Review: Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on ‘The Exorcist’ (Sundance 2020)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

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PLOT: Director William Friedkin looks back at the process of making THE EXORCIST.

REVIEW: It’s been fascinating to watch director Alexandre O. Philippe’s evolution as a documentarian. The first time I ever noticed his work with when he interviewed one of my bosses here at for his documentary THE PEOPLE VS. GEORGE LUCAS. I thought that was a decent enough look at the way people internalize STAR WARS to the extent that when they felt let down by the prequels they took it personally. It practically demands a sequel in the wake of the new trilogy. However, Phillipe’s work since then has taken an interesting turn, with his Hitchcock/PSYCHO deep dive, 78/52 and last year’s MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN. Anyone who’s seen these last two can tell you Philippe’s docs are far from simply being nostalgic look backs at popular films, with them almost amounting to something more like an MFA thesis put to film. Simply put, he takes the work seriously, all of which makes him the ideal person to dig into one of the most controversial films ever made – THE EXORCIST.

william friedkin linda blair the exorcist

What’s different about LEAP OF FAITH as opposed to his other films is that Philippe has complete access to his subject, William Friedkin. The film is devoted entirely to his deep dive with Friedkin, and it seems like nothing was off-limits with the director freely discussing his craft but also some of the more questionable tactics he used to deliver what no one could ever deny is a classic.

Anyone who’s ever heard Friedkin being interviewed can tell you that he’s a master storyteller and certainly, he’s a compelling subject. What’s especially interesting is Friedkin’s insistence that this was the only film he ever made that was born out of pure instinct. From the moment he read William Peter Blatty’s novel he knew exactly how to turn it into a film, and throughout the continued to follow these instincts even when it put him into conflict with the studio or his collaborators. A good example is his casting of Jason Miller as Father Karras.

Originally Stacy Keach was cast in the lead (and would go on to play the lead in Blatty’s follow-up to THE EXORCIST – THE NINTH CONFIGURATION) but, for some reason, Friedkin felt compelled to send the script to Miller, who was a playwright at the time, and wound up giving an iconic, soulful performance in the lead. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, and Friedkin – once again – chalks this up to instinct. The same thing goes for the film’s score, which was originally written by Lalo Schifrin. Friedkin admits it was an interesting score but also maintains that it would have ruined the film, and this is backed up by Philippe’s decision to show the opening dig in Iraq with Schiffrin’s score underneath it. Once again, no one could ever say Friedkin’s instincts weren’t correct.

linda blair the exorcist

Friedkin also admits to using many questionable tactics that he knows he’d never get away with now, including firing a rifle repeatedly to provoke frightened reactions or even slapping Father William O'Malley – the real-life priest who played Father Dyer – across the face between takes to get tears during the finale. Perhaps most fascinating are his stories about Mercedes McCambridge, the troubled veteran actress who provided the voice of Pazuzu, or what he thinks is the single most effective scene in the film – a quiet moment between Lee J. Cobb and Ellen Burstyn– thanks to the way both actors masterfully underplayed the moment. We even get into how Max Von Sydow’s atheism was a challenge to overcome while directing the exorcism, and how Friedkin’s rough-edged documentary-style initially ruffled some feathers.

While maybe not as distinct a work as MEMORY, which might be one of the best film documentaries ever made, LEAP OF FAITH in an invaluable, fascinating sit-down with Friedkin, who’s perhaps the most underrated director of his time (he’s made four stone-cold classics – THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE EXORCIST, SORCERER and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A). While some of the stories have been told elsewhere, you get the feeling here that Friedkin’s truly an open book and relishing the opportunity to dig into his work nearly fifty years after the fact. A filmmaker would rarely be willing to get into the weeds this way and for anyone passionate about the film it’s a must-see.

The Exorcist



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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.