Changing direction, I asked about his rarely-seen documentaries, which started when he was working at WGN-TV. He said that live TV was “wrapping up about the time I started, especially in Chicago. I might have stayed in Chicago the rest of my life if there were more to do, but TV was getting syndicated, movies in the afternoon. I saw it was time to move on, and then was offered a job at a documentary company in California.”
I asked if he felt confident.
“I don't know what the hell you're talking about,” he said. “You're never confident! Ask an artist if they feel more confident now than three years ago. None of it is ever easy! I don't know what you mean?!” But he said that he wished he had been a movie director in the Hollywood studio system of the 1940s and '50s, “making MGM musicals, ‘Singin' in the Rain,' ‘An American in Paris' — by the time I got to be a filmmaker, there was no one writing songs like that, no one dancing like that, it was less innocent. So I made the films that were available at that time. But if I had been in the studio system I would have made more movies and been a better director. The more you do it, the more you learn, and every time now, you're starting over. Then, they worked with the same crews, now you're assembling everyone from scratch, every few years, if you can.”
I said he would have to be at the movie theater soon but joked that I would love to hear some of the horror stories from the 1970s — which was not the right thing to say to William Friedkin.
In the book, I said, he mentions some people found him difficult to work with.
“Give me a quote — you're pulling things out of thin air.”
I said I could not recall an exact quote from his 500-page book — which, I see now, does indeed have chapters titled “Hubris” and “An Uphill Climb to the Bottom,” admits to directorial arrogance and alienating studios at times, makes references to slapping actors, describes in harrowing detail how he shot the famous chase sequence in “The French Connection” without permits and includes the line “I thought I was bulletproof.” It also — Friedkin spares himself little embarrassment — has the filmmaker failing to appreciate “Jaws” and telling Coppola that he just didn't get George Lucas' thing with “Star Wars.”
“Am I difficult?” Friedkin asked me. “How can I respond to that? Whatever I said in the book, I meant. If I said I was difficult I said why and when and where, and that I was certainly not always (difficult), not every day. But I am happy to respond either now or later to a specific thing, but don't expect me to me make up stuff. I don't know what you're talking about! I was very self-critical in this book but I don't take all the praise or all the blame, and not everyone would say that about me, that I was difficult, not everyone.
“If you asked ‘Who would say you were difficult?' I would say I don't know. ‘You seem to indicate you were difficult in your book.' Well, what did I say? I try to give an honest portrait of myself. Are you gong to write a column that is all speculation and rumor here? … Oh, I see, you probably think I'm being difficult now! Because I don't have a pat answer: ‘This guy was difficult.' I don't have pat answers, but you are welcome to quote anything I say.”
I said it was an innocent question.
He said: “I don't agree with your definition! Do I have a vision and set out to achieve that vision when I am making a film? The answer to that question is yes, I do. OK, here, grab this bag, we have to get going.”
We drove one block away, to the Muvico Theaters Rosemont 18. Mike Kerz, the theater's event manager, looking very nervous and very polite, welcomed us.
“Hello, Mr. Friedkin, what an honor,” he said, assuring Friedkin, now as pleasant and cheerful as the freshly exorcised little girl in “The Exorcist,” that he had spent two days assembling this new print of “Sorcerer,” which was wonderful.
“Great news!” Friedkin said. “Give me five!” He gave him five.
Erik Childress, of eFilmCritic and the film critics association, walked up, hand extended. Friedkin slapped him on the back and asked if there was a place for his bags.
“Also, you score my deep dish?” he asked.
“Right after your introduction, it'll be waiting,” Childress said.
Friedkin smiled and gave him a fist bump, walked into the theater and stopped before the long line of several dozen fans waiting to get their books and posters and soundtrack albums and DVD cases signed.
“This looks like my bar mitzvah!” he shouted to the crowd, which, for the next hour and a half, put William Friedkin in a much better mood than he had been earlier. A man leaned in nervously, hand shaking, and said he loved “Bug,” loved “the whole conspiracy aspect” of the movie.