Director William Friedkin: Bette’s Mae West Will Be A Musical

William Friedkin Makes a Midler Musical, Defends Digital, Restores ‘Sorcerer,’ Reveres Old Studios
JULY 31, 2014 5:25 PM


The whip-smart husband-and-wife team of director William Friedkin (“The French Connection“) and Sherry Lansing, the producer (“Fatal Attraction”) and first woman studio head at Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount, visited the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Czech Republic this month, where I sat down with each of them. Here’s Lansing, and below is my free-wheeling conversation with Friedkin.

The director has been keeping busy not only writing his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, and directing such films as Tracy Lett’s adaptation of “Killer Joe,” starring Matthew McConaughey, but many operas. He’s legendary for his intensity and demands for excellence–but the results speak for themselves. Always have.

Friedkin has also painstakingly restored 1977 cult film “Sorcerer” (his Tangerine Dream-scored remake of Henri Clouzot’s classic “The Wages of Fear”) which is out on Blu-ray and played at KVIFF. Due to the raves accompanying the remastered suspense thriller, on August 5 Warner Bros. Home Entertainment is issuing a remastered DVD version and a Digital Download.

Anne Thompson: You are the living example of how the new digital universe favors the long tail.

William Friedkin: It’s a transition period. Not simply for the delivery of films – you know, in which there are many more ways to show a film. On the iPad, on a cell phone. Films have a greater afterlife than they ever did in the period when I was making so many of them. We never thought about an afterlife for these films. I’m sure Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton never thought their films would be seen again; they’d play in a theater somewhere, be very successful, and then be gone, because there weren’t all these other media.

But with the invention of all these media, there are entrepreneurs who go around and start production companies or don’t, and they want to take meetings or do this and that in a way that I’ve never seen before. There used to only be so many places where you could make a movie. The major studios, if you were in America; the government, if you were in Europe or somewhere. Now”¦ [Laughs] there’s a lot of films I hear about. They don’t come out, you don’t see them, except a news item that it’s being shown on iTunes or Netflix.

So, speaking of a long life, you have these anniversaries now. The studios are exploiting these milestones.

Well, they exploit films on every level – that’s what they do. That’s what distribution means: it means exploiting the film as much as you possibly can. So first with the advent of DVD, now Blu-ray and streaming, there are all these other opportunities. So, “The Exorcist,” 2013 was the 40th anniversary, so they naturally re-released it, put out a brand-new Blu-ray – same with “The French Connection” a year or two before – and that’s happening with all kinds of films.

Warner Bros. have acquired many of my films for redistribution; they acquired, for domestic, “Sorcerer.” It was originally made for Paramount and Universal. Universal only had a 25-year lease that has run out, so Paramount controls all the European and other foreign rights, and Warner Bros. has domestic”¦ Paramount controls the theatrical. The film is appearing, theatrically, everywhere, and it’s going to be released widely in theaters; it’s already started. That’s controlled by Paramount. Warner Bros. has all the home video in America and streaming; they paid for the whole thing. That’s a new model.

With Warner Archives, it seems to make more sense for the studio to have control over their library.

Well, they have a great many of my films. They acquired “Cruising” and have already put it out as a DVD, and there’s more stuff coming, and it’s been streaming. It’s all over these websites. They have “Rules of Engagement,” they have “Blue Chips,” they have “Jade.”

That was Paramount, right?

Yeah, but they were not in the same league as Warner Bros. in terms of home video. Mostly Paramount is interested in new films for home video, whereas Warner Bros. relishes what you would call “legacy films.”

William Friedkin
What was the most difficult part of the “Sorcerer” restoration?

Negotiating the rights. I had received many thousands of requests over the years of “when can we see ‘Sorcerer,’ and how?” There’s a group in Los Angeles called Cinefamily. They ran it for years, and they got a letter from Paramount saying, “We don’t own the rights.” So the guy who ran Cinefamily contacted me, and I said, “Well, try Universal,” and they said, “We don’t own the rights.”

So I sued them only to determine the rights. Not for money; I sued them for discovery, and the judge held that I was entitled to discovery, at which point I learned that Paramount still owned rights; Universal had none. They had to go deep into the vaults. And both studios have been sold three times since I made that film for them, and Warner Bros., for a long time, wanted to reacquire the rights to redistribute it everywhere, but the only thing they could get was Universal’s rights, which was home video and then streaming – which was a new thing. So that was the most difficult part of making it. The negative was in great shape. It wasn’t deteriorated or broken or screwed up.

