Combustible Celluloid Interview - William Friedkin, To Live and Die in L.A.
Combustible Celluloid

An Interview with director William Friedkin

To Live and Die in L.A.

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Nowadays, seeing an older film released on DVD can bring on the same enthusiasm as when a classic screened at the local repertory house -- especially if the film in question is considered an underrated gem that never had its day in the sun.

Such is the case with William Friedkin's 1985 film To Live and Die in L.A. -- which didn't exactly do poorly, but also did not reach the level of acclaim and support that his earlier films The French Connection and The Exorcist did.

MGM/UA has released a spectacular new single-disc edition of the film, complete with a Friedkin commentary track, outtakes, a really terrible alternate "happy" ending, featurettes, and more. The disc retails for $19.98.

"It's the best print of it that's ever existed," Friedkin says of the new DVD during a recent phone conversation. Indeed, the pastel color scheme established by cinematographer Robby Muller shines, and the music score by Wang Chung pulses on the soundtrack.

The score may be the only element that dates the film, but Friedkin insists it still works. For one thing, he did not take the usual route by simply sticking new pop songs arbitrarily on the soundtrack. In his case, he heard Wang Chung, liked their sound, gave them a script and asked them to make up some music and send it to him.

"I told them to make it their impressions of the script," Friedkin says. "I cut the movie to their music. It really dictated the nature of certain sequences. I think the music was unique at the time and still is. I can't think of a recent film soundtrack that really knocked me out. When you get a good score, it's inseparable from the rest of the film."

Because of his background in documentary filmmaking, Friedkin has always taken a realistic, research and detail-oriented approach to his films. If he makes a film about narcotics cops (The French Connection) or FBI trackers (The Hunted), he researches until he knows the subject as well as he knows filmmaking.

In the case of To Live and Die in L.A. he fell in love with Gerald Petievich's novel, which dealt not only with the world of counterfeiting, but also with the bizarre world of the United States Secret Service.

"The thing that fascinated me was the surrealism in the life of a SS agent: guarding the President of the United States one day, playing cards with him and telling jokes, and the next day chasing some guy down in a bad neighborhood for 50 dollars worth of bad credit cards," Friedkin says.

Friedkin wrote the screenplay himself, but wound up calling Petievich in to help with creating a few new scenes and getting their details right.

In the film, agent Richard Chance (William S. Petersen, now famous for his hit TV show "CSI") teams up with a new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) and tries to take out a well-established Los Angeles counterfeiter, Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe).

None of this cast was well known at the time, but all have gone on to great acclaim since. Friedkin often credits the "movie god" for the good fortune he's had in making movies, and he does so again here. "I've been totally indebted to the movie god. He's brought me actors I'd never heard of."

The two cops go undercover and manage to strike a deal with Masters, but the department won't approve the drop money they need to clinch the deal and snatch the bad guy. So the cops do the next best thing: they stage a daring robbery that ends in a harrowing chase scene -- driving against traffic on a five-lane Los Angeles freeway.

"I went down to the San Pedro area," he says, "where the freeways are massive and full of trucks, and I saw all these trucks and the whole freeway was like one long parking lot. I imagined what would happen if you went against that."

Though the chase looks very elaborate, Friedkin says that it was shot very quickly and as simply as possible. "There might have been ten or twelve [stunt] drivers in that shot. We were like a guerilla unit. We would come and go, fast."

Friedkin also shot in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, places that no film crew had previously gone. But the director understood the etiquette of the situation and knew what to do.

"There's always a 'barn boss.' There's always some guy who runs the neighborhood. You go to that guy and you hire people from the neighborhood to be in the scenes, and you're OK. You have to go out and make peace with the barn bosses."

As tough as Friedkin's shoots can be, he's even tougher in the editing room. He insists on never viewing a "rough cut," which is usually based on the original script. Friedkin feels that the movie has moved to a new stage by then and finds its own shape while in the editing stage.

Consider the film's one deleted scene -- made from a VHS master -- showing an excellent moment between Vukovich and his ex-wife (Tracy Swope). Vukovich is concerned with how far his partner has gone to catch Masters and he goes to her in the middle of the night, slightly drunk and in tears.

"I love that scene," Friedkin says. "I felt at the time it was one of the best scenes I ever worked on. But in the editing room, somehow or other the film didn't want it."

This Oscar-winning director of tough cop movies finds that he can best describe the editing process by comparing it to knitting. Yes, knitting.

"I used to really enjoy it, but I don't have the patience for it now," Friedkin says. "Once stitch at a time. Knit one, pearl two. Sometimes I have an editing sequence in mind, but sometimes I just shoot what I think is interesting. But when I get into the cutting room, it's a whole different world."

"The film begins to speak to you. It starts to tell you what it is and what it isn't. I would single out The French Connection especially. I started out cutting them a certain way, and they started to assert their own personality. I cut nine scenes out of French Connection. It was like the film was rejecting a foreign body. It turns out that they were all structural scenes, like scaffolding. They helped me and the actors during the shoot, but they weren't needed."

As a final detail, Friedkin set To Live and Die in L.A. over the course of the holiday season right through the end of December and the beginning of January, and yet no sign of holiday decoration or celebration ever comes up at any point.

"It was one of the small ironies we built in," he says. For the printed text that appears on the screen, Friedkin used different typefaces, to indicate a variety of personality. Some look like personal journal entries, and some are typed as if on a report.

"Those are in the days that we just put things in and hoped people would catch them," he says. "We don't do that anymore."

November 21, 2003

William Friedkin Filmography
Good Times (1967)
The Birthday Party (1968)
The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968)
The Boys in the Band (1970)
The French Connection (1971)
The Exorcist (1973)
Sorcerer (1977)
The Brinks Job (1978)
Cruising (1980)
Deal of the Century (1983)
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
Rampage (1988)
The Guardian (1990)
Blue Chips (1994)
Jailbreakers (1994) (TV)
Jade (1995)
12 Angry Men (1997, TV)
Rules of Engagement (2000)
The Hunted (2003)
Bug (2006)
Killer Joe (2012)

Movies Unlimtied