William Friedkin: ‘You don’t know a d*mn thing, and neither do I’




The Exorcist director returns to his demonic roots with a new documentary, but he’s not interested in discussing your skepticism.

He’s aged 82 now, and seven years out from the release of his last film. … He’s on the press circuit once again because he’s finally got a new film to promote, an entirely self-funded documentary titled The Devil and Father Amorth. The project dips back into Friedkin’s past as the man behind The Exorcist, chronicling the real-life purging of a demon by a Vatican higher-up. Skeptics will be tempted to place the words “real-life” in scare quotes, and the film doesn’t mount a particularly convincing case as to why they shouldn’t have that caveat. It’s here that Friedkin’s blithe disregard for what the general public thinks emerges as the source of all his power; believe him or don’t believe him, it’s all the same as far as he’s concerned.

In the spring of 2016, while in the town of Luca to receive a prize for his achievements in the world of opera, Friedkin wrote on a lark to a theologian friend in Rome requesting an audience with the pope or, failing that, the official papal exorcist. Much to his surprise, the reply came in the affirmative, and he had an audience with Father Gabriele Amorth one week later. Friedkin had spent 45 years throwing scripts about demonic possession in the garbage, but the prospect of capturing the genuine article proved too tempting. He used this meeting to lodge a humble request: if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could he record an exorcism?

Father Amorth allowed Friedkin and a small, unobtrusive handheld videocamera in the room while he attempted to free an area woman named Cristina from the clutches of an unnatural force, their ninth such session. Friedkin related the extraordinary events of that day in a feature for Vanity Fair, but the footage sat unused. “For a long time, I had no idea what I was going to do with this film,” Friedkin says. “I had it, but it was like a home movie. So I decided to bring it to medical and psychological professionals to see if they could debunk it, or explain it using terms from their fields.”

Friedkin expanded the footage to feature length by supplementing with interviews from experts, some less credulous than others, and one follow-up that sees him returning to Italy for a check-in with Cristina. While they were visiting a cathedral, she descended into an intense fit of madness complete with bodily contortions and speaking in tongues – except that Friedkin didn’t bring his camera into the building to catch it, so he can only describe the experience in voice-over paired with shaky B-roll of the empty church. He alleges to have stared the devil in the face, but the audience will just have to take his word for it.

“You’re not suggesting that I made this up, are you?” Friedkin goes right for the jugular when he smells the faintest whiff of doubt. “I understand that there’s room for skepticism. I’m not a skeptic. I don’t make films or move through my life as a skeptic. I’m not interested in skepticism, that’s something you’re either born with or acquire as you live … You don’t know a damn thing, and neither do I. Nobody knows if there is an afterlife, a heaven or hell. What is our purpose here? Nobody knows that! We have no idea!”

For anyone else, selling an exposé as questionably founded as this would be an exercise in circumlocution, obfuscation and half-truths. For Friedkin, however, the best defense is a good offense. His sincere and total lack of concern for winning anybody over enables him to talk through the issues instead of around them.

“I’m not interested in convincing you, or anyone else,” Friedkin explains. “This is what I saw, and the only way to deal with that conclusion was in this way, getting closure through this film. You’ll have to work that out for yourself.”

He extends this doctrine of thick skin from his work to himself. At a time when the tide appears to be turning against directors prone to extreme, unorthodox methods – Quentin Tarantino, Lars Von Trier – the notoriously intense Friedkin has drawn some heat for past behaviors, and he’s not having it. He was known to fire blanks from a prop gun to get a realistically shocked reaction from some actors, and slapped another in the face before one take on The Exorcist.


Father Amorth’s books are always interesting reading. The documentary sounds intriguing.



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