To Live and Die for Authenticity: How Friedkin Made One of the Best Films of the Eighties

 

August 8, 2022

 

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

 

By Sven Mikulec

 
At the beginning of the seventies, American filmmaker William Friedkin made two everlasting classics—The French Connection and The Exorcist. With these two highly acclaimed statement pictures, Friedkin not only established himself as one of the most skilled filmmakers in the business, but he also became—as much as he would probably despise the characterization—a very bankable director. These box office splashes, however, were followed by a quartet of financially or qualitatively lesser projects: SorcererThe Brink’s JobCruising and Deal of the Century. Even though Sorcerer is a monumentally beautiful film, its box office results started a series of films that made the critics and the audience question the trajectory of Friedkin’s career, which is why the filmmaker’s 1985 neo-noir action thriller To Live and Die in L.A. was seen by many as his comeback moment. Both to form and to financial success.

To talk about this film and all the little bits and pieces that make it work so well even today, 37 years since its premiere, means to start with the life story of a man called Gerald Petievich, a Secret Service agent–turned–fiction writer who used his first-hand knowledge and experience and channeled them into his passion for writing. During the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he served as chief of the counterespionage section in Nuremberg, after which he joined the United States Secret Service. He spent the next fifteen years working as a special agent, often getting up as early as 4:00 AM to pursue his writing ambitions before heading to the office. In 1984, a year before he would resign and completely dedicate himself to his literary career, he published a mainstream thriller about a Secret Service agent on his reckless pursuit of capturing a notorious criminal. Petievich’s novel was recommended to Friedkin by an acquaintance and, in his own words, he got attracted to it because of the “surrealist nature of the life of a Secret Service agent.” Friedkin soon finished his first draft, even calling Petievich to help him with some additional scenes, but even though the project got the green light, its limited budget of only six million dollars meant Friedkin had to do some magic to shoot the film he envisioned. It’s to no surprise, then, that he turned to his favorite magician—casting director Bob Weiner.

 

“He wasn’t really a casting director,” Friedkin explained. “He was a film and theater critic for the Village Voice in New York. Bob Weiner knew every actor around.” Having worked with him on The French Connection, where Weiner introduced him to Roy Scheider and basically “got everybody but Hackman”, the director was familiar with Weiner’s talent for finding movie stars before the rest of the world figured out they were movie stars. Considering the budget for To Live and Die in L.A., Weiner’s talent scouting was desperately needed, but he was retired and living in Paris. Friedkin picked up the phone. “Bob, I want you to do the same thing for this movie that you did for The French Connection.” Weiner returned to the States and after about a month told Friedkin to come up to the Toronto Film Festival to see a young actor perform A Streetcar Named Desire. Hesitant to put in the effort because he believed “that role belonged to Brando,” Friedkin was nevertheless persuaded by Weiner’s judgment. “He was very athletic, he was very physical, and he was a terrific actor,” the filmmaker recalls. “It was a totally original performance.” And this was how William Petersen was discovered. Friedkin offered him the lead role right after the production, but Weiner’s task didn’t end there: soon enough, he filled in the blanks in To Live and Die in L.A.’s cast with the likes of Willem Dafoe, John Turturro and basically the rest of the group. “Everybody who is in the picture? He had discovered them and he had brought them to me. I never went to more than one person for the role.” The only exception was the great John Pankow, whom Petersen recommended based on their previous collaboration in Chicago.

A combination of factors turned this neo-noir thriller into one of the best films of the decade. Friedkin’s assured and elegant direction was accompanied by Wang Chung’s energizing electronic score and complemented by the keen eye and talent of Robby Müller, the legend of cinematography who shot movies such as Wenders’ Paris, Texas, Jarmusch’s Dead Man and von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Captivating performances from Petersen, Dafoe and Pankow certainly gave life to the material, but the multilayered screenplay is what allows the magic to happen.

At first glance, you have a seemingly straightforward story of a Secret Service agent determined to do whatever it takes to avenge his partner’s death and finally put an infamous counterfeiter behind bars. If we delve a bit deeper into the story, we soon realize there are plenty of rewarding ideas hidden beneath the surface. From the protagonist’s symbolic name “Chance” that further highlights his thrill-seeking, adrenaline-junkie personality that allows him to sprint through life without much compassion or empathy, focused solely on his next high, using and manipulating people around him as he sees fit, through morally dubious actions conducted by practically every other significant character in the film, all the way to the brilliantly stylish villain, an intellectual artist who displays ruthlessness only when he sees the rules of his business being broken… The world of To Live and Die in L.A. isn’t black and white; it’s populated by a wide range of colorful and shady characters each trying to work solely for their own personal interest. The decision to make both Petersen’s and Dafoe’s character complex and morally ambiguous was a touch of genius because with this air of realism it’s a lot easier to become sucked into the story. “All of the films I have made, that I have chosen to make, are all about the thin line between good and evil,” the director later elaborated. “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.”

 

Friedkin’s no-bullshit, show-don’t-tell approach elevates the picture to a whole other level. For instance, at the beginning of the film we see Dafoe’s character, a counterfeiter who’s also an acclaimed artist, burn one of his paintings. Near the end of the story, trying to cover up his tracks, he burns quite a lot of the fake money he created with passion and delicate attention to detail. Without saying it explicitly, we are shown that he doesn’t see counterfeiting as just some secret activity behind his convincing front of being an artist—he sees his criminal work as an extension of his artistic creation. All its strengths aside, To Live and Die in L.A. is often highlighted as a film that exhibits one of the most thrilling and gorgeously choreographed car chases of all time. With the Pontiac LeMans-chases-train sequence from The French Connection, Friedkin is the only director with more than one horse in this particular race. In case you somehow missed it, Petersen and Pankow’s characters are being chased by what they think is a criminal gang, and in the process of getting away they swirl their 1985 Chevy Impala all over the Los Angeles freeway, culminating in a heart-stopping head-on dash into one-way traffic, avoiding about a hundred frontal collisions. The sequence isn’t only visually stunning and displaying Friedkin’s knack for this specific type of action scenes, it’s made even better with Petersen’s thrill-hungry eyes piercing the windshield and Pankow’s panicky outbursts in the back seat. “I didn’t really have to act,” he later confessed. “I was terrified a lot of the time.” He wasn’t the only one—even Robby Müller declined to participate due to safety concerns, so the second unit cameraman Robert D. Yeoman jumped in. But the chase doesn’t feel like an artificial, clipped-on attempt to match the greatness of The French Connection’s montage, it’s a vital part of the story and actually helps build the protagonists’ personalities.

The reason the viewers become easily immersed in Friedkin’s film and start to care about what they’re seeing is partly because the filmmaker cares so much about authenticity. It is, after all, what attracted him to Petievich’s novel in the first place, and this is what he tried to transfer to the screen. Petersen and Pankow spent a lot of time with L.A. cops and Secret Service agents to learn to mimic their behavior, while Dafoe hung out with the German painter Rainer Fetting to study his personality and art. The counterfeiting sequence looks real because it actually was—Friedkin, to no surprise, employed and consulted real counterfeiters. Even the prison yard sequence with Turturro’s attempted assassination was shot at a real prison with its prisoners shoulder to shoulder with the actors. “I like movies that teach me about something,” Roger Ebert wrote in his original review. “Movies that have researched their subject and contain a lot of information, casually contained in between the big dramatic scenes.”

 

It’s hard not to notice the level of effort and dedication poured into the picture. To Live and Die in L.A. feels rounded, complex, complete, and it makes perfect sense Friedkin named it as one of the few films he is happy about from his resume. “And it’s not that I achieved them, or realized them perfectly,” he told us, “but I did come very close to my vision of them in the execution.”

Infatuated with the world of film since the early days, when ‘The Three Amigos’, ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Back to the Future’ rocked his world, Sven Mikulec majored in English with a special emphasis on American culture and started an unlikely career in organizing pub quizzes. Huge fan of Simon & Garfunkel, a mediocre table tennis player and passionate fridge magnet collector, he’s interested in fulfilling his long-term goal of interviewing Jack Nicholson while Paul Simon sings ‘April Come She Will’ quietly in the background. Read more »

 

“Virtually everything Friedkin has done in quite a few years has been extremely dark. He controls his films from beginning to end, from story to the cutting room, and I think what you see is his personal imprint. I also think you have to give the guy a certain amount of credit for being willing to take whatever happens—whether failure or success—to his films by putting his own personal imprint on it.” —Gerald Petievich

 
A monumentally important screenplay and a 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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“THE MISE EN SCÈNE IS ROBBY MÜLLER!”

“Müller’s work’s timeless. 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.”—Friedkin on Robby Müller

 
Making a name for himself through his early collaborations with Wim Wenders, Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller worked with several other great filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, Peter Bogdanovich, Lars von Trier and Barbet Schroeder. With William Friedkin, he shot To Live and Die in L.A. and gave the picture a visual identity that sets it apart in many ways.

“The beautiful thing about Robby,” Jim Jarmusch once said, “is that he starts the process by talking to you about what the film means, what the story is about, what the characters are about. He starts from the inside out, which is really, really such a great way. I’ve learned that you find the look of the film later after you’ve found the essence of the film.”

 

In 2018, a documentary called Living the Light—Robby Müller came out directed by Claire Pijman. Make sure to check out this beautiful visual essay on one of cinematography’s greats.

 

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

 

In 2010, MovieWeb’s B. Alan Orange did a great interview with Friedkin as To Live and Die in L.A. was ready to have its Blu-ray debut.

I just watched Under the Influence the other night on IFC and found it to be a fascinating documentary. For you personally, what was the transition like from the 70s going into the 80s, and how do you think the “Blockbuster” mindset that set in at the end of that decade affected or changed the work, such as To Live and Die in L.A., that you did in the 80s?
The difference between the 70s and thereafter? People at all levels, including the people that ran the studios, were not concerned about the grosses of films leading up to the 70s. They were concerned about keeping the costs down on everything. So that there could be a profit. But none of the legendary films of the 70s or before were enormously high grossers. Take a film like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It was on everyone’s lips in 1960. In 1960 dollars, I think it did fifteen or twenty million at the box office. The dollar was worth a dollar then. But no one really knew or cared how much the film made. It wasn’t discussed in the paper or on websites. That’s not what the filmmaker, or the studio head, or even the critics talked about. They talked about the quality of film. They talked about the style of film. That’s what our concerns were. We were not trying to out gross this or that. Today, that is all the studios are concerned about. The bottom line. Because they are all owned by corporations. They only care about the profits. You have studios that will take two or three million dollars and put it on one picture. Instead of twenty or twenty-five more films. It’s like going to Vegas. That is the main difference. You take all of your money and you put it on one number. The studios are making fewer films. They are making more expensive films. Profits are tougher to come by. Not only because of the expense of production. But also because of the expense of promotion and hype. To boil that all down, it’s more about hype today than it is about filmmaking. That’s what I remember going from the seventies and heading into today.

Box office receipts as a spectator sport really started to pick up steam in the 80s, around the time To Live and Die in L.A. was released in theaters. How do you think the popularity of the so-called blockbuster affected production on that film at that time? And how do you think it affects you now as a filmmaker?
I don’t know. The film that changed everything was Star Wars in 1977. A few years before the end of the 70s, Star Wars changed the mindset. Just before that was The Exorcist and Jaws. People realized that these films could be a gold mine. How did it affect my future films? It affected everybody. Not just me personally. When you try to focus it on me, the pressure started to come more and more from the studios. I don’t want to talk about the rise of the independents, which has been the counterweight to that. It was that way even back then, and before the 70s. The blockbuster affected everybody. When you go to a studio with something you want to make, or they come to you with something they want to make, more often than not, it’s a tent pole. Not something one single person is really passionate about on a creative level.

How do you look at and analyze films you’ve made in the past? Do you study something like To Live and Die in L.A., and look for the flaws along with the elements that worked, to help understand yourself as a director and to push you forward in creating new art? Or do you let that film go away completely and only reflect on it as a representation of your former artistic self? Or when you have to revisit it for a DVD release?
I don’t look back or analyze my films. I just make them. It’s for someone else to look at. There are films that I’ve made that I like a little bit more than the others. But the films that I mostly watch, and see over and over again, are not my own. For God’s sake. I’ve seen my own films close to a thousand times in one form or another. When you edit them. When you shoot them. All of which used to be a very lengthy process. Then you run them over and over again for sound and music. Then you mix them, which used to take six to twelve weeks. Where you are seeing reel after reel over and over again. Then you’d go to premiere screenings, and have to do promotional screenings in other cities. I can’t watch any of my old films now. I know all of their secrets. The films that I didn’t make? Some of the classics from the past? I watch them constantly.

Does it bug you to have to look back at a film like To Live and Die in L.A. when it comes out on Blu-ray?
I only look at it to do the color timing. With all of my films that are on DVD and now Blu-ray, I have spent weeks with them in a color timing room. Just changing or enhancing them. I have been desaturating the color. Sometimes I will make a scene bluer or redder. Maybe a little bit more yellow or green in the trees. I do use the new medium. I believe in it. When you make a Blu-ray, its not the same as the print process was. You have little or no control over any print that was ever made. You are a victim of the 35mm printing process. The water that goes into the developer changes on a minute-by-minute basis. The different amoebas that get into the water. And the power that generates the machines. The development process fluctuates constantly. You could never get a perfect print.

On that note, I want to know what your reaction is when Warner Bros. comes to you and says, “We want The Exorcist to be in 3D”? Are you going to sit there and go through that whole process? Are you going to turn it over to someone else?
No. Never. Providing I’m still alive. Warner Bros. is obligated to come to me. And they do. The point is, it’s a totally different medium. I currently have control over every single frame on Blu-ray. If I want a scene bluer, I get that scene bluer. Originally, there was some fluctuation with the prints. If you made a thousand, or a few thousand prints, there is no control over any of that. But now I can make a master using the digital process. That gives me total control over how I want the film to look in this new process. The films now look like they did when I was first looking through the viewfinder. Every time you run a 35mm print, it picks up scratches. It picks up dirt. Sometimes it breaks, and you have to re-splice it. You lose frames. This doesn’t happen with digital, or God knows, Blu-ray. Yes, there has been talk about expanding The Exorcist into various other mediums. The Exorcist Blu-ray is coming out this fall. But we talked about going to IMAX with it. Nothing is certain yet. They’ve tried to exploit The Exorcist in all sorts of media. I think that’s great. Because I love the new media.

Wait. So you are okay with the film being in 3D? Or is that one aspect of the new media that will never happen?
I don’t like 3D. I don’t believe there is any film that I have seen and loved that would have been improved by a scintilla in 3D. To me, it’s just a gimmick. To me, the art of cinema is the same as the art of painting. The artist takes a 2D medium and gives you the illusion of depth. If you look at any of the great paintings, you have the illusion of depth. Which is part of the art. The same with the great movies. I don’t believe that Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind, or any damn picture that you can name, would be better off in 3D. I think it’s a gimmick. And it reminds me of what happened when Cinemascope came in. When everybody predicted that every picture ever made was going to be in Cinemascope. Because it’s not that way. It was meant to get people out of the house. I find 3D distracting. I’m in the minority, I know.

I find that I am constantly looking at the effect more than I am looking at what is actually going on within the effect. It always pulls me out of the story.
Of course it does. You don’t need great actors to do a 3D picture. All of this condescending stuff that they put out? “Oh, we will always need actors.” Bullshit! They are able to take anybody and put some markers on them, and have them walk through an empty room. Then they paint in the background. They can put in the Vatican. Or the Louvre. They can put you in outer space. Whatever they dream up. A very telling thing? Where are the acting nominations for Avatar?

They’re not there. Even though some people predicted Zoe Saldana might get nominated. The same thing happened with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.
Of course. Now, those are spectacular looking things. To me, the art of movies is to take a two-dimensional image and give the illusion of depth. The art of movies is also to allow the audience to suspend their disbelief. They need to use their imaginations.

Speaking of actors, To Live and Die in L.A. has quite an impressive line-up of talent. Willem Dafoe and John Turturro were just starting to blossom as performers when you cast them. How did you discover both actors for this film? In what regards did you hold them then? And how do you see this film having shaped them into who they are today?
I had a casting director at the time named Bob Weiner. He wasn’t really a casting director. He was a film and theater critic for the Village Voice in New York. It was a great counterculture paper that was originated by Norman Mailer. Bob Weiner knew every actor around. He made it a point to see Off-Broadway, Off-New York, Off-Everything. And he discovered and wrote about new actors. Among the many people he found were Whoopi Goldberg. He brought Roy Scheider to me. The guy had never done a movie. He cast The French Connection, and he got everybody but Hackman. We got Hackman because everyone else turned us down. Bob retired and moved to Paris. I called him when I got ready to do To Live and Die in L.A.. I said, “Bob, I want you to do the same thing for this movie what you did for The French Connection.” I told him that I wanted to find great young actors. He said okay and came back to the states. After a month, I got a call from him to go up to the Toronto Shakespeare festival. He wanted me to go see a guy named William Peterson. He was doing A Street Car Named Desire. I said, “I don’t want to see A Street Car Named Desire. That role belongs to Marlon Brando. I don’t want to see anyone else do it.” He said, “No. You have to see this guy do it.” So I went up there. I saw Peterson do it. It was a totally original performance. He had never done a film. But he was very athletic, he was very physical, and he was a terrific actor. With an original approach to a classic role. I offered him the part right after the production. Bob brought me Willem Dafoe, who’d done nothing I’d ever seen. He brought me John Turturro, who was an Off-Broadway actor at the time. Everybody who is in the picture? He had discovered them and he had brought them to me. I never went to more than one person for the role. I have to be honest with you and tell you that Bob Weiner discovered these guys. And he sent them to me.

We’re all grateful for that. This is a group of guys who’ve gone on to do some really great stuff over the years.
They’ve all had wonderful careers. Great, great careers. And they are still going. Billy Peterson quit CSI after nine years to go back to the stage in Chicago. He didn’t want to continue in the same part for nine years. He wanted to stretch himself as an actor. He is doing plays with Steppenwolf.

We were speaking about the technical aspect of film. How difficult was it to stage the highway chase scene at the time, especially when you did not have the advent of CGI to help? Do you think you could recreate such a monumental moment in this day and age with all practical stunts, or is this age of filmmaking completely dead?
None of the chase scenes that I did over the course of three films had any opticals. We had to do all of that physically. The first thing you have to do is see it in your mind’s eye. You have to envision it. Imagine someone knitting a sweater or a scarf. They either have a pattern in front of them, or they see a pattern in their mind’s eye. Then it’s one stitch at a time. That’s what shooting a chase is like. One shot at a time. You set it up with a stunt coordinator. You discuss exactly what you want to see and how. You rehearse it in slow motion. Then you do it one shot at a time. I have to see the whole scene in my head before I go out and do it. Which I do. I will envision the entire scene before I shoot it. In the case of a film like The Exorcist or To Live and Die in L.A., I saw the whole movie in my head before I went to shoot it. I never did storyboards, or anything like that. I had the film in my head. We made up a schedule of when we were going to shoot stuff. We’d go to all of the people involved, discuss it with them, and get their input. Because it’s a very collaborative medium. They would all give me their input. Then we’d have to go out and do it.

Do you think that type of filmmaking is dying away? So many new filmmakers can just plug a couple of words into a computer and it’s all laid out for them. Imagination is dying away.
Here are two guys. Paul Greengrass and Pierre Morel. They have done chase scenes that have far surpassed anything that I’ve done. Like The Bourne Identity. The film Taken. And the new film From Paris with Love. That has some of the best chases I have ever seen. Most of it is done with computer-generated imagery. The stuff is far more spectacular. If I were doing chase scenes today, I would use that. All of the scenes that I did? I put people’s lives in danger. Or their bodies. That was all dangerous stuff. Just as it was in all of those old cowboy movies. When all of the cowboys were jumping off their horses? There were no opticals. They just did it. Or their stunt double did it. Someone did it. All of the stuff I’ve done in terms of action, and even some of the stuff I did in terms of The Exorcist? There were no opticals. It was all mechanical effects.

Take me through a day on set when you were shooting one of these scenes. Were you sweating the entire time? Praying that no one got hurt. Those had to be pretty intense days. Knowing the danger that faced everyone involved.
When I did those films you are talking about, I was much, much younger. I did not have a great moral compass. I never thought about stuff like that. I wouldn’t do it today. I wouldn’t endanger anyone’s life for a movie. Back then, I would and did. And I endangered my own life on many occasions as well. It’s only by the grace of God that no one got hurt or killed. To be very honest with you. I don’t shirk from that. I was a different person. I was a callow kid that just wanted to make his bones. I wanted to take the envelope further than it had ever been taken. I literally set out to make the best chase ever filmed when I set out to make The French Connection. I had that in mind. For twenty-six blocks, we drove a car through ordinary traffic at 90 miles per hour. With no permission. With no one blocking cars. We just did it. I operated the camera in the back. Because the cameraman and the director of photography had children then. They were very happily married. And I was single. I did things that I would not do today. For a movie or damn near anything else.

You have to feel grateful that you, at the time, had the nerve to do that. Watching a film like that, which is obviously being shot in real-time, and its all tangible and real, is far more satisfying than looking at cartoon cars smash into each other. Its less fun knowing everything is being controlled by cranes and computers.
Is it really? To me, those new films have far eclipsed the scenes that I have done. Because of the new digital capabilities.

When I watch a film, and I know everything being shot is physically real? It brings me into the material on a more intimate level. I’m actually invested in it.
It’s all about illusion, really. The young kids today? The are seeing these films in much greater numbers than ever before. I love the Pierre Morel films.

I did too. I loved Taken. I thought that was a great movie.
They have that new stunt technique. They use Parkour. These guys that jump from building to building, and they jump from windows. They are all cabled. And you can erase the cables. We literally had to do everything that you see in the films of mine that you’ve seen. We physically had to do that. That meant putting people at risk. That is done much, much less so today. The scenes are stronger. To me. I have to tell you, I would use it if I were going to do another chase. I would have to use it to compete.

I don’t think you could get away with not using it.
No! Because people expect more. And now they are going to want it in 3D IMAX. I’m not a fan of 3D. But I am a huge fan of digital imagery. Because it allows a filmmaker much more latitude to appreciate their own visions and dreams.

Didn’t you go back and use some digital animation when you re-released The Exorcist a couple of years ago?
No. I only used it in one effect that wasn’t in the original picture. You’ve heard about the famous “Spider-Walk”. Where the actress walks backwards. When we originally shot the “Spider-Walk” with a contortionist that was the size of Linda Blair, we had to cable her down the stairs. In many of the scenes, like the levitation and stuff, I used cables. But I was able to hid the cables into the lights. I had the ceiling cracked so that the cable blended into the cracked ceiling. But with the “Spider-Walk,” I couldn’t use it because we could never get rid of the cables. When they released The Version You’ve Never Seen, I was able to erase the cables. That was the only way we could use it. Over the years I’ve gotten all of these letters and emails from fans saying, “Why didn’t you originally use the ‘Spider-Walk’!?” I don’t bother answering those questions. I didn’t use it because it didn’t work. Then the technology came along. We made it work. I didn’t do anything new. I was just able to erase the cables. So it looks like that girl is walking on her hands and feet, backwards, down the stairs.

Do you think that enhances the original film? Or do you think you should have just left the film alone?
No! You don’t leave the film alone. You have a new audience, and you have a new medium. Why would you leave it alone? Film is not an antique. It’s not a relic. It’s not a Leonardo da Vinci. I don’t want someone painting over a da Vinci or Rembrandt. But these movies aren’t that.

Some people would argue that.
Look, I have seen the Charlie Chaplin movies that have been cleaned up. All the dirt is removed. And all of the crap that has gotten on the negative over the past decades. I have seen them clean and beautiful. They are much more beautiful to me than when I originally saw them in a revival theater. This goes for a lot of things. I want to see a clean print. We didn’t build in the dirt when we shot those pictures. We didn’t build in scratches and dirt, and blotches. That all comes from the printing process and the projection. You can get rid of that. Some guys at MIT have been able to take some of the classic old records, like Caruso, Enrico not David, and they have been able to remove all of the record scratch. The hiss. Now you can hear Caruso’s voice as it was recorded at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. There is no hiss. There is no noise that is competing with the sound of his voice. All of the surface noise is gone. The purists say, “Ah, that is terrible. They fucked around with the original.” Thank god that technology exists. Now you can just hear the pure voice. Why wouldn’t you do that? What is so urgent about scratches on a movie? Or record hiss on an old recording? I love CDs.

The people that want that can always go back to the original hiss and dirt, because those versions have not been destroyed. It does give you a choice.
Those purists can go fuck themselves.

If I want to watch the old version or the new version of The Exorcist, they are both on DVD.
But I cleaned both versions up. There is no version of that on DVD that hasn’t been cleaned. Or adapted to the new medium. Whether it be DVD or Blu-ray. The only lousy versions of it are the old VHS copies. Because VHS loses color. The magnetic tape fades. We don’t know how long these DVDs or Blu-rays will last.

According to Oliver Stone, they are only supposed to last ten years.
How the fuck does he know?

I don’t know. But I think that’s pretty funny. Seriously, ten years is what he said.
He is full of shit. Has anyone been able to prove that yet? Where’s the proof?

I have DVD’s that are ten years old now. I have DVDs from 1999 or 98. They still work just fine.
I’m sure they do if you have a good play back machine and a reasonably good television set. Or a good monitor. How does he know they last ten years?

I think at the time he said that, he didn’t want people to buy Alexander on DVD.
Fuck him and Alexander. Guess how long a print of Alexander lasts? I bet you can’t see a good print of it now. You can’t see a good print of anything. Even the revival houses don’t get a new print made from digital. They run the best print that exists. The other night I watched one of my favorite films. I don’t know if you ever heard of it. Its called Diabolique. H.G. Clouzot directed it. I watched that. It was a Criterion release. Fantastic! It is a black and white movie. The blacks are blacker. The whites are whiter. All of the scenes are richer. The sound is better. It has been cleaned up. And digitized. You hear details you never heard before. It’s a pleasure to watch. And you’re not watching it through a curtain of dirt and scratches, and noise. I love the new medium. Especially Blu-ray. I don’t know what’s next.

It’s 3D in the homes.
Fuck 3D! The Blu-ray is the real cinematech of world cinema. That’s how it’s being preserved. All of these guys that are trying to preserve 35mm negatives? They are wasting their time. There are better ways to see and project this stuff now. It’s called digital. Everything that is made today is made that way. In a few years, I don’t know how many, I’m not a prognosticator like Oliver Stone, who I happen to like, by the way…But an announcement like, “It’s only going to last ten years!” He doesn’t know his ass from left field. Nobody does. We don’t know how long this stuff will last. But we know that before it goes out of style, there will be some new thing to replace it. There will be some little disc the size of a quarter that will give you the best looking image imaginable.

Netflix on-line. It hooks into your game console, and you can call up thousands and thousands of movies instantly.
Right! I have that now. Pay-Per-View.

You can even get Pay-Per-View HD.
It is Pay-Per-View HD. We have it on a huge screen. I run that on a movie screen that I have. We run 35 still. We run new films in 35. But most of the time I sit there in front of a big screen, and I look at the films that I love from the past. And I see and hear them better than I ever was able to in the past.

In the past they’ve tried to remake The Exorcist. There are murmurings of this in the press all the time. What is your take on an Exorcist remake, and would you partake in anyway if that were to happen?
It is what it is. Billy Wilder said it best. You should never really remake a picture. If a picture was great, it will stand. And you can’t top it. If it was a piece of shit, why would you want to do it again? I’m pretty sure that with the way things are going, and the lack of imagination that exists amongst the major studios these days, they are going to eventually remake everything. That is the way of the world. In many ways it doesn’t bother me. It’s like a new recording of something. Many years ago, the great conductors did some great recordings of Beethoven’s Symphony. Today, there are great conductors still doing Beethoven’s Symphony. They sound just as good or better. So, yes. Someone could go out and make The Exorcist better than I did. Let me put it to you this way. All of the sequels suck. All of the fucking sequels of it? I wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire. They are all shit. One of the reasons they are is because the people that made them have no belief in the original story. It was about shtick and putting their own imprimatur on it rather than a belief in the story, or an understanding of what that story was about. Which was faith. Sure, you could go out and make Jaws today. But all of the sequels to Jaws weren’t good. They are all worthless. The Godfather II is the only sequel that I have ever seen that is as good as or better than the original. Possibly. It is as good.

What about The Empire Strikes Back?
I’m not a fan of that. That is not for me. That is for my nephews and nieces. I don’t get it.

Have you ever seen License to Drive? Which was originally titled To Live and Drive in L.A.? If so, how do you think your two films compare? Do you have a good sense of humor when it comes to other directors poking a little bit of fun at your films, as important to the history of filmmaking as they may be?
I’ve never heard of it. I don’t mind pastiches. One of the funniest things I have ever seen is when Richard Pryor did a skit of The Exorcist on Saturday Night Live. It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. A lot of my films have been lampooned or pastiched over the years. When they’re funny, I enjoy them. I never heard of License to Drive. But a lot of the chase scenes I did were stolen. One of those stupid Lethal Weapon movies? They took the chase from To Live and Die in L.A. and basically copied it. The car driving into wrong way traffic.

In License to Drive, they have the car driving backwards.
Ah, fuck them. I’ve never seen that, but I have seen Lethal Weapon. It’s actually pretty good. You can’t copyright this stuff. All the ideas are out there, and they’re in play. More than ever. Rap artists grab onto old records and sample the stuff. There is nothing you can do. I will say, I have seen lampoons of my work. And I have really enjoyed them. But no, I would never do another version of The Exorcist. As far as I’m concerned, that’s it. That is all I have to say about it. That’s all Bill Blatty had to say. We said what we wanted to say. Neither one of us view it as a horror film. We view it as a film about the mysteries of faith. It’s easier for people to call it a horror film. Or a great horror film. Or the greatest horror film ever made. Whenever I see that, I feel a great distance from it. Because, first of all, that story was based on an actual case. It was the only case in the early twentieth century that the Catholic church authenticated as a case of demonic possession in America. In other countries, there are two or three exorcisms preformed everyday before breakfast. In the United States, in the Catholic Church, that is the only case that was ever authenticated to be demonic possession. When I found that out, my approach to it became completely different. The thematic approach was that this was really happening. This wasn’t a horror film, or a fantasy. Yes, there are some horrific elements in it. I grant you that. What is in it is evil. What is also in it is good. 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.

What do you think of the film that just came out, Paranormal Activity? Which certainly plays on what you did in the past.
I thought it was great. They made the film for fifteen thousand dollars. Some guy shot it in his house. Brilliant. And it worked. It delivered. Now I see that some of the studios are trying to set up divisions just to replicate that. But you can’t. That, and a film like The Blair Witch Project, which was great? They are one-offs. I don’t know what they’ll do next. But you can’t replicate that. This was an idea that somebody had. Like the original Saw. This young man from Australia and his partner. They were film students. And they had this idea. They came up with this concept. It was successful. So the studio jumped on that and started making a bunch of them. Four, and five, and six. I don’t know. But The Blair Witch Project is a one-off. You can’t commission guys to sit at a desk and figure out something else like that. These were real visions. Paranormal Activity is a real personal vision. Who is this guy? I don’t even know his name. I don’t know, but the film is terrific. I don’t remember the names of the two kids that did The Blair Witch Project, but God that picture worked. It was made for no money. Because they knew exactly what they were doing. They didn’t have a bunch of studio overhead cracked onto it. Nor the advice of these guys who are all there to “help the director”. They just went out and made their vision. And its great. That sort of thing can’t be replicated. It’s a vision. It’s an inspiration. I love those two films. I can’t think of other things that have worked quite as well. That are in that same sort of genre.

The only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Cloverfield. Which I didn’t really care for.
I didn’t think that was bad. In its own way. That cost a bit more. But in it’s own way, I thought it was very, very good.

 

PRODUCTION DESIGN

Two-time Academy Award nominee, American production designer Lilly Kilvert has worked on films such as Legends of the Fall, Strange Days, The Crucible, The Last Samurai and Valkyrie, while To Live and Die in L.A. was one of the highlights of the earlier phase of her career. It was her first big Hollywood production.

“I was asked by Billy Friedkin, who called me at home to do his film To Live and Die in L.A. Bill Friedkin is a very scary guy, eats the crew for snacks, but he was very polite to me. The film was set in the flats of Encino, it was a tale of counterfeiters. I asked Billy if he would mind if we shoot around looking down at LA, he said whatever you want. It was shot by the great DP Robby Müller. I scouted and met some real counterfeiters, learned the process, and picked locations to show to Billy. He didn’t want to scout and said: if you love them, I am sure they are perfect. The images are wonderful, Robby’s way of using inside out lighting was magical.”—Lilly Kilvert

 

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

To Live and Die in L.A.: Filming the car chase and airport scenes.

 

TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.: AN AMORAL MASTERPIECE

What makes the characters of Friedkin’s neo-noir compelling isn’t the fact that they’re good, bad or indifferent; it’s that desire to see if they can get away with everything they’ve done. The excess and corruption of Reagan-era America is so pervasive and all-consuming that it defies gravity and trickles upwards instead of downwards. It says a lot that by the end of the film the rot that was so obviously within Masters can be easily seen in the actions and desires of Chance and Vukovich. It’s impossible for these men to abide by the morals the Secret Service and audience expects of them because by the end of the film these morals no longer exist.

To Live and Die in L.A. is an amoral masterpiece. Murtaugh and Riggs or Tango and Cash might act as cavalier as Chance and Vukovich but there’s always a line. It’s the other side of these characters’ compelling nature. Michael Mann shows it best in the likes of Thief, Heat and Miami Vice. Mann’s characters operate on the edges of a line drawn by him so that the audience is always on their side. Friedkin spray paints “FUCK” in all caps over that line. Where directors like Mann or Lethal Weapon’s Richard Donner restore order at the end of their films Friedkin sows more chaos because it reflects the world he sees.—HeadStuff

 

Find the time to listen to this wonderful masterclass delivered by Friedkin and moderated by Nicolas Winding Refn at CPH PIX Festival 2014, Denmark’s biggest celebration of fiction films. For a passionate cinephile eager to learn, there’s few better ways to spend two hours.

 

To continue watching the great Friedkin-Refn interaction, check out the priceless 90-minute conversation centered around Friedkin’s brilliant films like Sorcerer and The Exorcist. At one point, as Refn calls Only God Forgives a masterpiece and draws a comparison between Drive and Citizen Kane, Friedkin gives a priceless response, in his entertaining style explaining only time will tell how Refn’s films hold up. “Four years is a zip. It’s not even a blip. It’s not a pimple on the asshole of humanity.”

 

It’s great to see stunt coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker in action. This legend worked on films such as The Godfather III, Harold and Maude and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but specialized in epic car chases such as this one in Friedkin’s classic.

 

Here are several photos and movie stills taken 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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