I’m not necessarily the biggest horror fanatic. On some level, you can blame the clownish trauma instigated by Tim Curry’s Pennywise in Stephen King’s IT for shaping that decision. But digging deeper beyond a childhood fear, on an aesthetic level, there are aspects of the genre which has fallen under the repetitive and formulaic cycle – endless sequels and the novelty jump scares which, in my opinion (no matter how entertaining or contributing it is to the franchise) lessens its original impact.
However, in recent years, my appreciation for the genre has returned full fold. With a fresh impetus and mindset, I admire some of the ‘old school’ attitude that the modern incarnations possess – a nostalgic throwback to the past which factored in desirable subtext within its thematic exploration. Because of that substance (which is often cathartic by nature, often reminding myself of Wes Craven’s excellent quote “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.”), that’s how certain horror films have become transcendent. It’s why we keep revisiting it, because every time we view it, we see something new.
And that’s what makes Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist such an enthralling watch. Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, famous for 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene and Memory: The Origins of Alien (on my watchlist), this well-crafted documentary takes a different tone from his previous work. Instead of the familiarity of ‘talking heads’ or contributing, on-screen guests, we get a personal, sit-down interview with the legendary director William Friedkin. And after watching this documentary, you may never watch The Exorcist in the same way again.
There are aspects which feel like an extended DVD commentary (something we should never baulk at considering how many film enthusiasts it has helped over the years – including myself), but from the very first minute, you’re by surprised by Friedkin’s brash yet profound honesty. Philippe presents this with a simple declaration – this is Friedkin unfiltered and unmasked, deep-diving through the creative process behind The Exorcist, but carves out notable time to explore his spiritual beliefs and cinematic inspirations. His film-based fanaticism is talked about at great length, listing Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, Citizen Kane, None But the Lonely Heart and various paintings which have inspired his filmmaking ambitions. In every instance (no matter how difficult the subject is), he’s always forthcoming in his opinions, and Leap of Faith makes a careful consideration not to judge him, leaving that ultimate decision up to its audience.
And if you’re a fan of The Exorcist, then some of the points mentioned in the documentary might not be new. But if you’re coming into the film like a blank slate (like me), then some of the information revealed is incredible.
Whenever you hear Hollywood stories about directors pushing their actors or production sets to extreme limits, then Friedkin is the epitome of that. He physically assaulted William O’Malley (Father Dyer) just for an emotional reaction to the last rites scene. He shot a real-life gun on set at the telephone scene with Father Karras (Jason Miller). Unintentionally, you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity. Of course, there’s a moral confliction because, it’s something that wouldn’t fly today, especially when it concerns the welfare and safety of actors on set. But Friedkin’s measured and straight-faced response comes out of the blue. He builds it up to an echelon of an anecdote, and then it’s thrown in like a visceral punchline.
The comprehensive detail doesn’t stop there, recollecting moments as if it happened yesterday. There’s the admittance that Max Von Sydow struggled in the role because ‘he didn’t believe in God’ (which Friedkin comically counters that Sydow played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told). But its significant reveal involves actress Mercedes McCambridge. Going ‘full method acting’ mode, she broke her sobriety, drank raw eggs, smoked cigarettes and was tied to a chair, just so she can capture the demonic, swear-filled voice for Regan.
Besides Friedkin’s unorthodox approach, the respect that Leap of Faith manages to accomplish is that measured outlook throughout. Philippe’s direction is seemingly content exploring Friedkin’s filmmaking nuances without much interference as if Philippe was in awe throughout the process. The subjectivisms of art are one thing, but when he captures Friedkin at his most vulnerable, such as his reaction to the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, it’s the studied realisation of an artist seeking an equilibrium that is more than the life we lead.
And it makes such a difference to the viewing experience knowing a documentary film has that kind of confidence. It acknowledges Friedkin’s driving, obsessive motivation, knowing exactly how to film William Blatty’s book when other notable directors such as Stanley Kubrick passed on the project. He knew he wanted a unique score and subsequently put composer greats Bernard Herrmann and Lalo Schifrin in their places with his feedback (before turning to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells). A lot of the subtext is experimental, coincidental or accidental, alluding to the subliminal insertion of the famous demon face. Even today, he’s passionately adamant about The Exorcist’s ending, and how it doesn’t make sense to him as a filmmaker! He mutually respects what Blatty wanted, but it’s also amazing to hear with such compromised openness at how he finds the ending conflicting that fundamentally challenges the principles of Catholicism (with suicide being a sin) and it’s ‘dying a good man’ narrative. He leaves it up to the audience to believe what they want, but it also goes to show how even filmmakers can still be critically objective about their work, even if the film did go on to receive Oscar nominations in 1974.
But there are limitations to the documentary. For instance, it misses a golden opportunity to possibly explore some of the mythical legends that have surrounded its notoriety, such as the production fire or the coincidental deaths which fuelled pop-cultural rumour that the film was cursed. But the obvious observation that it is a one-sided conversation with no opportunity to counterbalance incidents, meaning something like Linda Blair’s casting and performance considering her age at the time to act in something so graphically horrific is a glaring omission that doesn’t get the necessary coverage as other cast members.
But what Philippe has perfected with his film is the art of the video essay. With each project expanding in size, he treats every factoid as an insightful, treasure trove of information and is celebrating that acknowledgement in the best form possible. Enriching and rewarding, Leap of Faith delivers a newfound appreciation for The Exorcist and for Friedkin’s work that is a must-see for all film fans.
LEAP OF FAITH: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN ON THE EXORCIST is screening as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. For screening details and ticket availability, please visit their website for more details.