So was it in one of the vaults at Paramount? Or Universal?

A lot of the negative was in Universal vaults, because we recently found that they had some behind-the-scenes stuff – which I didn’t even remember – in the Universal lot. The Blu-ray is still selling all over the place. The Blu-ray opened after a couple of weeks out after #1 and #2 on Amazon, with basically no publicity – just word of mouth. It was #1 in drama and #2 in action-adventure for a long time, which I thought should have been reversed. But who knew? So that’s still out, so I’m not about to ask anybody to issue, at this time, a version just for the behind-the-scenes, but the next version will contain that. I’ve got to edit it, which I haven’t done.

I loved “Sorcerer” when it came out.

Oh, you’re the one! [Laughs]

I was the one. The Tangerine Dream score was one of my favorite scores of all time. Back then you suffered slings and arrows, because it wasn’t commercially successful. What was wrong? Were you ahead of the curve?

Anne, I don’t know. It’s the mystery of fate.

Timing, right?

But you can’t control that. I never knew if “The French Connection” was going to have one week and be done. You don’t know, and you don’t make them for that reason.

But you were always a little ahead of the curve, aesthetically. You were pushing the envelope.

Not necessarily on purpose. I was attracted to subjects that turned out to be controversial. They obviously weren’t to me. “Sorcerer” came out at another transition period, when the zeitgeist was changing completely for what was thought of as a Hollywood film. But I don’t feel that’s what affected the film in terms of its commerciality. What’s happened, of course, is that it’s been rediscovered by new critics, new film historians, and new audiences in a new media, basically: the digital print.

And I loved it. It took me much longer to make the digital print than to make the 35. It took me about five months to produce a digital print of “Sorcerer” – including the time spent remixing the soundtrack into 5.1 stereo. It had more TLC in post-production than the original. And, now, it looks great. It looks the way I remember looking through the camera at each shot. There’s no dirt on the screen, there’s no scratches, there’s no splices.

I’m a big supporter of the new medium, as I am of CD sound. Have you ever heard Caruso’s voice on an original recording? It sounds like this: [makes garbling sounds]. Oh, it’s Caruso! Well, I’d rather hear Caruso singing than the needle scratching the company’s recording. And I think, really, those people who are nostalgic for it – and I know I’m going to get a lot of heat for this – it’s like the people who are nostalgic for the horse and carriage. They never want to drive in a motor car.

Have you made the transition to shooting to digital?

Yeah. I shot “Killer Joe” on digital. I love digital; I prefer it to 35, which was an imperfect medium that lasted for a long time. You know, it came out of safety film, and it came out of film where you had to hand-crank the camera, and I think the DCP – or the digital prints – are far superior in every important way. There is no dirt, no scratches.

As an exhibition medium, I will not argue with you, but what about the quality of the original image? You can always go to a digital master?

Well, I shot “Killer Joe” with one of the great cameramen in America: Caleb Deschanel. We lit it like a movie. We would not have lit it any differently for 35. We made no adjustments for 35, because what a lot of people don’t realize is that there are more powerful lights that are smaller now, and the film – or the “digital rate” – is now faster. So you don’ t need arc lights any longer, as we used to have.

Which looks fake, anyway. I think there’s a new aesthetic now that is much more naturalistic. You were always a very stylized filmmaker, but you always sought to create a world that was authentic – like “Sorcerer.”

Well, “French Connection” was shot with handheld cameras, no dolly tracks. I happened to have a great cameraman who photographed the Cuban Revolution at Castro’s side, and so he didn’t need a lot of rehearsal; he was ready to shoot in whatever light. The director of photography, Owen Roizman, understood that aesthetic, but that was considered away from the norm at the time. We took little cameras that anyone could hold and shot the whole picture that way.

On the technological side, I totally get where you’re coming from. But I talked to Mel Gibson the other day, over in that corner, and he was sounding nostalgic for the day when studios would support him.

Well, I’ll tell you what I loved about the studios: the great films that they made in the ”˜30s and ”˜40s would sort of taper off later because there were other sources of distribution and finance. But in the ”˜30s and ”˜40s – and into the ”˜50s – there was Hollywood for an American filmmaker, and some of the directors of that period – many of them, if not all – made 3, 4, 5 films a year. A guy like Michael Curtiz made “Casablanca” in 1941, and he did two or three or four films that year. Victor Fleming did “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” in the same year. But, the way that the studio system worked, other directors were on-staff. They’d shoot scenes for each other. Victor Fleming didn’t direct every scene in “Gone with the Wind”; George Cukor did many. Clarence Brown did many. It’s well-known. There were others. I think Selznick himself may have supervised the burning of Atlanta. They just burned old sets.

