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Watch This: William Friedkin's Unlikely Inspirations

William Friedkin, seen here in 2006, made his name in the '70s with movies like The French Connection. (Getty Images)

William Friedkin is the famed director of The Exorcist and The French Connection. His latest film is Killer Joe, an adaptation of a Tracy Letts play starring Matthew McConaughey; it's due out July 27.

For Morning Edition's occasional series Watch This, Friedkin spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep about three Hollywood classics from the '40s and '50s, none of which would be at risk of the NC-17 rating that Killer Joe picked up for its violent content.

Stylistic differences aside, it's these films that inspired Friedkin's own filmmaking. "I learned from every one of these films that I continue to watch," Friedkin says.


Singin' In The Rain

Friedkin's first recommendation is, as he says, not what you might expect from the director of The Exorcist. Singin' in the Rain is the classic '50s musical whose title song is now a cultural touchstone — but a tense horror film it is not.

"The films that I love are not the kind of films that I make," Friedkin explains.

Singin' in the Rain's "Make Em Laugh" sequence, Friedkin says, "is the most brilliantly choreographed number I've ever seen in a film. It's very much akin to the kind of choreography you now see only at Cirque du Soleil."

That scene showcases Donald O'Connor, but the film stars and was co-choreographed and co-directed by Gene Kelly, whose personality, Friedkin says, "inspires every frame of that magnificent film."


The Band Wagon

Friedkin's second pick is another '50s musical, this time starring Fred Astaire as a fading movie star — much like Astaire himself at the time, Friedkin points out — trying to make it in a Broadway musical.

For Friedkin, a primary draw of the film is its star, whom he met once at the Hollywood Park racetrack.

"He was the kindest, most modest, self-effacing guy I can remember meeting out here [in L.A.]," Friedkin says.

"I've learned a lot about him since, what a perfectionist he was. He was as much a perfectionist as a great writer. Every step mattered to Astaire, as every word matters to a writer like Scott Fitzgerald. Every move by Astaire is poetry."


Citizen Kane

Friedkin's final pick is Orson Welles' famous film inspired by the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane.

"There's a lot of controversy about the writing," Friedkin says. "Most of the script was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, but the vision behind the film is Orson Welles.

"It was his first film. He was 25 years old, and he revolutionized world cinema. You can mark the change in cinema from before Citizen Kane to after Citizen Kane because it synthesized everything in terms of technique that came before, and it pointed the way to the future."

Friedkin says the film continues to reveal new insights with every view.

"I've seen [it] almost 200 times. ... Even though I now know how every shot was made, I continue to see details that I hadn't noticed before. Little touches here and there, almost like those great Islamic tapestries that you see that are filled with so many details, yet you can stand back and look at the overall and be wowed."

Of all the films he mentioned, Friedkin says, it's Welles' masterpiece that inspires him the most.

"I hope to one day — I'm now 76 years old — but I hope one day to make a film that could be mentioned in the same sentence with Citizen Kane."


More Must-Sees From William Friedkin

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

All About Eve

Blow-Up

2001

Paths of Glory

An American in Paris

Diabolique

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Back in 1971, William Friedkin directed a thriller about a drug smuggling ring and the tough police detective with the funny name Popeye Doyle trying to take it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAILER FOR "THE FRENCH CONNECTION")

GENE HACKMAN: (as Popeye Doyle) All right, Popeye is here. Put your hands on your heads. Get off the bar and get on the wall.

What's my name?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Popeye Doyle, if he doesn't like you, he'll take you apart. And it's all perfectly legal because Doyle fights dirty.

HACKMAN: You want to take a ride there, fat man?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And plays rough.

HACKMAN: Anybody want a milkshake?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Doyle is bad news, but he's a good cop.

INSKEEP: That movie, "The French Connection," earned Oscars for the star, Gene Hackman, and also the director, William Friedkin. Friedkin then went on to direct one of the most terrifying horror movies of all time, "The Exorcist."

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "THE EXORCIST")

INSKEEP: With the release of his latest film, "Killer Joe," William Friedkin came to the studios of NPR West. He's was the latest guest in our series Watch This. Hollywood insiders offer us movie recommendations, and as we talk to them, we learn more about films. Now, given some of the tough guys and terrifying characters who've appeared in his movies, you may be surprised to learn that many of Friedkin's recommendations were musicals, like this one from 1952.

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: "Singin' In The Rain" is just a great movie to watch. It has some of the most beautiful songs you've ever heard. And it's got Gene Kelly dancing and it's a sheer joy every time I watch it. Now, you might not expect that from the director of "The Exorcist."

INSKEEP: I didn't.

