While LEAP OF FATH: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN ON THE EXORCIST is ostensibly a documentary on The Exorcist, because it centers entirely on William Friedkin’s oral history of the making of the film, it is also an in-depth examination of Friedkin, the filmmaker, and his creative process. Friedkin isn’t exactly shy about telling people what he thinks, but the director gets Friedkin to really open up about his beliefs, his love of directing, and art in a touching and vulnerable way. LEAP OF FAITH is a powerful statement of an artist about the many influences on his art and how his beliefs inform his ability to create. As a director himself, Alexandre O. Phillipe has done a wonderful job of gaining the trust of the artist to tell the story.
It is amazing that Friedkin is able to go into such painstaking detail and vividly recall so many of the stories behind the making of the film and the process of pre-production and filming this classic. It has, after all, been 47 years and he has made many films that are also considered classics since then. He also seems to be without many prejudices and his faith and his belief that fate rules all is very strong.
One of the most important things to realize that the title LEAP OF FAITH: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN ON THE EXORCIST is perfectly descriptive of this documentary’s content. The most important thing about Friedkin’s process is that it is completely composed of instinct. The most common theme that he comes back to again and again is that his faith, not just in religion but in creativity, allows him to create freely. Friedkin believes most strongly that his creative drive will never fail him and because he believes in this idea so much, it never has. He trusts his gift and is completely consumed by the drive to create. The film is all-important, as it should be. His love of the form is total.
Everyone thinks of The Exorcist as a classic of horror, but as Friedkin points out – it really was the first of its kind. There were no possession movies before it and it set the tone. About two years ago, I had to watch a short reel of scenes from the film and, while I always had a high regard for it – watching selected scenes over and over again, gave me an understanding of exactly how masterful it really was. One of the film’s greatest strengths is the acting and what becomes apparent from what Friedkin talks about during the documentary that he is a director who realizes the importance of casting, and how casting is crucial to directing, and has a high regard for actors and their craft. One of his wisest actions is having respect for actors and realizing that the greatest actors don’t need him. He is supremely confident in his belief in his actor’s abilities, especially those of Ellen Burstyn and Lee J. Cobb. He also uses techniques taken from classic directors like John Ford and George Stevens that he admits would, “probably not go over these days,” like firing rifles to get the startle reaction from actors. Registering surprise is one of the most notoriously difficult reactions to get from actors, so much so that they’ve actually done New Yorker cartoons about it. He also talks about the incident, which has talked about before, where he struck a non-professional actor he hired to play one of the priests. That’s actually something that actually bothered me along the lines of the criticism that has been leveled at Stanley Kubrick about his treatment of Shelley Duvall during the filming of The Shining. The impression I got from him telling the story relieved some of my animus against such techniques of manipulation in his case. I think that he did not have the intention of hurting or punishing the actor, but that he was trying to get what he wanted and what he felt the film needed.
The story of how he managed to get the voice of the Demon is fascinating. Exactly how Mercedes McCambridge managed to produce those sounds is a story of the pure sacrifice of the dedicated actor who knows exactly what they have to do, that is damaging to them, to achieve a level of performance that no one else could. It gave me such a greater appreciation for the artistry and dedication of Mercedes McCambridge and the true instinct of William Friedkin.
LEAP OF FAITH: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN ON THE EXORCIST is a treasure trove. It is a deep dive into the well of a master director’s creativity and the commitment necessary to deliver a perfect film that revolutionizes an entire genre of film and the art of filmmaking itself. If you love film and want to understand the art of Friedkin and The Exorcist, you owe it to yourself to watch it. If you want to have a deeper understanding of the creative drive of directors and film as an art, you need to watch this right now. It has a perfect comprehension of the delicate and living tendrils that make up the artistic temperament. Friedkin poses a question about his own film that he seems not to actually understand. I have an answer, but it is incredibly intriguing that he made a movie where he did not understand a key element. That he didn’t try to make it work or force an understanding onto it, he simply let it be what it was and took that leap that the audiences would accept that mystery. That the ending of the film could be a mystery even to him, but that was how the film should end. The profundity of his intention, like his understanding that the target of the demon was not Regan, but Father Karras, and his ability to let the film form itself organically through his and his fellow filmmakers and cast’s instruments without being interfered with, even by himself.
I cannot recommend this documentary more highly to you. Open your mind and heart and learn.
My answer to the question is that even though Friedkin claims to not understand the ending in his conscious mind, he understands it on a subconscious level. He is very close to it when he describes his memory of the “grace note” of his world travels or the Zen Garden in the Walled City and how it represents the feelings of the separation of human beings. The anecdote explains it perfectly and the trust that the artist must have in their own talent and creative drive. To me, it also explains how that mystery of creation unites us all as human beings through the creation and consumption of art. I believe that the mystery of the creation of art comes from the collective subconscious of humanity that artists tap into. The greatest artists have a trust in that power that mines the collective subconscious while creating works of art.
Art exists to unite us all because the source of that art is all of us. In that creation, we drink from the well of our collective souls. When we view moving works of art, we feel the power that unites us in emotion and awe of that subconscious well of humanity. While we feel that emotion together, we are not alone. It is only for that brief period of time, but it unites us as human beings. Through emotion and catharsis, we reach outside of our body/prison and connect on a level that goes beyond the physical. It is the way to touch each other’s inner core and the core of the collective subconscious. At least that’s what I think it is. But really, where do you think the creative impulse comes from? It is us. All of us.
You can now watch LEAP OF FAITH: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN ON THE EXORCIST on Shudder.