‘To Live and Die in L.A.’: The Intelligent, Authentic Thriller as One of the Highlights of Friedkin’s Career

Director William Friedkin discusses an upcoming scene with star William Petersen, on one of forty-seven diffrent locations featured in To Live and Die in L.A. Still photographer: Jane O'Neal © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

By Sven Mikulec

If you were to compile a list of the most impressive and exhilarating car chases in the history of the motion pictures, it’s more than likely that one filmmaker’s name would have several entries in the top ten. William Friedkin blew the world’s mind with The French Connection, and years later, as he wanted to shoot something different for To Live and Die in L.A., he managed to produce a nail-biting sequence on the Los Angeles freeway. To limit the success of the film, however, solely on one hell of a scene would mean to do injustice to one of the most exciting action thrillers of the eighties. Friedkin’s 1985 film was based on a novel written by former U.S. Secret Service agent called Gerald Petievich. This novel was recommended to the filmmaker and immediately won him over, particulary because of its capable presentation of the surrealist nature of a Secret Service agent’s career and life. Friedkin contacted Petievich, acquired the rights to the novel and wrote the first draft, but frequent consultations with Petievich in the process of creating the script made Friedkin decide to give him a screenwriting credit, as a way of honoring their collaboration. Since he had a budget of six million dollars, Friedkin realized he couldn’t afford any real movie stars. This was a blessing in disguise: with the help of experienced casting director Bob Weiner, Friedkin found William Petersen and Willem Dafoe, two actors he immediately recognized had what it took to bring the story to life. In his review, Roger Ebert noted Petersen had ‘something of a Steve McQueen’ in him, while Friedkin himself publicly recognized it was mostly the actor’s intelligence that sealed the deal. Dafoe, on the other hand, impressed him so much with the depths and potential of his performance that Friedkin went back to the script and adjusted Dafoe’s character to match the actor’s complexity and range.

Friedkin wanted to work with an independent crew, eager to finish the production as fast as he could, and shot each and every scene on location. With a desire to make the picture as authentic as possible, he and Petievich even found a skillful, experienced counterfeiter, so that the process of making counterfeit money would be real. The twenty-dollar bills produced for the purposes of the film were so craftily made that the money leaked out of the set and alarmed the authorities.

To Live and Die in L.A., which will have new life breathed into it with the new TV series, is an exciting thriller that’s easy to come back to whenever contemporary genre products fail to fulfil our expectations. Splendid acting, masterful photography of the great Robby Müller, whose work Friedkin called timeless, clever, intelligent and unpredictable storyline and its fast-paced, realistic execution make this thriller one of the definite highlights of the respected filmmaker’s career.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: William Friedkin & Gerald Petievich’s screenplay for To Live and Die in L.A. [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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“All of the films I have made, that I have chosen to make, are all about the thin line between good and evil. And also the thin line that exists in each and every one of us. That’s what my films are about. That’s what To Live and Die in L.A. is about. There is a thin line between the policeman and the criminal. The best cops are always crossed. The best cops are the ones who are able to think like criminals. But for a quirk of fate, they might have been criminals.” —William Friedkin, The Hollywood Flashback Interview



“His work’s timeless,” said William Friedkin of Müller in reference to their sole collaboration, To Live and Die in L.A.: “He taught me all about composition, and in the end I adopted his style—that’s how big an influence he was. He had this great foreigner’s eye for the States, particularly the West Coast, and it was so fresh. He wasn’t shooting cliches. He captured all those details usually overlooked in American films, and I wanted to do something that was very different from The French Connection, which was mainly shot on gray days and with a hand-held look.” —Robby Müller in the United States, The Completist

A short documentary on the making of the 1985 William Friedkin film, To Live and Die in L.A.

William Friedkin directs To Live and Die in L.A. in a rare behind-the-scenes featurette from 1985.

Director William Friedkin discusses his iconic career; beginning in the mailroom of a television station to winning the DGA Feature Film Award and becoming a premier member of the ‘New Hollywood’ wave of filmmaking that revolutionized the industry. —Visual History with William Friedkin

Filming the airport scene.



To Live and Die in L.A. was my first ‘Hollywood’ movie. Billy Freidkin had seen something in my first small films and hired me, I was totally shocked! With me was the brilliant Robby Müller, as DP. Though the script was written to be shot in the valley, I asked Billy If I could use the LA that fascinated me, the edges of LA: the bridges of Long beach, the hills above the ‘wrong side’ of LA, etc… He was totally open and gave me freedom to find my L.A. Working with Robby was astonishing. What he could do with four lamps was amazing. My favorite scene is watching Willem Defoe make counterfeit money. I learned the technique from a guy recently released from prison, but it’s a secret how I met him. Willem’s ballet set the whole tone. The wicked were beautiful and the good guys were mundane and die in the end. It was thrilling to get my first reviews! ‘Lilly Kilvert’s brilliant new wave design…’” —Lilly Kilvert, Production Design for To Live and Die in L.A.

“Forty years later, during the 2014 CPH PIX festival, Friedkin saw his career come full circle as he became the interview subject for another young director who idolizes him. There’s more than a whiff of The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. in Drive, so it makes perfect sense for Nicholas Winding Refn to spend two hours with Friedkin while picking his brain during an extended Q&A. Refn is reserved and humble, as usual, which works as the perfect counterbalance to the boisterous, endlessly energetic and brutally honest Friedkin. He weighs in on the ‘film vs. digital’ debate, showers praises on Citizen Kane, tells the audience the insane true story behind his controversial 1980 police thriller, Cruising, and orders his audience to get the hell out if they don’t love Antonioni’s Blow Up”. —Oktay Ege Kozak,The Playlist

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. Photographed by Jane O’Neal © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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