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Thu October 31, 2013
Movie Interviews

Four Decades On, 'The Exorcist' Is Still A Head-Turner

Originally published on Thu October 31, 2013 4:01 pm

The Exorcist was the story of one girl's demonic possession and the priest who saved her. It was engaging, terrifying and masterful — and it gave new meaning to the phrase "a real head-turner."

William Peter Blatty wrote the screenplay, adapting his own best-selling book. The film starred Ellen Burstyn and a very young Linda Blair — barely 12 years old when shooting began. William Friedkin, who had recently won an Academy Award for The French Connection, was the director.

Forty — yes, 40 — years later, The Exorcist is still engaging and terrifying and masterful, and it's being released on Blu-ray, together with an extended director's cut. For Thursday's All Things Considered, Friedkin spoke to NPR's Robert Siegel about creating the horror classic, which he says wasn't initially intended to be a horror movie.


Interview Highlights

On not setting out to make a scary movie

We knew that it would be disturbing to people, but it was based on an actual case that took place in Silver Spring, Md., in 1949, and then in St. Louis at the Alexian Brothers Hospital. But Blatty and and I never talked about making a horror film. We always felt we were making a film about the mystery of faith.

On how little dialogue there is at the beginning of the film

All of the dialogue in the first 10 minutes or so, as little as there is ... it's in Arabic. So, yeah, it's all visual. I mean, if you think about it, nothing really happens in the movie for about 45 minutes. You just set up the characters, and then it's about mood and atmosphere. And then [at] about 45 minutes the story really kicks in. ... [It's about] what is troubling this 12-year-old girl that medical science can't improve.

On casting Linda Blair as the possessed girl

I looked at tapes from all over the country, and I auditioned a number of the young girls myself. I reached a point where I thought we could not cast the picture at all with a 12-year-old. And so we started to look at 15- and 16-year-old girls who looked younger. And we still couldn't cast it, for a variety of reasons, but principally that I felt that the experience of doing this film would have damaged most of those young girls.

Linda came in at the very end, when we thought we couldn't make the film. Her mother brought her in to see me without an appointment. ... She was so well-adjusted. She was a straight-A student in Westport, Conn. And she was a totally together young girl.

On directing a young, inexperienced actress

I became like a surrogate father to her. And I was able to speak her language. And I would make the whole thing a kind of a game. She will say to this day that she often didn't really know either what she was doing, or the implications of what she was doing. And I never really explained the implications to her.

But her mother was on the set at all times, along with tutors. There were a lot of things that she had to say before we could dub her voice [with that of the demon's] — and she knew that a lot of these phrases were, you know, very off-color.

And she would say to me things [like], "Oh I can't say that, Billy." And I'd say, "Oh yes you can. You can say that, Linda; I'm not going to use your own voice." "What do you mean?" [she'd say]. I said, "It won't be you saying it, but you have to say it so I can put someone else's voice in there."

So she understood the meaning of some of those phrases that she would never use in her everyday life.

On his relationship with the studio

They thought I was crazy. They actually thought I was off my rocker. But they had committed to me, and it was going to be very difficult to get anyone to come in and replace me. That film, before it came to me, had been turned down by Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols. I was sort of the last man standing, and they made the decision shortly after I won the Academy Award for The French Connection.

I was at least the fifth or sixth [choice]. I wasn't on any list. And all of a sudden — in fact they had hired another director. And Blatty held out for me.

On his own faith

I was raised in the Jewish faith, but I was extremely moved by the New Testament — not necessarily in a literal sense, but the teachings of Jesus I still find profoundly moving. So I didn't enter this job as a doubting Thomas. I believed in the teaching, and I still believe very strongly in the teachings of Jesus.

On whether or not he's a believer after making the film

You know a phrase that I've often used to — it was kind of a guide to me in the making of this — was Hamlet's advice to Horatio: "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

There are great mysteries. Faith is one of them; love is another. Birth and life are other mysteries. ... We don't really understand what their purpose is or how they occur.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL: I'm Robert Siegel. And on this Halloween, we remember one the scariest movies of all time, this year celebrating its 40th anniversary.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE EXORCIST")

MAX VON SYDOW: (as Father Lankester Merrin) I command you, by the judge of the living and the dead, to depart from this servant of God.

SIEGEL: "The Exorcist" was the story of one girl's demonic possession, and the priest who saved her. It was engaging, terrifying and masterful, and it gave new meaning to the phrase "a real head-turner." William Peter Blatty wrote the screenplay, adapting his own best-selling book. The film starred Ellen Burstyn and a very young Linda Blair, barely 12 years old when shooting began. It was directed by William Friedkin, who had recently won an Academy Award for directing "The French Connection."

Forty years later, "The Exorcist" is still engaging and terrifying and masterful. It's being released on Blu-ray together with an extended director's cut. And the director, William Friedkin, is with us to talk about it. Welcome to the program once again.

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Thanks, Robert. Good to talk to you again.

