August 28, 2007

"As Best as I Can Define It"

Reeler Interview: Oscar-winner Friedkin on dual revivals of NYC classics French Connection and Cruising

By S.T. VanAirsdale

And... action: (L-R) William Friedkin, Gene Hackman and Fernando Rey on the set of The French Connection (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

In a way, 2007 is shaping up as the year of director William Friedkin. At least in New York, anyway: In addition to May's unsettling paranoiac melodrama Bug, the coming weeks promise theatrical revivals of his Oscar-winning 1971 cop thriller The French Connection (opening this Friday at Film Forum) and his controversial 1980 leather-bar detective epic Cruising (opening Sept. 7 before finally arriving on DVD Sept. 18). The turbulent backstories of each film -- the former shooting live car chases in front of unwitting passers-by in Brooklyn, the latter enduring the wrath of the city's gay community while filming in the West Village -- bespeak only a few of the legends accompanying Friedkin's work, a 40-year canon as rigorous, challenging and demanding of its viewers as its haunted inhabitants onscreen.

The Reeler caught up with Friedkin recently to discuss his films' NYC revivals, the casting ordeal of The French Connection and just who was that jockstrapped man in Cruising.

THE REELER: In a very literal sense, The French Connection and Cruising's almost simultaneous comebacks in the city seem pretty phenomenal. Would you agree?

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I think it's just that they just haven't dated much. Nothing in them seems phony; I think they retain a kind of timelessness, although the details of what would happen in both Cruising and The French Connection are different today. Law enforcement, for example. The scene in Cruising has changed to some extent from what it was when I made the film, and in The French Connection, the ability to transcend the action scenes we did is now just monumental in terms of films like The Bourne Ultimatum. It isn't that people haven't seen action scenes before that measure up to what's being done today. But there is a kind of timelessness to the performances and, I guess, to the story. They're original, as best as I can define it. They're not sequels of anything or rip-offs of anything else.

R: On the set of The French Connection, there was some tension between you and Gene Hackman. He wasn't even your first choice to portray Popeye Doyle. Didn't you want Jimmy Breslin?

WF: There were a lot of people. We wanted Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Peter Boyle. Jimmy Breslin was interested, of course, and so we spent a week trying to improvise some of the scenes. I had cast Roy Scheider, and I'd cast a couple of the smaller parts. We couldn't offer it to Paul Newman, because we were just told he was way out of our price range. I wanted Jackie Gleason for it, and (20th Century Fox head of production) Dick Zanuck said he wouldn't do the picture with Gleason. He had recently made a film for them called Gigot, which was a silent movie, mostly, about a clown that Gleason played. I think it was the lowest grossing film in the history of Fox. So they wouldn't go with Jackie Gleason.

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Breslin was a friend of mine at the time; I used to see quite a bit of him and other people in that circle, and what I was looking for with Jackie Gleason and Peter Boyle was kind of a big, dark Irishman. The studio didn't care who I used, so I said, "Jimmy, you wanna take a shot at this?" We worked out for a week; one day he would be brilliant, and the next day he had no idea what he was doing. On the last day he said to me, "Listen, isn't there a car chase in this movie?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Well, I promised my mother on her deathbed that I'd never drive a car. I don't know how to drive." That gave me an excuse to cut him loose. He just wasn't making it. An agent suggested Gene Hackman, and basically he was the last man standing. We had to make the film.

R: Cruising and The French Connection have more than just New York detective stories in common. These are guys who are possessed by their jobs, almost to the point of ruination. Did you see parallels between Popeye Doyle and Steve Burns?

That's why I was attracted to both films. It's basically a theme that's run through all of my films: the thin line between good and evil. Especially with cops, guys who could go either way. I don't always realize it right away; I do now that it's pointed out -- I'm sort of aware of it.

R: There's a giant black enforcer in a jockstrap who shows up in Cruising's interrogation sequence. What the hell was that?

WF: That was a real thing that happened -- constantly. Not just in cases involving crimes in the gay world. And that's the guy who did it. I forget his name. When they were interrogating a suspect -- and this is before Miranda rues and legal restrictions on cops to beat a confession out of somebody -- who they thought was guilty or wasn't talking to them, they had this big African-American cop come in in a jockstrap and a cowboy hat and whack the guy and walk out of the room. The witness would get into court and his lawyer would say, "The only reason he confessed is because they beat it out of him." The judge was often in on it, and he'd say, "Who beat it out of him?" "It was a big black guy in a jockstrap and a cowboy hat!" And the judge would say, "In a police station? You've gotta be kidding. Three years!" I would have to say that was standard police procedure, especially in the '60s.

R: Which gave the MPAA ratings board bigger fits: Regan MacNeil masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist or a man slathering his arm with lube for an anal fisting sequence in Cruising?

Dancer in the dark: Al Pacino in Cruising (Photo: Warner Bros.)

WF: There were two different boards. The ratings board at the time of The Exorcist was run by a man called Aaron Stern. He was a psychiatrist in private practice in New York. He may still be, I don't know. He actually ran The Exorcist, and usually the head of the board doesn't run the movie; usually it was left to the members of the board to run it and to rate it. But one half-hour after he saw The Exorcist with his ratings board, he called me. I had never met him; I didn't even know him except by name. And he said, "Look, I just saw The Exorcist, and I'm going to give it an R rating -- with no cuts. It's a very powerful picture. We're going to take a lot of heat for giving you an R without any cuts, and Warner Bros will take a lot of heat, too, but I think it should be widely seen. It's a great movie."

When we came to do Cruising in 1979-80, the board was being run by a totally different kind of guy: Richard Heffner. He had one of the longest-running shows on public broadcasting, called The Open Mind. But in my opinion, Richard Heffner was really a prude -- very cautious and conservative. He saw the film and he freaked out. He thought that he no way to even rate it. He suggested to (producer) Jerry Weintraub and I that we go to Aaron Stern, who had been consulting with the ratings board on difficult pictures. I called Aaron and I said, "You know, Dick Heffner --" And he said, "Yeah, I know. Bring the film in." He took 50 days -- at $1,000 per day -- to advise us on how to cut the film for an R. And we went back and forth and back and forth about 50 times before they gave us the R rating. Heffner said, "There aren't enough X's in the alphabet for this picture."

R: So what didn't make it?

WF: What didn't make it didn't make it. I'm not about to circumvent the ratings board now and describe all the scenes that aren't in the movie. There's about a half-hour to 40 minutes. But I would have to say is was mostly just more of what was going on in the clubs, and they didn't change or advance the story in any major way.

R: Did you have a situation with Pacino that was similar at all to the one with Hackman -- pushing him to this uncomfortable level of involvement with his character?

WF: I don't recall that at all. He did pretty much everything without any complaint or problems. At a certain point we started to get picketed while we were filming, and I know that bothered Al tremendously; he didn't see that coming. I must say I didn't either. I was really taken aback by the virulent nature of the protests that occurred back then.

R: But we're a generation on, and filmgoers are far more aware of gay lifestyles and related social issues in cinema. Was this the right time culturally to reintroduce this film to audiences?

WF: First of all, those decisions aren't made by me. Second, if I were to second-guess the audience reaction to many of my films, I probably would not have released many of them. The audience reaction varies from audience to audience, individual to individual. I have never noticed one specific reaction to Cruising. There've been different reactions to every film I've ever made, and that's part of putting something out in the marketplace. Some people love it and think it's great; some people don't. And there is no accounting for taste either way. The point is, I'm proud of Cruising.

R: Of course, even 25 years after that, America was still bracing itself for Brokeback Mountain --

WF: I wasn't. Look: One good thing about a motion picture -- which you don't often find -- is that it stimulates people, often in controversial ways. If you can get somebody agitated over a movie today, God bless you.

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