Review – ‘friedkin uncut’

Francesco Zippel’s Friedkin Uncut is a raw and uncensored documentary about the filmmaker, William Friedkin, now 84 years old, who directed a wide variety of notable films throughout the history of cinema. William Friedkin is interviewed about his career and a long list of collaborators, colleagues and devotees share stories, secrets and experiences that result in an unfiltered documentary film. Friedkin Uncut is just as suspenseful and mysterious as the films it covers. Each interviewee shares stories and ideas from their own unique setting; whether it’d be Quentin Tarantino sitting in an empty movie theater, Walter Hill in a game room with a pool table or Matthew McConaughey inside of an office leaning back on a chair, each colleague and admirer of William Friedkin’s work adds a different perspective to this documentary that adds layers of weight to the life and career of William Friedkin, both as a director and a human being. The locations of the documentary are wide ranging from Friedkin’s Hollywood Royalty home all the way to Venice, Italy – where Friedkin reminiscences about directing operas.

Gene Hackman in The French Connection (1971) Twentieth Century Fox

The documentary is filled with informative interviews by fellow filmmakers who admire William Friedkin, such as Wes Anderson, Francis Coppola, Walter Hill, Quentin Tarantino and Damien Chazelle. In addition, actors who’ve worked in Friedkin’s films like Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe), William Peterson (To Live and Die in LA), Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist) and Willem Dafoe (To Live and Die in LA) share insights and opinions in relation to their experiences from working with Friedkin. Italian filmmaker Francesco Zippel has directed a documentary that covers more than just the career of William Friedkin; it’s 107 minutes of film school and cinema history with references to Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein and Buster Keaton with discussions about Italian operas and classical music. “Let me demystify all of the bullshit that’s written about filmmakers. If you want to make a film, you need a combination of ambition, luck and the grace of God. And to me, the most important is the grace of God. But you have to go out and try to make your chance a reality.” Friedkin says, regarding the desire, determination and dedication it takes to make a film, regardless of who you are and where you live.

Max von Sydow in The Exorcist (1973) Warner Bros.

The documentary doesn’t explore certain films directed by Friedkin, like Blue Chips (1994) starring Nick Nolte and Shaquille O’Neal or The Hunted (2003) with Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro, but it emphasizes on his most notable films, in addition to some of the most controversial, such as Cruising (1980) starring Al Pacino. “Cruising took you on a second level of hell. The imagery is not as explicit as gay porn, but it’s rougher.” Quentin Tarantino says, during one of his interview clips. “It was reviled by the gay community at the time. They were worried the basement imagery would marginalize them.” Cruising was about an undercover Detective (Al Pacino) who infiltrates the underground sadomasochism scene of New York City to investigate a series of murders. “Cruising only interested me as an exotic background for a murder mystery.” Says Friedkin. “I don’t approach cinema from a political position at all. I don’t trust politics or politicians.” William Friedkin was speaking in reference to the controversy that sparked during the making of Cruising, in addition to its aftermath, since the film’s subject matter revolved heavily around the murdering of homosexuals.

Al Pacino in Cruising (1980) United Artists

The film title Friedkin Uncut is not ironic – this is truly William Friedkin uncut, raw and uncensored. Upon the opening sequence, we see him drive up to his home, park his car, get out, walk through the kitchen and make himself a cup of his favorite black coffee, all while setting the tone of good vs. evil with his comparing and contrasting of Hitler and Jesus. “Hitler, evil incarnate, brought people down with him to hell. And Jesus, God incarnate, lifted spirits up.” Friedkin talks about how much those two figures of history fascinate him, and immediately the film delves into footage from The Exorcist (1973), discussing the depths of research William Friedkin conducted in order to portray an accurate account of exorcisms and demonic possessions. “I made The Exorcist as a believer.” Says Friedkin. “I now read the New Testament. I seldom read the Old Testament. I find the Old Testament, a lot more fanciful.” He discusses his Jewish heritage, where his parents were escapees from Europe who quickly became Americans, in addition to how he grew up in poverty on the north side of Chicago.

