It’s only fitting to bring fate into the discussion of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, which takes its name from the cruel, implacable force twisting the lives of four men driving trucks filled with volatile nitroglycerin through the Central American jungle. Fate decreed that Friedkin would balk at Steve McQueen’s demands, leaving him to settle on the less-bankable Roy Scheider as his leading man; fate delayed the production as Friedkin built, tore down, and rebuilt a rickety road bridge across a swollen river for the movie’s most jaw-dropping sequence; and fate saw that the movie, his first after the massive success of The Exorcist, opened in the midst of Star Wars’ unstoppable theatrical run, and was quickly swept out of theaters and into history’s dustbin. There it might have stayed, but for a few dedicated programmers who kept the movie alive, and Friedkin’s resurgence and determination to get the movie its first proper home-video release, prompting a glorious restoration now touring theaters and available on Blu-ray. (The DVDs have not yet been updated; Friedkin himself left a one-star review of the current disc on Amazon.) So a movie that once nearly disappeared has returned in glory, somewhat tarnished by age, but still a wonder of hard-boiled pessimism and pre-digital effects. Its return comes as Friedkin, following Bug, Killer Joe, and his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, is in one of the most productive periods of his career, at age 78.
The Dissolve: When did the process of getting Sorcerer re-released start to gain momentum for you?
William Friedkin: It began because there’s a group in Los Angeles called Cinefamily, and they run screenings of what they consider classics.They were running Sorcerer on a kind of regular basis. Then, I think it was around 2011, the head of that group told me that he wanted to book it, and he got a note back from Paramount saying they no longer owned it, and they didn’t know who did. The film was originally made by Paramount and Universal. Universal only had a 25-year lease on the film, and their ownership position expired. So I started to look into it. I called the guys I know at Paramount who send out prints to these film societies, and the guy over there said they had no record of it. They had been sending it out regularly around the country. He now says he has no idea where it is or who owns it. So I sued them—to find out, not for money. I sued them to achieve what is called “discovery,” which meant they had to produce all the documents they had in their files about Sorcerer. They tried to fight that; they didn’t want to go looking in the basement vaults, because both Paramount and Universal had been sold three times since I made Sorcerer, and documents get buried after so many years. They tried to fight discovery, and the judge who got the case said, “No, you produce the documents. Mr. Friedkin’s a profit participant, and he’s entitled to know who owns the picture.” In producing the documents, it turned out that Universal’s position had expired, and Paramount controlled the theatrical.
And then Paramount started to cooperate. The suit never went forward. They produced the documents, I had what I needed. Then Warner Bros. came in and said they wanted to take the whole picture over, they wanted to re-release it in theaters and on home video. They made a deal with Paramount, and Warner Bros. financed the home video, the Blu-ray. Paramount decided, because of all the interest created by the restoration and by the potential of other theaters and film societies and universities wanting to run it, that they would put it back out in theaters, and Warner Bros. got the Blu-ray and streaming rights, and they’ll figure out, between them, what to do about the TV rights, because there’s a lot of interest from cable television and all that. So that’s how I got it back. I just hung in there with them, and then Paramount changed its position, and now they’re 100 percent behind it.
The Dissolve: A lot of restorations now are exclusively digital—
Friedkin: It’s all digital. No one will be showing a 35mm of the film anymore. The copies are dirty and scratchy and even spliced. Sorcerer will now live in the digital world.
The Dissolve: It doesn’t sound like you’re especially nostalgic for celluloid.
Friedkin: Not at all. To me, it’s like old 78 rpm records vs. CDs. There’s no noise. When you listen to a CD, you’re listening to a pure sound, the way it was recorded. It’s still a recording; it isn’t the singer live in your living room, but it’s damn good. The old 78s and even the 33 1/3s and 45s always got scratched up. Eventually, they’d wear out. But they don’t know what the end tag on digital is. Nobody knows. It’s too new. But they’re beautiful. This is the best print ever made of Sorcerer.
The Dissolve: People have these endless debates about how vinyl sounds “warmer” than CDs, and then some musicians counter that what people call “warmth” is just low-end distortion. It has a certain cozy familiarity, but that doesn’t mean it’s accurate to the original recording.
