Pictures above: Director William Friedkin directing actors Roy Scheider & Gene Hackman on the set of “French Connection” ,New York, 1971.
SPONTANEITY VS PERFECTION
The controversial film director started his career in television documentaries in the 1960’s.
Because of this experience, he has a naturalistic approach to his first films-especially the one he directed in the 70’s.
Television documentaries made in a hurry with non actors during many years gave a style to Friedkin he will use afterwards in his career as a Hollywood filmmaker. A realist aesthetic very close to the documentay style is the trademark of films such “French Connection”, “Sorcerer” and “Cruising”. Cinema “verite” where non actors are as much important than professional actors to give more authenticity to some scenes. An almost Cinema verite style made in real locations with often (future stars) unknown actors to give more realism to his films.
In total opposition with digital or optical effects, the director prefers spontaneity to perfection in an actors’s performance.
Never following the rules of rehearsals for the casting of a film. Friedkin hired often actors without any tests or readings of the film script. From the moment he meet an actor his intuition will tell him that he/she must be the perfect character for his film.
To get the spontaneity, the emotions of an actor or non actor on set. The director could be very passionate, up to the point he uses non orthodox,shocking techniques with them which reminds Otto Preminger’s ones. The end may justifies the means for Friedkin in his obsession to record on camera the “true” emotional actor expression.
If the French writer Andre Gide wrote that with good sentiments we produce bad litterature, this could be the general motto of the director of “To Live and Die in L.A.”.
Harold Pinter’s influence
Before to direct “The French Connection”, Friedkin directed in London an adaptation of an Harold Pinter’s play: “The Birthday Party”. The English play writer became a mentor for the young American director still looking for a style in filmmaking and learning a craft “how to direct actors”. The cast Pinter wanted from the beginning was Robert Shaw and Patrick Magee, both already familiar with the play writer’s work. Friedkin wrote in his memoir that “Harold had an unerring sense of casting. Left on my own, I wouldn’t have known to cast any of them”. They rehearsed for ten days and Pinter would give notes to him and talk to the cast. Pinter’s influence on Friedkin’s work is clear when he advised actors to say the lines and not look for allegory. He would suggest : "There are no motivations for the behavior of these people that I’m aware of, and no way to determine whether they’re speaking truth or telling lies. Just find the emphasis in the lines and the rhythm of the scene”.
Another tips Pinter gave to the young Friedkin : "Though your character may not be speaking, there is always an unspoken language going on". If action is character to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald , the writer was referring to characters in a novel but it’s true in film as well. What the characters do, not what they say, is who they are.
A detective director
During The French Connection pre production, Friedkin used his experience in television documentaries. He didn’t read the novel based on true events. Instead the director in his obsession to get a “true”documentary approach for the film went for weeks, without permission from their chiefs, with the two real cops Eddie and Sonny who inspired the book :"They took on the job (…). They took me to bars and "shooting galleries" in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant,where they were certain to find users and dealers". (…)
"I went on stakeouts and busts until I knew what they said and did in every situation. While on the job or on a lunch break, they’d reveal more details of the French Connection case and the personalities of the other players".
Wrong cast for right film
Phil d’Antonni the producer of The French Connection made these two cops film consultants and with Friedkin hired a “casting director”: Bob Weiner. He was first a very opinionated theater and film reviewer for the Village Voice but aware of every new actor on the scene. The actor Roy Scheider was cast by Friedkin immediately without to read the script. In his memoir, the director explains in details this personal choice : “I saw no point in reading actors. If I wasn’t already familiar with their work, I went by looks, demeanor, intelligence, and my gut feeling. In the past, I’d read actors and found they could often “read” but couldn’t play the character, or the other way around. Some actors don’t come alive until the cameras start rolling and are terrible at table readings or auditions. I’ve always felt the audition process puts too much pressure on an actor, and I’ve learned to trust my instincts”.
Running out of options for the lead actors, Friedkin had to work with Gene Hackman. A choice made by his producer not by him. About his first meeting with Hackman,Friedkin wrote that the unknown actor "seemed humorless.I almost fell asleep at the lunch. When it was mercifully over, I told Phil (the producer) there was no way this guy could play Popeye."
