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New Release Review [Shudder] - LEAP OF FAITH: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN ON THE EXORCIST

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist review
William Friedkin looks back on his most famous work.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Alexandre O. Philippe

Featuring: William Friedkin

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist poster

The last couple of years have been generous to fans of American filmmaker William Friedkin with the releases of career spanning doc Friedkin Uncut, Friedkin's own exorcism-centric doc The Devil and Father Amorth, and now director Alexandre O. Philippe's Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist.

As its subtitle suggests, Leap of Faith sees Friedkin reflect on his most defining, if not best (that would be The French Connection) work. Where many recent filmmaking docs - including Philippe's own 78/52, a feature length examination of Psycho's shower scene - have come off as superficial and unfocussed, Leap of Faith is a simple meat and potatoes doc that gives Exorcist and Friedkin fans exactly what they want - 100 minutes of Friedkin speaking, unencumbered by any competing talking heads, much like Friedkin's own 1974 doc Fritz Lang Interviewed by William Friedkin.

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist review

What makes Friedkin such a good subject is that unlike most filmmakers of his level, who often view their early films as embarrassments regardless of their critical and commercial success, Friedkin is intensely proud of his early work, and The Exorcist in particular. It's telling that the movies of his that Friedkin refers to here are his '70s films, as though he knows that he did his best work in his early years and has made peace with that notion.


For a filmmaker with a testy reputation, Friedkin comes off as commendably humble here. He speaks of The Exorcist not in auteurist terms but as a creative collaboration he's honoured to have been a part of. He admits to occasionally getting lucky, such as how the wind just happened to make two nuns' habits billow in the wind as though in slow motion, creating what he refers to as a "grace note", a moment that isn't essential to moving a film's plot forward but which lingers in the viewer's mind.

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist review

But Friedkin is far from a shrinking violet, and while he's egalitarian in sharing the praise, we're left in no doubt that The Exorcist is the result largely of his determined singular vision. That determination rubbed some up the wrong way, with Stacy Keach being fired from the role of Father Karras at the eleventh hour when Friedkin happened to see Jason Miller performing in a play and knew instantly he had to recast the part; and dropping an inappropriate score by composer Lalo Schifrin, who never spoke to Friedkin again. There's also a classic "never meet your heroes" anecdote that sees Friedkin screen the film for prospective composer Bernard Herrmann, whose immediate response was "maybe I can save this piece of shit for you." Needless to say, Friedkin walked away from the chance to work with one of his idols.


There are more positive anecdotes, like how Friedkin coaxed a performance from Max Von Sydow when the Swedish actor felt he couldn't play the role as he didn't believe in God. Veering off from The Exorcist, Friedkin talks in glowing terms of his French Connection cameraman Enrique Bravo and how the two collaborated to create a then revolutionary handheld "chase the action" aesthetic that has since become de rigueur for TV cop shows.

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist review

Examinations of The Exorcist's "curse" and its public phenomenon are thankfully ignored as Philippe and his subject stick to the subject of filmmaking. At times it resembles a great director's commentary as Friedkin speaks over scenes, giving us new context as to how he prepared his actors, and it gives us an extra appreciation of just how well-acted a movie The Exorcist really is, including the non-professional real life priests Friedkin wisely cast in supporting roles.

A good filmmaking documentary can give you the idea that its subject is the greatest filmmaker that ever gazed through a viewfinder. I'd place Friedkin in the category of "very good" rather than "great" filmmakers, but watching him speak about his craft for 100 minutes here certainly had me convinced that there was nobody better to adapt William Peter Blatty's book into the beloved film that continues to resonate almost 50 years after its debut. 

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist
 is on Shudder from November 19th.

2020 movie reviews