Friedkin: Well, that’s how I feel about 35s. Look, there’s not going to be any more production of 35mm. There will only be the prints that still exist and are playable. Deluxe is out of business, and Technicolor is out of the 35 business. They’re done. That’s done. It was replaced by a great medium. They didn’t put junk out instead; they have improved the experience. An audience today knows when a print has got dirt and scratches. Who in the hell misses that? That wasn’t built in. It was a flaw of the process.
The Dissolve: I could give you the names of some people who miss it if you like.
Friedkin: There’s a lot of people, like Christopher Nolan—the only way to make a film is on 35? I just don’t buy that at all. He can’t release his films in 35mm. He can shoot 35mm, and then he has to transfer to digital to get it distributed. So you can be nostalgic and this and that, but it’s a waste of time.
The Dissolve: At the most extreme end, you have people who say they’d rather see a beat-up, red-shifted 35mm print because anything’s better than DCP.
Friedkin: No, it’s not better than DCP. DCP is the finest reproductive system they’ve yet come up with. I’m sure there’ll be more as the years go by.
The Dissolve: The colors on the Blu-ray are really quite astonishing, especially the pillar of fire that cuts through the dark green of the jungle.
Friedkin: They restored the color to its original hues. See, 35mm always was flawed. The water would change constantly—the composition of the water in the developer changed because of the changing nature of the amoebas in the water. The electricity to the printer would always fluctuate to some extent. So you’d get one reel off a printer that was bluish, another that was greenish, another that was faded. I approved most of the prints until my pictures started going to 2,000 or more screens. I approved the first 26 prints of The Exorcist, and it only ran in 26 theaters for months, and then expanded to 50, and I approved those prints. It was a ratio of about a hundred to one. A hundred reels that I burned to get one that was presentable. I honestly believed that one of the reasons for the success of The Exorcist was the control we had over the prints. It came out the way it was intended to. The blacks were black, the reds were red, you know, there was no distortion that was inherent in the 35 process.
The Dissolve: That deep, impenetrable black is so important to The Exorcist, which is about the fear of things we can’t see.
Friedkin: It’s like black and white, but there is color in it.
The Dissolve: With Sorcerer, you say in your book, you had to reshoot a week’s worth of footage when you first arrived in the jungle.
Friedkin: Yeah, we had some exposure problems in the jungle. You no longer have exposure problems with the digital cameras. What you see on a monitor is what it is, but then you can change that, you can shift that. You can successfully turn a night scene into a day scene, if you want. The filmmakers are constantly using the process to retouch.
The Dissolve: Over and above what kind of camera you’re using, one of the things that makes Sorcerer so astonishing is that it’s an entirely analog production: When you’re driving a truck across a rope bridge strung over a raging river, that truck is actually being driven over that bridge.
Friedkin: There’s no opticals at all. They just weren’t available to do anything like that. And certainly nothing computer-generated. Today, it would be computer-generated, and it wouldn’t be life-threatening.
The Dissolve: You took safety precautions: The bridge was actually made out of steel cables, not fraying rope. But it still must have been dangerous. Did you get any pushback from the crew or the financiers?
Friedkin: No, that was never an issue. I must say that while they were concerned, they had total faith in me, and I had a kind of sleepwalker’s certainty that I could pull it off. The big surprise was, originally, that it was not a financial success. It was more a critical success.
The Dissolve: You write about going down to the end of your driveway the morning it opened and getting a rather unpleasant surprise in the Los Angeles Times.
Friedkin: Yes, that’s true. A guy who had only given me wonderful reviews throughout the earlier part of my career—and he was a wonderful film critic in the sense that he wouldn’t write about a film, generally, if he didn’t like it—he didn’t like Sorcerer. It was the first review I saw.
The Dissolve: You say getting a negative review is like your child being heckled at a soccer match.
Friedkin: I mean, I was looking for a metaphor, and that was it. People say, “How does it feel?” and that’s about how it feels like, because the film, is, in a sense, your child.
The Dissolve: Commercially, you believe the film was hurt by coming out near the same time as Star Wars. What about critically? Do you have a sense why people didn’t like the film then, and more people do now?
