Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist review – the director’s insights

3.5

Summary

Not a commentary, not a “making of” documentary, but rather an invitation for the director of The Exorcist to declare the wonder of his own work. Presented beautifully with plenty of clips of films and other art that Friedkin refers to.

Whether you have seen it or not, you probably know that The Exorcist is the stuff of legend. Rumour has it that watching it at the cinema brought on miscarriages and heart attacks – powerful stuff! – and it certainly must have been impressive, as it was the first horror film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. There has been plenty written and speculated about the film, and what made it a success, and now we have Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, in which The Exorcist’s director himself recalls and lays out for us the inspirations and catalysts for various moments, scenes and techniques that contributed to it.

Leap of Faith is the latest cinema-related feature directed by Alexandre O. Philippe; the credits declare “written by” as well, but I’m reasonably sure the actual words came from Friedkin himself. The vast majority of this hour-and-three-quarters, you see, is made up of the revered director essentially talking to the camera. I don’t doubt this “documentary” is the product of an interview or carefully edited conversation, but it comes across like an almost stream of consciousness outpouring of memories and artistic commentary. The word “documentary” isn’t quite right, in my opinion: this piece is neither a study of The Exorcist nor an examination of Friedkin’s techniques, but a deep dive into what made the film purely from Friedkin’s own point of view.

Friedkin talks about a wide range of topics including the rationale behind including the prologue in Iraq, the difficulty in choosing a composer, some of his (questionable) techniques in assisting with his cast’s performances, and the anguish behind the demon’s voice. The parts I found most illuminating related to The Exorcist’s sound design, the use of Muslim chants, pig squeals, and the ringing song of a wine glass. I’m not here to tell you everything he says, of course – Leap of Faith is definitely worth watching to find out for yourself – but rather my view on this film.

Although there was some incredible insight and almost a curated thesis on cinematic history as it related to Friedkin’s influences, I wasn’t entirely comfortable watching Leap of Faith. I’m afraid this could be sacrilegious amongst horror fans, but this came down to the subject’s rather superior personality. It’s very clear that William Friedkin is deeply knowledgeable of the giants of cinema who came before him, but at several points in the dialogue, he tells us that his techniques were based entirely on instinct, or suggests some direction from above: it’s almost as though he considers himself to be a natural, and therefore in a higher class than those filmmakers who work hard at their craft. I have no doubt instinct can come naturally to someone who has experience and study to draw from.

Friedkin talks with affection and pride about the actors he worked with, especially where there is an anecdote about their selection, or being slapped. He hardly speaks about Ellen Burstyn (who played Chris, the possessed girl’s mother) at all, and I don’t believe he mentioned the name Linda Blair or Regan (the possessed girl herself) once, referring only to “the young girl”. Sure, this could just be me, but it felt rather like unconscious sexism.

Philippe indulged Friedkin, of course: there is no-one else under this spotlight, and this focus (different to Philippe’s other films) makes Leap of Faith look like Philippe idolizes him. I wonder whose idea it was that Leap of Faith should have no other contributors but William Friedkin. It must be rare to obtain such a man’s musings on his most celebrated work, but one description that cannot be applied to Leap of Faith is “balanced”. I would like to be able to hear from other people involved in The Exorcist before I can conclude it was made by a genius: Leap of Faith certainly presents a man who sees himself as one.

All that aside, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is still a fascinating film to watch. There are so many earlier films, pieces of music, and works of art that Friedkin references and are then presented within the film that it feels like it could work just as well as a multi-media art installation. Director of photography Robert Muratore, editor David Lawrence, and composer Jon Hegel all deserve to be credited in the production of Leap of Faith, just as much as Alexandre O. Philippe. Director of photography Owen Roizman, editors Evan Lottman and Norman Gay, and composer Jack Nitzsche all deserve to be acknowledged for their contributions to The Exorcist, not just director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty.

I do recommend Leap of Faith, though with a caveat about its single perspective. Do not expect it to be like a director’s commentary about The Exorcist though, or a “making of” documentary: it has neither the breadth of coverage nor the depth of scope. It’s available to watch now on Shudder, but Shudder subscribers – horror fans, for the most part – may be looking for more juicy details than Leap of Faith provides.


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Alix Turner

Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.

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