people. But I like you, so I’m not going to arrest them, but they have to leave this country tomorrow.” This included stunt men, key grips, make-up artists, special effects guys. So I lost about 20 members of the crew. Those were just a couple of the problems I can remember.
How long did you end up shooting for?
Oh God, I think it was like ten months, maybe more.
And when you were shooting it, did you think, ‘This is tough, but the results are really good’?
I thought it was all great! But when we were in the jungle we couldn’t see the footage, there was no way to get the dailies. Dick Bush, the great British cinematographer who did Mahler (1974) and Tommy (1975) for Ken Russell, had shot all this wonderful footage in Paris; Jerusalem; Elizabeth, New Jersey; and a little in Vera Cruz. But when he got to the jungle, Dick was lost because the light in the jungle constantly changes. And Dick just couldn’t manage it. He couldn’t find places to put lights and he wasn’t skilled at using reflectors. In the end I brought in John Stephens, who was a commercials camera operator, and who was wonderful at building rigs for the camera. He and I had worked together on documentaries at Wolper along with Wally, and he did all the jungle stuff.
Tell me about Tangerine Dream’s music.
I met them in Germany when I was on tour for The Exorcist. The local Warner Brothers guy took me to an abandoned church in the Black Forest at midnight. There were no lights except the lights from their electronic instruments. You couldn’t see the musicians. They started to play what sounded like the music of the spheres, and I thought it was extraordinary. Synths were a very new thing then—they were popularised later by Giorgio Moroder, who scored Midnight Express (1978) for Alan Parker. Anyway, I met with [band leader and founder] Edgar Froese and I told him that this stuff was great, and although I didn’t know what my next film was going to be, I wanted them to do the music. Later I sent him Wally’s script and we spoke on the phone. I asked him to write some music based on our conversation. Months later, a package of audio tapes arrives in Tuxtepec. It was terrific. I immediately saw how to cherry-pick what they had recorded, and use it in the film.
Where did the title Sorcerer come from?
I originally wanted to call the film Ballbreaker—that was the first title. And [Universal boss] Lew Wasserman said, “Absolutely no way.” Then I thought of calling it No Man’s Land, but as you know Harold Pinter wrote a play with that same title. So I was listening to an album by Miles Davis called Sorcerer and I just thought the word was powerful. It later occurred to me that the sorcerer was an evil wizard, and in this case the evil wizard was fate. The Exorcist was about faith, and this was about fate—in the lives of four different guys who really screwed up.
‘Sorcerer’ is also a name painted on one of the trucks.
Yeah, we named the trucks Sorcerer and Lazaro. When I went to Ecuador, I saw these trucks painted that way, and the drivers all gave their trucks names. So a truck would be called Lucia, after the guy’s girlfriend, or some would have more cosmic names.
What about the face that you briefly see carved on the rock as the trucks go past? It’s demonic, like the face of Pazuzu in The Exorcist.
John Box had the idea of putting that on a rock as a kind of warning or harbinger of what is to come—the mystery of fate in some guise. Our art director Roy Walker carved that. He went on to be Kubrick’s production designer on The Shining (1980).
After all this effort, at what point did you realise that Sorcerer was in trouble?
I lived in Bel Air, and I would walk every morning down this long driveway and read the papers. There was a great film critic for the Los Angeles Times, Charles Champlin, who had always given my films rave reviews. So I went and got the paper the day after Sorcerer opened in two theatres in LA, and two in NY. So I’m walking back up the hill, and I open the page to his review, and it begins: “What went wrong?” And the rest was devastating. That’s when I knew. And then the audiences dwindled, and Star Wars opened and took the whole audience—that was the only film that you had to see that year.
Did it hurt?
Well, I was extremely disappointed, because I honestly thought this was the best film I had ever made, and I still feel that way. So I felt bad that I didn’t get it over to the audience. I didn’t feel like something horrible had been done to me. I just thought I had failed. I absolutely felt that whatever I did that I thought was so brilliant just didn’t work. I thought I had let the audience down, and I just couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong.
When did the film’s change of fortunes begin?
There was a guy at Warner Video called Jeff Baker, and one day he said to me, “Whatever happened to that picture you made—Sorcerer?” I said I didn’t even know who owned it any more. So I got my lawyer to get into it, and they found out that the rights were no longer split—Universal’s rights had expired, and Paramount controlled it. So Paramount made a deal with Warner Brothers to release it. When the DVD came out, it was a huge hit—same with the Blu-ray. So then they started to think that maybe there was life in it. And then we made a DCP [digital cinema package], and it started getting some theatrical plays.
Do you think there’s anything about the times we’re in now that makes Sorcerer more relevant than it was in 1977?