Friedkin: Over the years, much of that criticism has changed completely, but it’s new critics. You can look at it a different way: I don’t compare myself to Vincent Van Gogh, for example, but he made over 3,600 paintings, watercolors, drawings in his lifetime, and never sold a painting. His brother, who was very close to him, was a dealer for the Impressionists, and the Impressionists, initially, all sold well. But he couldn’t sell Vincent. Why? Same painting. Today, for $100 million, you can’t buy a Vincent. But what has changed? Did Van Gogh’s paintings get better after he died? I don’t know what the answer to that is. Today, you cannot read a bad review of a Van Gogh show, and at the time he was alive, he painted for 10 years, he made these paintings, and people weren’t interested in all. They were ridiculed. I can’t answer that, I have no idea why they’re suddenly priceless, and at the time, you couldn’t give them away.
The Dissolve: Coming off The French Connection and The Exorcist, you could have made just about any movie you wanted to. What grabbed you about Sorcerer?
Friedkin: I wanted to make an action-adventure film that had a more profound meaning, like the mystery of fate, and that’s what Sorcerer’s about. It’s about the mystery of fate, and purgatory, and redemption, and in contemporary terms. I felt that the story embodied in The Wages Of Fear, the French novel and the film, fit that template very clearly. I wanted to do a version of it, in the same way that if someone does a version of Hamlet on the stage, it’s not a remake, it’s a new production, a new interpretation. And that’s how I did it: I changed all the characters, I changed all the incidents, but kept the spine of the original framework of the story, because I thought it was timeless. I had no interest in doing a remake or a shot-for-shot or anything like that, but I love the premise, the essential premise of four strangers who mostly didn’t like one another, delivering a load of dynamite, and they either had to cooperate or die. And that seemed to me like a metaphor for the world situation—even more so today.
The Dissolve: The relationships between your characters are largely sketched out nonverbally.
Friedkin: They’re wary of each other. And that’s the way the countries of the world are to this day. They’re all wary of each other. And yet they either have to find a way to cooperate, or blow up together.
The Dissolve: You mentioned redemption. Is that ever a possibility for these characters, or are they doomed from the beginning?
Friedkin: I don’t know that actual redemption is possible for them. I think that’s more or less in the eye of the beholder. The overriding idea is that nobody, none of us, has any control over how we came into this world, or how we’re going to leave it. The film is about the mystery of fate. Eventually, it seems to me, that they don’t receive redemption, but punishment. They don’t make it no matter what the effort.
The Dissolve: Fiction usually tells us the opposite, which is one of the reasons it’s more satisfying than real life: Bad things happen to you because you did something bad, or because you angered the gods.
Friedkin: That’s if you have a certain fate. But the fact is, nobody in the history of the world, whether it be Jesus or Hitler, has any control of how they came into this world, what personality they were given, what events occur in their lives, and they have nothing at all to say about how they’re leaving the world. For a long time, it looked as though Jesus was going to die in obscurity, and now look. For a long time, it looked as though Hitler was well on his way to conquering the given world at that time, and now look. Nobody, not the historical and mythic figures of history, had anything to say about their birth, or death, or time of death, or anything else, unless you commit suicide, which is a kind of complete loss of fate. The ending is the same for all of us.
The Dissolve: As you mentioned, you reinvented the characters from the novel. Why did you choose to make one of them a terrorist, and set his prologue in Jerusalem?
Friedkin: It was just an idea that came up between the writer, Wally Green, and I. We had no intention of copying those characters, but we came up with these guys who are outside the law to one degree or another: One guy was a white-collar criminal, the other guy was the wheelman for a stick-up gang, the other guy was an Arab terrorist, and the fourth guy was a hired assassin. We decided, at a time when the zeitgeist was going completely the other way, toward Star Wars and superheroes, we decided to not make these characters superheroes, not have them survive because they had supernatural powers. We decided to make them be very flawed men, which is, of course, how they would wind up in a purgatory like that to begin with. The most interesting part of a journey is how the traveler came to the starting point in the first place. How the hell did they get there, and where were they going?
The Dissolve: People remember The Wages Of Fear as a movie about men driving a truck, but your characters don’t start their engines until Sorcerer is more than half over.
“Well, cable television and streaming I think is sensational. I think it’s more interesting than the films that are being made for the theaters.”
