Head-Turning

Catching up with the guy who made the scariest movie everand then did opera

In 1974, William Friedkin was one of the hottest movie directors in the world. He'd won the Academy Award for best direction three years before for The French Connection;and in 1973, his The Exorcistre-defined the horror genre, sparked a horror revival and garnered a wheelbarrow of award nominations.

But Friedkin's stint atop the Hollywood New Wave was short-lived; his film record since looks like an EKG of a nervous rabbit's heart. There was brilliance: Sorcerer, his 1977 remake of a classic French thriller, and 12 Angry Men,which he directed for Showtime in 1997. There was controversy: Al Pacino as a sexually confused cop on the trail of a gay serial killer in Cruising. There were also overlooked films (To Live and Die in L.A.), and ones that perhaps should have been (the 1983 Chevy Chase comedy The Deal of the Century, a made-for-TV teen movie with Shannon Doherty, and Joe Ezterhas' execrable Jade).

But while Friedkin still works for others on the big screen—he's just wrapped one film and has another two in development, including a James Ellroy biopic about shadowy Hollywood attorney Sidney Korshak—he's since become more interested in pleasing himself, becoming a world-renowned opera director on stages from Israel to Moscow to Italy to New York. And this weekend, Friedkin returns to the theater with what is only the second play he's directed since the early 1960s: The Man From Nebraska, which opens Sunday at South Coast Repertory. Written by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the Friedkin-directed Bug, a film opening later this year, The Man was a 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Friedkin: Not interested in film anymore. Photo courtesy South Coast Repertory
Friedkin: Not interested in film anymore. Photo courtesy South Coast Repertory

Friedkin is a deeply intelligent man: funny and opinionated, well-traveled, -cultured and -read. He lived in pre-Saddam Iraq, rubbed shoulders with motion-picture legends—and gave us the then-audacity of The Exorcist. But he still burns to work and create, as we learned during a 90-minute conversation with him before a rehearsal of The Man, a play that lets Friedkin re-examine the theme of his best films: faith and the moral ambiguity around it. He had a few things to say:

Friedkin on why he's directing a play:"I worked in theater with Chicago's Second City back when it was starting out [in the late '50s], but I hadn't done any theater since, other than A Duet for Onewith Anne Bancroft and Max Von Sydow, because I just haven't had the time. I would have loved to do more plays, but I'm always working on a film. But I'm not interested any more in making long films, so I have more time.

On what attracted him toThe Man from Nebraska:"I worked with Tracy Letts on Bug, and he gave me the play to read. I was very moved by it. Both Bugand (another Letts' play) Killer Joeare extremely violent and sexual, profound and profane. But they didn't have much of a resolution or catharsis. This one is more lyrical and mainstream. It starts out as a man who wakes up one day to realize he's having a crisis of faith, but along the way, it becomes a very intimate excursion into the nature of families, marriages and relationships and how the boundaries and routines we settle into can sometimes forestall choice and change.

On how the man inThe Man in Nebraska compares to the characters that most fascinate Friedkin:"Nothing that this guy does in the play is designed to get the audience on his side. So it's a very strong portrait of a human being, warts and all. He's neither all good nor all evil, but made up of equal parts of both, which [is] kind of how the characters in my films are. That thin line between cop and criminal (like Pacino in Cruisingor Gene Hackman in The French Connection)or people who are constantly in danger of crossing some moral line (the Exorcist or the military officer in 2000's Rules of Engagement).

"I'm not interested, even as a spectator, in watching something where everything is drawn out for you, where people have no misgivings or mixed feelings on what they're doing. That superhero kind of thing is a part of Americana, and I appreciated it when I was younger, but they don't have much of a human skin."

On why he thinks there is a collective crisis of faith in 21st Century America:"We are seeing every day the brittleness and flaws of the people who lead us—not just politicians but the media and clergy. All of our icons have fallen out of public grace due to serious breaches in ethics, whether it's The New York Times or Dan Rather making stuff up to that congressman in San Diego [Duke Cunningham].

"When I was growing up [he was born in Chicago, 1935], those cracks were beginning. They were fissures in the body politic, but now they are gigantic gaps. Nobody trusts politicians or anyone else. It used to be that politics, the law and journalism were seen as noble professions, just like medicine. But now we're even seeing how many doctors have breached their oaths. We've left a really cracked world to our youth, one where none of the institutions can be trusted.

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