[Review] 'Leap of Faith' is a Fascinating Exploration of Fate vs Faith and the Mind of William Friedkin
Without question one of the most beloved and unequivocally terrifying films is 1973’s The Exorcist...
...It can be found at the top of list after list of the greatest horror movies of all time and this is for good reason; decades later it remains an unsurpassed, vividly harrowing ride. Because the possession is that of a young girl and the subsequent exorcism that the priests have to perform is to rid the demon from the child, there is an added layer of intensity that has yet to be topped by any of the other “exorcism” tales, both within and outside the universe that William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin created. There have been many additions to that said universe, but none are as loved or well regarded as the first Exorcist. And though there have been plenty of books and other documentaries that have dove into the classic, never has there been such insight into the mind of one of its creators. Sadly, book author William Peter Blatty is no longer with us. Luckily, director William Friedkin is alive and well and seems more than happy to share his perspective on his masterpiece forty-seven years later.
Shudder’s exclusive new film Leap Of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is exactly that; an enlightening conversation with the creator. Alexandre O. Philippe, the writer, and director of the documentary had to have asked some very probing questions to Friedkin which the audience never hears. It is a documentary told from one voice and one alone, that being of Friedkin. Hopefully, there will be an extended cut in the future or maybe just a version that doesn’t use film footage or photos, and instead is just the original interview between Phillipe and Friedkin. Still, the way Leap Of Faith is edited and put together is a treasure trove of information and is sure to bring joy to any fan who wants to dive deep into the mind and thoughts of Friedkin.
Fate versus faith is one of the first concepts Friedkin brings to the table in Leap Of Faith, as he describes how much of both it took to get the film greenlit, made, and then to have a positive audience response at the time of release and all the years since. Starting the film off in Iraq was crucial to Friedkin as it sets up the story in a way that gives more leverage to the evil that will befall young Regan (Linda Blair). Of course, Iraq is also the starting place in Blatty’s book on which the film is based. It’s interesting to hear Friedkin’s analysis of the book and what would work for the screen and what just wouldn’t make sense. Some of these choices seem to be more of personal preference. In 2000, Friedkin along with Warner Bros released the Director’s Cut of The Exorcist, which many believe was an attempt to please Blatty, who famously felt many of the scenes that were left on the cutting room floor were central to the message of the plot. For example, the extended opening with Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) in Iraq and the quintessential scene with the two priests on the staircase. The latter essentially acts as the thesis of the film: Why is the demon doing this? What does the film explore about human nature? What does the possession say about faith? It is a vital scene and it’s great to hear Friedkin discuss it.
The fate aspect Friedkin emphasizes throughout is just how so many things fell into place, either through luck or sheer determination, including the casting of both priests. The role of Father Karras was originally given to a more prominent actor at the time, however, on a lark, Friedkin sent Jason Miller the script. After reading, Miller immediately called Friedkin and told him point-blank, “I am Father Karras.” At first, Friedkin tried to break the bad news; the role had already been cast, but something about the will and conviction of Miller made Friedkin reconsider and go to the studio heads and advocate for Miller. This choice came to the sheer shock of the studio, but with some hesitance, they eventually agreed to the change in casting. Was it Miller’s faith and understanding of the character? Or was it fate that made it so clear to Friedkin to cast a playwright in the role instead of a seasoned veteran? One may never know, but without Miller in that role, it would have assuredly been a very different film.
Another moment that explores the idea of faith comes in one of the most critical scenes of The Exorcist - the scene where Father Merrin is attempting to cast out the demon. Up until then, Van Sydow was pitch-perfect in his delivery of every line and scene, but this time he just came up flat. Friedkin mentions that he pulled Van Sydow aside and asked what was wrong. Van Sydow stated frankly that he just didn’t believe in God. Phillipe then cuts in a humorous way to scenes from other Van Sydow projects such as The Seventh Seal and The Greatest Story Ever Told, both heavily religious in theme and included Von Sydow playing Jesus. Friedkin laughs in his retelling as he responds, “You were Jesus!” To which Von Sydow said “I was able to play him because I believed in him as a man” and Friedkin responded, “Then believe in Father Merrin as a man.” It’s a truly fascinating behind the scenes glimpse into just how much an actor will truly inhabit their role. Together, the anecdotes highlight the two very different processes of the actors who played the two main priests: Miller, who fully assumed the character and felt himself in it, and Von Sydow, who despite having played numerous character explorations of faith, couldn’t find the believability of casting out a demon. Of course, these insights are only through the perspective of Friedkin, as the others have passed on. Still, with reverence and love, this film is filled with these types of varying stories.
Friedkin’s mind is a captivating one to sit with during the run time of the film. It’s a truly special exploration into the many aspects of faith and fate and his personal experience of the process. He was asking the audience to take a leap of faith with him and believe in the epic that he and Blatty released to the world. Needless to say, the audience did.
Hopefully, an audience will take a similar leap of faith this time as well. The style is not the prettiest and the film is entirely made up of Friedkin’s voice, but it’s a worthwhile journey if one wants a seat beside the director’s chair during the filming of The Exorcist.
Leap Of Faith: William Friedkin On The Exorcist debuts exclusively on Shudder November 19th.
By Justin Drabek