Well, the world situation is much worse today that it was then. But I’m not sure people want to be reminded of that. I don’t want people to look for the metaphor, even though that was something that motivated me. Only the story matters. I thought it was a damn good action adventure that was ‘acoustic’; it’s not made with digital effects. Everything you see in the film, we had to do! As in The Exorcist. I just think it’s a wonderful story.
It’s funny how when you write a script, you worry about things that you don’t need to worry about. I was worried that when they’d come to the bridge, everybody would say, ‘Why don’t they just turn around and go back—they obviously took the wrong road.’ But it never bothered anyone who saw the movie. We wanted a cynical movie where fate turns the corner for the people before they turn it themselves. We set out also to write a real movie about what we thought was the reality of Latin America and the presence of foreigners there today. —Walon Green
Screenwriter must-read: Walon Green’s screenplay for Sorcerer. Based on the novel ‘Le Salaire de la peur’ by Georges Arnaud [PDF]. Newly remastered Blu-ray under the supervision of William Friedkin is available at Amazon, Amazon.uk (40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition) and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
In his three-hour interview, Walon Green talks about his early years, and working for David L. Wolper and Jack Haley, Jr. on documentaries. He chronicles his time working for producer David Milch as a writer for Hill Street Blues, and what he learned about writing for television during his time there. Green talks about writing the feature film The Wild Bunch, and directing the documentary feature The Hellstrom Chronicle. He outlines then-more recent work, including his adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus, and episodes of The Man in the High Castle and Mercy Street. Adrienne Faillace conducted the interview in a joint venture with the Writers Guild Foundation on August 23, 2018 in Santa Ynez, CA.
MASTER CLASS DE WILLIAM FRIEDKIN : À PROPOS DE SORCERER
“A few months after its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the restored version of William Friedkin’s resurrected masterpiece Sorcerer was screened in Paris at La Cinémathéque Française as the opening film of the 2nd edition of ‘Toute la Mémoire du Monde,’ an international festival devoted to recently restored films. Among the topics discussed during the masterclass, the director tells how and why Steve McQueen, Lino Ventura and Marcello Mastroianni got in and out of the project, how Star Wars ruined the potential success of Sorcerer, how difficult the shooting was (‘It was life threatening; almost everyone on the crew got sick. I myself got malaria.’), how demanding he is as a director (‘Come on! Do I seem tyrannical?’), how he sued the studios to get his film back (‘I did not sue them for money. I will never make a penny out of this picture.’) and how he worked on the restoration of the movie (‘It took me about six months. Six months of my own time, and I lovingly restored every single frame of that picture…’).” —William Friedkin’s Sorcerer Celebrated In Paris Before Its Worldwide Release
A rare 8mm footage behind-the-scenes footage of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, courtesy of Edkfilms.
“At some point in pre-production for Sorcerer, William Friedkin had the French comic illustrator Philippe Druillet do some concept sketches for the trucks. What he came up with hardly looks like something you’d see in a film committed to authenticity and realism, but it’s cool stuff.” —Toby Roan, The Sorcerer Blog
“Probably the oddest thing about the Sorcerer/Druillet connection is that the commercial failure of the film in 1977 has often been laid at the door of Star Wars, the advent of George Lucas’s dismal saga being regarded, with some justification, as the opening of the gate to the barbarian hordes. (Friedkin’s film might also have fared better had it not been titled as though it were an Exorcist sequel.) The irony here is that George Lucas happened to be a big Druillet enthusiast, although there’s little evidence of this in his films; in addition to writing an appreciation for ‘Les Univers de Druillet’ in 2003, he also commissioned Druillet to create a one-off piece of Star Wars art in the late 70s. Knowing this it’s tempting to imagine Lucas creating a very different kind of science-fiction film in 1977, one with some Continental weirdness at its core. But when the world has already been deprived of Jodorowsky’s Dune it’s best not to dwell too much on might-have-beens.” —John Coulthart
JOHN BOX’S SKETCHES
Here are three of John Box’s sketches of the trucks from Sorcerer. Fascinating stuff. Courtesy of Toby Roan’s The Sorcerer Blog.
Here’s William Friedkin with Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream. Courtesy of Toby Roan’s The Sorcerer Blog.
Here’s Steven Spielberg hard at work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), wearing a Sorcerer t-shirt.
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival presents a masterclass with William Friedkin, an outstanding figure of American filmmaking who received the Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema and presented a restored version of one of the central films of his career, Sorcerer.
Director William Friedkin is a consummate storyteller, which explains why he tells such an entertaining story of his own life, rooted in three recurring themes: faith, fate and film. Within that story, William tells Marc Maron about the making of The French Connection and The Exorcist, the failure and resurgence of his film Sorcerer, and his reasons for never wanting to do a second take.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. Photographed by N/A © Film Properties International N.V., Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or click on the icon below: