Dir: Alexandre O Philippe | Doc, 105
Leap of Faith, a lyrical and spiritual cinematic essay on The Exorcist, explores the uncharted depths of William Friedkin’s mind’s eye, the nuances of his filmmaking process, and the mysteries of faith and fate that have shaped his life and filmography. The film unpacks Friedkin’s filmmaking process focusing here exclusively on The Exorcist, a mystery of faith inspired – according to Friedkin – by Dreyer’s 1955 drama Ordet
Already well known for his documentaries 78/52 and Memory: The Origins of Alien, Philippe jumped at this opportunity of a cosy fireside chat with the iconic director who describes himself of instinctive “one-take kind of guy” who has always relied on his gut reaction and spontaneity to make a film. Spontaneity interests him more than perfection. And this was particularly the case when it came to creating The Exorcist which he calls a ‘chamber piece’ rather than a horror movie.
Friedkin grew up with his parents in a one room apartment in Chicago where he was taken by his mother to see Clifford Odet’s None But the Lonely Heart (1944). A lowly postboy, he wanted to discover more about cinema. But the film that propelled him into a career in film was Welles’ Citizen Kane.
By the early 1970s he had already become a successful director when he happened to read William Peter Blatty’s paperback The Exorcist. Friedkin describes wanting to make the book into a movie against all odds – it seems the whole film popped into his mind fully formed from the novel but Blatty’s script was a fractured narrative with flashbacks. The singleminded Friedkin describes how he had what Fritz Lang once called “sleepwalkers security” about the script. He knew he wanted to tell a straight ahead realist story, just like the book.
The introduction is the underpinning to the whole piece and takes place in ancient Niniver, Iraq. At some point in the town’s early history the citizens had all been beheaded along with the statues and this tragic event sets the tone for the story, the director following his instincts throughout the shoot. Another crucial factor in deciding Regan’s behaviour was an incident during his Chicago, childhood when a local girl was decapitated, her body cut up and thrown into the garden. An ancient medal found in the sands becomes the McGuffin, a significant device providing the motivation for what happens next.
Music had an overriding influence for Friedkin in the The Exorcist. But he wanted to avoid a score that drove the plot forward, and chose instead to soundscape that slowly builds into a powerful force. An overriding sense of dread that stays throughout, starting with a the lowkey opening in Iraq and ending in a quiet crescendo. Father Merrin’s premonition had to be an instinctual moment that the audience has to sense. The supernatural in our midst. An ordinary girl slowly becomes a demon. This “Expectancy set” describes how the audience comes to the cinema wanting to be scared from the outset. Bernard Herrmann was top of the list score-wise but was quite rude about the film. “If you know St Giles Cripplegate’s organ that would be a great inspiration” said Herrmann, who by now was living in London. But what the film needed was music that “felt like a cold hand on the back of your neck” – he found it with a score made up by composer Lalo Schiffer. But that didn’t work either and drowned the subtleness of the early scenes. The score was left untouched, and they haven’t spoken since. Friedkin wanted more of a Brahms lullaby. Then Mike Oldfield then came along.
Friedkin’s use of subliminal cuts and sounds makes the movie into an experimental sound museum. Old colleague Ken Nordine was called on to create Regan’s demon voice – it needed to be a male/female voice of the kind that Mercedes McCambridge had used in the Western (Johnny Guitar/1954). She used a concoction of heavily booze, eggs and cigarettes to produce an un-God-like sound which brought about the required timbre.
Casting was another complex matter that took some time to get right. Max Von Sidow had a problem getting the intensity to play Father Merrin because he didn’t believe in God, although he had played a convincing Jesus in George Steven’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). In the end he played Merrin as an ordinary man because his acting skill came from understatement rather than histrionic emotion. Blatty, who has studied for the priesthood and then dropped out, was desperate to play Father Karras but then Jason Miller stepped forward and he just embodied the priest, although he was a non-pro. Stacey Keach had been signed to the role but was immediately dropped, his contract settled in full. The Reverend William O’Malley was another non-pro perfect for the role as Father Dyer because he understood the territory. Friedkin often shot a gun in the air to achieve the right facial expression from his actors – John Ford and George Stevens also regularly used these techniques. Although he claims this kind of ploy was never needed with a great actor. Lee J Cobb, who played Lt Kinderman, was one.
Friedkin talks a great about ‘rosebud moments’ and ‘grace-notes’ during this engaging documentary which draws on his wide taste in culture and art. Regan’s makeup was inspired by the Belgian surrealist Ensor’s paintings of masks. Magritte is also an influence, the artist’s Empire of Light giving the film its iconic image.Moments of truth such as in Cartier Bressons’ photos and Caravaggio’s tortured figures were also an inspiration. Friedkin’s way of lighting the sides of his character’s faces was taken from Vermeer and Rembrandt. Particularly Vermeer’s View of Delft in 17th century. He describes the scene with the white-robed nuns walking by as one the grace notes in this otherwise grim film. Grace notes are the lovely things you remember forever, and are more significent than the larger events.
Just like Kubrick’s Obelisk in 2001 A Space Odyssey, so the silver medal appears to various characters in the film including Father Karras and Father Merrin, along with a constant subliminal theme of ascension throughout the film. Karras is a figure with an inner torment of his own: taunted by guilt about his mother and his fears for the loss of his own faith, he is the tragic hero of the piece. The Father gives up his life for the life of the young girl. He jumps out of the window taking the demon with him, having invited it into his own body, even though suicide is against the Catholic Church (an idea that departs from the book), and remains an ambiguity in the film. Blatty insists that the devil comes out of his body again before Karras leaps out of the window. He then confesses to Father Dyer at the end but Friedkin is still unhappy about this dilemma, considering it the only flaw in the film.
It seems neither Blatty not the director are convinced about the ending. “Life is so ambiguous and that’s why my films are” he claims. This informative documentary ends with Friedkin reminiscing on life and his visit to the Zen garden in Kyoto where he found peace and a series of rocks surrounded by raked gravel. “The rocks represent continents that will never come together. We are in this World alone, completely separate from each other. Driven to tears he sites this as one his grace notes. MT
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | 29 August – 7 September 2019