Friday, January 31, 2020

Sundance ’20: Leap of Faith—William Friedkin on the Exorcist

William Peter Blatty paid extended tribute to the mother who had such a formative influence in Crazy, one of his final novels (which—disclosure—I helped market). It was shared experience William Friedkin could relate to and bond with Blatty over when they collaborated on the celebrated film adaptation of his most famous novel, especially in the scenes depicting Father Karras and his mother. That is the sort of in-depth commentary Firedkin offers throughout Alexandre O. Philippe’s Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on the Exorcist, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

It would be fair to think of Leap as the special Exorcist supplement to Francesco Zippel’s career-survey documentary, Friedkin Uncut, except the director is the only voice heard during Philippe’s film. Arguably, The Exorcist is the only genre film that is sufficiently intriguing and significant to support such a “director’s commentary track” approach, but it is the Exorcist, so it can. Needless to say, Friedkin’s candor and enthusiasm help tremendously.

Friedkin’s deep dive roughly follows the film’s narrative, with quite a bit of time devoted to the prologue in northern Iraq. Even today, some viewers do not get it, but it is what helps make the film so distinctive. During the course of his examination, Friedkin reveals the film almost had two jazz-related associations. Ken Nordine of Word Jazz fame was recruited to create the demon voice, but just couldn’t get it right. Similarly, Friedkin rejected a score composed by Lalo Schifrin, who reportedly was not at all happy about it.

As you would hope and expect, there is indeed a lot of inside dope on the 1973 horror classic. Clips from a handful of other Friedkin films are shown as reference, but Philippe focuses exclusively on the Blatty adaptation. The director has positive things to say about everyone who collaborated on the final film, especially Blatty himself. That is nice to hear, because Blatty really is a fascinating writer, who was truly coming from a place of devout but thoughtful Catholic faith. Frankly, that is why the book and film have such power.

Even though fans will inhale Leap of Faith, it still would have been a stronger film if Philippe had opened it up more and allowed in a few more voices—Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, and Max von Sydow would be logical choices. Regardless, this is the film we have and it is still worth seeing for a deeper insight into the film. Recommended for the faithful, if you will, Leap of Faith screens again this Sunday (2/2) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.