SIEGEL: Yes. You made a movie that many people remember as the scariest film. I've heard you say that you didn't set out to make a scary movie. True?

FRIEDKIN: Not to that extent, no. We knew that it would be disturbing to people, but it was based on an actual case that took place in Silver Spring, Md., in 1949, and then in St. Louis at the Alexian Brothers Hospital. But Blatty and I never talked about making a horror film. We always felt we were making a film about the mystery of faith.

SIEGEL: I'm going to tell you, in going back to look at "The Exorcist," I was struck by how well it holds up, how gripping it is to this day. And the very beginning of the movie, I was struck by how little dialogue there is.

FRIEDKIN: All of the dialogue in the first 10 minutes or so - as little as there is, as you point out - is in Iraq. It's in Arabic. So yeah, it's all visual. I mean, if you think about it, nothing really happens in the movie for about 45 minutes. You just set up the characters, and then it's about mood and atmosphere. And then about 45 minutes, the story really kicks in to what is troubling this 12-year-old girl that medical science can't improve.

SIEGEL: Well, eventually, of course, the movie switches to Georgetown - in Washington, D.C. - and the house in which this troubled girl has been possessed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE EXORCIST")

LINDA BLAIR: (as Regan MacNeil) Mother, please. Oh, please, mother. Make it stop! It's burning!

MERCEDES MCCAMBRIDGE: (As the Demon's voice) Keep away. The sow is mine.

FRIEDKIN: I looked at tapes from all over the country, and I auditioned a number of the young girls myself. I reached a point where I thought we could not cast the picture at all with a 12-year-old. And so we started to look at 15- and 16-year-old girls who looked younger. And we still couldn't cast it for a variety of reasons, principally that I felt that the experience of doing this film would have damaged most of those young girls.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

FRIEDKIN: Linda came in at the very end, when we thought we couldn't make the film. Her mother brought her in to see me without an appointment.

SIEGEL: But you were concerned about what this experience might do to a young child who is playing this part.

FRIEDKIN: Of course. But she was so well-adjusted. She was a straight-A student in Westport, Conn. And she was a totally together young girl.

SIEGEL: Had you directed someone that young, and that inexperienced, before?

FRIEDKIN: No. Nor since.

SIEGEL: No. Well, what's the challenge? I mean, how do you deal with that?

FRIEDKIN: In a number of ways. I became like a surrogate father to her, and I was able to speak her language. And I would make the whole thing a kind of a game. She will say, to this day, that she often didn't really know either what she was doing or the implications of what she was doing. And I never really explained the implications to her.

But her mother was on the set at all times, along with tutors. And - but she - there were a lot of things that she had to say before we could dub her voice. And she knew that a lot of these phrases were, you know, very off-color.

And she would say to me things - oh, I can't say that, Billy. And I'd say, oh, yes, you can. You can say that, Linda. I'm not going to use your own voice. What do you mean? I said, it won't be you saying it, but you have to say it so I can put someone else's voice in there. So she understood the meaning of some of those phrases that she would never use in her everyday life.

SIEGEL: And as you're making these decisions, the studio is saying, Friedkin must know what he's doing, yeah?

FRIEDKIN: No. They thought I was crazy. They actually thought I was off my rocker. But they had committed to me, Robert, and it was going to be very difficult to get anyone to come in and replace me. That film, before it came to me, had been turned down by Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols. I was sort of the last man standing, and they made the decision shortly after I won the Academy Award for "The French Connection."

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: So you were the fourth choice to direct "The Exorcist"?

FRIEDKIN: No. I was at least the fifth or sixth. I wasn't on any list. And then all of a sudden - in fact, they had hired another director. And Blatty held out for me.

SIEGEL: Since you found this a very gripping story of faith - and it's about good and evil and guilt and sin - did you bring any particular personal crisis of faith or faith of your own into this?

FRIEDKIN: I was raised in the Jewish faith, but I was extremely moved by the New Testament. Not necessarily in a literal sense but the teachings of Jesus, I still find profoundly moving. So I didn't enter this job as a doubting Thomas. I believed in the teaching, and I still believe very strongly in the teachings of Jesus.

SIEGEL: But what I'm hearing from you is that you came through the experience of reading the Blatty novel and reading the - about the 1949 case in Silver Spring, Md., of the boy who had been seen by an exorcist; you came away with this a believer that rarely but on occasions, people are possessed by a demon or the devil, and they might be helped through the auspices of an exorcist.

FRIEDKIN: You know, a phrase that I've often used to - that was kind of a guide to me, in the making of this, was Hamlet's advice to Horatio. There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio. There are great mysteries. Faith is one of them. Love is another. Birth and life are other mysteries that we don't really understand what their purpose is, or how they occur.

SIEGEL: Well, William Friedkin, thanks for talking with us. And congratulations on the 40th anniversary of "The Exorcist."

FRIEDKIN: Thank you, Robert. Always a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE EXORCIST" THEM MUSIC)

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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