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 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.

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."

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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