Friedkin for the drug dealer boss wanted the actor Francesco Rabal after seeing him in Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour.
Weiner hired by mistake the Spanish actorFernando Rey thinking he was the right man. Both actors had worked indeed in several Luis Bunuel films. The lead opponent character was suppose to be a tough guy, a rough Corsican gangster not a refined aristocrat elegant man with a goat beard! To get worst Fernando Rey didn’t speak one word of French, refused to shave his beard but was cast because of the immediate shooting of the film.x
Both lead actors became the perfect choice. Gene Hackman won an oscar for his performance and Fernando Rey made the bad guy much more complex than in the real events.
A hurricane direction
William Friedkin has a the reputation to be very exigent , maniac with a choleric temper amongst actors. Several times he had open conflict with them, blast of angers or just a poisonous silent tensions on film set. Friedkin didn’t want Hackman for the lead and used this mutual lack of sympathy to each other to nourish the actor’s explosion of anger and realism we see on screen.
Both insulted and provoke each other day after day on set. Popeye’s character became for the film director that way “more real” than the real cop, the character he was inspired:
"I didn’t know whether he’d come back the next day or not, but I had an insight: Gene had to play an angry, obsessive man, and I could provoke that anger in him and let him focus on me. Many of his outbursts, all in character, were aimed directly at me after I issued curt, aggressive directions. There were times Gene got into it and became Popeye, but his anger was directed toward me more than the drug smugglers"
For his next film “The Exorcist”, the director crossed the line for some in his behavior of realism seeker’s sake.
After succeeding brillantly in a perfect twelve years old girl cast with Linda Blair -who had never acted before.
After the original and courageous choice to impose as lead character a talented but unknown actress preferred to Jane Fonda, Audrey Hepburn and Anne Bancroft: Ellen Burstyn. Picking Ingmar Bergman’s favorite male actor Max Von Sydow. The other lead was given to another unknown actor Jason Miller instead to the rising star Stacy Keach.
Miller had a successful play but was not a professional actor. But he met Friedkin although he told him that Stacy Keach was already cast. First reluctant, the director agreed to meet him and did a screen test to be polite-remember he is “the film director who doesn’t like rehearsal”. Good player and learning his mistakes in French Connection, Friedkin realized suddenly that "The camera loved his dark good looks, haunted eyes, quiet intensity, and low, compassionate voice. He had a quality reminiscent of the late John Garfield. The fact that he had a Jesuit education and had studied the priesthood sealed the deal for me".
In the meantime,the director did cast non professional actors for small parts like a priest for example because he was a real priest!
Which created a big issue at one point was the scene which see the dead of Father Karras and his friend and brother in Christ administer the last rites. Father O’Malley was not a professional actor, he had problems getting to the emotion. It’s a difficult scene for an experienced actor, with spectators, a full crew, and lights everywhere adding to the unreality in which films are made.
"We must have done twenty takes, and I was beginning to think we wouldn’t get it, not that night. I called a halt, whispered to the crew what I was about to do, and told them to be ready to roll on a second’s notice. I then took O’Malley aside and grasped him by the shoulders. I said, "Bill, I want you to listen to me carefully. Look at me" (…) "I don’t know if I can do this", he said, already on the verge of the emotion. "Bill , you can do this"I said with conviction, tough I wasn’t sure. I held his shoulders tighter:"Do you love me?". "Yes". He was trembling, not knowing where I was heading. "Say it!" I said firmly, pulling him to me in an embrace.
"Yes , I love you, Billy, you know it". "I love you", I said , at which point I slapped him across the face as hard as I could and pushed him to his knees, next to the prone body of Jason Miller. I signaled to roll the camera and shouted,"Action!"O’Malley burst into tears and performed the scene. The crew was in stunned silence when I yelled "Cut", and went to O’Malley, helping him to his feet, once again embracing him".
Tanguy de Thuret
Directing Actors for Film & Television class, Fall 2013, The New School
The Friedkin Connection-a Memoir by William Friedkin, Harper, New York, 2013.