Friedkin: Well, that doesn’t bother me, because in the time I made it, that was never a consideration. Audiences understood the slow build of story that created suspense. Why should I drop them in the truck immediately and have to invent 10 times as many incidents? I was more interested in suggesting their characters and how they got to that place, what I just said to you: The interesting thing to me was what got them to that starting point in the first place. And then, you kind of had a clue on how they might react. Often it was a false clue. If you were making the film today, you’d of course have to get them in the truck in the first reel. Audiences are less tolerant of slow build. With all the superhero pictures, it’s rock ’em, sock ’em from the credits.
The Dissolve: How did you conceive the journey of Roy Scheider’s character?
Friedkin: That’s open-ended. The film begins in mystery and ends in mystery. There’s a savage journey in between. I don’t know how Scheider’s character ends up, because I didn’t load the deck. He’s in that bar where he’s a hero to the people in the bar. There are armed men in the bar, there’s a couple of police officers from the town, there’s the guys from the oil company, and there’s everybody else who’s around the bar inside and outside, who might be able to foil the two guys who come after him or not. It’s an ambiguous ending in that sense. [Spoilers ahead.]
The Dissolve: You hear the one shot at the end—
Friedkin: Do you know what that shot is? It’s actually a backfire of a vehicle that goes by. But of course, people think it’s a gunshot.
The Dissolve: It’s awfully muffled; you can’t tell if it’s part of the soundtrack or the score. But it seems to represent that.
Friedkin: There’s the hint of a gunshot. I actually used a backfire of a diesel engine.
The Dissolve: So you leave it up to us.
Friedkin: It is totally up to the audience. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to whether he gets out of there. There is a small sense of hope, because he is given the letter to the French guy’s wife by the oil-company executive, and you kind of get the feeling he might go to see her, and she’s a very bright and attractive woman, and who knows! He hears nostalgic music from the jukebox which overtakes him, as music often does, and he’s kind of lulled into what could be a false sense of security. There is some hope offered for the possibility of his meeting Victor’s wife. [End spoilers.]
The Dissolve: It’s a great performance, even though Scheider wasn’t your first choice.
Friedkin: I think he was great, though. I had other choices, but now that I’ve lived with the picture for 37 years, I think he’s perfect.
The Dissolve: It’s great that he’s not especially heroic. When he yells out, “We’re sitting on double shares!” he sounds like Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.
Friedkin: It is a Fred C. Dobbs moment. Fred C. Dobbs is one of my favorite characters in film, and there’s a lot of him in Roy’s performance.
The Dissolve: Sorcerer would have been helped at the box office by having a bigger star in the lead, but it works for the character that he isn’t a hero.
Friedkin:I don’t know about the stars, you’re probably right. But the three people who were in Star Wars weren’t stars either, then. It was a concept that prevailed. Star Wars changed the zeitgeist of American film forever. If Star Wars had failed, you wouldn’t have had 90 percent of the films that are produced in Hollywood today.
The Dissolve: So after Star Wars changed everything and Sorcerer flopped, where did you see yourself in the grand scheme of things?
Friedkin: I just realized what I told you, that the direction of American film had gone in the opposite direction from the film I had just made. It happens. The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.
The Dissolve: That’s a very appropriate epigraph.
Friedkin: It is. The rest of that is “nor all thy piety nor wit… can cancel out a word of it.” That’s what happens. Star Wars came along and changed what we think of as a movie in America.
The Dissolve: In a way, that’s what Sorcerer is about. It would have seemed almost off if it were a big hit.
Friedkin: Well, it isn’t to me so much about failure as striving. Striving against one’s fate.
The Dissolve: There’s a Sisyphean quality to it. Scheider’s character realizes early on that there are two trucks because they expect one won’t make it.
Friedkin: Right. From beginning to end, it’s an impossible journey.
The Dissolve: It was kind of an impossible process for you as well. Even before you went into the jungle, you spent days trying to get the car crash in Scheider’s prologue right. Did you feel like life was imitating art at a certain point?
Friedkin: Yeah. I think looking back, that’s what happened. I wasn’t thinking about any of that stuff at the time. The people from my generation who were working out here at the studios, we never knew how much money a picture made until Star Wars. They never told us, and it wasn’t in the paper every day, the box-office results. All my contemporaries cared about was whether we liked the film or didn’t. There was no competition, it wasn’t all, “This is a great film, and this one’s lousy, and this one made X dollars, and that didn’t.” We never talked about that stuff. We talked only about the films we liked.
