William Friedkin's classic THE EXORCIST remains one of the scariest films ever made and in the 40 years since it was first released it has not lost its impact. Recently Friedkin sat down with The Hollywood Reporter's Gregg Kilday to reminisce on the struggles he had to endure to make the film, including how Warner Brothers refused to hire him, the fight to cast Ellen Burstyn and the shocking confession that got Linda Blair the part.
Friedkin on being offered the directing job by THE EXORCIST writer William Peter Blatty
...I called Bill and he told me some of the background of how The Exorcist had come about and that he'd made a deal at Warner Bros. to write the script and produce it, he asked me if I'd be interested in directing. He had not seen any of the films I had made before sending me the book, but the reason, he said, was: "You're the only director I've met who hasn't bullshitted me. I really appreciate that, and I think that's the kind of relationship I need to get this story made the way I'd like to see it made."
On who else was offered the chance to direct THE EXORCIST
Then came a long campaign of Blatty fighting for me and the studio pushing back. Warners had sent the script out to three other prominent directors: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols. They all responded in the negative, for various reasons.
Stanley Kubrick could've directed THE EXORCIST? Imagine what that could've been like!
On solidifying the directing job
Then, finally, The French Connection came out and was an instant success. (Why? I don't know.) Blatty was called into a meeting at Warners with Ted Ashley, Frank Wells and John Calley, the triumvirate who ran the studio. "Is this about Friedkin?" Ashley asked, and Blatty said, "Yes." Ashley said, "Bill, we've seen The French Connection, and we want him more than you do now." That was the way it went.
Friedkin says that the studios originally wanted Audrey Hepburn, Jane Fonda or Anne Bancroft to play the actress whose daughter becomes possessed in the film, but that he had another actress in mind: Carol Burnett. While Blatty (who was also a producer) was onboard with the idea, the studio hated it and dismissed the thought of funnywoman Burnett in the role. That role eventually went to Ellen Burstyn, who Friedkin felt understood the story and the role.
I agreed to meet with her at a house she was renting in Beachwood Canyon. "Do you believe in destiny?" she asked me. "Yes, I guess so," I said. "Well, I'm destined to play this part," she said.
On meeting and casting Linda Blair
So I said, "Linda, do you know anything about The Exorcist?" "I read the book," she said. So I asked, "Well, what is it about?" and she said, "It's about a little girl who gets possessed by a devil and does bad things." "What sort of bad things?" I asked. And she says, "Well, she hits her mother across the face, and she pushes a man out of her bedroom window, and she masturbates with a crucifix." I looked over at her mother, and her mother was smiling. I said, "Do you know what that means?" and she said, "Yeah, it's jerking off, isn't it?" and I said, "Have you ever done that?" and she said, "Sure, haven't you?" And that was it. I knew she would never be disturbed by any of it.
The most interesting part of the interview is how Friedkin states that Blatty and himself never viewed THE EXORCIST as a horror film, but instead...
We both shared the notion that The Exorcist was not going to be a horror film or a sendup but was going to be a film about the mystery of faith and the existence of good and evil in everyone. We never talked about this horror effect or that one. Having read a great deal of information about an actual exorcism case in 1949, I was convinced that what was claimed to have happened did actually happen. It was inexplicable in any other way as a case of demonic possession and exorcism. The '49 case was extremely well documented. So I set out to make the film more along the lines of a documentary, not a horror film. Over the years, I understand that people consider it a horror film, and that's where it lives in the public consciousness. But it has never been that to Blatty or myself.
You can check out the entire interview on The Hollywood Reporter right HERE.