Alexandre O. Philippe is crafting quite the career as a director of thoughtful deep-dives into other directors' work. His films - The People Vs George Lucas, Doc Of the Dead, 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene, Memory: The Origins of Alien - scrutinise the filmmaking process, to a degree far beyond the simple 'making-of' formula, and the result is an engrossing experience, encouraging a new understanding about some of the best-known films of the 20th century. It's catnip to film buffs (such as yours truly).
For this latest effort, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin, Philippe adopted the Hitchcock-Truffaut interview model, in a conversation with one of his personal heroes, in which he unpacks Friedkin's process over the course of several days. Nothing was off limits, and Leap Of Faith is an intimate chamber film, that reveals the raw, introspective, sometimes regretful Friedkin, and the way faith/fate have shaped his life and career.
With deep dives that you've done so far, with Star Wars, Alien, Psycho, you're not choosing obscure films. What is the attraction -and indeed, the challenge- of doing these deep dives into really well-known films?
To me, I'm not really sure that I look at it as a challenge. For me, it's more, ‘What excites me?’ If it excites me I'm going to go there. And obviously, in retrospect, I’ve been very interested in these movies and scenes and sequences that are essentially cultural moments. Obviously I'm very interested in pop culture, but I'm interested in the intersection between cinephilia and pop culture and these moments that really have, I think, a lot to say about us.
So how did you come to focus on The Exorcist specifically?
That was not something that I had planned at all. It was truly serendipitous or as Friedkin would say, fate. I was actually touring with 78/52, my film on Psycho, on the shower scene. And I was at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain. He was given a lifetime achievement award at that festival that same year. And we were having lunch on the port at one of the 30 restaurants in Sitges. It just so happened that we were having lunch at the same restaurant then. And he called me to his table in the middle of lunch and said, he wanted to tell me these stories about Hitchcock and then he grabbed my phone and gave his phone number and he said, "Next time you're in Los Angeles. I want you to call me and I want to buy you lunch." I said, "Okay, great."
So three weeks later we're having lunch in Los Angeles, the conversation switches to The Exorcist very quickly. He started telling me about his archives and he said, "If you wanted to have access, I'd give you access." And I'm like, "Well, what do you mean?" He said, "Read my autobiography. And if you find an angle just let me know." And so that was the invitation that I could not refuse, right?
Yeah. But basically for me the concept came very, very quickly. I wanted to make a film about essentially The Exorcist, according to William Friedkin but forget about special effects. I really wanted to talk about art. I wanted to talk about music. I wanted to talk about his influences. And I wanted to do a deep dive into his process as a filmmaker and as a person. The film that you have now, comes out of six days of interviews with him on The Exorcist. Not to mention all the numerous lunches, visits, phone calls, coffees and all that. But there's no film school that could give me what I've gotten out of this time that I spent with him. It's absolutely priceless. I'll never forget those days. Yeah.
Well, I was going to say, you're getting your own masterclass. You’re making your own film, of course, but it's a one-on-one masterclass with William Friedkin. What are some things that you'll take away from that? How has that shaped how you're going to make future films?
I think what I appreciated more than anything I think is the way he thinks about life and how that translates into filmmaking. This idea of grace notes, I think, is very key. Obviously something that you see in one of his sort of totem movies, which is Citizen Kane, but something that affects his own filmmaking. And then also obviously the whole sequence about the Kyoto Zen Gardens and how that's his own sort of personal grace note. That carries a lot, I think. And you understand why his movies are so great, because there is a depth to this man that even if he's dealing with a “genre film”, he's going to carry that into it.
And that's why those films are so great. It's no mistake that he's made some of the most memorable films of all time. He's a very memorable man. He's a very controversial man as well. There's a lot of stuff that he did that... Well, as he says in Leap of Faith that he couldn't do today. He wouldn't do today. It's part of this whole sort of Wild West of Hollywood. But, all that aside, I think what I really appreciate about him is things like his favourite scene in The Exorcist being this very simple scene between Chris and Kinderman. It's not any of the scenes that come to mind when you think about The Exorcist. It's probably the least memorable scene.
But that's his favourite scene. And I think when you hear him talk about this, you realize that you need to pay attention to the details and the subtleties, when you watch a William Friedkin movie. It's not about the noise, it's not about the big things, it's about the small things. And when you start doing that, all of a sudden I think his films just take on a whole new vibe in a way, it's really cool.
LISTEN TO 'THE PLAYLIST' REVIEW 'LEAP OF FAITH: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN ON THE EXORCIST'
And you said you spent six days with him, that's a gift in terms of all the material you are gathering, but also you're adding more and more to the edit! Can you talk about compiling it? How much as he's talking, are you trying to put it together, to help later down the track?
It's not so much a question of compiling, it's a question of structuring. And I think that the preparation was, I would say, really unique for me for this particular film, because I wanted to go to a beautiful idyllic location to counterbalance the intensity of The Exorcist, because I knew it was going to mess with my mind, right? And so I went to Northern California, actually quite close to where a Hitchcock shot The Birds, in Bodega. And I took The Exorcist with me and my routine for 30 days was I would wake up at 5:30 in the morning, I would drive through the fog by the Potter School where Hitchcock shot The Birds. Of course, that incredible scene. Pay my respects, go to the beach, go for a nice long walk, get my coffee, go back to the vineyard and watch The Exorcist. And I did that for 30 days straight.
