William Friedkin on the set of The Exorcist (1973)

Our Culture Mag’s at the BFI London Film Festival again. Director Alexandre O. Phillipe brings us an interesting look at the creation of 1973’s The Exorcist. In an extended interview with the film’s director, William Friedkin, we ramble through Friedkin’s thoughts and anecdotes on the film’s production. Whilst slightly aimless, we soon learn that this isn’t a straightforward narrative of how the film was made, but rather an eclectic selection of Friedkin’s thoughts, ethics, and perspectives.  

Recalling his own experience making documentaries, Friedkin relates that the direction of documentaries is dictated by the unpredictable words of interviewees. Indeed, the same is true of Leap of Faith. Structurally, there isn’t necessarily a firm sequence of topics. We ease into the making of The Exorcist with anecdotes of how the original book’s author, William Peter Blatty, had pre-emptively written a screenplay for Friedkin – one which Friedkin found to be all wrong. Beyond this introduction however, the film becomes a varied collection of stories regarding different elements of the film’s construction.  

This structure isn’t a detriment, however. As Friedkin’s interview progresses, the proverbial meat of the piece becomes clear. Much as Friedkin sees The Exorcist as a collection of themes centred around faith, so too is this film a collection of stories centred around Friedkin’s own perspectives on life itself.  

Friedkin talks profoundly about what he calls “grace notes”; those little moments that we never forget that have no apparent larger significance, but stay with us without explanation. Demonstrating his deep affection for cinema, Friedkin uses the example of Mr. Bernstein, in Citizen Kane (1941), recalling the lady in white he once saw on a ferry; someone he knew nothing of, yet hasn’t stopped thinking of decades later. That these moments stay with us, etching themselves in our memory without attachment to significance is interesting. This discussion cuts to the core of The Exorcist and its focus on the fragility of faith. These “grace notes” call into question our ideas of what is of larger significance. If something as simple as inexplicable people or actions can permanently stay with us, do we really have any real understanding of what’s really important?  

Friedkin directs Linda Blair on the set of The Exorcist (1973)

Much like Friedkin’s own comments on the intangibility of The Exorcist’s meaning, I don’t pretend that the above dissection is this film’s meaning. On the contrary, it’s just an interesting avenue of thought that Friedkin’s perspectives provoke.  

Leap of Faith, playing as an intimate, autobiographical account of the film’s production, provides a great insight into what The Exorcist could mean. That this insight comes directly from the film’s director stating that there is no explicit, intended meaning, is fascinating. Friedkin doesn’t say that The Exorcist is meaningless. Rather, he refrains from attaching definitive interpretations, preferring to maintain his inadvertent predilection for ambiguity.  Indeed, he explains that for several of the film’s elements, there was no conscious thought behind their inclusion and presentation other than instinct. Such revelations are exciting, actively inviting the individual to simultaneous certainty and uncertainty of how they view The Exorcist; certainty from knowing their reading isn’t contradicted by authorial intent, and uncertainty that theirs is just as fragile as Friedkin’s.  

Leap of Faith is a fascinating look at the creation of The Exorcist. It finds humour in tales from the set, melancholy in the reactions of Friedkin and his collaborators, and poignancy in Friedkin’s frank relation of his perspectives. The dissection from its director provokes the re-evaluation and discovery of The Exorcist’s potential meanings, whilst Friedkin’s own experience of life, related through “grace notes”, provokes reflection on the things we hold important.  

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