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

On how our lack of faith in our institutions differs from that of the '60s:"Then, you had a youth movement that said 'don't trust anyone over 30.' But now that distrust of institutions comes from people of all ages and all walks of life. I don't know anyone who walks blindly behind their political party and who would willingly drink the Kool Aid of their leaders."

On the value of making a play that will be seen by a few thousand at best—vs. a film that can be seen by millions:"If I'm attracted by the material, and if it casts a light on some region of the human heart or says something new or restates something important, I don't care about the venue. It could be in a church basement. These days, you have to go to a smaller venue to do a serious piece of theater anyway because the financial stakes are too high and you can't risk failure. Just like you can't make a serious film any longer because there's so much money involved. And I'm at the point of life in my career where the old pecking orders mean nothing to me. I'm happier doing low-budget films for TV, if they speak [to me]. That's why I've been drawn to opera. It speaks very profoundly of human emotions in a way that no straight films or plays have approached yet. There are no chase scenes or moving vehicles in an opera. Or in this play."

On why, and if, theater matters:"Harold Clurman said it best: all theater is lies. It's about people pretending to be something they're not. And we love to see that because, through that process, we find the revealed truth inside us. We used to go to church to experience that, but theater may be the only place we can find it. Great theater, like any great art, reveals something that you bring to the table, something within you. But you need ambiguity in order to [spark that discovery]. It's not about supplying the answers. That's why ambiguity is a dirty word in film or on Broadway because the financial stakes are too high. The audience is spoon-fed and not allowed to think for itself. But a great work of drama can [provoke] that."

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

On censorship, which Friedkin experienced for years in Great Britain, which refused to allowThe Exorcist to be viewed on TV:"There is nothing that should be off-limits. From the clergy to politics. Nothing should be above being the subject of comedy or parody. I think one of the worst developments in this country in the past 20 years has been political correctness. Everyone's looking over their shoulder, worrying about how people might react. And I think free speech is in danger of being curtailed here. There's a very basic paranoia that has set in across the board, and with the political correctness moment, it's getting to be you can't even compliment a woman's dress without fear of a lawsuit. That's not a free and open society."

On whether art should change the world or merely entertain:"I think it's arrogant to say you're creating something to change the world. The most important thing for a play, or film or anything is that it's entertaining. Because if it isn't, then whatever message may be in there won't be heard. And anything can be entertaining: Sam Shepard, Sarah Kane, Samuel Beckett, Caryl Churchill. They may all speak slightly different languages, but we recognize all of them."

On whyThe Exorcist still stands up after 33 years:"It's a serious film about the mystery of faith. People recognize their own need for an eternal answer in that film. It posits that there is profound evil in this world, but that there is also a force of good in the world."

On what he hopes audience members get fromThe Man From Nebraska:"I hope it holds people's attention. That's my goal in anything. You start out by liking the material, for whatever reason, and then hope that others like it through the performance. But there's no guarantee that's going to happen. And I enjoy that part of the process."

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