45 years after 'The Exorcist,' William Friedkin believes he's seen (and filmed) an exorcism

Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Yahoo Movies
William Friedkin and the titular subject of his new documentary, <em>The Devil and Father Amorth.</em> (Photo: The Orchard)
William Friedkin and the titular subject of his new documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth. (Photo: The Orchard)

Forty-five years ago, William Friedkin staged the mother of all cinematic exorcisms in his 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist. But the outspoken director makes no bones about that fact that the ritual he immortalized onscreen with the help of William Peter Blatty — who wrote the novel the film is based on — was complete bunk.

“Blatty made it all up,” Friedkin confesses to Yahoo Entertainment. “He could not get information from the church about it. And I had never seen an exorcism before I did that movie.” Despite his lack of firsthand knowledge, Friedkin opted to treat fiction as seriously as fact, staging a harrowingly realistic battle of wills between the forces of good — as represented by priests Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller) — and evil in the shape of the possession-happy demon, Pazuzu (inhabiting the body of Linda Blair). In the decades since the film’s release, millions of moviegoers have emerged from their first viewings of The Exorcist as believers, even as the director himself remained a skeptic.

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That changed in 2016 when Friedkin found himself in a small room in Italy filming Father Gabriele Amorth — a renowned Catholic priest and prolific exorcist who passed away later that year — as the cleric attempted to cast a demon out of a troubled woman named Christina. That experience made Friedkin a convert, after a fashion. “I believe I saw an exorcism,” the director says matter-of-factly. “I can’t tell you with absolute certainty, but what I saw was definitely a serious procedure to give aid to a woman who was in great need of it.”

The footage he filmed forms the centerpiece of his new documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth, which is now in limited theatrical release and available on VOD. We spoke with Friedkin about his spiritual life (or lack thereof) and the contemporary relevance of his Oscar-winning police drama, The French Connection.

Yahoo Entertainment: You’ve described yourself as an agnostic, but in the documentary, at least, it does appear as if you’re searching for answers to larger spiritual questions.
William Friedkin:
No, I was just interested in this [case]. Exorcism isn’t an everyday occurrence in this country, as it is in many other countries. I hadn’t gone near the subject in 45 years, and The Exorcist is a work of fiction. This is not; this is what I saw and heard — no sound effects, no manipulation of any kind. I was only able to do it because I talked Father Amorth into letting me film it. Then it occurred to me to take [the footage] to these brain surgeons and psychiatrists and see if they would debunk it in the real world, not the spiritual world. And they didn’t debunk it! The psychiatrist recognized possession as a religious-based disease, and the brain surgeons had no idea what to do with this woman.

So there’s nothing personal in this for you? No bigger questions you want answered?
There are no answers! Nobody has any answers — not Bertrand Russell, not Stephen Hawking, not St. Augustine, not the pope. No human being knows if there’s a heaven and a hell or an afterlife, or what our purpose is here on earth. That’s why faith is such an extraordinary thing: People, by the billions, have faith in something they’ve neither seen, nor heard, nor touched. That interests me a great deal.

Have you noticed a change in the conversation surrounding faith and exorcism in the decades since The Exorcist premiered?
There are still people who accept it and still people who are skeptical. There always will be. I don’t happen to be a skeptic — I don’t know! I just don’t know. I didn’t go in there with any skepticism, and neither am I a Catholic. I do believe in the teachings of Jesus, who happened to be a Jew; he was born, lived, and died a Jew. The teachings of Jesus as written in the New Testament are extraordinary to me. We never heard his voice, we never really saw a portrait of him at the time he was alive, and nobody around today was there, and yet people believe [in him]. That’s true of other religions as well. I was raised Jewish, but I never felt close to the Jewish faith in that sense.

Friedkin filmed an exorcism led by Father Amorth for his new documentary. (Photo: The Orchard)
Friedkin filmed an exorcism led by Father Amorth for his new documentary. (Photo: The Orchard)

The Jews have a similar thing to [the devil], you know. It’s called a golem — the ghost of a recently departed person that stays behind and enters the spirit of a newborn child. There are rabbis, high rabbis, who are able to conduct a ritual to drive out the golem. In the Roman Catholic ritual of exorcism, the priest is not suggesting that he is driving out the demon; he’s calling upon Jesus to do it. Jesus will do it in his own time or not.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be possessed yourself?
I don’t know that I’ve thought about it. Is it possible? I guess so. If you’re not a Catholic, the chances are you’re not going to see an exorcist. It is a religion-based disease. Everyone who went to Father Amorth believed they were possessed and that he could liberate them.

The Exorcist popularized the version of exorcism that dominates pop culture, but the ritual we see in the documentary is very different — it’s much more of a communal experience than the spiritual combat we see in your earlier film.
I was surprised by that — I didn’t expect it. The church doesn’t talk about it, nor should they. It’s a very private and personal matter. It’s not an entertainment. It’s not for public consumption. They don’t sell tickets to it, and they don’t want people to come in and look at it, like at a sideshow, in the same way that Jesus did not want his disciples to talk about his miracles. He didn’t want to be thought of as a miracle worker or a magician.

