Combustible Celluloid Interview - William Friedkin, The French Connection
Combustible Celluloid

Interview with William Friedkin


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

September 10, 2001—Only half a dozen chase scenes really enter into the pantheon of Great Movie Chase scenes. Bullitt is one. Raiders of the Lost Ark is another. But certainly three of the others belong to William Friedkin.

The three chase scenes take place in three cities: San Francisco (Jade), Los Angeles (To Live and Die in L.A.), and New York City (The French Connection). In San Francisco, Friedkin showed the cars coming to a near standstill during a Chinatown gridlock. In Los Angeles, his characters chased each other down the L.A. freeway against traffic. And in New York City, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) drives a car at street level, chasing the elevated train above.

"I'm always looking for something different," the 62 year-old Friedkin says during our brief but edifying phone conversation.

Friedkin's thirst for something different led the former French film junkie and TV director in 1971 to tackle The French Connection, based on the true story of a king-sized drug bust by New York cops Eddie Egan and Sonny Grasso. Friedkin approached the story from a documentary point of view, going for the utmost realism. He and his crew "stole" their scenes on the streets of New York without permits or contracts. He even went so far as to rehearse scenes without his cinematographer, Owen Roizman, present so that Roizman would have to pick up the shot using nothing but his wits.

"There was a lot of tension on this set, and a lot of it I created," Friedkin says. "Because I wanted a kind of chaotic set, and I thought it was important that Gene's character had a fire underneath him. So I provide that fire. When he was ready to express it at me, I would roll the camera and let him point it at me."

What worked for Friedkin didn't work so well for Gene Hackman, who was worried that his character didn't have any depth and would be taken as a racist. Friedkin defends the character, based on real-life cop Eddie Egan. "A lot of it was an act, a lot of it was survival in the street, and a lot of it was just the adrenaline that happens to cops when they're in a life-threatening situation. Most police officers that work in ghetto areas don't encounter 'black people'; they only encounter 'criminals.' That's how they regard the criminal element."

Friedkin and Hackman would often go out to lunch together without bringing Hackman's co-star Roy Scheider along. Scheider often wondered if he had said or done something wrong but later realized that they were arguing over nuances in Hackman's character. "Billy had a task of convincing Gene that in no way did he possess any humanitarian traits," Scheider says. "I knew Gene, and he was just looking to make sure his character was three-dimensional. In the movie now, he seems like a one-dimensional nut-case. If you watch his face though, he automatically brings humanity to the character. One of the great joys of that film was working with him."

It helped that cops Egan and Grasso were on the set lending their expertise to the actors. Scheider agrees. "It's a great asset to be able to turn to the character and ask them, what did you guys think when this happened. How would you guys react to this? How would you speak to anyone?"

In the end, of course, Hackman won an Oscar for Best Actor, while the film captured Oscars for Best Director, Best Picture and Best Screenplay, as well as generating a small box-office fortune. (Scheider was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Ben Johnson for The Last Picture Show.)

"I never feel as though I've completely got my original vision," Friedkin says despite the film's acclaim and success. "Often it's a compromise that works favorably to the film that wasn't intended. There is a movie god. And when the movie god smiles on a project, it can do no wrong."

As for the present, Friedkin was thrilled by the process of transferring The French Connection to DVD. "It's the best print of the picture that ever existed," he says. "The print process is so imperfect. You can't get that kind of consistent quality in a print. And it deteriorates immediately after you run it the first few times. So I love DVD. I hope it or something like it replaces film. The sooner the better."

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