Yeah, don't do that. I don't recommend it. So I would do that, that was my morning routine. And then in the afternoon, I would start working on questions and structuring essentially these interviews into sessions, into themes. But then, of course, the magic of documentary filmmaking kicks in, once you were in front of him and he starts giving you stuff back, you don't know where he's going to go right?
But clearly the themes of fate and faith became the two chief ideas, I think, in terms of the way he thinks about life, the way he operates as a filmmaker, and what his films are about. And so I decided that structurally, I was going to make sure that everything in the film would relate to those ideas of fate and faith in some way.
So immediately that starts really narrowing down what you're going to be focusing on. And then of course there's a number of stories that had already been told that I didn't want to revisit. Some that we are retelling, but very specifically because they are linked to those ideas of faith and faith. So structuring is very much making decision about what's in and what's out and then how you're going to make it flow.
Then a whole Kyoto monologue came in, I'm pretty sure it was day four, completely out of the blue. That just threw me in for a complete loop. It's just not the kind of moment you expect from William Friedkin, right? Especially tearing up about the Zen garden that he saw 30 years ago.
It's like, "What's going on?" But right then and there, I knew that this was the end of the film. It had to be, there was no other way around because it, it felt like it was a perfect... it captures everything I think that he believes in, completely. And then we had to find a way to go to Kyoto, which we had not at all budgeted. It was not at all planned. And so we had to scramble, we had to find a way to make it work. And I'm really glad that we did, because I don't think that sequence would have worked in the same way without a proper trip there.
No, it's beautiful. Yeah. And you're right; with the greatest respect, you don't expect to have a moment like that in a documentary about The Exorcist, of all things...
Yeah! But I also think that's the result of spending these days [with Friedkin]. There's only so much you can get out of a two-hour interview. But when you really have someone who is willing to open up in that way... The thing that was extraordinary for me is that there was nothing I couldn't ask. It was almost too much... It was too much. He was willing to go anywhere, willing to follow my lead... It was this absolute kid in a candy store moment. Every day was just, it was a gift.
I can only imagine. let’s talk about your access to the archive of his personal artefacts. For instance, his copy of [William Peter Blatty’s] novel, which links to how he, as a director, had to stand up for his vision. He relays the difficult conversations he had to have with Blatty, about not wanting to make his adaptation. As that proverbial kid in the candy store, what’s it like for you to be looking at this piece of film history, with his original notes in the margins?
There's actually an interesting story about this. So I talk about fate as well, because I actually had tried to interview him for one of my previous films, 78/52 about the Psycho shower scene. And he had flat out turned me down and I was very disappointed about that. And literally a month before Sitges, before I met him, and he was also there at a festival in Strasbourg where I was. I asked the festival director if I could meet him. At the very least I just wanted to meet him.
At the very least.
And the festival director said, "Unfortunately he's not seeing anybody right now." He said, "I'm going to try, but don't hold your breath." So I remember being in the lobby with the other filmmakers of the festival, and then I saw him walking down the stairs and then I thought to myself, ‘Okay, well, I will never meet William Friedkin, At least I've seen him. And that's it’.
Fast forward to our meeting in Sitges, and then fast forward to our first day of interviews and he's coming down his own set of stairs now at his home. And he's bringing me this book, right? Which, of course: Goosebumps. He puts it in my hands and it's essentially the Bible of The Exorcist, right? And so I'm going through this and I'm seeing all his notes and it's essentially the first true blueprint of what the movie would be, beyond the first draft that he had done that was rejected. I said, "Look, I would love to be able to scan some of those pages. Is there any way that I can do that?" And he said, "Why?" He said, "Just take it with you and bring it back whenever."
And I was like, "What?" Like what? I had a shawl, so I wrapped it in my shawl. And then we had taken a whole house as an Airbnb with my crew. So we went straight back to the Airbnb and we ordered dinner inside. I didn't want to leave. I slept with the book and then the next morning I woke up, the sun was rising, and I remembered this incredible moment of sitting on the bed and I took the book and I started going through just the pages and thinking, ‘How in the world did I get here?! A few months ago, I had this moment of seeing him walking down the stairs and thinking, I will never get to meet him. And now I'm holding his book’. You know? So yeah, that was something.
Wow. That's quite a journey. I dare say he's more than made up for not appearing in your Psycho film.
Yes, you could say that.
And so, you were watching The Exorcist every day for a month as part of your routine. Can you watch it again? Have you watched it since?
Oh, sure. I've watched it a couple of times since! Actually I've really enjoyed watching it. There was a big screen presentation at the Indiana University. I did the whole thing there and they have an incredible theatre. The IU cinema theatre is just unbelievable. So there were nuances in the sound I'd never heard before. It was astonishing. It's one of those films that you can watch it again and again. Like all great films, every time you watch it you're going to see new things.
It's just a marvellous, marvellous movie.
And, obvious question, you're making quite a collection of these films-about-films. Is there more to come? Are you working on any at the moment?
Yeah, we're actually hard at work on two right now. One is about essentially Monument Valley, John Ford, and the myth of the West. And that one we're looking to premiere in the Fall of 2021. And then another film called Lynch Oz, which is about the relationship between the Wizard of Oz and the films of David Lynch, which this one we're looking at more of a Spring 2022. So those are the two right now.
Fantastic. Well we'll hopefully talk to you about those two, down the track.
I hope so too.
Follow the author here
From the archives: