The Director's Chair Interviews
by Mark Kermode
The Guardian, Thursday, October 22, 1998
Mark Kermode: ...In my opinion William Friedkin directed the greatest film ever made, which is The Exorcist... I'm thrilled the NFT have done this season. It enables people to see The People versus Paul Krumps and the early TV work. Movies like Cruising, which is having a fantastic critical reappraisal at the moment, movies like Sorcerer that need to be seen on the big screen, and spanking new prints like the Boys in the Band - a personal favourite of mine... I'm absolutely thrilled to be able to introduce the man who made the greatest movie of all time. Ladies and gentlemen, William Friedkin.
William Friedkin: They waived the £5 for that!
MK: Just a few days ago you and I had a conversation and I asked you whether you remembered the first film you'd ever seen. You didn't particularly remember the film but you remembered the experience and this has struck me profoundly. I wonder if you could tell the audience what happened that first time you went to the cinema?
WF: I don't remember the film but I was told later by my mother that it was called Nun With The Lonely Heart. I was about four years old or so and she took me to a theatre in Chicago called The Pantheon Theatre. I didn't know what to expect.
It was a nice, bright place, then all of a sudden the lights went down, the curtains parted, lights came on the screen and sound, and I was absolutely terrified. It scared the hell out of me. I started screaming the minute the title card came on and I was terrified and we had to leave, and so we never saw the picture. I didn't go back to a theatre for years.
MK: What was it about the combination of light and sound that did that to you? Obviously the picture itself wasn't that scary. What was it?
WF: I have no idea, it was the experience. I was unprepared for it. I was much to young to be in a cinema and I just couldn't handle it.
MK: When you first started making what would become films, you started out in television. And you went from TV to Paul Krump. How did you learn your trade in Chicago in television?
WF: Well, I worked in live television for many years before I did anything in film. And of course live television technique is totally different. I learned nothing from live television other than the fact that you must be able to communicate with the people who have these various skills in order to get anything done.
I mean, if you're a painter you don't have to communicate with anyone. You can be alone in a room with a blank canvas with some brushes and some paint. If you want to compose music all you need is really some music paper and a pencil. But if you want to direct a film you need a five-tonne pencil and a lot of people to help you work it, because it takes literally tonnes of equipment and various skills to utilise this equipment properly. So the first thing I learnt from live TV is that you had to be able to communicate with people with various skills in order to communicate with a larger public.
MK: You started off as a post boy, right, you didn't get trained through that...
WF: I was in the mail room of a television station. I wanted to go to college but we had no money and I was a terrible student so I gave that up quickly. You know I really wanted to go to college to play basketball. I thought I had the ability to be a college basketball player. I'd played it in high school.
And then one day we had our first game against an all-black team and that was the end of my basketball career. The game was suddenly being played above the rim and I was very much below the rim. So I didn't do that. Instead, I went into the mail room of this television station because it presented opportunities to young people to learn live television, to learn this craft. There were no schools for it then.
MK: So how did you get from that to making The People versus Paul Krump, which is the thing which put you on the map?
WF: The People versus Paul Krump is a documentary about a black man on death row in Chicago and I had heard about this fellow. I mean everything that comes to you, I think in any walk of life and at any time in my opinion is a gift from God. I met this fellow at a party. I don't know why it was at a party. I hate parties.
This was a party in Chicago and there was a fellow there who was very interesting. He was a Protestant priest and he was the chaplain at the Cook County jail which had death row in Chicago. Just to make conversation, I asked him: "how many people are on death row now?" And he said: "It's about eleven or twelve waiting to die over the next few months, but there's one fellow who I think is innocent. He's the only guy I've met who's come through here that I think may be innocent. His name is Paul Krump." And the conversation just stayed in my mind.
The next day I phoned him and said: "Do you think I could meet this fellow?" And he said: "Let me see." So he arranged for me to go in and meet Paul Krump in his cell on death row and to meet the warden of the Cook County Jail. His name was Jack Johnson and he had executed three people and he did not want to execute anyone else. So he welcomed my coming in there because when I met Paul Krump I thought I could make a film that might be able to save this fellow's life.
It seemed to me that film was that powerful a medium that it could be used as a kind of cord of last resort. But as I say, I had no idea how to make a film. I went to the television station that I was working for and I asked them if they would finance me in making this film. They said absolutely not, we don't want films, we don't want to get people out of prison, we make live television here.