FRIEDKIN: Well, the films that I love are not the kind of films that I make, to be honest with you. But I learned from every one of these films that I continue to watch.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to a little bit of "Singin' In The Rain" and then we'll talk about it. Of course, everybody has seen at least a clip of the scene of Gene Kelly dancing with an umbrella in the rain. But there's also this number, where he begins with an exchange with Donald O'Connor, who is trying to cheer Gene Kelly up. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE 'EM LAUGH")

DONALD O'CONNOR: (as Cosmo Brown) (Singing) Make 'em laugh. Make 'em laugh. Don't you know everyone wants to laugh? Ha ha. My dad said be an actor, my son. But be a comical one. They'll be standing in lines for those old honky-tonk monkeyshines. Now, you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite. And you can charm the critics and have nothing to eat. Just slip on a banana peel, the world is at your feet. Make 'em laugh. Make 'em laugh. Make 'em laugh.

INSKEEP: Definitely advice you did not follow with "The French Connection."

FRIEDKIN: No, I didn't make them laugh with that one. I think I will with my current one, "Killer Joe." But in addition to that song, which is the most brilliantly choreographed number I've ever seen in a film, it's very much akin to the kind of choreography you now see only at Cirque du Soleil. And "Singin' In The Rain" was of course directed and choreographed by Gene Kelly with Stanley Donen. And Kelly's personality sort of inspires every frame of that magnificent film. It's on a lot of people's list of the best films ever made.

INSKEEP: I want to fade up a little bit of music here next, as we continued talking. This is music from the movie "The Band Wagon." Fred Astaire in this scene is dressed up as a gangster, walks into a bar where everybody is kind of hostile to him, and then encounters Cyd Charisse, who's sitting at the bar. Describe what happens then.

FRIEDKIN: Well, it then becomes a very long and wonderfully choreographed ballet. Cyd Charisse is the femme fatale. And it's all a send-up of the murder mysteries that were so popular in the '50s. But the music is, of course, magnificent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: And let's listen to maybe the most famous song from "The Band Wagon," "That's Entertainment."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT")

JACK BUCHANAN: (as Jeffrey Cordova) (Singing) A clown with his pants falling down, or the dance that's a dream of romance. Or the scene where the villain is mean. That's entertainment...

FRIEDKIN: Well, that's Jack Buchanan, who was a great English music hall star. And the plot is, like the plots of all the great musicals, is very simple. Astaire plays a fading Hollywood movie star, which he was at the time, who's trying to make it in a Broadway musical.

INSKEEP: You know, you are the second director of acclaimed serious films to come to this series and give us at least one movie featuring Fred Astaire. There must be something about him.

FRIEDKIN: I met Fred Astaire. I was lucky enough to meet Fred Astaire at Hollywood Park, at the racetrack, where we both used to go regularly on weekends. And he was the kindest, most modest, self-effacing guy I can remember meeting out here.

And I've learned a lot about him since, what a perfectionist he was. He was as much a perfectionist as a great writer. Every step mattered to Astaire, as every word matters to a writer, let's say, like Scott Fitzgerald. Every move by Astaire is poetry.

INSKEEP: You know, he's one of several giants, Hollywood giants, in the films that you've sent us. Another film on that list is "Citizen Kane," of course written and directed and starring Orson Welles.

FRIEDKIN: Well, there's a lot of controversy about the writing. Most of the script was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz.

INSKEEP: OK.

FRIEDKIN: But the vision behind the film is Orson Welles'. It was his first film. He was 25 years old and he revolutionized world cinema. You can mark the change in cinema from before "Citizen Kane" to after "Citizen Kane," because it synthesized everything in terms of technique that came before, and it pointed the way to the future. I've seen that almost 200 times.

INSKEEP: Wow. And do you continue to see new things in this film, in that 198th time?

FRIEDKIN: Yes, I do. Even though I now know how every shot was made, I continue to see details that I hadn't noticed before. Little touches here and there, almost like those great Islamic tapestries that you see that are filled with so many details, yet you can stand back and look at the overall and be wowed.

The films I've mentioned, especially "Citizen Kane," inspired me. And to be honest with you, it's what keeps me going. I hope to one day - I'm now 76 years old - but I hope one day to make a film that could be mentioned in the same sentence with "Citizen Kane."

INSKEEP: Well, William Friedkin, thanks very much. I've enjoyed this.

FRIEDKIN: Good to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: William Friedkin's new movie is "Killer Joe." It's out on Friday. He's also the director of "The French Connection" and recommended "Citizen Kane." So there, we just got one of his movies in the same sentence as "Citizen Kane." You can find all 10 of his Watch This picks at NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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