Friedkin reveals that it was Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) that made him realize the power of cinema, inspiring him to become a filmmaker. “Acting and directing are both professions; it’s a job. Some schmuck who sits around here and says ‘I’m an artist’ is crazy.” William Friedkin suggests how he thinks its foolish for contemporary directors to claim they’re artists, when they’re conducting chores within a capacity of duty and diligence. “A lot of people say 90% of directing is in the casting. Is it 90%? No, but it’s 80%. The actors are the ones taking you all the way.” Quentin Tarantino says, referring to the strongly held opinion that the majority of a directors work weighs heavily on choosing which actors to perform in their film. This topic is up for debate, as many would argue that directing is much more than casting for it to have 80% or 90% capacity is perhaps, too generous. One could argue that casting is half of directing, at a solid 50%. The remaining 50% is hiring your department heads, translating a script to screen and cutting the pieces together in the editing room. A miscellaneous percentage could also be left for unexpected incidents and creative control, depending on whether or not it’s a studio film or an independent production. Regardless, the tone of opinions and perceptions regarding filmmaking appears to come off as subjective; there’s no right or wrong answer.

William Peterson in To Live and Die in LA (1985) MGM/UA Distribution Company

The documentary reveals the shocking fact that William Friedkin does one-take when he shoots during principal photography. This one and done technique is similar to the methods of Clint Eastwood and Sidney Lumet – as opposed to the 100 takes of director Stanley Kubrick. “You let it rip from take 1, and that’s it.” Matthew McConaughey says, who worked with Friedkin on Killer Joe (2011). “It takes the pressure off the actor. You’ve got one go.” Friedkin explains the reasoning behind this method is to capture the magic. “I’m not looking for perfection in the films that I’ve made. I’m looking for spontaneity.” Says Friedkin. “Rehearsal is for sissies. Rehearsal is for dummies. I’m a one-take guy.” A lot of masterful filmmakers who shoot multiple takes would scoff at Friedkin’s outlandish claims, but to each his own. When it comes to filmmaking and director’s techniques, there’s no right or wrong.

Nick Nolte and Shaquille O’Neal in Blue Chips (1994) Paramount Pictures

William Friedkin has directed many popular films, but there’s a few of them that are outstanding in the sense of their signatures left upon cinema. The French Connection (1971) is known for its car chase sequence in Brooklyn and The Exorcist (1973) left its mark on the horror genre as a standard. “What Star Wars was to the science-fiction movie, The Exorcist was to the horror film.” Director Walter Hill (The Warriors) says in his interview clip, referring to the revolution in the horror genre with Friedkin’s 1973 film. “The Exorcist was the movie where people stood in line not to see the next show, but the show after that.” Quentin Tarantino says. Later in the documentary, actor William Peterson (To Live and Die in LA) reveals he fainted during a screening of The Exorcist in theatres. “When I finally met Billy Friedkin, I was very admiring.” Says Francis Coppola, the celebrated director of The Godfather Saga, who rose to prominence in the 1970s, along with his colleague William Friedkin.

Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro in The Hunted (2003) Paramount Pictures

There is a suspenseful musical score that accompanies the documentary which makes it just as mysterious as William Friedkin’s films. This documentary is raw and uncut, without attempting to be stylish or spectacular. The raw and unrestricted vibe of the documentary footage is akin to the experimentations of many of Friedkin’s films. “Filmmaking is an experimental form. If you can’t experiment, you can’t learn what is possible.” Francis Coppola says. “Thinking you can make a good film without risk is like saying you can make a baby without sex.” William Friedkin’s films serve as an inspiration for aspiring filmmakers and directors who would arrive onto the scene one generation later, like Quentin Tarantino. “His cinematic set sequences give you a sense of how you can do it yourself. “ Says Quentin Tarantino, referring to William Friedkin’s filmmaking techniques and how they can be duplicated. Quentin Tarantino’s films himself have set sequences that are simplified and allow for viewers to become inspired to go out and shoot their own films. Tarantino is a major reason why a great number of movie buffs and cinephiles have attempted to make their own films, or attended film school, because they were shown that it’s possible, provided one has the determination to execute the labor necessary to make a film, and of course, with the grace of God.

Francesco Zippel does an incredible job of duplicating Friedkin’s raw and open filmmaking style in this documentary. You don’t have to be a fan of William Friedkin’s films to enjoy this documentary. Just being a fan of cinema alone is the only prerequisite to appreciating Friedkin Uncut. The knowledge and wisdom revealed therein is priceless. The following quote from Friedkin himself is just a taste of the wisdom you can gain from watching this film: “I don’t believe in competitions between films. Filmmaking is not like a tennis match. It’s not like a ping-pong game. What is a better film, Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind? I have no idea. I love them both. So, a film competition to me is a joke; a dirty joke. There is this need that people have, to promote something; to have winners and losers. To judge one film against another is nothing but a subjective conclusion. I don’t want a bunch of schmucks calling themselves judges sitting in a fucking room saying, La Dolce Vita is not as good as Batman vs. Superman. Fuck them and the horse they rode in on. Fuck them all.”

Friedkin Uncut is available on Amazon Prime Video.

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