So I went to another television station in Chicago that wanted to hire me and I asked the general manager there. I said, if you finance this film, I'll come to work for you. And he did. He financed the film and I went with two other people to an equipment rental house in Chicago and we said, if you teach us how to use a camera and to get sound with a tape recorder we'll rent your equipment. We're going to make a movie. So they taught us in about half an hour the only lesson I've ever had in the camera and in sound. How to get focus, how to load the film, how to use the film in synch with sound equipment.
We set up and I had total access to Cook County Jail for three months and made this film to save this fellow's life. It did accomplish that. The governor at Illinois at the time was advised by his parole pardon board to let Paul Krump die in the electric chair. I showed the film to the governor and he pardoned Krump and reduced his sentence to life imprisonment, without possibility of parole. But about five years ago, Paul Krump was finally released, after doing about 40 years in prison. I worked for years to get him totally released. But by the time he did get released his mind had gone, of course. But he went back to live with his sister and her family in Chicago.
But that film also won a great many film festivals for documentary and was seen by other people. That's how I got offers to come out to California and make documentary films, which was the first thing I did on film.
MK: It's very interesting because throughout your work, people will say in films you made like French Connection and The Exorcist, the thing that makes them work is their documentary quality, that you have a documentary quality within your drama. What's interesting, looking at something like Paul Krump, is that it's a documentary with very dramatic qualities. There are restagings of events, and of course there is a crucial encounter between you and Krump in which Krump breaks down, which, of course, you dramatically staged.
WF: Yeah, that's true.
MK: Want to tell me how you did it?
WF: In your BBC documentary and in your book you mentioned the fact that I actually slapped an actor in the face to draw a performance out of him. That is true. But it started with this fellow Paul Krump who was on death row, with weeks to live, when my film came out. And the last sequence I wanted to film with him is him telling his story to me on camera the way he'd told it to me when I first met him. When he told me what had happened to him, which was that he had been beaten and had his confession beaten out of him by the Chicago Police. He was beaten to a pulp and made to confess to a crime he didn't commit.
And when he told me the story, which took about 10 minutes, he broke down in tears and finished through his tears. When I put the camera on him, of course, as most people will do when confronted with a camera, you tense up. And he tensed up and the story became really dry and I was running out of film. And he did not have the emotional impact of the story on film as he did when he told it to me.
And I thought, what am I going to do? And all of these guards and inmates were around watching. The place was full of armed guards, watching this interview, so I said to the camera man, just keep the camera rolling. And I said "Paul, do you trust me?" He said "Sure I trust you Bill." I said: "Do you love me?" He said: "Yes, I love you." I said: "All right, I'm going to roll the camera, and you just tell me the story again. Let's start again." And I turned away, and I turned back and I slapped him across the face. He was shocked by that. He was shocked and he was taken aback and he understood what I was doing and it shocked him into an emotional state that allowed him to tell his story as movingly as he ultimately did.
I used that again some 20 years later when I made The Exorcist. It came to one of the last scenes where Priest Dire has to give the last rites to his friend and colleague Father Kerres, and the fellow who played father Dire was not an actor. He was a real priest and he'd really not acted before and he had to give the last rites emotionally. And we had the same problem. It was a freezing cold night, it was very difficult physical conditions, and 10 takes, 12 takes, it wasn't working. And I did the same thing. I said: "Bill, do you trust me?" He said: "I sure do Bill."
After he did the scene and broke into tears while he's administering the last rites to his friend. After he did it, of course, he hugged me and thanked me. But I wouldn't be talking about this, but Mr Kermode has uprooted it and I now have the reputation of someone who hits actors!... You know, there's Hitchcock's famous expression that actors are cattle and of course, when he was asked if that was what he said, he said no, I never said actors were cattle, they should be treated like cattle, that's all. Well, I don't subscribe to that at all, and I would never do that unless I had to get the same result some other time.
MK: Since you mentioned Hitchcock, you of course, directed the last ever Hitchcock hour. I always had the impression that Hitchcock had some kind of great, overriding control of it, but your experience of it was that he was barely there at all.
WF: In the last year of a 10-year series of the Alfred Hitchcock hour all he would do was come in and read his introductions. You may have seen it. He'd come in and say good evening and then say something very witty and charming and then it would proceed to be a television show where people were getting cut up.
On the last day that I was filming - it was a five-day shoot of the Hitchcock hour with John Gavin - Hitchcock was brought in. He was surrounded by all these black suits, who were the Universal Studio's brass, and they followed Hitchcock around like a swarm of crows. If he would move this way a group of them would move this way. They'd be wherever he was. If he wanted a glass of water it'd be there. There were all these X men hanging around.
And the producer of the series, who did have a lot to do with the show, a man named Norman Loid, who cast them and worked on the scripts and picked the directors, he brought Hitchcock over to meet me.
Hitchcock came over and I told him I was really honoured to meet him and I extended my hand. And he gave me his hand like a royal hand show. He handed it to me like a dead fish to shake and he said: "Mr Friedkin, I see that you're not wearing a tie." And I thought he was putting me on. I said: "No sir, I didn't put on a tie today." And he said: "Usually our directors wear ties." And he walked away. And that was it. That was the only thing he ever taught me about film-making. But boy, I'll tell you, the lesson really stuck, because I see that most of you in the audience aren't wearing ties!
The coda to that story is that a few years later, I had made The French Connection, and I was at the Director's Guilds Awards in Los Angeles and the film had won and I came down off the platform with this director's award in my arms. It was in a banquet room and there at the first table was Hitchcock. I had a tuxedo with one of those flashy string bow ties, and I went down to Hitchcock, holding my award and I snapped my tie at him and said: "How do you like the tie, Hitch?" And he sort of stared at me. Of course he didn't remember at all, but I carried that with me for five years. I said, one day I'm going to get this fat bastard. And I did. But he was great. As you all know. This guy was incredible. He wrote the book, and then he threw the book away and wrote another one on how you make film.
MK: On the subject of French Connection. You were the youngest director ever to win the Academy Award for Best Director.
WF: I'm told that. Orson Welles should have won it at 25, but didn't.
MK: It's a good person to be beaten by. But the good thing about French Connection is that, for me, it embodies everything about your films which is interesting. It has an American crime thriller narrative, but it's very influenced in its editing techniques by the French avant garde. It jumps around all over the place and it has this kind of collision - it's a drama but it's shot like a documentary, the camera just follows everyone around. So I was under the impression the first few times I saw it that obviously you had a deep understanding between you and Hackman and you and Roy Scheider. How did you achieve getting them to look like they were Ego and Rosso, and then how did you create an environment in which they could be those scummy policemen?
WF: Well I let them go around with the two detectives whose lives they were portraying. They went around with these two guys for about a month or so. Gene Hackman lobbied to get this role - he really wanted to do it and he'd never starred in a film before. But when he came to portray this guy, after trailing him for around a month, he'd seen that this guy was a real racist, beating up black people, planting evidence on them, and he had reservations.
Gene was a genuine liberal, and he didn't really like Eddy Eagan and he didn't want to bring out that side of himself which was buried deep within him but which he had managed to cover for many years. So I constantly prodded him to become more and more evil, because the film is about that thin line between the policeman and the criminal. And the policeman in that film is just as evil and demented - if not more so - than the narcotics smuggler.
The narcotics smuggler is a gentleman. He's kind to people, to his wife, and he's a gourmet and he sends the wine back if it isn't right. And he's dressed very well. But the cop is a guy who eats pizza in the street and cold coffee. And he brutalises women and he doesn't care what happens to the general public so long as he gets his prey. And Hackman had a hard time doing that because of his nature, and I used to prod him to do that.
There's a scene where he has to slap around a black kid to make him confess to something. And Gene couldn't do that. Fifteen takes, and the black kid finally says, listen, just hit me in the face and get over with it, let's go home. And while this was going on Eddy Eagan would be standing right next to the camera and Eagan would finally, when he saw it work, turn to the crew and say: "Look at him, this guy's more me than me."
And Hackman would go: "Oh, Jesus!" That was the most difficult performance I've ever had to work with, because he just didn't want to do it. He's a wonderful actor, a great actor, but very often you encounter something like that. Where the actor's own nature is at war with the character he or she is portraying.
MK: There is a similarity between that and - although it looks very different - To Live and Die in LA and some of your earlier documentary work, that what you're very interested in is the difference between the good guys and the bad guys and how they all blur together. It seems to me that the area that this comes together most is Cruising. Now Cruising is a story about a cop going undercover who may or may not become the killer that he is searching out. By your own admission, the story is elliptical to the point that you don't know at the end who did what.
That film provoked this enormous form of controversy when it first came out and you've now said that in fact it was 40 minutes shorter than you'd wanted it to be. Are we going to see the proper version of Cruising and is it substantially darker than the film you made originally?
WF: Very much so. The film was really heavily edited by the man who was head of the ratings board at that time. He was a very uptight guy. He had a television programme on public broadcasting that was called the Open Mind that we all referred to as The Empty Head. His name was Richard Heffner and he was a very starched guy. But the fellow who produced Cruising was a rock and roll concert producer named Jerry Weintraub and he had produced concerts of Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra and many others. And he produced the film Cruising and he's a typical American out-going guy.
So he invited Richard Heffner to come to his house to see the film at his house, which is never done. The head of the ratings board at your house! I mean, we don't even know who is on the ratings board. There's seven or eight people that are chosen, somehow... I think they're members of the parents-teachers association or something! Literally. And we don't know who they are or how they come to their decisions. But there is a head guy who can influence these decisions.
Jerry called this guy Richard Heffner who we didn't know said: "Hey Dick. Why don't you come to my house and watch the picture. I've got a beautiful house at the beach." Sure enough, Heffner turned up at the house for dinner to see Cruising before it had been rated, to give it a rating. And we sat around at dinner watching the ocean waves and the moon. Jerry had several wines and it was sensational. Finally we left the dinner table. Jerry and Mrs Weintraub and myself and Heffner to go into Jerry's screening room and he was going to see Cruising.
And the film comes up and - I was sitting behind him - and every two minutes or so I hear him sigh and groan. And pretty soon the jacket came off and then the tie came off and then the collar. And I can hear him screaming. And then the lights come up, and he's just sitting there. Jerry and I look at each other and then Jerry says: "Well Dick, what did you think?" And Heffner says: "What did I think? What did I think! Jerry, this is the worst movie ever made. This is awful." And I'm sitting there. And he says: "God, this is terrible. How could you do this! How could you make this film!" And Jerry says: "But what's the rating?" And he said: "Rating! There are not enough Xs in the alphabet! I would have to go and find Xs from some other alphabet. This is a 59,000 X rating is what the rating is!"
And Jerry said - and Jerry was a marvellous actor in his own way - "Dick, you can't do this to me. My life is on that screen. Do you understand that, my whole life is up there. If this film doesn't make money I'm broke. This house goes. My kids." He was virtually on his knees pleading with this guy. And at the end of this, at about 3 o'clock in the morning, Heffner was all red, red and sweating. He couldn't look at me because I had perpetrated this deed and ruined his dinner. But in the end he said: "Look there's a guy in New York who is my predecessor. He's the guy who started the ratings board. His name is Aron Stern and he is a psychiatrist in a private practice. Very often we use him now to consult with difficult films. Why don't you go talk to him and see if he can help you."
I knew Aaron Stern because he had formulated the code for the ratings board and he gave The Exorcist an R rating with no cuts. (R of course meant that children under 16 years of age were restricted from going unless accompanied by a parent.) And he gave the film an R rating without a single frame cut. So I was delighted. So I called Aron and I told him that Heffner said he could help, maybe. And he said, yeah, I'd be happy to help you guys. My fee is £1,000 dollars a day." About 50 days later we had a film that had been cut and messed around. The reason people say that they don't know what happens at the end of this film is because it's all been cut out.
I started to play games with these guys. While they were making me take out first shots and then whole scenes I decided to insert various material. Two or three frames of things that I knew they wouldn't see that are in the film to this day. For example, I had shots of male homosexuality, openly, in the film. You know, men being intimate with men. And I cut two or three frames of this into portions of the film and they're still there to this day and the ratings board would never see it.
In the end, I sat down with Stern and Heffner and ran the picture for them in a screening room and I ran it right through and asked them if they saw anything else I should take out and said it was fine, great.
MK: Aron Stern was the person who got The Exorcist through. It's a particularly moot point at the moment because 25 years later the film is just about to be re-released. When it first came out to the American censors they saw that it was clearly a film which depicts a struggle between good and evil and that the material in it which is graphic is there for a purpose. I remember reading a statement from Jack Valente who said he had no problem with an R rating because, if you looked at the film, there was nothing in it that was not crucial to the way the drama worked. There was nothing in it that could be considered salacious.
Now we have a strange position, which is that 25 years later, the British Board of Film Classification think that that film can not be allowed on video in England because somehow, if it's available on video, it will destroy their word - even though nobody's really sure how. You made that film back in '73, and I think it still plays exactly the same now, the effect of it is still as uplifting and I defy anyone - love it or hate it - not to be moved by it in some way. Does it surprise you that there is that kind of aura around it that it could still be outlawed on video in this country?
WF: I'm really of two minds about that. First of all I'm not that anxious to see it on television, or to see it in everyone's homes. I certainly would not want it to be seen by young children unsupervised. On the other hand, I'm totally against censorship and I believe that when the state comes along and says that the British public is unable to view something because they are too stupid to deal with it, I think that's an insult. When it comes to children, they're also saying that you aren't good parents. You're not responsible enough to keep your children from seeing it, or allowing them to see it and then discuss it with them. You're not responsible. We can see it. We've seen it, the censor board, and as far as we're concerned you can't. I find that very disturbing because I believe in parental responsibility. Your parents should decide whether you can see it or not. And people should be able to decide whether they want to rent it or not. I mean there's all sort of rubbish out there that you can rent at any time...
MK: Exorcist Two for example...
WF: Exorcist Two, which is, well, what can you say. But there is all sorts of terrible stuff around there. I read an interview that you did with Mr Ferman, the censor, in which he said: "Yes, I'm going to ban The Exorcist on video. Not because it's a bad film. On the contrary I think it's an extremely powerful film. Perhaps too powerful." And I thought that was A) condescending and B) insulting to the British public. Again, I don't care whether they put it out or not, I just find it insulting.
MK: In terms of the power of the film, obviously everyone's well aware of the slightly ludicrous statements around when it came out by, for example, Billy Graham, who said that there was an evil embedded in the very cellular of the film. But the interesting thing is that although that comment may provoke laughter, what Billy Graham was responding to - however clumsily - is that there is something about the way in which that film plays that is powerful above and beyond the narrative. For example, Blatty describes it as a struggle between good and evil, Ellen Bersten has said that during the course of that, you evoke good and evil in a way that is tangible and which is experienced by the audience.
My experience of that film over 25 years is that every time I've seen it I get a different film out of it. It looks like a different movie. And I can almost perversely now begin to understand how someone like Billy Graham could have such a perverse reaction to it. If you go in looking for that stuff it's in the film. I wonder if, as the person who made it, you have an opinion on why the film provokes such intense reactions in audiences.
WF: No, I have no idea. I really don't. I know that at the very highest levels of the Catholic Church it was praised. The general of the Jesuit order had his own print of the film and he would screen it for friends and colleagues and the cardinal at New York at the time. So at the very highest levels of the Church of course they recognised that it was very solid Catholic doctrine. But there were other religions and religious leaders who attacked the film. I don't know why. It's really out there in the audience. As the maker of any film, you have no idea what its impact may or may not be. You cannot hope to know that or even think that.
I always thought that this story was almost possible because it's based on an actual case that took place in 1949. And I've read about this case, and read the diaries of the doctors and nurses and priests who were involved. So when I set out to make this film I knew it wasn't a horror film. This was about something that had happened that we couldn't understand. But what the film does have is the ability to make you think: "My God. What is this? What has happened here and why? Why?" And of course we don't have the answer to that.
But what we do know is that the young 14-year-old boy who went through all of this in Mount Rayner Marilyn, in 1949, and who was not from a Catholic family, exhausted everything that internal medicine could do. They went to psychiatry and there were no answers. Finally, the family was led to the Jesuit priests who took the boy to St Louis to a hospital. There were several weeks of exorcism, like you see in the film, but for several weeks, and finally the young man was cured and he's around to this day. I know where he is, although we've never met, and he's got a family with children, and he has no memory of what happened to him when he was 14 years old.
I set out to make the film with that knowledge, that it was going to be a realistic film about inexplicable events. That was my only approach to it. I wasn't going to make a film with snap zooms and under lighting and the materials of a horror film. I know that it's on all these lists of horror films and I accept that, but only because I know that it just shows people's need to categorise it in some way. The reason why it is still screenable is that it is brilliantly written. It is a wonderful screenplay, as screenplays go. I think it's air proof and it's cast brilliantly. The cast simply embodies the characters they play.
MK: I wonder if it's possible to describe at all the sound of the film. It's interesting when you hear The Exorcist soundtrack, especially now on the new print of course, as it's particularly clear. You went on from that film to make movies like The Sorcerer, and just recently you directed an opera in Vienna, and it seems to me that you're making films as much with your ears as your eyes. Most of your films seem to be built from the soundtrack up. And The Exorcist, at the time, I think was described as one of the most avant garde soundtracks in a modern Hollywood movie. Are you aware of your films being orally driven as opposed to visual?
WF: Yeah. I mean, when I was a young man, before television there was dramatic radio, which you have here all the time but it was all we had when I was growing up. There was no TV, just this wonderful dramatic radio. And you'd lie in bed all night and listen to incredibly involving dramas with wonderful sound effects and that influenced me more than any films that I saw.
Also, if someone asked me what film-makers have influenced me I would say none, but a number of composers, especially Shostakovich and Debussy. And I listen at all times to their music. I started with Stravinsky. And that was very influential to the films I was doing, much more so than any movie. Of course, in recent years I have read Proust every day, and I find Proust the most cinematic of writers and a quarry of ideas, and of visual ideas.
There's a gentleman here who's granted me the pleasure of coming to this evening. He's a professor of French literature at Oxford, Professor Malcolm Boyd, and he's just written an absolutely marvellous book called Proust Among The Stars. If you read it, that will draw you into Proust as it draws me even more into an appreciation of this incredible writer who has had such an influence on my own work, not a discernible influence in any way, just inspirational. And that's true of this music.
There was one film that I saw before The Exorcist, and that was a Danish film by an absolutely marvellous Danish director called Karl Theadore Dryer. You might be familiar with him, he directed a film called Vampire and a Joan of Arc that is a classic Joan of Arc. And he did this film that is called Ordead, which means The Word. It is a straightforward film about literal resurrection. It's about the mystery of faith. You see a dead person, the head of a family, and the family is in grief. They pray over the body and in the final image of the film this body rises up from the coffin and it's absolutely believable and breathtaking. And you believe in resurrection at that moment.
That was a kind of guide to me when I was making The Exorcist - straightforward, straight on, with no technique, with no style. I didn't want to clutter the film up with style. I remember a remark that Hemingway had made and he was considered a great stylist of course - and he said in an interview I read: "I have no style. What passes for my style is what I've done to cover up the mistakes that I have made." And that's totally true of my work as well.
This time, I set out consciously to give The Exorcist no style. Just, here it is. So obviously, people do take from it what they bring from it. I'm not trying to tell people what it means. And the conflict I had with Bill Blatty for a while was having eliminated some sequences and dialogue that does tell the audience how to think about this experience. Finally, I said: "Bill, I don't want to tell them how to think. They're smart enough. They will have their own feelings about this." And he said: "Yes, but we want them to know that at the end of the film, God's in his heaven and all's right with the world." And I said: "If they're going to think that way, Bill, that's up to them." So I took the scene out that would let you feel that way. I mean, I certainly feel that way, but I don't want to direct people's ideas. I've really never wanted to.
MK: That's interesting. In The People versus Paul Krump you had a specific aim, to make people think that that guy shouldn't be executed. In movies like Deal of the Century, there is in my mind a very strong anti-arms message. It's a strange comedy with Chevy Chase. It's a weird movie to watch, but the message appears to be quite clear. There are two versions of Rampage, in which one version seems to say the legal system is falling apart but the death penalty is not a good thing. So it's not like you never make didactic films, is it?
WF: I don't intentionally make didactic films but it could happen. Obviously, as Flaubert said about Madame Bovary: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." I am all of the characters in all of my films, in every imaginable way, and I don't make them unless I feel that way about them in some way. I understand, in other words, what these characters are about. And very often I will come down on one side or another, so I can't say that all my films are even-handed but I sure wish that they were. I certainly strive for that, and in the sense that they're not it's a failure of direction.
MK: One more question, before we throw this open to the audience for some questions. I've just finished reading the script to Battle Grease, which you are potentially going to work on. This is a script based on the diaries of Jack the Ripper and is a very powerful piece of work. You've adapted it from the literary source. Can you tell us something about what the film means to you. For me, the connection is that, like The Exorcist and George Town, it's a film about a strange event happening that is absolutely rooted in geography. It's rooted in the place in which it happens.
WF: Yes and it's also rooted in reality. Some of you may be familiar with the Florence Maybrick murder case which occurred in Liverpool in 1890. Florence Maybrick was the only American woman ever to be put on trial in a British court for murder. And there was a great outcry, both in America and here, over the trial. Maybrick was accused of having poisoned her husband James Maybrick in Liverpool in 1888 and stood trial and was found guilty of having murdered her husband. She was a young American woman who married this chap who was about two and a half times her age. He was a cotton broker in Liverpool and he was an open user of arsenic and strychnine, that you could buy over the counter as a sexual stimulant. Eventually he died as an overdose of these two.
She was found guilty of his murder and sentenced to death at the gallows and there were literally hundreds of thousands of signatures to save her life. The man who was the ambassador to the Court of St James then, Robert Lincoln, who was Abraham Lincoln's son, he petitioned Queen Victoria and the British government to save her life, which they did. She did 15 years in a British prison, in several British prisons, and then she was released. She went back to America, where she lived until 1941.
Then these diaries were found about five years ago and they're James Maybrick's diaries where he is giving every imaginable detail about the Ripper murders and why he had done them. The diaries were sent to the British museum where there was a lot of debate about whether they were authentic or not. But finally they came down to the fact that the paper and ink did date from that period and the diaries were shown to the person who kept the Ripper files at that time, over at Scotland Yard. (These files are still open, because there are still five unsolved murders). And he said there were details in these books that were only available to the police at the time, and the murderer. So I'm going to try and make a film of that story, mostly from her point of view, from the woman who was married to this fellow.
MK: I'm going to ask you one more thing, because I'd like to follow this up. It does seem that what you've said is out of sync with the way Hollywood works today. It's been said of a lot of your work that you look into dark areas that other film-makers wouldn't go into, and certainly there are scenes in some of your movies that have surprised audiences.
Nowadays, audiences seem to want some kind of resolution, they want a hero, someone to root for. The biggest selling movie of all time is Titanic. I was wondering whether you, as someone who made all these films, The Exorcist, The French Connection, Cruising, The Sorcerer... whether you feel there is a place for you in modern Hollywood, or whether it's a place that has shut itself down.
WF: Well, you know, I just try and keep working as best I can. You know William Goldman, who is a wonderful screen writer and an essayist who writes a lot about film, says really what it's all about if you work in Hollywood is the next job. If you're Orson Welles or Billy Wilder and the phone stops ringing, you don't have a job. Your reputation means nothing.
And you know, I like a number of the films I see today. Titanic, I thought, was terrific. I think it's certainly worthy of the attention it got. I still, though, pursue the kind of things that interest me. I have to do that. And if they work then fine and if they don't work then I'll be like Gustav Mahler who wrote 10 symphonies, all of which failed. And at the end of the 10th symphony, when it premiered and got all these horrible reviews, he turned to his wife and said: "You know, I must be doing something wrong."
Vincent Van Gogh was another one. He made about 3,000 paintings in a 10-year period and couldn't sell one. Or maybe he did sell one in his lifetime and that was it. Died at the age of 37, an abject failure. So what right has anyone who makes movies have to say: "Jesus, they don't like my films." I mean, who gives a damn! You know I'm just very happy to have a job and be working.
There's that wonderful anecdote about Van Gogh that I love to tell. On the day in 1990 when the Van Gogh painting, the portrait of Doctor Gachet, sold at auction for $82 million to a Japanese billionaire, Johnny Carson went on television. He was an American comedian with his own TV show, and he came on and said: "You know, a painting sold at auction today for $82 million. It's the highest price ever paid for a painting, and of course, it was a Vincent Van Gogh. But did you know that when Van Gogh made this painting he was in a mental institution. And the reason he was in the medical institution is because he said: "One day I'm going to sell a painting for $82 million." And that's how I feel a lot of the time.
Not all my films have had the same reception, not all of them are good or of the same quality. But I have certainly tried with each and every one of them. I really don't believe there are any old movies, or old literature, or old music. I believe that there are occasionally works that speak to every generation and beyond. So I'm pleased that 25 years after I made this film you can sit here and watch it and not walk out on it and it still has an impact for many of you. That to me is a tremendous reward. To have this honour from the National Film Theatre, it's more than I ever expected when I started out in the mail room in a television station in Chicago and let everyone down, because they thought that one day I would take over the mail room!
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