Interview with William Friedkin, Director of The Exorcist

Author: L'Osservatore Romano

As a believer against the evil one

“Today, America is more divided than ever before. Race, religion, sex: everything is a source of division. The tension is higher than I can remember in years. Time is short, as Saint Paul said to the Corinthians”. He didn’t quote the Pauline letter directly; indeed the exact phrase is “the appointed time has grown very short", but William Friedkin is a mindful connoisseur of Scripture, in addition to being one of the most renowned directors of American cinema.

Is there more tension today than in the 1960s?

Not more but in a different way. The rioting is smaller but the anger and the rage that people have here — you can almost feel it. You can almost touch it ... it’s terrible [in the USA] and so many places....

In the early 1970s you decided to make a flm out of William Peter Blatty’s book, “The Exorcist". Why?

It was given to me by [Blatty himself,] a man I knew only slightly, but he trusted me and he loved my work. I was young; he was a little older. When he wrote this book he knew that I had a background in documentary films as well, and he wanted the story to be filmed as realistically as possible, and so did I. We did not want to make a scary horror film or a fantasy film. At that time as well as today, the public knows very little about exorcism, little to nothing. Everything that is known about it is sensationalized in the public, and certainly the film I made contributed to that; there is no question about it. Because people regarded it as a horror film. But I made the film as a believer.

Apart from the original novel, was there some film that, precisely for its spiritual dimension, inspired your creation of The Exorcist?

The most spiritual movie I’ve ever seen is called “Ordet” by Carl Theodor Drever.... It shows a literal resurrection, so believable. I saw this movie years before I made The Exorcist, and I knew because of that film that I could show a literal exorcism. I could show it literally not as some kind of a horror film. Dreyer approached the theme of the miracle very directly, showing the exact resurrection of the lead character, without glossing over it, without beating around the bush. That is how I wanted to approach the theme of exorcism. So I thought a lot about that film while I was shooting mine. Likewise, I wanted to present the supernatural dimension in the same direct way, with the same intensity.

Can you explain how you directed “The Exorcist" as a believer?

I believed in the possibility without knowing the details. I believed in the possibility of demonic possession and the possibility of exorcism, and this novel was based on an actual case. It was the case of a 14-year-old boy in Maryland, a state in the United States. I spoke to the boy’s aunt, and she was around when all this happened and she gave a lot of the details of what occurred. We had to make the film using a girl instead of a boy because the Church ... at that time wanted to take all pressure off the family of the boy, so we did it as fiction, not a documentary.... But a lot of the details were the details from the actual case.... For the exorcism sequence I had as a technical advisor Rev. John Nicola, the foremost expert in this country on exorcism. He was with the Church of the Immaculate Conception. He was my technical advisor on the set and he helped me to edit the ritual so that the gestures that the priests performed were correct. I repeat: I made the film as a believer not as a sceptic.

Where does your faith come from: your education, your family?

I was raised in the Jewish faith. I was Bar Mitzvahed. To be honest, I never felt close to the ritual in the Jewish faith. But I did to the ritual in the Christian, in the Catholic faith. Jesus was a Jew, he was bom, he lived and died as a Jew. He was not a Catholic. I did and still do feel close to it and I believe in the teachings of Jesus, I believed in teachings of Jesus when I made the film and I do to this day. It’s the miracle of faith. Like anyone who believes, I can’t give you solid evidence. I just have my belief.

And today, do you consider yourself either Jewish or Christian?

I don’t have any arguments against any faith, really. I personally believe in the teachings of Jesus more than anything, and I have read a lot of things that go against the teachings of Jesus. For example I am very fond of the writings of Christopher Hitchens. He is dead now, but he was a prominent writer against Christianity. His arguments are very convincing, and he was the devil’s advocate against the Sainthood of Mother Teresa. I thought he was a really great writer, but it only made my faith stronger. I just have this belief, and that is why I made the movie. I made that film, as did [Blatty], to spread the Gospel.

If you’re watching closely you realize that the film’s true protagonist is not the girl but the Catholic priest. The Catholic priest in the story is losing his own faith through various incidents in his life, the dying and the death of his mother, that he was not there for her when she needed him. And he is feeling guilty and he is losing his faith and he, not the little girl, is the target of the demon. The young priest who tells an older priest in the film that he is losing his faith. He is the target of the demon. The weakness that he is showing is what makes the demon target him. And so what he witnesses and goes through with this young girl is directed to him, because the demon is showing him that humanity is no good, even in an innocent young child; there is evil within her.

What was the atmosphere like on the set during filming?

I tried to keep the atmosphere very light. I tried to make it so that nobody would really get upset. Inwardly a lot of people were disturbed by the filming, without a doubt, because to watch a child — a 12-year-old girl — go through what she had to go through was very difficult for a lot of people in the cast and on the crew. But they trusted me. I cast two actual Jesuit priests in the film to play priests; and they were also technical advisors. And periodically I would have the set blessed. I remember the writer of the book and I and one of the priests used to go out to a home I had in Fire Island, New York, and the priest would say Mass for the three of us. And sometimes he didn’t have wine. I didn’t have wine at my house; I had cranberry juice [?]. And he would use that and a piece of a bagel, and he would say Mass for the three of us on Sunday. And it was just so moving, so powerful. Then I had the priest, the main character in the film, say Mass as though he believed every word of it. Very often you will hear Mass said in church and it’s said very quickly, it’s like ‘rattled off. But the priest in the film says Mass veiy slowly, great and deep belief in the words and the ideas. Because I believed in them. “Take this, for this is my Body; drink this, for this is my Blood, the Blood of the everlasting Christ; the mystery of faith”. And it was said slowly and believably right into the camera.

Before you shot “The Exorcist” did you think it would have all this success?

No, you never know such a thing. I didn’t. I thought it was possible that many people would laugh or ridicule the picture. I had no idea. At that time, what happened was that more people entered the Church, either as believers or who became priests during the time that The Exorcist ran in theatres around the world, which was a long time. And to this day it still runs; it is still seen every year but I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands or millions of people. Probably to this day it is one of the five most popular films ever made.

“The Exorcist" shows the face of absolute evil. The film you made afterwards also revolves around the mystery of evil, not as absolute evil, but of the evil found in people's everyday lives. Is this so?

Yes, good and evil, I believe, is in everyone — I believe in you and me and everyone I know even people that I would consider to be good people. I believe that there is a constant struggle for our better angels to survive and to thrive. I believe it’s a constant struggle. We have to struggle. Often some people do not have to struggle as much, but most of the people in the world have to struggle so that the dark side does not come out, does not manifest itself. And that is what all of my films are about.

After over 40 years since “The Exorcist“ was made, you filmed a documentary with Fr Gabriele Amorth, the well-known exorcist. What do you remember from that experience?

It was a gift of God. I never thought I would be able to see him because I knew how busy he was. Thanks to some friends in Rome, I was given this opportunity. I think Fr Amorth is the most spiritual person I have ever met. He was the most spiritual human being — you could just feel it in his presence. And I didn’t interview him. I just wanted to meet him. And he had seen my movie, The Exorcist. In fact he wrote a page about it in his first book, An Exorcist Tells his Story. He said it helped people to understand his work. He said the special effects were a little over the top but it did help people to understand his work. Then I returned to America and I went to the Academy Awards party that was given by Graydon Carter, who was the publisher of Vanity Fair magazine, whom I told I had met the Vatican exorcist. And he asked if I would go back and interview [Fr Amorth] for the magazine. So I went back and I took a tiny tape recorder, and I sat with him and I asked him a number of questions, and he was very giving.

What did you talk about?

About many things, the devil, obviously, but also theological questions. The First question I asked him was, “Father, why is it that Judas is such a hated man in the Church and by people ... when he is the man who fulfilled the prophecy?”. And Fr Amorth said, “that’s true, but he was also not a good man. He was a thief, and he had done a lot of other things that were not really in the nature of goodness and for that reason he is condemned”. I still was not convinced. My article was published in Vanity Fair, and [Carter] gave me 6,500 words. It is the longest article they have ever had. It’s as long as any articles they have ever published by Christopher Hitchens! And I was very pleased about that because Graydon Carter was a huge supporter of Christopher Hitchens!

At the end of the interview I said, “Father, would it ever be possible for me to witness an exorcism?”, which was a ridiculous and stupid question because exorcism is not a show; it’s not something that should be seen by the public. It is not something that the Church puts a lot of emphasis on, because it is a private matter between the Church and the people who feel afflicted. But he said “let me think about it”, and he thought about it. I got word in a couple of days that he would allow me in a month’s time — it was in 2016 — to witness an exorcism.

William Friedkin is thrilled, happy to have had this opportunity — a last chance, seeing that Fr Amorth actually passed away during the filming of the 2017 documentary "The Devil and Father Amorth” — but he did not want to dwell on the experience of the exorcism that he had witnessed. However, he did offer some details, particularly on the Pauline priest himself.

I was struck not only by Fr Amorth’s kindness but also his sense of humour. He had a great sense of humour. He was light, and he took all of the fear away — because I have to tell you that, when I was in that room sitting so close to Fr Amorth and the woman who was possessed — and I used a tiny little camera, a little Sony Still camera that shot HD video (be- cause I was not allowed to bring a crew in the room or lights; so I filmed it myself) — I was terrified. I was absolutely terrified. And at one point before he started the exorcism, Fr Amorth went like this [thumbing his nose] — to take all the fear out of the room! He took all the mystery away from it, and he told me a lot, and clarified a lot of what I believed about the nature of possession and exorcism. And of course, he told me that the demon is not physical; the demon is not flesh and blood; the demon is spirit. And he told me how he had spoken and conversed with the demon many times but had never seen the demon but he had seen manifestations of the demon in the people who believed they were possessed. This is the nature of the demon, and also his weakness.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English 
19 April 2019, page 10

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