The genius of the system.

The studio system, for all of the negativity that surrounds it – they would tell actors what to do; they would tell Bette Davis what to do and she broke her contract – they made Bette Davis. They made Joan Crawford. They made Clark Gable. They made all the movie stars. These guys who were the moguls of that period, they found all the material. If I have any regret about my career in Hollywood, it’s that I wasn’t a studio director.

But people say the ”˜70s and the ”˜80s were the golden period.

They weren’t there! In the ”˜70s and ”˜80s most of my colleagues, and me, were influenced by the European films of the ”˜50s and the ”˜60s – Antonioni, Fellini, Rossellini, Alain Resnais. There’s an endless list of filmmakers whose works were widely available to us from Europe, that influenced us more than American films – although I still have a fondness for the musicals. My other regret is that I was never able to do one of the great MGM musicals, because those are really the films that –now, see, that’s gone. That was the popular of the music of the period: Gershwin, Rogers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter. That was what people heard on the radio and bought in recording. It isn’t anymore. And that music produced Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds. Those talents are gone; they’re not in the DNA anymore.

What worries me is that so many of those skill sets have been lost. As the studios abandon all these genres, people don’t know how to make them anymore. They don’t dance anymore.

Well, they can’t, because you can’t dance to the modern music. I mean, you can boogie to hip-hop and rap. I remember all of the music from “My Fair Lady,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Bandwagon” and “Gigi.” These are great, great, timeless films, but it’s a period that can’t come back in anything similar as a form.

So, where are you now in filmmaking?

Well, I’m working on a musical for HBO with Bette Midler playing Mae West. Doug McGrath is writing it now in New York. Did you see “Beautiful,” the Broadway musical about the Carole King songs? This is about a brief period in the life of Mae West, from the roaring ”˜20s to the crash, about when she wrote a play for herself – when she was making a transition from vaudeville into theater. She was offered scripts by the Ziegfelds and the Schuberts. She didn’t like any of the scripts, and her mother – who was her closest advisor – said to her, “Why don’t you write your own script?” And she said, “What would I write about?”

This is in her autobiography, which we’re using as a source. And her mother says, “What is the one thing that most people are thinking about all the time?”


That’s right. You had to whisper it, didn’t you? And so did they, at the time. You couldn’t use that word in an ad. You could only refer to the male sex or the female sex; you couldn’t use it in a sexual context, so they couldn’t advertise it, they couldn’t put it in a newspaper, and nobody wanted to produce it. So she wrote this play for herself, and she took it to New Haven, Connecticut, and there was a nearby naval base, and the sailors all showed up, and they loved it. She played a prostitute, and it was a huge hit with the sailors, and then she took it to Broadway, where it was a smash.

And they arrested her off the stage and took her to Riker’s Island. She went to the women’s section in her silk underwear, followed by three open limousines filled with white roses; she had dinner with the warden and his wife every night. But then she was living with the female population of the prison. I think they reduced her sentence to ten days.

For pornography.

Yes, and offending the public morals. There was a vice commissioner in New York under mayor Jimmy Walker. This is the period we’re doing it. Mae West lived into the ”˜70s. She did a lot. She was in “Myra Breckenridge.” She started making films in 1931. We’re going to end with her going to Hollywood. “She Done Him Wrong” was the first one. The thing is, I don’t want to have to try to duplicate Cary Grant. I would not do this film, except with Bette Midler. I would not do it with anybody else.

And it was my idea to do it when the guy who runs the Mae West estate – he also runs the Sinatra estate; he’s a friend of mine – Bob Finkelstein, he sent me Mae West’s autobiography and said, “You should read this. You’d love it.” I said, “What? What for? Why would I want to read Mae West’s autobiography. It was probably ghost-written.” He said, “Take a look at it.” I couldn’t stop reading it, and I said, “If I can get Bette Midler, I’ll try to do this on HBO.” I took it to HBO, they immediately were excited about it.

She’s going to sing three or four songs. Mae West introduced songs like “Frankie and Johnny” and “All of Me,” and Bette Midler will perform those and other songs.