The current pope, Pope Francis, has already made a lot of changes to the Catholic Church. Do they now have a different way of dealing with exorcism as well?
He does; they’re exploiting it to an extent now. They’ve given statements in the Vatican PR office that more and more people are seeking exorcisms, and they’re training more exorcists. There was an article the other day that there are exorcists doing this on a cellphone, which I don’t buy at all. I don’t buy into that in any way. But yes, they’re more open. The last three popes have been very accepting of Father Amorth’s work and supportive. He was the Vatican exorcist for 31 years, and he was very critical of the Vatican and Vatican City over the church’s scandals. He wrote about them, talked about them on television, bemoaned them. He wrote about a very famous murder of a young girl in Vatican City that he thought involved some of the priests. He wrote about this and spoke about why they never tried to silence him.

Jason Miller attends to a possessed Linda Blair in <em>The Exorcist.</em>&nbsp;(Photo: Warner Bros./Courtesy of the Everett Collection)
Jason Miller attends to a possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist. (Photo: Warner Bros./Courtesy of the Everett Collection)

Was there anything that Father Amorth told you that you didn’t include in the film but that you’ve carried with you?
Yes. He told me that, during one of Christina’s exorcisms, she accused him of some of his sins in that voice and that character. And they were real. He told me they were true. I didn’t ask him what they were — I don’t want to know. But he assured me that he believed that he had dialogues with the devil. He believed that the devil was metaphor — not a person or a thing but a metaphor for evil and representative of the evil that we all know is in the world around us.

Switching gears to The French Connection, you’ve said that journalist Jimmy Breslin was your initial choice to play Popeye Doyle before Gene Hackman. Can you imagine what that version of the movie would have looked like if he had been in the role? He couldn’t have done it! He had the look that I wanted: a heavyset Irish guy, what they call a black Irishman. He had the look, but he didn’t have the acting skills. He didn’t want to be cast in it, but I said, “Jimmy, you’re this guy. Let’s just try it.” We tried it for a week, and it didn’t work. He was a tremendous journalist, just not an actor.

When Hackman came aboard, did he have a different take on the character than you intended?
He didn’t want to go that far into what he thought was racist behavior. I didn’t agree that it was racist behavior. It was this guy trying to survive in places like Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant at the time and not take a bullet. So he didn’t want to really go that far, but we did, as far as we could.

We’re in a time right now where there’s tension between the police and the people they’re policing. Have you noticed ways in which The French Connection has shaped people’s perceptions of the police?
It’s possible. I won’t say that’s not possible, but I’m not aware of anything specific.

If someone told you that they considered Popeye Doyle a hero, would that bother you?
That’s who he was. I went around for three months with [Eddie] Egan and [Sonny] Grasso, the two French Connection cops, and the film is mostly made up of stuff that I saw them do, as well as what they told me happened in the real case. But this was stuff I saw them do, and I was fascinated by their dynamic in the street, more so than the drug case. It was about them.

Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle in <em>The French Connection.</em>&nbsp;(Photo: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)
Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. (Photo: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

I guess the big question facing filmmakers now is, how do you depict police officers in a period when conversations around policing are so charged?
I didn’t try to present them negatively or positively. This is who I saw; this is what they did; and the audience makes its own judgment. I remember when I took the film to Italy for the first time, where it was called The Violent Arm of the Law, which is a great title. I did a press conference, and it was the first time I had ever seen the press split between left and right. I had never seen that in America. Some guys on the left would say, “These cops are fascists — they should all be in jail themselves.” And others [on the right] would say, “We need to fill the streets with them and clean up all these criminals that are everywhere.” It’s hard to do a film about a hero cop today. It would be very difficult.

Do you watch films about police officers now?
I don’t. I did see a great film called End of Watch — a wonderful film about cops in L.A. I also thought the movie Narc, by Joe Carnahan, was really good. Not too many others come to mind.

Was there a specific reason why you didn’t make The French Connection II?
I never wanted to do a sequel to any of my films. I’ve never seen the sequels. I’ve never seen French Connection II, and I’ve never seen any of The Exorcist sequels. No interest.

It’s interesting that, with this documentary, you are going back to a foundational film in your career.
Well, I wasn’t going to go back — I had no intention. This came strictly by way of providence. I happened to be in Italy for something else, and I asked facetiously of a theologian friend of mine if he could get me a meeting with Father Amorth or the pope, thinking that neither would be possible, but then he said that Father Amorth would love to meet with me. He had written about The Exorcist in his first book, and he said that while the special effects were over the top, it did help people understand his work.

The Devil and Father Amorth is currently playing in theaters and on VOD.

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