The Spool / Festivals
Sundance 2020: “Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist”
Alexandre O. Phillippe sits down for a long, insightful chat with the legendary filmmaker.
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Alexandre O. Philippe sits down for a long, insightful chat with the legendary filmmaker in Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.)

Memory: The Origins of Alien, Doc of the Dead, The People vs. George LucasAlexandre O. Philippe has built quite the reputation as a chronicler of the history and sociology of genre film. His documentaries hew more toward the style of the cinematic essay, straightforward but insightful interrogations of his subjects rather than narratively-structured tales in their own right.

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is no exception: from a distance, it’s less of a fully-featured documentary in its own right and more the kind of bonus feature you’d find on an Exorcist Blu-ray. But within those confines, there’s plenty of insight to be found, both on the film it’s discussing and on the sensibilities of one of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic (and old-school) directors.

Where Philippe’s previous works assembled a variety of talking-head interviews, Leap of Faith is focused on just one subject: William Friedkin, seated in a comfy chair for a fireside chat with the filmmaker for much of its 100-minute runtime, as he recounts the making of The Exorcist and his overall approach to filmmaking.

Through his gregarious, affable, sometimes prickly presentation, you get to hear stories about Jason Miller’s last-ditch bids to get cast as Father Karras, Mercedes McCambridge’s grueling regimen to get her voice in shape for Regan’s demonic possession, wrangling William Peter Blatty’s screenplay into something resembling his original novel, and more. It’s fascinating stuff, told with elan by Friedkin, a master storyteller in his own right as his anecdotes fit somewhere between previously-untold insight and tall tale.

Beyond the Exorcist-centric subjects, though, we get to learn a bit more about Friedkin as a filmmaker — or at least, how he perceives himself to make films. He’s a student of Carl Th. Dreyer (much of the early stretch is spent extolling the virtues of Ordet and its influences on the stark realism of The Exorcist) and Hollywood’s Golden Age, but also highly attuned to the chaotic abandon of the New Hollywood environment in which he thrived.

One minute, he’ll boast of not making deliberate subtextual choices and letting the audience project those meanings onto it; the next, he’ll speak deliberately of inserting a strange element into the film to make a point. He’s a self-professed manipulator and brigand on set, bragging about slapping actors around and firing rifles into the air on set to get shocked reactions from his actors. “You couldn’t get away with that today,” he remarks. Hell, no, you couldn’t.

It’s less of a fully-featured documentary in its own right and more the kind of bonus feature you’d find on an Exorcist Blu-ray.

And yet, without excusing those behaviors, it’s these glimmers of braggadocio that make Friedkin such a fascinating figure in the first place. Yes, these were crazy things he did on set, but they happened, so it’s time to interrogate them. The story of the making of The Exorcist is almost as fascinating as the film itself, and Philippe is less interested in getting a well-rounded version of the truth than turning his camera to the filmmaker himself and letting him say his piece. That’s fascinating in his own right, especially given how watchable Friedkin is.

We also get insights into Friedkin’s complicated relationship with the events of The Exorcist as a man of faith. Much of the circumstances surrounding the making of the film felt like divine intervention to him, and of course the story of a priest undergoing a crisis of faith, only to have his beliefs reaffirmed, resonates with Friedkin’s semi-lapsed Catholicism. It’s especially wild to hear how Friedkin feels about the ending of his own film (hint: he’s not a huge fan), especially from a religious perspective. He was maybe the perfect person to tell this kind of story in this way, and Leap of Faith functions best when it allows Friedkin to interrogate his own intentions a little more deeply.

But for all its behind-the-scenes insights into The Exorcist and Friedkin’s approach to filmmaking, Leap of Faith can’t help but feel slightly shallow in bits. Its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness; Friedkin’s a fascinating interview subject, but apart from the occasional cutaway to a film clip, Philippe’s camera doesn’t stray far from Friedkin’s easy chair.

While it’s entertaining to hear these anecdotes through Friedkin’s vivid retelling, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist doesn’t offer up many new insights about The Exorcist‘s production that hardcore devotees didn’t already know. It’s an entertaining watch if you’re a fan of the film and the filmmaker, but if you’re a fan, you probably already know most of this stuff. The real reason to watch it, honestly, is to observe a filmmaker reminiscing on his most popular, most personal film, and to see what he’s learned (or in some cases, not learned) in the intervening decades.