So you are not unlike a lot of people, who are going to HBO now.

Well, and other sources, because that’s where, I believe, there’s more serious material being done, and more of a variety of programming. Not only HBO. These are the water cooler films now. People don’t talk very much about –


Well, they see it, they’re entertained, and then “next.” But they talk about “Homeland” and “24″ and “Orange is the New Black.” God knows so many others. “House of Cards,” to my amazement, because there was a British version. It was great. Ian Richardson, one of the greatest actors in the world – who was born to play Richard III. And he did play Richard the III in “House of Cards.” It’s Richard III, really, and it works.

But you’re not depressed about the state of things? People have to adapt, right?

The zeitgeist is always changing. There have been a handful of filmmakers who can ride the zeitgeist swiftly and smoothly. Most of us don’t change what we do, and we may or may not be in-tune with the zeitgeist. Some of the great filmmakers who I met when I went to Hollywood, were not in-tune with the zeitgeist. In fact, they did not like the films that were becoming popular.

Well, Billy Wilder lost his touch a little bit at the very end, but he had a long run.

And I don’t think he lost his touch. I think the films he was making were not the films that people wanted to see. “Life and Times of Sherlock Holmes,” which, in another era, would have been a great success – which, for a while, was everything Billy Wilder did. Whether it was a dark drama like “Double Indemnity” or a comedy like “Some Like it Hot.” Those were successful films. Would they be today? I don’t know.

Who are some of the filmmakers exciting you today?

The Coen brothers. I’m always looking forward to a Coen brothers film. I can say that without having to think about it. I like this new writer, [“True Detective” creator] Nic Pizzolatto – I think he’s a terrific writer. I think he’s in a class with Tracy Letts, who I admire tremendously.

But he and I are on the same page; maybe that’s why I admire him. His outlook, his viewpoint – which is dark – I can watch a film like [John Huston’s] “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and it’s timeless, absolutely timeless. It could be taking place now. The clothes are not out-of-fashion; the human emotions are not outdated. The greed, the struggle for survival – those are pretty constant things about a number of films. And some of the other films that might have been more popular perhaps die sooner.

So opera is another option for directors like John Schlesinger, Zhang Yimou, Franco Zefferelli.

Not a lot of people. How many American directors? Bruce Beresford did one or two others.


And Herbert Ross. His “La Boheme” is still the “La Boheme” of the Los Angeles opera company, for whom I’ve done about six or seven of those, and then I’ve done plenty more.

So opera has fed your soul.

Well, I love directing it. It’s a challenge and it’s not much different from when I make a film. So it just seems like there’s a lot more creativity and flexibility. Just the idea that these tough movies are being made into Broadway shows. It’s interesting to me. There’s more flexibility, somehow, than the movies offer.

But there’s no doubt that this is a transition period – and where it will wind up, nobody knows. But what it means in terms of delivery, I think the digital world”¦ now, that has not affected the stories. I can’t tell you the stories are better and the performances are better because of digital. But, with the delivery, there’s no comparison of how much better it is. You want to see a film with dirt all over it? Scratches?

No, I’m not going to argue with you on that one. That ship has sailed. There are no more 35mm exhibitions anywhere. The studios are stopping making them.

There are a little. Arthouses. And even they’ve converted. You know who I’ve gotten a lot of my 35mm prints for? The studios requested them and they donated them to Harvard. They want to preserve them, the 35s.

I do know a lot of directors are making sure they have just one print saved, just in case. Because the digital has to keep being upgraded.

Oh, yes. There’s 4K, and 8K is coming. 2K, 4K, and 8K. But, now”¦ so Harvard requested my original manuscript of my book, which I’m giving to them on September 26th at a public ceremony. And Harvard asked for all these 35s, which I’m happy to give them.

Now, do you watch films on iTunes or Netflix?

I’ll tell you what I have watched and enjoyed, is a lot of long form television. When I want to see it. You know? With Netflix, they don’t care when you see it.

Do you watch on an iPad with earphones?

Yeah. With earphones. So does Sherry. It looks good. But, to my amazement, I don’t find it disturbing. I wouldn’t want to see “Lawrence of Arabia” that way, or “2001.” But the dramas that you see on the downloading sites are intimate, for the most part, and they don’t necessarily require [a big screen]. But I know there are many people, who are purists, who will say, “The only way to see a film is on a big screen.”

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