The Dissolve: It was such a fertile time in American filmmaking. Did you feel challenged or inspired by the movies your peers were making, the way The Beatles made Sgt. Pepper as a response to Pet Sounds?
Friedkin: It was a very fertile time for all the arts. The arts were changing. A lot of works that would not have been considered art at all were coming into prominence, like Andy Warhol and the whole school he influenced. Basquiat and the graffiti crowd, and Jackson Pollock was suddenly discovered, as his handful of paintings were considered masterpieces. They were just drips! He was known as “Jack The Dripper.” But yes, the arts were changing. Now I think there’s kind of a stagnant period. Everything is Star Wars.
The Dissolve: You started out in television, and have gone back to it at various points in your career. What about what’s happening there?
Friedkin: Well, cable television and streaming I think is sensational. I think it’s more interesting than the films that are being made for the theaters. Shows like Homeland and House Of Cards and The Sopranos and 24 and so many others you can name… Not network shows, but the cable shows and the Netflixes of the world and HBO, that’s much more interesting to me than any of the pictures coming out.
The Dissolve: The People Vs. Paul Crump, which you made for TV right at the beginning of your career, is finally coming out on DVD.
Friedkin: Yeah, they sent me a copy of it, it was remastered and it was partially supervised by this guy Doug Hughes, who’s John Hughes’ son, in Chicago. That film came out in a very limited edition in like, 1961. The only prints that existed were 16mm. I made it when I was directing live television. I made it primarily trying to save a man’s life, and consequently did. And consequently, it got me launched into a film career.
The Dissolve: It’s a very interesting blend of documentary and re-creation, or fiction and film noir. Did you have a sense of how you wanted to go about it at the time, or was it a question of not knowing what rules you were breaking?
Friedkin: Look, I didn’t know how to make a film. I was a live television director. I learned how to make a film as a kind of court of last resort, to get this guy released, which was a quixotic adventure. I really, again, had the sleepwalker’s conviction that if people saw my film, it would get this guy released. And it was shown to the governor of Illinois, who voted to pardon him, even though his own parole and pardon board voted to send him to the chair.
The Dissolve: Did that confirm your conviction that you could do something special with film?
Friedkin: The feeling I got was that film was so powerful that even a couple of amateurs making a film, that if it had a powerful meaning and mission, could succeed. I kept that feeling when I first went out to Hollywood. There’s only rare occasions of stuff like that happening. It doesn’t happen. There was one film, I guess, that did change the course of the world, which was the Al Gore documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Nobody but Al Gore was out there speaking about global warming and fossil fuels and stuff like that. That film fostered—especially with his book—that movement. It had to be the film more than the book, because more people saw the film, and it won an Academy Award.
The Dissolve: What keeps you excited about making films now? Bug and Killer Joe are among the better movies you’ve made, and they don’t feel like the work of an old master; they feel like they could have been made by someone half your age.
Friedkin: I appreciate that. I can’t say what attracts me to stuff like that. Something pulls me in that direction. Tracy Letts and I have a similar worldview; that’s what drew me to those. I’ve only made 17 films in 50 years of doing it, and I’ve abandoned a lot of projects because I couldn’t achieve my vision of them. I never thought I could get past how I saw them when the ideas first came to me. But Tracy Letts’ work and my views coincide. That’s why I made those two films. He’s written, I guess, five plays. I directed another of them on the stage in La Jolla. The other three plays he’s done are not anything I’d be interested in filming. I think they’re all wonderful, but the only ones that appealed to me as possible works of cinema were Bug and Killer Joe. I liked August: Osage County.
The Dissolve: I don’t think anybody would ever watch August: Osage County and Bug and Killer Joe and think, “Oh, those must have been written by the same person.”
Friedkin: I think you’re right. For Tracy, August was kind of a breakthrough, in that he reached a mass audience and became comparable to someone like Eugene O’Neill. There is no one comparable to Eugene O’Neill today. Or Tennessee Williams, or Arthur Miller. But Tracy got over with August: Osage County.